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Hadrian – ruling an empire
When Hadrian inherited the Roman Empire, his predecessor, Trajan’s military campaigns had over-stretched it. Rebellions against Roman rule raged in several provinces and the empire was in serious danger.
‘The nations conquered by Trajan were in
revolt; the Moors were on a rampage; the Britons could not be kept
under Roman sovereignty; Egypt was ravaged by
uprisings; finally, Libya and
Palestine displayed their spirit of
Historia Augusta, Hadrian 5,2
Rome’s first emperor, Augustus (reigned 27 BC–AD 14), had also suffered severe military setbacks, and took the decision to stop expanding the empire. In Hadrian’s early reign Augustus was an important role model. He had a portrait of him on his signet ring and kept a small bronze bust of him among the images of the household gods in his bedroom.
Like Augustus before him, Hadrian began to fix the limits of the territory that Rome could control. He withdrew his army from Mesopotamia, modern-day Iraq, where a serious insurgency had broken out, and abandoned the newly conquered provinces of Armenia and Assyria, as well as other parts of the empire.
He ruthlessly put down rebellions and strengthened his borders. He built defensive barriers in Germany and Northern Africa. In the north of England he built one of the most famous monuments associated with him, a wall which runs from the Irish Sea near Carlisle to the North Sea near Newcastle.
Hadrian’s predecessors had established a series of military installations along the border between the modern countries of England and Scotland. These forts marked a deep frontier zone between the Romans and tribal territories to the north.
Accompanied by substantial troop reinforcements, Hadrian visited the province of Britannia in AD 122, when some parts of the population were in rebellion. He decided to strengthen the frontier with a continuous rampart – 117 km long (almost 73 miles) – much of it in the form of a stone wall. This huge structure was built by three legions of the Roman army, around 12,000 men.
At every Roman mile (1.6 km), there was a fortified gateway, or checkpoint, with a tower known as a milecastle which was manned by 20-30 soldiers. These installations enabled the Romans to deter hostile incursions and effectively control a wide area on either side.
In this way Hadrian’s wall, as it is now known, was not just a simple, defensive barrier, but a brutally efficient security installation that allowed military and economic control of the area. It was as much a practical tool of Roman dominance as an aggressive symbol of Rome’s power. It kept people out, but it also kept them in.
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