Hadrian’s Wall: Topography

By A.D. 81 the Romans reached the Forth-Clyde isthmus. Almost 40 years later, disorders at the beginning of his reign lead emperor Hadrian to the decision to deal effectively with the northern frontier in Britain. Hadrian decided in A.D. 122 that a wall should be built to separate the Empire from the northern barbarians. Hadrian’s intention was to give the Empire permanent frontiers and maintain peace and stability. The lack of natural boundaries was the substantial reason to construct a wall from sea to sea which would divide the Romans from the barbarian tribes living in Northern Scotland.

The Wall runs for approximately 80 miles from Newcastle upon Tyne to Bowness-on-Solway, and it was primarily constructed in stone and partly in turf. The line chosen for Hadrian’s Wall lay a little to the north of an existing line of forts along the road known as the Stanegate. This line of fortlets and towers continued westwards down the Cumbrian coast for more than 20 miles beyond Bowness. In front of the wall –where it was possible and justified- ran a ditch that was separated from the wall by an open flat space. While 16 new forts were being built along the Wall, an earthwork behind it known as the Vallum was added to this enormous building program. It consisted of a central ditch with a mound set back on each side the whole measuring 30m across.

What is evident is that the completed Wall was rather different from that originally planned; Hadrian’s wall had developed while under construction enabling us to assume that they were experiencing new construction methods and ideas. The lessons learned during its construction were integrated in the new frontier line that would be seen in the construction of the Antonine’s Wall.

Structural Evidence

Hadrian’s Wall ranged from 6 to 10 feet 1.8 - 3 m) in width, whereas it passes through very different terrain. As for its height, it is considered to have been almost than 15 feet (4.5 m) high. Regularly spaced along the wall’s length at every one mile’s distance were fortified gateways, the so-called milecastles, providing access from one side to the other through double gates at front and rear. Each milecastle contained one or two small buildings of stone or timber, possibly barrack-blocks for the soldiers. The mile-long gap between milecastles was broken by two observation towers usually called ‘turrets’.

The Romans also built new forts on the Wall line after abandoning the older ones which lied immediately behind it.The provision of forts astride the Wall was an experiment to meet an unprecedented situation and served as bases for an army force which could operate at short notice well-up to the Forth-Clyde line.
Hadrian’s wall is the realization of the idea of a frontier clearly marked by a running barrier and ranked as the most substantial and elaborate amongst similar constructions. The question of the purpose of Hadrian’s wall still remains intriguing but surely signifies a new frontier policy of the Empire.

The wall was the realization of the concept that barbarians should be separated from the Romans. At the same time, attempts of crossing could be controlled for merchants, farmers or civilians and prevented for intruders.

The milecastles and turrets also provided accommodation for the soldiers of the wall. It is also discussed if troops patrolled the wall top observing the cross-wall movements or possible attacks. Fighting from the top of the wall is doubted as the Romans primarily intended to fight in the open and go behind the shelter of walls as a last resort. It is obvious that the wall served a multi-functional use at least as seen in the archaeological evidence of its structure.

The decision to construct the wall was probably taken in 122. The building operations may not have commenced until the following year that seems to be the first ‘full work season’. The year 124 probably witnessed the completion of most of the turf wall. It is difficult to say when Hadrian’s wall was completed but the last dated work on the wall comes from the very end of Hadrian’s reign although it was being continually modified and improved up to the death of Hadrian in 138. Hadrian’s wall was abandoned for the new wall in Scotland, built on the order of emperor Antoninus Pius.

The fact is that Hadrian’s Wall is an engineering achievement for its glory days of making and but also it is notable in any age, as a symbol of power of the Roman Empire.

Author: Giannis Aspiotis (University of Glasgow, Departement of Archaeology)

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