Who built Handrian's Wall?

It was one thing for an emperor to conceive of a Wall, quite another for it to be built. The construction of Hadrian’s Wall was a colossal undertaking. Who undertook it?

Fortunately for us Roman culture placed no premium on modesty. Achievements in the Roman World, whether in public office, or in construction, were to be acclaimed and commemorated publicly. And there is a lot of evidence for the individuals who built the Wall. As you might expect, most of those attested are soldiers. We will discuss Rome’s army in Britain extensively next week, but for the moment, note that there is a striking pattern to the evidence. Inscriptions where a unit can be identified refer to units that consisted only of citizen soldiers – the legions. Three legions are known to have helped build the Wall, Legio VI Victrix (which arrived in Britain c. AD 122, just in time to start work on the Wall), Legio XX Valeria Victrix and Legio II Augusta.

By contrast the non-citizen units of the army, the auxiliaries, are very rarely recorded explicitly on inscriptions recording the initial building of the Wall. Indeed, the only inscription we have recording the work of an auxiliary unit at this time records not the building of the Wall, but the cutting of a ditch. Why? It is often assumed that this is because the legions were the only units with engineering specialists in their ranks, but other factors were probably at work. During later rebuilding work even labourers sent from southern towns are documented building stretches of Wall. Later we do in fact see auxiliaries undertaking building projects on the Wall, including the internal buildings of far greater structural complexity than the curtain walls and turrets the legionaries had once so proudly built.

In this video we see something of the challenges of Wall building and some of the inscriptions that record the builders themselves.

© Newcastle University

The ultimate barrier? Hadrian's famous curtain wall

The curtain wall, the most famous and instantly recognisable part of Hadrian’s frontier system, has fascinated visitors to northern England for generations.

It certainly looks as though it could present a formidable obstacle, but recent excavations have raised important questions as to just what its purpose really was. Large and imposing it may have been, but could such a wall really have stopped a determined army, or even a small group of fast moving raiders? Excavations at the eastern end of Hadrian’s Wall, at the aptly named Wallsend, have revealed more of the original wall, but also mysterious features on the berm, the strip of ground that lies between the wall and the ditch that ran along its northern side. How should these be interpreted? In this evidence we look at the Wall at Wallsend as it appears in both its surviving state and as a full scale model.

Any attempt to understand the role of the curtain wall must, of course, take into account the structures attached to it -the turrets, milecastles and forts which we will discuss in our next steps- but the question of linear barriers also touches on another unique feature of Hadrian’s Wall, the remarkable earthwork that runs immediately to its south known as the Vallum.

With its deep ditch, paralleled to the north and south by earthen banks, the Vallum must have been a major barrier in its own right. It was built within a few years of the Wall, blocking almost all access to the Wall from the south, and then slighted (cut through) when the army moved into Scotland. What does its shape, location and history suggest about Roman thinking on movement and control on the Tyne-Solway line?

For a magnificent technical guide to the Wall we recommend Breeze, D. J., 2006 (ed.) J. Collingwood Bruce’s Handbook to the Roman Wall, now out of print but some copies still available directly from the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle Upon Tyne: Newcastle Upon Tyne

© Newcastle University

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