Though long since reduced to ruins, the line of Hadrian’s Wall is still visible through the countryside of northern England, from Bowness on the west coast to Wallsend on the east coast. It remains one of the most impressive and fascinating accomplishments of Rome’s skilled military engineers. Here are some facts you might not know about the Roman Empire’s most northerly line of defence.
Building the Wall
1 Construction of the wall was ordered in AD 122 by Emperor Hadrian, for whom it is named. According to his later biographer, he built the wall to separate the civilised world of the Romans from the barbarians living beyond it.
2 The idea of a defensive line running from east to west across northern Britain was influenced by an existing line of forts , the Stanegate Frontier. But while Hadrian’s Wall to some extent followed this model, it was built further north.
3 The original plans called for the wall to be 10 Roman feet wide – around 3 modern metres – all along its length. But while some parts were built this thick, doing so everywhere proved impractical. In other places, narrower walls 6 or 8 feet thick were built on foundations matching the original measurements. At other points, the original foundations and position were entirely abandoned so that the wall could be built on higher ground.
4 Like many Roman construction projects, Hadrian’s Wall was built by soldiers. The three legions stationed in Britain at the time – II Augusta, VI Victrix and XX Valeria Victrix – built the wall which they would help to defend. As in battle, the unit structure of the legions came in handy, and the work was split into parts that could each be done by a single century of 80 men.
What the Wall was Like
5 The wall was 80 Roman miles long – 117 kilometres or 73 miles in modern measures.
6 It ran along the crests of hills whenever possible, adding to its height. This made it both more imposing and more defensible.
7 Most of the wall was made of stone, but 31 miles of defences at the western end were originally made of weaker stuff, in the form of ramparts made of timber and turf. These were replaced over time, one of the several changes the wall went through in its years of use.
8 The foundations of the wall were cobblestone, even on some stretches where the wall itself was not made of stone.
9 The stone parts of the wall were built around a core of rubble, allowing them to be built thickly at relatively low cost. This was covered in faces of cut stone joined together with lime mortar, for a solid finish.
10 To make the wall even more intimidating it was whitewashed. The white painted stone, therefore, stood out against the surrounding landscape, a clearly manmade feature, and one that the people living to the north could never have imagined building for themselves.