Under this title we propose to give a short account of the remarkable work constructed by the Romans across our island, from near the mouth of the Tyne
on the E. to the Solway Frith
on the W., and of which considerable remains still exist.
The history of the formation of this line of fortification is involved in a good deal of obscurity, and very different opinions have been entertained respecting its authors; and neither the Latin writers nor the inscriptions hitherto found among the ruins of the wall and its subsidiary works are sufficient to settle the disputed points, though they suggest conjectures more or less probable. [p. 2.1255]
The origin of the barrier may have been the forts and stationary camps which Agricola (A.D. 79) caused to be erected in Britain (Tac. Agr.
20); but the account which Tacitus gives of this measure is so vague that it is quite impossible to found any certain conclusion on his words. In A.D. 120, Hadrian visited Britain, where he determined on fixing the boundary of the Roman Empire considerably to the S. of the most N. conquests of Agricola.
He chose this boundary well, as it coincides with a natural one. The Tyne
flows almost due E., just S., and nearly parallel to the 55° N. lat., for more than two thirds of the breadth of the island.
The valley of the Tyne
is> separated from that of the Irthing,
a branch of the Eden,
by the N. extremity of the great chain of hills sometimes called the Backbone of England; and the Irthing,
with the Eden,
completes the boundary to the Solway Frith.
In order to strengthen this natural frontier, Hadrian, as we are informed by Spartianus, “drew a wall (murus
) 80,000 paces in length, to divide the barbarians from the Romans;” which wall followed the same general direction as the line above indicated.
) states that the Emperor Septimius Severus, who was in Britain during A.D. 208--211, constructed a rampart (vallum
) from sea to sea, for the protection of the Roman provinces in the S. of the island.
Now, as will be seen from the following description, the lines of works designated by the general name, Roman Wall, consist of two main parts, a stone wall and an earthen rampart; and most writers on the subject have regarded these as two distinct, though connected, works, and belonging to two different periods; the earthwork has generally been ascribed to Hadrian, the stone wall to Severus. Such is the opinion of Horsley, whose judgment, as Mr. Bruce emphatically admits, is always deserving of the highest consideration. Mr. Bruce himself expresses an opinion, founded on repeated and careful examination of all the remains of the wall, “that the lines of the barrier are the scheme of one great military engineer. . . . .
The wall of Hadrian as not a fence such as that by which we prevent the straying of cattle; it was a line of military operation, similar in its nature to the works which Wellington raised at Torres Vedras.
A broad belt of country was firmly secured. Walls of stone and earth crossed it. Camps to the north and south of them broke the force of an enemy in both directions; or, in the event of their passing the outer line, enabled the Romans to close upon them both in front and rear. Look-out stations revealed to them the movements of their foes; beacons enabled them to communicate with neighbouring garrisons; and the roads, which they always maintained, assisted them in concentrating their forces upon the points where it might be done with the best effect. Such, I am persuaded, was the intention of the Roman wall, though some still maintain that the murus and vallum are independent structures, the productions of different periods” (pp. ix. x. Pref.
We confess that the reasoning here does not seem to us to be very conclusive. Grant that the system of defence has consistency and unity, yet it by no means follows that the whole was executed at one time.
The earliest works were probably detached stationary camps; the next step would naturally be to connect them together by a wall, whether of earth or stone; and if experience should afterwards prove that this barrier was insufficient, it would be an obvious proceeding to strengthen it by a parallel fortification.
The common opinion, therefore, that Agricola commenced the defensive line, Hadrian strengthened it, and Severus completed it, appears to be probable in itself, and is supported by the little that we find upon the subject in the classical writers. If we may assume that the words murus
were used by Spartianus and Eutropius in their strict significations, it would seem that the stone wall was the work of Hadrian, the earthen rampart of Severus.
That some portion of the barrier was executed under the direction of the latter, is rendered still more probable by the fact that the Britons called the wall gual Sever, gal Sever,
or mur Sever,
as Camden states.
It has been designated by various names in later times; as the Picts' Wall,
the Thirl Wall,
the Kepe Wall;
but is now generally called the Roman Wall.
The following description is taken almost entirely from Mr. Bruce's excellent work, mentioned at the end of this article.
The barrier consists of three parts: (i.) a stone wall or murus,
strengthened by a ditch on its northern side; (ii.) an earthen wall or vallum,
south of the stone wall; (iii.) stations, castles, watch-towers, and roads: these lie for the most part between the stone wall and the earthen rampart.
The whole of the works extend from one side of the island to the other, in a nearly straight line, and comparatively close to one another.
The wall and rampart are generally within 60 or 70 yards of each other, though the distance of course varies according to the nature of the country. Sometimes they are so close as barely to admit of the passage of the military way between them; while in one or two instances they are upwards of half a mile apart.
It is in the high grounds of the central region that they are most widely separated. Here the wall is carried over the highest ridges, while the rampart runs along the adjacent valley. Both works, however, are so arranged as to afford each other the greatest amount of support which the nature of the country allows.
The stone wall extends from Wallsend
on the Tyne
on the Solway,
a distance which Horsley estimates at 68 miles 3 furlongs, a measurement which almost exactly coincides with that of General Roy, who gives the length of the wall at 68 1/2 miles.
The vallum falls short of this length by about 3 miles at each end, terminating at Newcastle
on the E. side, and at Drumburgh
on the W.
For 19 miles out of Newcastle, the present high-road to Carlisle
runs upon the foundations of the wall, which pursues a straight course wherever it is at all possible, and is never carved, but always bends at an angle.
In no part is the wall perfect, so that it is difficult to ascertain what its original height may have been. Bede, whose monastery of Jarrow was near its eastern extremity, and who is the earliest authority respecting its dimensions, states that in his time it was 8 feet thick and 12 high. Sir Christ. Ridley, writing in 1572, describes it as 3 yards broad, and in some places 7 yards high. Samson Erdeswick, a well-known antiquary, visited the wall in 1574, when he ascertained its height at the W. end to be 16 feet. Camden, who saw the wall in 1599, found a part of it on a hill, near Carvoran,
to be 15 feet high and 9 broad. Allowing for a battlement, which would probably soon be destroyed, we may conclude that the average height was from 18 to 19 feet.
The thickness varies from 6 to 9 1/2 feet. [p. 2.1256]
The wall was everywhere accompanied on its northern side by a broad and deep fosse, which may still be traced, with trifling interruptions, from sea to sea, even where the wall has quite disappeared.
It traverses indifferently alluvial soil and rocks of sandstone, limestone, and basalt. Thus, on Tapper Moor,
enormous blocks of whinstone lie just as they were lifted out of the fosse. East of Heddon on the Wall,
the fosse is 34 feet wide at the top, 14 at the bottom, and about 9 deep.
In some places it is 40 feet wide at the top, and in others 20 feet deep.
Hodgson, in his History of Northumberland
(iii. p. 276), states a fact curious if true: “A little W. of Portgate,
the earth taken out of the fosse lies spread abroad to the N. in lines, just as the workmen wheeled it out and left it.
The tracks of their barrows, with a slight mound on each side, remain unaltered in form.” It is scarcely credible, however, that slight elevations of earth, and superficial traces in it, should, for more than a thousand years, have successfully resisted the constant operation of the natural agencies which are sufficient to disintegrate the hardest rocks.
The VALLUM, or earth wall, is uniformly S. of the stone wall.
It consists of three ramparts and a fosse. One rampart is close to the S. edge of the ditch. Of the other two, which are considerably larger, one is situated N., the other S. of the ditch, at the distance of about 24 feet from it.
These larger ramparts are even now, in some places, 6 or 7 feet high. They are composed of earth, in which masses of stone are often imbedded, for the sake of which they are sometimes quarried.
The fosse of the vallum was probably smaller than that of the murus.
No outlets through the S. lines of fortification have been discovered; so that the gateways of the stations appear to have originally been the only means of communication with the country.
At distances averaging nearly 4 miles, stationary camps were erected along the line. Some of these, though connected with the wall, were evidently built before it.
The stations are four-sided and nearly square, but somewhat rounded at the corners, and contain an area averaging from 3 to 6 acres, though some of them are considerably larger.
A stone wall, about 5 feet thick, encloses them, and was probably in every instance strengthened by a fosse and one or more earthen ramparts.
The stations usually stand upon ground with a southern inclination.
The great wall either falls in with the N. wall of the stations, or else usually comes up to the N. cheek of their E. and W. gateways.
The vallum in like manner generally approaches close to the S. wall of the stations, or comes up to the S. side of the E. and W. portals.
At least three of the Stations, however, are quite detached from both lines of fortification, being to the S. of them.
These may have been erected by Agricola.
Narrow streets intersecting one another at right angles traverse the interior of the stations; and abundant ruins outside the walls indicate that extensive suburbs were required for the accommodation of those connected with the soldiers stationed in the camps.
The stations were evidently constructed with exclusive reference to defence; and hence no traces of tesselated pavements or other indications of luxury and refinement have been discovered in the mural region.
According to Horsley, there were 18 stations on the line of the wall, besides some in its immediate vicinity; but Hodgson reduces the number to 17 believing that in one instance Horsley mistook a mere temporary encampment for a station.
In ascertaining the number and names of the stations, our principal literary authority is the Notitia Imperii,
supposed to have been compiled about the end of the reign of the emperor Theodosius the younger. The 69th section of this document contains a list of the prefects and tribunes under the Duke of Britain: the portion relating to our subject is headed, “Item per lineam Valli,
” and contains the names of 23 stations, evidently arranged in their order from E. to W.
The heading, however, manifestly implies, not, as it seems sometimes to have been interpreted, that all the stations were actually on
the line of the wall, but that they were along
it, that is, parallel to, or at no great distance from it.
It is clear, therefore, that as remains of stations exist both to the N. and to the S. of the wall, as well as actually on its line, nothing but the remains themselves can enable us to name the stations with certainty.
Now the first 12 stations mentioned in the Notitia have been accurately identified by means of inscriptions found in the ruins of the stations. Of these we subjoin a list, with the ancient and modern names, taken chiefly from the plan prefixed to Mr. Bruce's work:--
||Little Chesters, or Chesterholm.|
All these are on the actual line of the wall, except Vindolana and Magna, which are a little to the S. of it.
West of Amboglanna no evidence has yet been discovered to identify-any of the stations; and it is to be feared that many antiquities which might have enabled us to do so have been destroyed; for it appears that the country people, even quite recently, regarded stones bearing inscriptions as “unlucky,” calling them “witch-stones,” the evil influence of which was to be extirpated by pounding them to powder. Besides this, stone is scarce in that part of the country; and hence the materials of the wall and stations have been extensively employed in the construction of dikes and other erections in the neighbourhood.
It appears from the plan already referred to that there were stations at the places now called Cambeck Fort, Stanwix, Burgh, Drumburgh,
the first a little to the S., all the rest on the line of the wall.
Of the remaining eleven stations mentioned in the Notitia, the plan identifies Alionis with Whitley Castle,
some miles S. of the wall. Mr. Bruce places Bremetenracum a little W. of the village of Brampton;
Petriana, he thinks, is probably the same as Cambeck Fort.
It is possible that something may yet be done to elucidate what is still obscure in connection with these most interesting monuments of Roman Britain; and the Duke of Northumberland had, in 1853, given [p. 2.1257]
directions to competent persons to make an accurate and complete survey of the whole line of the barrier, from sea to sea. Whether any results of this investigation have yet been published, we are not aware.
Of the identified, stations the most extensive and important are Vindobala, Cilurnum, Procolitia, and Borcovicus.
At the first, great numbers of coins and other antiquities have been found.
The second has an area of 8 acres, and is crowded with ruins of stone buildings.
A great part of the rampart of Procolitia is entire, and its northern face, which is formed of the main line of wall, is in excellent preservation. Borcovicus, however, surpasses all the other stations in magnitude and in the interest which attaches to its remains.
It is 15 acres in extent, besides a large suburb on the S. Within it no less than 20 streets may be traced; and it seems to have contained a Doric temple, part of a Doric capital and fragments of the shafts of columns having been discovered in it, besides a great number of altars, inscriptions, and other antiquities.
The remaining portions of this great fortification may be briefly described.
The CASTELLA, or mile-castles as they are called, on account of being usually a Roman mile from one another, are buildings about 60 or 70 feet square.
With two exceptions, they are placed against the S. face of the wall; the exceptions, at Portgate
and near Aesica, seem to have projected equally N. and S. of the wall.
The castella have usually only one entrance, of very substantial masonry, in the centre of the S. wall; but the most perfect specimen of them now existing has a N. as well as a S. gate.
Between each two castella there were four smaller buildings, called turrets or watch-towers, which were little more than stone sentry-boxes, about 3 feet thick, and from 8 to 10 feet square in the inside.
The line of the wall was completed by military roads, keeping up the communications with all its parts and with the southern districts of the island.
As these were similar in their construction to other Roman roads, it is not necessary to say more respecting them in this place.
The following works contain detailed information of every kind connected with the Roman Wall:--Horsley's Britannia Romana;
Warburton's Vallum Romanum,
4to. Lond. 1753; W. Hutton's History of the Roman Wall,
1801; Roy's Military Antiquities of the Romans n Britain;
the 3rd vol. of Hodgson's History of Northumberland;
and lastly, The Roman Wall; an Historical and Topographical Description of the Barrier of the lower Isthmus, &c. Deduced from numerous personal Surveys.
By the Rev. J. C. Bruce, M. A., 2nd edit. Lond. 1853, 4to.
This work contains full descriptions of all the antiquities hitherto discovered along the line of the wall, and great numbers of well executed engravings of the most interesting objects, besides maps and plans of the works.