Hadrian's Wall

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Sections of Hadrian's Wall at Greenlee Lough
Hadrian's Wall facing East
Route of Hadrian's Wall

Hadrian's Wall (Latin: Vallum Aelium, "Aelian Wall") was a defensive fortification in Roman Britain. It ran across the width of Great Britain from the Solway Firth to the North Sea; perhaps the most remarkable defensive work of its day.

The wall was begun in AD 122, during the rule of Emperor Hadrian, it was the first of two fortifications built across Great Britain, the second being the Antonine Wall, lesser known of the two because its physical remains are less evident today. Hadrian's Wall was the most heavily fortified border in the Empire, a defensive fortification against the wild Caledonian tribes pressing against the Empire's northern bounds.

The wall is the most popular tourist attraction in Northern England, and despite its decay it remains the largest visible remnant of Roman Britannia today. To the Romans it was a division between the Empire and unruled barbarians. In popular culture today, "beyond Hadrian's Wall" it is a phrase name for any difference between Scotland and England, for the Wall was the first visible division that foreigners made of this land between North and South Britain, though one hopes it does not bear the same implication as the Romans gave it, in either direction.

Much of the wall still exists, particularly the mid-section, and for much of its length the wall can be followed on foot by Hadrian's Wall Path or by cycle on National Cycle Route 72.

The Wall It was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. English Heritage describes it as "the most important monument built by the Romans in Britain".[1]



Hadrian's Wall extended from Segedunum (Wallsend) on the River Tyne in Northumberland westwards to the shore of the Solway Firth, ending a short but unknown distance west of the village of Bowness-on-Solway in Cumberland,[2] the lowest fordable point on the Solway.

While the curtain wall ended near Bowness-on-Solway, the line of defensive structures continued with milecastles and turrets down the Cumberland coast as far as Maryport.

Hadrian's Wall lies entirely within Northumberland and Cumberland. The A69 and B6318 roads follow its course as it starts near Newcastle upon Tyne and goes on to Carlisle, then along the northern coast of Cumberland.


Hadrian's Wall was 80 Roman miles long (73 statute miles), its width and height dependent on the construction materials which were available nearby. East of River Irthing the wall was made from squared stone and measured 10 feet wide and 16 to 20 feet high, while west of the river the wall was made from turf and measured 20 feet wide and 11 ½ feet high. This does not include the wall's ditches, berms and forts. The central section measured eight Roman feet wide (7.8 feet) on a 10-foot base. Some parts of this section of the wall survive to a height of 10-feet.

Roman names


The Latin names of some of the Hadrian's Wall forts are known, from the Notitia Dignitatum and other evidence. Most of these appear to be Latinised versions of local British names, though one famous exception is Pons Aelius (Newcastle), the Latin for "Aelian Bridge", from Hadrian's family name.

The forts with known names are:

Turrets on the wall include:

  • Leahill Turret (Latin name unknown)

Outpost forts beyond the wall include:

  • Habitancum (Risingham)
  • Bremenium (Rochester)
  • Fanum Cocidi (Bewcastle) (north of Birdoswald)
  • Ad Fines (Chew Green)

Supply forts behind the wall include:

The Wall itself

The Staffordshire Moorlands cup, which may provide the ancient name of Hadrian's Wall

The only ancient source for the wall's provenance is the Augustan History. No sources survive to confirm what the wall was called in antiquity, and no historical literary source gives it a name. However, the discovery of a small enamelled bronze Roman cup in Staffordshire in 2003 has provided a clue. The cup is inscribed with a series of names of Roman forts along the western sector of the wall, together with a personal name and the phrase MAIS COGGABATA VXELODVNVM CAMBOGLANNA RIGORE VALI AELI DRACONIS.

Another similar bronze vessel, known as the Rudge Cup (found in Wiltshire in the 18th century) suggests no name for the wall but bears fort names, including from the name VXELODVN (Uxelodunum).

The words on the Staffordshire Moorland Cup may be read:

MAIS (Bowness), COGGABATA (Drumburgh-by-Sands until now known only as CONGAVATA from the late Roman document, the Notitia Dignitatum), VXELODVNVM (Stanwix), CAMBOGLANNA (Castlesteads).

RIGORE is the ablative form of rigor. This can mean several things, but one of its less-known meanings is 'straight line', 'course' or 'direction'. This sense was used by Roman surveyors and appears on several inscriptions to indicate a line between places. So the meaning could be 'according to the course'.

VALI is no known word but may be the common misspelling of valli, the genitive of vallum; an earthen wall, rampart, or fortification.[3] (Today archaeologist apply vallum just to the ditch and berm dug by the Roman army south of the wall.)

AELI was Hadrian's nomen, his main family name, the gens Aelia; the Roman bridge at Newcastle-upon-Tyne was called Pons Aelius.

DRACONIS can be translated as '[by the hand – or property] of Draco'. It was normal for Roman manufacturers to give their names in the genitive ('of'), and 'by the hand' would be understood. The form is common, for example, on Samian ware.

The translation, therefore, could be:

"Mais, Coggabata, Uxelodunum, Camboglanna, according to the line of the Aelian Wall. [By the hand or The property] of Draco."

Another admitted possibility is that the individual's name was Aelius Draco, which would only leave us with an unspecified vallum, 'wall', though by the example of Pons Aelius, "the Aelian Wall" is likely.


Hadrian's Wall was likely planned before Roman Emperor Hadrian's visit to Britain in 122 AD. According to restored sandstone fragments found in Jarrow that date from 118 or 119, it was Hadrian's wish to keep "intact the empire," a duty which had been imposed upon him by "divine instruction."[4] The fragments then announce the building of the wall. It is entirely possible that, on his arrival in Britain in 122, one of the stops on his itinerary was the northern frontier and an inspection of the progress of the wall as it was being built.

On his accession to the throne in 117, Hadrian had been experiencing rebellion in Britannia and from the peoples of various conquered lands across the Empire, including Egypt, Judea, Libya, Mauretania.[4] These troubles may have had a hand in Hadrian's plan to construct the wall, and his construction of limes in other areas of the Empire, but to what extent is unknown.

Hadrian's Wall was a formidable work, and it would have reflected in plain sight to the tribes the might of Rome. Once it was complete, it is thought to have been covered in plaster and then white-washed, its shining surface able to reflect the sunlight and be visible for miles around.[4]


Roman fort and town at Corstopitum

Construction probably started at some time in 122 AD[5] and was largely completed within six years.[6] Construction started in the east, between milecastles four and seven, and proceeded westwards, with soldiers from all three of the occupying Roman legions participating in the work. The route chosen largely paralleled the nearby Stanegate road from Luguvalium (Carlisle) to Coria (Corbridge), on which route were built a series of forts, including the famously excavated fort of Vindolanda. The wall in the east follows a hard, resistant igneous diabase rock escarpment, known as the Whin Sill.

The initial plan called for a ditch and wall with 80 small gated milecastle fortlets, one placed every Roman mile, holding a few dozen troops each, and pairs of evenly spaced intermediate turrets used for observation and signalling. However, very few milecastles are actually situated at exact Roman mile divisions; they can be up to 200 yards east or west because of landscape features or to improve signalling to the Stanegate forts to the south.[7] Local limestone was used in the construction, except for the section to the west of Irthing where turf was used instead, since there were no useful outcrops nearby. Milecastles in this area were also built from timber and earth rather than stone, but turrets were always made from stone. The Broad Wall was initially built with a clay-bonded rubble core and mortared dressed rubble facing stones, but this seems to have made it vulnerable to collapse, and repair with a mortared core was sometimes necessary.

The milecastles and turrets were of three different designs, depending on which legion built them — inscriptions of the Legio II Augusta, Legio VI Victrix, and Legio XX Valeria Victrix show that all were involved in the construction. All were about 539 yards apart and measured 46 square feet internally.

Construction was divided into lengths of about 5 miles. One group of each legion would excavate the foundations and build the milecastles and turrets and then other cohorts would follow with the wall construction. The whole wall and the system of forts were finished in 128 AD.

Vallum at Hadrian's Wall near Milecastle 42

Early in its construction, just after reaching the North Tyne, the width of the wall was narrowed to 8 feet or even less (the "Narrow Wall"). However, Broad Wall foundations had already been laid as far as the River Irthing, where the Turf Wall began, demonstrating that construction worked from east to west. Many turrets and milecastles were optimistically provided with stub 'wing walls' in preparation for joining to the Broad Wall, offering a handy reference for archaeologists trying to piece together the construction chronology.

Within a few years it was decided to add a total of 14 to 17 full-sized forts along the length of the wall, including Vercovicium (Housesteads) and Banna (Birdoswald), each holding between 500 and 1,000 auxiliary troops. (No regular legions were posted to duty on the wall.) The eastern end of the wall was extended further east from Pons Aelius (Newcastle) to Segedunum (Wallsend) on the Tyne estuary. Some of the larger forts along the wall, such as Cilurnum (Chesters) and Vercovicium (Housesteads), were built on top of the footings of milecastles or turrets, showing the change of plan. An inscription mentioning Aulus Platorius Nepos (Governor of Britannia 122 - 125), indicates that the change of plans took place early on. Also some time still during Hadrian's reign (before 138 AD) the wall west of the Irthing was rebuilt in sandstone to basically the same dimensions as the limestone section to the east.

The Wall from Vercovicium with the Knag Burn Gateway below

After most of the forts had been added, the Vallum was built on the southern side. The wall was thus part of a defensive system which, from north to south included:

  • A row of forts built 5 to 10 miles north of the wall, used for scouting and intelligence (for example Bewcastle Roman Fort)
  • a glacis and a deep ditch
  • a berm with rows of pits holding entanglements
  • the curtain wall
  • a later military road (the Military Way)
  • The Vallum.


Leahill 51B: a typical example of a turret

The wall was garrisoned by auxiliary units of the army (non-citizens, often Germans). Their numbers fluctuated throughout the occupation but may have been around 9,000 strong in general, including infantry and cavalry. The new forts could hold garrisons of 500 men, while cavalry units of 1,000 troops were stationed at either end. The total number of soldiers manning the early wall was probably greater than 10,000.

The garrisons suffered serious attacks in 180, and especially between 190 and 197 when the garrison had been seriously weakened, following which major reconstruction had to be carried out under Septimius Severus. The region near the wall remained peaceful for most of the rest of the 3rd century.

After Hadrian

In the years after Hadrian's death in 138 AD, the new emperor, Antoninus Pius essentially abandoned the wall, leaving it occupied in a support role, and began building a new wall called the Antonine Wall, about 100 miles further north, through the short strip between the River Clyde and the River Forth. This turf wall ran 40 Roman miles (about 37.8 miles) and had significantly more forts than Hadrian's Wall. Antoninus was unable to conquer the northern tribes, so when Marcus Aurelius became emperor he abandoned the Antonine Wall and reoccupied Hadrian's Wall as the main defensive barrier in AD 164. The wall remained occupied by Roman troops until their withdrawal from Britain.

In the late 4th century, barbarian invasions, economic decline, and military coups loosened the Empire's hold on Britain. By 410, the Roman administration and its legions were gone, and Britain was left to look to its own defences and government. Archaeology is beginning to reveal that some parts of the wall remained occupied well into the 5th century. Enough also survived in the 8th century for spolia from it to find its way into the construction of Jarrow Priory, and for Bede to see and describe the wall thus in Historia Ecclesiastica, although he misidentified it as being built by Septimius Severus:

After many great and dangerous battles, he thought fit to divide that part of the island, which he had recovered from the other unconquered nations, not with a wall, as some imagine, but with a rampart. For a wall is made of stones, but a rampart, with which camps are fortified to repel the assaults of enemies, is made of sods, cut out of the earth, and raised above the ground all round like a wall, having in front of it the ditch whence the sods were taken, and strong stakes of wood fixed upon its top.

Abandonment and decline

But in time the wall was abandoned and fell into ruin. Over the centuries the stone was reused in other local buildings.

Painting by William Bell Scott
Hadrian's Wall near Birdoswald Fort

The wall fascinated John Speed, who published a set of maps of England and Wales by county at the turn of the 17th century. He described it as 'the Picts Wall' (or 'Pictes'; he uses both spellings). A map of Newecastle (sic), drawn in 1610 by William Matthew, described it as 'Severus' Wall', thus giving it the name ascribed by Bede. The maps for Cumberland and Northumberland not only show the wall as a major feature, but are ornamented with drawings of Roman finds, together with, in the case of the Cumberland map, a cartouche in which he sets out a description of the wall itself.

Much of the wall has disappeared. Long sections of it were used for road-building in the 18th century,[8] especially by General Wade in construction of a military road (most of which lies beneath the present day B6318 "Military Road") for the purpose of moving troops to crush any renewed Jacobite insurrection.[9]


John Claydon

The preservation of much of what remains can be credited to John Clayton. He trained as a lawyer and became town clerk of Newcastle in the 1830s. He became enthusiastic about preserving the wall after a visit to Chesters. To prevent farmers taking stones from the wall, he began buying some of the land on which the wall stood. In 1834 he started purchasing property around Steel Rigg. Eventually he had control of land from Brunton to Cawfields. This stretch included the sites of Chesters, Carrawburgh, Housesteads and Vindolanda. Clayton carried out excavation work at the fort at Cilurnum and at Housesteads, and he excavated some milecastles.

Clayton managed the farms he had acquired and succeeded in improving both the land and the livestock. His successful management produced a cash flow which could be invested in future restoration work.

Workmen were employed to restore sections of the wall, generally up to a height of seven courses. The best example of the Clayton Wall is at Housesteads. After Clayton's death, the estate passed to relatives and was soon lost at gambling. Eventually the National Trust began the process of acquiring the land on which the wall stands.

At Wallington Hall, near Morpeth, there is a painting by William Bell Scott, which shows a centurion supervising the building of the wall. The centurion has been given the face of John Clayton.

World Heritage Site

Hadrian's Wall was declared a World Heritage Site in 1987, and in 2005 it became part of the transnational "Frontiers of the Roman Empire" World Heritage Site which also includes sites in Germany.[10]

Although Hadrian's Wall was declared a World Heritage Site in 1987, it remains unguarded, allowing those interested in the site full advantage of going up to, and standing upon, the wall (although this is not encouraged, as it could damage the historic structure).

On 13 March 2010 a public event Illuminating Hadrian's Wall took place, which saw the route of the wall lit with 500 beacons.

Hadrian's Wall Path

In 2003, a National Trail footpath was opened which follows the line of the wall from Wallsend to Bowness-on-Solway.[11] Because of the fragile landscape, walkers are asked to follow the path only in summer months.[12]

The remains of Castle Nick, Milecastle 39, near Steel Rigg
The remains of the fort at Housesteads
Poltross Burn, Milecastle 48
Sycamore Gap

Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about Hadrian's Wall)


  1. English Heritage
  2. Breeze, David J (1934). Handbook to the Roman Wall (14th Revised edition – November 2006). Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne. ISBN 0901082651. 
  3. Lewis and Short, A Latin Dictionary
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Anthony Everitt (2009) Hadrian and the Triumph of Rome, Random House, Inc, 448 pages, ISBN 0-8129-7814-5
  5. Breeze, D.J., and Dobson, B., 2000, Hadrian's Wall (fourth edition), London: Penguin Books, pp86
  6. Wilson, 271.
  7. Woolliscroft, D., 1989, "Signalling and the design of Hadrian's Wall", Archaeologia Aeliana 5th Series, Vol. XVII, pp5-20
  8. Hadrian's Wall, English Lakes website
  9. [1] Hadrian's Wall
  10. UNESCO World Heritage Centre. "Frontiers of the Roman Empire". http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/430/. Retrieved 2007-11-26. 
  11. National Trails. "Hadrian's Wall Path". http://www.nationaltrail.co.uk/HadriansWall/. Retrieved 2007-11-26. 
  12. Hadrians Wall Path National Trail. "Every Footstep Counts – The Trail's Country Code". http://www.nationaltrail.co.uk/HadriansWall/text.asp?PageId=27. Retrieved 2007-11-26. 


  • Burton, Anthony Hadrian's Wall Path. 2004 Aurum Press Ltd. ISBN 1-85410-893-X.
  • de la Bédoyère, Guy. Hadrian's Wall. A History and Guide. Stroud: Tempus, 1998. ISBN 0-7524-1407-0.
  • England's Roman Frontier. Discovering Carlisle and Hadrian's Wall Country. Hadrian's Wall Heritage Ltd and Carlisle Tourism Partnership. 2010.
  • Forde-Johnston, James L. Hadrian's Wall. London: Michael Joseph, 1978. ISBN 0-7181-1652-6.
  • Hadrian's Wall Path (map). Harvey, 12–22 Main Street, Doune, Perthshire FK16 6BJ. harveymaps.co.uk
  • Ritman, Lex, Eric de Noorman en Erwin de Noorman (2003)
  • Speed Maps – A set of Speed's maps were issued bound in a single volume in 1988 in association with the British Library and with an introduction by Nigel Nicolson as 'The Counties of Britain A Tudor Atlas by John Speed'.
  • Moffat, Alistair, The Wall. 2008 Birlinn Limited Press. ISBN 1 84158 675 7.
  • Tomlin, R.S.O., 'Inscriptions' in Britannia (2004), vol. xxxv, pp. 344–5 (the Staffordshire Moorlands cup naming the Wall).
  • Wilson, Roger J.A., A Guide to the Roman Remains in Britain. London: Constable & Company, 1980. ISBN 0-09-463260-X.

World Heritage Sites in the United Kingdom

BathBlaenavon Industrial LandscapeBlenheim PalaceCanterbury Cathedral, St Augustine's Abbey & St. Martin's ChurchCastles and Town Walls of King Edward ICornwall and West Devon Mining LandscapeDerwent Valley MillsDurham Castle & CathedralEdinburgh Old Town & New TownForth Bridge • Frontiers of the Roman Empire: Antonine Wall & Hadrian's WallGiant's CausewayIronbridge GorgeJurassic CoastKew GardensLiverpool Maritime Mercantile CityMaritime GreenwichNew LanarkHeart of Neolithic OrkneyPontcysyllte AqueductSt KildaSaltaireStonehenge, Avebury & Associated Sites • Studley Royal Park & Fountains AbbeyTower of LondonPalace of Westminster, Westminster Abbey & St Margaret's Church