There are many impressive remnants of the Roman Empire dotted across Europe, but Hadrian’s Wall stands out as an especially remarkable testament to the enormous scale of the Romans’ ambitions. Though much of the wall has disappeared from view over the centuries, the expanses that still remain leave us with an imposing reminder of a great empire’s sprawling northern frontier.
The wall marked the northwestern border of an empire which, at the height of its powers, stretched all the way to North Africa and the deserts of Arabia. Its construction more or less coincided with the height of the Roman Empire.
When Emperor Hadrian ascended to the throne in 117 AD, the empire had already reached the point of its greatest geographic extension. This had been achieved during the reign of Hadrian’s predecessor, Trajan, who was dubbed “optimus princeps” (best ruler) by the Roman Senate – in part for his impressive expansionist achievements.
Hadrian was not long into his reign when work on the wall commenced in the year 122. Though the reason for its construction remains the subject of debate, it was clearly a bold statement and an assertion of Hadrian’s ambition to maintain control of the farthest reaches of his empire.
Where is Hadrian’s Wall?
The wall stretches across the breadth of northern England, from Wallsend and the banks of the river Tyne on the eastern North Sea coast to Bowness-on-Solway and the Irish Sea in the west.
The eastern end of the wall, at modern-day Wallsend, was the site of Segedunum, an expansive fort which was likely surrounded by a settlement. The wall originally terminated at Pons Aelius (modern-day Newcastle-upon-Tyne) before a four-mile extension was added in around 127.
The wall’s route extends across Northumberland and Cumbria, where the fort of Maia (now the site of Bowness-on-Solway) once marked its western end.
Forts and milecastles were constructed along the length of the wall, ensuring that the entire frontier was well monitored. Milecastles were minor forts that housed a small garrison of around 20 auxiliary soldiers. As the name suggests, milecastles were situated at intervals of around one Roman mile. Forts were substantially bigger, typically hosting around 500 men.
How long is Hadrian’s Wall?
The wall was 80 Roman miles (mille passum) long, which equates to 73 modern miles. Each Roman mile was considered to be the equivalent of 1,000 paces. So, for any Fitbit enthusiasts reading this, you should clock up 80,000 steps by walking the length of the wall – at least according to Roman calculations.
A more useful estimate for anyone interested in walking the length of the wall today is offered by Ramblers.org. The website reckons you should allow six to seven days to walk the Hadrian’s Wall path, a popular hiking route that runs alongside the wall.