Hadrian’s Wall is one of the most remarkable remnants of Roman Britannia.
There are some arguments as to what the exact purpose of Hadrian’s Wall was. If the Romans intended to defend their holdings against their northern enemies, it only succeeded for a few decades. If they intended to demarcate a border, it had far more success.
The impressive structure ranges about 80 miles from the Irish Sea coast to the North Sea.
What is Hadrian’s Wall?
Most historians have long believed that the wall demarcated where the Roman province ended and the northern lands of the Picts began. The word Picts means the “painted ones” in Latin, and they would prove worthy adversaries to the Roman legions.
The term did not refer to a specific tribe but rather was a collective term used to describe the hostile tribes of the area. Due to their ferociousness and the length of Roman supply lines, they mostly managed to beat Roman incursions into their lands.
The Campaigns of Agricola
When the Romans first began military incursions into Caledonia (the area we today call Scotland), they had already subdued England and Romanized the population. The Governor of Britannia Agricola made headway in his initial invasion, building a series of Roman forts in the area. There is even evidence that he marched his legions to the northern coast of the British Isles.
However, Roman control of Caledonia never really took. Agricola defeated the Pictish military in battle but was never able to destroy their forces.
He was recalled to Rome in 85 AD, possibly because Emperor Domitian was threatened by his achievements. At the time, the conquest of the area was incomplete, and the legions soon withdrew.
With other strategic priorities competing for the Empire’s attention, the Roman troops stationed in northern England did not attempt another serious campaign in Caledonia. The frontier remained neglected for several decades.
The Military Purposes of the Wall
Emperor Hadrian was very different from many of his hands off predecessors. He traveled to the most far-flung of his provinces and liked to spend time with the ordinary soldiers.
Therefore, he reached northern Britannia, one of the most godforsaken parts of the Roman Empire at the time. Spending time on the frontier, he ordered the construction of a massive barrier.
The barrier may have been needed from a military perspective. While the Roman army was very powerful at the time, it was stretched thin in a massive Empire. They did not have legions to spare, either taming Caledonia or fighting off the Picts.
While the Picts did not launch full-scale attacks on the Romans, they did launch southward raids. Therefore, the wall helped the garrison make the most of the limited human resources at their disposal and limit the destructive power of these incursions.
An Economic Frontier
There is another reason for the creation of the wall. It allowed the Roman government to charge taxes from anyone entering from the north.
It is unclear if taxation and the collection of customs were significant considerations in creating the wall. However, there is no question that it ended up being one of the primary uses for it. The wall had openings and checkpoints to allow traffic to head southward at a cost.
The Fall of the Wall
Hadrian’s Wall did not prove to be an insurmountable barrier for Pictish raids. They continued to occur. In 180, enemy combatants took over the wall for a short period.
By the 3rd Century, the wall was completely irrelevant. The Roman positions fell further back, and the Picts began to raid York. Emperor Constantine Chlorus was forced to send reinforcements to the island to put a stop to the incursions.
The Roman position in the Islands continued to deteriorate as the Roman Empire went into a tailspin. In the early 5th Century, they would leave Britannia. By 476, the Western Roman Empire was no more.
Legacy of Hadrian’s Wall
The wall failed to protect the Roman presence in Britannia. The Picts regained their offensive capabilities 30 years after it was constructed, and the Roman presence on the island eventually disintegrated.
However, the sense of division between England and what later became Scotland has lasted ever since. The very presence of a wall demarcating those on each side as “the other” has played a role in shaping the English and the Scots’ attitudes long after the disappearance of both the Romans and the Picts.