Scotland's History Articles The Antonine Wall

The Antonine Wall

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Great walls stretching across the country from coast to coast. Roads, forts, bathhouses, bridges and art works. All this graphically proclaimed the might of Rome. They brought a style of civlisation which influenced the peoples of Scotland long after they had packed up and gone back to Rome, an influence which was violently resisted by the tribes of the north.

Hadrian's Wall

In 122 AD the Emperor Hadrian ordered the construction of a wall: running for 120 km between the Solway and the Tyne it was designed to establish the bounds of the Roman Empire, but not of Roman power.

North of Hadrian's Wall the Romans built forts like Newstead on the River Tweed, made treaties with local tribes to protect their frontier, and kept a careful eye on the locals through a system of scouts. Relationships with the Caledonian tribes north of the wall were, however, tenuous.

Antoninus Pius was the man who gave his name to the Antonine Wall of 142 AD, which runs between the the Rivers Clyde and Forth, extending Roman Britannia north from Hadrian's Wall. The wall was designed as a frontier for the empire, and a barrier to raiding Caledonian tribes.

The Antonine Wall

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As successor to Hadrian, Antoninus Pius found that he needed the prestige of a military triumph to boost his imperial reputation in Rome. In 138 AD he ordered his legions to advance to the Forth/ Clyde isthmus and construct a new frontier. Just 20 years after the construction of Hadrian's Wall, another was in progress.

The Wall stretched from West Kilpatrick on the Clyde to Carriden on the Forth. It took the 6th and 20th legions, with auxiliary troops, only two years to construct its 36 miles of rampart, ditch, road way and the 20 or so forts long its length. It was occupied for over 25 years.

It is a tribute to the skill of the Roman engineers that the great engineers who built the Forth Clyde Canal or the Edinburgh to Glasgow Railway used the same line across the country. The wall's rampart was 39,726 Roman paces or 36 miles, 620 yards long. Made of turf taken from local pastures it rose to a height of around 20 ft from a 24ft stone foundation.

On its northern side, along the whole length of the wall, ran a huge ditch, 20 feet deep and 40 feet wide, which some believe could have been filled with water if the northern tribes threatened.

Along the wall were probably about 20 forts: three at each end and one every two miles between. Some of these were possibly sited on forts Agicola had used before he invaded northern Scotland in 83 AD.

All the forts were connected by a roman road, known as the military way, that ran behind the southern side of the rampart for communication and moving troops. Beacons were also sited along the wall's length as an early warning system in the event of attack.

The Antonine Wall served to protect the province of Britainnia from the Caledonian tribes. If they did attempt to raid across the wall they would have to breach its defences. Once they managed that, the Romans would have allowed them to cross over, then would have cut them off with troops arriving from the wall's major garrisons along the military way.

The wall may also have operated as a customs and surveillance post. Trade flowed across the frontier but it all had to pass through the gates of the wall forts where information could be gathered and taxes collected. Small settlements near the forts would thrive on the cross border trade and the revenues from supplying the troops with local goods.

Soon after the Emperor Antonine died, his successor, Marcus Aurelius, moved the frontier back to the more easily defendable Hadrian's Wall. Antonine's symbolic triumph was no longer required.

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