The Romans in Britain site main banner

The Romans in Britain site main banner

Check out some great books and help the site! I have chosen these books as among the best to illustrate this subject.

Britain under Hadrian


By the start of the second century AD. the extensive building program continued. It is apparent that many Roman institutions were rebuilt or repaired about this time. The changes at Caerleon were already underway by 100 AD., Chester around 102, and York about 107.

The attitude of the Romans had also changed. Campaigns to conquer and take land had been replaced by programes to educate the British in Roman ways. The army's forts had become quarters. The military presence was taking on a whole. less aggressive role.

The Romans too were changing. By the first quarter of the second century, their forces were being withdrawn from Scotland. There is evidence of the abandoning and destruction of forts along the border, though there is little recorded about this. We do know that the Romans had pulled back from the east of Scotland and taken up a line roughly drawn from Carlisle to Corbridge known as the 'Stanegate Frontier'. It was not until the arrival of the Emperor Hadrian that firm action was taken on the Scottish situation Trajan died in 117 AD. This marked an end of a period in Roman Britain when the military had withdrawn from Scotland and conquests had been replaced by the education of the British people. While the Roman Empire was expanding in the rest of the world, Britain was experiencing a period of consolidation.

The backgound to Hadrian

Hadrian had a different style altogether. Much of his reign was spent traveling the provinces, making personal inspections. His presence amongst the frontier armies was good for morale and his reputation. The changes brought about by Nerva and Trajan enabled him to turn away from Roman politics and focus his attention on what he was best at. Rebuilding civil and military life and consolidating the frontiers. Hadrian was, like Trajan, from Spain, which meant he was only the second Emperor from a province to attain this high level of authority.

Trajan had stood for the Roman way of life and everything that went with it. Despite having a provincial background, he was a true Roman. He believed the Roman cause was best served by extending the empire by conquest. He was of the old school that felt family values were paramount and that a leader should be remembered by his deeds.

Hadrian, on the other hand, was a more complex character who pulled away from the Roman belief that conquest of other countries was a prime requisite of being Roman. Though in all other respects, he followed the ideals of Trajan as far as building and family values were concerned. His studies of Greek life and architecture influenced his building style. He was not in total agreement with the Senate, but he was the type of leader that was needed at this present time. One who believed in reforming the system and bringing al the people in the provinces under one Roman nation.

It was now that the Roman Empire ceased to spread to foreign lands. It is argued that this change of stance was the first sign the Roman Empire was going soft. There are many who see this as the seeds of self destruction being sown. Even so, the changes were brought about entirely on a voluntary basis, the Romans having decided it was time to change. The peace lasted for something like three quarters of a century, before rebellious elements began to manifest themselves.

From the very start of his reign, Hadrian was to find that conflicts were on the horizon. There were three uprisings to quell, and the manner of his own succession was thrown into question. It had been the accepted practice for the outgoing Emperor to name his own successor before leaving office. In this case, is was rumoured that Trajan had not named Hadrian. This led to a conspiracy by four of his leading ex-consuls. They were condemned by the Senate and summarily executed.  Even so the suspicions were abound and this was a slight on his record so soon after taking office.

Hadrian was an Emperor of the people, both military and civil. His journeys away from Rome visiting the provinces. It was suggested that the capital of the Roman Empire was wherever he may be. It seemed that Rome did not need a static Emperor, but could be run from anywhere within it's boundaries.

Hadrian arrives in Britain

Britain was not in the best of health when Hadrian took control. He visited Britain in 122 AD., by which time the country had been through a period of unrest from 118-122 AD. under Q. Pompeius Falco. The causes of these outbreaks of revolt are unclear, but it is obvious a rebel element was operating in Britain. Whether it was actually based south of Scotland, or came from within the upper territory is not known. By the time Hadrian arrived, the governor had brought calm to the island, which Hadrian was determined would be maintained. His first action upon arrival was to appoint a new governor, Aulus Platorius Nepos, who worked with Hadrian in the design of the new boundary that became known as Hadrian's Wall. With the Emperor came a new legion, the VI Victrix. to replace the current IX Hispana. The II, VI and XII legions were employed in the building of this new frontier between England and Scotland. These works were the most elaborate even built by Roman technology and underwent several changes during the construction. It was not a straightforward barrier between the Romanic England and the Scottish savages, as there were Roman outpost north of the wall. It was a means of ensuring the Romans controlled southern Scotland. Hadrian was an inventive thinker, displaying this by adding a linear barrier the the forts and watchtowers, linked by a road. This system had first been used in Germany under Domitian. The advantage of this is in repelling an attack and allowing the border to be patrolled allowing an effective control of the movement of the northern tribes.

Building Hadrians Wall

Hadrian's WallThe wall ran from the west at Kirkbride, onto Carlisle and through the valleys of the Tyne, Irthing and the Eden rivers. This followed the course of the rivers that ran from sea to sea. The wall was built on the highest ground along it's line so as to give the farthest view into northern territory.

The wall underwent several changes in it's life, though we can see from modern excavations it was constructed thus :

Hadrian's Wall milecastleBuilding started at the eastern end and was originally meant to be all stone, 3.1m (10 ft) wide and 3.7-4.6m (12-15 ft) high. It is not clear whether there was a walkway along the top. Beyond the River Irthing it was to be made of turf. We know that sandstone took the place of limestone in the rock at the western end. This is due to the sandstone being a superior building material and also it contained lime mortarso necessary in the building process. The turf wall was 6.2m (20 ft) wide and about 3.7m (12 ft) high. In front of the wall was a ditch which varied in width and depth. It may well have been of the type used around their forts and although looking flat bottomed, concealed a lethal base of spikes. The Garrisons had small forts placed in spaces of 'milecastles' which are about one Roman mile apart, with two turrets between each pair. These turrets were made of stone throughout and the milecastles on the wall being made from earth and timber. The wall itself was not vertical, but beveled to make it difficult for any invading army to scale it, should they get past the ditch. Stone bridges carried the wall across the North Type and the Irthing where it met the turf wall. Once the base had been laid, the turrets and milecastles were built so as to protect the working parties during the remainder of the construction.

The first changes to the design while the central part of the wall was being built. The width of this section was reduced to 2.5m (8 ft) and the fighting garrisons were brought up close to the wall. The forts at Stanegate were abandoned. Certain new forts, Chesters and Housesteads for example, the demolished remains of a turret have been found. The change in the width was probably due to a newer process enabling the wall to be built thinner and still retain the same strength. Parts of the turf wall were replaced by stone to a width of 2.8m (9 ft). East of Newcastle lay a fort at Wallsend which seems to have been something of an afterthought. The garrisons were brought onto the wall to allow rapid placement of troops and to make the everyday patrols easier to handle. The original forts three of their four openings on the north side at ground level in anticipation of a defence of the perimeter taking place close to the wall. The whole structure of the wall was changing from one of pure defence to one where assaults could be launched at the enemy. The moving of the garrisons would have been a major decision as it would have involved a great deal of work to demolish and rebuild parts that had already been completed. The day to day manning and upkeep involved more man hours than preparing for any charges made against their positions. The wall had not been thought out beforehand as well as had been assumed. On the other hand, such a large task hand to be designed in stages. Mayne they realised once the construction was well under way, that there were scenarios they had not considered. It would also have been the case that they could not assess the best methods of manning the fort until parts of it became active and their commanders had reported back the impressions given by the ground troops.

Further modifications were added. These were in the form of the rear earthworks known as the Vallum, which were added at tremendous expense, both in cost and labour. It must have been taken after the garrisons had been moved onto the wall, and consisted of a continuous ditch 6.2m (20 ft) wide and 3.1m (10 ft) deep tapering down to a flat base 2.5m (8 ft) wide. This was flanked on both sides by mounds 6.2m (20 ft) tall and placed 92.m (30 ft) back. This work cut a huge swath some 36.9m (120 ft) wide. There were no breaks in it, unlike the ditch in front of the wall that had gaps where the landscape did not make it possible to continue the work. The reason for the Vallum has caused much discussion, as it appears to be a defence on the south side of the wall. The most likely cause of this being built was to prevent anyone not authorised to approach the wall, possibly with the intent of stores and equipment which was left outside the forts. It would also have given a safe area for camps made by troops and supply columns traveling along the length of the wall. Crossing between north and south was now more difficult. The only passage through the Vallum was in direct line with a fort, so that it could be easily monitored. these were controlled by substantial gates as further protection. The most surprising aspect of the Vallum was it's immense size. In keeping with the Roman trait of making a breathtaking impression, it was intended to make the onlooker gasp in awe at the sheer scale.

Hadrian was notoriously lavish in his spending for building projects, especially when the site bore his name. As with all construction work the expenditure grew well beyond the original estimate, so today's miscalculations in government projects can be seen as nothing new. It's been happening for over 2000 years! The fault must lie with Hadrian himself, as it was his plan. He would not tolerate any form of criticism and took any given very personally. Trajan's brilliant architect Apollodorus poured scorn upon Hadrian's abilities. Even his brilliance at design could not save him from paying the ultimate for his folly and he was exiled before being executed. As can be seen, the building of Hadrian's Wall was extremely complicated and spread over a considerable time period. Even today, we do not understand the full structure of it, or the exact amount of time it took to build and rebuild, such was the scale of the project. Why there was so much rebuilding, taking into account the different methods used. Was it due to new techniques being developed while the construction was taking place? Even so, the building of the frontier on the border with Scotland was justified and effective in the long run.

The effects of Hadrians Wall

Before the wall, it was not possible to expand the economy or lifestyle of the northern English tribes as there was always the constant fear of invasions from the north. The Romans had done much to improve the way of life, no only in building, but also in the daily diet, for example. Framing had improved substantially under the Romans. The English had learned of new ways to sow fields, giving a bigger harvest. The variety of crops had increased. The Scottish tribes would have been envious of this and would not have hesitated to seize anything they could by raiding.

The wall was no Hadrian's only achievement. Building programs in London, Leicester, Wroxeter, Caistor-by-Norwich all had new developments, both civil and political. There is no doubt that under Hadrian, Farmland that had been abandoned was cultivated. Britain had become more secure and sound in all respects. Both economic and social. Even in the country, new industries sprang up. Along with these the service occupations flourished. Private enterprise was encouraged by government initiatives. From here Britain could go on to greater things. It did so, until the death of Hadrian in 138 AD.ww

Visit our friends at:

Romans in Britain


Romans in Britain testudo footer art
Please just ASK before using anything on this site -- like we'd say "no"...

This page last updated:

Layout and Design:
Sturmkatze Produktions AG banner

Copyright © 2016 Pace Computing, All Rights Reserved
Powered by Pace Computing