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Hadrian’s Wall: The Mysterious 38th Parallel for Roman Legionaries and British Barbarians

While the title of ‘Great Wall’ quite rightly belongs to the 21,196 kilometres (13,171 miles) worth of stone strung across China, it is rather modern compared to what we’re talking about today. While the earliest sections of the Great Wall date from the 7th Century AD much of the most recognizable parts were built from the 14th Century onwards. But in this video, we’re diving all the way back to a wall that was started in 122 AD at the very limits of the mighty Roman Empire. 

Hadrian’s Wall runs for 117.5 kilometres (73 miles) from the River Tyne on the east coast of England to the Solway Firth on the Irish Sea. Today it is little more than a small wall, often no more than waist height, but in its day it must have been a forbidding sight for the wild tribes to the north that the Romans had attempted to effectively shut out.

This was by no means the first major wall of the ancient world. The walls of Jericho predate Hadrian’s Wall by over 8000 years, while the Theopetra Cave Wall in Thessaly in Greece dates back an astonishing 23,000 years. But when Hadrian’s Wall was constructed it was entirely unique in that it didn’t defend a single city as many Roman walls did at the time, but rather acted as a lengthy border wall. The Roman’s never built anything else quite like, with one possible exception. You see, Hadrian’s Wall was not only the wall that the Romans built across Britain. There was another, smaller, little known wall. And I’ll tell you all about it later in the video.       

Roman Britain

The Romans arrived in Britain in 43 AD. We certainly know they didn’t come for the weather or the food but rather for good old-fashioned Roman conquest. By that time the Roman Empire had enveloped almost all of modern western Europe. The fearsome Germanic tribes had managed to hold off the Roman legions, with much of present-day Germany still outside of the empire. France, or Gaul as they called it back then, had been overrun and now the legendary Roman army stood on the coast of France eyeing (I’ll just assume it was a clear day and you could see England from France for poetic value) their next target – Britannia. 

But this was not the first time the Romans had sailed across the English channel and it would not be the first time that the Roman Legions had locked horns with Britons. Julius Caesar had invaded Britannia in both 55 and 54 BC and installed his own king, a man by the name of Mandubracius, along with a series of client kingdoms which were tribes that were aligned with Rome. But the Romans themselves withdrew back across the channel into mainland Europe. Things remained relatively calm until 43 AD when Roman Emperor Claudius instructed his legionnaires to cross the channel, this time for good.   

The main forces that had been assembled to defend Britain were soon routed by the well trained Roman army who soon turned their attention to what is modern-day Wales. Things were not as straightforward here and the Welsh put up a fearsome resistance but eventually, it too was pacified. 

But not for long. Growing up in Britain we had many history classes focused on Roman Britain but there was one character in particular who really set the pulse racing. With her fiery red hair billowing behind her as she rode her chariot defiantly at the Roman lines, Queen Boudica is a name that has gone down in history as a true British folk hero. 

The wife of a recently deceased Celtic king, Boudica was cheated out of her late husband’s will as the Romans forcibly removed her and her children from the land (after flogging the Queen and having her daughters raped). Her response – lead a thunderous revolt against the Romans. Perhaps caught off guard, the Romans were overwhelmed at what has come to be known as the Massacre of the Ninth Legion. It’s thought that as many as 80% of Roman foot-soldiers died in the battle, after which Boudica’s army swarmed across Londinium (now London), Verulamium (St. Albans) and Camulodunum (Colchester), killing 70,000 to 80,000 people in the process. It was unbridled savagery but has done little to dampen Boudica’s heroic image 

Boudica and her army were eventually defeated, with the Queen taking her own life – either through poison or her own weapon, we’re not sure. The rebellion was ruthlessly crushed, but the Romans had been given a painful lesson of just how problematic the British tribes could be. It would, however, be a group further north that would cause the biggest problems. 

SCOTLAND

Anybody who’s ever seen Braveheart will know that the Scots are a formidable foe when crossed. Combine that with the beautiful, yet incredibly harsh landscape of the Highlands and you begin to understand the difficulties of completely conquering an area like this. By the end of the First Century AD, the Romans had pushed up into modern-day Scotland with a series of defensive positions now occupying the Scottish lowlands. 

A series of military engagements, which unfortunately we don’t know much about, occurred in 105 AD as the local tribe, known as the Picts, fought back ferociously against Roman rule. It appears that the Romans made a tactical withdrawal at this point by moving further south and establishing a new frontier at Stanegate, an important Roman road that ran across the country, roughly at the point of the modern border between England and Scotland. 

In 120 AD, Hadrian, the new Roman Emperor, set out to tour his great dominion and upon arrival in northern Britannia, he ordered a great wall be constructed at the point of the Stanegate road. 

VANITY OR NECESSITY? 

While the reason for building the wall might seem fairly obvious from the outset, it is a point that is still debated among historians. It’s easy to assume that the wall was built simply to keep out the rebellious Picts to the north, but logistically it was a huge ask – not just to build it, but to maintain it also.  

Some have argued that the wall served more as an expression of Roman power and prestige and was perhaps never meant to be the impenetrable wall we’ve long assumed it was. This was certainly an awkward time for the empire, with rebellions in Egypt, Judea, Libya and Mauretania – all a world away from the windswept north of Britain, but no doubt the Romans were fearful of mass uprisings. 

Another theory is that it was built to control migration more than anything, but again, that’s a lot of work and a lot of stone for a glorified border. It was also very different to other areas around the empire, where fixed boundaries were rare. Or perhaps it was to do with taxation, a way of charging people to cross back and forth, which certainly did happen in other parts of the empire.  

The truth is we aren’t exactly sure why the Romans decided to build their only major large-scale wall project, which didn’t protect a particular city, in the north of England.    

Construction 

We believe construction started on Hadrian’s Wall in 122 AD and was completed at a fairly brisk pace in just six years. The wall was built from east to west, with all of the Roman Legions in the country taking part. Slightly to the south was the Stanegate Road, which had been constructed thirty years prior and almost certainly played a key role in the logistical support for the whole project. Along the road lay several forts which would have protected those constructing the wall.  

It seems that initially, the idea was to have 80 small gated milecastle fortlets every Roman mile (1.5 km – 0.9 miles) interspersed with pairs of evenly spaced intermediate turrets used for observation. If we want to be pedantic, the fortlets, which would have likely housed a few dozen soldiers in each, were often over or under the designated distance apart, most likely down to landscape features or where signalling would have been obscured. 

The majority of these milecastles were built from wood and earth, though the turrets were made of stone. These turrets lay roughly 493 metres (1,617 ft) apart and had an internal area of 14.02 m2 (150.9 sq ft) – slightly smaller than your average parking space. There’s also an interesting quirk in that they weren’t all uniformly the same. Three different Roman legions took part in the construction; the II Augusta, VI Victrix, and XX Valeria Legions and we believe that this resulted in slightly different designs and inscriptions. These were not enormous differences and much of them centred on the orientation of the doors but also the thickness of the walls. The north-facing wall was always the thickest, but archaeologists have found two separate measurements for the width of the remaining walls, either 0.76 m (2.5 feet) and 1.1 m (3.5 feet). Why this was? We have absolutely no idea. 

Much of Hadrian’s Wall was built using local limestone except for the stretch west of the River Irthing where turf was originally used before being replaced by sandstone at a later date. This was most likely down to a lack of materials, which does sound a little strange considering the power of the Roman empire, but this theory is supported by the fact that the wall narrowed considerably after the North Tyne River from 3 metres (9.8ft) to 2.5 metres (8.2 ft), with certain parts as little as 1.8 metres (5.9 ft) in width. This has led historians to refer to the two sections as the ‘broad wall’ and the ‘narrow wall’. The foundations had however already been constructed to the ‘broad wall’ specifications so the wall must have had a slightly wonky look to it.  

The main wall itself was around 4.6 metres (15ft) high and was initially constructed with a clay-bonded rubble core and mortared dressed-rubble facing stones, which is a technique still used today to give the impression of an old worn stone wall, but nearly 2000 years it seems this technique made it vulnerable to collapse and it was frequently repaired with a mortared core. 

THE VALLUM

Another interesting aspect from the area comes not from something that was constructed but rather excavated. Standing to the south of where the wall ran it’s impossible to miss the extensive ditch that follows the wall line in both directions. Known as the Vallum, this earth rampart stretches practically from coast to coast, hugging Hadrian’s wall all the way – though exact distances vary from directly next to it to as much as 700 metres (2,300ft) away. The purpose was almost certainly an extra line of defence, though intriguingly it again remained completely unique throughout the Roman Empire and along its borders.    

hadrian's wall The dtich
The Ditch

The ditch is roughly 6 metres (20 ft) wide and 3 metres (10 ft) deep, with a flat bottom. On either side are two mounds about 6 metres wide and 2 metres (7 ft) high, around 9 metres (30 ft) from the ditch itself. It’s generally accepted that there would have been certain crossing points, probably close to forts, where bridges would have been placed across the Vallum. 

FORTS  

Birdoswald Roman Fort, Hadrians Wall
Birdoswald Roman Fort, Hadrians Wall by Carole Raddato is licensed under CC-BY-SA

It seems that the Romans were not against the odd change of plan along the way. Not long after construction had ended around 128 AD, it was decided that 14 large-scale forts would be added along the wall, each of which would house between 500 and 1,000 auxiliary troops. However, it seems that a number of them were built directly over some of the mile castles or turrets. Whether this was down to a misjudgement in the defensive needs or simply a reorganization we aren’t sure.

Very little remains of many of these forts today, with a few exceptions. One, built around 124 AD, lies close to present-day Bardon Mill in Northumberland and has been associated with a variety of names of the years; Vercovicium, Borcovicus, Borcovicium, and Velurtion – I’ll let you take your pick. It was also close to a small civil settlement where the ruins are still visible today, including the so-called ‘murder house’ where two skeletons were discovered beneath a floor laid well after the construction of the building. 

Another of the better-preserved forts is CILURNUM located within the ground of the 18th Century country house, Chesters. This was a particularly important fort as it housed one of the Roman cavalry units as well as guarding a bridge across the North Tyne River. Today you can still walk through what was once the baths, the barracks, the officers quarters as well as the look outposts.

 A church nearby includes four columns that look remarkably Roman-like and sadly this is often what became of Hadrian’s Wall and its forts. Much of the stonework from the wall itself was used for roads during the 18th Century and the Cilurnum was even purposely covered up during the same period for landscaping and design purposes before a decedent reversed the decisions and the fort was revealed once more. 

Lastly is the fort at VINDOLANDA, again near to present-day Bardon Mill, which remains in not only remarkably good conditions, but was also the site of one of the most exciting discoveries in Roman Britain. Roughly around the size of a postcard, the Vindolanda tablets are a set of wooden leaf-tablets discovered in 1973 on the grounds of the Vindolanda fort. At the time, they represented the oldest surviving handwritten documents in Britain and covered a huge variety of topics from the construction of new forts to an invitation to a birthday party held in 100 AD.

A NEW WALL 

The Antonine Wall near Bar Hill Roman Fort
The Antonine Wall near Bar Hill Roman Fort by Andrew Barclay is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Emperor Hadrian died in 123 AD and was replaced by Antoninus Pius who apparently wasn’t satisfied with the current wall arrangement. He ordered that a second wall be constructed 160 kilometres (100 miles) to the north, which became the Antonine Wall. The 63 kilometres (39 miles) wall ran from Old Kilpatrick in West Dunbartonshire on the Firth of Clyde to Carriden near Bo’ness on the Firth of Forth.

This was a turf wall built upon stone foundations that roughly measured 3 metres (10 feet) high and 5 metres (16 ft) wide. It came with 16 forts built along it, as well as the curious Arthur’s O’on, believed to be a Roman temple in the shape of a beehive which is sadly no longer standing. The reasons behind the Antonine Wall are a little mysterious. We can presume that it was constructed to help placate the tribes further north but it’s clear that it provided far less protection than the much better built Hadrian’s Wall to the south. The Antonine Wall took twelve years to construct and was abandoned just 8 years after its completion. 

This wall garners far less attention than Hadrian’s Wall, probably for the simple fact that there’s not much left of it, but it was still quite an achievement.

THE END OF ROMAN BRITAIN   

If Emperor Antonious had planned on pacifying the northern tribes he failed. The next emperor, Marcus Arulis, abandoned the Antonine Wall and spent considerable time strengthening Hadrian’s Wall instead. Over the next few centuries, there was little change. No doubt on several occasions Roman Legions marched north to flex their muscles but it seems that this line more or less remained the extremity of the Roman Empire for around 400 years.  

That is until around 410 AD when the Romans departed Britain. The causes of this were wide-ranging, from barbarian invasions to military coups as well as a general economic downturn. The empire was in complete disarray and Rome itself was sacked in 410 AD. Over the next century, it would split in two and by the end of the 5th Century, the mighty Roman Empire was but a shadow of its former dominant self. 

The Other Great Wall  

As I said at the start of the video, Hadrian’s Wall struggles to match the Great Wall of China. We don’t see the hugely impressive towers or the huge almost intact walls that wind through the hilly landscape. Hadrian’s Wall requires much more of an imagination. Some of it still remains, but you need to stretch your mind to see it in its full glory.

This wasn’t the first ancient wall to be constructed, but it was the first of its kind to run for such a length. The fact that nearly 2,000 years later you can still walk beside it from coast to coast is a testament to the extraordinary building work done by the Romans. 

Standing beside it on a windswept chilly day, you can imagine the Romans legionnaires who did exactly the same nearly 2,000 years before. Staring north into the great unknown and wondering if the fearsome Picts, naked and with blue paint covering their bodies, would appear. 

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