The Antonine Wall: Northernmost Frontier of Roman Empire

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The Antonine Wall was a Roman wall in Scotland that served as a frontier and defensive structure. The Roman Emperor at the time, Antoninus Pius, decided to name the wall after himself. While the structure was supposed to keep the attacking group from the north outside, they easily trespassed it and continued to perform raids on the area the Romans claimed.

That doesn’t make the structure any less impressive. It still holds a legendary status to this day.

What is the Antonine Wall?


The Antonine Wall is a remarkable Roman wall and fortification located in Scotland, stretching across the narrowest part of the country, from the Firth of Forth in the east to the Firth of Clyde in the west. The wall was constructed during the reign of the Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius and building started around 142 AD. The wall was the northwest frontier of the Roman Empire in Britain and protected their Scottish territory from raids.

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Constructing the Wall

The construction of the Antonine Wall was quite a big undertaking. It crossed a whole country and required a large amount of resources, manpower, and logistical planning.

While the wall’s construction began around 142 AD, it was only completed approximately 8 years later when it reached its full extent from the Firth of Forth to the Firth of Clyde.

The construction process involved various stages and techniques. The wall itself consisted of a turf rampart that was supported by a wide and deep ditch on its northern side. A turf rampart is a raised earthen structure constructed by layering turfs, compressed earth, and rubble to eventually form a defensive wall.

The use of a turf rampart allowed for a relatively quick and efficient construction process, since it initially only utilized readily available materials. Still, the turf mostly serves as a quick foundation and is generally weaker than any stone wall. Hence, Emperor Antoninus Pius decided to add an actual stone foundation to provide stability and reinforcement to the structure.

A bust of Emperor Antoninus Pius

Where Did the Materials Come From?

The materials used in the construction of the Antonine Wall were primarily sourced from local quarries and natural resources that were found along its route. For the stone wall, limestone, sandstone, and other types of stone were quarried from nearby areas to create the foundation and fortifications.

Timber was also utilized for structural purposes, such as the construction of gates, bridges, and defensive structures within the forts.

Working Force

A wall as wide as a country requires a significant labor force. In the case of the Antonine Wall, this force primarily consisted of Roman soldiers and auxiliary units. The troops, along with specialized engineers and laborers, worked together to build the wall and the accompanying infrastructure.

The construction teams would clear the land, dig trenches for the ditch, lay the foundation stones, and then build up the turf rampart layer by layer. We know a lot of details about the actual coordination and process of building the wall. The ones who were building it recorded their process in a series of ‘distance slabs’ along the wall.

These distance slabs were typically made of sandstone and were erected at intervals along the structure to mark distances and commemorate the construction efforts. They feature inscriptions and elaborate carvings with military scenes, Roman gods, emperors, and other symbolic representations.

The distance slabs provide valuable insights into the Roman military’s presence and their cultural and religious beliefs. They serve as visual reminders of the significance of the Antonine Wall and offer a glimpse into the lives of those who built and defended it over 1,800 years ago.

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Measurements of the Wall

The project spanned approximately 59 kilometers (37 miles) in length. Besides the turf rampart and the ditches, it consisted of a series of fortifications, military roads, and a chain of forts that were strategically placed along its course.

At its core, the Antonine Wall was very distinct from all the other frontiers of the Roman Empire. The most prominent aspect, and the most prominent difference regarding other frontiers was the wide and deep ditch on the northern side of the wall, measuring around 12 feet wide and 10 feet deep.

This ditch provided additional defensive capabilities, serving as an obstacle to deter potential invaders. On the southern side of the wall, there was a secondary ditch, although it was not as substantial as the one on the northern side. The wall itself stood around 4.5 meters (15 feet) high, with a width of approximately 3.7 meters (12 feet).

The Antonine Wall ditch looking west at Roughcastle, Falkirk, Scotland


Somewhere between sixteen and nineteen forts were built along the wall’s length.

These structures were strategically positioned to house troops, provide surveillance, and act as logistical hubs for supplies and communication. The forts were constructed with stone and timber, featuring barracks, administrative buildings, and other facilities necessary for Roman military operations.

This series of forts was positioned along its length, approximately every 3.2 kilometers (2 miles). The forts, such as Bar Hill, Rough Castle, Callendar Park, and Castlecary, housed Roman troops responsible for defending the wall and maintaining order in the region.

Why Did They Build the Antonine Wall?

The construction of the Antonine Wall can be attributed to several factors, including the expansion of the Romans into Scottish territory, their growing conflict with the Picts, and the desire to establish a more defensible northerly frontier. The structure was intended to establish a more easily defensible line in central Scotland, providing a solid base for Roman military operations and serving as a defensive stronghold against Pictish raids.

Defense Against the Picts

Generally, the construction of the Antonine Wall was closely tied to the expanding ambitions of the Roman Empire during the reign of Emperor Antoninus Pius. While already spanning from North Africa to Northern Europe, the Roman expansion drift didn’t stop.

At the time of Antoninus’ reign, the Romans had already established their control over much of Britain, including the southern regions. However, the northern territories that correspond with modern-day Scotland remained unconquered and inhabited by various Indigenous tribes, including the Picts.

As the Romans wanted to expand their presence into Scotland, they encountered fierce opposition from the Picts. The group was known for their guerrilla warfare tactics – including ambushes and hit-and-run attacks – and their overall ability to navigate the challenging terrain of the Scottish Highlands.

The construction of the Antonine Wall was a strategic response to the threat posed by the Picts, aiming to fortify their position and establish a controlled border. The wall’s design incorporated several defensive features to deter the Pictish aggression. For example, the deep ditch provided an additional obstacle, hindering direct access to the wall.

Additionally, the fortified structures provided a network of surveillance and quick response to any Pictish threats. The forts were equipped with barracks, command centers, and other facilities necessary for Roman military operations. By establishing a strong military presence, the Romans aimed to maintain constant vigilance and prevent Pictish incursions.

Antonine Wall’s defensive capabilities were enhanced by its geographical advantages. The wall followed the natural contours of the landscape, making use of natural features such as hills and waterways to reinforce its defense. It was strategically positioned to control key access points and choke points, preventing the Picts from easily bypassing the wall.

the picts
An Illustration of the Picts

Did It Work?

However, despite its defensive intentions, the Antonine Wall ultimately faced challenges in effectively containing the Picts. The Picts found ways to navigate around the wall, utilizing alternative routes, exploiting vulnerabilities, and conducting raids on Roman territories.

The knowledge of the Picts about the local terrain and guerrilla tactics allowed them to persistently harass the Roman forces stationed along the wall. Furthermore, the harsh climate, difficult terrain, and logistical challenges of maintaining a long and remote frontier posed additional difficulties for the Romans.

Northern Frontier

Still, the Antonine Wall did function as the northern frontier of the Roman Empire for a couple of decades. The wall marked the empire’s boundary and delineated the limit of Roman influence in the region between 142 AD and approximately 170 AD.

It played a crucial role in controlling the movement of people and goods across the frontiers of Roman territory. It served as a checkpoint for monitoring and regulating trade, as well as the movement of troops and civilians between the Roman-controlled territories and the north.

Strategically, the Antonine Wall provided the Romans with advantages in terms of military operations and surveillance. The wall’s forts and associated infrastructure not only functioned as military strongholds. They also facilitated the administration and logistics necessary for maintaining control over the region.

The Antonine Wall near Bar Hill Roman Fort, Twechar

Political Symbolism

Lastly, the construction of the Antonine Wall held significant political symbolism for the Roman Empire during the reign of Emperor Antoninus Pius. The Antonine Wall represented the Roman Empire’s commitment to establishing and maintaining control over newly conquered territories.

The wall’s presence had a psychological and symbolic significance. It served as a visible reminder of Roman power and dominance, both to the local populations and to neighboring tribes.

Political Statement

Both internally and externally, this ability was enforced to the audiences. Domestically, the Antonine Wall bolstered the image of Antoninus Pius as a powerful and effective leader. The wall became a symbol of his strength and commitment to protecting Roman interests.

This political symbolism helped maintain stability within the empire as it instilled confidence in the leadership and inspired loyalty among the inhabitants of Rome. Externally, the Antonine Wall conveyed a message of Roman authority and deterrence to rival powers and neighboring tribes.

Physical Marker for Customs

Furthermore, the Antonine Wall showcased that the Romans didn’t need a whole lot to subject other territories to the Roman cultural and administrative framework.

Its construction facilitated the spread of Roman customs, governance, and infrastructure, contributing to the process of Romanization in the region. It represented Rome’s commitment to extending its control, conveyed a message of deterrence to rivals, and facilitated the assimilation of other cultures and territories.

All in all, the political symbolism embodied by the Antonine Wall played a crucial role in shaping perceptions, bolstering loyalty, and establishing the empire’s dominance in the region. Unfortunately, this status didn’t last for too long, since the Romans retreated from the wall around 160 or 170 AD.

Is There Anything Left of the Antonine Wall?

Rough Castle, Antonine Wall, Scotland, drawn by Major-General William Roy in 1755

There are remains of the Antonine Wall that can still be seen today. While the wall itself has largely eroded over the centuries, some sections and associated structures have survived and can be visited as archaeological sites. Historic Environment Scotland is currently taking care of the remains of the wall. According to them, one of the most well-preserved sections of the Antonine Wall is located at Rough Castle, near Falkirk in Scotland.

This site showcases the remains of the wall, along with the fortifications, ditches, and military structures that were part of the original construction. Visitors can explore the site and gain insights into the design and layout of the wall.

Another notable site is the remains of the fort at Bar Hill, near Twechar in Scotland. This fort was strategically positioned along the Antonine Wall and served as a garrison for Roman soldiers. Today, visitors can see the outline of the fort, as well as explore the reconstructed gateways, and view interpretive displays that provide information about the wall and its historical context.

Other locations along the wall, such as Bearsden Roman Fort near Glasgow and the Kinneil Estate in modern Bo’ness, also offer glimpses into the wall’s remains and provide opportunities for visitors to learn about its history.

Viewing Spots and Museums

Some of the best views of the wall can be seen near Bonnybridge. Here, the ditch and wall can be clearly seen for about a quarter mile through Seabegs Wood to the south of the Forth and Clyde Canal. Another good viewing point is at New Kilpatrick Cemetery where the stone base of the wall is visible the best.

Additionally, there are several museums in Scotland that house artifacts and displays related to the Antonine Wall. The Hunterian Museum in Glasgow, for example, showcases a range of Roman artifacts and provides information about the wall’s construction and significance.

Antonine Wall near Bonnybridge

UNESCO World Heritage Site

The Antonine Wall has been one of the three frontiers of the Romans that have been awarded the status of UNESCO World Heritage Site. The two other sites are the Wall of Hadrian and the German Limes.

The preservation of the Antonine Wall is a significant undertaking that aims to protect and showcase the remarkable archaeological site.

As a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, the wall holds immense historical, cultural, and educational value. Efforts to preserve and manage the site are essential in order to understand its significance and ensure its longevity for future generations. The preservation of the wall involves a range of activities and strategies.


One key aspect is conservation, which focuses on maintaining the physical structures and features of the wall. This includes ongoing maintenance, repair, and stabilization of the remaining sections, such as the stone foundations, earthworks, and associated structures like forts and watchtowers.

Conservation efforts also involve managing vegetation growth and implementing measures to prevent erosion and deterioration. By carefully monitoring rainfall, temperature changes, and human impact, preservation experts work to safeguard the integrity of the wall.

What Was the Difference Between Hadrian’s Wall and Antonine Wall?


Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall were both significant Roman frontiers on the north side of Britain but were built during different periods and for different strategic purposes. Additionally, the length of Hadrian’s wall was just a little under twice as long. While the Antonine Wall covered an area that was not necessarily under Roman rule as yet, the area delimited by Hadrian’s wall actually was under full control of the Romans.

Construction Years and Geographical Coverage

For starters, the wall of Emperor Hadrian predates the Antonine Wall. Hadrian’s Wall was built in 122 AD while the Antonine Wall was constructed later, between 142-150 AD.

Additionally, the geographical coverage was evidently different. Hadrian’s Wall stretched across northern England, from the east coast at Wallsend near Newcastle to the west coast at Bowness-on-Solway.

On the other hand, the Antonine Wall was located further north in what is now Scotland, running from modern Bo’ness on the Forth Estuary to Old Kilpatrick on the River Clyde.

The Wall of Hadrian was longer and more extensive than the Antonine Wall. It spanned approximately 117 kilometers (73 miles) from coast to coast, with various forts and mile castles along its length. The Antonine Wall was shorter, stretching around 59 kilometers (37 miles).

Besides, Hadrian’s Wall was primarily constructed using stone, with a rubble core and dressed stone facings. In contrast, the Antonine Wall featured a turf rampart with a stone foundation, using layers of compacted earth and turfs for the main structure.

Purpose and Legacy

Hadrian’s Wall was built primarily as a defensive fortification, intended to control the movement of people and goods across the frontier and to serve as a psychological deterrent to potential invaders from the north. It marked the northern limit of Roman Britannia.

The Antonine Wall, in contrast, was constructed as a more ambitious push further north into Scottish territory. However, the area that it tried to cover was far from those that were actually conquered by the Romans.

Antoninus simply started building the wall without actually having subjected the Scottish population to Roman rule. The wall was the mechanism to control the region, not the other way around as was the case with the wall of Hadrian.

Additionally, Hadrian’s Wall remained in use for several centuries and had a more enduring impact on the region. The Antonine Wall, despite its impressive construction, was abandoned after a relatively short period due to the challenges posed by the Picts and overall logistical difficulties.

The Roman army eventually retreated from the Antonine Wall to Hadrian’s Wall as the primary frontier defense in Britain. It was a strategic move, mainly because the situation was unsustainable. These differences highlight the evolving strategies and priorities of the Roman Empire in Britain.

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