Hadrian’s Wall – at the northern edge of the Roman Empire
The mighty Roman Empire stretched from northern Africa, across to the Middle East, from the western Iberian Peninsula, across central Europe to the far northern reaches of Britannia – effectively covering the then known world.
The Romans had conquered the whole of Britain, defeating the Caledonian tribes at the battle of Mons Graupius on the edge of the Scottish Highlands in 83 AD. Before the Romans could consolidate their conquest, their focus was diverted to modern day Romania where troops were needed to deal with raiding by the Dacians. Over the next twenty years Roman forces withdrew to a line between the river Tyne and Solway Firth.
Over this time Rome’s military resources became increasingly stretched across its vast Empire. When Hadrian became Emperor in 117 AD he decided to set the boundaries of the Empire, creating frontiers separating Romans from Barbarians.
In Britain he created perhaps the greatest and most symbolic of these frontiers – Hadrian’s Wall - a stone wall 117 kilometres in length from the Irish Sea to the North Sea, with additional forts and signal stations down the west Cumbrian coast to Ravenglass. The Wall enabled the Romans to control the movements of people, trade routes, and the threat from tribes far to the north. The Wall also protected the valuable lead and silver mines just to the south.
The Wall was a massive engineering feat, reaching 6m in height. Forts were built along the line of the Wall and to protect lines of communication back to the legionary forts at York and Chester. There was a ditch to the north, a protective bank and ditch to the south (the Vallum), fortlets located every Roman mile (milecastles) and turrets in between. The forts were manned by troops from across the Empire with a garrison of around 10,000 troops along the frontier itself and a similar number in forts along the roads to the south. Most forts had a civilian settlement close (the Vicus) by where merchants and others lived, supplying services to the troops.
After only a generation, the Romans headed north again - Hadrian’s successor, Antoninus Pius, abandoned the Wall and built a new frontier 80 miles to the north in Scotland – the Antonine Wall. A generation later and Hadrian’s Wall was reinstated as the northern frontier although outpost forts were garrisoned well north of the Wall too. For the next two hundred years northern Britain was relatively peaceful. At the beginning of the third century Emperor Septimus Severus led a large army north of the Wall again but died at York before completing his campaign. In later years the army of Britain was used to back competing bids for the Imperial throne by usurpers such as Carausius in the late third century. By the end of the fourth century Britain was no longer under central Roman control but Hadrian’s Wall continued to be occupied into the fifth and sixth centuries, perhaps protecting local people as centralised administration broke down and old tensions revived.
Today Hadrian’s Wall is Britain’s greatest Roman monument and part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site ‘Frontiers of the Roman Empire’, together with the Antonine Wall and the Upper German Raetian Limes. A testament to Roman power and prestige, the Hadrian’s Wall WHS stretches 150 miles from the fort of Arbeia at the mouth of the Tyne to Ravenglass down the Cumbrian coast.
Once a busy, noisy, multi-cultural military zone, Hadrian’s Wall today is a far more tranquil place. Here you can experience breathtaking landscapes, fascinating Roman history, walking and cycling opportunities aplenty, abundant nature and wildlife and the produce of local farms and breweries.
There’s so much more to Hadrian’s Wall Country than you might expect.