Hadrian’s Wall (Latin: Vallum Aelium, “Aelian Wall” – the Latin name is inferred from text on the Staffordshire Moorlands Patera) was a defensive fortification in Roman Britain. Begun in AD 122, during the rule of emperor Hadrian, it was the first of two fortifications built across Great Britain, the second being the Antonine Wall, lesser known of the two because its physical remains are less evident today.
The wall was the most heavily fortified border in the Empire. In addition to its role as a military fortification, it is thought that many of the gates through the wall would have served as customs posts to allow trade and levy taxation.
A significant portion of the wall still exists, particularly the mid-section, and for much of its length the wall can be followed on foot by Hadrian’s Wall Path or by cycle on National Cycle Route 72. It is the most popular tourist attraction in Northern England. It was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. English Heritage, a government organisation in charge of managing the historic environment of England, describes it as “the most important monument built by the Romans in Britain”.
It extended west from Segedunum at Wallsend on the River Tyne, via Carlisle and Kirkandrews-on-Eden, to the shore of the Solway Firth, ending a short but unknown distance west of the village of Bowness-on-Solway.
Although the curtain wall ends near Bowness-on-Solway, this does not mark the end of the line of defensive structures. The system of Milecastles and Turrets is known to have continued along the Cumbria coast as far as Maryport. For classification purposes, the Milecastles west of Bowness-on-Solway are referred to as Milefortlets.
It is a common misconception that Hadrian’s wall marks the boundary between England and Scotland. This is not the case; Hadrian’s wall lies entirely within England, and south of the border with Scotland by less than one kilometre in the west at Bowness-on-Solway, and 110 kilometres (68 mi) in the east.
Hadrian’s Wall was likely planned before Roman Emperor Hadrian’s visit to Britain in AD 122. According to restored sandstone fragments found in Jarrow that date from 118 or 119, it was Hadrian’s wish to keep “intact the empire,” which had been imposed upon him by “divine instruction.” The fragments then announce the building of the wall. It is entirely possible that, on his arrival in Britain in 122, one of the stops on his itinerary was the northern frontier and an inspection of the progress of the wall as it was being built.
Although Hadrian’s biographer wrote “(Hadrian) was the first to build a wall 80 miles long to separate the Romans from the barbarians”, reasons for the construction of the wall vary, and no recording of any exact explanation survives. However, a number of theories have been presented by historians, primarily centering around an expression of Roman power and Hadrian’s policy of defense before expansion. For example, on his accession to the throne in 117, Hadrian had been experiencing rebellion in Roman Britain and from the peoples of various conquered lands across the Empire, including Egypt, Palestine, Libya and Mauretania. These troubles may have had a hand in Hadrian’s plan to construct the wall, and his construction of limes in other areas of the Empire, but to what extent is unknown.
Scholars also disagree over how much of a threat Scotland actually presented, and whether there was any more economic advantage in defending and garrisoning a fixed line of defenses like the Wall over simply conquering and annexing the Scottish Lowlands and manning the territory with a loose arrangement of forts. The limes of Rome were never expected to stop whole tribes from migrating or entire armies from invading, and while a frontier protected by a palisade or stone wall would surely help curb cattle-raiders and the incursions of other small groups, the economic viability of constructing and constantly manning a 72-mile (116 km) long boundary along a sparsely populated border to stop small-scale raiding is dubious.
Construction probably started sometime in AD 122 and was largely completed within six years. Construction started in the east, between milecastles four and seven, and proceeded westwards, with soldiers from all three of the occupying Roman legions participating in the work. The route chosen largely paralleled the nearby Stanegate road from Luguvalium (Carlisle) to Coria (Corbridge), upon which were situated a series of forts, including Vindolanda. The wall in the east follows a hard, resistant igneous diabase rock escarpment, known as the Whin Sill.