Hadrian’s Wall is both the best-preserved frontier of the Roman Empire and one of Britain’s most awe-inspiring historic landmarks. Tracing an unlikely coast-to-coast path across some of northern England’s most rugged terrain, its enduring presence on the British landscape serves to remind us of a time when Britannia was the northern outpost of a mighty, continent-straddling empire.
As a lasting testament to the sprawl and ambition of Roman imperialism, Hadrian’s Wall takes some beating. Here are 10 facts about it.
1. The wall is named after Emperor Hadrian, who ordered its construction
Emperor Hadrian ascended to the throne in 117 AD, a time when the north-west frontier of the Roman Empire was experiencing unrest, according to some historians. It’s likely that Hadrian conceived of the wall as a response to such troubles; the structure acted as an imposing statement of the empire’s power and a deterrent to rebellious incursions from the north.
2. It took around 15,000 men about six years to build
Work commenced on the wall in 122 AD and was completed around six years later. It goes without saying that a construction project of such nation-spanning proportions required significant manpower. Three legions – comprised of around 5,000 infantrymen each – were employed to take care of the major construction work.
3. It marked the northern frontier of the Roman Empire
At the peak of its powers, the Roman Empire stretched from northern Britain to the deserts of Arabia – some 5,000 kilometres. Hadrian’s Wall represented the northern frontier of the empire, marking out a section of its limites (a border, typically incorporating military defences), which can still be traced in the remains of walls and fortifications.
Limes Germanicus marked the empire’s Germanic frontier, Limes Arabicus the limits of the empire’s Arabian Province, and Fossatum Africae (African ditch) the southern frontier, which stretched for at least 750km across northern Africa.
4. It was 73 miles long
The wall stretched from Wallsend and the banks of the River Tyne near the North Sea to the Solway Firth in the Irish Sea, essentially spanning the entire breadth of Britain. It measured 80 Roman miles (mille passum), each of which was the equivalent of 1,000 paces.
5. It doesn’t mark the border between England and Scotland, and never has
It’s a popular misconception that Hadrian’s Wall marks the border between England and Scotland. In fact, the wall predates both kingdoms, while substantial sections of modern-day Northumberland and Cumbria – both of which are located south of the border – are bisected by it.
6. The wall was garrisoned with soldiers from across the Roman Empire
These auxiliary soldiers were drawn from as far afield as Syria.
7. Only 10% of the original wall is now visible
Unsurprisingly, much of the wall has failed to survive the last 2,000 years. In fact, it’s estimated that – for various reasons – around 90 per cent of it is no longer visible.
For centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire, the wall was used as a quarry and mined for stone to build castles and churches. It wasn’t until the 19th century that archaeologists and historians took interest in the remains and efforts were made to protect it from further damage.
8. Forts and milecastles were positioned along the length of the wall
Hadrian’s Wall was far more than just a wall. Every Roman mile was marked by a milecastle, a minor fort that housed a small garrison of around 20 auxiliary soldiers. These guarded outposts enabled the length of the frontier to be monitored and the cross-border passage of people and livestock to be controlled, and probably taxed.
Forts were more substantial military bases, thought to have hosted an auxiliary unit of around 500 men. The wall’s most notable and best-preserved fort remains are the sites of Chesters and Housesteads in modern-day Northumberland.
9. There’s still much to learn about Hadrian’s Wall
Historians are convinced that important archaeological discoveries are yet to be uncovered in the vicinity of Hadrian’s Wall. The recent discovery of extensive civilian settlements, seemingly built around the wall’s forts, hint at its ongoing archaeological relevance.
10. George R. R. Martin was inspired by a visit to Hadrian’s Wall
Game of Thrones fans might be interested to learn that a visit to Hadrian’s Wall in the early 1980s provided the inspiration for George R. R. Martin’s fantasy novels. The author, whose books were adapted into the enormously successful television series of the same name, told Rolling Stone magazine:
“I was in England visiting a friend, and as we approached the border of England and Scotland, we stopped to see Hadrian’s Wall. I stood up there and I tried to imagine what it was like to be a Roman legionary, standing on this wall, looking at these distant hills.
“It was a very profound feeling. For the Romans at that time, this was the end of civilization; it was the end of the world. We know that there were Scots beyond the hills, but they didn’t know that.
“It could have been any kind of monster. It was the sense of this barrier against dark forces – it planted something in me. But when you write fantasy, everything is bigger and more colourful, so I took the Wall and made it three times as long and 700 feet high, and made it out of ice.”