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Antonine Wall

When, in AD 138, Antoninus Pius succeeded Hadrian as emperor, there was unrest in Britannia and, sometime around AD 140, revolt by the Brigantes, a native tribe that lived south of Hadrian's Wall. The rebellion was repressed by Lollius Urbicus, who had been appointed governor of Britain just the year before. The Roman victory was commemorated on coins bearing the seated figure of Britannia, the personification of the province (the same pose later used on British currency), and, in AD 142, by the acclamation of Antoninus as imperator, the only time he would recognize this honor.

These events are mentioned by Antoninus' biographer in the Augustan History. "He conquered the Britons through his legate Lollius Urbicus (another wall, of turf, being set up when the barbarians had been driven back)...." This barrier, which was constructed across the isthmus from the Clyde to the Firth of Forth sometime during the governorship of Urbicus (AD 139-142), is known as the Antonine Wall.

It extended for thirty-seven miles, half the length of Hadrian's Wall, and was built of turf on a foundation of stone behind a deep ditch. There were eighteen small forts every two miles apart, as well as signaling platforms. The Wall was constructed in sections by Legions II, VI, and XX, and its progress recorded on a series of inscriptions, e.g., "For the Emperor Caesar Titus Aelius Hadrianus Antoninus Augustus Pius Father of his Country, a detachment of the VI Legion Victrix Pia Fidelis [built this] for 3,666 1/2 paces" (a distance of three and a half miles, a pace being approximately five feet). In this "distance slab," there also is an indication that the legion was not at full strength; indeed, only Legio II Augusta had its full complement of men.

It is not completely understood why the Wall was built. Trouble on the frontier may have prompted a reappraisal of Rome's position in northern Britain. Hadrian's Wall, built on the Tyne-Solway isthmus, seventy miles to the south, simply may have been too far away to maintain contact with the highland tribes of Caledonia that were the cause of so much disturbance. Antoninus had not been Hadrian's first choice as successor, nor had he served in the army. It may be that the new emperor needed the political prestige that would come from a successful foreign campaign (this also would explain why he acknowledged the acclamation of imperator in Britain but not for his other campaigns). The Wall also may have been a demonstration of Roman sovereignty, designed to overawe the native tribes or to control their trade and movement.

Sometime around AD 154, there was a renewal of hostilities, possibly by the Brigantes, and units of the Roman garrison were withdrawn to the south. Now vulnerable, there were raids on the Wall, itself, and the destruction of some of its forts. But, again, they were repressed, as another coin issue, showing Britannia subdued, implies. (This may have been the unrest to which Pausanias incidentally refers in his Description of Greece, where he writes that the Brigantes had been removed by Antoninus because of their intrusion into the region of Genounia. Antoninus ordered the deportation of some or most of the tribes living between the two Walls to the River Neckar in Germany, where they were formed into units of Brittones to extend the frontier there.)

Although the Antonine Wall was reoccupied by AD 158, its defense still was not tenable and, sometime after Antoninus' death, it was abandoned altogether, perhaps by AD 164. Once again, the northern frontier of Britain reverted to Hadrian's Wall.

References: Rome's North West Frontier: The Antonine Wall (1983) by William S. Hanson and Gordon S. Maxwell; The Northern Frontiers of Roman Britain (1982) by David J. Breeze; The Antonines: The Roman Empire in Transition (1994) by Michael Grant; Roman Britain: A Sourcebook (1992) by S. Ireland.

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