Britannia, Hadrian's travels, Hadrian's Wall, Hadrian1900

Summer AD 122 – Hadrian inspects the northern frontiers: part 5 Britannia (#Hadrian1900)

After a lengthy inspection tour on the Rhine and Danube frontiers, Hadrian arrived in Britannia in the summer of 122 with his friend Aulus Platorius Nepos, the man chosen to be the new governor of the province. Nepos’ previous posting had been to Germania Inferior, where Hadrian had just spent the last couple of weeks (see here).

The empress Sabina, his Praetorian Guard Septicius Clarus and Suetonius Tranquillus, his imperial secretary, and many other officials were also with him. Like in Germany, Hadrian’s primary purpose in Britain was to assess and secure the northern frontier.

Voyage of Hadrian 121-123.
Map created by Simeon Netchev for Following Hadrian (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0). Click to enlarge.

And so, having reformed the army quite in the manner of a monarch, he [Hadrian] set out for Britain,​ and there he corrected many abuses and was the first to construct a wall,​ eighty miles in length, which was to separate the barbarians from the Romans. (HA Hadr. 11.2)

Without a specific date for the arrival of Hadrian in Britain, we can only assume that the Emperor arrived on the island in the weeks before 17 July 122, when a document records the presence in the province of the new governor (Commander of the Army in Britannia), A. Platorius Nepos. This important document is a well-preserved military diploma (CIL XVI, 69) granting citizenship and the right to contract a legal marriage to an auxiliary man called Gemellus. Gemellus was a Pannonian, a retired sesquiplicarius (with one-and-a-half times pay) of the Ala I Pannoniorum Tampiana, a cavalry unit probably erected during the reign of Augustus or Tiberius. The unit was transferred to Britannia at the beginning of Domitian‘s reign (AD 69). The discharge was granted by Pompeius Falco, the retiring governor of Britannia.

The diploma bears the name of Platorius Nepos as governor of Britain. It lists an unprecedentedly large number of discharged troops, a total of 50 auxiliary units (13 alae and 37 cohorts), the longest list of auxilia found in any diploma. Since the diploma indicates that Gemellus was discharged by Q. Pompeius Falco, the outgoing governor, A. Platorius Nepos, can have only just arrived in the province with Hadrian and commenced his new tenure of office. A formal ceremony was probably held in London on 17 July 122, which would have required the presence of the Emperor. The diploma was found in 1925 at Szöny in Hungary, the ancient Brigetio in Pannonia Superior and Gemellus’ hometown. It is now in the British Museum (see here). 

Military diploma granting citizenship to an army auxiliary named Gemellus after twenty-five years of service, dated 17 July AD 122. © The Trustees of the British Museum (link)

With its 50 auxiliary units, the Brigetio diploma provides a nearly complete list of the British garrisons at the time of Hadrian’s visit. However, other units are also recorded in Britain, raising the army strength to 15 alae and 43 cohorts, about 30,000 men in all (Jarrett,1994). Another diploma, dated 15 September 124 and registering six alae and twenty-one cohorts, shows that there was still a large contingent of auxiliaries at that time. The auxiliaries assisted the three legions of regular, trained troops, each consisting of about 5,000 heavily armed infantrymen.

At the start of Hadrian’s reign, the legions of Britannia were II Augusta, XX Valeria Victrix and IX Hispana. Around 121, Hadrian brought Legio VI Victrix from its base at Vetera (Xanten) on the Rhine to permanently replace the Ninth Legion at Eboracum (York). Some have speculated that the arrival of the Sixth Legion predated Hadrian’s visit by a few years, while others that it arrived with the Emperor and his new governor. At all events, the legion apparently sailed directly from the Continent to the River Tyne. On their arrival, the troops dedicated two altars to Neptune and Oceanus (RIB 1319 & RIB 1320), perhaps marking their safe arrival by sea. The altars were found over 100 years ago when the Victorians were building a new bridge across the River Tyne in Newcastle. They are thought to have formed part of a shrine on the Pons Aelius bridge the legion helped build around AD 120/2. All three legions would leave their mark on the landscape, participating in the building of Hadrian’s Wall.

Altars dedicated to Neptune and Oceanus by the Sixth Legion Victrix Pia Fidelis.
Great North Museum, Newcastle.
The mouth of the River Tyne in South Shields where the 6th Legion probably landed.

The commander (legatus legionis) of Legio VI Victrix during its transfer from Vetera to Eboracum was Publius Tullius Varro (cos. 127), a native of Tarquinii in Etruria. Varro had commanded the Cappadocian legion XII Fulminata before being transferred to VI Victrix (CIL 11, 3364). Another man assigned to the legion at this time was the young military tribune Marcus Pontius Laelianus (cos. 144), whose army service had just begun. His career is recorded in a funerary inscription found in Rome (CIL 6, 41146). It includes the note “cum qua ex Germ(ania) in Britan(iam) transit“, implying that Laelianus was with the legion when it was redeployed from the Rhine frontier to its new base in Britain. 

Each legion in Britannia settled into a permanent base, but individual legionaries were detached to serve on the staff of the provincial governor in Londinium (London) or undertake duties on Hadrian’s Wall. Their legionary fortresses were situated in the interior, some distance behind the northern border of Britannia. By the end of the 1st century AD, the three British legions were stationed at Isca Silurum (Caerleon), Eburacum (York) and Deva (Chester).

The military amphitheatre at Caerleon. Built around AD 90 just outside the fortress defences. it was kept in good repair until the end of the 3rd century AD when II Augusta departed.

Britannia experienced periodic outbreaks of rebellion after its conquest in AD 43, and by the beginning of Hadrian’s reign, the province was still far from peaceful. The Historia Augusta gives a picture of Hadrian coming to the throne in AD 117 amid multiple military crises and widespread hostilities across the Empire, including in Britain, where “the Britons could not be kept under control” (HA Hadr. 5.1-2). The Emperor deemed the situation severe enough to transfer the governor of Lower Moesia, his friend Quintus Pompeius Falco, to Britain to restore control.

Further evidence of a conflict in Britannia in 117/8 comes from a letter written in the 160s by the orator Marcus Cornelius Fronto. He consoled the emperor Marcus Aurelius after heavy losses in the East by reminding him of past tragedies, “Indeed, when your grandfather Hadrian held imperial power, what great numbers of soldiers were killed by the Jews, what great numbers by the Britons.” (Fronto De bello Parthico 2, 220f).

RIB 3364

One of the soldiers killed in the British war may have been Titus Annius, a centurion of the First Cohort of Tungrians from Vindolandawhose tombstone (RIB 3364), thought to date from early in Hadrian’s reign, recorded that he had been “in bello interfectus (“killed in the war”) (Graafstal, 2012). With only the left-hand side of the inscription surviving, the text had to be restored. Translation, with possible restoration by Anthony Birley:

To the spirits of the departed. Titus Annius son of….., in the voting district (cognomen), from (town), centurion of (legion….., acting commander of the First Cohort) of Tungrians, (a thousand strong). Aged….. years, with… years service, died in the ….. war, killed….. (by the enemy). Titus Annius….. his son, and… Arc…..(his wife or freedman), his heirs, had this set up (in accordance with his testament).”

Peace was soon restored as an early coin featuring Britannia was minted for circulation in the province in 119, possibly suggesting a victory over the British tribes. The two bronze asses (RIC 2 577a and RIC 2 577b) show the personification of Britannia as a seated female figure dressed in a native dress, holding a spear and leaning on a large round shield. It was the first appearance of Britannia on coins and the only province to receive this attention from Hadrian early in his reign. These coins have mostly been found in Britain, suggesting they were minted intentionally for the British market.

As minted in AD 119 with a personified Britannia. RIC II, Hadrian 577a.
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Hadrian’s solution to keep the peace was to commission a wall that extended from coast to coast. As described briefly by the HA, Hadrian visited the province “…to correct many faults and construct a wall,​ eighty miles in length to separate the barbarians from the Romans.” (HA Hadr. 11. 2). Likewise, fragments of a commemorative inscription were found re-used as building stone in the Saxon Church of Jarrow (RIB 1051a-b), perhaps forming part of a victory monument that originally stood at the eastern end of Hadrian’s Wall. The text speaks of the emperor’s personal involvement and explains why Hadrian built the Wall, even referring to his “divine instruction”. It is unlikely that the two pieces came from the same inscription, but they do form part of the same text, which probably appeared on a monument at Wallsend commemorating the building of the Wall by Hadrian.

The two surviving inscribed stones of the Jarrow inscription.

“…after the barbarians had been dispersed and the province of Britain had been recovered, he [Hadrian] added a frontier-line between either shore of the Ocean for 80 miles. The army of the province built this defence-work under the charge of Aulus Platorius Nepos, emperor’s propraetorian legate”.

The Hadrianic monument is likely to have been built at the end of the Branch Wall, which ran down the hill from the southeast corner of the fort of Segedunum at Wallsend and projected into the river. At the end of this pier, there may have been a temple, an arch or statues set on columns. The monument may have recorded part of a speech made by the Emperor to the army.

The Jarrow church was one of Europe’s most influential centres of learning and culture in the 7th century. The remains standing today are from the medieval monastery, but part of the Anglo-Saxon monastery survives today as the chancel of St Paul’s Church.
A possible design for the victory monument at the start of the Wall (Source: Segedunum Roman Fort)

However, peace may only have lasted for a short time. Two honorary inscriptions reveal that an expeditio Britannica (an emergency involving military forces) was dispatched to the island during Hadrian’s reign with 3,000 legionary reinforcements. As the late Anthony Birley stressed, an expeditio usually indicates that the emperor was present in person and, therefore, can only have occurred in 122 when Hadrian was in Britain. Nevertheless, several historians, including Sheppard Frere (2000) and David Breeze (2003), suggest a late date of 124 or 125, removing the link between the expeditio and the emperor’s presence. Indeed, there is no indication that Hadrian faced open warfare while visiting the island. 

The honorary inscriptions record the name of two army officers the late Hadrian chose and sent on the British expedition. These officers are Maenius Agrippa, the commander of the First Spanish cohort based at Maryport (ILS 2735) and Pontius Sabinus, the commander of three military detachments (ILS 2726). The latter brought 3,000 legionaries from Spain and Upper Germania to reinforce the army of Britain. The case for the expeditio suggesting a later date is considered in relation to epigraphic evidence from the fort at Maryport, where Maenius Agrippa was based, but also from a disruption in the building of Hadrian’s Wall in the mid-120s and the Nike coin issues of 124/5 and 125/6 from Alexandria which have been linked to warfare in Britain. 

The evidence at Maryport is a unique series of altars dedicated to Jupiter Optimus Maximus by successive commanding officers of the First Spanish cohort. Four of these altars (RIB 823-826) were dedicated by Maenius Agrippa, who took part in the Hadrianic expeditio Britannica while commanding the cohort of Spaniards between 124 and 127. Originally from Camerinum (Camerino, in the Italian Marches), Agrippa was a personal friend of Hadrian. His career inscription erected in his hometown describes him as a ‘host to the late emperor Hadrian’, likely in 127 when Hadrian toured the area of Picenum in Italy (A. Birley, 1997). 

Altar dedicated to Jupiter Optimus Maximus by Marcus Maenius Agrippa (RIB 824).

Other pieces of evidence for a ‘second war’ in Britain c. 123–125 is the disruption in the building programme of the Wall at about the same time, as well as the burying of hoards of Hadrianic silver coins. A break in the construction of several years has been observed in Housesteads, Birdoswald and Milecastle 37 (Hill, 2004 & Hill & Wilmott 1997). It has also been suggested that Nike coin issues of Alexandria (124/5 and 125/6) may reflect events in Britain (Casey, 1987).

It is generally assumed that Hadrian ordered the construction of the Wall (the so-called ‘wall decision’) when he was in Britain and that work started in the summer of 122. However, it has been argued that construction (or at least the surveying) of the building began before Hadrian and Nepos set foot in Britain, perhaps as early as AD 119 under Falco’s supervision. Recent dendrochronological analysis of the timbers used to build the limes palisade on the German frontier suggests that in one place, the trees were felled in advance of Hadrian’s visit in the winter of 119/120 (Schallmayer, 2003), allowing the emperor to inspect work in progress (read more here).

The findings in Germany are echoed in the HA, which claims that “in many regions where the barbarians are held back not by rivers but by artificial barriers, Hadrian shut them off by means of high stakes planted deep in the ground and fastened together in the manner of a palisade.” (HA Hadr. 12.6).

As in Germany, the work on the Wall may have started well before Hadrian’s arrival in July 122, with sections completed for imperial approval. The case for an earlier start of the building of Hadrian’s Wall was first put forward by C.E Stevens in 1966 and was revived, on archaeological grounds, by Julian Bennett in 2002 and Dutch archaeologist Erik Graafstal in 2012. This scenario fits well with Dio’s description of Hadrian’s tendency to “view and investigate everything personally (…) not merely the usual appurtenances of camps, such as weapons, engines, trenches, ramparts and palisades”. This earlier construction order would have allowed for the procurement and stockpiling of resources for the turf and stone Wall and its structures.

A well-preserved section of Hadrian’s Wall at Thorny Doors to the east of Cawfields Milecastle.
RIB 1638. Inscription from Milecastle 38 attributing the structure to the Legio II Augusta during the reign of Hadrian and the governorship of Aulus Platorius Nepos.
Milecastle 39, with the waters of Crag Lough in the background.

The Emperor’s visit to the northern frontier in Germany and Britain was part of a well-prepared journey of inspection and required time for logistical preparations. The milestones set up in Gaul, Germania and Britannia, all dated to AD 120/121, show that Hadrian’s journey to the north-western provinces had been planned, and communicated to local authorities, two years or so before his visit.

RIB 2265
RIB 2265

Three milestones have been found in Britain, possibly attesting to preparatory roadworks ordered by Pompeius Falco. One milestone (RIB 2244) comes from Thurmaston near Leicester. It records repair work c. 120 on the Fosse Way to Lindum (Lincoln) and marked the second mile north from Ratae Corieltauvorum (Leicester). The second milestone (RIB 2265) was found in the late nineteenth century near Llanfairfechan, 8 (Roman) miles from the fort of Canovium along the road that connected Deva (Chester) to Segontium. The third milestone (RIB 2272), not closely dated, was found near Lancaster, where the military fort of Calunium stood, maybe suggesting that the emperor was expected to return to Londinium down the west side of the island (Birley, 1997).

Map of Roman Britain ca. 150 AD, showing the main Roman roads, cities, and Brythonic tribes. Author: Andrei Nacu

Unfortunately, Hadrian’s movements within the province are not documented, nor is it known where he embarked. He may have crossed the North Sea from Lugdunum Batavorum at the mouth of the Rhine or from the main base for the British fleet, the classis Britannica, at Gesoriacum (Boulogne), landing at Dubris (Dover) on the south coast and travelling up to Londinium. While in the provincial capital, the imperial party will have headquartered in the governor’s riverside palace, a luxurious residence with panoramic views over the waters of the Thames.

Denarius commemorating Hadrian’s crossing to Britain with Oceanus on the reverse. RIC II Hadrian 520. Dated AD 121 – 123.
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Londinium was established in AD 47 and conceived as a military encampment. By the end of the 1st century AD, the city had expanded rapidly and quickly became one of the largest cities in Britannia, replacing Camulodunum (Colchester) as the provincial capital. It quickly developed into a flourishing commercial centre and experienced a period of great prosperity in the 2nd century when it reached its peak with around 45,000 inhabitants, covering an area of 330 acres. The city contained a forum, basilica, fort, amphitheatre, temples, baths, and many other municipal buildings. The forum-basilica was one of the largest structures north of the Alps.

Reconstruction drawing of Londinium in AD 120.

A stone fort at Cripplegate was built around the year 120 northwest of the civilian settlement, perhaps connected with Hadrian’s visit to the province and to ensure his protection. It originally included four gateways, which provided a means of access into Londinium and controlled the traffic in and out of the city. The Cripplegate fort, which may have replaced an earlier timber one, covered 4.5 hectares and was large enough to house up to 1000 men with suitable barracks for the garrison. Remains of the west gate and a section of the Roman wall can still be seen underground. Evidence from tombstone inscriptions indicates that soldiers were detached from all three legions to serve with the headquarters staff of the governor, for example, Flavius Agricola of the VI legion, who died in London aged forty-two (RIB 11).

Stone figure of a Roman legionary soldier that probably served with the governor’s headquarters staff.

The military unit based at the Cripplegate fort may have been involved with the reconstruction of the amphitheatre, which was given a major facelift and made larger. Londinium experienced a major rebuilding programme after a fire destroyed much of the city in the ten years following the visit of Hadrian. The so-called ‘Hadrianic Fire’ is not mentioned in any historical sources but has been inferred by evidence of large-scale burning identified by archaeologists on a number of excavation sites around the City of London. The fire destroyed over 65 hectares of the ancient city north of the Thames. Only a handful of the more robust Roman buildings, such as the Roman fort at Cripplegate, survived the flames, and the city was largely wiped out.

The River Thames, running through the heart of London, has played a central role in the history of the city. Londinium was a major port and had an important river crossing along a narrow section of the Thames, near where the modern London Bridge is located. Over the past two hundred years, many spectacular Roman artefacts have been recovered from the Thames. In 1834, a bronze head of Hadrian was recovered from the bed of the river, a little below old London Bridge on the Southwark side. It was part of a larger-than-life-size statue that may have been erected to commemorate Hadrian’s visit.

Bronze head of the Roman emperor Hadrian.

Hadrian’s wife, Sabina, seems to have stayed in Londinium with members of the entourage. These included Septicius Clarus and Tranquillus Suetonius, the historian and author of the Twelve Caesars. An anecdote in the Historia Augusta suggests that Hadrian had to deal with a court scandal said to have involved Sabina. Both men were dismissed on the grounds that they had been over-familiar with the Empress. This alleged scandal appears to have taken place during Hadrian’s tour of Britain.

He [Hadrian] removed from office Septicius Clarus,​ the prefect of the guard, and Suetonius Tranquillus,​ the imperial secretary, and many others besides, because without his consent they had been conducting themselves toward his wife, Sabina, in a more informal fashion than the etiquette of the court demanded. (HA Hadr. 11.3)

Hadrian is likely to have personally travelled north to inspect the frontier zone. Leaving the provincial capital of Londinium, the imperial party would have proceeded along the Roman Ermine Street to Eburacum, where the Emperor could have inspected the troops stationed there, before continuing northward along Dere Street to Coria (Corbridge) and then onto the Wall.

Sites like Coria, Luguvalium (Carlisle) and Vindolanda were probably used to accommodate the Emperor and his entourage during his inspection time. Excavations in 1991/2 at Vindolanda revealed the remains of an exceptionally luxurious building roughly dated to this period. It was constructed on massive oak base beams and had painted walls and its own heated bath suite. It was more opulent than anything else excavated in Vindolanda, including the residence of the fort’s commander. It has been suggested that this “palatial building” was constructed to accommodate Hadrian’s retinue (R. Birley, 2009).

Palatial wooden building under excavations in 1991/2.

There is also a letter (Tab.Vindol. 344) that could attest to a visit by Hadrian to Vindolanda. Dating to c. AD 120, Tablet 344 is a draft letter of complaint from a man who seems to be a merchant from overseas anxious to plead his innocence. He writes to seek redress for a beating he had received from a centurion, apparently unjustly, and asks for immunity from further punishments as he had not committed any crime. He appeals to someone he calls maiestatem (‘your majesty’), which may refer to the emperor himself since the Prefect appears to have been unavailable for help. After all, Hadrian was known for his frequent hearing of legal matters and was noted for his accessibility to petitioners (Birley, 1997). It seems very unlikely, however, that the emperor read the letter.

The appeal for clemency, perhaps addressed to Hadrian.
© The Trustees of the British Museum (link)

Whatever his precise whereabouts, Hadrian must have stayed a couple of months on the northern frontier “inspecting all the garrisons and forts (. . .). He personally viewed and investigated absolutely everything, not merely the usual appurtenances of camps, such as weapons, engines, trenches, ramparts and palisades” (Dio, 69.9.1–2).

In its initial plan, the frontier consisted of a turf wall in the section west of the River Irthing (from Milecastle 49 to the western terminus of the wall at Bowness-on-Solway) with turf and timber milecastles, free-standing stone turrets and a wooden rampart running along the top. This defensive line was perhaps built as early as AD 119 in response to a continued threat from the native tribes in southwest Scotland. In most cases, the earthen barrier was removed when the replacement stone wall was built towards the end of Hadrian’s reign.

A partially reconstructed section of the walls at Vindolanda, representing an earlier phase of the fort’s existence.

However, west of Birdoswald fort, the stone wall followed a different course, and a stretch of the turf wall can still be seen a little to the south of the later stone wall. To the east, the frontier was conceived as a stone wall about 3 metres wide (the so-called Broad Wall). A V-shaped ditch was dug to the north, separated by a 6-metre-wide berm (or strip of land). At this stage, there were no forts on the Wall. The wall itself was of simple construction and required little skill. It was faced with cut stones set in mortar and filled with rubble, clay and soil.

This section of Hadrian’s Wall at Heddon-on-the-Wall was built to broad gauge, to the full width of ten Roman feet (2.96 metres). It is the longest length of the Broad Wall to have survived (255 metres in length).
Denton Hall Turret (Turret 7B) is the only ‘Broad Wall’ turret to survive along the course of Hadrian’s Wall. The Wall itself here is entirely of ‘Broad’ dimensions built during the earlier phase of Hadrian’s Wall construction.

Many of the turrets and milecastles were laid out first before the Wall was built. They had wing walls on either side that were meant to be joined to the Broad Wall. However, shortly after work commenced, a decision was made to narrow the wall in the eastern section to around 2 metres (the so-called Narrow Wall). The reason is unclear, although it was probably to increase the speed of building or to preserve resources. The reduction in the width of the Wall can best be seen at Willowford on the Irthing, where the Narrow Wall was built upon broad foundations.

A gateway through the Wall. The northern gateway at Milecastle 37, just west of Housesteads, is the best preserved of its kind on the Wall. Milecastles were positioned at intervals of approximately one Roman mile (1,479m).
A section of the 914-metre stretch of Hadrian’s Wall, known as Willowford Wall. Willowford Wall is of Narrow Wall type, built on Broad Wall foundations.
Turret 48a at Willowford, built to Broad Wall specification with its wing walls joining to the later Narrow Wall. Turrets were erected between the milecastles at intervals of roughly a third of a Roman mile, resulting in a manned post every 495m or so along the curtain wall.

The narrowing of the Wall occurred just after an even more significant change, the addition of a series of forts attached to the Wall (the so-call ‘Fort Decision’), which involved demolishing some stretches of the newly-built Wall, turrets and a milecastle, and filing of the northern ditch in some parts. These new forts were placed at an average distance of 11.6 km from each other. They were built for a single auxiliary unit, and their projection to the north allowed for quick strikes into enemy territory if there was any threat from that direction.

At Chesters, the fort projected beyond the Wall so that the west and east gates were built over the ditch to the north of the Wall. The ditch had to be filled in and levelled, while the foundations of the Broad Wall and the Turret 27a had to be demolished. At Housesteads, the Broad Wall and Turret 36b were destroyed to allow the building of the fort. The fort at Great Chesters was built over the site of milecastle 43. At Birdoswald, on the Turf Wall, Turret 49a, together with part of the Wall and the northern ditch, were obligated.

Plan of Chesters fort showing the location of the demolished Turret. © English Heritage

We know from inscriptions that the forts of Benwell (RIB 1340) and Halton Chesters (RIB 1427) were built during the governorship of Aulus Platorius Nepos, which ended sometime before August 127. However, other forts may have been completed sometime later in Hadrian’s reign and early in the reign of Antoninus Pius. The decision to increase the strength of the military forces in the frontier zone resulted in the construction of an additional 20 forts on the wall line and down the Cumbrian coast. With the existing forts on the Stanegate (Carlisle, Corbridge and Vindolanda), David Breeze suggested that the Fort Decision saw a rise from 3500-4000 troops in the early Hadrianic period to at least 15,000 (Breeze, 2019).

A map illustrating the span, structure, and context of the 73 miles (118 km) of Hadrian’s Wall. The Wall may have been designed, in whole or in part, by Hadrian himself.
Map created by Simeon Netchev for World History Encyclopedia (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).

Although they varied in their details and size, ranging from 1.35 to 3.75 hectares in area, depending on the number and composition of the units, the forts had the usual playing-card shape, rectangular with rounded corners and four double-portalled gateways, one along each of the long and short sides. The central part of the fort was usually occupied by the administrative buildings, the headquarters building (principia) in the middle, flanked by the commanding officer’s house (praetorium) on one side and the granaries on the other. The rest of the fort was taken up by barracks blocks for the soldiers and stables for the horses. As the forts became permanent fixtures, civilian settlements (vici) grew up outside their walls with a variety of establishments to look after the needs of the men.

The Staffordshire Moorlands Pan, a copper-alloy pan (trulla) made near the Wall by craftsmen in Britain in the middle of the 2nd century AD. It is inscribed with the names of four forts along the western end of the Wall, MAIS (Bowness-on-Solway) COGGABATA (Drumburgh) VXELODVNVM (Stanwix) and CAMMOGLANNA (Castlesteads). It may have served as a souvenir from the frontier.
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Hadrian travelled through one province after another, visiting the various regions and cities and inspecting all the garrisons and forts. Some of these he removed to more desirable places, some he abolished, and he also established some new ones. (Dio, 69.1–2)

Most units stationed in these forts were mixed units containing infantry and cavalry. However, three forts are known to have been garrisoned by units that were wholly cavalry (Chesters, Stanwix and possibly Benwell) and three wholly infantry (Housestheads, Great Chesters and Birdoswald).

The addition of the forts was followed by the construction of a second barrier to the south of the Wall, the Vallum. It consisted of a 3m deep flat-bottomed ditch, about 5.9m wide, with mounds about 1.5m high on either side. It created a 35m wide system of earthworks. This major earthwork stretched the whole distance from the western end of the Wall as far as Newcastle, but it was perhaps not dug between Newcastle and Wallsend because the River Tyne was seen as enough of an obstacle to the south. The Vallum and the Wall demarcated a military zone with crossings built opposite the main forts. A causeway linked these crossings, which can be seen today at Benwell.

The Vallum near Milecastle 42 at Cawfields.
The Vallum crossing at Benwell, where a causeway surmounted by a gate lay across the Vallum, the only one visible on the Wall.

Erik Graafstal has recently placed the Fort and Vallum decisions in the immediate context of Hadrian’s visit. In his view, Hadrian was personally involved and “would have seen how things were progressing along the northern frontiers” and “how his designs had translated to the field”. An early start would have allowed two years for planning, surveying, troop movements, assembling, collecting materials, and logistics. Graafstal has given a new chronology for the building sequence of Hadrian’s Wall. This change of perspective now opens up the possibility that the initial ‘Wall decision’ belongs to c. 119 and that the Fort and Vallum decisions (Graafstal 2012) resulted from Hadrian’s visit in 122. A growing number of Wall scholars have since followed Erik Graafstal’s lead.

The sequence of events could therefore be:

  • 117-119 Trouble in northern Britain at the start of Hadrian’s reign
  • 119 Coin issue indicating the successful conclusion of fighting
  • 119-120 Wall decision
  • 120-121 Time for troop transfers, logistic preparation, surveying and planning
  • 121 First full building season focusing on the eastern sector and Turf Wall
  • Summer 122 Hadrian’s visit resulting in the Fort and Vallum decisions
  • 123 ‘Second war’ breaks out – expeditio Britannica
  • 123/5 General interruption of work / Birdoswald hoards buried, likely in the context of troubles and ‘second war’ of 123/5
  • 125/7 Final work under Nepos
  • 136/8 Final work under Hadrian

In the East, the Wall was extended from Newcastle, where a bridge, the Pons Aelius (Hadrian’s Bridge), crossed the Tyne to Wallsend (Segedunum). The end result was a wall 117km long, with a wide ditch to the north, a huge earthwork to the south (the Vallum),160 turrets and 81 milecastles, 12 attached forts and a series of forts on the west coast and one on the east coast. A final linear feature was the Military Way, a road running along the Wall, constructed in the 150s or 160s during the reign of Antoninus Pius. 

Reconstruction by Henry Burdon Richardson (1840) of the Roman Bridge across the Tyne at Newcastle and the Roman Fort built along Hadrian’s Wall, also known as Pons Aelius. The 200-m-long Pons Aelius bridge probably had an elegant arched structure like the excavated bridge at Chesters. A radiocarbon date obtained by the WallQuest project from one timber pile now proves that the bridge was situated close to the present-day Swing Bridge.

Inscriptions show that the burden of building the Wall and its structures lay with the detachments of legionary soldiers sent up from all three legions of Britain (II Augusta, VI Victrix, and XX Valeria Victrix). They were supported by auxiliary cohorts and by the men of the British fleet. It is not known how the building work was divided up between the many different cohorts and centuries. However, the individual work parties were each under the control of a centurion. Each building unit appears to have been assigned stretches about 25 to 30m long, subdivided into centurial lengths of approximately 6m long.

Small inscriptions placed on the south side of the Wall, so-called centurial stones, recorded the names of these centuries (units of eighty men) and their officers responsible for building a particular length of the curtain wall. Over 200 of these stones have been found along the Wall, and a list of the names of soldiers who worked on the Wall can be seen written on a modern monument at Segedunum Roman Fort. These names represent a tiny proportion of the 15,000 soldiers or so believed to have helped build the Wall.

RIB 1506. From the sixth cohort of the century of Lousius Suavis (built this).
RIB 1564 – The century of Avidius (built this).
RIB 1566. A detachment of the … legion … .
This inscription at Segedunum Roman Fort gives the names of Roman soldiers known to have taken part in the building of Hadrian’s Wall.

Hadrian’s military activities in Britain were to be commemorated on coins a dozen years or more later, with two examples of the ‘Exercitus’ type. The first coin (RIC II 913) shows Hadrian standing left on a platform and addressing three soldiers standing to the right. The first soldier holds a legionary eagle, the second a standard, and the third a shield. The legend EXER BRITANNICVS S-C (‘For the army of Britain, by order of the Senate.’) stands in exergue. The second coin (RIC II 912) shows Hadrian on horseback with his right hand raised, addressing a crowd of five soldiers, the first holding a vexillum, the next three holding standards, and the last holding nothing.

Sestertius of the ‘Exercitus’ type with Hadrian standing on low platform. AD 130 – 133. Minted in Rome.
© The Trustees of the British Museum (link)
Sestertius of the ‘Exercitus’ type with Hadrian on horseback. AD 130 – 133. Minted in Rome.
© The Trustees of the British Museum (link)

The ‘Province’ type coin minted late in Hadrian’s reign bears on the reverse the exact same seated figure of Britannia as the bronze asses minted in 119. These versions are rare. According to CNG, only about ten dupondii and six sestertii are known. The sitting pose of Britannia appears to have been taken from the Dacia personification of Trajan from 112–114, as it is on these coins that, for the first time, a province was shown seated on a pile of rocks (see here).

Dupondius of the ‘Province’ type with the personified Britannia. AD 130 – 133. Minted in Rome.
© The Trustees of the British Museum (link)

Hadrian’s visit to Britain was also commemorated by the poet and historian Publius Annius Florus:

I don’t want to be a Caesar,
Stroll about the Britons,
Lurk about among the […]
And about the Scythian winters. (HA Hadr. 16.3)

Hadrian’s response showed his sense of humour:

I don’t want to be a Florus,
Stroll about among the taverns,
Lurk about among the cool shops
And endure the round fat insects. (HA Hadr. 16.4)

After three months in the province, the imperial party moved on to southern Gaul and then Spain. Work on Hadrian’s Wall would continue well into the 130s.

Sources & references:

  • Birley, A. R. (1997) Hadrian. The restless emperor (London – New York).
  • Birley, A. R. (2005) The Roman Government of Britain (Oxford).
  • Graafstal, E. (2018) What Happened in the Summer of A.d. 122? Hadrian on the British Frontier — Archaeology, Epigraphy and Historical Agency.” Britannia 49. Cambridge University Press: 79–111.
  • Graafstal, E. (2012) Hadrian’s haste: a priority programme for the Wall. Archaeologia Aeliana, 5th Series, 41, 123–184.
  • Graafstal, E. 2020 Hadrian’s Wall: the winding path of a Roman megaproject, Archaeologia Aeliana 5 (49): 99-169.
  • Stevens, C. E. (1966) The Building of Hadrian’s Wall, Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society, extra series 20, Kendal.
  • Breeze, D. J. (2019) The placing of the forts on Hadrian’s Wall. Archaeologia Aeliana, 46, 21–39.
  • Breeze, D. J., et al. (2012) Maenius Agrippa, a chronological conundrum, Acta Classica, vol. 55, pp. 17–30.
  • Breeze, D. J. (2003) Warfare in Britain and the Building of Hadrian’s Wall. Archaeologia Aeliana Series 5. Vol 32, pp. 13-16
  • Frere, S. S. (2000) M. Maenius Agrippa, the “Expeditio Britannica” and Maryport. Britannia, 31, 23–28. https://doi.org/10.2307/526916
  • Symonds, M., & Breeze, D. J. (2019) The building of Hadrian’s Wall: a reconsideration Part 2: the central sector. Archaeologia Aeliana, 45, 1–16.
  • Hill, P R. (2004) The Construction of Hadrian’s Wall, BAR British series 375, Oxford.
  • Hill, P. R. and Wilmott, R. (1997) The porta principalis sinistra and west curtain wall the superstructure and its phasing, in Wilmott (ed.) 1997, 56–60.
  • Casey, J. 1987 The coinage of Alexandria and the chronology of Hadrian, in Huvelin, H. Christol, M. and Gautier, G. (eds), Mélanges de numismatique offerts à Pierre Bastien à l’occasion de son 75e anniversaire, Wetteren, 65–72.

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