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Antonine Wall near Falkirk

Location of the Antonine Wall and Hadrian's Wall in Scotland and Northern England

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The Antonine Wall is a stone and turf fortification built by the Romans across what is now the Central Belt of Scotland, between the Firth of Forth and the Firth of Clyde. Representing the northernmost frontier barrier of the Roman Empire, it spanned approximately 63 kilometres (39 miles) and was about 3 metres (10 feet) high and 5 metres (16 feet) wide. Security was bolstered by a deep ditch on the northern side. The barrier was the second of two "great walls" created by the Romans in Northern Britain. Its ruins are less evident than the better known Hadrian's Wall to the south.

Construction began in 142 AD at the order of Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius, and took about 12 years to complete.

Pressure from the Caledonians may have led Antoninus to send the empire's troops further north. The wall was protected by 16 forts with a number of small fortlets between them; troop movement was facilitated by a road linking all the sites known as the Military Way. The soldiers who built the wall commemorated the construction and their struggles with the Caledonians in a number of decorative slabs, twenty of which still survive. Despite this auspicious start the wall was abandoned after only 20 years, and the garrisons relocated back to Hadrian's Wall. In 208 Emperor Septimius Severus re-established legions at the wall and ordered repairs; this has led to the wall being referred to as the Severan Wall. However, the occupation ended only a few years later, and the wall was never fortified again. Most of the wall and its associated fortifications have been destroyed over time, but some remains are still visible. Many of these have come under the care of Historic Scotland and the UNESCO World Heritage Committee.

Location and construction[edit | edit source]


Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius ordered the construction of the Antonine Wall around 142.[1] Quintus Lollius Urbicus, governor of Roman Britain at the time, initially supervised the effort, which took about twelve years to complete.[2] The wall stretches 63 kilometres (39 miles) (39 miles) from Old Kilpatrick in West Dunbartonshire on the Firth of Clyde to Carriden near Bo'ness on the Firth of Forth. The wall was intended to extend Roman territory and dominance by replacing Hadrian's Wall 160 kilometres (99 miles) (100 miles) to the south, as the frontier of Britannia. But while the Romans did establish many forts and temporary camps further north of the wall in order to protect their routes to the north of Scotland, they did not conquer the Caledonians, and the Antonine Wall suffered many attacks. The Romans called the land north of the wall Caledonia, though in some contexts the term may refer to the whole area north of Hadrian's Wall.

The Antonine Wall, looking east, from Bar Hill between Twechar and Croy

The Antonine Wall was shorter than Hadrian's Wall and built of turf on a stone foundation rather than of stone, but it was still an impressive achievement. The stone foundations and wing walls of the original forts demonstrate that the original plan was to build a stone wall similar to Hadrian's Wall, but this was quickly amended. As built, the wall was typically a bank, about four metres (13 feet) high, made of layered turves and occasionally earth with a wide ditch on the north side, and a military way on the south. The Romans initially planned to build forts every 10 kilometres (6 miles), but this was soon revised to every 3.3 kilometres (2 miles), resulting in a total of nineteen forts along the wall. The best preserved but also one of the smallest forts is Rough Castle Fort. In addition to the forts, there are at least 9 smaller fortlets, very likely on roman mile spacings, which formed part of the original scheme, some of which were later replaced by forts.[3] The most visible fortlet is Kinneil, at the eastern end of the Wall, near Bo'ness.[4]

A near infra-red kite aerial photograph of Kinneil Roman Fortlet, near Bo'ness at the eastern end of the Antonine Wall.

In addition to the line of the Wall itself there are a number of coastal forts both in the East (e.g. Inveresk) and West (Outerwards and Lurg Moor), which should be considered as outposts and/or supply bases to the Wall itself. In addition a number of forts farther north were brought back into service in the Gask Ridge area, including Ardoch, Strageath, Bertha[3] and probably Dalginross and Cargill.[5]

Abandonment[edit | edit source]

The wall was abandoned after only 20 years, when the Roman legions withdrew to Hadrian's Wall in 162 (although there is evidence[examples needed] to suggest that they left the wall in 158/60, its reliability is unclear[citation needed]), and over time reached an accommodation with the Brythonic tribes of the area who they fostered as the buffer states which would later become "The Old North". After a series of attacks in 197, Emperor Septimius Severus arrived in Scotland in 208 to secure the frontier, and repaired parts of the wall. Although this re-occupation only lasted a few years, the wall is sometimes referred to by later Roman historians as the Severan Wall. This led to later scholars like Bede mistaking references to the Antonine Wall for ones to Hadrian's Wall.

Post-Roman history[edit | edit source]

Grim's Dyke[edit | edit source]

In medieval histories, such as the chronicles of John of Fordun, the wall is called Gryme's dyke. Fordun says that the name came from the grandfather of the imaginary king Eugenius son of Farquahar. This evolved over time into Graham's dyke – a name still found in Bo'ness at the wall's eastern end – and then linked with Clan Graham. Of note is that Graeme in some parts of Scotland is a nickname for the devil, and Gryme's Dyke would thus be the Devil's Dyke, mirroring the name of the Roman Limes in Southern Germany often called 'Teufelsmauer'. Grímr and Grim are bynames for Odin or Wodan, who might be credited with the wish to build earthworks in unreasonably short periods of time. This name is the same one found as Grim's Ditch several times in England in connection with early ramparts: for example, near Wallingford, Oxfordshire or between Berkhamsted (Herts) and Bradenham (Bucks). Other names used by antiquarians include the Wall of Pius and the Antonine Vallum, after Antoninus Pius.[6][7] Hector Boece in his 1527 History of Scotland called it the "wall of Abercorn", repeating the story that it had been destroyed by Graham.[8]

World Heritage status[edit | edit source]

The UK government's nomination of the Antonine Wall for World Heritage status to the international conservation body UNESCO was first officially announced in 2003.[9] It has been backed by the Scottish Government since 2005[10] and by Scotland's then Culture Minister Patricia Ferguson since 2006.[11] It became the UK's official nomination in late January 2007,[12] and MSPs were called to support the bid anew in May 2007.[13] The Antonine Wall was listed as an extension to the World Heritage Site "Frontiers of the Roman Empire" on 7 July 2008.[14][15] Though the Antonine Wall is mentioned in the text, it does not appear on UNESCO's map of world heritage properties.[16]

Historic Scotland[edit | edit source]

Several individual sites along the line of the wall are in the care of Historic Scotland. These are:

  • Bar Hill Fort
  • Bearsden Bath House
  • Castlecary
  • Croy Hill
  • Dullatur
  • Rough Castle
  • Seabegs Wood
  • Watling Lodge
  • Westerwood

All sites are unmanned and open at all reasonable times.[17] See also Category:Roman fortifications in Scotland.

Mapping the wall[edit | edit source]

Rough Castle, on the Antonine Wall, drawn by William Roy in 1755

The first capable effort to systematically map the Antonine Wall was undertaken in 1764 by William Roy,[18] of Ordnance Survey fame. He provided accurate and detailed drawings of its remains, and where the wall has been destroyed by later development, his maps and drawings are now the only reliable record of it.

In fiction[edit | edit source]

The Northern Wall is depicted in some of Rosemary Sutcliff's historical fiction novels; as a fully functioning outpost of Roman power in The Mark of the Horse Lord, and as an abandoned ruin in Frontier Wolf.

In Max Brooks's post-apocalyptic novel World War Z, the Antonine Wall marks the line at which the British establish their defense against the zombies and the beginning of their free zone.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Robertson, Anne S. (1960) The Antonine Wall. Glasgow Archaeological Society. p. 7.
  2. Breeze, David J. (2006) The Antonine Wall. Edinburgh. John Donald. ISBN 0-85976-655-1 p. 167.
  3. 3.0 3.1 L.Keppie, Scotland's Roman Remains. Edinburgh 1986)
  4. http://www.historic-scotland.gov.uk/index/policyandguidance/world_heritage_scotland/antoninewall.htm
  5. D.J.Woolliscroft & B.Hoffmann, Romes First Frontier. The Flavian occupation of Northern Scotland (Stroud: Tempus 2006)
  6. Earthwork of England: prehistoric, Roman, Saxon, Danish, Norman and mediæval - Page 496, by Arthur Hadrian Allcroft
  7. 'Transactions of the Woolhope Naturalists' Field Club - Page 255, by Woolhope Naturalists' Field Club, Hereford, England, G. H. Jack, 1905
  8. Boece, Hector, Historia Gentis Scotorum, (1527), book 7, chapter 16
  9. "Roman wall builds heritage claim". BBC News. 22 February 2003. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/2789239.stm. Retrieved 2007-05-24. 
  10. "Roman wall heritage bid backing". BBC News. 14 June 2005. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/4090692.stm. Retrieved 2007-05-24. 
  11. "World Heritage bid hope for wall". BBC News. 20 June 2006. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/5100616.stm. Retrieved 2007-05-24. 
  12. "World Heritage support for wall". BBC News. 23 January 2007. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/tayside_and_central/6290053.stm. Retrieved 2007-05-24. 
  13. "MSPs called to support Roman wall". BBC News. 23 May 2007. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/tayside_and_central/6683339.stm. Retrieved 2007-05-24. 
  14. UNESCO World Heritage Centre. New Inscribed Properties
  15. "Wall gains World Heritage status'" BBC News. Retrieved 8 July 2008.
  16. Frontiers of the Roman Empire - UNESCO World Heritage Centre
  17. Historic Scotland - Antonine Wall: Overview Property Detail
  18. Hübner, Emil (1886). "The Roman Annexation of Britain". In Hodgkin, Thomas. Archaeologia Aeliana. New. XI. Newcastle-Upon-Tyne: Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne. pp. 82–116. http://books.google.com/?id=4_4RAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA82. 

External links[edit | edit source]

Coordinates: 55°58′01″N 4°04′01″W / 55.967°N 4.067°W / 55.967; -4.067

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