SECTION 1: Introduction
SECTION 2: History of the Wall
- Holding the Line
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.
Multiangluar tower in York. The bottom section is Roman circa-AD 250 built as northern raids meant additional security was needed.
After just twenty years the Antonine frontier along the Clyde/Forth isthmus was abandoned and the Romans returned back to Hadrian’s Wall. But the golden age of Rome was over and the Wall increasingly came under attack culminating in a coordinated international strike in the form of the Barbarian Conspiracy.
HISTORY OF THE WALL: HOLDING THE LINE
Around AD 160, perhaps in the latter days of the reign of Antoninus Pius or in the early days of his successor, a decision was made to return to Hadrian’s Wall. As with the abandonment, the reasons are not fully known. The most likely reason was overstretch; there is certainly some evidence of Legionaries being required to man the forts of the Antonine Wall which would have been regarded as a waste of resources. There may also have been a war in northern England at this time – perhaps the Brigantes in the Pennines rising up and causing trouble. Either way Hadrian’s Wall was repaired ready to assume the role of frontier again. The Wall, neglected for twenty years, was maintained and gates re-installed in the Milecastles. The Vallum, which in many areas had been partially filled in, was excavated and deepened. Furthermore, an upgrade from previously, a new road - the Military Way - was added between the Wall and Vallum improving speed of response rather than following the winding, and sometimes distant, Stanegate Road. The western section of the Wall, originally turf and timber, was also rebuilt in stone at this time (with the frontier around Birdoswald being advanced a few hundred yards). The north was not totally abandoned however; a number of outpost forts were retained including Bewcastle, High Rochester, Risingham and Newstead.
Crags of the Whin Sill
Upon re-occupation the Military Road was built
War at the Wall
Less than 20 years after being re-occupied, war came to the Wall. In AD 180 Commodus Antoninus became emperor; weak and deeply unpopular the native tribes of the north Britain seized the opportunity to expel the Romans. An attack was made in the east with Rudchester (on the Wall) and Corbridge seemingly taking the worst of it. The new Governor, Ulpius Marcellus, eventually re-established order but not completely and most of the forts north of the Wall were abandoned; they simply could not be protected. Further trouble came in AD 197 when two tribes to the north – the Caledones and the Maetae – sought conflict. They were brought off initially but by AD 207 were threatening the south again.
The issue was resolved in AD 208 when Emperor Septimius Severus arrived in Britain with an army of 40,000 soldiers intent on stabilising the situation and conquering Caledonia. By AD 210 his campaign had made progress, albeit at some cost to the Romans, and the Caledonians had sued for peace the price of which was their control of the Central Lowlands. They rebelled again in AD 211 and Severus moved to annihilate them. But fate took a hand and the emperor died, leaving his sons in charge of his vast army. They were keen to return to Rome and made peace with the Caledones and the Maetae abandoning many of Severus’ gains. The frontier returned to the Wall which was significantly upgraded at this time. The garrison was enhanced by several thousand (to approximately 12,000 men), many of the turrets deemed superfluous (many in the central sector) were demolished and the gates on the Milecastles were bricked up to allow pedestrian access only. Defence and access now solely rested on the forts built into the Wall. The three bridges on the Wall – over the Tyne, Irthing and Eden rivers – were upgraded at this time.
The bridge at Willowford shows extensive rebuilding in style
After the wars of the Severus era, the Wall settled into a long period of peace and for most of the rest of the third century the frontier held. But in AD 296 the Picts – ‘the painted people’ – attacked the south. This coalition comprised of Caledones and the Maetae tribes - all forces historically opposed to the Romans. We do not know how or where they breached the Wall, but that year they attacked the Legionary fortress at Chester. Trouble continued for several years before a Roman expedition in AD 306. A period of peace followed during the reign of Constantine the Great (AD 306 to 337) but in AD 342 the Picts attacked again destroying several forts that existed to the north of the Wall (including Bewcastle). Further attacks followed in AD 360 and 365 culminating in a further attack in AD 367 with the so-called Barbarian conspiracy – a coordinated attacked by hostile forces from Ireland, Denmark and by the Picts north of the Wall. Britannia was overran and it was not until AD 369 that Count Theodosius managed to restore order and stabilised the situation by employing a number of buffer Kingdoms (probably those between Hadrian’s Wall and the former Antonine Wall). A final Roman expedition against the Picts, led by Magnus Maximus, was conducted in AD 382.
By the late fourth century Roman occupation in Britannia was in terminal decline. Army strength was sapped by casualties and withdrawal of forces to support emergencies elsewhere in the empire and claims to the throne by various usurpers – most notably Magnus Maximus in AD 388 and Constantine III in AD 407. Without the military to defend them from the Picts, Irish and Saxons the British expelled the Roman representatives and assumed control of their own defence. Roman control petered out and by AD 410 was over. Without the flow of logistics support from the Roman military machine the remote and harsh environment in which it was built led to the central sections of the Wall being abandoned. Some elements however, Birdoswald Fort for example, seem to have remained occupied and it is probably worth remembering that by the time of Roman withdrawal many of the troops garrisoning the Wall were locals. They simply stayed on supporting their local communities.
Birdoswald Fort: the timbers mark post-Roman building activity
Without the engineering support from the Romans the Wall was allowed to decay and collapse. Parts were probably demolished by locals to improve access whilst the prepared stone was highly sought after for local buildings; Carlisle Castle, Thirlwall Castle, Lanercost Priory, myriads of churches and minor castles and literally thousands of smaller local buildings were all beneficiaries of Roman stone as are many other buildings along the course of the Wall! The greatest destruction came in the eighteenth century; following the Jacobite Rebellions General Wade was tasked with building a series of roads in the north between Carlisle and Newcastle. For many miles his engineers found the firmest foundations were achieved by demolishing and building on-top of the Wall. What is left, at least to any height, owe their survival to the remoteness of Northumberland and the care and attention of a few dedicated antiquarians.
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.
The Antonine Wall in central Scotland