Hadrian’s Wall

By Donald D. Erwin


At the time of Julius Caesar’s first small invasion of the south coast of Britain in 55 BC, the British Isles, like much of mainland Europe was inhabited by many indigenous Celtic tribes loosely united by a similar language and culture, but nevertheless each distinct. He returned the next year and encountered 4000 war chariots of the native Britons in a land protected by forests and marshes, and filled with a great number of men and cattle. His legions defeated the native tribes and then withdrew, though not before establishing treaties and alliances. This first Roman incursion set the stage for the later Roman occupation of Britain.

Nearly one hundred years later, in 43 AD, the Emperor Claudius sent Aulus Plautius and about 24,000 soldiers to Britain, this time using military occupation to further expand the Roman Empire. So, as the result of military might and clever diplomacy, the subjugation of southern Britain proceeded fairly smoothly, and by 79 AD what is now England and Wales were firmly under Roman control.

However, the northern half of the island that is now Scotland remained a problem. The Romans found that the indigenous tribes who lived there were often warring among themselves, but tended to band together against invaders.  Vespasian, the Roman emperor at the time, outraged that the “barbarians” were holding up his planned occupation of the entire island, ordered the Roman governor of Britain mount a full-fledged campaign against them.

Thus, in 79 AD, Julius Agricola moved his forces north and built a line of forts at strategic locations between the Firth of Forth and the Firth of Clyde. By 81 his Roman legions had crushed most of the opposition of the Lowland clans, and were moving into the Highlands. But the Caledoniansthe name given the indigenous tribes by the Romans—regrouped,  banded together, and established a fort at Dumbarton Rock. They fiercely resisted, and Agricola’s push further north was stopped. Another Roman campaign in 82 ended with the almost total annihilation of the Ninth Roman Legion, probably at Galloway.

Frustrated, Agricola moved north again in 83, this time with three full legions of crack infantrymen supported by cavalry. His strategy was to draw the Caledonians into pitched open battle. Eventually Calgacus, the Caledonian leader, took the challenge and met the Romans with 30,000 warriors in present day Aberdeenshire at a place called Mons Graupius. Although the Caledonians fought with reckless courage, they were eventually outflanked and outfought in close quarters by the disciplined legionnaires. Ten thousand Caledonians, including Calgacus, were killed, with the Romans losing less than four hundred.

The Roman victory was a hollow one, however, for the next day the surviving clansmen melted away into the protection of the hills, leaving only to raid south. For the next four centuries the clans waged a continuing and effective guerilla war against the Roman occupiers to the south, never again facing them in open battle. Although the Romans were able to effectively control parts of Lowlands, they experienced heavy casualties when they ventured further north into the Highlands. By 105, after enduring over two decades of hit-and-run guerilla attacks, the Romans had withdrawn to a line between the Solway and the Tyne.


Publius Aelius Traianus Hadrianus, known as Hadrian in modern English, was born January 24, 76 AD in Spain to a well-established family, and died July 10, 138 at his Imperial Villa on the Bay of Naples. Hadrian became Emperor on the death of Trajan, in August, 117.

For centuries the mighty Roman Empire ruled the ancient world, and at the height of its power the far-flung empire controlled western Asia, northern Africa, and in Europe Rome was master—though disputed at times—of all of the land west of the Rhine and south of the Danube River, including the southern half of Britain. By the time Hadrian came to power, however, the Roman Empire had ceased to expand. Concerned, he decided that the Empire needed securing, not expanding, and he worked to reform and consolidate the Roman provinces. For eleven years Hadrian toured his empire, leaving the day-to-day administration duties to subordinates.

He visited Britain in 122 AD. Prior to his arrival there had been a major rebellion in the northern part of Britannia, spanning roughly two years (119–121). It was caused, apparently, by the inability of the Romans to stop the continuing raids south by the Caledonians. After reviewing the situation he decided that the harsh terrain in the Highlands made its conquest costly and unprofitable. Thus, he decided instead on building a wall, “...to separate Romans from Barbarians.

Hadrian’s Wall was a frontier fortification built in the years AD 122-130. It was seventy-three miles long, and stretched from Solway Firth in the west to the River Tyne in the east. The Wall makes use of ridges and crags, and enables a good view to the north. Built by Roman troops, the wall itself was eight to ten feet wide and fifteen feet high, with a rampart walk and six foot high parapet.

There are over eighty mile-forts spaced approximately one mile apart, with a kitchen and barracks for a small garrison. In between the mile forts two observation towers were built, resulting in lookouts every third of a mile for the entire length of the wall.

As Hadrian’s project evolved, more legionaries were moved up to the wall and large forts were built, straddling the already completed fortification. Seventeen were eventually constructed, each capable of holding from 500 to 1000 troops, with large gates on the north face flanked by stone towers. The gates allowed traffic to pass north and south through the wall.

For the most part the Wall was effective. Things quieted down. It was peaceful south of Hadrian’s Wall, and on the other side the  Lowland tribes were left to fight among themselves.  In 139, however, under a new Roman governor, the Roman Legions marched north to reoccupy the territory that Agricola had seized nearly fifty years before. It was then that he decided to consolidate his gains by building the Antonine Wall, this one out of turf. It was only manned for about  twenty years, however, and then the Romans retreated south to the relative safety of the Wall. 

In 208 Governor Severus and his army penetrated as far north as the Tay. They fought no battles, but the guerrilla warfare carried on by the Picts and other native tribes during the march resulted in heavy losses of men and matériel. Severus was instrumental in stabilizing the Roman forces, but his death in 211 prevented further military action. His son and successor was forced to make peace with the northern tribes, which resulted in the Roman forces again withdrawing south of Hadrian’s Wall.

Rome would occupy the southern part of the island of Britain for another two hundred years or so, but as the Irish raids escalated from across the Irish Sea, and the pressure from the barbarian Picts from north of Hadrian’s Wall increased, the Roman legions were hard pressed to maintain stability. By 214 the Wall was acknowledged by all as the northern frontier of the Province of Britain.

Beginning in 293, when Roman forces were battling troubles in Gaul, the Picts took advantage of their distraction and confusion. The Wall was pierced, and with fire and sword they devastated the northern districts of the Province of Britain. For two or three generations the Romans fought back, and although they were successful in slowing the incursions of the northern tribes, the raids were nevertheless taking a toll.

Although the process of wearing down the resolve of the Romans was spread over many years, the year 367 probably marked the point when things began to go downhill rapidly for the Romans. In 367 the Picts, the Scots (who had recently arrived from Ireland and who were normally enemies of the Picts), banded together and fell on the Border areas with horrific resolve. Although the Roman troops resisted valiantly, they could not prevent the murderous hordes from pouring south into the fine world of country houses and farms.

Emperor Valentinian sent a general, Theodosius, with a large force to relieve the Province. Theodosius managed to drive the raiders back north, but the smoldering resolve of the northern tribes was only diminished, not extinguished. In 383 Magnus Maximus, then in command in Britain, declared himself Emperor of Rome. Scraping together all of the troops he could find, including stripping the Wall and its fortresses of already scanty defenders, he crossed the Channel to Gaul where he defeated Emperor Gratian near Paris. For five years Maximus struggled to maintain his gains, but after a time he was killed in battle by Theodosius who had succeeded Gratian.

By that time Hadrian’s Wall had been occupied by Roman soldiers for almost three centuries, but this was also a time when most of the Roman Empire’s outlying provinces were feeling pressure from all sides. Meanwhile the Wall was pierced again, and the Province of Britain lay open to raiders from the north, as well as from the sea by raiding Vikings.

During the next twenty years or so Rome would half-heartedly attempt to save the Province, but their efforts were too little and too late. Consequently, Roman soldiers gradually withdrew to the south. The Roman legions were gone from the island by 410, and the Province of Britain was totally abandoned by Rome by about 450.

North of the area that the Roman Empire controlled in Europe was a vast region of forests, and it extended all the way to the North Sea. In this wild country, beyond the farthest limits of the civilization of the day, lived many barbaric tribes of people. Among them were the Angles, Saxons and Jutes; they lived in the northernmost area of what we know today as Germany.

These peoples, who lived north of the Roman sphere of control and influence, were very different from the Romans. They were taller, with yellow hair and blue eyes. Their clothing was usually made of the skins of animals or coarsely woven woolen cloth, with the arms and shoulders left bare. Their houses were simple huts of roughly cut timber, often grouped together in a clearing in the forest to form a straggling village.

The warriors of these closely related Germanic tribes were fierce fighters, and although they had been raiding the coastal towns of Gaul and Britain for decades, in 449 they invaded  southern Britain in force, and eventually conquered the part that is now England. Starting about 500 they set up a number of tiny kingdoms, made war on the native Britons, and drove them into the northwestern part of the island. The three invading tribes merged into a people who would be known as Anglo-Saxons. They were much less civilized than the Britons, whom they conquered and displaced, but nevertheless they had come to stay. One of the tribes, the Angles, gave England its name, which literally means, “Land of the Angles.”

Their original language, closely related to modern Danish and Dutch, was the foundation of English. Though much infused with Latin, it survived, in its modern form, even the Norman (Gaulic) invasion of 1066. In succeeding centuries English followed the British empire builders around the world, and in the process became an international language. Most of the native tongues of the island of Britain, on the other hand, have, for the most part, been forgotten.

An important point to remember is that although the Romans penetrated the Lowlands of modern-day Scotland, they did not stay, nor did they seriously attempted to conquer the northern part of the island. The early Anglo-Saxons couldn’t do it either. It would take over a thousand years for their descendants, the “English,” to finally absorb Scotland into the British Empire, and then not as a result of battle, but by merging the two royal families by marriage.

Hadrian’s Wall, in its heyday, was garrisoned by thousands of troops who watched over the northern horizon from its turrets and mile-castles. At the height of its importance the Wall was home to thousands of soldiers, many with families. They lived in a series of substantial forts at strategic locations, and several of these forts are open to visitors today. Life on the frontier must have been difficult and uncomfortable for the soldiers stationed there, but the forts did provide for the spiritual and physical well-being of their inhabitants, with temples, granaries, hospitals, and latrines.

The garrisons along the Wall, over time, attracted settlement and  local tradesmen. It is supposed that the families of the married soldiers probably lived in the nearby villages as well, some of which still flourish in the twenty-first century. Modern visitor centers provide an insight into the lives of the soldiers who served on Rome’s northern frontier.

Since the Romans withdrew from Britain the Wall has been a convenient stone quarry for generations of local residents. Roman stonework can be detected in almost every ancient building along both sides of the wall. Many churches in the area even have topsy-turvy inscriptions embedded in their walls. Despite this, the Wall’s historical importance was recognized by a number of eminent antiquaries by the beginning of the 19th century, and large stretches of the Wall have now been preserved. It has even been proclaimed as a World Heritage Site, and “Walking the Wall is a popular holiday pastime for natives and tourists alike.

Today, at eighteen hundred years old, the Wall is a mere relic of its magnificent past, but it nevertheless is still the most impressive monument to the Roman occupation of Britain, and offers spectacular remains for examination. When building the Wall, the Romans made use of the rugged landscape of Northumberland for defensive purposes, and the fact that the countryside has changed little since those times helps to transport the visitor back to those far-off days.

Hadrian's Wall as it appears today

One thing that needs to be pointed out, however, is that Hadrian’s Wall did not act as a boundary between England and Scotland. The English and the Scots did not settle in Britain until three centuries after Hadrian’s Wall was built. In Hadrian’s time the ancient race called the Scoti inhabited Hibernia (Ireland), while the English, or more accurately the Anglo-Saxons, were a Germanic race who inhabited the central mainland of northern Europe.

It is an even greater mistake to think that Hadrian’s Wall forms a boundary between England and Scotland today, for the simple reason that most of  Northumberland, England’s northernmost and very Anglo-Saxon county, actually lies to the north of the Wall.                                                   »»»