Historical story

From the shore into the ditch

Most people are familiar with Hadrian's Wall. It's sort of a Roman variant of the Great Wall of China, or the Berlin Wall, if you will. But very few people know that about 120 kilometers to the north, just over the border in Scotland, another wall was built by a Roman emperor.

When you're near Newcastle in England, the English Heritage signs will immediately blow your mind. No one can fail to notice that Hadrian's wall die side is. The wall is therefore an important tourist attraction for England. But why is the wall of Emperor Antoninus Pius so unknown? Typical case of bad press? Poor cultural management? Kennislink went on an expedition for you to this wall, where there was a lot to do in the past.

Hadrian's Wall

To understand the context of the events surrounding Antoninus's wall, we must first look at its relationship to Hadrian's wall.

During the reign of Emperor Hadrian (AD 117-138) the Roman Empire was at its greatest. Hadrian had his feet on the ground when it came to political governance. He knew that if the Roman Empire continued to grow, it would no longer be ruleable. Therefore, Hadrian put less emphasis on expansion during his reign, but more on strengthening borders. The northern border of the Roman Empire in Britain in particular sometimes caused problems. Neighboring barbarian tribes regularly invaded the Roman territory. By building a solid line, Hadrian was able to keep the enemy tribes from Caledonia at a distance. He was also able to prevent Roman citizens from willfully getting involved with the northern scum. In 122 A.D. ch. Hadrian ordered the construction of his vallum Hadriani . Construction of the wall would take six years.

Building Hadrian's Wall

The wall was not just a wall, it was part of a whole fortification. Seen from the south, it consisted of an earthen wall, a ditch, followed by another wall. This was followed by a piece of open ground with a road through it to make the wall easily accessible to the army everywhere. Behind this lay the actual wall. Finally, in front of the wall (from the point of view of the Scots) was a deep moat with pointed stakes.

Hadrian's wall was 80 Roman miles long, or about 117 kilometers. It ran from the Solway Firth to the River Tyne. The height and width of the wall depended on the location and what raw materials were available there. East of the River Irthing, for example, the wall was made of square blocks of stone, about three meters in thickness and five to six meters in height. On the west side of the river Irthing, on the other hand, the wall was largely constructed of sods. Here the wall measured about six meters thick and more than three meters high. All this excluding ramparts and ditches. You can imagine that such a structure made a huge impression on the Scottish crooks from the north.

Antoninus's wall

Now that we know more about the nature and size of Hadrian's wall, it seems almost ambiguous that some 20 years later his successor Antoninus Pius built another wall, but about 120 kilometers to the north. What was that for? Was his wall a kind of double assurance that the Picts and Scots really couldn't invade the Roman Empire? Or did Antoninus – unlike Hadrian – suffer from the urge to expand? Was that why he wanted to move the border 120 kilometers to the north?

Of course we can no longer verify the real reason with Antoninus, but there are a number of plausible theories. For example, Professor William S. Hanson (University of Glasgow) claims that Hadrian's Wall was too far away from the Scottish fires to exert any control. Another explanation is that Antoninus wanted to impress within the Roman Empire. He was as adoptive emperor not the most obvious choice as an imperial successor. He had not yet made his mark in the army. By building a wall, he might be able to show the Empire his muscles, but also his courage as he once again ventured into the perilous territory of the Picts. Finally, the wall could also serve to impress the enemy tribes, or to control their trade with the south.

In 142 A.D. ch. Antoninus gave the go-ahead for the construction of the wall. After twelve years, construction was finally completed. The wall was approximately 39 miles long when completed and ran from Old Kilpatrick on the Firth of Clyde in the west to Bo'ness near Falkirk on the Firth of Forth in the east. Antoninus's Wall was to replace Hadrian's Wall as the border of the Roman Empire.

The construction of the wall of Antoninus

If you're pioneering in a notoriously dangerous area, stone would be the preferred building material for a wall, right? It must be sturdy, and preferably also able to withstand the test of time. As emperor, you want future generations to remember your name as they marvel at your building. But for the wall of Antoninus, stone was only used as a foundation. The vast majority consisted of a sod wall three to four meters high. The reason for this is also not entirely clear. It could possibly be related to the availability of local raw materials. Another possibility is that Emperor Antoninus did not have enough money and men to build the wall entirely of stone.

In front of the wall a strong rampart had been built and a deep ditch had been built. Along the wall, at distances of about three kilometers from each other, they built fortresses, which were connected by a road.


The wall of Antoninus unfortunately did not last long. From 162 A.D. ch. – only 20 years after its construction – the Roman armies withdrew behind Hadrian's wall, which would once again serve as the border of the Roman Empire.

In 208 A.D. ch. Emperor Septimus Severus set foot in Scotland. He tried once more to push the barbarians back beyond Antoninus' wall. In the short time of this reoccupation, Septimus' men did some repairs to the wall. But after only a few years, Septimus also decided to withdraw his men and use Hadrian's wall as a border.

Why not?

Why Antoninus' wall never really got off the ground as the definitive frontier of the Roman Empire is pure speculation. There are specialists who argue that the frontier was of no use because the forts tolerated the barbarian trade between them. Others say that the Roman soldiers integrated with the Pictish tribes (partly because many Roman soldiers stationed there came from the local area). According to still other scientists Antoninus' treasury was empty, so that he could no longer pay his men who were working in that area.

Although it is less known than Hadrian's wall, in the past there was certainly much to do about Antoninus' wall. It has been built, defended, abandoned, restored, defended and abandoned again. Its obscurity among the general public today is unfortunate. Unfortunately, Scotland has less money than England to commercialize and maintain its cultural heritage. In addition, the remains of Hadrian's wall are also more visible in the landscape than Antoninus's wall. But for those who look closely, the foundations of the wall of Antoninus can still be found. Although you sometimes have to spend a walking tour of one and a half hours.

See further

  • The photo exhibition at the Allard Pierson Museum about Hadrian's wall