On Thursday 12th February 2015, the Archaeology Society welcomed Prof. Bill Hanson from the University of Glasgow for an insightful talk about the Antonine Wall, Rome’s most northerly frontier in Scotland. After explaining the political context that triggered the building of the wall, Prof. Hanson went on to present the wall’s layout and organisation, drawing comparisons with Hadrian’s Wall further south, and the vallum Traiani, a linear frontier fortification built on the Danube in the 2nd century AD. Prof. Hanson also considers the Roman notion of "frontier" and the way imperial rule extended beyond the physical linear barrier of the walls. Throughout his talk, Prof. Hanson used a variety of evidence ranging from epigraphy to excavations, numismatics and ancient sources, showing the archaeological wealth of this period of the past.
|Source: Scottish Archaeological Research Framework. More on the Antonine Wall here.|
The Antonine Wall crosses Scotland at the level of the firth of Forth, it is some 37 miles long and takes its name from the emperor Antoninus Pius, who reigned from AD138 to AD 161. The construction of the wall started soon after his accession to the throne. At the time, Hadrian's wall (built during the reign of the previous emperor, Hadrian) was still being built. The wall was however abandoned and the frontier line moved further north, into modern-day Scotland. The reason for this choice needs to be considered within the wider imperial context of the time. In order to stay in power - and to stay alive! - Roman emperors needed the support of the army, something which required them to have some military experience. Upon accessing the throne, Antoninus Pius had none. His campaigns in Britain to "conquer" the lands north of Hadrian's Wall gave him an easy victory and the support from the troops. A series of coins was minted in AD 142-144, hailing the emperor as being "twice" Imperator. (Roman emperors received the title imperator upon accessing the throne, and then again for every major military victory). In addition to the British campaigns, Antoninus Pius also moved the German frontier by about 24km and built part of the Limes (the line of fortifications along the eastern frontier of the Empire).
|Cippi at Rough Castle|
|The wall in its wider context|
Finally, Prof. Hanson gave us some insight into the Roman view of their frontier. Beyond the Antonine wall, a series of outpost forts existed, as far north as Perth, where the fort of Bertha stood. The wall itself was not the frontier: imperial control expanded beyond it. There were however different levels of control and linear barriers such as the Antonine or Hadrian's wall were built to increase the level of control and the intensity of security. The vallum for instance, a large ditch behind (south of) Hadrian's wall, had not a defensive function but it was probably there to demarcate a military zone. The has been a long debate on whether or not Hadrian's wall was defendable: was there a walkway on the wall, like on a mediaeval castle? Maybe. But considering the length of the wall, the number of soldiers needed to defend it would have been too big. Furthermore, there was no need to defend the actual wall, when watch towers were built at very regular intervals, where legionaries could see possible assailants from afar. It seems that neither Hadrian's or the Antonine wall were meant to defend the Empire against major incursions. We do have evidence from Hadrian's wall of forts being destroyed by attacking forces from the north. The walls were however, efficient in repelling small-scale attacks. We do have an inscription from the eastern frontier, on the Danube, which records the building of the wall there in order to prevent small raids and thefts.
The Antonine wall does not seem to have been occupied after the 2nd century, with, among other sources of evidence, the latest date coin being from AD164-169. An inscription from Hadrian's wall records its refurbishment in AD 158. How this relates to the abandonment of the Antonine Wall is debated but in any case, what is sure is that the withdrawal from the Antonine wall was a deliberate one. It was dismantled and buried (this explains for instance, why the distance slabs are so well preserved). At Barhill, a well was found that was full of building material from the fort (including a column!). The exact reason behind the abandonment of the frontier is unknown. Some argue that it was a Brigantian revolt (the tribe living just south of the wall). What is interesting however, is that this abandonment coincides with the years surrounding the death of Antoninus Pius (AD 161): the wall had been his monument, it was no longer such a necessity once the emperor was dying. And so the troops were brought back to the first wall, Hadrian's wall.
The Society would like to thank Prof. Hanson for such an interesting seminar and wishes him the best of luck for his official retirement in September.
By Alexandra Guglielmi