Photograph of Hadrian's Wall lining green hills

Hadrian’s Wall: History and Stories

Hadrian's Wall was a rich and vibrant place. It was a border, but it was also a place where borders were crossed. Here, soldiers and civilians from across Europe and North Africa met, traded and served together at the northern-western frontier of the Roman Empire. Many settled in this wild, foreign place across the sea and adopted local customs, worshipping native Gods even while preserving their own traditions.

Peel back the layers of 400 years of Roman rule in Britain and explore how new communities evolved at the edge of Empire.

Artist’s reconstruction of Poltross Burn milecastle on Hadrian’s Wall

Key Facts about Hadrian’s Wall

  • Hadrian’s Wall was a complex system of communications and defences. As well as the Wall itself there was an earthwork, a ditch, two major roads and numerous forts, milecastles and turrets along the 73-mile frontier. 
  • The Wall was built under the command of Emperor Hadrian who travelled extensively across his Empire, making improvements to its defences and consolidating its borders.
  • When the Romans arrived, Britain was home to numerous warring tribes. Some rebelled against the invaders, but others, such as the Brigantes tribe in northern Britain, became close allies.
  • Many soldiers and civilians travelled great distances to reach the Wall, including people from modern-day Syria, Romania and North Africa.

Image: An artist’s reconstruction of Poltross Burn milecastle on Hadrian’s Wall © Historic England (illustration by Peter Lorimer)

Who Were The Romans?

Roman soldiers stationed at Hadrian’s Wall lived alongside a diverse and complex community, including craftspeople, local tribes, slaves and officials. Select the images below to find out more about the people who lived on Hadrian’s Wall. All images © English Heritage (illustrations by Adam Larkum)

Illustration of a Roman carpenter

Craftspeople lived and worked in the settlements that sprang up around the forts of Hadrian’s Wall. This carpenter, able to build and fix buildings and furniture, would have made a decent living providing services to the garrison.
Illlustration of tribe leader Cartimandua holding a tall spear

Cartimandua was the Queen of the Brigantes, a tribe who ruled the north of Britain before the Romans invaded. She became a close ally of the Romans. In return for her help against rebellious British tribes, they protected her from her enemies.
Illustration of Roman soldier on horseback

Auxiliary cavalry were recruited for their skills on horseback. Fast and mobile, they were perfect for patrolling the lands around Hadrian’s Wall. A cavalry unit from Spain, for example, was stationed at Chesters Fort.
Illustration of Roman centurion

A centurion commanded a century of about 100 legionaries. They were known for being strict disciplinarians.
Illustration of a group of five Roman civilians - two men, two women and a child

Many civilians lived in and around the forts on Hadrian’s Wall. These included veterans, traders, craftspeople and the families of soldiers. Although most business was done by men, some Roman women traded in their own right, like these shoemakers.
Illustration of dog

Romans liked to keep dogs as pets or for hunting. At Birdoswald Fort, for instance, dogs may have been used to keep rats and mice away from the food stored in the granaries.
Illustration of Emperor Hadrian

Hadrian was the Emperor of Rome from AD 117 until AD 138. His family was Spanish, but he lived his life in Rome. He spent his reign travelling across his Empire and improving it, particularly its borders. He built Hadrian’s Wall to secure the Empire’s north-western border in the province of Britannia.
Illustration of a Roman legionary soldier

Legionaries were heavily armed infantry, who came from across the Empire. They wielded a short sword called a gladius, carried a large shield, and wore heavy armour made of steel plates.
Illustration of a North African slave

Victor was the freed slave of a Hadrian’s Wall soldier. He was born in North Africa but was buried at South Shields near Newcastle. His expensive funerary monument suggests that his master cared for him greatly.
Illustration of Regina, a freed slave who lived on Hadrian's Wall

Regina was a slave who came from Colchester to live on Hadrian’s Wall. Her master was a soldier from Palmyra called Barathes. He freed Regina and married her. When she died he put up a beautiful funeral monument in her memory.
Illustration of rich couple

Some Romans, like this couple, were very wealthy. They could afford expensive clothes and lived in elaborate houses such as the one that has been found in Corbridge Roman Town.
Illustration of two Roman men with young girl

The families of the soldiers would have lived alongside the garrisons in the forts of Hadrian’s Wall. We know the names of two children who lived at Birdoswald, but there must have been many more.

Stories about hadrian's wall

  • Black and white image of men excavating Birdoswald

    Uncovering the Secrets of Hadrian's Wall

    The remains of Birdoswald Roman Fort have revealed more about Hadrian’s Wall than any other site along the Wall. Discover what some of the key finds tell us about the Romans and those who came after.

  • The Corbridge Lion

    The Corbridge Lion and Changing Beliefs

    Lions were commonly used as sacred symbols in Roman memorials, but the Corbridge lion is different. Find out what this extraordinary sculpture tells us about changing beliefs in Roman Britain.

  • Sculpture showing Roman with horse

    The mysterious absence of stables at roman cavalry forts

    How recent archaeological excavations on Hadrian’s Wall have revealed why it has always been so difficult to discover where Roman soldiers kept their horses.

  • Stone altar with carving of God subduing large animal

    Mithras and eastern religion on hadrian's wall

    A remarkable sculpture of Mithras found on Hadrian’s Wall reveals religious and military connections with distant parts of the Roman Empire.

  • Large, almost complete greyware face pot

    The Mysteries of Corbridge

    From strange heads on pots to missing temples, there are many things about Corbridge that continue to puzzle us. Read about the site’s most enigmatic mysteries here.

  • Reconstruction of Birdoswald Roman Fort

    The People of Birdoswald

    Once sworn enemies of the Roman Empire, the Dacians became trusted protectors of its north-western frontier. Explore their story and learn more about the diverse cultures on Hadrian’s Wall.

  • A Roman urn in two pieces

    Death and Burial Rites at Birdoswald

    A rare excavation of burial urns found at Birdoswald has allowed researchers to examine the remains of those who lived and died at the fort. Discover what the new research reveals.

  • Worn stone sculpture of three figures

    Domestic violence on hadrian's wall

    A pair of skeletons found at Housesteads Fort reveals a brutal side of everyday life in Roman Britain.

Hadrian’s Wall at a glance

From its original dimensions to the number of man hours it took to build the Wall, learn some headline facts about Hadrian’s Wall with our infographic.

Infographic showing facts relating to Hadrian's Wall

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