Ancient History · english history · european history · history

Roman Frontiers: Antonine Wall

The final season of the popular show Game of Thrones is almost upon us, but much of the world that George R.R. Martin created was inspired by true events. This would include Hadrian’s Wall in England and the Antonine Wall in Scotland. These walls were the boundary of the known world for the Romans during the second century. Just as fan favorite, Jon Snow, looked out into the great unknown from atop the icy Wall, it would have been just as intimidating for the Romans who looked over these historical walls at the expanse of Scotland. They were at the edge of their known world, which could have been very intimidating. So, while there may not have been white walkers, to the Romans, there could have been anything.

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The Wall from HBO’s Game of Thrones

With this post I wanted to pay more attention to the lesser known Antonine Wall rather than the more established Hadrian’s wall. The Antonine Wall was the furthest point that the Roman empire stretched into Britannia. It was only manned for about twenty five years before the wall was abandoned. The wall cut modern Scotland in half as it crossed the land between Clyde to Forth (about 37 miles long). It was made mostly out of layers of turf rather than stone (like Hadrian’s) with a deep ditch that ran along with it. Forts would have been laid out along the wall, including Rough Castle, which would hold the 7,000 men that would have been stationed there. There would have also been a military service road that connected those at the wall with the rest of the empire in Britain.

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Roman Military Frontiers

Britannia was the northernmost point of the Roman empire, which, at its peak, stretched over 2.2 million square miles and encompassed many different cultures and people. Julius Ceasar was the first to lead a Roman expedition to the shores of Britannia in 55 and 54 BC, though it was not conquered and settled until 43 AD under Emperor Claudius. The native Britons did not take kindly to this invading enemy and the tribes fought back fiercely against their invaders. Eventually, through the invasions of Claudius, the tribes were subdued in southern England. Naturally, there would be rebellions that flared up, such as Boudicca’s (see previous article), but they were easily put down. It was actually the tribes that came from modern day Scotland, such as the Caledonians, that gave the most trouble to the Romans and were never truly subdued. In AD 84 a force of 30,000 Caledonian warriors made a stand against the Romans. The Romans were greatly outnumbered at about 19,000 men and were less familiar with the terrain. This would become known as the Battle of Mons Graupius. Despite the odds being against them, the Romans pulled out the victory against the Caledonian warriors due to their discipline and organization. They were able to use the right tactics to defeat their enemy and, essentially, neutralized another large scale Caledonian uprising from the North, but the tribes of Scotland were not finished yet. Some tribes did submit to the Romans, but many continued to raid and cause trouble for these invaders.

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Lilia found at Rough Castle along the Antonine Wall. These were the Roman’s first line of defense against invaders and were used as a type of trap.

The troublesome invaders from the North were part of the reason why Hadrian’s Wall was built. Emperor Hadrian decided to stop the invasion northward and thought it was best to defend the land they already held. Hadrian did this in other parts of the empire as well. Hadrian’s Wall would cover 84 miles and connect one part of the ocean to the other. This wall would be made of stone and took six years for three legions of men to complete. Each mile of the wall would contain a fort or milecastle with more added as the years went on. In AD 122 Emperor Hadrian himself came to visit to see how the building progressed and would add his own input.

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Hadrians Wall

After Hadrian died in AD 138, he was succeeded by a new emperor, Antoninus Pius. It was this emperor’s decision to build the Antonine Wall and expand the Roman borders further north. The Antonine Wall was built about 100 miles further than Hadrian’s Wall. It would take a great many materials and three legions to help build this new wall out of layers of turf. Why would Antoninus Pius put in the effort and resources for this project when they already had a fairly new wall made of stone?

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Basically, it all comes down to propaganda. Both Ceasar and Claudius gained a boost in popularity when they both returned from their expeditions in Britannia. It was an easy way for a quick accomplishment in the eyes of the Romans who lived 1,500 miles away from Britannia. Right now, the new emperor really needed a boost. He did not have any military accomplishments already (like some of his predecessors did) and he needed to make his mark on the empire before confidence in his rule was lost. To do this, he decided to extend the empire’s territory further into Scotland and beat what his predecessor did. Once the construction was completed, he gained an imperial acclamation.

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Antonine Wall

The Antonine Wall was built with a 4 m wide stone base to establish the foundation, then hand cut layers of turf were laid on top; about 20 layers were needed to make the 3 meter high wall. Some parts of the wall were made out of clay due to the lack of turf in the area. Wooden walkways and wooden fences would be at the top of the wall for the patrols to walk. The Antonine Wall historic website really does a great job of breaking down each of the types of structures and how they were built. If this is of interest, I would highly recommend starting there. As stated before, this wall would have also been punctuated with various forts which included amenities like a bath-house, barracks, and some signal towers. It can also be assumed that villages would also crop up nearby to house families and servants of the soldiers. This would have been similar to Hadrian’s Wall as well.

Antonine Wall, layers of turf. Image credit to http://www.antoninewall.org/about-wall/building-wall/materials

Both walls, Hadrian and Antonine, were mostly manned by auxiliary troops. These were troops that were made up of non-Romans (they did not hold citizenship) and were made up of peregrini. These were free provincial subjects, or free men who lived in the many conquered territories of Rome. They were formed these auxiliary troops which held similar numbers to the citizen filled Legions. After 25 years of service, these troops would be eligible to become full Roman citizens and obtain the privileges that this entailed (such as the right to vote). The Romans were smart about their use of this type of troop and though many native Britons would have been formed to create such a troop, they would have been shipped to different parts of the empire. They would not have staffed the Antonine Wall, to avoid sympathies with the locals. Instead, the Antonine Wall was staffed by a variety of people from all over the empire. The Roman Legions that were stationed at the Antonine Wall were the second, sixth and twentieth. There were also nine cohorts of auxiliary troops stationed. The First Cohort of Hamians had come a long way from their home in northern Syria and consisted of 500 archers. They were the furthest traveled of all. The rest of the cohorts came from areas such as Spain, Gaul, Bulgaria, and the Netherlands. The Sixth Cohort of Nervians, hailing from modern day Belgium, would have been stationed at Rough Castle (the best-preserved fort that can be visited today).

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Recreation of Fort along Antonine Wall. From Historic Scotland.

Much of what is known about life on the wall is gleaned from archaeological evidence. It was easy for boredom to creep in during cold and uneventful days patrolling the wall, so the soldiers day was filled with other activities. When not patrolling, the men would keep busy by keeping up on the building maintenance. They would make sure the walls were in good working order and obtain the resources needed for the wall to sustain life for the 7,000 men. They would train and practice battle maneuvers and obtain physical exercise. They would cook their own food, which often consisted of a vegetarian diet. There was also down time where the bath houses were used or the soldiers would play types of board games. The men would also keep up on the Roman holidays, such as Saturnila, and their religious worship. Many altars dedicated to gods and goddesses were found along the wall.

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Game board found at the Antonine Wall. Image credit http://www.antoninewall.org

The standard soldier was technically not allowed to marry while in service. Only the commanding officer of the garrison could bring his wife and family to live with him at the fort. This did not mean that the men did not have unofficial sweethearts and families who followed them as well. There is evidence that women and children did live nearby as camp followers. It is also not too hard to assume that with soldiers who made a good wage, merchants and prostitutes would also follow the legions progress. This is how various villages began to pop up along the wall. Shoes from women and children have been found to support this, along with a few tombstones. The various villages seem to have also supported farms which the locals and the children would have worked. They could easily sell these resources to the garrison and make some extra money for themselves while supporting the troops that protected them.

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Roman Legionnaire

It was a great investment of money and resources to build both Hadrian’s and the Antonine Wall. Professor Bill Hansen, in his article “History Explorer: Roman Britain’s Final Frontier”, suggests that this shows the Romans truly did find the Caledonian tribes a serious threat. By not expanding further, we can see that the Romans almost found it too much to bother to enforce their rule upon the people who lived north, and these great fortifications were built in order to keep these threats out. After about 25 years (around 160 AD) since the Antonine Wall was built, it was abandoned and the Romans retreated back and refortified the Hadrian Wall. It would remain this way until about AD 411 when the Romans left Britannia forever. The decision to leave the Antonine Wall after so short a time was likely due to the expensive upkeep, frequent raids from the north, and that there were other issues along other frontiers of the Roman empire. The northern border of Rome’s Britannia was fairly secure at Hadrian’s Wall and the troops were needed elsewhere in the empire.

The last invasion into modern Scotland against the Caledonians was by Emperor Severus in the 3rd century. They crossed over the boundary of Hadrians Wall, which Severus had initiated a rebuilding project to refurbish the wall. They had led an attack into the highlands attempting to finally subjugate the Caledonians, but the native’s guerrilla tactics made that difficult for the Romans. The Romans were never able to complete this mission as Emperor Severus died in York in AD 211.

To quote George R.R. Martin in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine: “The Wall predates anything else. I can trace back the inspiration for that to 1981. I was in England visiting a friend, and as we approached the border of England and Scotland, we stopped to see Hadrian’s Wall. I stood up there and I tried to imagine what it was like to be a Roman legionary, standing on this wall, looking at these distant hills. It was a very profound feeling. For the Romans at that time, this was the end of civilization; it was the end of the world. We know that there were Scots beyond the hills, but they didn’t know that. It could have been any kind of monster. It was the sense of this barrier against dark forces – it planted something in me. But when you write fantasy, everything is bigger and more colorful, so I took the Wall and made it three times as long and 700 feet high, and made it out of ice.”

This was an extremely fun project to research and I love to see real history inspiring the fantasy I love as well. I can definitely see the similarities. In Martin’s novels, the soldiers who manned The Wall came from all different parts of the world, were unable to marry, lived by a strict code, and were fighting against the unknown. Much the same as these Romans who lived day to day on the Hadrian and Antonine walls. One day I hope to see these sites.

Sources:

Hanson, Bill. “History Explorer: Roman Britain’s Final Frontier.” BBC History Magazine Vol 20, no. 1 (2019): 82-85.

Riley, Bronwen. “Welcome to Britannia: Roman Britain in AD 130.” BBC History Magazine (March 2015).

Hodgmen, Charlotte. “History Explorer: Early Roman Britain.” BBC History Magazine (November 2011).

http://www.bbc.co.uk/scotland/history/articles/antonine_wall/

http://www.battlefieldsofbritain.co.uk/battle_mons_graupius_ad83.html

https://www.bbc.com/bitesize/articles/zxv6pv4

http://www.antoninewall.org/about-the-wall **Official site of the Antonine Wall Historic Site**

https://hadrianswallcountry.co.uk/hadrians-wall/hadrian%E2%80%99s-wall-big-history

http://www.thejournal.co.uk/news/north-east-news/game-thrones-writer-inspired-hadrians-7214397

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