Hadrian’s Wall: Masterstroke or Folly?

On 14th October, we welcomed bestselling author Douglas Jackson to AKS Lytham for a fascinating lecture in which, as Classics Ambassador Caroline tells us, he argued that Hadrian’s Wall was far less of a success than we might think…

Douglas Jackson opens his talk for the LSA CA

Hadrian’s Wall separated Britannia from the ‘barbarians of the north’ for almost 300 years and demonstrated Rome’s power as well as the skill and discipline of her legions. To this day it is recognised as being one of the world’s wonders and its high standard of workmanship was not replicated until the Normans invaded in 1066. Douglas Jackson began his talk by plotting the history of Rome’s interactions with Britain. Julius Caesar had led a short initial invasion of the island in 55 BCE, however, it was in CE 43 that Emperor Claudius sent four legions, under General Aulus Plautius, to Britain to conquer the island. Despite encountering greater opposition than expected from a federation of tribes led by Chieftain Caratacus, the Britons were defeated after two battles and Claudius arrived for sixteen days to celebrate and give his final order: ‘conquer the rest’.

Defeated but no less determined, Caratacus continued to stir rebellion, and it took Claudius and his successors six years to hunt him down, only capturing him because Queen Cartimandua of the Brigantes handed him to the Romans after he sought sanctuary with her tribe. The tribes of Wales were still, however, a constant threat for the British Governor Suetonius Paulinus, as their Druid priests, whose stronghold was in Anglesey, encouraged them to rebel. Therefore, c. CE 60, Paulinus invaded Wales with two legions. Whilst he was in the west, Boudica of the Iceni led a rebellion that annihilated what is today Colchester and London, before she was defeated by Paulinus, somewhere near Manchester. 

CE c.79, under the orders of either Vespasian or Titus, Julius Agricola, Britannia’s Governor, launched an invasion of the north of the island, with the 9th and 20th legions, aiming to fulfil Claudius’ wish. After four or five years he defeated the Caledonians, led by Calgacus, on a hill known as Mons Graupius.  We can plot his journey north by looking at Tacitus’ account of the expedition and tracking the construction of forts, which were each identical and remain to this day, even if only as marks in fields. After the campaign, Agricola built a fort in Inchtuthil, as a permanent headquarters for the 20th legion, as well as a string of fortresses from Carlisle to Corbridge, known as the Stanegate Frontier. However, Emperor Domitian was more occupied with Dacia in the east of the Roman Empire, and hence transferred thousands of troops there from Britain, forcing Agricola to abandon the north. 

The Emperor Hadrian

By the time of Hadrian’s rule, the southern tribes of Britannia were mostly peaceful and Romanised, hence it is debatable how much of a threat the northern tribes constituted. Hadrian may have feared the tribes uniting their military capabilities, as they were unable to defeat the Romans individually. However, there is little evidence of even an attempt at this around the time of Hadrian’s visit to Britain. Hadrian certainly doesn’t seem to have considered this potential for long as it is possible that the decision to build the Wall was made well before he arrived in CE 122 to inspect the line of defences. It is difficult to confirm the threat as justifying such a massive investment of labour and finance to protect Britannia, especially as the Vindolanda Tablets portray life on the frontier, at least in Vindolanda, as mundane, with little to no actual conflict and casualties resulting only from accidents. The soldiers living on the frontline do not seem to be constantly under threat nor ceaselessly at war, but rather the opposite. 

The Vindolanda Tablets

Nevertheless, Hadrian’s Wall originally stretched 80 Roman miles and stood at an estimated 4m high. It took 15,000 men of three legions (II Augusta, VI Victrix and the XX Valeria Victrix) at least six years to complete as it wasn’t just a wall, but also had massive banks and ditches. Twenty one major forts were stationed along it and initially there were eighty gates to provide trading access, although this was later reduced to fourteen. These gates allowed for commerce, business and trade, which also meant taxes, as Britannia had to fund the maintenance of multiple legions. Anyone entering Britannia from the north would have been searched for weapons, forced to pay for the privilege of coming through and then had customs duties levied on any goods they carried. In many ways, the wall was ‘a masterpiece, not just of the builder’s art and the skills and discipline of Rome’s legions, but a confirmation of its leader’s creative vision’.

Twenty years after its completion, the Wall was abandoned as Hadrian’s successor, Antoninus Pius, ordered the construction of a new wall built of turf further north. However, the year after Pius’ death, the auxiliaries were sent back to the old forts by Hadrian’s Wall. In CE 181, according to Cassius Dio, the northern tribes crossed the wall and killed a general and his troop. It was at this point that Roman British towns began to build wall defences, implying that they were expecting the threat to return. Unrest existed in Britain for over 100 years afterwards and the Emperors Septimus Severus and Constantius both led campaigns north; Severus against the Caledonians and Maeatae in CE 208 and Constantius against the Picts in the early 4th century. The next century would lead to the Wall and main towns’ defences being strengthened and legions from the continent arriving to defeat northern attackers. 

This demonstrates that Britannia no longer had the strength to defend itself and the Wall had long ceased to be a deterrent to invasion, if it ever had been in the first place. Roman interest in Britain ended in CE 410, when the province’s leaders appealed for help from the Emperor Honorius, who replied with a letter telling them to defend themselves. By this time, the Wall garrisons were much reduced, at least half their original size, and likely hadn’t been paid for months. It was soon only used as shelter by civilians and yet the Picts didn’t sweep down and take over Britannia, in fact there wasn’t any destruction associated with the end of Roman Britain, although there is evidence that some of the wall garrisons actually joined the Picts during the ‘great barbarian conspiracy’. 

A strategic masterstroke or a monumental folly?

Douglas Jackson therefore concluded that, despite its grand reputation, Hadrian’s Wall was, in fact, a monumental folly. The cost of construction was far higher than the taxes it collected; the soldiers stationed there soon lost their efficiency as they remained stagnant for too long; northern tribes seem to have crossed it at leisure in the 3rd and 4th centuries, and it was only a hindrance to Rome’s emperors and generals who sailed to the island’s rescue, as they had to move thousands of men through it as Roman legions were not created to fight behind a wall. Perhaps ordinary garrisons and a smaller number of legionaries would have been more efficient since, across the empire, the manoeuvrability of each Roman legion was its ultimate and unique strength.

Many thanks to Douglas Jackson for such a thought-provoking lecture and interesting take on Hadrian’s Wall, which certainly gave us food for thought and made us want to visit the Wall and Vindolanda site as soon as possible! Do you agree that the Wall ‘failed on every level’, or did it have some redeeming qualities?


You can pre-order Douglas’ forthcoming novel The Wall here. We look forward to seeing everyone again on 18th November for Charlotte Higgins’ talk on Greek Myth.