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Roman Frontiers

The Roman Frontiers, are where the Romans developed walls or control points around the edge of its empire. In part it was defensive, but they also allowed the control of people in to and out from the empire as well as allowing taxes to be gathered.

Today some form part of the World Heritage Sites, Roman frontiers heritage sites. This includes a large stretch in Germany, Hadrian's Wall   and the Antonine Wall  in Britain.

Other sections of the Roman frontiers, including more wall sections, exist in other places including Northern Africa.

Here we are concentrating on the Roman frontiers in Britain, and this is made up primarily of Hadrian's Wall  in the north of England and in Scotland, the Antonine Wall .

We could also include Richborough Roman Fort near Dover in Kent, as it was the entry point into and exit point from Britain in Roman times to the continent. It featured a large impressive highly decorated arch which was the gateway into Britannia.

The map on the right shows one interpretation of Roman Britain in about 150AD, of the position of major settlements, frontiers and major roads at

this point, however some perhaps are shown before they were established, so forget the date and look at it as more of an overall plan.

The first of the Northern frontiers the Romans built in Britain was the Gask Ridge, this was a  line of forts, that was completed 42 years before Hadrian's Wall  was started and far to the north of it.



Hadrian's wall is really accessible to everyone


Many of the Hadrian's wall remains are by the side of the road, because

a later military road went across, on a lot of places on top of parts of the wall.

So you can undertake hill walking or visit by car.

This section at Denton Hall Turret  and others like Sycamore Gap  that featured in a  Robin Hood film, below can be photographed from the road.

see Hadrian's Wall Route Guide  for a car route with short
walks to see all the main remains


It was also further North than the Antonine Wall  constructed later. There are suggestions that the Gask was the first Roman frontier to be constructed anywhere.

Many of you reading this will not have come across Gask before, its little known and not fully researched. Many of the sites are known as visible from the air, but studies into signalling from one to another of these, suggests there are other sites still to be discovered. In a similar way we know the decisive battle of Mons Graupius, that the Romans won, and was north of the River Tay, somewhere in eastern Scotland, but the site has still to be found.

The 53 acre Roman Legionary fort at Inchtuthil just east of Caputh (Grid ref NO124396 ), one of 10 built in Britain, is north of the Tay, and a part of the Gask, but unlike others it has never since been built over, and represents the only complete Roman Legion Fort in existence anywhere, where the full layout is available. It was excavated in the 1950's and around 10 tonnes of nails and other metal items were found, over 750,000 items. Excavated again in 1962 and 1965, it was a large fort housing a legion of 5,400 plus supporting personal. The site had a 5,000sq metre hospital, 64 barrack buildings. The walls, if all put in a line, would have stretched for 7 miles. So you would expect there to be a major museum here, but no, its just a field with a few low humps in, best viewed early or late in the day when they are more prominent with the oblique lighting.

The Romans were never beaten in the northern parts of the UK, although when legions were away they could be overrun, it was however more of a challenge in terms of warfare and difficult geography. So while the total conquering of the UK would to us seem more sensible and then not require walls to be manned, we think that there were a number of factors that distracted from this.  Its thought that the Gask was a staging line to move further north, and complete the job, but that the Romans lost the willpower to do so and when some forces were required elsewhere in the Empire, so it was a judgement call with limited resources. They may also have decided this area did not fit into their Empire model.

The Romans ran their empire by overlaying the existing local administrative structures, they would leave the existing rulers in power, in their existing stronghold and set up a small community or fort nearby. Although the largest roman military force of any province existed in Britannia, it was there to maintain control, not to run things. To many existing rulers, although they had to pay taxes to Rome, this was an attractive proposition, the Romans guaranteed other tribes or groups and did not raid them, and kept the same group in power.

In the North of England they appear to have had to provide a lot more policing as well, after the area was fully conquered they had very many forts and watch towers that were constantly manned. 

While in England communities with rulers existed pre Roman, in Scotland the population was far thinner and no ruling structure is thought to have existed, so the Romans had no one to put in power, or to run things for them. Added to this Scotland had at that time no metal or other wealth of interest to the Romans, or traders, and the farming communities were thin and highly scattered. Being at the extremes of their supply chain they would have to put more supplies into maintaining a presence than they would be able to get out in any form of taxes. So after a relatively short period of 6 years after the only battle of note in Scotland, they withdrew.

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Granaries at Housesteads Fort   
Housesteads Roman Fort

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Granaries with most o their floors intact at
Corbridge Roman Town

Corbridge Roman Town

Many similar features can be compared in different sets of remains, with forts, towns and more to explore, you can also find remains and reproductions seeing what is left and what it may have looked like when complete.

Some suggest that fighting terrorism would have caused this withdrawal, but terrorism did not exist as such in these times, with the longest range weapon being a bow and arrow, and no explosives, all warfare was close. The Romans don't have any records of supply problems or other items that would suggest that any organised resistance existed. Even with the battle of Mons Graupius, the Romans reported Britons still arriving, and the suggestion is of a grouping of tribes without any leadership and having been beaten these disbanded, disappearing never to be seen again. With the exaggeration that exists in records from this time, this may not have been a force set up to fight at all, but a grouping for some other reason that the Romans came across. The Roman report of 30,000 Britain's is highly inflated as there was no populations at the time in these areas that could have mustered such a strength.  One of the reasons that no one has ever found this battle site may be that there is nothing really to find, a few people were discovered, attacked in roman formation, scattered and nothing occurred to leave any trace of the action.

Following the establishment of Hadrian's Wall  the Romans still had many forts and look out posts to the north of the wall, later moving up again to set up the Antonine Wall  for a while, before again dropping back to Hadrian's Wall. 

Both of these walls were frontiers through which people could pass, and the number of points through which they could pass were large. Just about all the forts and mile forts along  Hadrian's Wall  have access gates to allow people to pass through the wall. Allowing fairly free movement and taxes to be gathered at the edge of the Empire. However it also has, in effect, access paths or roads running along the wall on both the north and south, so that the forts along the wall could be reinforced from either side. There was ditch defence also both to the north and south of the wall. So we might think of Hadrian's Wall as a tax border, and a line that could be defended from attack from the north or south, and an exclusion strip to the south, just so people can't throw things over the wall to avoid the tax.

Later the mile forts were not manned and there were then far fewer crossing points and defences.

The tooing and froing between Hadrian's Wall and Antonine Wall  occurred several times, see the article on Hadrian's Wall for more of the history and list of dates that activities took place on this northern frontier. There is little to see still at Antonine Wall   and far more along the greater length of Hadrian's Wall,  the listing Hadrian's Wall - Featured Places   identifies these and links to a large number of detailed location guides, most with photographs, and some with picture galleries as well. The article on Corbridge Roman Town  also provides quite a lot of background to what was happening in general. It, like the Roman Vindolanda  fort predated Hadrian's Wall providing protection on the major roman road from coast to coast the 'Stanegate'.

While Hadrian's Wall goes to the coast in the west, the Romans provided extra protection down the coast of Cumbria in the form of more forts, milecastles and turrets, but in this case no wall.

North of the wall there were other forts, on the west there was a group of three north of the wall that worked with it, and its thought that along the wall there were many advance lookout forts around 10 miles north of the wall.

Various maps have been produced that show a large number of Roman forts and encampments all of the north of England and a large amount of Scotland.

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Reconstructed Fort Gatehouse Arbeia
Arbeia Roman Fort

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Reconstructed wall with original in front opposite side of road at Wallsend  
Segedunum  Roman Fort

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Reconstructed turret and wall - Vindolanda 
Roman Vindolanda

See a list of other reconstructed items in the article Hadrian's Wall  

In addition to the walls there were many forts and fortresses as well as look out towers located around the coast of Britain, the highest concentration of these were near to the walls and along the southern coast controlling movements to and from the continent. Its probable that many of these existed to make sure goods could not pass without tax being paid.

See also:-

Hadrian's Wall   

Hadrian's wall - featured places

Hadrian's Wall Route Guide

Antonine Wall

Hadrian's Wall Further Information

The Roman Gask an academic site studying the Gask, it has a lot of useful information and a Gazetteer of Roman Sites in Scotland, as well as maps, and discussion papers. It also has aerial photos of many of the sites. This project is  run by the University of Liverpool, and annual reports show a very large amount of work being done each year.


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Gask in Wikipedia largely built from information from the project site above.

Interactive Map of Roman forts and more in Britannia, with this you can toggle overlays on and off to allow the exploration of the UK as a whole or a more local area in greater detail.

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Hadrian's wall at Steel Rigg   
to get this view is a level walk across one field from a car park


By: Keith Park   Section: Roman section Key:
Page Ref: Roman_frontiers Topic: Roman Britain  Last Updated: 04/2010

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