Hadrian's Wall as we call it today, is a structure that crosses England, it is 73.5 miles or 117 kilometres long.
The wall contains milecastles every roman mile, a little shorter than our modern mile and in between these, 2 turrets, there were a few forts along the wall to start, the number of forts being increased later to 16 or 17. Behind the wall there are additional large forts on a supply road and between these at a days marching distance, smaller forts or marching camps. In front of the wall on the western side are three forts. Some think there were other early warning forts at intervals at around 8 to 10 miles north of the wall along the walls length.
The eastern end of the wall was originally of stone and the western end where there was no natural rock, it was made of turf, with stone milecastles and turrets. Later much of this was rebuilt in stone.
Today we refer to the rear ditch and bank structure as the vallum but the Romans called the whole wall structure "Vallum Aelium". At other times the wall was also known as the the Picts or Pictes wall and Severus wall, the Pictes name spelt two ways is shown in early maps from the beginning of the 17th century, and Severus on a map of Newcastle from 1610. Bede far earlier in Historia Ecclesiastica 1.5, gives an account of how the wall came about and credited its creation to Emperor Severus.
The initial design started in the east at Pont Aelius where Newcastle upon Tyne now stands, and proceeded west. It was later decided to extend it 4 miles to the east to Segedunum - Wallsend 5 years later in about 127AD, this was probably done so as to protect the river crossing at Pont Aelius. The new section of wall was built in the narrow width used further west. A section of wall ran from the fort out into the river, which is tidal to at least the lowest tidal point.
Well before the wall there was a main Roman supply road the 'Stanegate', this ran from the River Tyne to the Solway Firth. The fort at Roman Vindolanda (Chesterholm) stands about mid way along this vital supply road with the forts and roman towns at Carlisle to the west and Corbridge and Arbeia to the east. Smaller forts and marching camps would have been every days march, about 13 miles along the road. The wall is positioned just to the north of this, in some cases sharing bridges between the road and wall, while at other times the wall following the highest ground is a little way to the north, but never very far away. The original forts at Vindolanda and Corbridge both predate the wall.
The stanegate road does not exist as such today, although most of its route is known. The road that most see is the B6318 that runs near and in places on top of the wall. This was the military road that was created far later after an Act of Parliament in 1751 to prevent the recurrence of events that happened in 1745 when Bonnie Prince Charlie took over north west England and the Hanoverian commander Marshal Wade was stuck at Newcastle as the road to Carlisle was not up to supporting the artillery. The farmers were far more willing to sell land for the road over the stony wall area, so for many miles it runs on top of the road, the wall being saved where it went onto higher ground. The military road can still be traced going across the B6318 to Birdoswald Roman Fort and the small road that continues from it past the surviving turrets, some on one side of the road and some on the other. For many years until the road was tarred, the stone wall could be seen in the base of the military road. Although the creation of the military road caused very many miles of wall to be destroyed, it also allows us far easier access to most parts that remain.
Hadrian's Wall was never a frontier in the modern sense of the end of a territory, the Romans operated well north of the wall at all times and had many forts and camps north of the wall. It was more a case of policing and tax gathering.
Most of the forts have a very similar look and layout, most are shaped like playing cards,, rectangular with rounded corners, most have 4 gateways, while some cavalry forts have 6, 3 either side of the wall.
Prior to the reign of Hadrian, the Roman Empire had been in a constant expansionist phase, they had intended to take the whole of the island of Britain and was planning a trip on to Ireland. They had fort lines and had carried out actions through much of Scotland, but it was not as easy to fit into the Roman world model as the areas further south. Their model was not to replace existing rulers but to turn them into puppet administrators, with most of their benefits intact but protected from aggression from others. Further north into the Scottish Highlands this model did not work as people were scattered and far more independent, so policing, administering and tax collecting was more expensive than the revenue produced.
Hadrian decided to consolidate the Empire and ordered the building of Roman Frontiers, not only in Britain but for thousands of miles in Europe and North Africa.
The line across the country was placed logically north of its main northern supply road but near enough to it to allow it to be used to construct the wall and supply forts. The line chosen follows the highest ground, even when doing so goes up and down extreme sections, and they could so easily have avoided this. Although a very long military structure it was designed to be able to be defended from aggressors on either side. If one mile fort for example came under attack from the south, men could come out of the northern gates of others and along the north of the wall to provide reinforcements.
Hadrian's successor in turn decided to move the line up further and the Antonine Wall was built, in this period many of the Hadrian's Wall forts were not occupied, although the wall was maintained. Later they abandoned the Antonine Wall and went back to Hadrian's Wall before going back again to Antonine Wall and finally back again to Hadrian's Wall.
Having built the wall, over the rest of the time the Romans were here Hadrian's Wall was breached on at least three occasions. Twice with damage to the wall when the garrisons were away. It was therefore necessary to keep large numbers of men in the line of forts. The wall was substantially damaged a number of times and had to be rebuilt. We know only of the times the wall was broken and needed to be rebuilt, what we do not know was how many unsuccessful attacks there were on the wall.
Different sources have slightly different dates and events, and not much is known of the wall area for periods while the Antonine Wall was in use. The location guide on Corbridge also contains quite a lot of history, and I have not duplicated this here.
The main events in the history of the wall are shown below, which is at least a basic flavour of what was happening at the time.
Over the many years that elapsed, many forts were rebuilt a number of times, Vindolanda (Chesterholm) perhaps 10 times, Corbridge 5 times and many of the bridges show remains from at least three bridges on the sites. In addition to these complete rebuilds there were many smaller alterations, or changes of use. In addition, our understating of what was happening and the use of buildings is patchy, often with assumptions and many errors.
Sycamore Gap as featured in Robin Hood film
Although much has been destroyed or built on, over the years, there is also a lot left, and of this some can be visited and seen exposed, some we can read about from past digs, and there are ongoing excavations and in some sites will continue to be excavated for over 100 years to come, while some other sites still have to be investigated. A lot of the forts are still just humps and bumps in fields.
We can explore this period in the Hadrian's Wall area by visiting:-
Identifying the locations that you may like to visit can be done by using Hadrian's Wall - Featured Places, or the Hadrian's Wall Route Guide, both of which link to very many individual location guides with photos and links, in many to picture galleries with more.
Some of our location guides tell you a great deal more of what was happening in that particular location, our guide on Corbridge Roman Town explains the sequence of forts and development of the town, as well as what you can see today, and the guide on the Temple of Mithras gives you a background to the religion involved and its similarities with other religions.
To assist you we have produced a range of information on Hadrian's Wall.
Over time more information will be added.