Antonine Wall: Overview
Imperial Rome’s NW frontier
The Antonine Wall is the name given to the Roman frontier in Scotland. It crossed the narrowest part of Britain, from modern Bo’ness, on the Firth of Forth, to Old Kilpatrick, on the River Clyde. The Wall was built during the years following 142 AD on the orders of the Emperor Antoninus Pius (reigned 138–161). It survived as the NW frontier of the Roman empire for a generation. It was then abandoned in the 160s in favour of a return to Hadrian’s Wall.
From coast to coast
The Antonine Wall was about 37 miles (40 Roman miles) long. The route chosen was the Forth–Clyde isthmus. For much of its length it utilised the high ground along the southern edge of the central valley. This valley is formed by the River Carron, flowing eastward into the Forth, and the River Kelvin, a tributary of the Clyde in the west. Together, these rivers helped to create a boggy foreground to the Wall before the land rose up to the Campsie Fells to the north.
The Wall was built by the Roman army. Some 20 highly ornamental distance slabs record that the Wall was built by soldiers of the three legions of Britain – the II Augusta (from Caerleon in south Wales), the VI Victrix (from York), and XX Valeria Victrix (from Chester). These distance slabs form one of the most important groups of imperial military sculpture on any frontier of the Roman empire. Other inscriptions indicate that both legionaries and auxiliary units built or repaired the forts along the Wall.
A physical and psychological frontier
The Wall served two functions. It defended Rome’s British province from attack. It was also there to control the movement of people into and out of the Empire.
The Wall consisted of a turf rampart, perhaps 3m (10 feet) high, fronted by a great ditch. The material from the ditch was tipped out onto the north side to form a wide, low mound. Forts were placed along the Wall at intervals of approximately 2 miles (3km). These were linked by a road, called the Military Way, running behind (i.e. south of) the Wall.
Smaller fortlets were sometimes placed between the forts. In addition, three pairs of expansions, possibly serving as beacon platforms, have been found, as well as other features. It was through the gates of the forts and fortlets that many Roman goods passed into the lands of Caledonia beyond.