SECTION 1: Introduction
SECTION 2: History of the Wall
- Empire Without Limits
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.
Roman infantry - a Legionary and Auxiliary - reconstructed at the Roman Army Museum at Carvoran.
ADDITIONAL NOTES - ROMAN LEGIONS IN BRITAIN
The term ‘Legion’ derives from the Latin for levy implying conscription - which historically is where Rome’s military force came from. However by the Julian attacks on Britain and the subsequent invasion, the army was comprised of a professional full time army rather than conscripts. Each Legion was not only a well trained fighting force but also a multi-skilled construction unit. In total six complete Legions served in Britannia during the Roman occupation between AD 43 to 409. They would, periodically, have been supported by vexillations (detachments) from others.
Second Legion (Legio II Augusta). This legion was founded by Pompey the Great sometime before 49 BC but was reformed by Octivian (Augustus Caesar) from which it got its name. It was one of the four Legions that invaded Britain in AD 43 at which time it was under the Command of Titus Vespasianus (the future emperor Vespasian). Sweeping across the south and south west, the force assaulted and took twenty hillforts (including Maiden Castle and Hod Hill). It built a Legionary fortress at Exeter where it was based when it famously failed to answer the call of General Paulinus during the Boudica revolt. In AD 66 it relocated to Gloucester where it remained until AD 75 when it built a new fortress in Caerleon in South Wales as part of the suppression of the Silures tribe. It stayed there for two centuries until attacks from the Picts led to it being located to Carpow in Scotland in AD 290. By the late fourth century it had been downgraded to a small frontier force located at Richborough and formed part of the Saxon Shore Command.
Second Adiutrix Legion (Legio II Adiutrix Pia Fidelis). Founded around AD 69, the Legio II Adiutrix Pia Fidelis is sometimes incorrectly cited as a maritime legion. Whilst its numbers were swelled from marines, it would serve with some distinction in Britannia. Arriving in the province around AD 70, it was based in Lincoln and served with Agricola’s campaigns until being withdrawn in AD 87. Based in Hungary in the fifth century, its fate thereafter is unknown.
Sixth Legion (Legio VI Victrix). Formed by Pompey the Great in the mid-first century BC, the Sixth Legion had spent much of the late first and early second century on the Rhine. Between AD 120-2 it transferred to Britannia, seemingly with some urgency, to replace the Ninth Legion at York (Eburacum). It was still there in AD 401 when ordered to depart to Italy to support the efforts against Alaric the Visigoth where it was annihilated.
Ninth Legion (Legio IX Hispana). Founded by Pompey the Great around 55 BC, the Ninth Legion was one of the four that originally invaded Britannia in AD 43. Initially stationed at Lincoln (Lindum), it advanced north to York where it built the Legionary fortress of Eburacum before moving on to build another at Carlisle (Luguvalium). During the Boudica revolt four of the unit’s cohorts were destroyed in an ill-fated attempted to relieve Colchester and was backfilled by reinforcements from the Twenty-First Legion (Legio XXI Rapax). Circa-AD 122 the Legion was replaced by the Sixth Legion (Legio VI Victrix) and seemingly disappears from the historical record (see additional notes on next page).
Fourteenth Legion (Legio XIV Gemina Martia Victrix). Formed in 30 BC from an amalgamation of two other units, the Legion had mixed fortunes in its early years being wiped out in Belguim in 54 BC before being reformed and suffering further heavy casualties in 55 BC in Germany. Nevertheless it was one of the original four Legions that joined the invasion of Britannia in AD 43 fighting at the famous campaigns against the Druids at Anglesey and on Watling Street against Boudica. Based in Wroxeter the Legion was withdrawn in AD 67 and re-posted to the Rhine. By the fourth century the force had been relegated to a frontier force on the Danube.
Twentieth Legion (Legio XX Valeria Victrix). One of the four Legions involved in the invasion of Britannia in AD 43, the Twentieth Legion had been founded by Julius Caesar in 49 BC. In the AD 50s it was based in Colchester (Camulodunum) but moved onto Gloucester and then Wroxeter. By AD 84, after the successful campaigns of Gnaeus Julius Agricola in modern Scotland, it built a new Legionary fortress at Inchtuthil. But the withdrawal of the Second Adiutrix Legion (Legio II Adiutrix Pia Fidelis) in AD 87 meant the Legion returned to Chester (Deva) where it remained until the late third century. Withdrawn to the Rhine it was destroyed in border skirmishes with the Vandals.
British Roman Navy (Classis Britannica). Regarded as inferior to a Legion but still a considerable fighting force with significant technical abilities - significant stretches of Wall would be built by the Classis Britannica. The navy had a crucial supply role for both static garrisons and advancing forces. Established in AD 43 for the invasion of Britain, it was based in Boulogne and Dover (later Richborough) with numerous other Supply depots throughout the country.
When Roman troops waded ashore in AD 43, few in Rome would have thought that the ultimate outcome could be anything other than the whole province coming under Roman control - the only question was how long it would take. But trouble elsewhere in the empire left Britain under-resourced militarily and full control was never achieved.
HISTORY OF THE WALL: EMPIRE WITHOUT LIMITS
When Julius Caesar mounted raids on Britain in 55 and 54 BC, the concept behind Hadrian’s Wall would have been entirely alien to the Roman mind. To the contemporary Roman whilst the world was not yet entirely Roman, it would eventually become so when the army had sufficient time and motivation to conquer it. Frontiers, especially ones with elaborate defences, were a waste of time for a highly mobile army that would simply advance beyond them to defeat and conquer. Accordingly, even though unsuccessful, Caesar’s raids were hailed as triumphs by a society that saw continued expansion as good; the English Channel – the ‘ocean’ to the Romans – would be no barrier to them. Unsurprisingly then, when Emperor Claudius needed a quick military victory to secure his political position, his invasion of Britain in AD 43 was met with great approval. At this time nobody, political allies or enemies alike, would have contemplated that only part of Britain would ever be conquered.
Roman Auxiliary Cavalry - Roman Army Museum at Carvoran (see relevant section)
In AD 43 the Romans landed at Richborough
Despite a mutiny threatening to stop the invasion before it started, the initial attack was entirely successful. Four Legions, under the command of Aulus Plautius, landed at Richborough and advanced into the interior towards Colchester (Camulodunum) in Essex - the spiritual home of the cult of Camulos a war-god seemingly widely worshipped in Britain. Prior to his assault Plautius halted and called for the Emperor, who duly arrived with his Praetorian guard and war-elephants, to take the lions share of the glory for the subsequent capture of Colchester. There eleven native Kings, one from as far afield as the Orkney Islands, submitted to Claudius. After just sixteen days in Britain, Claudius departed fully able to claim he had achieved the submission of the whole of Britannia.
Conquest and Control
Claudius’ claim, like so many political claims across the ages, was a little light on substance. With resistance against Rome being strengthened by the Druids, it wasn’t until AD 60 that Roman forces were able to bring their forces to bear against their redoubt at Anglesey. But even as the Romans were finishing their campaign there, the whole of Britannia province almost fell. The Boudica revolt, inadvertently initiated by Roman mismanagement, led to the destruction of Colchester, London and St Albans. Initially misjudging the scale of the rebellion two relief forces, one being a four Cohort detachment of the Ninth Legion (Legio IX Hispana), were annihilated. Only by mobilising the entire legionary force in Britannia - with the exception of the Second Legion (Legio II Augusta) who felt unable to respond - was the revolt suppressed culminating the unlocated Battle of Watling Street. This was the last rebellion in the south however and thereafter Roman life was seemingly accepted leading to the withdrawal of the Fourteenth Legion (Legio XIV Gemina Martia Victrix) in AD 67.
Lunt Roman Fort was built shortly after the Boudica revolt
The north was less accepting of Roman rule. The Brigantes tribe, which occupied modern day northern England (including Yorkshire and some parts of the Midlands), was ruled by the pro-Roman Queen Cartimandua with her more independently minded husband Vellocatus. When Cartimandua attempted to depose her husband, he rose in revolt and was well supported by tribes of southern Scotland (the Novantae and Selgovae). Roman forces were deployed to support the Queen but arrived too late; Vellocatus had become sole leader of the Brigantes.
Vespasian, the new Roman emperor who had served in Britain during the initial invasion in AD 40s, did not under-estimate the threat. He appointed Petilius Cerialis as Governor, a veteran of the Boudica revolt, and sent the Second Adiutrix Legion (Legio II Adiutrix Pia Fidelis) to augment the British garrison. Cerialis stationed the Second Adiutrix in Lincoln and then advanced north with the veteran Ninth Legion. A new legionary fortress was established at York and from there he marched to Stanwick hillfort where he destroyed Vellocatus’ forces. By AD 73 Cerialis had completely suppressed the revolt and was at Carlisle where he established a new legionary fort.
Carlisle legionary fort established by Legio IX
Holding on the Stanegate Road
Cerialis was relieved as Governor in AD 73 and his replacement, Julius Frontinus, sought consolidation of Roman power in Wales before advancing further north. The Ninth Legion, along with their supporting auxiliaries, would hold at the Stanegate – a road connecting the new legionary base at Carlisle with a large fort at Corbridge (Coria) whilst this operation was conducted. Between AD 73 and 76 the Romans focus was firmly on suppressing Wales; the legionary fortress at Caerleon was built at this time.
Caerleon Legionary fortress
Gnaeus Julius Agricola (a former commander of the Twentieth Legion and veteran of the Boudica campaign) arrived as Governor of Britannia in AD 77 and, after a short campaigns in North Wales and against the Brigantes plus construction of a new legionary fort at Chester (Deva), his focus shifted north. From the Stanegate Road he organised his forces into two battlegroups and advanced into modern day Scotland. During his AD 79 campaign he advanced as far north as the River Tay but a decisive battle evaded him. He spent the next few years (until AD 82) consolidating on the Clyde/Forth isthmus where he established many of the forts later rebuilt for the Antonine Wall whilst concurrently eliminating resistance in Southern Scotland. In AD 83 he once again pushed north and at the Battle of Mons Graupius (AD 83/4) he defeated a large coalition of Caledonian tribes.
The Gask Ridge
After Mons Graupius, the Romans inevitably expected the war with the Britons to shift into an insurgency and starting establishing a network of forts in Perthshire and Grampian to separate them from the Highland massif (the terrain of which provided a safe haven for the rebels). The linchpin of the network was a new legionary fortress at Inchtuthil (to be home of the Twentieth Legion) whilst forts ran north from Camelon and Doune. The military lay-down included the so-called Gask Ridge frontier - a particularly concentrated set of watchtowers and forts.
Forty years after Claudius had announced his success at conquering Britannia, it finally seemed as if the province was now truly subdued under Roman control. But it was not to be – far away on the River Danube the Roman province of Moesia (modern day Serbia) was attacked by the Dacian King Duras. More troops were required for the subsequent attack of Dacia and Rome permanently redeployed one of the British Legions; by AD 87 the new base at Inchtuthil had been dismantled and the Second Legion (Legio II Adiutrix Pia Fidelis) withdrawn. Occupation of Scotland, whilst holding England and Wales, was no longer viable and Rome looked for a natural frontier. Whilst other border provinces were protected by desert, mountains or extensive Rivers such as the Rhine and Danube, there was no suitable natural barrier in Britain. Accordingly they sought the narrowest point of land which was correctly identified as between the Clyde/Forth but, as this was too far north for the numbers of troops available, they fell back to the next best option on the Solway/Tyne isthmus; the border between Rome and the Barbarians would now be the Stanegate Road.
Corbridge was a one of two towns and a lynchpin of the Stanegate
Stanegate – ‘The Stone Road’
Trajan became emperor in AD 98 and, despite his expansionist policies in the Balkans and Middle East, he was not interested in renewed attempts to conquer northern Britain. Accordingly there was no suggestion of a reversal of the decision to abandon the north – the frontier would remain on the Stanegate for the foreseeable future. This wasn’t a significant issue - two large forts already existed on the road; one at Corbridge (Coria) in the east and at Carlisle in the west. The Stanegate itself - ‘the Stone Road’ - had been constructed as a two-way paved road offering good military access between them. Whilst a number of smaller forts had already been built on this road – Vindolanda for example – others were added whilst the Stanegate itself may have been expanded out to Bowness-on-Solway. Consolidation also occurred throughout the wider Britannia province; the legionary fortresses at York, Chester and Caerleon were rebuilt in stone.
Despite the lack of Roman expansion, conflict still seems to have occurred in the frontier zone during the period of Trajan’s reign. There seems to have been a war in AD 105 as further Auxiliary troops were sent to the province at this time. Tombstones also suggest another war in AD 117, the same year Hadrian became emperor, during which it seems the Second and Twentieth Legions suffered heavy casualties. The Ninth Legion may also have suffered catastrophic casualties during this period as elements of the Sixth Legion (Legio VI Victrix) were arriving in Britain by AD 120 to replace the Ninth at York. This was the situation facing Hadrian when he left Germany to visit northern Britain during the Summer of AD 122.
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.
First century Roman forts were timber constructions (Lunt Roman Fort, Midlands)