Hadrian's Wall


By Adrian Goldsworthy

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From an award-winning historian of ancient Rome, a definitive history of Hadrian’s Wall

Stretching eighty miles from coast to coast across northern England, Hadrian’s Wall is the largest Roman artifact known today. It is commonly viewed as a defiant barrier, the end of the empire, a place where civilization stopped and barbarism began. In fact, the massive structure remains shrouded in mystery. Was the wall intended to keep out the Picts, who inhabited the North? Or was it merely a symbol of Roman power and wealth? What was life like for soldiers stationed along its expanse? How was the extraordinary structure built — with what technology, skills, and materials?

In Hadrian’s Wall, Adrian Goldsworthy embarks on a historical and archaeological investigation, sifting fact from legend while simultaneously situating the wall in the wider scene of Roman Britain. The result is a concise and enthralling history of a great architectural marvel of the ancient world.



55 BC Julius Caesar raids south-eastern Britain
54 BC Julius Caesar launches a larger expedition to south-eastern Britain but leaves before the end of the year
27 BC–AD 14 Augustus becomes Rome’s first emperor. Although the poets write excitedly about the conquest of Britain, he does not attempt this.
41–54 Reign of Emperor Claudius
43 The Emperor Claudius sends a large army to invade Britain. Over the next few years, the south-east is overrun and occupied by Rome. Many communities and leaders welcome the Romans and ally with them, while others fight but are overcome.
54–68 Reign of Emperor Nero
60–61 Rebellion led by Queen Boudica causes widespread destruction in the south. She is defeated and the revolt crushed with considerable savagery. There is never again a rebellion against Roman rule in southern Britain.
c. 72–73 The Romans build a fort at Carlisle. This is part of a wider occupation of what will become northern England.
78–84 Governorship of Julius Agricola and a period of aggressive campaigning in what will become Scotland. This culminates in a victory at the battle of Mons Graupius (location unknown). Bases are built in the coastal plain of south-eastern Scotland north of the River Forth, including the legionary fortress at Inchtuthil.
c. 86–87 Bases north of the Forth are abandoned by the Roman army as the garrison of Britain is reduced from four to three legions.
98–117 Reign of Emperor Trajan. The major military operations of this period are on the Danube and later in the east. Little is known about Britain in these years, and the garrison was probably reduced to two legions. There are hints of some outbreaks of warfare in northern Britain.
c. 106 The Roman army abandons most of its remaining bases in southern Scotland. A line of forts is occupied along the line of the Stanegate Road, just south of where Hadrian’s Wall will be built. It is not clear when the road itself was built.
117–138 Reign of Emperor Hadrian. He abandons Trajan’s conquests in the east and oversees a period of stability and consolidation on the frontiers. Much of his reign is spent touring the provinces. Trouble in northern Britain is attested at the start of his reign, and at least one other conflict probably occurred there during his reign.
122 Hadrian visits Britain. Legio VI Victrix is added to the provincial garrison. At some point before or during his stay, Hadrian orders the construction of Hadrian’s Wall.
138–161 Reign of Antoninus Pius. Unlike Hadrian, Antoninus Pius spends his entire reign in Italy. Early on in his reign, there may well have been a major war in northern Britain. The decision is made to decommission Hadrian’s Wall, and the army constructs the Antonine Wall on the Forth-Clyde line.
158 Building work attested on Hadrian’s Wall. Around this time the Antonine Wall is abandoned—either late in the reign of Antoninus Pius or early in the reign of his successor, Marcus Aurelius. Hadrian’s Wall once again becomes the main component of the frontier.
161–180 Reign of Marcus Aurelius. During his reign, the empire is subject to successive outbreaks of plague that result in a heavy death toll. There is also a spate of serious warfare on the Danubian frontier. Trouble in northern Britain is likely early in his reign and perhaps later on.
180–192 Reign of Commodus. Trouble in northern Britain, resulting in at least one serious Roman defeat and the death of a legate before the situation is restored.
184 Coins issued commemorating a victory in Britain.
197–211 Reign of Septimius Severus. Victor in a prolonged civil war, Severus spends much of his reign consolidating his hold on power. There was a major attack on the province of Britain from tribes to the north at some point early in his reign.
208–211 Septimius Severus leads a major expedition to Britain and campaigns against the Caledonians. He dies at York.
Third Century Almost nothing is known about events in northern Britain for the remainder of the century.
293–305 Constantius, the Caesar (or junior emperor) in the west, campaigns in Britain on more than one occasion, dying at York.
306–337 Reign of the Emperor Constantine, who in a succession of civil wars gains control of the entire empire. He converts to Christianity, ending centuries of sporadic persecution of the religion.
314 Constantine takes the title Britannicus Maximus, which may hint at a successful war in Britain.
360 Picts and Scots raid northern Britain.
367 Picts, Scots, and a group called the Attacotti, about whom little is known, launch major raids on the province of Britain. A significant proportion of Rome’s scouts and spies collaborates with them. One Roman commander is killed in a heavy defeat, but eventually Roman dominance is restored.
382 Magnus Maximus campaigns against Picts and Scots after a renewed burst of raiding. His victory encourages him to declare himself emperor, and he is defeated and killed in Italy six years later.
410 Traditional date for end of Roman rule in Britain. The reality is less neat, but from around 407, no new coinage arrives in Britain, suggesting an end to the formal administration and payment of officials and soldiers. Without this infrastructure, Britain effectively ceases to be a province.


‘Just when you think you are at the world’s end, you see a smoke from East to West as far as the eye can turn, and then, under it, also as far as the eye can stretch, houses and temples, shops and theatres, barracks and granaries, trickling along like dice behind—always behind—one long, low, rising and falling, and hiding and showing line of towers. And that is the Wall!’

‘Ah!’ said the children, taking breath.

‘You may well,’ said Parnesius. ‘Old men who have followed the Eagles since boyhood say nothing in the Empire is more wonderful than first sight of the Wall!’1

I SUSPECT THAT HEARING MY father read these words to my brother and me at bedtime was the first time that I ‘saw’ the Wall. These days Kipling is not very fashionable, so I wonder how many children hear or read Puck of Pook’s Hill, but I remember loving these stories of English history, and most of all the three chapters where Parnesius, centurion of the Thirtieth Legion, tells his story. The Romans have always had an appeal for me that is hard to explain, although part of it is that they came to where I lived, which made them somehow more real and part of ‘my’ history.

Parnesius was a likeable hero, as much a first-rate British subaltern in late-nineteenth-century India as he was a Roman officer, and his story was full of wars and battle, which always have a great pull on a boy’s imagination. Reading the story now, some of it is odd, such as the appearance of the ‘winged hats’—Vikings a few centuries early—to dominate the Picts and lead them against Hadrian’s Wall, which they then try to capture tower by tower. Yet, as is often the case with Kipling, there are moments where you still feel that he found the essence of a time or place, and this passage is one of them. His Wall is a bit higher than the real thing, while so far there is no trace of a Roman theatre along it, and we now know that by the late fourth century, when the story is set, the civilian settlements outside forts were greatly diminished or had vanished altogether, and most of the turrets had been demolished. Even so, the picture he paints of a bustling, raucous community of soldiers and civilians drawn from all of the empire and now living on its distant northern frontier probably contains a lot of truth for much of the Wall’s history.

In the years after hearing Parnesius’s story, I have read more about the Wall, starting while still very young with Ladybird’s Julius Caesar and Roman Britain, in which I crossed out the H from the label on the maps behind its front and back covers to re-name the structure ‘Adrian’s Wall’. At the time this seemed hilarious. Later I moved on to ever more serious and scholarly works. My first visit came after wheedling my parents into diverting from the quickest route on the return journey from a family holiday in the north of Scotland. Decades later, I am still reading and still learning, and have visited sites on the Wall many times, but that first glimpse described by Parnesius to the children in the story is always at the back of my mind. Hadrian’s Wall is special, not only to those of us interested in Ancient Rome and the Roman army, but more widely.

This snowy scene reminds us that Hadrian’s Wall stands in a bleak landscape, where the weather is often wet and sometimes cold. This is Milecastle 42 (Cawfields), one of the best-preserved examples of these small fortlets spaced every Roman mile along the Wall. Environmental evidence suggests that the climate in northern Britain c. AD 100 was a little milder than it is today, but within a few generations it had changed to be much like the modern climate. Most of the soldiers stationed on the Wall came from the northern provinces of the empire, so they were accustomed to the conditions.

Hadrian’s Wall, begun c. AD 122 and on which work continued for much of the next two decades, stretched for some seventy-three miles (118 km) from coast to coast across northern Britain. Although this is impressive, in size it is dwarfed by the complex of fortifications making up what we know as the Great Wall of China, which was also in use for far longer than the ‘mere’ three centuries or so of Hadrian’s Wall. The Wall lay on the fringe of Roman Britain, itself on the fringes of the Roman Empire, the frontiers of which ran for thousands of miles, along great rivers, through mountains and deserts. Hadrian’s Wall was one small component of the empire’s border control and defence, and rarely would it have occupied the thoughts of the emperors who ruled this vast empire.

All this is true, but the Wall is still special because it is unlike any other Roman frontier. Nowhere else were the defences so elaborate or monumental in scale, nor is there so much archaeology to see in so small an area. In a way, the Wall figures larger in our sense of the Roman world than it surely did to the Romans, much as provincial and rather vulgar Pompeii and the more sophisticated Herculaneum have shaped our ideas of Roman city life and art because of the catastrophe that led to their remarkable preservation. Because so much of the ancient world is lost forever, the sites that survive often assume far greater importance than they ever possessed when they were living communities. In 1987, Hadrian’s Wall was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site (incorporated into the broader Frontiers of the Roman Empire World Heritage Site in 2005), which acknowledged its importance. Over 90 percent of it is now invisible on the ground, and yet even so it is the largest of the many monuments left by the Roman Empire and one of the most famous.

It is also one of the most frequently visited, drawing people to walk the Hadrian’s Wall path or look at the excavated remains of forts and the Wall itself. If it lacks the intimate detail and dramatic story of Pompeii and Herculaneum, or the obvious history and importance of Rome itself, or the spectacle of theatres, amphitheatres, temples, or aqueducts dotted around the old empire, still tens of thousands come every year to see it. Most go to the central sector, where more of the Wall is exposed and it snakes across a landscape of dramatic ridges and crags. It is very rare to see a photograph of other sections of the Wall, so people are usually surprised to learn that for most of its length it crossed gentler rolling countryside, or that in the far west, its last few miles ran close to the sea along the shore of the Solway Firth. The Wall itself was also part of a much larger network that included military bases, towns, and roads to the north and south, and military installations along the Cumbrian coast in the west. Because it was occupied by the Romans for the best part of three hundred years, generations of soldiers and civilians, of provincials and local peoples lived their lives on and around the Wall and the broad military zone it created.

In most people’s minds the purpose of any wall is fairly simple, especially one of the sheer size of Hadrian’s Wall. A wall is a barrier, dividing one side from the other, and for many the idea persists that it was built ‘to keep the Scots out’—or Picts, for those with slightly more sense of history. Hadrian’s Wall can be seen as the end of the empire, where civilization stopped and barbarism began—although today’s fashionable hostility to empires no doubt will incline many to sympathise more with the so-called barbarians.

This bronze head from a larger-than-life-sized statue of the Emperor Hadrian was found in the River Thames. Hadrian came to Britain in AD 122, only the second emperor to visit the island as emperor, as part of a series of tours that took him to almost all of the provinces in his empire. Hadrian was the first emperor to sport a beard, reflecting his lifelong devotion to Greek culture. A clever man, Hadrian took a great interest in detail, and it is clear that he was directly involved in many aspects of the planning of Hadrian’s Wall. This, as well as local conditions, may explain why the Wall is unlike any other frontier installation in the rest of the empire.

Archaeologists know that the truth is different and a good deal more complicated, but they will also admit that there is much about the Wall, its purpose, and its operation that we do not understand. Only a tiny fraction of the literature of the ancient world has survived into the modern era. These texts mention Hadrian’s Wall no more than a handful of times, and the sole surviving statement about its purpose claims that Hadrian built the Wall ‘to separate the barbarians from the Romans.’ The comment is brief and was written down some two hundred years later by an author notorious for his inaccuracy and inventions, so that it is a sign of the extreme poverty of sources that we make use of it at all. It is only in recent years that we have evidence that it may indeed have been named after the emperor who ordered its construction, although using his family name Aelius rather than Hadrianus. The Vallum Aelium or ‘Wall of Aelius’ kept this name for only a generation or so, and afterwards was called simply the Vallum.2

Hadrian’s Wall can only be understood by examination of its physical remains, backed by inscriptions, finds from the sites along it, and comparison with what we understand of the Roman army and the Roman world from other places and sources. Yet no other Roman frontier was quite like Hadrian’s Wall, making direct analogy difficult, while debates over its function strike to the heart of wider debates over how the Roman Empire worked. Excavation has provided a lot of information, even though older reports are often frustratingly vague in their recording and the result of less sophisticated methods. Archaeological investigation is expensive, and these days, funding is in short supply and work on the Wall less fashionable than it deserves to be. Even so, where work occurs, it continues to produce surprises that fundamentally alter our understanding of the Wall.

Frustratingly incomplete as our evidence is, we face an even greater problem because almost all of it deals solely with the Roman side of things. The Iron Age peoples living to the north of the Wall are poorly understood. Roman sources give us the names of tribes and some places, but we can never be sure whether these reflect the reality, because outsiders so often misunderstand other cultures. Far more settlements have been located than used to be known, suggesting that at least some parts of what would become Scotland were relatively densely populated, while environmental evidence suggests that some regions were also extensively cultivated for some of the Roman period. Iron Age sites are difficult to date with the sort of precision that might allow us to relate developments in settlement north of the Wall to the Roman frontier’s purpose and day-to-day functioning.

We really do not know enough about the political and military practices of the tribes to describe the threat they posed to the Romans—or for that matter the threat the Romans posed to them. Wars were fought between the Romans and the tribes in the second, third, and fourth centuries AD, but, as we shall see, very little is known about any of them. Raiding appears to have been common—perhaps universal—in Iron Age Europe, so we would expect to find this small-scale military activity in northern Britain, but extending what we know of ‘Celtic’ society elsewhere (which in itself comes largely from the viewpoint of Greco-Roman outsiders) to the peoples of the north must only be done with caution. Linguistic links may not necessarily reflect a common political and military culture, but in the end we simply do not know. Thus, we must do our best to reconstruct the story of Hadrian’s Wall, knowing that at most we have mere glimpses of only one side of the story. Whatever military threat existed—or was perceived by the Romans—can only be conjectured by looking at the methods they used to deal with it.

With Hadrian’s Wall there are few definite answers, many theories, and even more questions. This book cannot hope to explore them all in detail, but its aim is to give an idea of how scholars try to understand the Wall and its place in the wider history of Roman Britain. Rather than qualify every statement, sometimes the book will reflect my own judgement on the most likely interpretation, but the works cited in Suggestions for Further Reading at the end of the book will allow interested readers access to the considerable literature on each subject.

My central premise is that Hadrian’s Wall and all the installations associated with it were intended to assist the Roman army in performing the tasks assigned to it in northern Britain. Soldiers were not there to serve the Wall, but the Wall was there to serve them. This may seem obvious, but there is always a danger that physical remains take over our thoughts at the expense of the human beings whose activities and lives leave less tangible reminders. The sheer scale and longevity of Hadrian’s Wall make it clear that it performed a practical function and that—at least most of the time—it performed it well. That much we can say with confidence, but understanding just what that function was and how it developed over time is much like trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle when most of the pieces are missing and without the picture on the box to serve as a guide.

Note on measurements:

1 Roman mile = 1,618 yards or 0.92 imperial or US miles = 1.479 km.

1 Roman foot = 11.64 imperial or US inches = 29.6 cm.

WALL MILES: IN THE TWENTIETH century, a scholarly convention was created to ease the identification of sections of Hadrian’s Wall and the installations along it. This was based around numbering milecastles from 0 at Wallsend in the east to 80 at Bowness-on-Solway in the west. The stretch between each milecastle became a Wall mile, with Wall mile 1 beginning at Wallsend and extending westwards. All numbers of turrets and milecastles derive from this system.



BRITAIN WAS A LATE ADDITION to the Roman Empire, conquered at a time when expansion was becoming rare, but the actual conquest in AD 43 was not the first military contact between the empire and the Britons. Almost a century before, Julius Caesar, then proconsul (or governor) of Gaul, landed in the south-east in 55 BC and again in 54 BC. He beat down the fierce resistance of the local tribes and accepted their submission, but did not choose to stay over the winter and never returned. News of Caesar’s expeditions to the mysterious, almost mythical island that lay out in the encircling oceans surrounding the three continents known to the Greeks and Romans was greeted at Rome with euphoria—on a scale almost akin to the moon landing in 1969. The Senate suspended public business for twenty days of official thanksgiving, an unprecedented celebration far grander than any awarded to mark victories in much more important wars in the past. Practical results and profits were less impressive. The orator Cicero noted that there was no silver, nor ‘booty except for slaves; but I doubt we’ll find any scribes or musicians amongst them.’1

Caesar was one of the gifted and ambitious commanders who conquered large swathes of territory on behalf of Rome’s Republic. Rome was founded in the eighth century BC, at first one small Latin city among many. Over time it grew, displaying from very early on a unique talent for absorbing others. By the third century BC, Rome controlled virtually all of the Italian Peninsula, and hundreds of thousands of people who were not ethnically Latin, let alone ‘Roman’, were Roman citizens. Former enemies became allies and, after a generation or so, often citizens who shared in the responsibilities and profits of expansion.

Rome’s Republic was led in peace and war by elected magistrates, drawn from the wealthiest citizens and predominantly from a small group of aristocratic families. Former magistrates provided the bulk of the Senate, some six hundred senior statesmen whose role was to advise and guide the magistrates and the popular assemblies, which actually had the power to pass laws. The system was designed to prevent any individual or group from gaining permanent supreme power, which meant that many provincial governors went out to their provinces eager to win glory in the short time before they were replaced. Aggression and conquest were not constant, but over time the empire controlled by the Roman Republic grew. In the second century BC, the Republic came to dominate the Mediterranean, and soon its legions advanced far from its shores. Conquest brought vast wealth and glory to a few of the aristocracy, raising them above their peers and putting a heavy strain on the system.

The winters in northern Britain were less harsh than in some of the frontier zones in Europe, and sometimes the sun shone. This is Milecastle 39, with the waters of Crag Lough in the background. The Wall itself snakes along the top of the crags towards Housesteads fort, just over two miles to the east beyond the horizon. Note that the milecastle is not on the higher ground, which means that it does not possess optimal views to the north. Similarly, its northern gate led to a very steep slope, utterly impractical for horses, let alone carts.


  • "For those touring the wall or armchair travelers, this book will be an excellent guide and entertaining read for Roman military history fans."—Library Journal
  • "An appealing, detailed history of the largest monument left by the Roman Empire."—Kirkus Reviews
  • "Adrian Goldsworthy has done it again! He has taken a well-known topic in Roman history and breathed new life into it. Goldsworthy has given us an easily-accessible study that takes the best and most up-to-date scholarship on the subject and has put it into an eminently readable narrative for the general public. If you can only own one book on Hadrian's Wall, this is it." —Col. Rose Mary Sheldon, Virginia Military Institute
  • "Hadrian's Wall is a short and sparkling introduction to the great wall of the Roman Empire, written by a master historian. Adrian Goldsworthy cuts through the myth without losing the magic. This is a lucid account of the people, purpose and places of one of the world's most famous military structures."—Barry Strauss, Cornell University, author of The Death of Caesar: The Story of History's Greatest Assassination
  • "They must have wondered, those rude Picts and Caledonians, when they looked up at Hadrian's Wall, at what sort of a giant serpent had come into their land. And we still wonder at the Wall, as every generation of excavators digs up more puzzles than they solve, and our confident, modern, small questions-How was it built? -have monstrously transformed over the generations into those that the awed barbarians themselves might have asked: What did it intend? What was it for? And so, we are thankful for the guidance of Adrian Goldsworthy, for his clear thinking, his calm judgment, and his crystal prose. If anyone can explain the vast Roman Wall, if anyone can answer the barbarians' questions, it is he." —J. E. Lendon, University of Virginia, author of Song of Wrath: The Peloponnesian War Begins and Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity

On Sale
Apr 10, 2018
Page Count
192 pages
Basic Books

Adrian Goldsworthy

About the Author

Adrian Goldsworthy is an award-winning historian of the classical world. He is the author of numerous books about ancient Rome, including Hadrian’s Wall, Caesar, How Rome Fell, Pax Romana, and Augustus. Goldsworthy lives in South Wales.

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