Frontier stories: Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall - A tale of two walls!

The story of the Roman Frontier in Britain is the story of two Walls, not one! Only a generation after Hadrian’s Wall was built, it was abandoned as the Romans advanced again into Scotland, only to return to Hadrian’s Wall a generation later. Together these great Walls, one of stone and one of turf, symbolise the power and splendour of Rome and reveal the story of the Empire’s ebb and flow.

The ambition of the Romans was to conquer the whole of Britain, a remote and mysterious land on the north west frontier of their vast Empire yet full of mineral and agricultural resources they could exploit. By the end of the first century AD they had conquered most of Britain but trouble on the Danube led to transfer of troops and a gradual withdrawal south to a line between the Tyne river and the Solway Firth. Here in AD121 Emperor Hadrian commanded that a wall be built to separate the Romans from the Barbarians – a structure that became one of the Empire’s largest and most impressive feats of engineering – 79 miles long, 6 metres high, with forts, milecastles, turrets, ditches and roads and a garrison of over 10,000 troops from across the Empire.  It was even a tourist attraction in Roman times as we know from souvenir bowls found at several sites!

As much a symbol of Imperial power and to control trade and the movements of people as a line of defence, the Wall was abandoned after only a generation as Emperor Antoninus Pius ordered his troops northwards again, to build a new Wall, this time in turf, on the edge of the Scottish highlands. Another generation, and that too was abandoned perhaps as much because of difficulties of supply as any defeat by the Caledonians.  Hadrian’s Wall was re-occupied and the frontier stabilised for over 200 years, with roads and outpost forts maintained well to the north of the Wall itself.

Today Hadrian’s Wall remains one of Rome’s most impressive monuments with significant stretches of Wall surviving up to two metres high and many well preserved forts and other installations set in scenic and dramatic landscapes that can be explored by bike or on foot.  Eleven family friendly museums display stunning objects including the world famous Vindolanda writing tablets. The Antonine Wall too has many well preserved forts and stretches of turf wall with some of the Roman world’s most impressive sculpted dedication stones on display at the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow.