A Brief History of Some Walls: Hadrian Wall


This week in the series  A Brief History of Some Walls in History  we journey to a wall which is very popular with visitors in England, contributing  much to the economy of  the Northern Districts:The Hadrian Wall.

The wall travelling 73 miles [80 Roman miles] through Carlisle, Newcastle, Northumbria and Cumbria, is the most elaborate Northern most defence frontier of the Roman Empire in the UK. In 1987, The Hadrian Wall received World Heritage status from UNESCO because of its relevance as a reminder of Roman military practise in Britain. According to John J. Wilkes, historians at first doubted  the emperor who constructed the wall, thus it was known as the Roman Wall or the Picts Wall [the Picts attacked around the time the Romans rule ended]. At the beginning of the quarter of the century, excavations dubbed Emperor Publius Aelius Hadrianus as the builder, he ruled from (117-138 AD). Guy de la Bédoyère notes that the wall became more an Aelius Wall in 2003, when a metal detector user found a bronze small enamelled vessel, in the West Midlands. The cup, though not the first Roman souvenir of the area provides evidence for a Hadrian wall because of its inscriptions.

The Hadrian Wall constructed from AD 120 to 130 AD was ten feet, made of stone in the west but composed of turf in the east. Some authors believe the use of white paint on both sides of the grey stone wall, was the Roman way of the wall standing out to show the power and dominance of the imperial empire. Workers built a ditch along the Northern face of the wall and forts occupied the length of the wall. Every Roman mile,  the men built castles along the wall known as milecastles. The Vallum [later called by that name] was a ditch and mound system which served as an earthen frontier to the south of the wall. Different weather patterns and constant repairs to finished and unfinished parts of the wall, kept the army very busy on the frontier. According to Guy de la Bédoyère, the materials for the wall were free but the  Emperor paid his soldiers.

Some historians believed that Emperor Hadrianus meant to keep barbarians from reaching the gates of civilized Romans, thus a northern wall was the solution. Walls came up where water could not act as a defence. According to the Pearson Group of writers, the Romans borrowed the term ‘barbarian’ [coined by the Greeks] to refer to the Germanic tribes to the North of Roman control Britannia. Rob Collins further explains that by the 3rd century the barbarians were Maeatae and the Caledonians and by the 4th century, they were collectively known as the Picts.  On the other hand, other historians and writer viewed the wall  as a barrier to prevent different ethnic groups from assimilating- keeping the uncivilized away from the civil.

Furthermore, other historians point out  a different use of the wall. After conquering land and people with it, Emperor Hadrian needed to keep peace and order. The troops kept busy, coordinating and building under Governor Aulus Platorius Nepos, friend of the emperor, thus blocking the easy and uncontrolled passage of people through Britannia from the ethnic groups living to the South and North of Britannia. The passage into the North allowed persons to enter for supervised trade or for agricultural work. Thus, the wall in this instance became a device to control local immigration, emigration and regulating trade.

During the early years of the wall, it was temporary replaced as the boundary wall. In the early 140’s AD, Emperor Antoninus Pius [Hadrian’s adopted son] ordered his men to build a wall made of turf, 100 miles to the north of the Hadrian Wall. The Antoine Wall was 37 Roman miles long, though half the size of the Hadrian Wall, it became the new frontier until the early 160’s AD, upon Pius’s death. By that time, the Hadrian Wall was back in full use as the frontier wall,after heavy reconstruction from around 158 AD under the governorship of Calpurnius Agricola. However, by the early 3rd century, the wall was no longer in use by the army as a frontier. Mohammad A. Chaichian argues that the limited growth of settlement along the wall to cater to troops and people crossing through the gates, denounces the wall as a frontier. Chaichian believes that if the wall was a frontier more permanent settlements would emerge on both sides of the wall to take advantage of economic  gains. For Chaichian the wall represents more a synthetic barrier among an established way of life.

It is interesting to  note that The Hadrian Wall though constructed from foundation by Hadrian soldiers, repairs to forts and parts of the wall during other Roman period erases the authentic Hadrianic element. When the wall became more a part of the lives of the people and not a military and political restriction, its appearance changed. According to Guy de la Bédoyère, from around the 5th to the 6th century, farmers used some of the forts as homestead and the mile castles sometimes as corral for sheep. One should remember in the 19th century, the increase in towns and settlements saw destruction of the wall whether for building material or for construction space. According to R Witcher et al, the physical landscape around the Roman fort of Homesteads in the Central part of the wall is the result of 19th century improvements and reconstruction. For example, in the 1830’s John Clayton bought properties along the wall to protect the structure and to showcase it to the public. In the end, he changed post-Roman buildings [some of these buildings could very well show as the remains of the farmers homesteads] but revived a Roman monument. In addition, Clayton purposefully exposed some sections of the walls and he re-stacked the crumpled pieces. R. Witcher et al explain that Clayton’s renovated project became the image of The Hadrian Wall; in the same way the mended works of the 20th century of the Great Wall is synonymous with the Chinese wall.

Works Cited
Bédoyère, Guy de la. Hadrian’s Wall: History & Guide. Gloucestershire: Amberley Publishing, 2012.
Chaichian, Mohammad. Empires and Walls: Globalization, Migration, and Colonial Domination. Brill, 2013.
Collins, Rob. Hadrian’s Wall and the End of the Empire. New York: Routledge, 2012.
Group, Pearson Learning. World History. New Jersey: Globe Fearson, 2002.
Hingley, Richard. “The Most Ancient Boundary Between England and Scotland:Genealogies of the Roman Walls.” Classical Receptions Journal 2.1 (2010): 25-43.
Robert Witcher, DP Tolia-Kelly, Hingley Richard. “Archaeologies of Landscape Excavating the Materialities of Hadrian Wall.” Journal of Material Culture 15.1 (2010): 105-128.
Turley, Sophie. “Hadrian Wall’s Uk: Managing the Visitor Experience at the Roman Frontier.” Shackley, Myra. Visitor Managements: Case Studies From World Heritage Sites. Oxford: Butterworth- Heinemann, 1998. 100-120.
Wilkes, John J. “The Hadrian Wall.” Pau Ganster, David E. Lorey. Borders and Border Politics In A Globalizing World. UK: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2004. 1-10

Did you travel to any sections of  Hadrian’s Wall? If yes, please share with me your experience in the comments section. I really want to walk along The Hadrian Trail sometime in the future.


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