Hadrian’s Wall

Hadrian’s Wall

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A brief history of Hadrian’s Wall

Hadrian's Wall in northern England is well known to tourists and walkers, and has been subject to many years of archaeological research. Built during the reign of the Roman emperor Hadrian (AD 76–138) and measuring 10 Roman feet, its function has fascinated archaeologists for centuries. Here, Patricia Southern reveals some lesser-known facts about how the Roman wall worked, including what it was used for and why it was built in the first place

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Published: March 19, 2019 at 9:00 am

The wall that runs across northern England in many ways represented Roman emperor Hadrian’s new ideology. Reigning from AD 117 to 138, Hadrian abandoned continual conquest and expansion in favour of enclosing the Roman empire within clearly marked frontiers. In some provinces the frontier consisted of a road or a river guarded by forts and towers, while in others (including Germany, Africa and Britain) the frontier lines consisted of running barriers.

The British frontier was more elaborate than the others. In its final version it was strongly held by auxiliary soldiers in 17 forts along the line of the wall, with outposts to the north, and forts in the hinterland as well.

Whilst this has been justly labelled overkill, it does seem that the northern British tribes were troublesome. Wars in Britain are mentioned so frequently in literary sources that some archaeologists accuse the ancient authors of exaggeration. In truth, the British tribes did not readily accept Romanisation. They continued to farm the land in their old ways, and probably fought each other. We do not know enough about the tribes and their organisation to be certain that they were not perpetually aggressive, which in turn means that the function of Hadrian’s Wall can be interpreted only from the archaeological remains, with no clues as to Roman policy in dealing with natives.

The frontier system was complex. Starting from the north and working south, there were outposts beyond the wall, three Hadrianic forts in the west, and later forts in the east along what is now the A68 (a major road running from Darlington to Edinburgh). The original version of the wall in the west, from the river Irthing to the Solway Firth, was built of turf.

It could be that the tribes in this area were hostile, and the frontier had to be built rapidly. On the other hand, there could have been a shortage of suitable stone, since the locally available red sandstone is too friable, or easily crumbled. This western section of the wall was replaced in better stone in the second century.

The soldiers in the outposts may have undertaken regular patrols to observe the natives, as suggested by the names of some of the third-century units called ‘exploratores’, or scouts.

Further south there was the wall itself. It was protected by a ditch on its northern side, designed to prevent close approach, and reinforced in some places by three rows of pits, probably containing stacked thorn branches, which made penetration difficult. These features may have been established in the flatter areas, perhaps not all along the wall.

Then came the wall itself, originally around ten Roman feet [shorter than standard English feet] thick, later reduced to eight feet, resulting in a frontier of different dimensions. We do not know how high it was, and most controversially there may or may not have been a wall-walk along the top. No one can say if the Romans patrolled along the wall or confined their lookout posts to the forts, fortlets called ‘milecastles’, and turrets placed every third of a mile between them.

Whether or not there was a wall-walk, there is still a lot of dead ground where observation would be impeded. However, this probably did not matter, as it is unlikely that the wall would be defended like a castle under siege. Instead, the most probable function of the wall was to prevent anyone from getting too close or massing together in the distance. However, it has been suggested that manning the wall top would serve to delay hostile natives, while troops were assembled.

South of the wall there was another, larger ditch, labelled the ‘vallum’ by the venerable Bede (although, to the Romans, that term referred to the whole frontier system). On either side of this ditch there was a mound of earth. The vallum is a puzzle, variously interpreted by archaeologists. It was clearly important to the Romans because – unlike the northern ditch – it was continuous, and cut through rock where necessary. It is possible that the tribes south of the wall were prone to raiding. This may be the reason why the Roman dug the vallum – in order to guard vehicles and animals belonging to the forts.

No Roman frontier would have been capable of stopping masses of tribesmen who were determined to cross it. However, the presence of a solid barrier backed up with military force provided a strong psychological deterrent. It is significant that the emperors who followed Hadrian did not abandon the concept of running barriers. Instead they repaired and rebuilt frontiers. For reasons that archaeologists do not fully understand, Hadrian’s successor, Antoninus Pius, took over Lowland Scotland and built a similar frontier of turf between the Forth and the Clyde. However, it was held for only about two decades before Hadrian’s Wall was recommissioned and remained the northern frontier of the province of Britannia (even though military campaigns were undertaken to the north of it).

In the early third century the emperor Severus fought a war in Scotland, but did not hold the territory. He repaired Hadrian’s Wall so extensively that 19th-century archaeologists believed that he had built it. A century later, when Constantius Chlorus also campaigned in the north, Hadrian’s Wall remained the frontier line. No one can say why these emperors did not annexe the lands that they fought over.

What happened to the wall at the end of the Roman period is not entirely clear. Its function as a frontier may have been lost, with people instead trying to make a living inside the forts, looking to their own protection for as long as they could. Parts of the wall were repaired in timber or occasionally crude stonework, but the infrastructure of the empire had lost cohesion. By the late sixth century, much of the frontier had probably been abandoned.

The fact that we do not know everything there is to know about the wall is part of its fascination. Furthermore, on top of its historical interest, the wall also runs through some of the most stunning scenery in northern England.

Get to Grips with the Area

Hadrian's Wall was part of the Roman Empire&rsquos northernmost frontier. It was a border but also a place where borders were crossed, which made it an exciting and vibrant place. People came here from across the three continents of the Empire: Europe, Africa and Asia. The Wall was a cultural melting pot where people of different heritages came together.

Building started in AD 122 at the order of Emperor Hadrian. It was built to protect Roman territory against raiding and control entry into Britain. The Wall was also a place where communities developed. Hadrian&rsquos Wall is 73 miles (80 Roman miles) long and incorporated many different features. As well as the Wall, there was an earthwork, ditch, milecastles, forts, turrets and bridges.

It probably took at least six years for the army of Britain to build Hadrian's Wall. Hadrian's Wall was built on high ground to the north, taking advantage of the natural features of the landscape. Most of the Wall was built in stone but the 30-mile section to the east was made of turf. In front of the structure, there was a large ditch, except where there were natural crags. At each mile there was a guarded gate protected by a fortlet called a 'milecastle'. There were also two turrets between the milecastles which meant that there were observation points at every third of a mile along the Wall.

Hadrian's Wall was operated by auxiliaries (non-citizen soldiers). They formed infantry and cavalry regiments stationed in the forts along the Wall, like Chesters, Birdoswald and Housesteads, and in the turrets and milecastles. Those based along the Wall had mostly been recruited from the north-western provinces of the Roman Empire but some were from further afield, both inside and outside the Empire. We don't know much about civilians in the early years of the Wall, but excavations and geophysical surveys have shown evidence of large settlements around the forts by the 3rd century. These settlements were where merchants, veterans and the families of the garrison lived and worked.

The Wall Today

Can you imagine what this massive wall may have looked like? Well, you can actually go see it for yourself! Much of the Wall still stands in modern-day England. Parts of it were so well-built that the remains give us a good idea of what life may have been like on the Wall. Visitors can walk along the Wall and see remains of gateways, towers, bridges, and even buildings like hospitals and barracks, which is where the soldiers lived.

In 1987, Hadrian's Wall was made into a UNESCO World Heritage site. This means that it is now protected by the government and will be preserved for visitors for years to come.

The fascinating history of Hadrian's Wall

Tired of staring at the same old walls? How about travelling to view one built 1,900 years ago? The Roman Army began constructing Hadrian&rsquos Wall back in the year 122 AD as part of measures to consolidate their then mighty empire.

These days, the rural countryside of northern England, through which the wall runs proves popular with walkers. The national hiking trail that skirts the ancient monument typically takes seven days to trek in full.

History enthusiasts may need longer if they wish to spend time exploring the remnants of forts, mile castles and turrets along the 118 kilometres between Bowness-on-Solway in Cumbria and Wallsend. The logic of that modern placename is obvious but Romans knew the town on the eastern fringe of Newcastle upon Tyne as Segedunum. Today, that Latin name is displayed outside a family-friendly museum conveying aspects of life long ago in the most easterly fort on what was for many years the Roman Empire&rsquos northern frontier.

Inspired by local history with international resonance, Wallsend&rsquos Metro station is the only one in Britain to display both English and Latin signage. It&rsquos a 45-minute ride from Newcastle International Airport, which has direct Emirates&rsquo flights from Dubai.

If following in the footsteps of Roman soldiers across the country seems a tad strenuous, visitors can board a seasonal bus, running until October 31, that pauses at points of interest between Haltwhistle and Hexham. For those who know when Hadrian&rsquos Wall was built, the number of the bus is easy to remember &mdash AD122.

As the broad stone wall snakes through the rugged landscape of Northumberland National Park, it rises to chest height. When the Roman Empire was in its heyday, the wall would have been a formidable barrier around three metres tall &mdash the height of a basketball ring &mdash set amid a militarised zone demarcated by ditches. Builders in subsequent centuries plundered the wall for stones shaped by skilled masons.

Local landmarks such as Hexham Abbey and Langley Castle, a medieval fortification offering overnight accommodation, count among the historic buildings that utilised &lsquorecycled&rsquo stonework. The practice of building with stone carted from the wall explains why the ancient monument stands tallest away from urban hubs.

A 20-minute walk from Birdoswald Fort, Willowsford is widely regarded one of the best spots for viewing remnants of the wall, which in 1987 was inscribed by Unesco as part of the transnational Frontiers of the Roman Empire World Heritage Site. The foundations of a Roman bridge that crossed the River Irthing are also visible.

Museums by the remains of forts at Housesteads and Vindolanda introduce aspects of the wall&rsquos history. It wasn&rsquot purely a defensive structure. Gates along its course helped regulate the flow of people and taxation of goods. The wheels of wooden carts driven centuries ago wore grooves at Housesteads, making it easy to imagine those vehicles jolting over the stone thresholds of the gatehouses they went about their business.

Locals know to arrive early to secure spots in the car parks at Steel Rigg and Housesteads, which prove popular bases for day trippers to explore the surrounding countryside. Wooden signposts point the way along public footpath, which warrant sturdy footwear whatever the weather.

At Sycamore Gap, the ancient stonework dips between two neighbouring hills at one of its most photographed spots. A popular spot to pause for picnics, movie buffs may recognise Sycamore Gap from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, which released back in 1991, starring Kevin Costner and Morgan Freeman. The silhouette of the mature tree at its base occasionally features on photos along with the northern lights. Thanks to low levels of light pollution, the sky above Northumberland National Park falls within England&rsquos largest International Dark Sky Park. Experts at Kielder Observatory provide insights into the celestial bodies that can be viewed.

Free to visit, the fort at Carrawburgh warrants a visit for its temple dedicated to Mithras. The roadside site displays replicas of the original altars. The ancient masonry is displayed along with other Roman era artefacts in the Great North Museum: Hancock in central Newcastle, which does an impressive job of putting the history of Hadrian&rsquos Wall into context.

The seaside town of South Shields, on the south bank of the River Tyne, was known to Romans as Arbeia. The site of granaries to supply troops along the frontier, the excavated fort&rsquos reconstructed west gate provides an idea of how those elsewhere would have looked. Remarkably, fragments of ancient letters and shoes found by archaeologists are displayed in Arbeia South Shields Roman Fort&rsquos compact and free-to-visit museum.

Hadrian&rsquos Wall provides a rock solid framework for exploring northern England&rsquos countryside and aspects of Britain&rsquos Roman history.

Key Facts about Hadrian's Wall

  • Hadrian&rsquos Wall was a complex system of communications and defences. As well as the Wall itself there was an earthwork, a ditch, two major roads and numerous forts, milecastles and turrets along the 73-mile frontier.
  • The Wall was built under the command of Emperor Hadrian who travelled extensively across his Empire, making improvements to its defences and consolidating its borders.
  • When the Romans arrived, Britain was home to numerous warring tribes. Some rebelled against the invaders, but others, such as the Brigantes tribe in northern Britain, became close allies.
  • Many soldiers and civilians travelled great distances to reach the Wall, including people from modern-day Syria, Romania and North Africa.

Image: An artist&rsquos reconstruction of Poltross Burn milecastle on Hadrian&rsquos Wall © Historic England (illustration by Peter Lorimer)

Hadrian’s Wall

After they invaded Britain in AD43, the Romans quickly established control over southern England. The conquest of the ‘wild barbarians’ in the North however was not going to be so easy.

In the AD70’s and 80’s the Roman commander Agricola led a series of major assaults on the barbarian tribes of northern England and the Scottish lowlands. Despite a successful campaign into Scotland, the Romans failed in the long term to hold on to any lands gained. Forts and signal posts were built back in the lowlands linked by the Stanegate road which ran from the waters of the Tyne in the East to the Solway estuary in the West.

Some four decades later in around AD122, with the barbarians still untamed, these lowland forts were again under intense hostile pressure. A visit by the Emperor Hadrian that year to review the border problems at the boundaries of his empire led to a more radical solution. He ordered the building of an immense barrier stretching over eighty Roman miles from the west coast of Britain to the east. Built of stone in the east and initially of turf in the west (because lime for mortar was not available) Hadrian’s Wall took at least six years to complete.

Above: Milecastle 35 (also known as Sewingshields)

Approximately 10ft (3m) in width and 15ft (4.6m) in height, with a parapet on the north side giving an overall height of 20ft (6m), to potential invaders the structure emphasised the power and might of Rome. As if to reinforce this, 80 milecastles are spaced one Roman mile apart along its entire length.

By AD 138 the Romans, perhaps with a few scores to settle, again sought to civilise the northerners with a new campaign into Scotland. This time a new frontier, the Antonine Wall, was rapidly established between the Forth and Clyde rivers and Hadrian’s Wall was promptly abandoned. By about AD160 however the Romans were again persuaded by the Scots that they did not wish to be civilised and were forced to relocate back to Hadrian’s Wall. So concerned about the reception they had received in the north, the Romans undertook to replace the remaining stretch of turf wall with a more substantial stone structure.

Above: A section of vallum (defensive earthwork) in the foreground, with the wall in the background.

The Romans maintained and occupied the Wall into the fourth century AD, resisting several further barbarian raids from the persistent northern tribes. Little is known of the effects on the Wall of the barbarian conspiracy when in AD367 hostile tribes from all over Britain attacked together. Shortly after this, drained of garrison troops by successive withdrawls, Hadrian’s Wall was finally abandoned.

Today, spectacular stretches of the Wall remain over some of the most rugged countryside to be found in the British Isles. Glimpses of Roman organisation, religion and culture remain in view along the Wall at the various forts, milecastles, temples, museums etc. Hadrian’s Wall is without doubt the most prominent and important monument left by the Romans in Britain. It captures dramatic images of a Britain divided by conflict and occupation.

Where to see the Wall

Hadrian’s Wall Bus – runs daily in the summer between Carlisle and Hexham stopping at visitor attractions along the route. Each bus connects with rail and bus services in Carlisle, Haltwhistle and Hexham. A knowledgeable and friendly guide is often aboard weekend services. Limited winter service. Contact: 01434 344777 / 322002

Roman Sites – Please click on the following link to view our interactive map detailing the Roman Sites in Britain.

Getting around Britain – Please click on the following link to view our UK Travel Guide

What the Wall was Like

5 The wall was 80 Roman miles long – 117 kilometres or 73 miles in modern measures.

6 It ran along the crests of hills whenever possible, adding to its height. This made it both more imposing and more defensible.

7 Most of the wall was made of stone, but 31 miles of defences at the western end were originally made of weaker stuff, in the form of ramparts made of timber and turf. These were replaced over time, one of the several changes the wall went through in its years of use.

8 The foundations of the wall were cobblestone, even on some stretches where the wall itself was not made of stone.

Roman fort and town at Corstopitum viewed along the Stanegate

9 The stone parts of the wall were built around a core of rubble, allowing them to be built thickly at relatively low cost. This was covered in faces of cut stone joined together with lime mortar, for a solid finish.

10 To make the wall even more intimidating it was whitewashed. The white painted stone, therefore, stood out against the surrounding landscape, a clearly manmade feature, and one that the people living to the north could never have imagined building for themselves.

11 We don’t know how tall the wall originally was – too much of its height was lost in later centuries for us to see it at its most intimidating.

12 We also don’t know for certain whether there were battlements and a walkway along the wall for soldiers to patrol and watch for threats to the north. Hadrian’s system along the German frontier used walls without walkways that simply provided a barrier to anyone wanting to pass through, and the same may have applied here. Even so, fortresses and watch towers would have allowed sentries to keep watch to the north.

13 Small forts were built at every Roman mile along the length of the wall. Between each pair of these ‘mile castles’ were two smaller turrets.

14 The ‘mile castles’ varied in design depending on which legion built them. They had an average internal area of around 18 square metres (60 square feet). Each one included a gateway to the north and one facing south, allowing people to travel through the wall at these forts. Each northern gate was topped with a tower for extra defence.

15 Other forts were added over time on or close to the wall, to house the men stationed there.

Africans at Hadrian’s Wall

Hadrian’s Wall, named after Roman Emperor Hadrian (117-138 AD), was built between 122 and 128 AD as the frontier fortification for the northernmost region of the Roman Empire, near what is the current border of England and Scotland. During their time on the island of Britain the Romans garrisoned the fortification with troops from various reaches of their empire including soldiers from North Africa.

Although North Africans may have been at the Wall earlier, archaeologists now agree that there is compelling evidence that a 500-strong unit of Moors manned one of the forts along the Wall near the town of Carlisle in the 3rd century AD. Writing in the journal British Archaeology, Richard Benjamin describes a fourth century inscription discovered in Beaumont, two miles from the remains of the Aballava Fort along the western end of the Wall in Cumbria. The inscription refers to the “numerus of Aurelian Moors,” a unit of North Africans, probably named after the Emperor Aurelius, who had earlier garrisoned the fort. This unit is also mentioned in the Notitia Dignitatum which is a Roman document that lists officials and dignitaries who visited the region.

This unit of Moors as well as others were mustered in Roman provinces in North Africa and in adjacent lands such as Mauretania south of modern day Morocco, by the Emperor Septimus Severus (193-211 AD) who was himself a native of Libya. The Moors who arrived at the Wall in the 3rd century were battle tested since they had already fought for the Romans in present-day Germany and along the Danube, where there are other descriptions of the unit.

Although the reasons for the construction of the Wall remain unclear, we do know that the men of the Second, Sixth, and Twentieth Legions constructed the Wall. Few men of these legions were Italian. Most were Spanish, Gallic, and German soldiers. Those who garrisoned the Wall for nearly three centuries were auxiliary units composed of non-citizens from throughout the Empire including the North African Moors.

During the reign of Emperor Septimius Severus, other African-born Romans were active in Britain. Eight African men had positions of command in the northern Roman legions. Other Africans held high rank as equestrian officers. Most Africans, however, were ordinary soldiers or slaves in the Army or to wealthy Roman officials. Moreover, the racially mixed Roman military force did not treat all troops equally. Auxiliary troops were often positioned in the front during battles and thus most likely to suffer injury or death. Nonetheless of the approximately 18,000 Roman soldiers stationed in Britain during the four centuries between 122 and 410 AD, when the Empire evacuated Britain, a small number of them were Africans by birth including those who stood guard and rebuilt sections of Hadrian’s Wall at the northwest edge of the vast Roman Empire.

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