Built on the orders of Roman Emperor Hadrian, the wall was constructed from about 122 AD until about 128 AD. The wall stretched 73 miles (80 Roman miles) between the North Sea and the Irish Sea. It was actually 5 metres high (15 feet) - in some places augmented by a north-facing parapet wall another 1.5 meters high for the wall's sentries to take shelter behind. The overall effect was magnified by the deep V-shaped ditch dug along the north face of the wall - a classic Roman infantry defense.

A small guard tower known as a milecastle was located every Roman mile along the wall, staffed by a small garrison unit of 8 to 10 men. Two smaller sentry turrets were situated between each milecastle. Gates in the wall were guarded by larger fortifications.

A recent (November 2000) discovery of a wall section near Newcastle provided evidence of three rows of sharpened, interlaced stakes between the Wall and the northern ditch. These spikes are thought to be the Roman version of modern-day barbed wire. (See http://www.independent.co.uk/news/UK/This_Britain/2000-11/wall021100.shtml for this story.)

South of the Wall was a Roman road built for military use, and then another, shallower ditch, called the Vallum. This ditch, and the mounds of earth that lined it like riverbanks, served to keep civilians and their livestock from venturing too close to the Wall. It also served to discourage the rebellious Brigantes tribes from getting friendly with their northern neighbours.

A more northerly earthwork defense, the Antonine Wall, actually marks the "high tide" or Roman influence in the British Isles, but Hadrian's Wall was the limit of the Roman empire for most of the Roman era in Britain.

The Roman hold on Britain began to lapse, as troops were called away from Britain to combat the Vandals and Goths. A massed force of barbarians including Picts, Scots and Saxons overwhelmed the Wall's defenders in 367, and despite a later attempt to reassert Roman control, by the year 400 the Wall had been abandoned. A stirring visualization of the Wall's failure in the barbarian invasion can be found in Jack Whyte's novel The Skystone, the first volume in the A Dream of Eagles cycle.

Much of the Wall was dismantled for building materials during the subsequent centuries, and very little of the Wall itself remains standing today. Parts of the Wall remain in the Northumberland area, and some of the milecastles and smaller forts also remain. Hadrian's Wall was designated as a World Heritage Site in 1987.

Sources include http://www.hadrians-wall.org/ and http://www.britainexpress.com/History/Hadrian's_Wall.htm

Common misconceptions and frequently asked questions about Hadrian's Wall

Or why everything your teacher told you during history class is not necessarily true

That it marked the northern frontier of Roman Britain

Unlikely. You do not undertake a major engineering project such as building a damn great wall over 70 miles long and 15 feet high unless you have complete command of the territory. Roman power must have extended many miles to north of the Tyne-Solway line to allow the completion of the Wall.

Consider this; roughly contemporary with the British Wall, the emperor Hadrian built similar "defensive" walls along the Rhine frontier. A number of imperial estates were left on the "wrong" side of these walls, despite which they remained part of the Roman Empire.(1)

It is more meaningful to consider matters in the light of the question; given that they did not have the military resources to conquer and occupy the Caledonian highlands, how best were the Romans to defend the provinces of Britain from the threat of raids posed by the 'free' barbarians. At various times, they experimented with the Gask Ridge system, they experimented with the Antonine Wall, Agricola built the so called 'glen blocker' forts. Furthermore they maintained forts to the north of the Wall, even after its completion. The answer that seemed to suit the circumstances best was to concentrate their military resources along a defenseive system built along the Tyne-Solway line.

To some extent this is a question of semantics; as ideas about frontiers and boundaries did not necessarily have the same meaning as they do now. But there is a very real point about the limit of Roman power in Britain, and the only reasonably conclusion that can be reached is that the limits of Roman power and of the Roman Empire lay some way to the north of the Wall. Hadrian's Wall,

stood not as as a physical limit of Roman influence in Britain, but as an aggresive statement of military might (2)

That the wall was overrun by the Picts

The so called Barbarian Conspiracy of 367 is quite possibly one of the most misconstrued events in the history of late Roman Britain. It is often alleged that, during the the course of this, the Picts "overran the wall". (3) There is in fact very little evidence, in either the historical or the archeological record to indicate that the Picts ever did so, much less that they did so in 367. Ammianus Marcellinus is the only contemporary Latin historian of the period and he makes no such claim. (4)

In fact there is little evidence of any significant fighting in the vicinity of the Wall at all. Ever. (5) That does not mean that there was never any kind of conflict at the Wall. (6) But anything that involved the destruction of forts or the wiping out of garrisons would have left a very clear archeological footprint and nothing of that kind has ever been found.

That the wall was built to separate the Picts from the Britons

Actually the Picts lived some 150 miles to the north of the wall, in what is now called the Scottish highlands, what the Romans called Caledonia. Immediately to the north of the Wall was the territory of the northern Brigantes, on the west coast, and the Votadini on the east. These were tribes of Brythonic speaking Celts, culturally and linguistically similar to their more Romanised brethren that lived to the south of the wall. (7)

So what then was the purpose of the wall?

Although Hadrian's biographer stated that it was built to "Separate the Romans from the Barbarians", the issue of precisely what the Wall was for has been a matter of debate.

Some things are however quite clear. It was never intended to be any kind of defensive boundary or fighting platform, since there were never enough troops stationed there to realistically defend it. Neither was it designed to prevent movement, as the presence of regular gateways along the length of the Wall indicates. Rather it provided an observation system and a barrier that enabled the Roman authorities to both control the movement of people and to provide an early warning system.

(Think Berlin Wall only with a lot more access points; designed to restrict the movement of individuals to and from West Berlin - military significance in the case of actual East-West conflict; negligible)

There may also have been a strategic significance in separating the northern Brigantes from their southern cousins and therefore helping to neutralise the threat they posed to Roman dominion. (A very realistic threat, at least at the time the Wall was built in the second century.) But probably most of all, it was simply a psychological demonstration of Roman imperial power, intended to cow the natives into submission and provide a lasting monument to Hadrian himself.(8)

That the wall was abandoned around 400 or shortly afterwards

Not quite; the archeological record shows continuing occupation throughout the fifth century and beyond. Historians have been recently revising their ideas and coming to the conclusion that the Wall continued to be occupied for at least a generation or two after the revolt of 409. Indeed, so comprehensive is this archeological evidence that we can say that,

Now it is certain that the Wall was not abandoned (9)

So what happened to the soldiers stationed around the Wall?

The first thing to appreciate is that from the early third century onwards, the units assigned to the Wall were remarkably stable. A number of civilian settlements grew up around the Wall, into which the soldiers undoubtedly married and from which they were drawn. The dissappearance of any central authority able to pay the soldiers didn't change any of this and

we must accept that the soldiers of the Wall returned to the soil from which they sprung (10)
That is, they stayed to defend the communities along the wall or perhaps sought employment with the new Brythonic kings that sprang up both north and south of the wall.

So what did happen to the Wall?

After the revolt of 409, there was soon no unified British authority capable of organising or paying for a standing army to man the Wall and its gateways. There became less and less reason to distinguish between those Brythonic kingdoms that existed to the north of the wall from those to the south. The raison d'etre for the Wall therefore disappeared, the civilian settlements dissipated elsewhere, the Wall became nothing more than a convenient and easily accessible source of building material. The end was probably more of a whimper than a bang.


(1) A more modern comparison would be with mid-twentieth century defensive fortifications, such as the Maginot Line, built by the French to defend themselves from German agression. It was constructed entirely within French territory; the actual border with Germany lay some miles to the east. (Built at great expense, and rather pointlessly as it turned out.)

(2) Christopher A Snyder, as Sources below

(3) Based no doubt, on the false logic, that as the Picts lived to the north of the Wall, and the Picts raided Roman Britain, therefore the Picts must have overrun the Wall in order to reach Roman Britain. Which ignores the facts that the Picts lived at least 150 miles away and that they had boats.

(4) One is inclined to think that such a major event as a seventy three mile long military installation being overwhelmed by the enemy would have been worthy of note in any history of the period, had it actually happened.

(5) Or as www.hadrianswall.org puts it "Interestingly, there is little evidence of major conflict on Hadrian's Wall."

(6) The only reference I have ever come across is from the De Excidio Britanniae, chapter 19 where Gildas speaks of the Picts and Scots

... having heard of the departure of our friends {i.e. the Romans}, and their resolution never to return, they seized with greater boldness than before on all the country towards the extreme north as far as the wall. To oppose them there was placed on the heights a garrison equally slow to fight and ill adapted to run away, a useless and panic-struck company, who clambered away days and nights on their unprofitable watch. Meanwhile the hooked weapons of their enemies were not idle, and our wretched countrymen were dragged from the wall and dashed against the ground.

As with much of Gildas, it is not entirely clear as to when this was supposed to have happened, but given the context (it is immediately followed by the reporting of the lamentations of the Britons, sometime in the period 409 to 440 AD would be indicated. However the major problem with treating this as accurate history is the statement "they seized with greater boldness than before on all the country towards the extreme north as far as the wall", as there is precious little evidence of Pictish occupation south of the Forth-Clyde line. Which leads many to conclude that this is an example poetic exaggeration or invention. You, of course are free to make up your own minds.

(7) Precisely what the relationship was between these Brythonic tribes and the Roman authorities in Britain is unclear. Perhaps they were client kingdoms, perhaps they existed in a state of permanent antagonism with the diocese of Britannia. There is, unfortunately, little evidence either way.

(8) The more cynical suggest that the Wall was built simply to keep the legions occupied during a period of relative calm.

(9) Christopher A Snyder, as Sources below

(10) Breeze and Dobson Hadrian's Wall as quoted by Christopher A Snyder see Sources below


Christopher A Snyder, An Age of Tyrants, Penn State Press (1998) in particular pages 168 to 173

www.hadrians-wall.org Which is more of a tourist information site really, but gives a useful overview.

www.stud.uni-muenchen.de/~erik.dobat/mainp.htm A site with a lot of detailed information on Roman Frontier systems in Britain and Germany including the Gask Ridge system, the Antonine Wall as well as the Raetian Limes

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