Hadrian’s Wall: Who built it and why was it so important?

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For nearly 300 years, Hadrian’s Wall marked the north-west frontier of the Roman empire.

Dating back to at least 122AD, when emperor Hadrian visited the British Isles, the wall this year celebrates its 31th anniversary as a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Here’s what you need to know about its history.

Who was Hadrian?

Hadrian ruled the Roman Empire from 117AD-138AD, inheriting control of a civilization in its prime which had thrived on a policy of endless expansion and conquest.

Known as the “‘people’s king’ because he traveled with his troops and ate the same rations”, says The Independent, he “laid the foundations of the Byzantine Empire and changed the name of Judea to create Palestine, among other legacies”.

Although married to Vibia Sabina, Hadrian was well known for his love of young Greek philosopher Antinous.

“He had to marry, and he had a politically arranged marriage to Sabina, who was the great-niece of the former emperor Trajan, which in effect, set up his succession,” says Thorsten Opper, curator of an exhibition on Hadrian.

“But clearly, it was a loveless marriage with no children. What was unusual is that he had a lot of flings and then after his lover [Antinous] drowned in the Nile AD130 he made him a god and named a city after him.”

And of course, Hadrian “was the first to build a wall 80 miles long from sea to sea to separate the barbarians from the Romans”, according to a biography written 200 years later.

Where was the wall and how long was it?

At 73 miles (80 Roman miles) long, the wall crossed northern Britain from Bowness-on-Solway in the west to modern-day Wallsend on the River Tyne in the east.

At first, the idea was to build castles along every Roman mile, with two turrets in between each.

“At some point after the first few years of building, they decided they would go and build forts on the wall,” said Frances McIntosh, curator of Roman Collections for English Heritage

“Under the wall, you can see the line where the turrets were being built. That’s how we know the decision was changed. We do not know how, why or when, but it’s after a couple of years – at least – of the building.”

English Heritage’s Hadrian’s Wall Live aims to recreate the typical life of a Roman soldier in AD 124

When was it built?

McIntosh estimates the work began around the year 122AD, when Hadrian visited Britain, and was completed by 138AD. The Romans had left – officially – by 410AD, but many stayed and probably lived in the forts along the wall.

“Most officers were recalled but some soldiers just stayed there. They might have formed militias and lived in a farming economy on the wall, living in forts,” she said.

Housesteads Roman Fort Hadrian’s Wall has a commanding position over the surrounding landscape

Why was it so important?

“Hadrian’s Wall marks what was the farthest reaches of perhaps the greatest empire the world has ever seen and cuts a path through some of the country’s most spectacular landscapes, making it a perfect destination,” says the Daily Telegraph.

However, the traditional view of the wall as protecting a civilized world of baths and temples against marauding Scots is probably false. Historians now believe it was designed to scare and extract taxes from tribes on both sides of the border rather than to keep invading war parties out.

Historian Neil Faulkner describes the Roman imperium as a system of “robbery with violence”, while the Vindolanda tablets, written by soldiers living near the wall, show Romans disdainfully called the locals “Brittunculi” – “wretched little Britons”.

 

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