SECTION 1: Introduction
SECTION 2: History of the Wall
- A Frontier - but Where?
SECTION 3: The Wall east to west as it exists today
- South Shields to Benwell Hill (including Newcastle)
- Benwell Hill to Rudchester (including Heddon-on-the-Wall)
- Housesteads to Great Chesters (including Steel Rigg and Cawfields)
- Great Chesters to Birdoswald (including Walltown)
- Stanwix to Burgh-by-Sands (including Carlisle)
Click on the article links above for directions/information to get to each area. The map below shows the major Roman forts/line of the Wall.
RELATED VISITOR ATTRACTIONS/MUSEUMS
A major tourist destination Hadrian’s Wall has a number of major museums/exhibits along its length and offers a whole range of walks of varying difficulties/lengths in beautiful countryside. The following are related staffed museums/forts on or very near the wall or the West Coast defences (links open in new window):
- Vindolanda Roman Fort (off direct line of wall)
- Roman Army Museum (Magna)
VISIT OFFICIAL SITE (Opens in new window)
For more info see the official Hadrian’s Wall Trail Website.
A reconstructed timber Milecastle, similar to that initially built in the West, as seen at Vindolanda Roman Fort.
FATE OF THE NINTH LEGION
After AD 108 the Ninth Legion (Legio IX Hispana), veterans from the invasion of Britain who'd been the core of the military force in the north of England for almost 70 years, disappeared from the historical record. Their supporting Auxiliary units - Ala Agrippiana Miniata, first Cohort of Nervorium, second Cohort of Vasconum, fourth Cohort of Delmatarum and fifth Cohort of Raetorum - also were not mentioned after this time. The last recorded action of the Legion was the rebuilding of their primary base, the fortress at York (Eburacum), in stone. After this the only certainty we have is that they were not listed in a complete record of Roman Legions made in AD 165 and that in AD 122, arriving with Emperor Hadrian, the Sixth Legion (Legio VI Victrix) rushed north and setup their headquarters in the Ninth's former base at York with additional Auxiliary units arriving shortly after to support them. The Sixth then stayed in Britain for almost another three hundred years conducting the duties originally done by the Ninth. So what happened to the battle-hardened force of over 5,000 men?
The Scottish Theory
The most famous theory, widely publicised by Rosemary Sutcliff's 1954 novel Eagle of the Ninth, suggests they were ambushed and annihilated somewhere in Scotland. Circumstantial evidence supports this theory; wars had been fought with the northern tribes between AD 105 to 117, significant enough for 3,000 additional soldiers to be rushed to the province. As the northern most legion the Ninth would have borne a significant portion of the fighting even if augmented by additional forces. Contemporary historians noted significant military casualties in Britain whilst a further account by Hadrian's biographer stated that in AD 117 the "Britons could not be restrained under Roman control".
The Strategic Transfer Theory
The competing theory is that the legion was simply transferred out of Britain. In support of this argument historians cite the discovery of three tiles in Nijmegen, Holland stamped 'LEG.IX.HISP' (the Roman army stamped all building materials to ensure they weren't pilfered). It is mooted these tiles demonstrate the Ninth left Britain in so much that the stamp implies the whole Legion was present in Holland. Critics argue they could have been made by a vexillation (detachment) deployed in the AD 80s. Supporters of the theory also note that two of the Ninth's tribunes from the period not only survived but had distinguished careers which is more difficult to reconcile with a Scottish rout - when the Seventeenth, Eighteenth and Nineteenth Legions were destroyed in Germany in AD 9, their commanders died alongside their forces. But what happened to the Legion if it survived Britain? Two potential options seem to exist - it was either destroyed in the Bar Kokhba Jewish revolt around AD 132 or it was wiped out in a war against the Parthians (Persians) around AD 161. The Jewish revolt is cited as Cassius Dio, the Roman historian, recorded that "many Romans...perished in this war". It is also Dio quoted for the Parthian option - he described an unnamed Legion being wiped out at Elegeia in Armenia. To assign either location to the Ninth however is a little tenuous - there is no record of them being in the Middle East and the destroyed Legion in Armenia was probably the Twenty-Second (Legio XXII Deiotariana).
An Alternate Theory
It is not unreasonable to assume that elements of both theories are correct. The wars of AD 105 to 117 must have caused some attrition to the Ninth - they were the most northern unit and would have borne a significant portion of the fighting. Perhaps they suffered death by a thousand blows fighting a sustained counter-insurgency campaign centred on the Pennines and /or Cumberland perhaps being supported by the tribes of southern Scotland. Maybe by the AD 120s they were so depleted that strategic transfer was the only viable option? If so it could explain the Nijmegen tiles (assuming the post-AD 120 date is accepted) and also the survival of the Ninth's tribunes. It would also explain both the construction and scale of Hadrian's Wall; it was a physical control measure to ensure what happened to Ninth did not get repeated to the Sixth. But if so what happened to the Ninth then? Historians have long looked for a definitive battle where they were wiped out. Perhaps, not unlike some military units in modern times, they were just so depleted of manpower the decision was made to decommission rather than rebuild /deploy the Legion. Perhaps the veteran Ninth was simply left under-strength and disbanded at some point prior to AD 165.
The expansionist policies of Trajan had extended the boundaries of the empire beyond any previous limits but it was no longer sustainable. Consolidation was required and the new emperor, Hadrian, established frontiers on the Rhine, in Romania and in Africa. In AD 122 he visited northern England to assess how retrenchment could be implemented there.
HISTORY OF THE WALL: A FRONTIER…BUT WHERE?
Publius Aelius Hadrianus (Hadrian) became emperor in AD 117 and, recognising that continued expansion of the Empire was no longer viable, set upon a new policy of entrenchment. Frontiers were formalised; in Germany he ordered construction of a timber palisade barrier, in North Africa a mud and brick wall known as the Fossatum Africae and in the Carpathian Mountains in Romania he built earthwork barriers. Hadrian visited northern Britain in AD 122 arriving in Newcastle (Pons Aelius) and proceeding to survey the Stanegate frontier where he ordered the construction of his Wall on the Whin Sill; qui barbaros Romanosque divideret, to force apart the barbarians from the Romans.
Milecastle 42 at Cawfields (see relevant section)
The Whin Sill was ideally suited to a north facing barrier
Purpose of the Wall
The Wall was never designed to be an impenetrable barrier through which no Roman dared go. Trade between north and south would still have been allowed and probably encouraged – especially if the throttled access facilitated by the Wall enabled effective taxation. The Romans also retained interests north of the Wall both through treaties with tribes and through garrisoned forts such as Bewcastle.
Economic reasons aside, the military nature of the Wall cannot be overlooked; the large garrison stationed on the Wall (similar in size to the British force in Helmand during the height of the 2003-14 Afghanistan campaign and accounting for one-tenth of the entire Imperial Roman Army) is indicative of a significant threat. This is supported by the wars of AD 105 and 117 which suggest that the zone was still particularly hostile to Roman rule and a wider insurgency may have accounted for many casualties amongst Roman forces; it may even explain the replacement of a (perhaps) much depleted Ninth Legion by the Sixth. The Romans would certainly have wished to ensure that any further rebellion was not fuelled or supported by the tribes to the north as the Novantae (in Galloway) and the Selgovae (in Dumfries) had certainly done in the AD 80s. The primary reason for building and positioning of the Wall may even have been specifically aimed to separate these tribes from the Brigante to the immediate south.
The Wall was a hugely impressive structure; 80 Roman miles long (73 miles) it ran from Wallsend to Bowness-on-Solway crossing three Rivers on the way. Designed to control access, rather than completely prevent it, the Romans built fortified gatehouses, which we now dub Milecastles, at intervals of every Roman mile. Between each Milecastle two turrets were constructed. But this wasn’t all; although the Wall itself ended at Bowness-on-Solway the associated fortifications continued. Milecastles (known as Mileforts on this wall-less section) and turrets continued down the Cumberland coast for at least 25 miles and probably much further - maybe even down to Ravenglass. A series of ditches along with a timber palisade may have acted as a barrier either to attacks or to prevent access like the Vallum.
Reference to the ‘Wall’ simplifies what was effectively a multi-layered frontier zone. Positioned in front of the Wall was a V-shaped trench; a fighting ditch aimed to slow enemies enabling the soldiers above to throw spears onto the enemy. This was a significant barrier in itself at 3 metres deep around 10 metres wide. The depth and impact of this trench was further enhanced by the spoil being built up in front of the ditch. The Wall itself was at least 4 metres high, 3 metres wide and was probably topped with a parapet and wall walk (although it is worth noting that other Roman boundaries, such as the timber palisade in Germany, had no such feature). A lack of lime mortar meant the Wall in the west it was initially built of turf and timber (similar to the later Antonine Wall – visible at Rough Castle for example) but to the east of the River Irthing it was built from the start in stone. Whilst much of the frontier was built by Roman Legionaries, as well as members of the Classis Britannica (Roman Navy), the frontier was manned by Roman Auxiliaries drawn from the existing forts on Stanegate Road.
The frontier as originally planned
As the building of the Wall progressed numerous design changes were made. With regards the Wall itself the thickness was reduced; initially planned to be 3 metres wide, it was reduced to 2.1 metres presumably to speed up the building effort. As turrets and Milecastles were built ahead of the Wall itself, this led to numerous areas where the thickness suddenly changed. The Wall was also extended in the east with the end point moving from Newcastle to Wallsend.
Perhaps the most significant change was the addition of forts onto the line of the Wall. This was never intended in the original design; the forts to the south on the Stanegate were to serve the Wall. However Roman armies were at their best in the open field and, on reflection, the Wall as more restrictive to them than those it was designed to stop. Accordingly seventeen forts - including Housesteads, Chesters and Birdoswald – were constructed resulting, in some areas, demolition work; at Housesteads for example the foundations of a turret sit below the fort itself and the same for Milecastle 43 at Great Chesters. The forts were garrisoned by Auxiliary Regiments in a mixed infantry/cavalry configuration (although some of the central forts were infantry only).
A final addition, in this phase of construction, was a great earthwork as long as the Wall itself. Built to the south of the Wall the Vallum is the modern (inaccurate) name given to this mound and ditch system. This provided protection – probably as much from thieves and pilferers as hostile attackers – and created a clear military zone; it was probably akin to a barbed wire fence. As with the fighting ditch, the remains visible today fail to do justice to what was a huge barrier; around 35 metres across, the central ditch was around 3 metres deep with steep sides. Compared with the Wall itself it was crudely made with the spoil from the ditch being used to make the mounds on one or both sides. It may well have been made by Auxiliary troops (whereas the Wall itself was made by Legionaries). The Vallum significantly reduced access through the Wall with access across the Vallum now only possible at dedicated crossings. Aside from the dedicated gates on Dere Street and at Carlisle, these only existed at the forts on the Wall. One Vallum crossing has survived which served Benwell Fort.
The addition of the Vallum made soon after construction started
If anything, the construction of the Wall is a lasting triumph to the superb logistical abilities of the Roman Army. It was not built by slaves – the highly skilled men of Britain’s three Legions (the Second, Sixth and Twentieth) and the Classis Britannica constructed it. Aside from the obvious efforts of quarrying and preparing the stone, a whole variety of other industries were required to support the effort. Transportation – by river, mule and often by man – would have been a significant effort especially in the remote central sector. Mortar, made from limestone, would also have been needed in epic proportions; prepared in lime kilns it would have needed huge quantities of fuel which itself would need to be sourced and transported to the site. Scaffolding, to facilitate construction of the upper levels of the Wall and the turrets, would have needed extensive tree felling and subsequent transportation. In addition the requirement to feed and accommodate so many men, most of whom would have been doing intense backbreaking work digging ditches, against a backdrop of a hostile area, would have imposed unique challenges. Even with advanced technology today’s society would struggle, both economically and logistically, to create such a structure.
The ramparts of the Antonine Wall near Rough Castle
The Wall had largely been completed by AD 126 although minor modifications continued to be made for the rest of Hadrian’s reign. He died in AD 138 and his successor, Antoninus Pius, was not content to leave the boundary on the Solway/Tyne line. The reasons for this are unknown; Hadrian had died deeply unpopular and reversal of his policy of consolidation of the empire rather than expansion may have been his aim. But there was also a war in northern Britain at this time, concluded in AD 142, and perhaps the advance into the Scottish lowlands was indicative of victory over the Novantae and Selgovae tribes. Either way he sent the Legions north where a new frontier was established at the Clyde/Forth isthmus where they built the Antonine Wall. Hadrian’s Wall was now a hindrance; gates were removed from the Milecastles and parts of the Vallum were filled in to improve access.
Reconstructed turret as seen at Vindolanda
REFERENCES / FURTHER READING
Breeze, D.J (2011). The Frontiers of Imperial Rome. Pen and Sword Books Ltd, Barnsley.
Burton, A (2010). Hadrian's Wall Path. Aurum Press Ltd, London.
Crow, J (1989). Housesteads Roman Fort. English Heritage, London.
English Heritage (2010). An Archaeological Map of Hadrian's Wall, 1:25,000 Scale. English Heritage, London.
Hodgson, N (2011). Chesters Roman Fort. English Heritage, London.
Moffat, A (2009). The Wall. Birlinn Ltd, Edinburgh.
Wilmott, T (2010). Birdoswald Roman Fort. English Heritage, London.
Bedoyere, G (2010). Roman Britain: A New History. Thames and Hudson Ltd, London.
Dando-Collins, S (2010). Legions of Rome. Quercus, London.
Hobbs, R and Jackson, R (2010). Roman Britain. British Museum Company Ltd, London.