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Hadrian’s Wall was part of the Roman ‘limes’, a term used to indicate those lines that marked the empire’s boundaries. It was the most heavily fortified border of all the Roman kingdoms and divided the island into two parts.
It was built to prevent incursions by Pictish tribes descending from the north. The Picts were a confederation of tribes settled in what is now known as Scotland even before the Roman conquest. More precisely, they lived north of the Forth and Clyde rivers, a land unknown, wild and unexplored by the Romans and known as ‘Caledonia’. To this day, we inherit few and scarce sources on the origin and identity of these tribes. What is certain, however, is the fear they instilled in the invincible Roman legions, so much so that they had to construct this colossal work to hold them off and protect the empire.
The wall was guarded by a mixture of legionary “vexillationes” and “auxiliary” units of the Roman army. Their numbers fluctuated during time, but it is estimated to have been around 9,000 men, including infantry and cavalry. However, these units suffered severe attacks, first in 180 CE and then even more between 196 and 197, when the garrison was significantly weakened.
We can imagine the life of the watchmen, constantly scouting and patrolling, trying to spot possible ambushes and attacks by unknown enemies considered ‘savages’ by the Romans. Similarly, we can imagine the surprise and hatred that these tribes felt when they saw a great wall in their lands. What is certain, however, is that this wall represented salvation for the Romans, and few ventured outside.
Following the insurrections, a major wall rebuilding was undertaken under the emperor Septimius Severus. However, after his harsh repression of the tribes, the region around the wall remained pacified for most of the 3rd century.
It is believed that many members of the garrison may have integrated into the local community.
With the decline of the empire, the wall was abandoned and fell into disuse. A large number of the stones were reused to construct local buildings. The removal continued until the 20th century.