01 February, 2021

A suggested timeline for Hadrian's Wall

Hadrian's Wall was an elaborate frontier system designed by the Emperor with stone built forts linked by a continuous wall  and serviced by road with naval bases at either end, at least that was the plan. What actually happened has remained obscure, but archaeological discoveries over the last twenty years have provided the key pieces for a puzzle. 

Using evidence based archaeology it is now possible to tell a more coherent story of this ill-fated project, which was unfinished on Hadrian's death and was abandoned by his successor.  This a concise summery, broken down into the tenures of the governors of Britain who were responsible for supervising the work.  The detailed sequence of events and construction phases is discussed in previous articles & videos; the calendar dates, along with other pieces of external evidence derived from coins & inscriptions are a bit of a moveable feast.

118 - 122 Quintus Pompeius Falco

It is presumed that the Wall was response to serious infiltrations of the existing frontier which comprised of forts and other installations linked by a road [The Stanegate], perhaps even involving the IX Legion. It is worth noting that unique among Roman provinces that Britain was an Island, never fully conquered and separated from the rest of the empire by the sea.

122 - c.127 Aulus Platorius Nepos

122: In this year of Hadrian's only visit, the frontier was  initially secured by a continuous timber rampart with a ditch in front, from Newcastle to Bowness. This mirrors fairly precisely the subsequent layout of the stone Wall in terms of its regular Milecastles and Turrets.   The subsequent detailed positioning and design of the forts seems to be fixed during the emperors tour.

123: The most productive year with an abundance of unskilled labour laying out the frontier road [The Vallum], Wall foundations, and skilled labour working on the more complex instillations and the "Broad Wall".  The considerable progress evident in the first seasons of the project tends to validate the viability of the projects logistics.

124- 6: A Rebellion in South, quite possibly in response to the levy of labour required for the Wall is evidenced by the burning of London. Work on the frontier is suspended during this period of warfare, also marked by the sending reinforcements and reconstruction of military infrastructure in London.

127 - c. 131  Trebius Germanus

The new Governor restarts work on The Wall, but the shortage of manpower is evident, with the specification of the Wall reduced  [Narrow Wall] and work on the road suspended.  This too was abandoned as a result of an attack in the thinly defended central sector.  Resulting in further warfare and probably additional troop reinforcements.

c. 131-133 Sextus Julius Severus

Severus was Rome's top general and the building of Narrow Wall was restarted now supplemented by 3 additional forts added in the central sector, but his tenure was curtailed by recall to deal with a rebellion in Palestine.  

133-138 Publius Mummius Sisenna

The Narrow Wall with its additional forts does not progress well, and the extension of the Narrow Wall to a new fort at Wallsend may indicate a second attack on the Eastern flank, [i.e. separate from the one in the central sector].   These attacks appear to be directed at the Roman army with its destruction in mind. 

By the the time of Hadrian's death the Wall was still only 2/3 complete, to a lower specification and with no frontier road.  It was abandoned by his successor, who chose to reoccupied the buffer state to the North and build a new shorter Wall in Scotland, this Antonine Wall was also never completed.

Conclusions - anatomy of a Disaster 

The widespread misinterpretation of the archaeology, has led to a misrepresentation of Hadrian's Wall as cohesive and even successful project, disguising the true nature of this military disaster.  These are the five key factors that contributed:

1. Poor ridged design, over elaborate with too many gates and with little or no regard for topography or potential threat, for which Hadrian must be held accountable.

2. The strategy is dependent on the cooperation of the Buffer state to the North to prevent or warn of attack.  This evidently failed.  

3. Spreading the Legionary Army along the frontier and being engaged in construction is a risky and potentially dangerous deployment. 

4. The logistics of the project would require the cooperation of native population to provide the bulk of the unskilled labour, but once they had rebelled and been killed they were no longer available, which additionally impacts on the army's food supply.

5. Hadrian's evident self-regard for himself as a soldier and architect, coupled with an arrogance and lack of regard to the sensitivities of the native population or their military capabilities was a recipe for a disaster.  This is a very similar set of circumstances to those that led to costly Bar Kokhba revolt and the destruction of the regions' Jewish population.