Romans in Britain

Surely everyone has figured out that I’m a history geek. It is one of my passions. I got my history degree from the University of Missouri. Several of my professors encouraged me to get my master’s. I didn’t, but when I started I was aiming at that very thing. As a result I have specialty areas in history; 19th Century Europe and Medieval Europe it was a requirement for those going on to the graduate program. This means I took a lot of classes that revolved around both.

The long and short of it is, in between Hercule Poirot novels, I’ve been listening to an audiobook about the Roman invasion of Britain. The other night, we reached Hadrian’s influence in Britain. And I got a refresher course in the Roman walls of Scotland.

Okay, so that paragraph kinda evolved into two separate thoughts by accident because I tend to assume everyone learned about Hadrian’s Wall in high school history classes. For those that didn’t, I’ll backup and explain it a bit.

When the Romans invaded Britain, there were a lot of tough battles. The British Celts (Celts in England and Wales) were unwilling to just let the Romans roll right in and take over. Unfortunately, the Celtic Warriors were no match for the Roman soldiers and Rome did eventually win some very decisive battles. But when the Romans tried to move into Scotland, they ran into the Picts. They were militarily speaking more of a challenge for the Romans.

Furthermore, the Picts practiced guerilla warfare and the Romans couldn’t seem to do anything about it. The emperor Hadrian decided to fix the problem by walling the Picts into Scotland. He even sent extra troops and craftsmen to Britain to help build the wall.

Once complete, it stretched 80 Roman miles (117 kilometers or 70 miles in modern measurement terms). At its lowest point, it was 16 feet high and at its tallest it was 20 feet high. It was made of Roman bricks and stone. It wasn’t very effective. The Picts continued their guerilla warfare on the Roman legions and Roman citizens in England.

Just 20 years after the start of Hadrian’s Wall, another wall was started further north in one of the narrower areas of the island now occupied by the UK. It was known as Antonine’s wall. The purpose was to expand the Roman empire into Southern Scotland. Antonine was Hadrian’s successor as emperor and he was even more determined to avoid the Picts than Hadrian had been. It was just 63 kilometers long and stretched from the North Sea (at the Firth of Forth) to the Irish Sea.

It was fortified. The base of the wall was made of stone, then an earthen mound was created over the stone base that was 24 feet wide in some spots and stood over 20 feet tall in most places. And every 10 kilometers or so, a fort was built into the wall.

The fortifications made it more successful than Hadrian’s Wall had been, but it still wasn’t a success. Yes, the Romans had pushed north to build the wall, but they were never able to take over Scotland like they wished. One Roman governor wrote to Rome to say the walls just seemed to piss the Picts off.

And so it did. Fighting along Antonine’s Wall became commonplace. Construction on Hadrian’s Wall was completed in 128 CE. Construction began on the Antonine Wall in 142 CE and was completed in about 154 CE. By 160 CE, both walls were suffering from structural damage due to the walls being overwhelmed by Picts at different times.

After the death of Emperor Antonine Pius, the walls became defensive structures only and the ideal of using them as jumping off points to conquer Scotland and the Picts was given up. For approximately 200 years, Roman Governors of Britain would continue to man the forts in the Antonine Wall, but as I said only for defense against the Picts.

The dozen or so forts located along Hadrian’s Wall were ineffective because they were spread out over a great distance. However, even the 20 or so forts along the Antonine Wall weren’t terribly effective. The Picts were very warlike and as such, good at adapting military strategy to fit their needs. They found ways to conquer both Hadrian and Antonine’s Walls.

On another note, sections of both walls still stand in the UK countryside. As do a few of the forts.

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