What is Hadrian’s Wall and why was it built?

Hadrian’s Wall – history, construction, & significance

When the Roman Empire finally conquered Britain, it decided to fortify its territories against attacks from their enemies – a mark to signify the territorial end of Roman civilization. Constructed in 128 AD during the reign of Emperor Hadrian, the Wall covered 73 miles of English lands.

Today, Hadrian’s Wall (or what’s left of it) serves a much different purpose. It is a significant part of Britain’s history and serves as one of its major tourist attractions. Read on to explore the wall’s rich history as well as how it served the empire for more than two centuries:

The Roman Invasion of Britain

Roman rule in Britain ended in the 5th century AD

It was during the reign of Julius Caesar that the Romans made initial attempts to conquer Britain. They were unsuccessful and Rome only gained foothold by the first century AD.

By 43 AD, during the reign of Emperor Claudius, the Romans had begun chalking real success in the conquest of Britain. They secured many victories against the Celtic tribes that inhabited the island.

Years later, Emperor Vespasian embarked on a campaign to include Scotland in their territory but was defeated by the Caledonians.

By 81 AD, the Romans, under Emperor Julius Agricola, defeated the Caledonians and seized parts of Scotland. But the Caledonians – at least those who survived – continued to fight for their land and would frequently wage attacks against the Roman settlements in the south of Britain.

Emperor Hadrian & the Construction of Hadrian’s Wall

Since the reign of Augustus in the late first century BC, Rome devoted tremendous amount of resources in expanding the boundaries of the empire.

However, when Hadrian came to the throne in 117 AD, he realized that the empire was getting too stretched, and that there needed to be some kind of physical barrier to separate and protect Rome’s so-called civilized world from the “barbarians”. His predecessor, Trajan, is credited with expanding the size of empire to its greatest extent in history.

Desiring nothing than to hold those newly-won territories together, Hadrian conceived of the Hadrian Wall, a fortification to secure Rome’s north-western province.

So, Hadrian ordered the Roman governors posted to Britain to mount a wall as part of the empire’s defense plan against what they saw as dark forces.

According to some historians, in addition to separating Romans from the barbarians, the wall was erected to limit smuggling and immigration into the territory.

Emperor Hadrian’s goal was to keep the empire stable and secure. This meant cutting back on Rome’s expansionary activities and protecting the gains chalked up by his predecessors.

Hadrian (76-138) succeeded Trajan in 117 AD. Trajan was Hadrian’s adoptive father and distant cousin. He was known for his love for architecture and probably designed or helped in the conceptualization of the wall. During his reign (from 117 to 138), the Roman Empire had little interest in claiming more lands in Britain. They decided to defend what they had, especially from the Caledonians and other enemies in the northern Britain. Image – Bust of Hadrian, c. 130

Location of the Wall

The construction of Hadrian’s Wall, as it was aptly called, took six years to complete after Emperor Hadrian visited Britain.

In modern times, the remains of the wall are located close to the English and Scottish border; starting eastwards from Wallsend and Newcastle all the way to Bowness-on-Solway, a small northwestern English village along the Solway Firth estuary, which flows into Scotland.


The initial designs had planned for the wall to be built out of stone or turf with security gates placed at every mile, as well as two observation towers located between two gates.

By the time construction had been completed, there were 14 forts in total, and these forts were supported by bulwarks known as Vallum, which was a common fortification used in Roman camps. In contemporary times, much of the remains of Hadrian’s Wall consist of the Vallum and sections of the original wall.


The builders placed a milecastle every mile. Those garrisons could accommodate about 20 soldiers each. In total, about 14 forts were erected along the Wall. The forts could accommodate about 500 men each.
A gate was also placed every mile along the wall. Those gates, complemented by observation towers, were at all times guarded.

The length of Hadrian’s Wall covered 73 miles (or 80 Roman miles). In its earlier plans, its width was expected to be 10 feet but was reduced to about 8 feet, and in some terrains, the width was further reduced.

Some sections of the wall were also initially constructed with wood or turf but they were later replaced with stone. According to Saint Bede, who was an English monk and historian, the wall’s height was 12 feet and believed that it might have been higher in its early years after construction.

Historical Significance of the Wall

Despite some sources claiming that construction began after Hadrian’s visit in 122 AD, it’s very likely that construction began much earlier in 118 or 119. Based on sandstone fragments that had been discovered in the South Tyneside town of Jarrow, it had long been Hadrian’s wish to build a wall. In some accounts, it is said that the emperor saw the wall as a “divine instruction.”

According to the “Historia Augusta”, which is a collection of Roman biographies, Hadrian wanted to build the 80-mile (Roman mile) wall to protect the Roman empire from the barbarians. By barbarians, Hadrian and Rome were referring to the Caledonians, a group of tribes in what is today’s Scotland that constantly attacked the northern province of Rome. While it’s likely factual, many other historians believed that Hadrian had other motivations for the construction of the wall.

Around the time that he was made emperor, there had been occurrences of unrest within several Roman territories, including Britain, Judea, Egypt, Mauretania, and Libya. These events might have also influenced Hadrian’s desire to build the wall, as well as many other boundary lines across the Roman Empire.

With the wall finally constructed, the Romans oversaw who could enter or leave its territories. It helped the empire have complete control over its economy and trades.

The six-year construction of the wall also gave more work to the Roman soldier who might have otherwise grown bored.

The Wall After Emperor Hadrian’s Rule

When Hadrian died in 138 AD, Antoninus Pius succeeded him. But the latter wasn’t interested in continuing Hadrian’s work in terms of marking the boundary of the empire. Therefore, Antoninus ordered the construction of the Antonine Wall (located in southern Scotland). This new wall was nearly half as long as Hadrian’s Wall but it had more forts.

Pius never completed construction of the wall. He was also unsuccessful in his quest to conquer the northern tribes in Britain. Later emperors shifted their focus back to Hadrian’s Wall. Because it had been abandoned, the wall had suffered some slight deterioration. In order to restore the structure, the Romans set off to rebuild the Vallum.

Hadrian’s Wall and Antonine Wall

The wall underwent another significant change in 180 AD when local tribes crossed it and attacked Roman troops. By the 2nd and 3rd centuries, many structural changes continued to take place. The builders turned the small forts into pedestrian walkways. Through major changes and maintenance, most of these forts stood for as long as 300 years.

Much of what is left of Hadrian’s Wall exists today thanks to the works of John Clayton, who was a city official and scholar in the 1800s. He purchased most of the lands to prevent local farmers from taking out stones from the wall. Clayton then farmed on the lands he purchased and used the profits generated to restore some sections of the wall.

Interesting Facts about Hadrian’s Wall

Hadrian’s Wall was also a symbol of the empire’s strength and determination to protect its territories. Here are some interesting facts about the wall:

It took about 14,500 men to build the Wall

The total number of men that built the wall: The number men that built the wall was in the region of 14,500. It’s said that three Roman legions, with each legion composed of about 5,000 men, completed the wall in about six years. Roman auxiliary soldiers were stationed on Hadrian’s Wall and the various forts that lined the border. Image – Miniature figures of Roman auxiliary cavalry.

The Roman soldiers – comprising three legions of about 5,000 men each – constructed Hadrian’s Wall between 122-128 AD. Following its construction, auxiliary soldiers, especially those from Syria, were stationed along the wall.

The Clayton Collection located at the Chesters Roman Fort provides visitors with the names of army generals/centurions who led their men in the construction of the wall. According to the document, each centurion was assigned a length of wall to construct and at the end of their project, inscribed their names in the stone.

The men who manned the wall

Hadrian’s Wall was built by legionaries and manned by auxiliaries. The Romans deployed between 500 to 1000 infantrymen, as well as infantry or cavalry, to the Wall. Those soldiers were mainly drawn from Rome’s north-western provinces.

Forts were not initially in the plan

Forts were only included in the building of the fort when construction had begun. The forts were extremely useful and served as homes to many settlers.

Life was fairly comfortable for the Roman soldiers stationed on the wall

For many of the soldiers stationed at Hadrian’s Wall, life was relatively comfortable and even luxurious. Some forts had heating systems and others, like the Housesteads Roman Fort, had flushing toilets.

Not many people associate the ancient Romans with hamburgers. But historical findings reveal that most of these people ate burgers or at least some variation of it. However, it was more likely to be served as a meal for the upper classes instead of the Roman soldiers.

Hadrian Wall is not a border between England and Scotland

One of the most common misconceptions of the Roman world is that Hadrian’s Wall serves as a border between England and Scotland. Although certain portions of the wall are close to the English-Scottish border, in other areas, the wall is situated at a further distance from modern borders. Beside, England and Scotland would not come into existence until several centuries later.

The Wall is a small part of a bigger frontier

As imposing as Hadrian’s Wall might have been, it was only a small section of a much larger wall. By the 2nd century AD, the Roman Empire’s frontier covered over 3000 miles. The remains of the frontier can be seen in most of the empire’s former territories, including modern-day Germany, Turkey, Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya.

Only 10% of the Wall survived

After over 2000 years, the majority of Hadrian’s Wall has weathered away, with only 10% of the original structure in existence today. The Wall’s deterioration was further caused by inhabitants in the area who used the stones from the Wall to construct their houses.

Clayton discovered human remains

Clayton and his workers discovered a bathhouse while restoring the drainage of the Chesters Fort. Even more surprising was the discovery of over 30 human skeletons. However, not much is known about the bodies.

Vallum Aelii

According to an inscription found in the area, the Romans called the wall vallum Aelii, a reference to Emperor Hadrian’s family name. The emperor’s family was from Italica in the Roman province of Hispania Baetica (located in today’s Spain).

It’s a UNESCO Heritage Site

In modern times, Hadrian’s Wall serves as one of Britain’s cultural icons, as well as one of its major tourist attractions.

In 1987, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Antonine Wall was also named a UNESCO site in 2008. In 2017, the site was featured on “The Guardian’s Where to Go in 2017” list.

The wall is also one of the most explored frontiers of the Roman Empire. This explains why archeologists and historians alike have unearthed many findings and items from the area. Those materials have proved useful in gaining a better understanding of Roman culture and the empire itself.

Appearances in popular culture and fantasy

Hadrian’s Wall was a 73-mile wall that represented the north-west frontier of the Roman Empire for many centuries.

  • Over the years, Hadrian’s Wall has inspired many authors and served as the setting for many books, including “The Eagle of the Ninth” and “A Song of Ice and Fire.” The wall has also made appearances in films like “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves”, “The Eagle”, and “King Arthur.”
  • Renowned American fantasy novelist George R.R. Martin took a great deal of inspiration from Hadrian’s Wall when he visited the place in the 1980s. In his book “A Song of Ice and Fire”, the Wall, similar to Hadrian’s Wall, was aimed at keeping malignant forces out of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. Martin describes this fictional wall, which is made out of ice, as three times longer and 700 feet taller than Hadrian’s Wall. 
  • Hadrian’s Wall makes another appearance in the video game “Assassin’s Creed Valhalla”, as well as the award-nominated board game “Hadrian’s Wall.”

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