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What was life like on Hadrian's Wall?

In the second century AD, the Emperor of Rome ordered the construction of a wall to secure the northernmost border of his empire. It was to be the greatest single building project ever seen in Europe, as Miles Russell reveals…

A silhouette of Roman soldiers against Hadrian's Wall
Published: March 29, 2022 at 3:30 pm
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General Gnaeus Julius Agricola stood before the blood-soaked heathers of Mons Graupius in the Highlands. He looked down on the mutilated bodies of 10,000 tribal Britons and over 300 Roman soldiers, and surveyed the scene.

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“An awful silence reigned on every hand,” his son-in-law, the historian Tacitus, was later to record. “The hills were deserted, houses smoking in the distance, and our scouts did not meet a soul.” It was the summer of AD 84, and the general had just countered the final act of native resistance in a war that had begun in AD 43 on the beaches of southern England. Agricola’s fleet, facing no further opposition, now circumnavigated Britain, demonstrating that the whole of the island was conquered.

The northern highlands of Scotland had caused Rome some major problems. Here, they found no great native centres to conquer or powerful kings to negotiate with. Instead, the society was decentralised and scattered. Rome’s soldiery had no real experience of guerrilla warfare – fighting an enemy that refused to come out in the open – or of operations in mountainous terrain where they could not deploy in well-ordered discipline. For the first time since it had arrived in Britain, the Roman army started to suffer significant losses.

Worse, things did not look good from an economic perspective. The land in the north was better suited to pasture than intensive crop production and, as far as Rome was concerned, there were no known valuable mineral reserves. It was apparent that maintaining a large garrison here would reap no significant financial rewards.

A 1960s depiction of Chester's Roman Fort
A 1960s depiction of Chester's Roman Fort. (Photo by English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Following Agricola’s success at Mons Graupius, the Emperor Domitian (ruled AD 81-96) declared that all of Britain had been subjugated. Given what had been achieved, this was no idle boast. The trouble was that Rome, at this time, was facing significant problems elsewhere in the Empire. ‘The British Project’ was starting to look like a huge waste of money and resources. Gradually, troops were withdrawn from the northern uplands, dismantling forts and demolishing military works as they went. By the beginning of the second century AD, the retreat had stabilised along a line running between Carlisle and Newcastle (the Tyne-Solway isthmus). All claim by Rome to land north of this was formally, if rather quietly, abandoned.

Safety matters

The political scene in Britain at this time remains mysterious, as there is little written evidence of what it was like. One source, the Roman scholar Fronto, did later note that at the start of the 120s AD: “Great numbers of soldiers were killed by the British,” in an uprising that may have spread as far south as London. Fronto’s “great numbers” of Roman fatalities may have been, specifically, a reference to the missing Ninth Legion. This particular elite fighting unit totally disappeared from army records at about this time, and the vanishing act has never been explained. While local legends endure that the battalion was ambushed by a band of northern tribal warriors, some modern historians believe the unit was removed from Britain and stationed elsewhere in the Empire. This, however, hardly seems credible given the problems in the province.

Whatever the reality of situation, things looked bad and, in the summer of AD 122, the Emperor Hadrian (r117-138 AD) thought it deserved his immediate attention. Arriving in Britain with a new Legion, the Sixth, to replace the absent Ninth, Hadrian immediately set to work. Once peace and order had been restored, he determined to set the northernmost limits of the province in monumental terms. Even today, in its semi-ruinous state, Hadrian’s Wall is an impressive and awe-inspiring monument.

The ruins of Housesteads Fort and a graphic showing the different areas
The ruins of Housesteads Fort provide insight into life on the wild frontier, click to enlarge. (Graphic for BBC History Revealed magazine, images by Getty)

The wall, which took perhaps seven years to complete, ran for a distance of 73 miles from sea-to-sea, between what is now Bowness-on-Solway in Cumbria to Newcastle in the east. Originally designed to be 3m thick and up to 7m tall, the structure comprised 800,000 cubic metres of hand-carved stone, dug from local quarries. Construction tied up troops from all three of the permanent Legions at York, Chester and Caerleon (in what is now south-east Wales). Together with the associated milecastles, turrets, outposts, ditches, roads and later forts, Hadrian’s Wall represents the greatest single building project ever undertaken in Europe.

Barbarians at the gate

Designed by Emperor Hadrian himself, the wall is more than a simple barrier. With its gates, earthworks, outlying early-warning signal towers and system of fortlets that continues west along the Cumbrian coast, it is a complex system of control. It was an architectural mechanism of shock and awe designed to maintain order along Rome’s most troublesome of borders.

It may also have had a further function: to establish a permanent militarised zone and. keep the northern tribes of Britain apart, separating those ‘inside’ from non- Roman influence beyond. This would ensure that any of the disaffected elements within the Empire were kept from potentially destabilising external forces, such as barbarian tribes. From now on, at least from the perspective of imperial spin, everything to the south was ‘Roman’ and everything to the north ‘Barbarian’.

As planned, Hadrian’s Wall possessed a gate every Roman mile (0.92 miles). Access through these gates was tightly controlled by a small garrison of soldiers housed inwhat modern archaeologists have called a ‘milecastle’. Between each milecastle were two turrets – towers built into the body of the wall – together providing continuous lines of communication and sight along the frontier. Larger bodies of troops were kept behind the wall, on the Stanegate military road, as a strategic reserve, able to swiftly deploy to areas of potential trouble.

Many of the long-term forts established along Hadrian’s Wall eventually developed civilian settlements, known as vici

Before completion, however, substantial numbers of soldiers were brought up onto the wall itself in newly built forts (the construction of which often necessitated the demolition of existing walls as well as turrets and milecastles). At the same time, certain gateways through the wall were blocked while, to the south, an extensive ditch, flanked on either side by an earth rampart, known as the vallum, was dug, ostensibly to better define the southernmost limits of the militarised zone.

The forts were occupied by auxiliary troops, with non-citizen soldiers recruited from newly conquered territories around the Empire. These were second-tier troops – less well equipped and trained than the elite Roman Legions – deployed for policing duties on the frontline. Inscriptions and religious altars recovered from the wall provide us with an idea of the diverse ethnic mix of these auxiliary units, which included Dacians (from modern-day Romania), Gauls (from France),Thracians (from Bulgaria), Tungrians (from Belgium), Syrians, Spaniards and even a detachment of specialist boatmen from the banks of the Tigris River (in modern-day Iraq).

A depiction of the Roman building of Hadrian's Wall
The vast task of Hadrian’s Wall begins. (Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)

Many of the long-term forts established along the line of Hadrian’s Wall eventually developed civilian settlements, known as vici.

The vicus is where members of the garrison would go to relax and seek entertainment, as well as where the unofficial wives and families of soldiers would live. Certain sites, such as Vindolanda, at Chesterholm to the south of Hadrian’s Wall, possessed substantial vicus developments, which sometimes grew to be larger than the parent fort.

It is possible, given the needs of a garrison and the desire to avoid travelling great distances for supplies, that civilians from all over the Empire were actively encouraged by the authorities to settle close to an army base. By the late second century AD, many such sites were spawning successful, semiautonomous communities, each supporting a diverse mix of cultures and ethnicities.


Listen | On this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast, historian Rob Collins answers the big questions on Britain’s most famous Roman fortification. He explores the boundary’s creation and purpose, as well as everyday life on the wall:

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Bucking the trend

When Emperor Claudius first initiated his invasion of Britain, Rome had a clear strategy. The plan was to militarily pacify the territory, establish firm control, delegate authority to local power structures and then remove troops to fight elsewhere. This policy may have worked successfully in other areas of the Empire but, in Britain, it did not.

This was, in no small part, due to the fact that Rome repeatedly failed to deploy sufficient resources, both to exercise permanent control of northern Britain, and to win the hearts and minds of the indigenous population. Ultimately, the cultural ‘bubbles’ of forts and their dependant vicus had comparatively little impact on the wider lands beyond. The Roman troops frequently had fine delicacies such as oysters and Mediterranean wine, imported from places as far away as Egypt and Syria. In the native areas far beyond the militarised zone, elements of the indigenous population continued to rear cattle and farm the land. Some, it is true, did move closer to the forts, in order to exploit and profit from new markets; most, it would seem, did not.

What did the indigenous Britons make of the Wall, and the soldiers that guarded it?

The long-term presence of the Roman army disrupted and stunted civilian social growth in the north of Britain. While in the south, Rome established towns and delegated authority to indigenous groups in order to help advance the Roman cause, in the north, it was another matter. Here, the army maintained control, and there was no such desire to give power to natives, in case they used it to undermine the military.

The longer the army remained in power, the more its presence suppressed the very people of native society who would normally be persuaded to become more ‘Roman’. Ultimately, Rome won the war but, in northern England and southern Scotland at least, it could never win over the hearts and minds of the Britons. Instead, many of its forts operated as secluded pockets of Roman culture, adrift within a wider native sea.

North of the Wall, the presence of the Roman military seems only to have forced the native peoples to organise themselves against their oppressors. Ever larger tribal confederacies grew, challenging the authority of the Emperor. By the third century AD, many individual tribes seem to have merged into a two greater groups, known to the Romans as the Caledonians and the Maetae.

Last frontier

Imposing as it evidently was, the border established by Hadrian could not last forever. By the late fourth century AD, the nature of security threats to the Empire had changed, as too had Rome’s ability to respond. Three centuries before, the resources that Rome had been able to commit to a project such as the invasion of Britain had appeared limitless. By the mid third century AD, the mighty Roman Empire had been brought to its knees by internal conflict, repeated barbarian invasions and the combined effects of economic stagnation, inflation, civil unrest, mass unemployment and disease.

In AD 180, a confederacy of northern tribes crossed the wall, inflicting considerable damage to the civil and military infrastructure. Further incursions occurred in the later third and fourth centuries AD, until in AD 367, the tribal invasion efforts culminated in the so-called ‘Great Barbarian Conspiracy’.

The Caledonian tribes north of the wall joined forces with tribes of Ireland (the Scots and Attacotti) and those from across the North Sea (the Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Frisians). Despite being refurbished, it was clear that Rome’s interests were drifting away from its most northern province and, by AD 410, Britain was cut free and left to defend itself. By then, many of the Wall’s soldiers had become so enmeshed with the civil population, they were little more than a citizen militia, protecting their own interests, fields and livestock. Families moved into the forts, which became strong points in the immediate post-Roman period, while the undefended vici were abandoned.

Laying empty for the first time in some 300 years, Hadrian’s great frontier development entered a lengthy period of decline and decay. The degradation would continue until, in themlate 19th and early 20th centuries, the first serious archaeological excavations began.

Miles Russell is a senior lecturer in prehistoric and Roman archaeology at Bournemouth University

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This article first appeared in the December 2015 issue of BBC History Revealed

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