With all the various anniversaries being celebrated in the UK this year one significant anniversary in British heritage has been overshadowed.
Hadrian’s Wall is one of the UK’s most famous historical sites. It is named after the Roman Emperor Hadrian who ordered it to be built when he visited Britain in 122 AD, 1,900 years ago this year. Construction began almost immediately and it probably took six years to complete in its original form. So, Happy 19th Centenary Hadrian’s Wall.
When Donald Trump declared that he was going to build a wall along the US-Mexico border people laughed at the idea and said it would be impracticable, but the idea of building a wall to separate communities isn’t new. Look at the Great Wall of China and the Berlin Wall.
In 2017 I wrote about another significant legacy made by Hadrian during his visit to Britain – the establishment of Britannia as the female personification of the island.
There’s actually very little recorded information about Hadrian’s visit, though some details can be surmised by what happened and what changed after he left. First of all, we don’t know what time of year he visited. It was probably in June, and he didn’t come alone. As with all imperial visits there was a huge retinue of officials and servants and around 3,000 soldiers. There was also the Regio VI Victrix, the Victorious 6th Legion. Hadrian’s choice to bring the 6th Legion was significant because some historians believe that part of this legion was already stationed in northern England helping the diminishing 9th Legion (the alleged “lost” legion) to defend the empire’s northern border.
The Romans had ventured into the Scottish Lowlands, but withdrew south of a Roman road called Stanegate which ran horizontally across part of northern England. Hadrian was aware of the various skirmishes his army had with tribes from the Lowlands. These skirmishes had died down by the time he arrived in Britain, but it is clear that he intended to mark the northern border of the Roman Empire with a wall.
Hadrian’s movements in Britain are very uncertain. We have no surviving itinerary or full account. We are fairly sure that he visited York, or Eboracum as the Romans called it, because he ordered the building of a temple to the new goddess Britannia. This may have been on his way up to, or down from, Vindolanda.
Vindolanda was a major fort on Stanegate. It was a wooden fort which had just been rebuilt to house the Cohort of Tungrians, a thousand infantry men from the region of Belgium. There’s archaeological evidence that a luxurious new building was being constructed around the time of Hadrian’s British visit. It was too lavish for even a provincial governor so it must have been intended for someone of the highest importance – like the emperor.
Hadrian and his massive entourage sailed from Boulogne to the south coast of Britain and went by carriage train to London. The 6th Legion, however, continued to sail up the coast to the River Tyne.
When he arrived at Vindolanda, Hadrian had a look at the defences, and even though he probably didn’t need it, he decided to have a wall built across the country just north of the Stanegate road. Historians think this was a means of marking the northern border of the Roman Empire rather than a defence measure to keep the northern tribes out of England. There are indications that there was some movement of people, for trade and immigration to some degree, both ways across the wall.
The 6th Legion began to construct the wall almost immediately. Hadrian didn’t hang around long after that. The wall took about six years to complete and there were another ten years of modifications. It may seem strange to us today, but originally there were no forts planned for the wall. They were thought of as building progressed.
Since its first completion Hadrian’s Wall has been a significant structure on the landscape, earning an iconic place in British history. So iconic, in fact, that the great walls featured in “Game of Thrones” is based on it, and it is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
After the Romans left Britain in 410 AD the wall fell into disrepair. It was an ideal source for building stone by the local Britons. Thankfully, it was such a substantial structure that large parts of it remain, helped by the fact that there is very few settlements in that part of the country. The remains of many of the wall’s structure exist underground and archaeologists are constantly discovering new facts about the wall and Roman life.
Needless to day, there have been anniversary events held along the whole length of the wall this year. There are also several re-enactment groups who stage several events every year. Hadrian’s Wall is one of the places I have yet to visit even though it has been on by bucket list of British heritage sites I want to see.
So happy 1900th birthday, Hadrian’s Wall.