10 Facts About The Antonine Wall

Tristan Hughes

4 mins

04 Mar 2019

Hadrian’s Wall was one of the most formidable frontiers in the Roman Empire. Stretching 73 miles, from the east to the west coasts of northern England, it was a powerful symbol of Roman resources, of military might.

Yet it was not the only monumental Roman barrier on this far flung part of the Empire. For a short period the Romans had a further physical frontier: the Antonine Wall.

Although less well known than its famous cousin further south, this fortified turf and timber wall stretched from the Firth to the Clyde at the neck, the Isthmus, of Scotland.

Here are ten facts about Rome’s northernmost frontier.

1. It was constructed 20 years after Hadrian’s Wall

The wall was ordered by the Emperor Antoninus Pius, the successor to Hadrian and one of the ‘Five Good Emperors’. Construction of Antoninus’ namesake wall began in about AD 142 and followed the southern side of the Midland Valley.

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2. It stretched from the Clyde to the Firth

Stretching 36 miles, the wall overlooked the fertile Midland Valley and dominated the neck of Scotland. A British tribe called the Damnonii inhabited this area of Scotland, not to be confused with the Dumnonii tribe in Cornwall.

3. 16 forts were situated along the wall

Each fort consisted of a front-line auxiliary garrison that would have endured a gruelling daily service: long sentry duties, patrols beyond the frontier, maintaining the defences, weapons training and courier services to name just a few expected duties.

Smaller forts, or fortlets, were situated between each main fort – the equivalent of the milecastles the Romans placed along the length of Hadrian’s Wall.

Forts and Fortlets associated with the Antonine Wall. Credit: myself / Commons.

4. The Romans had previously ventured even deeper into Scotland

The Romans had established a military presence north of the Antonine Wall during the previous century. In the early 80s AD, Gnaeus Julius Agricola, the Roman governor of Britannia, lead a sizeable army (including the famous Ninth Legion) deep into Scotland and crushed the Caledonians at Mons Graupius.

It was during this campaign that the Roman regional fleet, the Classis Britannica, circumnavigated the British Isles. Roman marching camps have been discovered as far north as Inverness.

Agricola also planned an invasion of Ireland, but the Roman Emperor Domition recalled the victorious governor to Rome before it could materialise.

5. It represented the northernmost physical frontier of the Roman Empire

Although we have evidence of temporary Roman presences north of the Firth-Clyde neck, the Antonine Wall was the northernmost physical barrier in the Roman Empire.

6. The structure was predominantly made from wood and turf

A picture showing the ditch that stretched in front of the Antonine Wall, visible today near Rough Castle Roman fort.

Unlike its more famous predecessor further south, the Antonine Wall was not constructed primarily out of stone. Although it had a stone base, the wall consisted of a strong timber palisade protected by turf and a deep ditch.

Because of this, the Antonine Wall is much less well-preserved than Hadrian’s Wall.

7. The Wall was abandoned in 162…

It appears the Romans were unable to maintain this northern barrier and the front-line garrisons withdrew to Hadrian’s Wall.

8. …but Septimius Severus restored it 46 years later

In 208, the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus – originally from Lepcis Magna in Africa – arrived in Britain with the largest campaigning force ever to set foot on the island – some 50,000 men backed by the Classis Britannica.

He marched north into Scotland with his army and re-established the Antonine Wall as the Roman border. Along with his infamous son Caracalla, he led two of the most brutal campaigns in history beyond the frontier to pacify two Highland tribes: the Maeatae and the Caledonians.

Because of this some refer to the Antonine Wall as the ‘Severan Wall.’

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9. The Wall’s reoccupation proved only temporary

Septimius Severus died at York in February 211. Following the soldier emperor’s death, his successors Caracalla and Geta were far more interested in establishing their own power bases in Rome rather than return to Scotland.

The huge force assembled in Britain thus gradually returned to their own home bases and the northern border of Roman Britain was once again re-established at Hadrian’s Wall.

10. The Wall was commonly called Graham’s Dyke for many centuries because of a Pictish legend

The legend goes that a Pictish army led by a warlord called Graham, or Grim, broke through the Antonine Wall just west of modern day Falkirk. The 16th century Scottish historian Hector Boece recorded the legend:

(Graham) brak doun (the Wall) in all partis so halelie, that he left na thing thairof standing… and for that cause this wall wes callit efter, Grahamis Dike.

An engraving by an unknown artist of the Antonine / Severan Wall.

Top Image Credit: The Antonine Wall ditch looking west at Roughcastle, Falkirk, Scotland..