Hadrian’s Wall is the remains of stone fortifications built by the Roman Empire following its conquest of Britain in the second century A.D. The original structure stretched more than 70 miles across the northern English countryside from the River Tyne near the city of Newcastle and the North Sea, west to the Irish Sea. Hadrian’s Wall included a number of forts as well as a ditch designed to protect against invading troops. The remnants of a stone wall are still visible in many places.
Contrary to popular belief, Hadrian’s Wall does not, nor has it ever, served as the border between England and Scotland, two of the four countries that make up the United Kingdom. However, it does hold significance as a UNESCO World Heritage site and a major tourist attraction.
Romans Invade Britain
The Romans first attempted to invade the island now known as Britain in 55 B.C., while under the rule of Emperor Julius Caesar.
Although Caesar’s military maneuver was unsuccessful, the armies of the Roman Empire again made a move to conquer the island, which was populated and governed by various Celtic tribes, at the order of Emperor Claudius, in A.D. 43.
Claudius sent Aulus Plautius and some 24,000 soldiers to Britain, and by A.D. 79 they had gained control of the territory that now makes up Wales and southern England. However, they were still meeting fierce resistance from Celtic warriors in what is now northern England.
Under the rule of Emperor Vespasian, the Romans desperately wanted the region now known as Scotland to be part of their growing empire. However, the Scottish fighters, known as Caledonians, fought steadfastly.
It wasn’t until Roman soldiers, under the leadership of Julius Agricola, defeated the Caledonians, killing some 30,000 in A.D. 81, that the empire could consider at least part of Scotland under its control. Still, the Caledonians who survived Agricola’s onslaught fled into the hills and remained stubborn opponents of the Romans.
Over the ensuing decades the Caledonians continued to be troublesome, mounting numerous attacks on the northern outpost of the empire.
By the time Emperor Hadrian came to power in 117, the Romans no longer sought to expand their territory. Instead, they wanted to protect what they had—from the Caledonians and others.
Under Hadrian’s orders, the Roman governors of Britain began building the wall that would later be named for the emperor to defend the part of Britain they controlled from attack. In Hadrian’s words, they wanted to “separate Romans from the barbarians” to the north.
Scholars believe the wall may have also served as a means of restricting immigration and smuggling into and out of Roman territory.
Where Is Hadrian’s Wall?
Hadrian’s Wall is located near the border between modern-day Scotland and England. It runs in an east-west direction, from Wallsend and Newcastle on the River Tyne in the east, traveling about 73 miles west to Bowness-on-Solway on Solway Firth.
The wall took at least six years to complete. Construction started at the east end and moved westward. The work was completed by Roman soldiers.
Historians believe the original plan was to build a wall of stone or turf, fronted by a wide, deep ditch. The wall would feature a guarded gate every mile, with two observation towers in between each gate.
Ultimately, 14 forts were added to the wall, and were augmented by an “earthwork” known as the Vallum to the south. It is essentially a large mound designed to serve as another defensive bulwark.
Of all of these structures, only a portion of the original wall and the Vallum remain.
Although the path of Hadrian’s Wall skirts what is now the border between England and Scotland in some places, the wall is a substantial distance from the modern borderline in others. Thus, it never served a role in the drawing of the present-day border.
Despite the significant undertaking in its construction, Hadrian’s successor as Roman head of state, Antoninus Pius, abandoned the wall following the former’s death in A.D. 138.
Under Antoninus’ orders, Roman soldiers began building a new wall some 100 miles to the north, in what is now southern Scotland. This became known as the Antonine Wall. It was made of turf and was roughly half the length of Hadrian’s Wall, although it featured more forts than its predecessor.
Like the emperors before him, Antoninus was never able to truly defeat the northern tribes, and construction of the Antonine Wall was ultimately abandoned as well.
That a portion of Hadrian’s Wall remains standing today has largely been attributed to the work of John Clayton, an official in the city government of Newcastle and an antiquities scholar, in the 19th century.
To prevent area farmers from removing the stones in the original wall to build homes and/or roads, Clayton began buying up the surrounding land. He started farms on the land and used proceeds from these farms to fund restoration work on Hadrian’s Wall.
Although much of the land was lost after Clayton’s death in 1890, the National Trust of the United Kingdom, a conservation organization, began re-acquiring it piecemeal in the 20th century.
Hadrian’s Wall Walk
Hadrian’s Wall was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987. It remains unguarded, meaning tourists visiting the site have unfettered access, despite concerns over damage. When London hosted the Summer Olympics in 2012, Hadrian’s Wall was part of an art installation called “Connecting Light.”