Hadrian’s Wall

The Roman Wall—the Wall of Agricola—the Wall of Hadrian—the Wall of Severus—the Picts’ Wall—the Wall, are various names by which the remains of a mighty monument of the Romans in England are called by various writers. William Hutton, the liveliest and the least pedantic of antiquarians, who at seventy-eight years of age twice traversed the whole length of the Roman Wall, denominates it “one of the grandest works of human labour, performed by the greatest nation upon earth.” From a point on the river Tyne, between Newcastle and North Shields, to Boulness on the Solway Frith, a distance of nearly eighty miles, have the remains of this wall been distinctly traced. It was the great artificial boundary of Roman England from sea to sea; a barrier raised against the irruptions of the fierce and unconquerable race of the Caledonians upon the fertile South, which had received the Roman yoke, and rested in safety under the Roman military protection. The Wall, speaking popularly, consists of three distinct works, which by some are ascribed to the successive operations of Agricola, of Hadrian (Figs. 144, 145), and of Severus. The Wall of Antoninus (Figs. 146, 147), now called Grimes Dyke, was a more northerly entrenchment, extending from the Clyde to the Forth; but this rampart was abandoned during subsequent years of the Roman occupation, and the boundary between the Solway Frith and the German Ocean, which we are now describing, was strengthened and perfected by every exertion of labour and skill. Hutton may probably have assigned particular portions of the work to particular periods upon insufficient evidence, but he has described the works as they appeared forty years ago better than any other writer, because he described from actual observation. We shall, therefore, adopt his general account of the wall, before proceeding to notice any remarkable features of this monument.

“There were four different works in this grand barrier, performed by three personages, and at different periods. I will measure them from south to north, describe them distinctly, and appropriate each part to its proprietor; for, although every part is dreadfully mutilated, yet, by selecting the best of each, we easily form a whole; from what is, we can nearly tell what was. We must take our dimensions from the original surface of the ground.

“Let us suppose a ditch, like that at the foot of a quickset-hedge, three or four feet deep, and as wide. A bank rising from it ten feet high, and thirty wide in the base; this, with the ditch, will give us a rise of thirteen feet at least. The other side of the bank sinks into a ditch ten feet deep, and fifteen wide, which gives the North side of this bank a declivity of twenty feet. A small part of the soil thrown out on the north side of this fifteen-feet ditch, forms a bank three feet high and six wide, which gives an elevation from the bottom of the ditch of thirteen feet. Thus our two ditches and two mounds, sufficient to keep out every rogue but he who was determined not to be kept out, were the work of Agricola.

“The works of Hadrian invariably join those of Agricola. They always correspond together, as beautiful parallel lines. Close to the north side of the little bank I last described, Hadrian sunk a ditch twenty-four feet wide, and twelve below the surface of the ground, which, added to Agricola’s three-feet bank, forms a declivity of fifteen feet on the south, and on the north twelve. Then follows a plain of level ground, twenty-four yards over, and a bank exactly the same as Agricola’s, ten feet high, and thirty in the base; and then he finishes, as his predecessor began, with a small ditch of three or four feet.

“Thus the two works exactly coincide; and must, when complete, have been most grand and beautiful. Agricola’s works cover about fifty-two feet, and Hadrian’s about eighty-one; but this will admit of some variation.

“Severus’s works run nearly parallel with the other two; lie on the north, never far distant; but may be said always to keep them in view, running a course that best suited the judgment of the maker. The nearest distance is about twenty yards, and greatest near a mile; the medium, forty or fifty yards.

“They consist of a stone wall eight feet thick, twelve high, and four the battlements; with a ditch to the north, as near as convenient, thirty-six feet wide and fifteen deep. To the wall were added, at unequal distances, a number of stations, or cities, said to be eighteen, which is not perfectly true; eighty-one castles, and three hundred and thirty castelets, or turrets, which, I believe, is true: all joining the wall.

“Exclusive of this wall and ditch, these stations, castles, and turrets, Severus constituted a variety of roads yet called Roman roads, twenty-four feet wide, and eighteen inches high in the centre, which led from turret to turret, from one castle to another; and still larger and more distant roads from the wall, which led from one station to another, besides the grand military way before mentioned, which covered all the works, and no doubt was first formed by Agricola, improved by Hadrian, and, after lying dormant fifteen hundred years, was made complete in 1752.

“I saw many of these smaller roads, all overgrown with turf; and when on the side of a hill, they are supported on the lower side with edging stones.

“Thus Agricola formed a small ditch, then a bank and ditch, both large, and then finished with a small bank.

“Hadrian joined to this small bank a large ditch, then a plain, a large mound, and then finished with a small ditch.

Severus followed nearly in the same line, with a wall, a variety of stations, castles, turrets, a large ditch, and many roads. By much the most laborious task. This forms the whole works of our three renowned chiefs.


Figure 131
131.—Wall of Severus, on the Sandstone Quarries, Denton Dean, near Newcastle-upon-Tyne.
Figure 132
132.—Wall of Severus, near Housestead, Northumberland.
Figure 133
133.—Roman Citizen.
Figure 135
135.—Roman Image of Victory.
Figure 136
136.—Roman Soldier.

Eleven hundred years before the persevering Hutton began his toilsome march along the Roman Wall, Bede had described it as “still famous and to be seen.....eight foot in breadth and twelve in height, in a straight line from east to west, as is still visible to the beholders.” Bede resided in the neighbourhood of the Wall, and he notices it as a familiar object would naturally be noticed—as incidental to his narrative. The dimensions which he gives are, however, perfectly accurate, as-Gibson has pointed out. Long before Bede noticed the Wall the Romans had quitted the country; and this great barrier was insufficient to protect the timid inhabitants of the South against the attacks of their Northern invaders, “who, finding that the old confederates were marched home, and refused to return any more, put on greater boldness than ever, and possessed themselves of all the North, and the remote parts of the kingdom to the very Wall. To withstand this invasion the towers are defended by a lazy garrison, undisciplined, and too cowardly to engage an enemy, being enfeebled with continual sloth and idleness. In the meanwhile the naked enemy advance with their hooked weapons, by which the miserable Britons are pulled down from the tops of the walls and dashed against the ground.” This is the description of Gildas, our most ancient historian, who lived in the sixth century. Generations passed away; new races grew up on each side of the Wall; and here, for another long period of strife, was the great scene of the Border feuds between the English and the Scotch. It is no wonder that the traces of the Wall in many places should be almost obliterated; or that the fair cities and populous stations which, under the Roman dominion, existed along its line, should have left only fragmentary remains of their former greatness. And yet these remains are most remarkable. House-steads, which is about the centre of the work, is held too have been the eighth station, Borcovicus; and the fragments of antiquity here discovered have commanded the admiration of all antiquarian explorers. Gibson, who surveyed a portion of the Wall in 1708, here saw seven or eight Roman altars which had been recently dug up, and a great number of statues. Alexander Gordon, whose ‘Itinerarium Septentrionale’ was published in 1726, describes House-steads, “so named from the marks of old Roman buildings still appearing on that ground,” as “unquestionably the most remarkable and magnificent Roman station in the whole island of Britain.” He says, amidst his minute descriptions of statues and altars, “It is hardly credible what a number of august remains of the Roman grandeur is to be seen here to this day; seeing in every place where one casts his eye there is some curious Roman antiquity to be seen, either the marks of streets and temples in ruins, or inscriptions, broken pillars, statues, and other pieces of sculpture, all scattered along this ground.” When Hutton surveyed the Wall, he found one solitary house upon the site of the Roman City; and in this lone dwelling a Roman altar, complete as in the day the workman left it, formed the jamb which supported the mantel-piece, “one solid stone, four feet high, two broad, and one thick.” The gossiping antiquary grows rhetorical amidst the remains of Borcovicus:—“It is not easy to survey these important ruins without a sigh; a place once of the greatest activity, but now a solitary desert: instead of the human voice is heard nothing but the wind.” Some of the statues and inscriptions found at House-steads and other parts of the Roman Wall now form a portion of the beautiful collection of Roman antiquities in the Newcastle Museum (Figs. 133, 134, 135, and 136). Of these the Roman soldiers and the Victory are rudely engraved in Gordon’s book. The appearance of the Wall at House-steads is shown in Fig. 132; and this engraving suggests a conviction of the accuracy of Camden’s description of the Wall:—“I have observed the track of it running up the mountains and down again in a most surprising manner.” The massive character of the works is well exhibited at the sandstone-quarries at Denton Dean, where the wall, whose fragment is five feet high, has only three courses of facing-stones on one side and four on the other. Blocks of stone of such dimensions must of themselves have formed a quarry for successive generations to hew at and destroy (Fig. 131). There is a pretty tradition recorded by Camden, which offers as good evidence of the Roman civilization as the fragments of their temples and their statues. The tomb of a young Roman physician is amongst the antiquities of the Newcastle Museum; and our old topographer tells us, “One thing there is which I will not keep from the reader, because I had it confirmed by persons of very good credit. There is a general persuasion in the neighbourhood, handed down by tradition, that the Roman garrisons upon the frontiers set in these parts abundance of medicinal plants for their own use. Whereupon the Scotch surgeons come hither a-simpling every year in the beginning of summer; and having by long experience found the virtue of these plants, they magnify them very much, and affirm them to be very sovereign.” The general appearance of the Roman Wall and Vallum is exhibited in Fig. 138. This was delineated by John Warburton, from a portion of the wall near Halton-Chesters, in 1722. A little farther beyond this point Hutton was well repaid for his laborious walk of six hundred miles, by such a satisfactory view of the great Roman work, that the admiration of the good old man was raised into an enthusiastic transport, at which the dull may wonder and the unimaginative may laugh, but which had its own reward. With this burst of the happy wayfarer we conclude our notice of “that famous wall which was the boundary of the Roman province.” “I now travel over a large common, still upon the Wall, with its trench nearly complete. But what was my surprise when I beheld, thirty yards on my left, the united works of Agricola and Hadrian, almost perfect! I climbed over a stone wall to examine the wonder; measured the whole in every direction; surveyed them with surprise, with delight, was fascinated, and unable to proceed; forgot I was upon a wild common, a stranger, and the evening approaching. I had the grandest works under my eye of the greatest men of the age in which they lived, and of the most eminent nation then existing; all which had suffered but little during the long course of sixteen hundred years. Even hunger and fatigue were lost in the grandeur before me. If a man writes a book upon a turnpike-road, he cannot be expected to move quick; but, lost in astonishment, I was not able to move at all.

The Wall of Antoninus, or Grimes Dyke, to which we have already referred, was carried across the north of Britain, under the direction of Lollius Urbicus, the legate of Antoninus Pius, about the year a. d. 140. It is noticed by an ancient Roman writer as a turf wall; and although its course may be readily traced, it has, from the nature of its construction, not left such enduring remains as the Wall of Severus. The Wall of Antoninus connected a line of Roman forts; and these were necessarily built of substantial materials. Duntocher Bridge, on the line of this wall, was long popularly considered to have been a Roman work; but it has been more reasonably conjectured to have been a very ancient work, constructed out of materials found on the line of the wall (Fig. 148). The military way in some places runs parallel with Grimes Dyke. The ditch itself presents in some places a wonderful example of the Roman boldness in engineering. At a part called Bar Hill, Gordon describes “the fossa running down in a straight line from the top of the hill in such a magnificent manner as must surprise the beholder, great part of it being cut through the solid rock, and is of such a vast breadth and depth, that when I measured it it was no less than forty feet broad and thirty-five feet deep.” The surprise of Mr. Gordon was before the age of railways: the time may perhaps arrive when the deep cuttings and tunnellings through the solid rock in the nineteenth century shall be compared with the Roman works of the second century, by new races of men who travel by other lines or with different mechanism. But, however obscure may then be the history of our own works, it is quite certain that we shall have left our traces upon the earth; some consolation, though small, to balance the reflections which are naturally suggested when we look upon the ruins of populous cities and mighty defences, and consider how little we know of their origin, of the people who built them, and of the individual life that was once busy in these solitary places.

Figure spread at pages 44 and 45: