On this day in history : 10th July AD138 – The Roman Emperor Hadrian, upon whose orders the wall across northern England was built to keep out the ‘barbarians’, dies at his villa in Baiae, Italy….

Marble bust of Hadrian at the Venice National Archaeological Museum – Image : Livioandronico2013 – CC BY-SA 4.0

Hadrian was 62-years-old when he died – for the last few years of his life he had suffered chronic illness…. He had ruled the Roman Empire for 21 years…. Initially he was buried at Puteoli, near to Baiae – but not long after his remains were moved to the Gardens of Domitia, Rome…. Then, in AD139, on completion of the Castel Sant’Angelo, which was built for Hadrian by his successor Antoninus Pius, Hadrian’s body was cremated and his ashes placed there with those of his wife and adopted son – who also died in AD138….

Hadrian visited England in AD122 and it was then that he ordered the building of a wall across the north of the country…. It remained the north-western frontier of the Roman Empire for nearly 300 years….and is the best preserved frontier of the empire….

Hadrian’s Wall west of Caw Gap

The wall, built by the Roman Army, took 15,000 men at least 6 years to build…. It was 73 miles (80 Roman miles) long and ran from Wallsend on the River Tyne in the east to Bowness-on-Solway on the Irish Sea to the west….

Built to separate the Romans from the barbarians the original plan had been for the wall to have a guarded gate every couple of miles – with observation towers in-between….however, between 14 and 17 forts were later added…. Most of the wall was built from stone but a 30 mile stretch of the eastern section was a turf bank some 6m (20 Roman ft) wide…. The stone wall would have been a maximum 4.6m (15 Roman ft) high and 3m (10 Roman ft) wide…. There would have been a walkway along the top and possibly a parapet wall…. To the south of the wall a large ditch with a mound on each side, known as the ‘vallum’ was dug…. There are sections of the route where this has survived better than the wall itself…. After its construction it is thought the wall would have been plastered and then whitewashed so it stood out for miles around….

Vallum at Hadrian’s Wall near Milecastle 42 (Cawfields) – Image: Voice of Clam CC BY-SA 3.0

Only about 10% of the wall now survives; over the centuries much of the stone has been robbed…. Long sections were used for road building during the 1700s – especially by General Wade to build a military road during the Jacobite insurrection…. It was only in the 19th century that archaeologists and historians began to take a real interest….

In 1987 Hadrian’s Wall was made a World Heritage Site and in 2003 a National Trail footpath following the route from Wallsend to Bowness-on-Solway was opened – which walkers are asked to adhere to…. Today’s historians are convinced there is still so much more to learn and discover….

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