Monday, September 22, 2008

Military History and Warfare: Castles: Hadrian's Wall

This week, a trip to Scotland gave me the opportunity to have a look at the remnants of the mighty Hadrian’s wall. In 122AD the Emperor Hadrian visited Britain. Finding the northern border ill-defined and under almost continuous attack, he ordered a wall to be built across England from the Tyne estuary to the Solway Firth. This covered a distance of 73 miles (117km) and represents a massive feat of Roman engineering and design skill.

Although these pictures no longer convey the original size of the wall, it was built of stone 10ft (3m) wide and 15ft (5m) high with a protective ditch 4m deep in front. Garrisons across the wall would be stationed in castles set at one mile intervals and in turrets and towers in between. A further set of forts located behind the wall would reinforce and support the garrisons as and when required. The whole project involved quarrying some 27 million cubic feet of stone. Amazingly, construction was completed in just seven years. The skill and speed of the wall’s construction had much to do with its building force. Hadrian’s wall was not built by slave labour, but by legionaries of the Roman army.

However, when completed the wall was manned by auxiliary troops who garrisoned its 79 milecastles and 16 forts. The auxiliaries acted as both guard troops and frontier police. The fully-fledged legions (of which there were three stationed in Roman Britain consisting of 5000 men each) were used only in major campaigns or to repel invaders.


During my visit to Hadrian’s wall, I got to survey the remains of ‘Banna’, known today as ‘Birdsowald’. The site contains a semi-excavated Roman fort positioned on the wall.

When the Roman builders arrived they had found a wooded area on a boggy piece of land. The wood had to be cleared and the bog drained before construction of the fort could begin. When completed, it would have housed 1,000 Roman soldiers. The fort was originally built from turf and timber. Soon the foundations were laid for a permanent stone fort with six gates. It is these outlines that remain today. When completed, the fort had consisted of towers, barracks, officer’s quarters and a storeroom. In the centre lay the command headquarters for the area.

A reconstruction of the fort.

The above picture shows the remains of the only known drill and exercise hall to be found in any auxiliary fort of the Roman Empire.

The Roman Empire came under increasing attack in the fourth and fifth centuries. From 155AD to 410AD, Hadrian's Wall was breached four times by invading Barbarians. Towards the beginning of the fifth century, Rome's power began to wane and troops were pulled out of Britain. With no one left to maintain it, sections of the wall began to fall into disrepair. Much of the stone from both the wall and its forts were later removed and reused in the early medieval period.

Nonetheless, enough remains of the wall for it rightly to be considered one of the great engineering projects of pre-modern Britain.

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