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The Roman Walls

The island of Britain is almost divided into two unequsl parts by the opposite gulfs, or, as they are now called, the Firths of Scotland. Across the narrow interval of about forty miles Agricola had drawn a line of military stations, which was afterwards fortified, in the reign of Antoninus Pius, by a turf rampart, erected on foundations of stone. This wall of Antoninus, at a small distance beyond the modern cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow, was fixed as the limit of the Roman province. The native Caledonians preserved, in the northern extremity of the island, their wild independence, for which they were not less indebted to their poverty than to their valor. Their incursions were frequently repelled and chastised, but their country was never subdued. The masters of the fairest and most wealthy climates of the globe turned with contempt from gloomy hills assailed by the winter tempest, from lakes concealed in a blue mist, and from lonely heaths, over which the deer of the forest were chased by a troop of naked barbarians.

Julius Agricola, in addition to his line of forts between the Forth and the Clyde, had erected detached forts at the mouth of the valleys which issue from the Highlands, in order to hinder the Caledonians from plundering the lower country. Agricola was the first of the Romans that carried on their conquests to Caledonia, and there is no dispute about the place which he fortified, intending to fix the marches. Tacitus, his son-in-law, gives us an account from Agricola's own relation, that, finding the narrow neck of ground betwixt the firths of Clyde and Forth a proper place to fix the barriers of the empire, he fortified it with fences, so that the countries to the south of the friths were to remain subject to the Romans ; and the inhabitants of Caledonia, to the north of them, were by this barrier separated as in another island from his new conquests ; this was AD 81.

In AD 119 the Emperor Hadrian visited Britain. He was more disposed to defend the Empire than to extend it and though he did not abandon Agricola's forts, he also built further south a continuous stone wall between the Solway and the Tyne. Hadrian, about AD 121, having resolved to build a wall to secure the provincials from the unconquered nations of the north, thought fit to abandon all the midland countries from Northumberland to Caledonia, and was contented to fix the frontiers eighty miles farther south than Agricola had placed them. This wall, which formed a far stronger line of defence than the more northern forts, was steaded to serve as a second barrier to keep out the wild Caledonians if they succeeded in breaking through the first. Hadrian connected Agricola's forts between the Forth and Clyde by a continuous earthwork.

The third wall was built, AD 138, by Lollius Urbicus, under the Emperor Antoninus. It was built of turf, but fortified, no doubt, from place to place with castles or stone work. That this wall was seated betwixt Clyde and Forth, where Agricola had first placed his barrier, seems clear, as well from several inscriptions of Antoninus and Lollius Urbicus found in those places, as from the expressions of Capitolinus, from whom there is the account of this wall, who relates that Lollius built it after forcing the barbarous nations to give ground; so that the frontiers being thus carried back to the firths, the debateable lands betwixt the two walls were anew joined to the empire.

The fourth wall was built by the Emperor Severus, AD 208-210, after he had forced back the Midlanders or Maeats, and the Caledonians, who had invaded or overrun several provinces of the empire. Dio and Herodian give on this occasion a more distinct account of those two northern nations than hitherto met with. Dio seems to include all the nations betwixt the walls under the name of Maeatae, by placing them next to the wall, and after them the Caledonians, whose ancient possessions were bounded by the northern friths; whence follows that the possessions of the Mieatae were the debateable lands betwixt the walls, so often overrun alternatively by the Romans and northern nations. The Emperor Severus, after strengthening still farther the earthwork between the Forth and Clyde, attempted to carry out the plans of Agricola by conquering the land of the Caledonians. Severus, however, failed as completely as Agricola had before him, and he died soon after his return to Eboracum.

The remains of two Roman walls exist in Britain, one extending from the Clyde to the Firth of Forth, and the other from tho Solway to the mouth of the Tyne. The former is an entrenchment of earth, and is known by the name of Grimes Dyke. The latter, which is a far more important work, consists of two parallel lines of fortifications - a stone wall and an earthen rampart - which run parallel to, and generally within sixty or seventy yards of each other; the stone wall being on the northern, and the earthen rampart on the southern side of the island. The wall between the Solway and the mouth of the Tyne was at a later period, at all eventa, the boundary of Roman Britain. Africans were first recorded in the north 1800 years ago, as Roman soldiers defending Hadrian's wall - 'a division of Moors'.

Respecting the builders of these walls there is a difference of opinion. It is stated by Tacitus that Agricola erected a line of forts between the Firths of Clyde and Forth in AD 61; and Capitolinus relates that in the reign of Antoninus Pius a rampart of turf was raised by Lolliua Urbicus in AD 140. There can be no doubt that this was the wall between the Firths of Solway and Forth, usually descrilied as the wall of Antoninus, since an extant inscription attests that it was raised in his reign.

With respect to the southern wall there is more difficulty. Spartianus states that "Hadrian first built a wall eighty miles in length, dividing the Romans from the barbarians" (Hadrian, c. 11); and the same writer in another passage also relatas that Septimius Severus built a wall across the island. (Septim. Sever, c. 18.) Hence the stone wall from the Solway to the Tyne has been ascribed to Septimius Severus, and the parallel earthen rampart to Hadrian. There is much debate among modern writers about the place where the wall of Severus was situated. The most general opinion is that it stood in Northumberland, betwixt Tine and Carlisle, where Adrian had formerly built his wall; others will have it to have been seated where Agricola had placed the first fences against the northern nations-that is, betwixt the two firths of Clyde and Forth, where Antoninus' wall was erected.

But Bruce adduced strong reasons for believing that the stone wall and the earthen rampart were parts of one fortification and were essential to each other. He supposed that they were both raised by Hadrian, whose name frequently occurs in inscriptions found in the locality, and that no wall was built by Severus, though this emperor may have repaired the work of Hadrian. In confirmation of this view it may be stated that neither Dion Cassius nor Herodian attributes the erection of any wall to Severus.

Spartian, who wrote under Dioclesian, though he marks not expressly either the dimensions or place of the wall, yet his telling that it was the greatest ornament of Severus' reign, that he had from it the surname of Britannicus, and that it was bounded at both ends by the ocean, insinuates plainly enough that it was not the short wall in Scotland, bounded by the Friths of Forth and Clyde, but that of Northumberland, above twice as long, and bounded on both sides by the ocean. Aurelius Victor, in his true work already mentioned, seems entirely of the same opinion. The passage where he speaks of the wall is introduced from a comparison of what Severus had done in Britain for the security of the empire, with his other great victories over the Persians, the Arabians, the Adiabenes, and then he adds his majora aggressus, etc. Severus undertook a nobler work than all that, for having overcome the enemies of the empire in Britain, he fortified it against them by building a wall across the island, bounded at each end by the ocean.

Carausius, who usurped the empire in Britain towards the end of the third century, is said to have also built or repaired the wall, AD 289 ; but there seems no authority for this than that of the interpolator of Nennius, who places Carausius' wall betwixt Clyde and Forth, near the river Caron.

In the year 367, the Emperor Valentinian I sent over the General Theodosius to Britain against the Picts and Scots, who had invaded the Roman provinces, and ravaged them for several years. Theodosius coming suddenly on them put them to flight, and having recovered the debateable lands between the two walls, he erected them into a new Roman province by the name of Valentia, which made a fifth province in Britain. Theodosius, to secure this new province forever to the empire, fortified again the frontiers, and placed garrisons to defend them against the northern nations. These new fortifications being at the extremity of Valentia to the north, could be no other than the fences and walls of Agricola and Antoninus, between Clyde and Forth, repaired again and put in a posture of defence.

It was also in the utmost bounds of Valentia, where Antoninus' wall stood, that Stilicho caused the marches of the empire to be fortified, AD 398, against the invasions of the Scots and Picts, who, as Claudian relates, had broken loose again and were destroying the British provinces ; but Stilicho sent over forces who repulsed the enemies, and remained a safeguard to the frontiers till recalled by Stilicho himself, AD 402, at the battle of Pollentum; so they left the poor provincials a prey to their enemies for many years.

About the year 421, the Romans, called in by the Britains to their help against the Picts and Scots, after having beat them out of the Roman provinces, upon their return home ordered the provincials, for their security, to build or repair the wall between them and the Picts and Scots. This wall, the Britains, not being skilled in that kind of structure, built of turf more than of stone, so it proved but of little use to their defence.

The ravages and oppressions by the Picts and Scots obliged the Britains, about the year 426, to solicit again the assistance of the Roman forces; and they being come under the command of Gallio, slew great numbers of the Scots and Picts, and put the rest to flight; and having thus rescued the Britains, told them that they could not any more bring over forces to their succour, that therefore they ought to take arms themselves and train up their people to military discipline; and for a further encouragement to them, the Romans caused a stately wall to be built, not of turf, as the former, but of stone, eight feet broad and twelve feet high, from sea to sea, betwixt the towns which had been formerly built there to keep off the enemy, and in the same place where Severus had formerly built a wall. This the Romans caused to be built or repaired on public expense. As to the place where this last wall was situated, Gildas, the oldest writer that speaks of it, does not precisely mark the place, though to any that will consider impartially his expressions, where he speaks of the two last walls, it will appear that this last was in a different place from the former, built or repaired, as we have seen, Ad. 420. He says this last, of the year 426, was built betwixt the towns from sea to sea, that is, bounded on both sides by the ocean, whereas the first was built betwixt two seas.

This wall being built inter urbes, from town to town, which were nigh one another on these marches, it was not harder to defend this wall than it would have been to defend the northern wall, where we do not read that the towns were so frequent, so that each town served for a guard to the wall in its neighborhood. After the building of this wall, the Romans left Britain and never returned back to it again, and this concludes their expeditions into this island, as their empire in it had ceased some eighteen years before. It was not hands but hearts that failed the Britains.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 13:28:53 ZULU