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Hadrians Wall, Cumbria, England - May 2007 | by SaffyH
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Hadrians Wall, Cumbria, England - May 2007

Hadrian's Wall is a stone and turf fortification built by the Roman Empire across the width of Great Britain. It was the second of three such fortifications built across Great Britain, the first being Gask Ridge and the last the Antonine Wall. All three were built to prevent military raids by the Pictish tribes (ancient inhabitants of Scotland) to the north, to improve economic stability and provide peaceful conditions in the Roman province of Britannia to the south, and to physically mark the frontier of the Empire. Hadrian's Wall is the best known of the three because it remains the most physically preserved and evident today.


The wall was the northern border of the Empire in Britain for much of the Roman Empire's rule, and also the most heavily fortified border in the Empire. In addition to its use as a military fortification, it is thought that the gates through the wall would also have served as customs posts to allow trade taxation.


A significant portion of the wall still exists, particularly the mid-section, and for much of its length the wall can be followed on foot. It is the most popular tourist attraction in Northern England, where it is often known simply as the Roman Wall. It was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. English Heritage, a government organization in charge of managing the historic environment of England, describes it as "the most important monument built by the Romans in Britain".[1]

Sections of Hadrian's Wall remain near Greenhead and along the route, though other large sections have been dismantled over the years to use the stones for various nearby construction projects.

Sections of Hadrian's Wall remain near Greenhead and along the route, though other large sections have been dismantled over the years to use the stones for various nearby construction projects.


The Roman name of the Wall


No stone inscription survives to confirm what the Wall was called in antiquity, and no historical source gives it a name. However, the discovery of a small enamelled bronze Roman cup in Staffordshire in 2003 has provided a clue. The cup is inscribed with a series of names of Roman forts (see also the botrom of this page) along the western sector of the Wall, together with a personal name and a phrase:




Here we have Bowness (MAIS, followed by what must be the correct name for Drumburgh-by-Sands (COGGABATA) until now known only as CONGAVATA from the late Roman document, the Notitia Dignitatum. Next comes Stanwix (VXELODVNVM), then Castlesteads (CAMBOGLANNA), before we get to the most tantalizing part.


RIGORE seems to be the ablative form of the Latin word rigor. This can mean several things, but one of its less well-known meanings is ‘straight line’, ‘course’ or ‘direction’. This was used by Roman surveyors and appears on a number of inscriptions to indicate a line between places. So the meaning could be ‘from the course’, or better in English 'according to the course'.

The Staffordshire Moorlands cup, which provides the ancient name of Hadrian's Wall.

The Staffordshire Moorlands cup, which provides the ancient name of Hadrian's Wall.


There is no such word as vali, but in antiquity Hadrian’s Wall was known as the Vallum, the Latin word for a frontier which is today incorrectly applied to the ditch and mounds dug by the Roman army just south of the Wall. The genitive form of Vallum is Valli, so one of the most likely meanings is VAL[L]I, ‘of the frontier’. Omitting one of a pair of double consonants is common on Roman inscriptions, and transcribing an inscription from a written note is the easiest way to miss out letters. Another similar bronze vessel, known as the Rudge Cup (found in Wiltshire in the 18th century) has VN missing from the name VXELODVNVM, for example, although the letters appear on the Staffordshire cup. The Rudge Cup only bears fort names.


The name AELI is also in the genitive. This was Hadrian's nomen, his main family name and we know that the Roman bridge at Newcastle-upon-Tyne was called Pons Aelius.


Finally we have the name DRACONIS, which can be translated as ‘[by the hand – or property] of Aelius Draco’. It was normal for Roman manufacturers to give their names in the genitive (‘of’), and ‘by the hand’ would be understood. The form is common, for example, on samian pottery.


The translation, therefore, could be:


‘Mais, Coggabata, Uxelodunum, Camboglanna, according to the line of the Aelian frontier. [By the hand or The property] of Draco’.


This would mean the Romans knew Hadrian's Wall as Vallum Aeli, 'the Aelian frontier'.




Hadrian's Wall was 80 Roman miles (73.5 English miles or 117 kilometres) long, its width and height dependent on the construction materials which were available nearby: east of River Irthing the wall was made from squared stone and measured 3 m (9.7 ft) wide and 5 to 6 metres (16–20 ft) tall; west of the river the wall was made from turf and measured 6 metres (20 ft) wide and 3.5 metres (11.5 ft) high. This does not include the wall's ditches, berms, and forts. The central section measured 8 Roman feet wide (7.8 ft or 2.4 m) on a 10 foot base.



Map showing the location of Hadrian's Wall.

Map showing the location of Hadrian's Wall.


Hadrian's Wall extended west Segedunum at Wallsend on the River Tyne to the shore of the Solway Firth. The A69 and B6318 roads follow the course of the wall as it starts in Newcastle upon Tyne to Carlisle, then on round the northern coast of Cumbria. The Wall is entirely in England and south of the border with Scotland by 15 kilometres (9 mi) in the west and 110 kilometres (68 mi) in the east.




Hadrian's Wall was built following a visit by Roman emperor Hadrian (AD 76–138) in AD 122. Hadrian was experiencing military difficulties in Britain, and from the peoples of various conquered lands across the Empire, including Egypt, Judea, Libya, Mauretania, and many of the peoples conquered by his predecessor Trajan, so he was keen to impose order. However the construction of such an impressive wall was probably also a symbol of Roman power, both in occupied Britain and in Rome. Frontiers in the early empire were based more on natural features or fortified zones with a heavy military presence. Military roads or limes often marked the border, with forts and signal towers spread along them and it was not until the reign of Domitian that the first solid frontier was constructed, in Germania Superior, using a simple fence. Hadrian expanded on this idea, redesigning the German border by ordering a continuous timber palisade supported by forts behind it. Although such defences would not have held back any concerted invasion effort, they did physically mark the edge of Roman territory and went some way to providing a degree of control over who crossed the border and where.


Hadrian reduced Roman military presence in the territory of the Brigantes and concentrated on building a more solid linear fortification to the north of them. This was intended to replace the Stanegate road which is generally thought to have served as the limes (the boundary of the Roman Empire) until then.




Construction probably started in 122 AD and was largely completed within eight years, with soldiers from all three of the occupying Roman legions participating in the work. The route chosen largely paralleled the nearby Stanegate road from Luguvalium (Carlisle) to Coria (Corbridge), which was already defended by a system of forts, including Vindolanda. The Wall in part follows the outcrop of a harder, more resistant igneous dolerite rock escarpment, known as the Great Whin Sill.


The initial plan called for a ditch and wall with 80 small, gated milecastle fortlets every Roman mile holding a few dozen troops each, and pairs of evenly spaced intermediate turrets used for observation and signalling. The wall was initially designed to a width of 3 metres (10 ft) (the so-called "Broad Wall"). The height is estimated to have been around 5 or 6 metres (16–20 ft). Local limestone was used in the construction, except for the section to the west of Irthing where turf was used instead as there were no useful outcrops nearby. The turf wall was 6 metres wide (20 ft) and around 3.5 metres (11.5 ft) high. Milecastles in this area were also built from timber and earth rather than stone but turrets were always stone. The Broad Wall was initially built with a clay-bonded rubble core and mortared dressed rubble facing stones, but this seems to have made it vulnerable to collapse and repair with a mortared core was sometimes necessary.

Roman fort at Corstopitum.

Roman fort at Corstopitum.


The milecastles were of three different designs, depending on which Roman legion built them — the Second, Sixth, and Twentieth Legions, whose inscriptions tell us were all involved in the construction. Similarly there are three different turret designs along the route. All were about 493 metres (539 yd) apart and measured 4.27 metres square (46.0 sq ft) internally.


Construction was divided into lengths of about 5 miles (8 km). One group of each legion would create the foundations and build the milecastles and turrets and then other cohorts would follow, building the wall itself.


Early in its construction, just after reaching the North Tyne (construction worked from east to west), the width of the wall was narrowed to 2.5 metres (8.2 ft) or even less (sometimes 1.8m) (the "Narrow Wall"). However, Broad Wall foundations had already been laid as far as the river Irthing, where the Turf Wall began, and many turrets and milecastles were optimistically provided with stub 'wing walls' in preparation for joining to the Broad Wall; a handy reference for archaeologists trying to piece together the construction chronology.


Within a few years it was decided to add a total of 14 to 17 (sources disagree) full-sized forts along the length of the wall, including Vercovicium (Housesteads) and Banna (Birdoswald), each holding between 500 and 1,000 auxiliary troops (no legions were posted to the wall). The eastern end of the wall was extended further east from Pons Aelius (Newcastle) to Segedunum (Wallsend) on the Tyne estuary. Some of the larger forts along the wall, such as Cilurnum (Chesters) and Vercovicium (Housesteads), were built on top of the footings of milecastles or turrets, showing the change of plan. An inscription mentioning early governor Aulus Platorius Nepos indicates that the change of plans took place early on. Also some time still during Hadrian's reign (i.e., before AD 138) the wall west of the Irthing was rebuilt in sandstone to basically the same dimensions as the limestone section to the east.

Vallum at Hadrian's Wall near milecastle 42

Vallum at Hadrian's Wall near milecastle 42


After the forts had been added (or possibly at the same time), the so-called Vallum was built on the southern side. It consisted of a large, flat-bottomed ditch 6 metres (20 ft) wide at the top and 3 metres (10 ft) deep bounded by a berm on each side 10 metres (33 ft) wide. Beyond the berms were earth banks 6 metres (20 ft) wide and 2 metres (6.5 ft) high. Causeways crossed the ditch at regular intervals. Initially the berm appears to have been the main route for transportation along the wall. The Vallum probably delineated a military zone rather than intending to be a major fortification, though the British tribes to the south were also sometimes a military problem.


The Wall was thus part of a defensive system which, from north to south included:


* a glacis and a deep ditch

* a berm with rows of pits holding entanglements

* the curtain wall itself

* a later military road (the "Military Way")

* a north mound, a ditch and a south mound to prevent or slow down any raids from a rebelling southern tribe.


Roman-period names

The remains of milecastle 39, near Steel Rigg

The remains of milecastle 39, near Steel Rigg


The Roman-period names of some of the Hadrian's Wall forts are known, from the Notitia Dignitatum and other evidence:


* Segedunum (Wallsend)

* Pons Aelius (Newcastle on Tyne)

* Condercum (Benwell Hill)

* Vindobala (Halton Chesters)[2]

* Hunnum (Rudchester)[2]

* Cilurnum (Chesters aka Walwick Chesters)[2]

* Procolita (Carrowburgh)

* Vercovicium (Housesteads)

* Aesica (Great Chesters)[2]

* Magnis (Carvoran)

* Banna (Birdoswald)

* Camboglanna (Castlesteads)

* Uxelodunum (Stanwix. Also known as Petriana)

* Aballava (Burgh-by-Sands)

* Coggabata (Drumburgh)

* Mais (Bowness)


Outpost forts beyond the Wall include:


* Habitancum (Risingham)

* Bremenium (Rochester)[2]

* Ad Fines (Chew Green) [1]


Supply forts behind the wall include:


* Alauna (Maryport)

* Arbeia (South Shields)

* Coria (Corbridge)

* Vindolanda (Little Chesters)[2]

* Vindomora (Ebchester)[2]




The wall was garrisoned by auxiliary (i.e., non-legionary) units of the army (non-citizens). Their numbers fluctuated throughout the occupation, but may have been around 9,000 strong in general, including infantry and cavalry. The new forts could hold garrisons of 500 men while cavalry units of 1,000 troops were stationed at either end. The total number of soldiers manning the early wall was probably greater than 10,000.


They suffered serious attacks in 180, and especially between 196 and 197 when the garrison had been seriously weakened, following which major reconstruction had to be carried out under Septimius Severus. The region near the wall remained peaceful for most of the rest of the 3rd century. It is thought that many in the garrison may have married and integrated into the local community.

Part of Hadrian's wall near Housesteads.

Part of Hadrian's wall near Housesteads.


After Hadrian


In the years after Hadrian's death in 138, the new emperor, Antoninus Pius essentially abandoned the wall, though leaving it occupied in a support role, and began building a new wall in Scotland proper, about 160 kilometres (100 mi) north, the Antonine Wall. This turf wall ran 40 Roman miles (about 37.8 mi or 61 km) and had significantly more forts than Hadrian's Wall. Antonine was unable to conquer the northern tribes and so when Marcus Aurelius became emperor, he abandoned the Antonine Wall and occupied Hadrian's Wall once again in 164. It remained occupied by Roman troops until their withdrawal from Britain.


In the late 4th century, barbarian invasions, economic decline, and military coups loosened the Empire's hold on Britain. By 410, the Roman administration and its legions were gone, and Britain was left to look to its own defences and government. The garrisons, by now probably made up mostly of local Britons who had nowhere else to go, probably lingered on in some form for generations. Archaeology is beginning to reveal that some parts of the Wall remained occupied well into the 5th century. Enough also survived in the 8th century for spolia from it to find its way into the construction of Jarrow Priory, and for Bede to see and describe the Wall thus in Historia Ecclesiastica 1.5, although he misidentified it as being built by Septimius Severus:

“ after many great and dangerous battles, he thought fit to divide that part of the island, which he had recovered from the other unconquered nations, not with a wall, as some imagine, but with a rampart. For a wall is made of stones, but a rampart, with which camps are fortified to repel the assaults of enemies, is made of sods, cut out of the earth, and raised above the ground all round like a wall, having in front of it the ditch whence the sods were taken, and strong stakes of wood fixed upon its top. ”


But in time the wall was abandoned and fell into ruin. Over the centuries and even into the 20th century a large proportion of the stone was reused in other local buildings.


In fiction

Sycamore Gap (the "Robin Hood Tree")

Sycamore Gap (the "Robin Hood Tree")


* Hadrian's Wall was featured extensively in the movie King Arthur (which depicted the story of the people the Arthurian legends were supposedly based on). The one kilometre (0.6 mi) long replica, located in County Kildare, Ireland, was the largest movie set ever built in that country, and took a crew of 300 construction workers four and a half months to build. The fort in the movie where Arthur and his Sarmatian "knights" were garrisoned was based on the Roman fort named Vindolanda, which was built around AD 80 just south of Hadrian's Wall in what is now called Chesterholm, in Northern England. In the movie, the fort is attached to the wall.

* Sycamore Gap, a section of the wall between two crests just west of milecastle 38, is locally known as the "Robin Hood Tree". This location was used in the 1991 film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, as the setting for an interlude during Robin's journey from the White Cliffs (actually shot at the Seven Sisters Hills) to Nottingham via Aysgarth Falls.


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Taken on April 18, 2009