The Emperor Hadrian (24 January 76 – 10 July 138) was born Publius Aelius Hadrianus in Italica, Baetica Province, Hispania (today, Seville). The third of the Five Good Emperors, he was one of history’s great builders and a devoted admirer of Greek civilisation to the point of having the nickname, “the Greekling” as a young man. He also recognised the importance of building and infrastructure as a means of sustaining, protecting and projecting the stability and power of the Roman Empire.
During his reign, he embarked on an impressive building program of cities, temples, civic buildings, aqueducts, viaducts, roads and other infrastructure throughout the Empire. This, of course, included the building of the Vallum Hadriani or Hadrian’s Wall as it is now known. There is, however, some archaeological evidence to suggest that the original name of the wall may have been “Vali Aeli”, or the Wall of Aeli which was the family name of Hadrian.
Hadrian also set out to personally explore and manage his Empire, spending more than half of his relatively peaceful reign travelling to its outermost reaches. Although Hadrian was fully aware of the problems of controlling the borders in Britain, it was while visiting there, that he witnessed, first hand, the age-old problem of constant disputes and skirmishes with the Picts on the northern boundary of his domain.
His solution was both a sound military and a builder’s one. The Wall was placed on a carefully chosen line in order to extract maximum defensive advantage from the topography of the area. It was then surveyed, in sections, starting from each end and moving toward the crags. In 122 CE, which corresponded to Hadrian’s visit to Britain, the II Augusta, VI Ferrata and XX Valeria Victrix legions began construction of the wall. Originally 10-20 feet wide and 12-20 feet high, it was built in an incredible six years, entirely of stone and turf, and stretched for 73 miles across variable terrain. There were approximately 17 forts along the length of the wall and a deep ditch, or vallum, constructed of earthworks running laterally to the wall. The vallum itself measured 20 feet wide by 10 feet deep and was bordered by large banks of earth. Also built were approximately 80 mile castles and between each of these, 2 observation towers. This layout permitted for maximum tactical mobility, cover, visual reconnaissance and troop accommodation. It also permitted Hadrian to design a system of signal fires so that alerts could be transmitted very quickly up and down the length of the wall thus providing enhanced security. The Wall remained an active and manned military installation for an astounding 300 continuous years.
The Wall, it is said, was originally plastered and white washed and was meant to project the stability and power of the Roman Empire. Having endured for very nearly 2 millennia, it is a true testament to the vision and leadership abilities of Hadrianus Augustus.