Spanning 73 miles across the north of England, Hadrian’s Wall – built 122 CE -marked the limit of the Roman Empire and imprinted upon the English countryside a lasting mark of Roman rule. Its ruins line the English hills from Newcastle to Carlisle, dotted with museums and gift shops, and its legacy is carried out most famously in George R. R. Martin’s international bestseller Game of Thrones in the form of ‘The Wall’. Today, the wall is notable for its age, scale, and impact on popular culture. But it was also famous to contemporaries. Some Romans made their own souvenirs; for example, they created small pans which had the names of forts inscribed upon them. Interestingly, this is not known to have occurred at any other Roman frontier. But why was Hadrian’s Wall built? And what can it tell us about the everyday lives of those who lived, worked, and fought there?
For three hundred years, Hadrian’s Wall was the north-west frontier of the vast Roman Empire, which had reached its greatest geographical extent under the previous emperor, Trajan. Building began in 122 CE, with Roman legions using local stone and turf to construct it over a six-year period. However, to call the structure a wall undermines the complexity of its systems and functions. Along the wall stood sixteen forts full of Roman soldiers as a method of defence and communication. In addition, forts were often accompanied by a vicus, a small settlement of the wives, children, and partners of the soldiers nearby. As a result, diverse communities emerged along the Wall and engaged in trade and communication. Further, Hadrian’s Wall was joined by earthworks, ditches, and major roads, rendering it a key Roman site at the edge of the empire.
There are two primary reasons for the construction of Hadrian’s Wall: to defend and to control. According to the Historia Augusta, Hadrian travelled around Rome’s conquered lands, reaching Britain in 122 CE. Whilst in Britain, Hadrian ‘corrected many abuses’ and constructed the Wall in order to ‘separate the Barbarians from the Romans’. Barbarians here referred to people from what is now Scotland, who were considered to be unruly, rough, and troublesome. Indeed, raids against Roman frontiers were common, and the stationing of forts manned by hundreds of armed auxiliaries suggests that a primary function of the Wall was to defend. However, it does not seem that keeping out the Scots was the only motivation to build Hadrian’s Wall. Indeed, the Historia Augusta also highlights that Hadrian, ‘more than any other emperor’, made a distinct effort not to ‘purchase or maintain anything that was not serviceable’. This suggests, then, that Hadrian’s Wall served to limit the extension of the Roman Empire, preventing it from expanding unnecessarily–and unprofitably–into the unruly land of the Scots. This was in direct contrast to the actions of the previous emperor, Trajan, who was responsible for expanding the empire to its greatest extent. In this way, Hadrian’s Wall was designed to serve the dual functions of keeping northern tribes out and keeping the empire in.
While Hadrian’s Wall served to limit the Roman Empire, it also encapsulated the vastness and diversity of the conquered peoples and acted as a hub for a number of peoples serving various different roles. The wall was built by three legions of infantrymen from the army of Britain and was manned by auxiliaries. In this way, the wall saw troops from a variety of backgrounds during its three-hundred-year occupation. For example, archaeological excavations of the Housesteads site, upon which the ruins of a Roman fort remain, uncovered a small class of hand-built pottery with aspects unique to the terp settlements of Leeuwarden and Paddepoel in Friesland. This suggests that Frisian soldiers and families were stationed in Housesteads and brought their pottery practices with them. This displays the interconnectedness of the Roman Empire through military activities and highlights the cultural mixing which occurred upon the wall. Further, the presence of a vicus in the vicinity of a fort fostered diverse and complex communities with craftsmen, local tribes, officials and soldiers and families from across the empire living together.
Hadrian’s Wall, therefore, was a complex system designed both to defend and control its north-western frontier. It served, also, as a symbol representing the vastness and the diversity of the Roman empire, creating unlikely communities and forging cultural links. However, there is more to learn about this historic wall. There are archaeological gaps in our current knowledge, and future research promises a closer insight into the Wall and its forts, and therefore into the diverse range of people that the Wall impacted.
Written by Amy Hendrie
English Heritage, ‘History of Hadrian’s Wall’ Accessed January 15, 2022 https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/hadrians-wall/hadrians-wall-history-and-stories/history/
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