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Skip to 0 minutes and 8 secondsFor many people, this view is perhaps the best known when they think of Hadrian's Wall. It's the Wall at its most dramatic. Here, we can see the Wall following the line of a great geological feature, the Great Whin Sill, ingeniously exploited by Roman engineers to make the frontier look still more dramatic. Yet this view, magnificent as it undoubtedly is, is profoundly misleading when it comes to understanding Hadrian's frontier system.

Skip to 0 minutes and 44 secondsThe Wall here has been rebuilt, and indeed, we call this familiar box shape form of wall Clayton Wall after the famous antiquarian who did so much to conserve and restore the structure. But it's not only in that respect that the central sector is atypical. Elsewhere, the Wall is much less conspicuous, and frequently doesn't actually follow the high ground. The continuous and distinctive curtain wall stretched for 80 Roman miles, or for those who prefer their stats in metric, that's 117 kilometres.

Skip to 1 minute and 22 seconds(A Roman mile is 1.6 kilometres.) And we can see that this curtain wall underwent various changes over time-- changes in design from a broad wall through to a later adoption of a narrower gauge wall, and subsequent rebuilding in the third century. But none of this should distract us from the fact that there's also more to this frontier complex. To the north, for example, we have a ditch running along the length of the Wall, and on the Wall itself, we also have turrets and milecastles both elements of the original plan, and subsequently, the addition of forts and a strange linear earthwork to the south, which we know as the Vallum.

Skip to 2 minutes and 11 secondsAnd if that weren't enough, Hadrian's frontier system continued for 20 Roman miles-- 32 kilometres-- down the Cumbrian coast with a series of milefortlets and towers. When you put that together with the outpost forts to the north and the forts and settlements south of the Wall that served to support it and provide logistical connections, you've got a very complex system indeed.

What was the Wall?

As you watch this video, you might like to read the attached ‘Wall essentials’ handout (see the ‘Downloads’ section below) alongside, and imagine that it is the year AD 122.

Hadrian’s Wall is being built across Britain. Your home lies to its north. You make your living as a trader or perhaps as a cattle drover. Movement from the north to the south has been an essential element of life for generations of traders and drovers before you, but now there is a wall.

  • How would it affect you?
  • Would you risk approaching this massive monument, garrisoned by thousands of soldiers, all twitchingly aware of the bloody conflict that preceded its construction?
  • If you got close enough to see it, what could you observe?
  • What would the odds be that you could actually get through it?
  • And if you decided that the risk was not worth it, the chances of success impossible, what would that mean for you and for your family?

As the weeks unfold, we will explore questions such as these. As the Wall changed, tensions grew and died down, and different people moved around the frontier.

For the moment let us consider what was so revolutionary about this extraordinary new feature of the British landscape. You might like to refer to the map we presented in Step 1.1.

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This video is from the free online course:

Hadrian's Wall: Life on the Roman Frontier

Newcastle University

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Find out what this course is like by previewing some of the course steps before you join:

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