Spanning England, Hadrian’s Wall once marked the northern border of the Roman Empire. Was the wall built by slaves?
Hadrian’s Wall was not built by slaves. Though slave labor was used extensively throughout the Roman Empire, Hadrian’s Wall was constructed by soldiers of the Roman army, including skilled masons and laborers.
For more on Hadrian’s Wall and its construction, read on.
Conquest of England
Having defeated the Gallic tribes in modern-day France, Julius Caesar looked across the Channel to Britain. In 55 BCE, Caesar’s legions were the first Roman troops to set foot in Britain. This first invasion was unsuccessful, as was a second attempt in the following year.
For almost a century, Britain was largely ignored by Rome. This changed in 43 CE, when Claudius, the Emperor of Rome, renewed Roman interest in Britain and ordered another invasion.
The conquest of Britain was entrusted to Aulus Plautius, one of Rome’s most respected generals, who took an army of approximately 24,000 and sailed for Britain’s south coast.
The invasion was met with fierce resistance from the native Celtic tribes but the Romans were gradually able to establish a strong foothold in southern England. Plautius was named the first Roman governor of Britannia.
Even as the Roman civilization established itself in the south, it continued facing opposition from the Celts. Over the course of the following decades, Rome gradually conquered most of southern England and Wales.
The Scottish tribes were all that stood in the way of Rome conquering Great Britain in its entirety. Emperor Vespasian ordered renewed efforts to march north and conquer Scotland, but the Romans encountered some of their fiercest opposition in the Caledonians.
The Romans finally won a significant victory over the Caledonians in 81 CE, gaining territory in southern Scotland for the first time. Despite the defeat, the Caledonians were not broken and retreated into the Scottish wilderness to continue launching attacks against the Romans.
When Hadrian became Emperor of Rome in 117 CE, he decided that Rome should look to consolidate its borders, rather than continuing to extend them. This included building a wall across the northern frontier in Britain, protecting the Roman territory from “barbarians” in the north.
Hadrian’s Wall, named for the emperor, was placed near the modern-day border between England and Scotland. However, it was never the official border between the two countries, despite a popular misconception.
The intention was that the wall would be made of turf or stone with a deep ditch on the north side to hinder anybody trying to move south. There would also be a gate for every mile of the wall and an observation tower between each of these gates.
There were 14 forts added later, providing barracks for the many Roman soldiers who guarded the border.
The construction of Hadrian’s Wall took more than six years, starting on the east coast and gradually moving west until it spanned the width of Britain. When completed, it stretched 73 miles from coast to coast.
Though slavery was widespread across the entire Roman Empire, slaves were not used in the construction of Hadrian’s Wall. It was considered a critical project and skilled masons were employed to ensure that the wall was built to the necessary standard.
Labor was provided by Roman soldiers, who had little else to occupy them. Constructing the wall was seen as a way of keeping the soldiers fit, as well as a rewarding way of spending their time.
Antoninus Pius became Emperor of Rome in 138 CE, following the death of his adoptive father, Hadrian. He ordered the construction of a second wall, a hundred miles north of Hadrian’s Wall.
The second wall, which became known as the Antonine Wall, was made of turf. Though it was a very impressive achievement, its construction accomplished little more than stretching Roman territory slightly further north and it was difficult to defend effectively.
Before long, the Antonine Wall was abandoned and Hadrian’s Wall became the northern border again. This remained the case until the Romans left Britain permanently by about 400 CE.
In the centuries that followed, people regularly used Hadrian’s Wall as a free source of stone for their own walls and houses. This led to much of the wall being lost until the efforts of antiquarian John Clayton resulted in restoration work in the 1800s.
Today, Hadrian’s Wall is part of the “Frontiers of the Roman Empire” UNESCO World Heritage Site.