The Great Roman Wall

  > About A.D. 81, Julius Agricola, in order to protect the northern limits of the Roman territories in Britain, against the incursions of the northern barbarians, extended an artificial rampart or vallum, consisting of a chain of forts, across the island, from Tynemouth to Bowness, a distance of about seventy-four miles, in a parallel line with the northern shores of the Tyne and Irthing; and in the year 121, Adrian commanded a more formidable rampart or military fence to be raised, which was carried on from Solway Frith to Wallsend, on the Tyne, nearly four miles below Newcastle. Near the hamlet of Portgate it consists of a mound of earth, nineteen feet broad at the base, and almost ten feet high; and there is, about sixteen feet north of this, a second mound, ten feet broad at the base, with a ditch on its north hide, twelve feet deep and twenty-eight feet wide; and twenty-eight feet north of the ditch there is a third mound of earth, thirty-three feet broad at its base.* These four works keep all the way a regular parallelism one with the other. The most northern is supposed to have been the military way to the ancient line of forts, erected by Agricola, as it undoubtedly was to this four-fold barrier; and the southern mound was thrown up for an inner defence, in case of a sudden attack from the provincial Britons. Some authors affirm that Severus built a wall of stone, others a vallum of earth, and others, amongst whom is Richard Cirencester, avow that he only repaired the wall of Adrian, about the year 208, and that the solid stone wall which stretched from sea to sea, was erected after the year 416, by the Britons and the last legion of Roman soldiers sent to this country.

Considering the length, breadth, height, and solidity of this great wall, erroneously attributed to Severus, it was certainly a work of unrivalled magnitude and prodigious labour. On its north side was a ditch twenty-one feet in width at the top, and generally about fifteen deep. It was faced on both sides with ashlar work, and in many places rested on piles of oak; the inner filling stones were large, broad, and thin, and were set on edge obliquely, in mortar above the earth, and in clay beneath it. The height of the wall was twelve feet, exclusive of the battlements, which were four feet; and its thickness, eight feet. A paved military way attended it every where, from one extremity to the other; and upon it were seventeen or eighteen stations, and eighty-one castles, besides about 324 watch towers or turrets.

The stations were occupied by the Roman cohorts, and were large and strong fortresses, strengthened by deep ditches and thick walls, having the great wall itself for their northern boundary. These stations were not placed at regular distances from each other, but stood generally thickest neat both ends and the middle of the walls, probably on account of those places being considered more exposed to danger. Without the walls of each station was a town, inhabited both by Romans and Britons who chose to dwell wider the protection of the garrison,

The castella or castles were not so large nor so strong as the stations, being only sixty-six feet square, yet fortified as they were on every side by a thick and lofty wall, formed an almost impregnable bulwark. They wen generally situated about seven furlongs from each other, each attended with a guard of one hundred men.

The turrets or towers were much smaller still than the castles, being only twelve feet square, projecting out of the south side of the wall, at the intervals between the castles, and about three hundred yards from each other, so that the number was about 324; and being occupied by sentinels within hearing of each other, an alarm or intelligence could be conveyed to all parts of the wall, with almost telegraphic dispatch.

These numerous stations, castles, and towers, required a considerable body of troops to garrison them, and the following figures show the usual number of men engaged in this service, viz. :

Twelve cohorts of Foot, consisting of 600 men each 7200
One cohort of Mariners, in the station at Bowness 600
One detachment of Moors, probably about 600
Four alæ, or wings of Horse, of 400 each 1600

Total number of men


These troops might march with great ease, safety, and expedition, along the two paved military ways, from one part of the wall to another. One of these ways extended from turret to turret on the south side of the wall, and the other pursued the most direct course from one station to another. The Legio Secunda Augusta in supposed to have built nearly one half of the wall from the east end, and the Legio Sexta Victrix, the remainder. Camden says there was a tradition prevalent in his time, that a brass pipe set in the wall ran along between each tower and castle for the purpose of giving immediate notice to all of the enemy's attack; but the towers being so near to each other as to render an alarm pipe unnecessary, this is considered merely a fanciful fabrication. We find a similar story related by Ziphilin, from Dio, in the life of Severus, about the walls of Byzantium.

The ancient and modern names of the places through which this celebrated wall passed, and where its castles and towers were situated, stand in the following order in the Notitia Imperii :-

Pons Ælii (Newcastle)
Condercum (Benwell)
Vindobala (Rutchester)
Hunnum (Halton Chesters)
Cilurnum (Walwick Chesters)
Procolitia (Carrawbrugh)
Borcovicus (House-Steads)
Vindolana (Little Chesters)
Æsica (Great Chesters)
Magna (Caer Voran)
Amboglana (Burdoswald)
Petriana (Cambeck Fort)
Aballaba (Watchcross)
Congavata (Stanwix)
Axelodunum (Burgh)
Gabrocentum (Drumburgh)
Tunnocelum (Bowness)

Of the stations upon this once stupendous barrier, ten are situated in Northumberland, but it will be only necessary to describe here the remains of that part of the wall situated in this county.

The Magna of the Romans, and the last Roman station in Northumberland, is Caervoran, whence the wall passes down the river Tippal, and leaving Thirlwall Castle to the north, crosses the Poltross-burn, and enters Cumberland, where near Mumps Hall, Severus' ditch appears large and distinct, detached about eight yards from the wall.

Amboglana or Burdoswald, the next station westward, is in Cumberland, and stands upon a large plain at the head of a steep descent towards the river Irthing, having its outbuildings mostly on the south east. The castrum forms a parallelogram of one hundred and twenty yards north and south, by eighty yards east and west. Camden found six altars here, to Jupiter Optimus Maximus, and an inscription, which in English reads thus, "The Sixth Legion, victorious, pious, and happy, made this." Two other altars to the same deity are mentioned as found here, in the Britannia Romana; and one hundred yards eastward, in a kind of ruin, were dug up two more altars dedicated to the same, by the Cohors Prima Ælia Dacorum Postumiana. Horsley and Brand mention several sepulchral inscriptions found here, and dedications to Mars and Cocis. Vestiges of seven castella are observable between this and the next station. A fragment of the wall is still standing a little west of tits Banks-burn rivulet, at a house called Harehill, and was three yards and a half high in Horsley's time.

Petriana, now called Cambeck Fort or Castle Steads, being situated on the Cambeck rivulet, about three miles N.N.W. of Brampton, was garrisoned by the Alma Petriana; and is newly four Gunter's chains in its longest side, and two and half in its shortest. This fort must have been at some time the victim of a dreadful conflagration, as appears from the great numbers of iron and brass nails run together in masses, which have been found here. In the days of Horsley and Brand its ruins were covered with wood, but in 1801, its foundations were rooted up and a gentleman's house built upon its site. One of the inscriptions given by Horsley as found here, mentions the Cassivelauni, a people of ancient Britain, who, as was affirmed by Galgacus, the renowned Caledonian king, "lent their blood to the service of a foreign power."

Aballaba, now called Scaleby or Watch Cross, situated about a mile south of the wall, and on the side of the military way which extends in a direct line from Castlesteads to Stanwix, was garrisoned by the Numerus Mausorum. Its ramparts are still visible, but is the smallest station on the wall, and has produced very few antiquities. At Bleatarn, about half a mile west, the wall has been extended upon piles, over a marshy piece of ground, which is encompassed by Adrian's vallum. There can be only two castella traced from Watch Cross to Stanwix, every vestige of the others being lost; the footpath between Tarraby and Stanwix is on the foundation of the wall; and upon a very perfect Roman altar, dug up some years ago at the former place, was an inscription which has been thus translated :- "The Second Sacred Augustine Legion, under the charge of Ælianus, commander-in-chief of the sacred Legion, Oppius Felix being his deputy Lieutenant, dedicates this Altar to Mars, the great local Deity; to be set up with care."

Congavata, Stanwix, a term supposed to be a corruption of Stanewegges, signifying a place upon the stones or stoneway, was the station of the Cohors Secunda Legorum, and is situated about one mile N.N.E. of Carlisle. Severus' wall formed the north rampart of this station, and its ditch may be traced to the banks of the Eden, as also may the ridge left by the ruins of the wall. Some remains of the wall are yet to be seen at Hissop-holm well, at the foot of a precipice which rises one hundred feet above the river.

Axelodunum, now Burgh-upon-Sands, was the quarters of the Cohors Prima Hispanorum, which Horsley supposes lay in the garrison at Ellenborough, prior to its removal hither. The site of this fort is called the Old Castle, and the lines of its ramparts measure about one hundred and thirty six yards square. Upon an altar dug up in the garden, Bishop Littleton found this inscription - "DEO BELATVCA;" and another was in a drain at Hawstones, in 1799, inscribed to the same deity. Belatucadro was a local deity, the same as Mars, and had many altars dedicated to him in the north of England. In 1803, in the parish of Kirk Andrews, an altar was found fifty-two inches high, two feet broad, and fourteen inches thick, with this inscription :- "Lucius Junius Victorinus et Caius Ælianus Legati Augustales Legionis sextœ victricis pii felicis ob res trans vallum prospere gestas;" from which it appears to have been erected by two lieutenants of the sixth legion, on account of certain exploits successfully performed beyond the wall. The foundation of the wall can be traced along Davidson's banks below Newtown, and also from Kirk Andrews to Wormanby and Burgh, having Adrian's rampart about a furlong to the south.

Gabrocentum, now Drumburgh, was the station of the Cohors Secunda Thracum. The fort is one hundred and ten yards square, and has high ramparts and a very deep ditch. Its area has been converted into a garden and orchard to Drumburgh Castle, an old mansion built out of the ruins of the fort and wall, and now belonging to the Lowther family, who have removed many of the inscriptions found here, to their seat at Lowther Hall. There were two draw-wells, cased with fine ashlar work, discovered here about the year 1780; and Adrian's vallum is supposed to have terminated a little to the west of this station. There is, about a mile east of Bowness, a large tumulus, on the summit of which is a fluted column, called Fisher's Cross; and here the wall appears again, fringed with ivy, and has a fence growing upon its top.

Tunnocelum situated at the western extremity of the wall, was the station of the Cohors Prima Ælia Classica; and the remains of the fort are still visible near the village of Bowness, on a rocky promontory, at the verge of the Solway Frith, thirteen miles west of Carlisle. Its ramparts and fosse may be still traced, but none of its walls are standing, the neighbouring village and church leaving been partly built out of its ruins. From the foundations, which appear at low water, Camden supposes that the great wall began a mile beyond Bowness; but Horsley thinks these were nothing more than the ground-work of one of the small forts which were erected along the shore. Roman coins and inscriptions have been frequently found here; and there has been also found an altar, about fifteen inches high, bearing a rude inscription, which has been translated thus :- "To Jupiter, best and greatest, for the safety (or health) of our august emperors Gallus and Volusianus; Sulpicius Secundianus, tribune of the cohort, erected this."

Respecting the utility of this grand military barrier, Sir John Clarke, writing to R. Gale, Esq., says "After all, I cannot but take notice of two things with regard to this wall that have given me great matter of speculation. The first is, why it was made at all, for it could never be a proper defence, and perhaps at Bowness less than any other place, since our barbarian forefathers on the north side could pass over the Frith at low water, or if the sea were then higher or deeper than it is now, could make their attach from the north-east side by land. The second is, why the Scots historians, vain enough by nature, have not taken more pains to describe this wall, a performance which did their ancestors more honour than all the trifling stories put together, which they have transmitted to us. 'Tis true the Romans walled out humanity from them, but 'tis as certain they thought the Caledonians a very formidable people, when they, at so much labour and cost, built this wall - as before, they had made a vallum between Forth and Clyde." While the stations on the wall were well garrisoned, it was impossible for the Picts and Scots to pass them, soldiers being ready to oppose them in every direction. Constantine was the first emperor who neglected this barrier and its stations, and he is said to have suppressed their garrisons and removed most of the troops from the frontier to the towns in the interior of his territories, where they soon became enervated by a soft and inactive life of pleasure and amusement. After the removal of the garrisons, the northern tribes, freed from these powerful restraints, made innumerable incursions into the Roman provinces to the great detriment and annoyance of the inhabitants, as hasg been already seen,

"It in much to be lamented that this wonderful effort, whose fame has employed the pens of historians from the times of Eutropius and Tacitus, so few remains are now left to gratify our curiosity. This wall has been a kind of quarry of ready-hewn stone, where the adjoining parishes have obtained materials for erecting their churches, fences, and houses, without feeling one 'compunctious visiting' for so flagrant an act of violence to antiquarian taste."

Sir Walter Scott, when a young man, gathered some flowers on this wall, which he presented with the following verses to a young lady, with whose beauty he was charmed :-

"Take these flowers, which, purple weaving,
On the ruined rampart grew,
Where the sons of Freedom braving
Rome's imperial standard flew.

Warriors from the breach of danger,
Pluck no loner laurels here;
They but yield the passing stranger,
Wild-flower wreaths for Beauty's hair."

The Roman veterans were no less famed for their valour in the field, than for their knowledge and assiduity in architecture and sculpture, for they fought and laboured with equal skill and vigour, and it is much to be regretted that this wise policy of keeping the soldiery usefully employed in time of peace should have been abandoned by the modern European nations.

Two, out of the four Roman legions brought over into Britain in the reign of Cladius, remained till the last. The ninth legion was surprised and destroyed by queen Boadicea, and the fourteenth and the vexillarii of the twentieth, were in the battle which decided the fate of that heroine. The twentieth, called also valens vitrix, though it stayed a long time, seems to have been recalled before the Romans finally abandoned the island, for it is not noticed in the notitia. The legio secunda Augusta is mentioned in that record, and seems to have been the last; for though the legio sexta victrix also continued to the last, it did not come over to Britain till the reign of Adrian.

The Roman soldiers employed much of their leisure hours in perpetuating their names or complimenting their victorious leaders by monumental inscriptions; and also by inscriptions commemorative of the completion of buildings and public works; and in erecting and inscribing statutes in honour of their principal deities; but after the introduction of the Christian religion the statues were destroyed. Many Roman coins have been found in Cumberland and neighbouring counties, where they had been secreted either by the Roman soldiers, or by the affrighted Britons, when the northern tribes or the Saxon invaders burst in upon their country and razed their towns to the ground. "A fixed tradition" says Canden, "remains in the neighbours, that the Roman garrisons on the borders, planted here up and down for their own use, many plants good for curing wounds. Hence some pretenders to surgery in Scotland resort here every summer to collect plants whose virtues they have learned, by some practice, and extol them as of sovereign efficacy."

Two stations on the north side of the wall were situated at Bewcastle, ten miles N. by E. of Brampton, and at Netherby, two and a half miles N.N.E. of Longtown, and there still remains at the former place a deep ditch and part of a lofty vallum, in the area of which the church and castle are situated. Here it is supposed the legio secunda Augusta was garrisoned; and tessellated pavements, coins, and altars have been found there. A Roman road extended from Bewcastle to Netherby, which Camden supposed to be the Æsica, where the tribune of the first cohort of the Astures was garrisoned. A fine hypocaust or bath, altars, inscriptions, utensils, and coins, and many other antiquities have been found here; and two of the altars are inscribed thus :



From the first it is clear that the Romans were settled here in the reign of Adrian, and the second "argues Mars and Belatucadrus to be the same deity." A remarkable altar to Fortune was discovered in an outer room of a large Roman bath here, about the year l737, bearing this inscription :- "Deœ sanctœ Fortuno Consevatrici Marcus Aurelius Salvius tribunus Cohortis primœ Æliœ, Hispanorum Millaria equitata votum solvit libens merito." Three sculptures found here are supposed to represent Commodus, the Roman Hercules, in an Arminian habit, with a cornucopia in his left hand and a patera in his right, over an altar; with his club and a boar lying on his left side - Adrian with a corona muralis on his head, a cornucopia on his left arm, and a patera in his right hand, extended over an altar - and Caracalla, represented under the appearance of Alexander, whom he venerated so highly, that he filled Rome with his statues and used his arms and cups. Two curiously wrought Roman incense vases, made of a composition of refined brass, were found at Carlisle in 1814, and are now preserved in the British Museum. The sculpture upon them represents four groups of figures, in excellent workmanship, illustrative of sacrifice. The uppermost seems to be two persons holding a bullock for sacrifice; the next a man taking hold of a bear for the same purpose; the third, a priest clothed in his robes, holding something upon an altar; on one side of the lower one is a man in complete armour, holding a knife as if going to immolate a sheep or lamb, which another person holds out for that purpose; on the other side stands the priest with a knife or sword, attending the ceremony. A curious Roman sandal, and a hand-millstone, with many other curiosities, have also been found at Carlisle.

Stations were erected by Theodosius, extending southward through Cumberland and Westmorland, in order to impede the progress of the Caledonians, who so frequently succeeded in passing the wall at Solway Frith. The first of these was Virosidum, situated on a rising ground at Ellenborough, near Maryport. It was surrounded with double ditches, and commanded an extensive view of Scotland; and has been a perfect magazine of Roman antiquities. Military roads led from it to Moresby, Old Carlisle, and towards Ambleside. Whether this was the Virosidum, the Volantium, or the Olenacum, of the Romans, historians are at variance; but the latter is generally supposed to be at Old Carlisle, about one mile S. of Wigton, and was garrisoned by the Ala Herculea. The remains of this station are scattered over several acres; and a great number of sacrificial instruments, altars, coins, and other antiquities have been found here. Abela, the next station on the coast south of that at Ellenborough, is situated at Moresby, nearly two miles N. by E. of Whitehaven; and was garrisoned by the Numerus Barcarorium Tigritensium. Many antiquities have been found here also, and on the shore are come caverns called Pict's Holes. Old Penrith, about five miles north-west of the town of Penrith, is the Bremetenracum of the Romans, and had a military way, twenty-one feet broad, leading from it to the wall. The site of this station comprised an area of about three acres, and traces of its foundations and outbuildings are still observable. The Cunues Armaturarum, a troop of horse armed in the most complete manner, was in garrison here. It has been observed that these stations, extending over the country are fourteen miles apart, so that it is probable that was the distance of a Roman stage.

Roman Roads - As has been seen at a former page, the Romans bestowed great attention, labour, and expense on their public roads, which generally consisted of a regular pavement, formed by large boulder stones, or fragments of rock, embedded in gravel, and varied in width from four to fourteen yards, and were carried over rivers, not by bridges, but by fords. The principal Roman road which diverged from the grand military way on the wall, extended from Carlisle, the Longuvallum of Antonius, to Kinderton, (Condate) near Middlewich, in Cheshire, passing in its route Penrith, Kendal, and Lancaster, and having various branches to all the neighbouring stations. A great Roman causeway branched off near Penrith, by Brougham Castle, Temple Sowerby, Kirkby Thore, &c., and passed to that largest of all the Roman roads, Watling Street, which extended from the wall in Northumberland, through Durham and Yorkshire, to Dover. Though most of the sites of the Roman roads are now occupied by the present turnpikes, yet vestiges of them may still be traced in various directions.

*Warburton's Survey.


Mannix & Whellan, History, Gazetteer and Directory of Cumberland, 1847




This description is so flawed that anyone wishing to pursue an interest in this fascinating subject is recommended to consult a modern book, of which there is no shortage. The table giving the names of the forts, with their modern equivalents, has been considerably simplified.

19 June 2015

© Steve Bulman