Hadrian’s Wall: A Little History

I have always wanted to hike Hadrian’s Wall — no idea why. This summer, I finally badgered my husband into going. I figured if we didn’t do it soon, our legs wouldn’t handle it.

Route Across Great Britain
Hadrian’s Wall cuts across the island of Britain from Newcastle in the east to Maryport, southwest of Carlisle, in the west.

A Little Background

The Romans toyed with the idea of invading the island of Britain for a long time. Julius Caesar landed on the island twice, in 55 BC and 54 BC, but quickly left to put down revolts in newly conquered Gaul.

It was Emperor Claudius who committed the resources to take Britain, in 43 AD. The Roman Empire was built on conquest, and the lame, slightly deaf Claudius, who had never served in the army, needed to establish his military credentials. Although Claudius himself only stayed in Britain for a few weeks, the 4 legions he brought with him were permanent.

The plan, of course, was to take the whole island. The Romans pacified the southeastern section of the island relatively quickly. Wales, as always, was a bit more stubborn, but eventually came under Roman rule.  Caledonia, the northern part of the island, saw fighting as well. The Romans even built forts in the far north, as they did throughout the island at places like Coria (Corbridge) and Vindolanda, to establish their presence.

Just before the time of Emperor Hadrian, the machine that was the Roman Empire was reaching the maximum size that it could manage. One of the things I didn’t know before I started researching was that most of the time, some province somewhere in the Roman Empire was in revolt. After sixty years of pacification in Britain, problems in Dacia (modern Romania) meant that the Romans had to pull troops from the job of conquering the foggy island. And that meant they had to postpone Final Conquest indefinitely.

Emperor Hadrian, in fact, spent most of his reign consolidating Roman control on territory that they already controlled. That included drawing a line across Britain, and building a wall.

Why build a wall when you already have forts and roads all over the country, even into the frontier to the north? The easiest answer is: to keep the barbarians out. But that answer seems to only be partly true. After all, every milecastle had gates through the Wall. And it was possible to get over the Wall, if  you really wanted to.

The other reasons were 1) simply to demarcate a border. The Wall must have been a awesome symbol of Roman power, and it would have been a constant reminder to the northern natives that Roman Britain wasn’t to be messed with. 2) To slow down any raiders who came across. People could cross into Roman Britain with relative ease, either legitimately through a gate, or illicitly over or around the Wall itself. And once past the Roman garrisons, raiders could do some damage. But once the alarm was raised, getting back across the Wall to safety was just about impossible. You couldn’t take slaves or livestock over the wall, and you certainly couldn’t take them through a checkpoint. So why bother?

Roughly, the cross-section of the wall looked like this:

Courtesy of Ujap.de – http://ujap.de/index.php/view/HadriansWall, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33242432 at Wikipedia

Looking at a cross-section of the Wall,  from the north, there was a berm, made of dirt from the ditch. Then there was the Wall, made of courses of local stone up to 20 feet (6 meters) high. Behind the wall was an open area, then the Roman Military Road (as opposed to the Military Way built in 1746), a north mound, the ditch-like “vallum” (which confusingly means “wall” in Latin; the word was originally applied to the earthen mounds, but here means the southern ditch), then the south mound. Nobody really knows what the vallum here was for, but it was evidently important, because it runs right alongside the Wall the entire length.

On the west end of the wall, they started building with turf, but soon replaced it with stone. On the east end, it was stone right from the beginning. They built a fort every mile, and two turrets between each fort.

When the wall was started, it was going to be about 3 meters (10 feet) wide, but as they built it, they decided it only needed to be about 2 meters (6 feet) wide, so there are sections of each — often the foundations are Broad Wall and the Curtain Wall itself is Narrow.

Whew! That’s enough history to get going with.

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