Hadrian’s Wall in Northern England was among the greatest strategic fortifications constructed by the Roman Empire and one of the greatest military architectural endeavors of ancient times. Stretching from the coast of the North Sea in the east to the coast of the Irish Sea in the west, this 75-mile long wall on the northwestern frontier of the empire protected civilized Britannia from the incursions of Scot and Pict marauders whom the Romans could not subdue. Although worn away by time and man, this ancient construction of the emperor Hadrian was simply too big to vanish altogether, and large portions of the fortifications, largely interconnected by a walking trail, are still intact today. Hadrian’s Wall is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The isle of Great Britain, off the northwestern shore of continental Europe, was one of the last frontiers of expansion of the ancient Roman Empire. First scouted by forces under Julius Caesar in the 1st century BC, formal annexation finally began in 43 AD, and continued on and off for the next four decades. The conquest of the island represented the culmination of nearly two centuries of warfare between the Romans and the Celtic peoples for dominance in Western Europe. However, while the Romans eventually attained mastery throughout Britain, Celtic culture and military resistance persisted throughout the entire period of imperial occupation.
Nowhere was this more true than in Caledonia, now known as Scotland, on the northern end of the isle of Great Britain. Here, at the extreme northern fringe of the empire, Scottish and Pictish tribes fought back against further Roman encroachments with a ferocity that confounded even the most determined and capable imperial legions. Attempts to conquer Caledonia met with only mixed success, and by the early 2nd century AD it was decided to abandon the attempt outright. In 122, the emperor Hadrian visited Britain and ordered the construction of a defensive wall to stop Scottish raids into lower Britain.
The construction of Hadrian’s Wall was one of the largest fortification projects ever undertaken in Roman history, but took a surprisingly short time to complete. Within a few years much of its length and many of its forts were completed, and it was fully functional by the time of Hadrian’s death in 138. His successor, the emperor Antoninus, immediately began construction on a new wall, approximately seventy-five miles to the northwest. For a brief period afterwards, the Antonine Wall served as the major defense against the Scots and Picts, but this was abandoned in 164 AD. Thereafter Hadrian’s Wall remained the primary defense against, and border with, Caledonia.
Throughout the remaining period of Rome’s occupation of Britain, Hadrian’s Wall served its purpose well. The Celtic tribes of Caledonia were contained in the extreme northern precincts of Britain, while the south became safely civilized. At its height the Romans may have kept a garrison of as many as ten thousand men along the wall. During the waning years of imperial power in the west, the Romans abandoned Britain, and Hadrian’s Wall, sometime around the year 410 AD. In ensuing centuries much of the wall was pillaged for building and road materials. A vigorous effort in the 19th century, led by a local named John Clayton, led to the preservation and restoration of large stretches of the wall. It is now one of the most popular tourist destinations in Northern England.
Today Hadrian’s Wall is a mix of barely discernible traces of the foundation and fully intact stretches of wall. The entire length is connected by an 84-miled trail known as Hadrian’s Wall Path, which runs from Bowness-on-Solway in the west to Wallsend in the east. The original wall ranged ten to twenty feet in width and from eleven to twenty feet in height. The lower sections of walls in some areas reflect its primary purpose, which was to stop raids. Later, more than a dozen major forts were added to the wall, some of which survive intact or have since been restored.
The most intact portions of the wall can be found in the middle thirty-mile stretch which runs roughly from Chollerford to Walton. A good base for exploring this section is the town of Chollerford. Near here is one of the wall’s most popular sites, the Roman Fort of Vercovicium, which has been largely restored. Other popular stops along the wall tour are the Segedunum Fort near Wallsend, and the Birdoswald Fort, which houses a museum.
Hadrian’s Wall stretches across Northern England near the Scottish border, approximately two-hundred miles north of London. It is largely an open site and can be visited freely. There is no cost of admission. Web: www.hadrians-wall.org (official website)
Major Roman sites along or near Hadrian’s Wall include the Birdoswald Fort, the Housesteads Fort, the Chesters Fort, the Segedunum Fort and the Arbeia Fort. Northern England’s other major Roman-era military site is the Antonine Wall, about a hundred miles further north, although this is far less intact and less interesting than its more southerly cousin. Also near Hadrian’s Wall is the medieval-era Bamburgh Castle.