Hadrian’s Wall: The Facts

A World Heritage Site since 1987, Hadrian’s Wall is an astounding feat of engineering. It’s the best known and the best preserved frontier of the Roman Empire. When Hadrian’s men set out to construct it they were faced with a relentlessly challenging and variable landscape to conquer. Not the fierce torrents of fast rivers, the hard rock of the Whin Sill, nor mile upon mile of rolling hills would defeat them. The Wall is Britain’s most impressive and most important Roman monument. Together with the Antonine Wall and the Upper German Raetian Limes, it forms part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site ‘Frontiers of the Roman Empire.

When was Hadrian’s Wall built?

On becoming Roman Emperor in 117AD, Hadrian set about making the Empire more secure, separating Roman and Barbarian territories. The most spectacular example of this is the great Wall he ordered his army to build to define the north-west frontier of the Roman Empire. It was a gargantuan task which he came to inspect in AD122 while work was in progress. The Wall sprawled across 73 miles from Wallsend in the east to the Solway Firth in the west. Although the curtain Wall itself finished at the Solway Firth, its forts, milecastles and turrets continued down the Cumbrian coast to Maryport with further forts marking the miles beyond to Ravenglass.  

 

Why was the wall built?

How was Hadrian’s Wall built?

It’s thought to have taken three legions of infantrymen from the army of Britain around six years to complete the Wall. Each legion was around 5,000 men strong. The legionary soldiers were responsible for major construction tasks like building stone forts and bridges. Extra man-power may have been provided by soldiers from auxiliary regiments recruited from allied and conquered tribes who supported the legions in battle and garrisoned the frontier forts.

Building Hadrian's Wall

What did the finished Wall look like?

Once built, Hadrian’s Wall boasted 80 milecastles, numerous observation towers and 17 larger forts. Punctuating every stretch of Wall between the milecastles were two towers so that observation points were created at every third of a mile. Constructed mainly from stone and in parts initially from turf, the Wall was six metres high in places and up to three metres deep. All along the south face of the Wall, if there was no river or crag to provide extra defense, a deep ditch called the Vallum was dug. In some areas the Vallum was dug from solid rock.

What was life like on Hadrian’s Wall?

The Wall was an active military line for some 300 years with regiments of men from the auxiliary army’s infantry or cavalry manning each fort. Units are thought to have been 500 or 1000 men strong. Camps of people would accompany each unit, although little is known of these communities and they weren’t permitted to settle between the Wall and the ditch (or Vallum) that ran along its length. These communities (called Vicus) provided the best of local produce and goods from around the empire so life was rich for soldiers with pay to spend.  When the Rome gave up Britain, the Wall’s stones were repurposed to build homes and other buildings.

 

Life and death on Hadrian's Wall

What can you see today?

Visitors can still patrol Hadrian’s Wall, which remains standing in many areas. Housesteads is one of the Wall’s best-preserved forts with the foundations of a hospital, barracks and flushable loos still visible. At Heddon-on-the-Wall meanwhile, a vast chunk of the frontier still stands, heading east into the busy city of Newcastle, while the ruins of the Roman bridge that traversed the Wall’s route across the River Irthing remain.

Interesting and unusual facts about Hadrian’s Wall!

Much of what is now Scotland was occupied or controlled by the Romans for over 300 years. Roman armies first invaded this area in the AD70s, some 50 years before Hadrian’s Wall was built. Hadrian’s Wall itself was abandoned only 25 years after it was built and a new turf and timber wall was constructed on the edge of the Scottish Highlands – the Antonine Wall.  After another 25 years Hadrian’s Wall was re-established as the frontier line.  In the early third century the African Emperor Severus led a vast army north of Hadrian’s Wall. He died in York and his sons made a peace with local tribes which lasted for a hundred years. Many of the forts along Hadrian’s Wall continued to be occupied into the fifth and sixth centuries AD, long after Roman Imperial rule in Britain had ended.

It’s sometimes mistakenly thought that the Wall marks the English/ Scottish border. In fact, Northumberland, England’s largest county, lies mainly north of Hadrian’s Wall.

Learn more about Hadrian's Wall's history

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