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Antonine Wall

In the 2nd Century AD, the land beyond the boundary of the most northerly point of the Roman Empire was an area where even the all-conquering legions had failed to subdue. It was here that the Romans, who had systematically crushed all resistance before them, finally met their match and chose to focus on the defensive rather than the offensive. 

A great wall was built that stretched across Great Britain, which came to be known as Hadrian’s Wall. Designed to keep the tribes to the North out of the Roman Empire, it was broadly successful – but just 20 years after its completion, Roman legions again marched north intending to build a second wall. And this is the story of that wall. 

The Antonine Wall’s fame pales in comparison to its more illustrious brother to the south. If Hadrian’s Wall is Alec Baldwin, the Antonine Wall is Daniel Baldwin – sorry Daniel, I’m sure you’re great at whatever it is you do, but I think we all understand the analogy. Impressive in its own right, but for nearly 2,000 years, almost entirely overshadowed by what came before it. 

Another reason the Antonine Wall has perhaps not reached the same level of fame is that there is today very little left of this turf wall with stone foundations that stretched for 63 km (39 miles) between the Firth of Forth and the Firth of Clyde. This wall requires a little more imagination but was still a quite extraordinary feat of engineering carried out deep within the hostile territory. 

To add further intrigue to the tale, the wall was abandoned just 8 years after its completion, with the Romans choosing instead to backtrack to Hadrian’s Wall where they held on grimly for another couple of hundred years before gradually being ejected from the British Isles. The Antonine Wall is one of the great, forgotten megaprojects of antiquity – it was here that the Romans drew the final northern line on their vast, sprawling empire.  

Roman Britain

Firstly, we’ve recently done videos on Hadrian’s Wall and the Roman Empire itself, so if you’re in a particularly Roman mood today, then you know what to watch next. 

Emperor Claudius
Emperor Claudius.By Marie-Lan Nguyen,
is licensed under CC-BY

The Romans first arrived on British shores in 55 BC, the first of two invasions by Julius Caesar, the second of which came the following year. While the British were defeated and a puppet ruler installed, the Romans didn’t stay and it wasn’t until 43 AD that Emperor Claudius instructed his legions to invade and to bring Britain and its ragtag band of tribes under the yolk of Roman rule. 

The conquest of Britain was a bloody 40-year campaign, which was effectively concluded in 87 AD. Up to a quarter of a million Britons died during this period – meaning that potentially an eighth of Britons 2 million inhabitants became victims of Roman expansion. 

But even for the legendary legions, there were limits and that limit was Caledonia. The name Caledonia was used to describe the land north of the River Forth in what is present-day Scotland. If you’ve ever trekked into the Scottish Highlands on a grey, misty day, you might understand why the Romans threw their hands up in desperation and announced Satis! – which is Latin for enough. As the English were to discover well over a thousand years later, conquering Caledonia and its people is no easy task.   

Caledonia

The fact that Caledonia remained out of Rome’s sphere of influence was certainly not from want of trying. On numerous occasions, Roman legions marched north with varying degrees of success. In 84 AD, at the Battle of Mons Graupius, an army of some 30,000 Caledonians faced 20,000 well-trained Roman legionnaires. The result was little more than a blood bath with a third of the Caledonians being killed to just 360 on the Roman side. 

Caledonia in map
Caledonia in map.Is licensed under CC-BY-SA

But while the battle had been an absolute disaster for the Caledonians, two-thirds managed to escape and disappeared quietly into the Highlands. Over the next 40 years or so, the pendulum swung back and forth as the Romans struggled to stamp their authority on the tribes of the far north.

Now, it’s worth remembering we are discussing a period nearly 2,000 years ago so sometimes the facts are a little vague and no doubt merges with legend to the point where it’s impossible to be 100% – and this next story is one such example. 

One potential act that led to the increased fortifications in the north of Britain was the disappearance of the Roman 9th Legion. This was an experienced group of 5,000 of the finest legionnaires around whose fate has long been argued over. What we are sure of is that all traces of the Ninth seem to end around 120 AD. The most well-told tale – which doesn’t always necessarily make it true – tells of the Ninth Legion marching north into Caledonia never to be heard from again. 

Others claim that the Ninth was redeployed to the Middle East and met their fate there, while yet another theory states that they were sent into modern-day Holland. But frustratingly, there is practically no evidence to back up any of these theories. However, we are fairly certain that during the rule of Emperor Hadrian, the Romans suffered huge losses in Britain, which led to a troop surge and the building of the largest wall the Roman Empire ever constructed. 

Hadrian’s Wall 

As I mentioned, we already have a video on this particular wall, so I won’t go into too much detail here. Construction began on Hadrian’s Wall in 122 AD and took six years to complete. It was 117.5 kilometres (73 miles) long and linked Wallsend in the east to Bowness-on-Solway in the west. 

While the wall’s primary role was certainly to act as a border barrier, it most likely was also used to regulate those coming and going and no doubt collected customs fees from those wishing to buy or sell within the Roman Empire.  

Hadrian’s Wall was finished in 128 AD and at first, appeared to act as the final marker of the Roman Empire to the north. We have to speculate a little here because we have no concrete information of what went on between the completion of Hadrian’s Wall and the start of Antonine Wall – a period of less than 20 years. What is certain is that Emperor Hadrian was succeeded by Emperor Antoninus and we can probably assume that things were far from quiet on the northern front.

Another theory is that the new Emperor wanted to simply boost his political standing back in Rome and the nagging issue of Britain perhaps gave him exactly the kind of excuse needed to order his troops north.  

The Antonine Wall

The remains of the Antonine Wall are far less impressive than those that lie roughly 160 kilometres (100 miles) south. While stretches of stone can still be seen that once formed Hadrian’s Wall, very little remains of the Antonine Wall bar ditches, mounds and the odd foundation. 

Antonine Wall in map
Antonine Wall in map.By NormanEinstein, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

The man tasked with building the Antonine Wall was Roman General, Quintus Lollius Urbicus – there is something great about Roman names, isn’t there? The location, between the Firth of Forth and the Firth of Clyde, was almost certainly chosen because it was the shortest distance between the North Sea and the Irish Sea and would probably have cut through pre-existing tribal boundaries – presumably with scant regard for those it now divided.  

Construction 

An estimated 7,000 men worked on the Antonine Wall for 8 years. Like Hadrian’s Wall, the Antonine Wall was built by the Roman Legions stationed in the area at the time and the group probably consisted of three separate legions. When you think of Roman Legions you probably think of clinical, deadly warriors and their famous tortoise formation that was often used to approach enemy structures, but a Roman Legion was far more than just expert swordsmen. It typically travelled with its own surveyors, engineers, masons, joiners and labourers, who were rather adept at throwing together bridges or roads at short notice.   

These men would have camped in leather tents or temporary huts within small compounds constructed along the route. Considering this construction project was deep inside enemy territory, it’s impossible to believe that the legions not only had to build the wall but constantly defend themselves while doing it. 

The Antonine Wall was far less imposing than its bigger brother to the south and was formed of a bank of turf almost 3 metres (9.8ft) high and 4 metres (13.1ft) wide. This was built over stone foundations about the same width that would have helped with drainage and stability. Around 20 separate layers of turf were then added on top of one another that would have brought the wall up to its full height. Along the top of this turf mound was a wooden palisade that acted as a walkway and would have had further fencing on the northern side. It’s worth noting that the makeup of the wall changed along its route, with eastern sections using just clay and earth rather than turf, probably down to a lack of availability in the area.    

To the north of the wall ran a ditch, which in places reached as deep as 5 metres (16.4 ft) and to the south was a road, known as the military way, that ran parallel to the wall along its entire route. This was used as a service road that would have enabled legions to move quickly and support different points of the Antonine Wall. 

The wall was marked by distance slabs, which either gave distances – as you might have expected – but also with a ceremonial role. Twenty of these slabs still survive today, with the most famous being the Bridgeness Slab, which was created to mark the completion of the wall and includes the passage, 

“For the Emperor Caesar Titus Aelius Hadrianus Antoninus Augustus Pius, Father of his Country, the Second Augustan Legion completed [the Wall] over a distance of 4652 paces”  

The slab also includes the depiction of Britons being trampled and killed by Roman cavalrymen – just in case there was any doubt over the Roman mandate in the region at the time. Interestingly, tests done on the slab have found small traces of pigment, particularly red, which suggests it was once brightly coloured.   

Forts

Originally the Romans had planned to build a fort every 10 kilometres (6 miles), but this quickly changed to every 3.3 kilometres (2 miles) – probably due to the threat of tribal attacks. All of these forts were constructed using local sandstone where available and would have had the typical red tiles on the roof which were common in the Roman Empire at the time.  

Very little remains of these forts today, with the Rough Castle Fort, 2 kilometres (1.2 miles) south-east of Bonnybridge, the best preserved. This was the second smallest of the forts and had an area of roughly 4,000 square metres (43,000 sq ft) – that’s just less than half of a typical city block in Manhattan – with the foundations of the commander’s house, the barracks, the headquarters, the bathhouse and a granary all discovered during excavation work done during the first half of the 20th Century. 

From artefacts found at the time, we know that the Rough Castle Fort once housed 480 men of the Cohors VI Nerviorum of Nervii – an auxiliary unit drawn from Gaul (modern France). Excavations around this fort also revealed yet another form of defence that the Romans implemented to try and fortify this wild part of northern Britain.   

To the northwest, archaeologists found a series of pits known as lilias, which would have housed sharpened stakes at the bottom. These lilias were often located close to vulnerable sections of the wall, perhaps near to gateways and would have been carefully camouflaged. Had there been a sneak attack while the gateway was open, countless would have fallen into these deadly pits where they had absolutely nothing to look forward to but a slow agonising death. Or until a Roman legionnaire came along and put them out of their misery. 

The Wall’s Legacy 

If the Antonine Wall was supposed to cement Roman’s power in the north, it did exactly the opposite. Again, we need to speculate a little here, but most likely the new turf wall came under withering attack from the Caledonians. We know that the Romans eventually, and voluntarily, retreated to Hadrian’s Wall around 160 AD and to push the might of Rome back it must have been quite an onslaught. I’ve used the word voluntarily there, but it may well have gotten to the point they simply had no choice and there have been tales of the Antonine Wall being overrun, but it’s far from clear.   

Emperor Antonius’ plan of pacifying the north had backfired spectacularly and his successor, Marcus Aurelius, almost immediately reverted to using Hadrian’s Wall as the northern extremity of the Empire. Over time, it became clear that perhaps the entire wall construction and surge into the north was little more than an attempt at securing a military triumph to boost Antonius’ reputation back in Rome.

It certainly wouldn’t have been the first time a Roman Emperor chose personal triumph over pragmatism but in this case, he gained little from the construction of the Antonine Wall. If you think Caledonians in this area lived happily ever after from this point, then think again. Countless more incursions north took place as the Romans time and time again attempted to break the will of those who simply refused to bow to Rome. But again and again, they retreated. 

By the 3rd Century, Rome’s power was waning and raiding parties now poured south past Hadrians’s Wall to take advantage of an empire in its final death throes. Rome retaliated but the end was nye. In 383 AD, Roman legions began leaving Britain and by 410 AD, Rome’s rule over Britain had all but ended. 

By that point, the area around the Antonine Wall had long been free of the tyranny of the Latin would-be rulers and the wall itself had already begun to decay. The memory of the stubborn attempt by Rome to suppress the people of Caledonia was quickly fading and over time this impressive turf wall quietly withered away, leaving only mounds and ditches where the great Roman frontier once stood.  

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