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From Aug 2006 - Nov 2013 WeDig provided a live forum for diggers & fans of Vindolanda. It has now been mothballed and will be maintained as a live archive.

Here you will find preserved 7 years of conversation, photos, & knowledge about a site many people love. Vindolanda gets under the skin. (Figuratively and literally as a volunteer excavator!) It's a place you remember, filled with people you remember!

Thanks for 7 great years!


Hadrian’s Wall runs for seventy-odd miles from the Solway Firth to Wallsend on the Tyne; even in a ruinous state it is a tremendously impressive feat of engineering. The Wall’s surviving sections show a sophisticated fortification network: the ‘Wall’ itself, plus associated watchtowers, fortlets, and forts. Now as then, sections of the Wall’s course run through thinly populated country; the Wall garrison is estimated to have comprised somewhere around ten thousand infantry and five thousand cavalry. Indeed, based upon ‘men per mile’, the Wall was the most heavily garrisoned Imperial frontier.

What was the Wall’s purpose? To the casual observer, the answer is apparent: the Wall was designed to keep intruders of all sorts from Roman territory: from the single individual intent on stealing a sheep from a local farm, right up to massed warbands of thousands of warriors. All could be met, and defeated, by troops fighting from behind the wall’s various fortifications, much like a medieval castle’s garrison, or by soldiers sallying from any of the numerous gates, destroying the enemy in combat near the Wall.

An alternative explanation, though less popular, is that the Wall served a symbolic purpose: its sheer majesty would intimidate potential enemies from attacking it. Unfortunately, it is doubtful that locals living in nearby settlements on the northern side of the Wall would have been overawed by a structure they saw daily; nor that ‘fortifications’ per se would amaze and astound tribal peoples used to hill-forts, and who in any case more than once had experienced the Roman army’ sophisticated style of warfare first-hand.

Neither explanation fits the Wall’s design, however: the ever-pragmatic Romans were unlikely to expend treasure and time constructing a merely ‘symbolic’ set of fortifications; and the Wall itself is not suited for use as a fighting platform—unlike, eg, the curtain walls of medieval castles. Indeed, as the ‘Barbarian Conspiracy’ of 367 CE showed, the Wall could be, and was, breached by determined invaders (albeit with help from traitorous garrisons in this case). Nowhere was the Wall designed to act as a ‘fighting base’ per se. This presents a conundrum: if the Wall was not designed to be a barrier against massed barbarian hordes, but was not merely symbolic either, then what was its purpose? To answer this question we need to assess the imperial government’s probable goals at the time of the Wall’s construction.

As noted elsewhere, Roman grand strategy falls into three broadly defined categories: the early Principate was expansionist in nature, and viewed recently conquered areas as buffer regions in which military forces could be based for further conquest of adjacent territories—or, at worst, as regions in which Roman forces could mount a temporary defense against an unusually aggressive neighbour, while keeping the intruder well away from more settled districts. Northeastern Gaul and the ‘Germanies’, Pannonia, Moesia, a whole patchwork of client states in the east, and of course much of Britain itself fall into this category during the first century CE, serving to protect the ‘heartlands’—Italy first of all, as well as southern Gaul, southern and eastern Hispania, the southern Balkan peninsula, western Asia Minor (modern Turkey), Syria, and Egypt. These were the Empire’s chief resource-producing areas, and the ‘buffer’ zones at this period were markedly less developed, much less Romanized.

Hadrian inherited an Empire rather different from that of Augustus: the ‘frontier’ districts were themselves far more Romanized, and thus in need of protection rather than serving as mere military zones; and the Empire had reached its natural limits, beyond which it was not economically, culturally or politically feasible to expand. The emperor’s decision to create a ‘linear defense’ represented the logical outcome of the Empire’s evolution.

A linear defense strategy requires the frontier districts themselves to be secure, such that local and regional economies can develop in relative safety. A ‘buffer zone’ by its nature offered no such security; and in fact the area in which the Wall was to be built was one such zone; throughout the last half of the first century the district was secured by Roman forts—for the benefit of the army in maintaining control over the local population, rather than with the intent of protecting the local economy per se. The earliest phase of occupation at Vindolanda antedates the Wall’s construction by some thirty years, and forms a ‘frontier’ which was in fact a ‘buffer zone’—militarized, but not an absolute barrier to enemy incursion.

Subsequent expansion northward carried the ‘buffer zone’ up to the southern escarpments of the Highlands, and withdrawal brought it back to the area around Vindolanda. Therefore, pre-Hadrianic fortification in the area of the Wall should be understood as supporting a frontier district whose purposes was twofold: first, as a base for further expansion northward (as happened several times); second, as a protective shield for the increasingly settled regions to the south.

Hadrian decided, in effect, to include this buffer within the province itself, and to provide sufficient security that a complex civil society could grow in peace. In order to do so, a ‘linear defense’ strategy was employed. Such a strategy does not, as seen above, indicate merely a ‘fortified wall’ behind which the provincials would shelter—rather, the Wall functioned as a deterrent to low-level threats, as a psychological delimiter separating the provincials from their near-kin just to the north; and most likely as a customs barrier, all within the context of a larger regional scheme capable of defeating larger threats.

Under a linear defense scheme, the local populace must be assured of reasonable protection from not just large bands of barbarian warriors, but from intermediate-size groups of ‘freebooters’ (perhaps the warriors of a local clan, eg), and even from individuals who might want to ‘rustle cattle’ or plunder a remote settlement. The Wall is best understood as one component of a sophisticated multilayered approach to the problem of security. The Wall proper was equipped with ‘fortlets’ or ‘milecastles every Roman mile; the garrisons were far too small to withstand a concerted assault, but ideal for supplying patrols along the Wall itself. The milecastle contained a gate giving access to the areas beyond the Wall, and may have acted as customs checkpoints in addition to their military function.

Two smaller ‘turrets’ were situated between each milecastle and the next; these provided shelter for soldiers on patrol/sentry duty. Such an obstacle, manned by small patrols, provided a near-absolute deterrent for small parties or individuals, who would have had to negotiate the Wall’s northern ditch, then somehow climb the Wall itself, all without being detected. Assuming one could actually do so, he would find the Wall an equally tough barrier to his return journey, laden down with livestock or whatever else he’d plundered. Since the ‘individual’ or ‘small group’ presented a statistically greater threat to local security than any warband, the Wall’s true role becomes clear: it deterred ‘low-level’ threats by providing a nearly impassible barrier.

Understand this, and one understands the rest of the Wall system. More serious threats—those which might actually have been able to ‘attack’ the Wall itself—were to be anticipated beyond the Wall. In this context, the situation of the various cohort forts makes sense: each cohort (or as at Vindolanda, cohorts with a cavalry complement) was quite capable of sallying out beyond the wall, alone or in cooperation with other auxiliary forces, to defeat ‘moderate’ threats, ie more organized groups. Dedicated ‘scout’ services kept the district’s headquarters at Stanwix apprised of barbarian plans, including the concentration of enemy forces, such that the Wall’s overall commander could assess the scope of the threat and deploy auxiliary forces to meet it north of the Wall itself. If needed, the overwhelming force of two legions was available a few days’ march away, at Chester and York.

In summary, the Wall was part of a larger system of ‘preclusive defense’; the Wall proper prevented low-level incursions, while the garrison units (such as those at Vindolanda) possessed combat power significant enough to meet any larger enemy threats in the open country to the north. In effect, a provincial could live quite a secure life within a few hundred meters of the Wall to his north, knowing that his less-civilized brethren were kept well away from his farm and family. The mere fact that civil settlements such as those of Vindolanda were able safely to grow—within sight of the Wall itself—attests to the success of the linear defense strategy.

This strategy did, however, possess its own vulnerabilities: first and foremost, should intelligence be faulty or non-existent, as apparently happened when the ‘scouts’ were suborned in 367, then the Wall’s garrisons would not be aware of larger enemy forces until the latter were at the gates. Just such a disaster occurred in that year, the barbarian forces managing to gain entry through multiple gates in the Wall; and note that no effort was made by Roman forces to defend the Wall per se. Such defense as was mounted was situated around the cohort forts, which were not built with the intention of withstanding siege in any case. To modern eyes the Wall complex collapsed surprisingly quickly—but it was not any inherent fault with ‘the fortifications’ or ‘the troops’, but the fact that the garrisons had no time to concentrate their forces, much less summon the legions, and were thus overwhelmed one by one.

Sometime after 400 the Wall was abandoned. In essence, the linear defense no longer served a useful purpose when the barbarians had already managed to gain a foothold along the eastern coasts; the enemy was now behind as well as in front. Moreover, the Wall’s defensive scheme required a sophisticated system for personnel replacement, training, and provisioning—all of which vanished as Britain’s civil society (and the Western Empire generally) began to disintegrate.

What became of the garrisons? Certainly some had been marched off to participate in the various usurpations by local commanders, especially in the first decade of the fifth century. Others, however, doubtless remained, living with families and friends in their usual accommodation. However, such garrisons would have, absent formal support, deteriorated into a part-time militia responsible solely for their own neighbourhood, and surviving forts would either have been used as ‘refuges’ when invaders arrived, or as housing (as happened in parts of the latest Vindolanda fort); or been abandoned altogether, the stone being reused in local construction. A late fifth century survey of the Wall would show a patchwork: abandoned forts whose strategic and tactical role no longer existed; a much-reduced civil settlement pattern, including the vici; perhaps some local militia who still drilled together, but who held other jobs as farmers or artisans; and perhaps even a local warlord or two who had occupied a fort site for his own use (as happened at Birdoswald, and possibly at Vindolanda).

Page created by Eric Jacobson