Romans occupied and controlled a large southern swath of the island of Great Britain as they expanded their empire. How far north, I wondered, did they extend their empire here before it began to contract? What was their high-water mark?
The Romans arrived on Britain in the year 43 and would remain as a ruling presence until 410. Hadrian’s Wall served as a de facto boundary for much of that time, however the Roman Empire extended farther north for at least a generation as I’ll explore further. Nonetheless, I started my northernmost quest with Hadrian’s Wall because of its durability. What began in 122 at the behest of the Roman emperor Hadrian would serve as a defensive fortification for the remainder of the Roman occupation. Its stonework was so well-constructed that much of the wall remains today and can be observed via the Hadrian’s Wall Path
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The Romans chose a route that reduced construction requirements, following a natural narrowing of Great Britain between the current towns of Bowness-on-Solway on the Solway Firth and Wallsend on the River Tyne (approximate route map on modern roads). Wallsend, in fact, derives its name from Hadrian’s Wall. It was quite literally the Wall’s End.
Hadrian’s Wall may have been as much a demonstration of might and power as an actual physical military deterrent along its seventy-three miles. It likely would not have halted a determined, advancing army. Rather, it was a line-in-the-sand. It served as a means to control the movement of people and goods into and out of the empire. It wasn’t a strict border per se where "enemy" territory began immediately past the wall. Roman influence would have seeped any number of miles further into the countryside. It would have been at least as porous as walled portions of the border between modern Mexico and the United States, and maybe more since they didn’t have the luxury of surveillance cameras and four-wheel drives.
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Brocolitia (alternately Procolita or Brocolita) was the northernmost fortification along Hadrian’s wall, located near what is now the settlement of Carrawburgh in Northumberland. Outline ruins of the the fort and some nearby temple complexes are still visible.
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The northernmost part of the wall was located a mile farther east at Mile Castle 30. Google Maps satellite view captures it clearly. This corner would have been the northernmost reach of the Roman Empire on Great Britain for much of it presence.
The Romans built a second wall, this one about a hundred miles north of Hadrian’s Wall. Antoninus Pius, the emperor who came to power after Hadrian died, pushed Roman control farther north into Britain. Construction of the Antonine Wall began in 142. This one had a stone base layered with piled earth and topped with turf.
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Once again they used topography to their advantage and selected the shortest available distance to build across, from modern Old Kilpatrick on the Firth of Clyde to Carriden on the Firth of Forth (approximate route map on modern roads). They chose well. This isthmus required a wall only thirty-nine miles long. As described by Historic Scotland,
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 Antonine Wall was more properly an earthwork as opposed to the stone edifice farther south. It would have served as an imposing structure nonetheless and a manifestation of Roman power. However little evidence remains today because the Romans used an impermanent construction technique. Much of it has eroded away.
The Romans overextended themselves when they moved their boundary up to the Antonine Wall. They never managed to subjugate the Caledonians who constantly harassed them. They retreated back to Hadrian’s Wall about twenty years later, circa 160. A later emperor, Septimius Severus ordered the re-establishment of the Antonine Wall in 208 but that lasted only a few years. The Romans decided it was easier to let the Brythonic tribes serve as a buffer between themselves and Caledonia rather than continue battling. Hadrian’s Wall served as the northern boundary for the remainder of the Roman era.
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I found a couple of candidates for the northernmost point along the Antonine Wall. The first one was actually located slightly outside of the wall by about three-quarters of a mile, a fort known as Camelon. The Romans built this originally as a far northern outpost a couple of decades after the construction of Hadrian’s Wall. Romans reoccupied Camelon upon the construction of the Antonine Wall immediately to its south.
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The second candidate was Carriden at the eastern terminus of the Antonine Wall. I compared the latitude of both locations. Camelon was 56.008° north, and Carriden was 56.012° north. Thus, by my calculations and by the narrowest of margins — a few hundred feet — Carriden beat Camelon to claim the northernmost point.
Did the Roman empire extend even farther into Great Britain? I didn’t have time to continue my investigation although I imagine it would have been a bit more ephemeral. Perhaps an educated member of the 12MC audience could enlighten us.
A Fun Day-Trip Idea
Readers in Edinburgh and Glasgow have the opportunity for an interesting day-trip in this area. Start with a round of golf at the Camelon site, go a mile south to the better-preserved ruins at Watling Lodge (street view image), and finish the journey at the amazing Falkirk Wheel. This requires only two miles of driving between them!