Built by the Roman Army on the orders of Emperor Hadrian, the Hadrian Wall was the North West frontier of the Roman Empire for close to 300 years. It was built in 6 years ending 128 AD. The wall extended west from Segedunum at Wallsend on the River Tyne to the shore of the Solway Firth on the Irish Sea, ending a short distance west of the village of Bowness-on-Solway. The Hadrian Wall is the largest remaining artefact of the Roman Empire and there have been many important archaeological finds along it. In 1987, it was recognized as a World Heritage site. Know more about this historic wall through these 10 interesting facts.

 

#1 It is named after the Roman Emperor Hadrian

“Having completely transformed the soldiers, in royal fashion, he made for Britain, where he set right many things and – the first to do so – drew a wall along a length of eighty miles to separate barbarians and Romans.” (The Augustan History, Hadrian 11.1)

Despite the epigraphic evidence from the wall, this line found written by Roman Historian Aelius Spartianus at the close of the 3rd Century is the sole classical literary proof of Hadrian having built the wall we know today as Hadrian’s Wall. Also, a 2nd century souvenir of the Hadrian’s Wall, a bronze pan known as IIam pan, found in 2003, suggests that the wall was called vallum Aelii (‘Aelian Wall’), Aelius being the family name of Hadrian. Hadrian was emperor of Rome from 117 AD to 138 AD. In his early days on the throne, the province of Britannica witnessed a major rebellion from 119 to 121 AD. This prompted Hadrian to visit the province in 122 AD to take a toll of the situation. During this visit he is said to have ordered the construction of the Wall which would mark the boundaries of the Roman Empire, deter attacks on Roman territory and control cross border trade and immigration. Hadrian left Britannica the same year and he would never witness the wall he had ordered to be raised.

Hadrian
Bust of Hadrian

 

#2 It was a garrison wall with many small and larger fortlets along its length

The Hadrian wall was guarded with the help of garrisoned soldiers all along its length. Small forts called Milecastles were built at every Roman mile (1620 yards). These structures were of a standard pattern with 2 large gates. The interior structure varied and could house a maximum of 64 soldiers. The Milecastles were probably large gatehouses used originally to control movement through the wall and to levy taxes. Between the milecastles were two smaller fortifications called turrets. These were equidistant from each other and the milecastles. They were about 20 feet square and recessed into the wall. They were built-up above the height of the wall and were managed by the soldiers stationed at their nearest milecastles. This original plan perhaps proved inadequate, which later led to the formation of several auxiliary forts along its length.

Hadrian's Wall Milecastle
Ruins of a Milecastle along the wall

 

#3 It was built by an estimated 15,000 legionaries in six years

Work on the Hadrian wall began shortly after the visit of the emperor in 122 AD with all three of the occupying Roman legions participating; II Augusta based in Caerleon in South Wales, the VI Victrix from York and the XX Valeria Victrix from Chester. The Wall was placed slightly north of the existing line of military installations between the River Tyne and the Solway Firth. Construction was broadly divided into sections of 5 Roman miles with the Milecastles and Turrets being constructed first which was followed by the wall construction. The wall was completed with an estimated effort of close to 15,000 legionaries after a period of six years, in 128 AD.

Hadrian's Wall Map
Map of the Hadrian’s Wall

 

#4 It is the largest remaining artefact of the Roman Empire

Located in the north of Britain, very close to its border with Scotland, the Hadrian’s Wall stands not only as the largest Roman artefact anywhere but among the most known and best preserved frontier of the ancient Roman Empire. The wall measured 80 Roman miles in length or close to 117 kilometres in the metric system. The height and width of the wall varied depending on the construction material available nearby. The construction may be broadly divided into 2 sections.

Wall east of River Irthing – Made from squared stone, approx. 10 feet or 3 meters wide, 5 to 6 meters tall. The foundation of this 10 feet wall runs for 23 Roman miles eastward from Newcastle–upon-Tyne. The wall is then reduced to 6 to 8 feet.

Wall west of the River Irthing – Made from turf possibly due to the absence of limestone for the manufacture of mortar, the turf wall was approx. 20 feet or 5 to 6 meter wide. 3 to 3.5 meters tall, the turf wall was later demolished and replaced by stone.

Hadrian's wall schematic section
Schematic section of Hadrian’s wall

 

#5 Hadrian’s Wall seems like a military barrier with separate components

The reasons for building Hadrian’s Wall are disputed among historians. However, most agree that the wall marked the northern boundary of the Roman Empire in Britain. More detailed studies of the wall over the years suggest that it was also a well thought of military barrier which, in its final form, comprised of the following elements:-

a) Some forts built 5 to 10 miles north of the wall for scouting and intelligence purposes

b) a glacis or an artificial slope which formed a V shaped ditch on the north of the wall

c) the stone wall itself

d) a number of garrison structures built along the wall including Forts, Milecastles and smaller Turrets

e) The “Roman Military Way” or a military road constructed after the wall that linked the garrison fortifications.

f) A large ditch of about 10 feet depth was dug later after the completion of the wall, built mostly parallel with and to the south of the Wall, known as the Vallum.

g) A series of forts and lookout towers along the Cumbrian coast, the ‘Western Sea Defences’.

 

#6 The purpose of the construction of the Vallum has intrigued many scholars

Although Vallum is the Latin origin of English word “wall”, with respect to the Hadrian Wall it refers to a large ditch dug south of the wall with adjoining parallel mounds, one on either side. The Vallum, 6 metres (20 ft) wide and 3 metres (10 ft) deep, with a flat bottom, ran almost parallel and south of the wall for its entire length. There is no definitive historical evidence as to why the Roman army built this unusual barrier. This has intrigued many scholars. Most think that it was kind of a southern boundary of the military zone, but the scale of its constructions raises questions. Whatever function the Vallum served appears to have been only temporary as it is thought to have been used for only about a decade. The two mounds were then slighted and thrown into the central trench at regular intervals, spaced every 45 yards or so along its entire length.

Hadrian's Wall
Hadrian’s Wall

 

#7 Another Roman Wall was built further north by the same legions

A few years after the death of the Roman Emperor Hadrian his successor Antoninus Pius ordered the construction of the Antonine Wall in 142 AD, almost a 100 miles further north of the Hadrian Wall. Spread across what is now the central belt of Scotland, between the Firth of Forth and the Firth of Clyde, the wall measured 39 miles with an approximate height and width of 10 feet and 16 feet respectively. The wall had a stone base, with turf blocks, a wooden battlement on top, and a broad ditch on the north side. It had 19 forts and lacked the ditch to the south called the vallum. It is believed that it was the pressure from Caledonians or the indigenous people in the north that may have prompted Antonius to move his troops further north, and build the wall. Built by the same 2nd, 6th and 20th legions that had toiled on the Hadrian Wall; the Antonine Wall took 12 years to complete. It was abandoned 8 years after completion with the garrisons being relocated back to the Hadrian’s Wall.

Antonine Wall
Part of the Antonine wall

 

#8 At one time John Clayton and his family owned 20 miles of the wall, including 5 forts

For many centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire, the wall became a quarry for mining stone and was used for various building projects; the most noted one being a military road constructed by General Wade in the 18th century to move his troops to crush a Jacobite insurrection. Efforts for conservation of the wall started only in the mid-19th century by individuals like John Hodgson, John Collingwood and most notably John Clayton. Clayton, a town clerk at Newcastle became enthusiastic about preserving the wall. To prevent people from raiding the wall, he began buying land around the wall and started his excavations. He eventually controlled land from Brunton to Cawfields and, in the early 20th century, his family owned almost 20 miles of the wall, which they mostly lost in gambling. The best example of the Clayton Wall is at Housesteads. The wall is still largely private owned although several well-known sections of it are owned by organisations like English Heritage and the National Trust.

John Clayton
John Clayton – Who owned a major part of the Hadrian’s Wall

 

#9 There have been many interesting archaeological finds along the Hadrian’s Wall

There have been numerous archaeological finds along the Hadrian wall and its surrounding forts. Among the most famous is the Collection of John Clayton housed at the museum in Chesters. The collection contains approximately 11,000 finds along with around 12,000 coins and archive material from both Clayton’s time and later. Among them are the 53 centurial stones which are engraved stones with the names of centurions who, with their men, built Hadrian’s Wall. Other discoveries of note include a corn measure; flushing toilets; roman segmented armour; swords; and various beautiful religious sculptures and carving of Roman deities.

Hadrian Wall centurial stone
CH324 – A centurial stone found along Hadrian Wall

 

#10 Handrian’s Wall was declared as a World Heritage site in 1987

The Hadrian Wall was recognized as a World Heritage site by the United Nations in 1987. The site however is largely unguarded leading to visitors climbing and standing on the wall. Another major cause of concern has been the illegal metal detecting perhaps by raiders in search of ancient valuables. This activity is a punishable offence near the wall and its surrounding archaeology. In 2005 the Hadrian Wall was included in the transnational “Frontiers of the Roman Empire” World Heritage Site.

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