10 Facts About Hadrian’s Wall, the Roman Empire’s Northern Frontier

Built in the 2nd century CE as a defense against British tribes, Hadrian’s Wall carves a path across northern England. It’s a treasure trove of artifacts that reveal a lot about life at the Roman Empire’s northernmost frontier.

A section of Hadrian’s Wall showing the remains of a Roman fort.
A section of Hadrian’s Wall showing the remains of a Roman fort. / by Marc Guitard/Moment/Getty Images

Hadrian’s Wall, built in 122 CE, is a defensive wall running for 73 miles (or 80 Roman miles) across the very north of England from coast to coast. Archaeologists have been working for many years to uncover its secrets. While there is still a lot to learn, what they have unearthed so far offers fascinating insight into life at the northernmost frontier of the Roman Empire.

1.  The wall wasn’t attributed to Hadrian until 1840.

Publius Aelius Hadrianus, Emperor Hadrian
A bust of the Roman Emperor Hadrian / Hulton Archive/GettyImages

During their occupation of Britain, the Romans built many defensive walls, and later historians weren’t sure who was responsible for the building of what became known as Hadrian’s Wall. The Roman historian Eutropius, writing in the 4th century CE, claimed it was built by Emperor Septimius Severus, who ruled the Roman Empire from 193 to 211 CE. The Venerable Bede, writing in 731 CE, agreed.

However, in 1840, Northumbrian vicar John Hodgson published his History of Northumbria and correctly attributed the wall to Hadrian, emperor of Rome from 117 to 138 CE. Hodgson looked carefully at the construction of the wall and made copies of various inscriptions along its length, concluding that it could only have been built on Hadrian’s order. Somewhat bizarrely, he hid the evidence for this huge discovery in a 173-page footnote in his book about Northumbria.

Fortunately, historian John Collingwood Bruce found Hodgson’s meticulous research and built on it, publishing the first proper history of the wall in 1851 and overturning years of misunderstanding about who had actually ordered its construction.

2. Hadrian’s Wall does not follow the border of Scotland and England.

A map of Roman Britain depicting Hadrian’s Wall
This map shows the path of Hadrian’s Wall (the top edge of the lower pink section) and the extent of the Roman Empire in Britain. / Photo by Culture Club/Bridgeman via Getty Images

When looking at a map of Hadrian’s Wall, many people wrongly suppose that it follows the border between England and Scotland. In fact, when the wall was built in 122 CE, the nations of England and Scotland didn’t even exist.

When the Romans conquered Britain in 43 CE, the island was occupied by various tribes, some of whom were very hostile towards the invaders. As the limits of the Roman-controlled territory expanded northward, Hadrian ordered the wall built at the northwestern frontier of the entire Roman Empire, stretching across the rugged landscape of Northumbria and Cumbria, from Wallsend on the River Tyne in the east to Bowness on the Solway Firth in the west. It was built as a defense against attacks by what Roman historians termed “barbarians,” but it also served as an impressive feat of engineering and a symbol of Roman might, reminding local people that they lived under Roman control.

3. The wall took at least six years to build.

Historians estimate that it took six years to build the wall, with three Roman legions of 5000 soldiers each working on construction. It was a massive undertaking requiring not just the building of the defensive stone wall itself, but also numerous turrets, watchtowers, and gates. A small gate was installed every mile along the wall with a guard post known as a milecastle, and between each milecastle were two small turrets that acted as observation points for the soldiers stationed there. Forts to house the soldiers were built roughly every seven miles. The remains of many forts have survived, lending insights into the soldiers who lived, built, and worked along Hadrian’s Wall.

4. Soldiers from all over the Roman Empire occupied Hadrian’s Wall.

Granary at Birdoswald Fort, Cumbria, 1994. Artist: Paul Highnam
An image of the granary at Birdoswald Fort in Cumbria. / Heritage Images/GettyImages

Inscriptions left by soldiers at the Birdoswald Fort, one of the best-preserved forts at the western end of Hadrian’s Wall, reveal the huge expanse of the Roman Empire. Soldiers from Dacia (modern-day Romania) lived at Birdoswald and inscribed the name of their unit, Cohors I Aelia Dacorum milliaria, on a stone over the east gate of the fort. The inscription also contains a picture of a distinctive curved Dacian sword, known as a falx, demonstrating the diversity of the Roman army and its ability to incorporate elements from the cultures that made up their number.

5. Hadrian’s Wall is not just a wall.

An aerial view of the Vindolanda Roman Fort located along the path of Hadrian’s Wall.
An aerial view of the Vindolanda Roman Fort located along the path of Hadrian’s Wall. / Heritage Images/GettyImages

The meandering stone wall reaches from coast to coast across northern Britain, but that edifice is just part of the story. Alongside the wall is a massive defensive structure, known as a vallum, formed from a huge ditch with earthworks (human-made fortifications of soil and rocks) on either side. Archaeologists think that the vallum marked the end of the military zone, and causeways dotted along its path were the only way to cross into the zone, allowing the Romans to control who could pass through.

In addition, some sections of the wall were made from turf rather than stone, which may have been used due to a scarcity of stone or simply because it was quicker to build with.

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6. Hadrian’s Wall was replaced with a new wall 14 years after it was built.

After Hadrian’s death in 138 CE, his son, Emperor Antoninus Pius, assumed power. Around 140 CE he ordered a new defensive wall built further north (in modern-day Scotland), some 100 miles from Hadrian’s Wall. This new structure, known as the Antonine Wall, was made from turf and wood instead of stone and ran for 38 miles. However, it didn't last—by around 160 CE it had been abandoned and the frontier’s border returned to Hadrian’s Wall.

7. The oldest surviving handwritten documents in Britain were found at Hadrian’s Wall.

Roman wood writing tablet from Vindolanda with a party invitation, late 1st or early 2nd century. Artist: Claudia Severa
Roman wood writing tablet from Vindolanda with a party invitation dating from the late 1st or early 2nd century. / Print Collector/GettyImages

The Roman fort of Vindolanda lies just south of Hadrian’s Wall, and though it was built before the wall itself, it became an important garrison for soldiers guarding the region.

Excavations have uncovered numerous artifacts left by the Roman army, but the most exciting—and revealing—were unearthed in 1973. Archaeologists found the first of many wooden writing tablets. These wafer-thin pieces of wood are covered in handwritten Roman cursive script, and most were written between 90 CE and 120 CE. The tablets include a letter between two enslaved people preparing for the feast of Saturnalia, a birthday party invite written by the wife of the fort’s commander, and a military report that describes the local tribes as “wretched Britons.”

Today, the Vindolanda Tablets are kept in special conditions at the British Museum to stop them from disintegrating, but infrared photography has allowed many of the messages to be read.

8. The soldiers posted at Hadrian’s Wall played board games to pass the time.

Guarding a wall can be pretty boring, as the numerous Roman dice, playing counters, and board games found along Hadrian’s Wall can attest. Gaming counters made from bone, ceramic, jet, and glass have been unearthed with gaming boards carved with a grid pattern. Archaeologists think that these boards were used to play duodecim scripta, which is a bit like backgammon, or ludus latrunculi, a game based on military strategy.

9. Only 10 percent of the original wall survives.

Roman gateway through Hadrian's Wall at Milecastle 37, Northumberland, 1994. Artist: Paul Highnam
Roman gateway through Hadrian's Wall at Milecastle 37 in Northumberland. / Heritage Images/GettyImages

Hadrian’s Wall was occupied for over 300 years and fell out of use only after the Roman army left Britain in the 5th century. Towns and cities had grown around the wall’s path, meaning that its exact trajectory is at times unknown, and many of the stones used to build the wall were stripped away by local people who reused them to build houses and farm buildings.

Fortunately, 19th-century antiquarian John Clayton decided to try to preserve as much of the surviving wall as possible, and he began buying up the land surrounding it. As the significance of the site became apparent, the National Trust and English Heritage (two conservation organizations) took control of maintaining the wall, ensuring its story is preserved for future generations.

10. You can walk the path of Hadrian’s Wall.

Housesteads Fort on Hadrian’s Wall
The remains of Housesteads Fort is one of the highlights along the Hadrian’s Wall National Trail. / Heritage Images/GettyImages

Hadrian’s Wall was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987, and today there is a popular 84-mile National Trail that runs along the route of the wall. The trail passes by many of the forts and museums associated with the Roman occupation. Hikers can stop off and see the artifacts that have been uncovered and learn what life was like for Roman soldiers in northern Britain nearly 2000 years ago.