Hadrian’s Wall: celebrating a 1,900-year anniversary

The northern boundary of the Roman Empire stretched from Tyneside to the Solway Firth. This year marks one of celebration for Hadrian’s Wall, writes Martyn Baguley

CP5P36 England,Northumbria,Hadrian's Wall,Views near Housesteads Roman Fort

On Hadrian’s Wall 1,900-year anniversary, Martyn Baguley traces the history of the northern boundary of the Roman Empire.

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Anniversaries are fairly commonplace, but not 1,900-year ones. One such anniversary is to be widely marked this year for what came to be called ‘Hadrian’s Wall’.

In AD43 the Romans, already masters of a vast empire that encircled the Mediterranean Sea and extended north to the English Channel, landed on the south coast of England. By AD79 they had built forts in Cumbria and Durham, created a network of roads and occupied much of what they called Britannia north to a line between the rivers Clyde and Forth, where they had erected a temporary frontier. But a combination of rebellions by native tribes of people that had caused the deaths of many Roman soldiers and pressure elsewhere on the borders of the Roman Empire, resulted in troops being withdrawn from the north of Britain. And by AD100 a new northern border, represented by a road, forts and signal stations, was established on an east-west line through modern Northumberland between the mouths of the rivers Tyne and Solway.

But something more was needed. The idea for a substantial barrier was conceived well before AD122 and some historians say that work on a wall had been started as early as AD118, but there is no doubt that the catalyst for the wall that we recognise today was the visit in AD122 of Publius Aelius Hadrianus, otherwise known as Hadrian, Emperor of the Roman Empire. With his beard and thick curly hair that distinguished him from the forward-combed locks and clean-shaven faces of his predecessors, he must have been an impressive figure. According to his biography, he came to “put many things to right and was the first to build a wall – from sea to sea to separate the barbarians from the Romans”.

Extending to 80 Roman miles (73 statute miles), it was a massive project that was to take at least six years to complete: some historians believe that it wasn’t finished until after Hadrian’s death from heart failure in AD138. The line of the Wall was carefully chosen to make best use of the terrain, particularly any natural rocky crags. The original plan was for it to be built of turf in the west, 20ft wide, and stone in the east, with observation turrets between defended gates, called milecastles, at one-mile intervals. The stone wall, 10ft wide and with a maximum height of 15ft, had a walkway along the top. Before the plan was completed, forts were added at intervals of about seven miles, and an 11ft-wide earthwork, called the Vallum, was constructed south of the Wall, consisting of a central ditch between two mounds. After the forts had been added, the width of the Wall was reduced to 8ft or less, and the quality of the building reduced, possibly to speed up the work.
What the Romans lacked in modern-day engineering equipment and machinery they made up for with manpower. This was drawn from a resource of some 15,000 regular soldiers, all Roman citizens, who were part of three legions based in Britain, supplemented by troops from non-Roman, so-called ‘auxiliary units’ – literally ‘helpers’ – local civilians and even men from the British-based Roman fleet. Among their ranks were skilled surveyors, architects, engineers, masons and carpenters, all subject to army discipline. Logic suggests that the project must have been hugely expensive, but it wasn’t, because the soldiers had to be paid anyway and most of the materials for the Wall were available on site.

Although built mainly by Roman legionary soldiers, the Wall was manned by infantry and cavalry from auxiliary units that were mostly recruited from the north-western provinces of the Roman Empire, including Britain. Roman soldiers were well paid and the military establishments encouraged civilian settlements outside the forts that were occupied by the soldiers’ families, merchants and opportunists.

Manning the Wall must have been an unenviable task in the often cold, wet and windy climate of northern Britain. Little is known about the hours soldiers were required to work, but there were no ‘weekends’ or 48-hour passes in the Roman army, although periodic holidays were allowed to mark an emperor’s birthday and some religious festivals. While the Wall was being built, some soldiers wore armour and carried weapons to protect the workers, but the labourers wore a tunic or loincloth, with the probable addition of woolly cloaks, trousers and sheepskin boots during colder weather. The auxiliary soldiers who manned the Wall when it had been built wore a simple belted tunic, scarf, socks and shoes.

A perpetual problem for the Roman authorities was how to keep troops occupied during peacetime. Daily fatigue duties filled some of the time and these were supplemented by training exercises and manoeuvres. Soldiers weren’t allowed to marry, but they were permitted to contract a union with local women according to prevailing local laws, so many soldiers would have been partly occupied with responsibilities to their families living in civilian settlements. Any children were legitimised, and the relationships were recognised by the Romans as being ‘marriages’ under Roman law, when the soldier retired after at least 25 years’ service. Since a man couldn’t become a soldier until he was 20 years old, some could have been just 45 when they retired.

Soon after Hadrian’s death in AD138 the new emperor, Antoninus Pius, frustrated by the problems of controlling the marauding exploits of the numerous ‘Caledonian’ tribes in what is now called Scotland, decided to abandon Hadrian’s Wall and build a second wall, 37 statute miles long, some 100 miles north on a line between the Firth of Forth and River Clyde. Comprising a bank of turf about 10ft high topped by an imposing wooden palisade and forts, it took about six years to build. But it failed to deter the Caledonians. Their raids became more persistent and troublesome to the extent that in AD165, after only 20 years, the so-called Antonine Wall was abandoned and the Romans retired back to Hadrian’s Wall. Much had happened in those 20 years; milecastle gates had been removed and crossings thrown across the Vallum ditch. Repair work was ordered and a road was built a mile south of the Wall.

The Romans had problems with the ‘barbarian’ tribes the entire time they manned the Wall. Sometimes relative peace was achieved by negotiated treaties and the payment of considerable sums as bribes; other times there were battles that lasted as long as four years. All this resulted in changes being made to the Wall. In the late 2nd century, many milecastles had their gates narrowed so they could only be used by pedestrians. The forts were in use for nearly 300 years, but during that time there were many modifications to the barrack blocks and the headquarters buildings, particularly the commanding officer’s house.

The Wall’s life as an occupied defensive structure didn’t end suddenly, it just slowly declined. In AD407 the Roman army in Britain chose its own emperor, Constantine III. Ambitious to achieve the imperial throne, he left for the Continent, probably taking many Roman soldiers stationed on the Wall with him. Britain became isolated from Rome and the rest of the Empire. The most recent coins found on Hadrian’s Wall are dated AD403 to AD406.

In the years following the Romans’ departure, stones from the Wall were used to build castles, churches, houses, farm buildings and walls in the area. Without the intervention of conservationists in the 18th and 19th centuries, much less of the Wall would be visible today. The beginning of active study of the Wall can be attributed to John Hodges, a curate of Jarrow who, in 1840, gathered together all the then-available evidence of the Wall and was the first person to prove that it was built on the orders of Hadrian. In 1849 John Collingwood Bruce, a Newcastle schoolmaster, led the first tour along the Wall and between 1852 and 1854 Henry MacLauchlan, an army surveyor, was the first person to produce a map of the entire Wall that was not superseded until the British Ordnance Survey’s map of the Wall in 1964. In 1934 several miles of the Wall came into State care and today they are the responsibility of English Heritage. Other sections are owned by the National Trust, local authorities and private landowners. In 1987, Hadrian’s Wall was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Following a successful battle in Asia in 47BC, Julius Caesar is credited with the immortal and oft-quoted words in a letter he sent to the Senate in Rome, ‘Veni, vidi, vici’; I came, I saw, I conquered. The anniversary of Hadrian’s Wall serves to remind us that the Romans certainly came and profoundly influenced life in Britain. But they never really conquered it.