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Hadrian’s Wall

Northumberland, England

The most audacious building project among many initiated by the Roman emperor Publius Aelius Hadrianus (known as Hadrian) was the defensive rampart across the entire width of Britain that marked the northern frontier of the Roman Empire for almost 300 years. Started in a.d. 123 Hadrian’s Wall was about 73 miles (118 kilometers) long, stretching from what is now the town of Wallsend (Roman Segedunum) on the River Tyne in the east to modern Bowness (Roman Banna) on the Solway Firth in the west. From there, seaward defenses, somewhat less substantial, turned south along the Cumberland coast for another 40 miles (65 kilometers).

Spurred by his conquest of Gaul, Julius Caesar undertook a reconnaissance of Britain in 55 b.c. A full-scale Roman invasion took place in a.d. 43, when Claudius was emperor, and there followed decades of resistance by various local tribes. But Britain, soon known as “the food basket of Rome,” was too rich a prize to surrender. Under the governor Petilius Cerealis, the legions marched north into the territory of the Brigantes and established a base at York (Roman Eboracum) in a.d. 71. About ten years later, they pushed forward into Scotland, creating a temporary frontier between the Rivers Forth and Clyde. They intended to consolidate their new conquests by constructing roads and forts (caestra), but the northern tribes proved too warlike, causing the Romans to strategically withdraw.

Hadrian, the adopted son of Trajan, reigned from a.d. 117 until 138. He loved to build: among his architectural schemes in and near Rome were his own tomb (later known as the Castel Sant’ Angelo), the Pantheon, and a luxurious country villa at Tivoli. He was also an inveterate traveler and for over half of his reign he was away from Rome, mostly touring the eastern provinces and North Africa. On a visit to Britain in 122 he appointed a new governor, Aulus Pletorius Nepos, and in order to establish a presence in the far north, he commissioned the construction of the Wall to “separate the Romans from the barbarians.” Work started the following year. As planned, the eastern sector between Wallsend and the River Irthing was to be a stone structure, about 10 feet (3 meters) thick and 15 feet high to the rampart (the parapet was 5 feet higher). As it was eventually built, the thickness along the wall varied; faces were of dressed stone and the infill of rubble. From Irthing to Bowness a turf-and -timber wall, about 20 feet (6 meters) thick at the base, was initially built and replaced with stone within a few years.

Immediately south of the wall—except in the craggy terrain across the Pennines—there was a continuous ditch (Roman vallum), 10 feet (3 meters) deep and 20 feet wide at the top, with a flat bottom