Warfare & The Wall: the genesis of a Roman frontier

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It is 1,900 years since the Roman emperor Hadrian (r. 117-138) made landfall in Britain. His presence marks a departure from business as usual, as the island was not a standard destination for imperial inspections. Instead, Hadrian was only the second reigning emperor to make the trip, following Claudius (r. 41-54), who came to claim the glory for his invasion in AD 43. The sparse surviving Roman accounts tell us little about Hadrian’s activities in Britain, and nothing at all about his motive for visiting in 122. It is certain, though, that the island was convulsed by unrest during his tenure.

The majestic ruins of Hadrian’s Wall. Image: Dreamstime.
The majestic ruins of Hadrian’s Wall. Image: Dreamstime.

One ancient document known as the Historia Augusta bluntly declares that ‘the Britons could not be kept under Roman sway’ following Hadrian’s accession. Sadly, the nature of these disturbances passes without comment, but we do know that decades later the events in Britain were remembered as an example of severe Roman troop losses. These cannot be explained by a misfiring imperial campaign, as Britain was not a target for expansion under Hadrian. Instead, the emperor was something of a maverick for fixating on securing the edges of Roman territory rather than conquering new lands.

So, what caused these casualties, and can they help shed light on the greatest legacy of the emperor’s entanglement with Britain: Hadrian’s Wall?

Today, we are so familiar with the existence of the Wall that its construction can appear inevitable. It would not have seemed that way when work on the monument began. In its finished form, the Wall ran for 80 Roman miles (117km) from Wallsend near Newcastle to Bowness-on-Solway beyond Carlisle.

For most of its course, there were three linear barriers: a wide ditch to the north, the curtain wall itself, and a huge earthwork called the Vallum to the south. The curtain bristled with more than 160 towers known as turrets and 81 small posts called milecastles. A series of Wall forts placed either on or directly behind the curtain held thousands of soldiers. Nothing even remotely comparable had been seen in Britain before. The result is surely still the greatest military fortification ever fashioned within its shores.

But to what end? The purpose of Hadrian’s Wall remains mysterious. The only Roman statement on the subject, again in the Historia Augusta, declares a desire ‘to separate the barbarians from the Romans’. But what did this mean in practice? Today, few would argue that all north–south movement across Hadrian’s Wall was blocked. Instead, modern scholarly views include the Wall controlling and taxing the peaceful movement of people, or repulsing full-blown barbarian armies.

As we will see in the following features, examining earlier clashes between Britons and Romans raises a new possibility: that the Roman army had become enmired in a form of conflict that it was poorly equipped to resolve. Hadrian’s Wall promised a way out.

This is an extract from a special feature on Hadrian’s Wall from the latest issue of Military History Matters.

Read the full article in the magazine, which you can subscribe to here, or here via an online subscription at The Past website.

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