Celebrating 1900 years of stunning monument in Northern England that is Hadrian’s Wall

The majestic Hadrian's Wall (photo: English Heritage)
The majestic Hadrian's Wall (photo: English Heritage)

Landmark’s anniversary programme includes reenactments, walks, food, arts, music and talks throughout year, explains history journalist Andrew Southam.

Roman emperor Hadrian started building his wall in the north of Roman Britain 1,900 years ago to prevent invasions from Scottish tribes.

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This immense engineering project used more stone than the Egyptian pyramids to become one of the Roman’s greatest fortifications.

Hadrian’s Wall Partnership is marking the anniversary with a programme of exhibitions, reenactments, walks, food, arts, music and talks throughout 2022.

Hadrian's Wall is still a big attraction for young and old (photo: English Heritage)

Highlights include a Roman themed city of light at Carlisle, a midsummer evening festival of Roman food, dance and song at Corbridge, a night attack by barbarian tribes on the Roman defences at Chester and a Japanese graphic novel series on Roman life.

The Romans conquered Britannia – modern day England and Wales – under Emperor Claudius in 43AD and ruled the island as a province for four hundred years.

Julius Caesar had briefly invaded twice before but didn’t stay.

When Spanish born Hadrian became emperor in 117AD, he needed to protect the extensive Roman Empire inherited from his predecessor, the Emperor Trajan.

He visited Britain in AD122 and decided on a daring coast to coast wall to protect his north-west border.Fifteen thousand elite soldiers called legionnaires worked in bleak northern winters for six years to build the 73 mile long wall.

They smashed hard rock, bridged fast moving rivers and built over rolling hills to create a frontier stretching from Wallsend in north Tyneside to the western coastal hamlet of Ravensglass in the Lake District.

At every mile they built a small castle and gate, every third of a mile a small watch tower called a turret, and constructed 17 forts along the length of the wall.

A vast ditch protected the rear

Roman soldiers had built nothing like Hadrian’s Wall before.

The majestic Hadrian's Wall (photo: English Heritage)

They used some 20 million stones unlike defences in Germany and Africa which they had built with turf.

Attacking tribes like the Picts would first face first huge mounds, then a ten-foot ditch fixed with spears before meeting the wall itself, some six metres high in places.

Flying on top was the Imperial Eagle or the Aquila (the bird of Jupiter that flies above storms), the standard of the most formidable army of the day.

This new border wall divided the British Isles and remains today Europe’s largest stone monument.

However, it did not as many people think divide Scotland from England as much of modern Northumberland lies to the north of the wall.

It also marked the limit of Roman power in a ring of defences running from Britain’s west coast to the Black Sea, down to the Red Sea and back across North Africa to the Atlantic coast.

The empire expanded no farther after the 2nd century AD

This didn’t mean there weren’t efforts to expand into Caledonia, what is modern day Scotland.

Much of Caledonia was occupied or controlled by the Romans for more than 300 years and was invaded 50 years before Hadrian’s Wall was built.

Defending Roman Britain wasn’t easy

Three Roman Legions were needed, each of 5,000 men, to control the island and quell northern raiders.Only one legion was needed in Egypt.

The army also used auxiliary units of infantry and cavalry some 600 men strong to patrol the wall.There may have been 70 such units at one time accounting for 40,000 men.

1,900 years ago Roman Legionaires could be seen at Hadrian's Wall (photo: English Heritage)

Altogether, nearly 15 per cent of the entire Roman army was stationed in Britannia, the majority in the north with some 9,000 along Hadrian’s Wall, the most heavily defended of any Roman fortification.

These ethnically diverse auxiliary soldiers were recruited from across the empire such as modern Spain, Syria, Romania, Belgium, Hungary and North Africa or from Britain.

They signed up for 25 years service after which they received Roman citizenship and a plot of land.

They at first manned the wall for only 25 years, as Emperor Antonius Pius built another coastal wall across central Caledonia, called the Antonine, around 142AD when trying to conquer the country.

However, the Romans withdrew back to Hadrian’s Wall eight years later.

African Emperor Septimus Severus tried again in 208AD

He reoccupied the Antonine Wall but also gave up and went back to Hadrian’s Wall.

Severus was the only Roman Emperor to die in Britain at York, the capital of Roman Britain in the north, when leading a large army into Caledonia.

Successive Emperors then began withdrawing troops from Britannia to defend the empire against attacks from Germanic tribes.

The Romans eventually abandoned the island in 409AD

A year later Emperor Flavius Honorious famously told Britannia’s leaders that he could no longer defend the country and they must look after themselves.

Many of the forts along Hadrian’s Wall were still though occupied in the fifth and sixth centuries as Roman Britain evolved into Anglo-Saxon Britain.

Today, the wall is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Britain’s first 35 years ago

Hadrian's Wall at sunset (photo: English Heritage)

All aspects of Roman life on Hadrian’s Wall are incorporated into the anniversary programme, which started with a celebration of Emperor Hadrian’s birthday last month and ends with the Roman festival of Saturn from December 17 to 23.

Full details of this can be found by visiting the 1900.hadrianswallcountry.co.uk website.