Monday, September 04, 2006

Good evening, this is Michael Anthony, and you’re listening to British History 101. After last week’s lack of an installment, I hope the most recent edition of this podcast entertains and educates as much as possible.
Tonight’s episode comes from a suggestion by Gary from Houston, Texas. Gary wrote in and said, “I was wondering if you could do a piece on Hadrian’s Wall – how was it built, what was its purpose, and was it successful?” Thanks for the suggestion, Gary, and we’ll get right to it.
Hadrian’s Wall was constructed by, obviously, Hadrian, Roman emperor from AD 76 to 138. He built it to halt the invading tribes of modern-day Scotland to the north and provide a definite boundary to the British region of the Roman Empire; it also served to prevent dangerous groups of tribes in the area from uniting under one banner by splitting them apart with a physical boundary. During the Roman Empire, Hadrian’s Wall was the most heavily fortified and protected border in all Europe. It may also have served as a way to tax traveling merchants; this is suggested by the several gates found along the wall’s length.
The Wall, which extended from the Solway Firth on the coast of the Irish Sea in eastern modern-day England to Wallsend on the River Tyne across the island to the west, was begun in 122 AD and was more or less complete in ten years’ time. It roughly followed the line of the Stanegate Road running from Corbridge to Carlisle, which previously acted as the border of Roman territory – obviously, a stone wall provides much more protection than a simple road. The Wall crossed the river Irthing; east of the river, the Wall was made of stone and was 3 meters wide by 5 meters tall; west of the river, the Wall was originally a turf barrier 6 meters wide by 3 meters tall. The Wall’s design plans called for a 3 meter wide wall with a ditch and 80 small forts every Roman mile (the Wall was 80 Roman miles or 120 kilometers long) and a system of turrets for signaling and observation along the way. Along the area of the wall made of stone, local limestone was the rock of choice, and the turrets located along the length of the wall made of turf were also constructed strictly of stone. These turrets were all approximately 500 meters apart and only about 5 meters square inside.
Construction took place in 5 mile stretches. One group would lay the foundation all along the way, also building the small forts and turrets as they went, and a following group would build upon the foundation and make up the wall in the preceding group’s tracks. Soon after the Wall was finished, 14-17 full-sized forts were placed under construction along the length of the boundary, each having a garrison between 500 and 1000 troops. The Wall west of the river Irthing was also revamped, being rebuilt in sandstone.
Once the forts were in place, another barrier was built behind the wall itself. This was known as the Vallum, and consisted of a ditch 6 meters wide and 3 meters deep, with 10-meter-wide berms on either side. Causeways provided transportation across the Vallum. In front of the wall, that is, on the northern side, was another berm with pits containing obstacles and another ditch north of that berm. Obviously, this was a formidable barrier in itself to anyone wishing to lead an incursion south into the Romans’ territory – the physical construct was also defended by approximately 10,000 soldiers, including cavalry units 1,000 strong on either end of the wall and all the garrisons between the endpoints.
Hadrian’s Wall functioned as an effective barrier until his death in AD 138. When the new emperor, Antoninus Pius, came to power, he more or less abandoned Hadrian’s Wall and began constructing one of his own 160 kilometers north of the old Roman barrier in 142. This was, oddly enough, known as the Antonine Wall. This Wall was approximately 40 miles long, stretching from Old Kilpatrick to Bo’ness, Falkirk within the borders of modern-day Scotland. Antoninus’ Wall was an impressive construct, taking only 2 years to complete and having forts every two miles. The Wall itself was a turf barrier 4 meters tall with a wide ditch on the north side of it – a somewhat simplified version of Hadrian’s Wall to the south. This Wall formed the northern barrier of the Roman Empire for about 20 years before it was actually abandoned in favor of Hadrian’s Wall, which the occupying Roman legions fell back upon. This was mostly due to the fact that Antoninus was unable to conquer the troublesome tribes of northern Britain. Marcus Aurelius, his successor, made the decision to reinstate Hadrian’s Wall as the main defensive line and border of the Empire in Britain.
The Roman Empire began to lose its grip on the province of Britannia within a few centuries, and in the early 5th century our favorite island territory was devoid of its former Roman occupiers. Local Britons manned the wall for several decades into the 5th century, but soon it began to fall into disuse and the stone forming one of the greatest defensive barriers in human history was used to construct other buildings across the land.
So, Gary, we have seen how the wall was built, discussed its purpose, and now we should decide whether or not it was successful. With the objective of keeping out marauding northern tribes in mind, we see that it was indeed successful – so much so that, even after another emperor constructed another wall north of it, it was later brought back to glory due to its effectiveness. It defined the northern border of the Roman Empire in Britain for centuries, and can still be seen today. The one time that I was blessed with the opportunity to visit Hadrian’s Wall, I was extremely impressed – even now, it is astounding what Roman engineers accomplished with no more sophisticated tools than they had.
With that, let’s take a look at some miscellaneous business I think everyone should be aware of. I was alerted to a new podcast, entitled Biography Podcast. I think you can tell what it’s about, but I’ll let Phillip explain a little more.
Thanks, Phillip, for all your hard work, and we’ll all look forward to new episodes of your ‘cast.
British History 101 is listed at, and I’d really appreciate it if you’d stop by and cast a vote for me if you have a few spare moments during your day. Thanks a lot!
Also – I’m not sure how this episode will sound to those of you who have experienced difficulty in the past. I’m still working with Dan on a solution and am trying as hard as I can to get it worked out. Once again, thank you Dan, and if anyone else has any suggestions, please let me know at your earliest convenience. I appreciate the help so much!
That’s it for this episode of British History 101. If you’d like to look back over our discussion of Hadrian’s Wall, check out my blog at for a transcript of this and every other episode. Send suggestions, questions, comments, rants, and raves to Our music tonight is “Benedicamus Domino,” performed by Joglaresa and available on Magnatune is an independent online record label that equally shares all revenue from album sales with their hand-selected artists while allowing them to retain full rights to their works. Visit for great music at low prices and support the many wonderful artists hosted there. Thanks again to all of British History 101’s listeners, Phillip for bringing us Biography Podcast, and all those men and women who acted in the events that gave rise to the history of Britain and thus this podcast. Until next week, my best to you all, and have a great day. I can’t wait to learn with you again.


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