Completed in the year 128 C.E., Hadrian’s Wall was one of the most famous civil engineering projects undertaken by the Roman Empire. The wall ran a distance of 73 miles (117.5 kilometers), crossing the English countryside from the waters of Solway Forth to the mouth of the River Tyne. It took the effort of three Roman legions working over the course of six years to complete, and required a garrison of more than 10,000 men to guard its length. Built by the Emperor Hadrian, many people believe this wall represents the limit of Roman expansion as well as the northernmost reach of the Empire.
The truth of the matter is that the mortar was hardly dry on Hadrian’s wall when plans began for another wall across the southern portion of what is now Scotland. Construction of this new wall began four years after Hadrian’s death. Though shorter than its famous cousin, the new wall would take twice as long to build and run along a stretch of countryside a 100 miles north of Hadrian’s Wall.
When Hadrian died in 128 C.E., a new emperor ascended to the title of Caesar. His name was Imperator Caesar Titus Aelius Hadrianus Antoninus Augustus Pontifex Maximus, or as he is better known, Antonius Pius. Though one of the four great emperors of the empire’s golden age, he was remembered as being quietly competent, ruling from Rome, focused on the promotion of the arts and sciences, and introducing significant reforms to the Roman legal system rather than leading armies of invasion as his predecessors had done. His timing was fortunate because he was able to avoid the armed conflict that would come later.
During the first year of his reign, Antoninus appointed Quintus Lollius Urbicus to be the governor of Britannia. This was not the sort of political appointee one would expect if the Emperor was looking to maintain a quiet northern border. Lollius Urbicus had been one of the men who had put down the Jewish revolt led by Simon bar Kokhba in 132-136 C.E. The revolt had been suppressed with a violence and ferocity that was shocking even by Roman standards.
Lollius got to work immediately and between 138 and 140 C.E. strengthened the fortifications behind Hadrian’s Wall for use as launching points for an invasion. Once his army was trained, he launched a two year long campaign to conquer the Votadani, Selgovae, Damnonii, and the Novantae tribes living in the Scottish lowlands. On the heels of his victory he began the construction of a new wall.
This one stretched across a distance only a little more than half the length of Hadrian’s Wall, requiring fewer troops to garrison its defenses and freeing men to keep order among the conquered tribes to the south. This wall would be of a simpler construction, using a berm made of sod overlooking a deep cut ditch. Fortresses would be spaced every two miles for the garrisoning of troops, and a military road would run alongside the berm. To help improve the defensive capabilities of this smaller, less durable wall, a number of forts and outposts were built to the north of the wall, to act as an early warning system for the garrisons stationed at the Antonine Wall.
Started in 142 C.E, the new wall would not be finished until 154 C.E. The Caledonian tribe, immediately to the north, proved to be a constant thorn in the side of those constructing the wall, and their recalcitrance would not be ended by its completion. The garrisons in the forts to its north, as well as those manning the wall, would be under constant pressure from this adversarial tribe.
After the death of Antoninus in 161 C.E. his successors (Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus) ordered the abandonment of the Antonine Wall. The Roman legions fell back to Hadrian’s Wall, leaving the previously conquered tribes to act as a buffer against the Caledonians. Though additional forays in 197 would lead to a brief reoccupation of the wall, Hadrian’s Wall would remain as the northern border of the Roman Empire until sometime around the turn of the 5th century.
James Hinton is a life time learner and U.S. Army veteran. He has a fascination with history for both the lessons it can teach and the high drama its stories can produce.