Roman and Mediaeval History, Illlustrated Travel Journals, Mediaeval Literature, Geology


18.6.07
  Hadrian's Wall - Introduction

The anonymous 4th century Historia Augusta mentions that Emperor Hadrian "had a wall built to separate Romans and barbarians". It stretches 80 Roman miles (73 British miles, 123 kilometres) all the way from modern Newcastle / Wallsend to Bowness-on-Solway in the west. Building began in 122 AD, but ideas for a more permanent frontier in different parts of the expanding empire had been discussed before. Nor was the Hadrian's Wall the only solid border defense - the German Limes, an earth wall and palisade construction across the area between Rhine and Danube, was erected during the same time.

Remains of the Wall at Birdoswald

Such frontiers served to control traffic - trade and thus taxes, and migration - not to separate people the way the Berlin Wall did. The Hadrian's Wall had mile castles every mile, and most of them, as well as the forts, protected gates. Between each mile castle lay two observation turrets, though the structure was sometimes interrupted by major forts directly at the Wall, like Housesteads.

At first, only the eastern part of the Wall up to Birdoswald was built of stone while the western part was a turf and palisade construction, but later Hadrian ordered to have that part rebuilt in stone as well.

The wall part was about 4 metres high. It might have been painted white with a stone structure outlined in red, but there is no sure proof for it.

A reconstructed section of the Wall at Segedunum.

The thickness of the Wall varies from 3.6 metres to less than 2 metres, which points at different engineers and plans. North of the Wall lay a deep V-ditch (except where the land made it unnecessary), and on the south side, some 30-40 metres away from the Wall, was another turf wall and trench line, the vallum. It is thought to have demarked some sort of no man's land, but another argument is that it was built before the Wall and served as protection - makes one wonder why south of the Wall in that case since the belligerent tribes were north of it. Or the Brigantes were less reliable than Roman sources make us believe.

Between vallum and Wall ran a military road, but the old Stanegate road further south was still in use as well, as were some of the older forts, like Vindolanda where several layers of timber and stone buildings point at an occupation over centuries. Those places, as well as the supply fort in Arbeia (South Shields near Newcastle) were part of a border defense network.

Vindolanda (Chesterholm), view to the Pennine Hills in the northeast

Some of the forts attracted a vicus, a civilian settlement; the largest was that of Vindolanda. But town-like settlements also developed, like Corbridge (known in Roman times as both Coria and Corstopitum). It had been an Iron Age settlement before the Romans built a fort nearby in AD 84 which was in use until the Antonine Wall was abandoned. The fort ramparts were then levelled and temples were built, as well as a central complex that may have been intended as forum (though it was never finished to the original plans), and some villa-like houses, one of them large enough to have been the quarter of Septimius Severus.

Some of the buildings would later be dismantled and the stones used in building Hexham Abbey, but there are still some impressive remains left.

Corbridge settlement, main street

The wall was built by legionaries but the garrisons in the forts were auxiliary troops; the nearest legionary fort was in Eboracum / York some distance south of the wall. The same distribution can be found at the German Limes.

The Romans used the lay of the land and its natural defenses wherever possible. A good example are the Walltown Crags. I didn't have the time to go round the cliffs to the side where you can climb them, but the view from the hill where I stood was quite spectacular as well.

Walltown Crags
(I used a strong tele for this shot which makes the crags look less menacing than they were.)

Between 142 AD until about 160 AD the Hadrian's Wall was abandoned in favour of the Antonine Wall further north, but in the end turned out the be the frontier that worked best.

During the 3rd century, the number of gates was reduced and part of the vallum trench was filled in. Some of the turrets were dismantled, then erected again, some of the mile castles lost their function as gate protections but still were garrisoned. The border remained an unruly place.

Vindolanda, reconstruction of a stone watch tower

After the Romans left Britain, stones of the Wall have been used to build houses, and some with ornaments and insctiptions can still be identified today. There are some interesting ones in Hexham Abbey. If the Hadrian's Wall hadn't been used as quarry, more of it would be left.

More photos can be found here.
 
Comments:
*drools* I love old stones :)
 
This comment has been removed by the author.
 
Whoah--cool photos, Gabriele. Many thanks for sharing them.
 
Celedë,
DFDS Seaways has a ferry from Bergen to Newcastle. You should jump on it and then chase down old stones all the way to Carlisle. There's plenty. :)

Thank you, Paul.
 
nifty photos. :)

Nice to know 2000 years later we still think walls keep people out...

So when are you going to write a story about the exciting life of guys stuck in a mile castle? "Over there! What's that?" "A deer" "I heard a noise!" "Sheep" "We're being attacked!" "Bunny."
 
As long as they don't have to deal with gnomes and orc-goblins ... :)
 
With Celede.
 
Nice pix!
 
Thank you Bernita and Susan.
 
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Miscellaneous musings of an aspiring Historical Fiction author. Illustrated essays on Roman, Dark Age and Mediaeval history, Mediaeval literature, and Geology. Some poetry translations and writing stuff. And lots of photos of old castles, cathedrals, Roman remains, and beautiful landscapes from Germany, the UK, Scandinavia, and the Baltic States.

All texts (except comments by guests) and photos (if no other copyright is noted) on this blog are copyright of Gabriele Campbell.

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I'm a writer of Historical Fiction living in Germany. I got a MA in Literature, Scandinavian Studies, Linguistics and History, I'm interested in Archaeology and everything Roman and Mediaeval, an avid reader, opera enthusiast, traveller with a liking for foreign languages and odd rocks, and photographer.


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