The Wall of Severus

Emperor Septimius Severus was in Britain from 208 until his death, at York, in February 211. He, and his eldest son, Caracalla, campaigned in Caledonia, the intention being, apparently, to finally bring the whole of Britain into the Empire. However, the Roman military machine was not suited to the difficult terrain and guerilla tactics of the Britons. The, rather sketchy, contemporary accounts give the impression that the whole operation was an expensive failure – there were enormous Roman losses; Severus died with the job incomplete; the dissolute Caracalla hastily came to terms with the recalcitrant Britons and returned to Rome.[*] By the later-4th century, though, Severus’ British adventure was being presented as ‘mission accomplished’:

… after driving out the enemy, he protected Britain, as far as it was useful, with a wall led across the island to the Ocean at both ends.
Aurelius Victor Liber de Caesaribus §20 (written c.360)
He had his last war in Britain, and in order to protect the recovered provinces with all security, he led a wall for 133 miles from sea to sea.
Eutropius Breviarium Ab Urbe Condita VIII, 19 (written c.370)
Clodius Albinus, who had made himself Caesar in Gaul, having been killed at Lyon, Severus transferred the war to Britain, where, to make the recovered provinces more secure from barbarian invasion, he led a wall for 132 miles from sea to sea.
Jerome Chronicon (written c.380)
In Britain he led a wall for thirty-two miles from sea to sea.
Anonymous Epitome de Caesaribus §20 (written c.395)
He protected Britain – and this was the greatest glory of his reign – with a wall led across the island to the Ocean at both ends; in recognition of this he also received the title Britannicus.[*]
Historia Augusta ‘Severus’ 18 (written c.400?)
The victorious Severus was drawn to the Britains [i.e. the British provinces] by the rebellion of almost all the allies. There, having frequently fought great and serious battles, he thought that the recovered part of the island should be separated from the other, unconquered, tribes by a wall. He therefore led a great ditch and a very strong wall, fortified as well with frequent towers, for a hundred and thirty-two miles from sea to sea.
Orosius Historiarum Adversus Paganos Libri Septem VII, 17 (written c.417)

Following Caracalla’s abandonment of the gains in Caledonia, Hadrian’s Wall, on the Tyne-Solway line, became the Empire’s frontier once more. Although there was restoration work carried out during Severus’ reign, the Wall was not, of course, originated by Severus. Possibly this piece of misinformation was disseminated by Caracalla, to reinforce the notion that he and Severus had achieved their objective. It seems likely that all the above texts derived their stories, directly or indirectly, from a single source.[*] The various wall lengths – 32, 132 or 133 Roman miles – being the result of scribal errors acquired during the transmission process. None of these distances match with the length of Hadrian’s Wall, nor, indeed, the Antonine Wall. What the original number was is open to speculation.[*]

The British cleric Gildas, writing c.545(?), conjured-up an original story about the origins of both frontier walls. In a context which would suggest a date in the last years of the fourth century,[*] he says:

They [the inhabitants of Roman Britain] were ordered [by the Romans] to build a wall across the island, between the two seas, so that, when strongly manned, it might be a terror to repel the enemy and a protection to the citizens. But it was the work of a leaderless and irrational mob, and made not so much with stones as with turfs, so it did no good.
De Excidio Britanniae §15

Then, when Britain was finally being abandoned by Rome:

Because they [the Romans] thought that it would bring some advantage to the people they were leaving, they constructed a wall, different from the other, using public and private funds, with the help of the wretched inhabitants. They built it in their accustomed mode of structure, in a straight line from sea to sea, between the cities [i.e. fortified sites] which happened to have been placed there for fear of the enemy.
De Excidio Britanniae §18

When Bede wrote his Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (completed in 731), he had at his disposal Orosius’ account of the Wall of Severus, Gildas’ story of the construction of two walls – none of his sources told him about the walls built by Hadrian and Antoninus Pius – and his own local knowledge. Following Orosius, Bede writes that Severus:

… was drawn to the Britains by the rebellion of almost all the allies. There, having frequently fought great and serious battles, he thought that the recovered part of the island should be separated from the other, unconquered, tribes, not with a wall, as some reckon, but with a rampart. For a wall is made of stones, but a rampart, with which camps are protected against enemy attack, is made of turfs, cut from the earth and raised high above the ground like a wall, having in front of it the ditch from which the turfs have been lifted, with strong stakes of wood fixed above it. Severus therefore led a great ditch and a very strong rampart, fortified as well with frequent towers, from sea to sea.
Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum I, 5

Following Gildas, Bede writes:

But the islanders building the wall, which they had been ordered to erect, not so much with stones as with turfs (since they had no one capable of such a work) made it of no use. Nevertheless, they built it for many miles between the two bays or inlets of the sea of which we have spoken; to the end that where the protection of the water was wanting, they might use the rampart to defend their borders from the irruptions of the enemy. Of the work made there, that is, of a rampart of great breadth and height, clear traces can be seen to this day. It begins at about two miles distance from the monastery of Aebbercurnig [Abercorn], west of it, at a place called in the Pictish language Peanfahel, but in the English tongue, Penneltun [Kinneil], and running westward, ends near the city of Aicluith [Dumbarton].
Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum I, 12

Bede has clearly, and not unreasonably, associated Gildas’ first wall with the Antonine Wall (actually built in the 140s), on the Forth-Clyde line. As for the second:

… thinking that it might bring some advantage to the allies, whom they were forced to leave, they [the Romans] constructed a strong stone wall from sea to sea, in a straight line between the cities which had been built there for fear of the enemy, where Severus also had formerly built a rampart. This famous wall, which is still to be seen, was built using public and private funds, with the Britons lending a hand. It is 8 feet in breadth, and 12 in height, in a straight line from east to west, as can be clearly seen even to this day.
Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum I, 12

Bede obviously identified Gildas’ second wall as Hadrian’s Wall (actually built in the 120s), and he would appear to have deduced that the earthwork barrier known as the Vallum (just to the south of, and contemporary with, Hadrian’s Wall) was the rampart constructed by Severus.


Bede takes pains to explain (HE I, 5; above) that a wall – the Latin is murus, from which ‘mural’ is derived – “is made of stones”, but a rampart – the Latin is vallum, from which ‘wall’ is derived – on the other hand, “is made of turfs, cut from the earth and raised high above the ground like a wall”.  However, the earlier sources evidently do not make Bede’s rigorous distinction between murus and vallum, and use either word as they wish. As it happens, Orosius uses vallum for the wall that Severus is purported to have built. So too does Eutropius, to whom Bede also had access (he names him in HE I, 8). However, Bede pointedly notes “some reckon” that Severus built a murus. Aurelius Victor and the Historia Augusta both use murus to describe Severus’ wall. If Bede had access to the Historia Augusta, he would have known that both Hadrian and Antoninus Pius were responsible for the construction of frontier walls in Britain, but of this he seems ignorant. Is it possible, then, that Bede is alluding to Aurelius Victor?  At any rate, Bede had to reconcile what his sources were telling him with what could be seen on the ground. Gildas maintained that a turf wall and a stone wall had been built during the chaotic last years of Roman Britain.[*] He must, surely, have been referring to the Antonine Wall and Hadrian’s Wall – that is certainly how Bede understood him. It was important, therefore, for Bede to establish that Severus did not build a stone wall, so that he could identify the one remaining barrier – an unusual, substantial earthwork to the south of Hadrian’s Wall (see At the Empire’s Edge) – as the work of Severus. This earthwork is now called the Vallum.

Many centuries would pass before just who-built-what became apparent. In 1607 William Camden published two inscriptions which demonstrated that the earthwork on the Forth-Clyde line, known as Graham’s Dyke was, in fact, the remains of the turf wall of Antoninus Pius, i.e. the Antonine Wall.


The 1607 edition of William Camden’s Britannia was the 6th – each edition being larger than the previous one. Camden wrote in Latin. In 1610 his work was translated into English by Philemon Holland.[*] Discussing the area around Stirling, Camden/Holland writes:
… the territory of STERLING, so named of the principall towne therein … Heere is that narrow land or streight by which Dunbritton Frith and Edenborrough Frith (that I may use the termes of this age), piercing farre into the land out of the West and East Seas, are divided asunder, that they meete not the one with the other… Antoninus Pius, who beeing adopted by Hadrian bare his name, stiled thereupon TITVS ÆLIVS HADRIANUS ANTONINVS PIVS, under the conduct of Lollius Vrbicus, whom he had sent hither Lieutenant, repelled the Northern enemies backe againe beyond BODOTRIA or Edenborrough Forth, and that by raising another wall of turfe, namely beside that of Hadrianus, as Capitolinus writeth. Which wall, that it was reared in this very place, whereof I now speake, and not by Severus (as it is commonly thought) I will produce no other witnesses than two ancient inscriptions digged up here, of which the one, fastened in the wall of an house at Cader, sheweth how the second Legion Augusta, set up the wall for the space of three miles and more: the other, now in the house of the Earle Marshall at Dunotyr, which implieth that a band of the twentieth legion Victrix raised the said wal three miles long. But see here the very inscriptions themselves as Servatius Riheley, a Gentleman of Silesia who curiously travailed these countries, copied them out for mee:
The inscriptions Camden published are, on the left, RIB 2173, which reads:
For the Emperor Caesar Titus Aelius Hadrianus Antoninus Augustus Pius, father of his country, a detachment of the 20th Legion Valeria Victrix built (this wall) for a distance of 3 miles.
And, on the right, RIB 2186, which reads:
For the Emperor Caesar Titus Aelius Hadrianus Antoninus Augustus Pius, father of his country, the 2nd Legion Augusta (built this wall) for a distance of 3,666½ paces.
Moving on to the next area for discussion, Camden/Holland begins:
What so ever part of Britain lieth Northward beyond Grahames Dyke, or the wall of Antoninus Pius before named, & beareth out on both seas, is called by Tacitus CALEDONIA …

The origins of the works on the Tyne-Solway line – what the antiquary John Collingwood Bruce called, “the Great Barrier of the Lower Isthmus” – still, though, remained a matter of opinion. Typically, it was considered that Hadrian was responsible for the Vallum, whilst Severus was responsible for the Wall. In 1801, William Hutton asserted that it was Agricola who had begun the Vallum – his barrier apparently comprising the southern mound and the marginal mound, with an intervening ditch. This work was then repaired and improved by Hadrian – he added the large ditch and northern mound – to complete the Vallum. Later Severus came along, repaired the work of his predecessors, and built:

… a wall of stone, guarded by a ditch which should run parallel with theirs, and make one grand and compact work…
As Agricola’s name was lost in Hadrian’s, so Severus, being superior to both, nearly eclipses both, and the whole is frequently called Severus’s Wall.

By the middle of the 19th century, however, the accumulated archaeological and epigraphic evidence was suggesting that the Vallum and the Wall, complete with forts, milecastles and turrets, were contemporary components of a unified frontier system, and that Hadrian was its author. The case that Hadrian was the “one master-mind” behind the “Great Barrier” was persuasively argued by John Collingwood Bruce, who published the first edition of his influential monograph The Roman Wall in 1851. However, whilst the testimony of Gildas could readily be explained as “the traditions of his own times”, the references to a wall built by Severus in classical texts was not so easily dismissed, even though there is no such claim in the writings of, the contemporary authors, Cassius Dio and Herodian.

That he [Severus] should have repaired some of the stations [forts], particularly those upon the line of his march, when about to enter upon what he hoped to be the crowning enterprise of his life, and that he should have maintained garrisons in them to make good his communications with the south, is not only probable, but is rendered almost certain by the inscriptions which several of them have yielded; but that, in such circumstances, he should have planned and executed the whole line of the Wall, its castles and turrets, and several of the stations, is almost incredible…
It is not improbable that Severus may have repaired some portions of the Wall, and perhaps added some few subsidiary defences.
Collingwood Bruce The Roman Wall Part 5

West of the Irthing, the Wall had originally been built of turf. That was not known in 1895, when archaeologists discovered the turf wall near the fort at Birdoswald (where the replacement stone wall had taken a different line from the original turf wall). The discovery gave rise to the theory that Hadrian had built a wall across the whole isthmus, but in turf. Severus subsequently replaced Hadrian’s turf wall with the stone wall. The theory was short lived – archaeologists finding evidence to disprove it in 1911. Today, it is generally accepted that reports of Severus building a wall “from sea to sea” are, quite simply, incorrect, and “the Great Barrier of the Lower Isthmus” is, of course, universally known as Hadrian’s Wall. Understanding of its development has been considerably refined, but the precise purpose that dictated the Vallum should have taken such a distinctive form remains the subject of debate.

The Caledonian Campaigns 
of Septimius Severus
Alexander Enmann (in 1884) named this source – a proposed, no longer extant, Latin work, that began with Augustus and concluded in the year 357 – the Kaisergeschichte (History of the Emperors). That this phantom work did exist is still generally accepted, though its date of conclusion has been contested – some scholars preferring 337.
It has recently been forcefully argued that the author of the now-lost common source was in fact Aurelius Victor.
Paulus Orosius wrote his Historiarum Adversus Paganos Libri Septem (Seven Books of History Against the Pagans), at the request of St Augustine of Hippo, in about 417.
In The Roman Government of Britain (2005), Anthony R. Birley suggests that none of the numbers – XXXII (32), CXXXII (132), CXXXIII (133) – is right. He holds that the original number was LXXXII, i.e. 82 miles, which he says “is more or less correct” for the length of Hadrian’s Wall (p.198).
Mark Hassall (‘Footnotes to The Fasti’, A Roman Miscellany, 2008) disagrees with Birley. He suggests 32 is correct, and proposes that the original text referred, not to the construction of the whole of Hadrian’s Wall, but, to the conversion of the western section of the Wall from turf to stone. The original length of the turf section was, indeed, about 32 miles, though the easternmost few miles had soon (during the reign of Hadrian himself) been replaced in stone. There is no conclusive evidence, but the general belief is that the remainder of the turf wall was rebuilt in stone during the 160s. Hassall, though, suggests that this ‘remainder’ was rebuilt under Severus, and that the author of the now-lost source simply “didn’t know that part had already been rebuilt in stone”.
In 380/81, St Jerome (Hieronymus) translated chronological tables – a summary of world history, beginning with Abraham’s birth and finishing in the year 325 – composed by Eusebius of Caesarea, into Latin from Greek (the original Greek text no longer exists), but making additions from Roman history in the process. Jerome also continued the Chronicon (Chronicle) to 378. The entry quoted above is placed against the 2221st year of Abraham, which equates to 205 in the modern calendar (see Anno Domini).
Gildas uses murus for both his walls – the first he qualifies as being “made not so much with stones as with turfs”, the second as being built “in their accustomed mode of structure”, i.e. in stone.
The biography of Severus, in the Historia Augusta, is purportedly the work of Aelius Spartianus. This same supposed author previously (‘Hadrian’ 11) attributed the first wall built across Britain to Hadrian, and, in the guise of Julius Capitolinus, the Historia Augusta had credited another wall, of turf, to Antoninus Pius – the work being undertaken by Lollius Urbicus, the province’s governor (‘Antoninus Pius’ 5). The Historia Augusta is the only source to have preserved this information. (See At the Empire’s Edge.) There is, however, ambiguity in the statement about the wall built under Antoninus Pius – it is not clear whether it was ‘another wall of turf’, i.e. the previous wall was of turf also, or ‘another wall, one of turf’, i.e. the previous wall was not of turf. Hindsight dictates that the latter meaning is preferable, but that is not necessarily the case.
The title page reads: ‘The History of the Roman Wall, which crosses the island of Britain, from the German Ocean to the Irish Sea. Describing its antient state and its appearance in the year 1801.’
The title page reads: ‘The Roman Wall: a historical, topographical, and descriptive account of the Barrier of the Lower Isthmus, extending from the Tyne to the Solway, deduced from numerous personal surveys, by the Rev. John Collingwood Bruce, M.A.’
The title page reads: ‘BRITAIN, OR A CHOROGRAPHICALL DESCRIPTION OF THE MOST flourishing Kingdomes, ENGLAND, SCOTLAND, and IRELAND, and the Ilands adioyning, out of the depth of ANTIQVITIE: BEAVTIFIED WITH MAPPES OF THE severall Shires of ENGLAND: Written first in Latine by William Camden CLARENCEUX K. of A. Translated newly into English by Philémon Holland Doctour in Physick: Finally, revised, amended, and enlarged with sundry Additions by the said Author.’
Roman Inscriptions of Britain online.