The Eccentric Engineer: how Hadrian’s multicultural Wall built new communities
The story of how a wall designed to keep barbarians and Romans apart ended up planting European colonies in Britain.
Building a large wall to keep ‘foreigners’ out rarely works as expected, but that has never stopped people trying. When Roman emperor Hadrian came to the throne in 117, he inherited an empire from his predecessor Trajan that was large, but unstable. He spent much of his reign trying to define logical boundaries around its edges. Touring the provinces, he reached northern England in 122 and here he ordered the creation of his most famous monument.
Hadrian’s Wall, which stretches 73 miles (117km) across the north of England between Wallsend and Bowness, is the largest single Roman structure anywhere on Earth. Its purpose was to mark the edge of the empire, defend it from invasion and control the movement of peoples and trade across its boundary. During the six years of construction by the three legions based in Britain, the plan changed several times, but the final structure consisted of a wall 1.8-2.4m in width with a series of forts - 12 at first, 16 later - straddling it, controlling access points through it.
It is likely that a flat-bottomed ditch was added at the same time. This was 6m wide and 3m deep, with an earth bank to either side of it, delineating the military-controlled area around the wall and ensuring that all movements of people and goods across the frontier had to pass through official Roman checkpoints, suggesting that it was intended as much as a customs barrier as a defensive wall.
A series of milecastles were constructed between the forts. These small towers, less than 20m square, were placed roughly every Roman mile and held up to 30 men. Their main purposes were as lookouts and as minor controlled access points. Between them there were pairs of turrets for observation and signalling.
The milecastles and turrets were built in three distinct designs by the three legions who built the wall (the Second, Sixth and Twentieth legions).
Finally, a military road was added behind the defences and a series of small forts placed along the coasts at either end where the wall met the sea to prevent a sea-borne enemy from outflanking the frontier.
Yet despite the Romans’ fear of the barbarians beyond their borders, there is very little evidence for conflict on the wall. Nor would you have seen just Roman citizens to the south and wild Scots to the north. The wall was manned by auxiliary troops – soldiers taken from the Roman provinces who were not citizen legionaries but former ‘barbarians’ themselves, serving in a distant land.
For example, the fort at Birdoswald was the home of the first cohort of Dacians – Hadrian’s Own. These were a detachment of Romanians, and stretched out in the forts along the wall were others like them – Spaniards, Belgians and North Africans. What had drawn Romanians to the edge of the world was ambition and the hope of self-improvement. They were a conquered people themselves and joining the auxiliaries offered some small compensation for their defeat.
The army asked for 25 years of your life at locations it chose, but in return it offered an education, training in a number of crafts, a pension, medical care in the only professional hospitals in the ancient world and not too much danger of real fighting. Then, at the end of service, some money or land and, most valuable of all, Roman citizenship for yourself and your descendants, with all the privileges and tax breaks that brought with it.
Yet a posting here was more than just a short tour of duty. While legionary builders of the wall moved on, the auxiliaries who manned it were there for the long haul. Of course, there were compensations and, despite the army prohibition on marriage during active service, civil settlements quickly grew around such static units and many ‘unofficial’ marriages must have taken place. The children of these marriages were not only then half British, but when their fathers retired they may have inherited his greatest prize: Roman citizenship. As the generations passed and as, in the later empire, soldiers’ positions in the army became hereditary, so these enclaves became not just more Roman, but more British.
In the early 5th Century, when central control in the empire began to break down and the legions withdrew, these settled ‘expat’ communities of Dacians, Spaniards and the rest stayed on and found new livelihoods in the countryside around them, where their descendants most probably still live today. So a wall designed to keep barbarians and Romans apart ended up seeding peoples from across the empire in the borders of northern England.