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ICE Case Studies
Number 109, Nov., 2002

Hadrian's Wall

by Chris Zweifel

I. Case Background
II. Environment Aspect
III. Conflict Aspect
IV. Env. - Conflict
V. Related Information


1. Abstract

This case study will examine the environmental impact of Hadrian’s Wall and the Wall as a cultural divider between Scotland and England. Hadrian’s Wall was built by the Romans around 120 A.D. and was meant to protect Roman Britannia (England) from Northern tribes located in modern day Scotland. The building of the Wall, the settlements that sprung up around the Roman fortifications, and tourism to the site have all changed the natural environment through deforestation, mining, biological seclusion, and roads. Not only has the Wall affected the natural environment, its creation established a split between two peoples on the English Isle: a division that created two distinct cultures and lands-- Scotland and England.

2. Description

I. The Conflict

The history of the conflict begins with the Roman invasion of Britannia by the armies of Julius Caesar in 55 B.C. Caesar’s invasion was not a permanent occupation and the conquest and integration of Britain into the Roman empire did not come until Claudius’ reign in 43 A.D (Durant 176, 271). The Romans mostly fought Celtic tribes and the Brigantes in England, while the Northern tribes included the Pinnines, Brigantes, and Scots (Birley, 130).

Revolts against Roman rule did occur in England, the most notable being in 61 A.D. when an English Queen named Boadicea marched on Londonium, the future London, and massacred an estimated 70,000 Roman citizens. When the Roman legions eventually caught up to this British army, Boadicea and 80,000 of her fellow Britons were killed. Roman governors eventually brought order to England and the process of Romanization, where conquered cultures began to accept Roman culture and customs, completed the conquest. Only in the North remained tribes that would not come under Roman control. Agricola, a Roman governor, defeated an army of Scots in the north but was recalled by orders from Rome. Thus, the conflict was set for a divide between the Romanized South, modern England, and the Northern tribes, called barbarians by the Romans and located in modern Scotland.


Emperor Hadrian began his rule in 117 A.D. and started a new strategy for the Roman empire of consolidating its borders and stopping expansion. To initiate this defensive posture, Hadrian began his reign with a tour of the European provinces to complete defensive fortifications. Whereas in the Eastern half of the Empire, the borders where protected by the natural boundaries of mountains and desert, the German and Northern English frontier had no natural boundaries to keep out migrating and warring tribes. The solution in Germany was a series of forts and fortifications, called limes, which used timber from the great central European forests and ditches to prevent tribal incursions. In contrast, large forests did not exist in Northern England and a great wall was built using stone, hence the title Hadrian’s Wall, which, as Hadrian’s biographer stated, was “to divide the barbarians from the Romans”(Durant, 417). Emperor Hadrian inspected the fortifications himself during his tour of Britannia around 123 A.D., garrisoned several legions at the Wall, and instigated a period of peace in Britannia that lasted over 200 years.

II. The Wall

After its completion, Hadrian’s Wall was the most expensive building project ever undertaken by Rome to that point, most likely because of the stone that had to be imported to build the fortifications (Birley, 137). The Wall stretches seventy miles from the Irish Sea at Solway Firth in the West to the Eastern shore of England at Tyne. Its dimensions were enormous- 10 ft. broad and 14 feet high- and being made of stone, the Wall must have been an imposing structure to the Northern tribes (Birley, 132). Further making the building more impressive was that mortar was not used in the Wall, only in the guard towers. Using cut stone and a clay and rubber core, the completed Wall was whitewashed and could be seen for miles (Birley, 133).


The layout of the fortifications consisted of the Wall, ditches, guard posts, and signaling turrets. The ditch on the North side was 30 ft. wide and nine feet deep and usually had a false bottom with camouflaged sharp spikes. These ditches acted like modern day barb wire in that attackers had to run the gamut of obstacles even before they got to the Wall.

The Wall had a guard post, also called a mile castle, every mile of its length, and between each mile castle stood two signaling towers, or watch towers (Birley, 133). In the event of an attack, runners from the watch tower would run down the line to the next position and the ensuing relay race would alert the whole line. At night, fires could be lit that could be seen from the next position, and as each new position lit its fire upon the seeing the signal, the whole line could be alerted to the danger.

Hadrian’s Wall needed thousands of troops to man the fortifications, and these troops were garrisoned along the entire span of the Wall. As was the case with other Roman frontiers, settlements quickly sprung up around Roman fortifications as local merchants and craftsmen sold their wares and labor to the soldiers. Like military bases today, Roman fortifications were an important source of income for the local economy. The Romans eventually built another wall 30 miles north of Hadrian’s Wall, which meant that all the troops and settlements had to move north. The frontier switched back and forth between these two fortifications and thus increased the amount of environmental damage. After the Romans left around 500 A.D., Hadrian’s Wall began to deteriorate, and locals used the stone to build houses and fences.

III. Environmental Impact

Using modern day scientific studies of the region and inferring likely effects of the occupation, we can look at the environmental impact of this conflict. There were several major consequences to the environment. First, the area had massive deforestation, which has been confirmed by scientific studies and can be inferred from the increase of population on this frontier. One study indicates that, “it was not until Romano-British times that man had much effect on the forests of the area. Organized clearance and farming in this marginal frontier zone of the Roman Empire was on a scale unparalled in history until recently” (Donaldson, abstract). Pollen diagrams in another study show that there was a major clearance of wood for grazing during the Roman period, and that the regeneration of the forest only occurred 100 to 200 years after the Romans left (Davies, abstract). Furthermore, the new forests were small on scale and were managed mostly for firewood (Donaldson, abstract). From our knowledge of deforestation, we can infer a decline in the animal population and its diversity with the loss of habitat, and we can infer that the new landscape was pasture like with wide open spaces—an environment that would favor certain types of species.

Besides the loss of forests to sustain this frontier settlement, Hadrian’s Wall created a division between animal species. Under the theory of evolution, species that are cut off from each other begin to produce unique characteristics to the point of creating new species because they are not allowed to breed together. This process of biological divergence would create new, distinct animal species on either side of the Wall.

Another impact of the Roman frontier settlement involved mining and the use of lead to extract certain metals from ore. Romans used lead in their water pipes and bath houses, and scientific studies have shown high levels of lead around the area, indicating mining and smelting. This increase of lead can damage the ecosystem and cause harm to humans, especially infant brain development.

Last but not least, the region is faced with the new problem of tourism to see Hadrian’s Wall, and pollution and degradation of the natural environment are likely consequences. The Wall has undergone several studies on how to preserve the sight using new guidelines for eco-tourism provided by the English government and the European Union. The U.S. based Campaign for Environmentally Responsible Tourism stated, “it is estimated that the world will have over one billion annual travelers by the year 2010,” and that mass tourism tends to destroy the very things the traveler wanted to see and admire (Paterson, 98).

3. Duration: 55 B.C. - 450 A.D.

This conflict lasted from the invasion of Brittania by Julius Caeser in 55 B.C. to around 450 A.D. when the Romans abadoned the Wall as the Roman Empire began to recede. As mentioned earlier, the effects of this conflict are still felt today with the impact of tourism to the region to see the Hadrian's Wall.

4. Location:

Continent: Europe

Region: Northern Europe

Country: United Kingdom

Hadrian's Wall stretches 70 miles across Northern England.

5. Actors

1. The Romans - Stretching from Palestine in the East, across Northern Africa in the South, and most of Western Europe, the Roman Empire was one of the most impressive civilizations in history. The Roman Army included soldiers from all parts of the Empire and often local tribes, kingdoms, and mercenaries served as adjuncts to the Roman legions.

2. The Celts - This tribe arrived around 500 B.C. in the modern day United Kingdom from the European mainland and quickly displaced the native peoples. The Celts married with the local inhabitants, absorbed some of their culture, and spread across the island and into modern day Ireland. The majority of people living in Brittannia were Celts at the time of Roman occupation, as the Anglos and the Saxons did not invade until the 600s.

3. The Picts - Another tribe that had origins within the Celts and shared much of the same culture.

4. The Scots - These people also had their origins in the Celts and migrated from Ireland to modern Scotland around 400 A.D.

II. Environment Aspects

6. Type of Environmental Problem

I. Deforestation

There have been several studies using pollen analysis and radio carbon dating indicating massive deforestation during the Roman period in the region of Hadrian’s Wall (McCarthy, 1995; Donaldson, Turner, 1977; Walker, 1966; Dumayne-Peaty, 1999; Davies and Turner, 1979). It must be noted that there are a couple of studies which disagree with these findings, mainly about using pollen diagrams and radio carbon dating to match historical dates (Manning, Birley, Tipping, 1997; Dumayne, Stoneman, Barber, Harkness, 1995). We can conjecture that deforestation during Roman occupation of the frontier zone caused the decline of species counts and possibly the extinction of other species.

II. Pollution

Besides deforestation, the Roman occupation, with Hadrian’s Wall as a central component, caused an increase in mined metals found in the environment. These metals included Copper, Zinc, and Lead (West, Charman, Grattan, Cherburkin, 1997). The Romans used lead for bath buildings, lead pipes, and lead coffins (Frere, 276). Silver ore, another important metal found in Britannia, is naturally found coupled with lead, so the lead must be removed to mine silver, causing lead pollution as a by-product. Increases in these elements can damage the eco-system, disrupt the food chain, and cause defects in the region’s species, including humans. Another result of the Roman period was the spread of Calcareous grasslands (Poschold and Wallisdevries, 2002). This is typical of the entire Roman Empire in Europe, and now these grasslands are threatened on the continent.

III. Unsustainable Development

In the modern era, tourism to see Hadrian's Wall creates such problems as overtaxing the social structure, including the local economy, and creating unsustainable growth which the natural environment can not bear. Furthermore, increased tourism can damage the fragile habitats of endangered species. For example, a new national trail will run the length of the Wall beginning in 2003, and some hikers, who stray off the path, leave trash behind, camp, and use wood for campfires can significantly damage the environment. Pollution from tourists traveling to the area is another cause for concern.

7. Type of Habitat:Temperate


Looking at the environment of Northern England, there are five main habitats found along the length of the Wall: moorland, bog, hay meadows, forest, and streams, lakes, and rivers. Each has its own set of unique species, and when these habitats are threatened, so are the species that live there. A general description of the area is of rolling hills, mostly covered with grasses with rock outcroppings and small stands of trees. Wide open spaces with some limestone cliffs are central elements, too. There are farms and small villages with lots of grazing sheep, and in some meadows, there are over thirty different species per square yard.

Several interesting and distinct animals and plants inhabit the region. Some common plants are heather, cotton grass, spring gentian, sphagnum moss (found in the bogs), sunden, melancholy thistle, wood cranesbill, and various wildflowers. There are several rare and endangered plant species, too. These include the Bog Orchid and Jacob’s Ladder.

This environment is home to many types of birds. Merlins, the Yellow Wagtail, Short Eared Owl, Curlew, Snipe, Oyster Catcher, Redshank, and the Black Grouse are found throughout the region. Other animals include the Mountain Blue Hare, Feral Goat, the Red Squirrel, Emperor Moth, Otter, Salmon, and Freshwater Pearl Mussel. Salmon has made a comeback because of pollution controls over the last twenty years; however, other animals are still threatened: the otter is rare and the Pearl Mussel is endangered. The Red Squirrel is an endangered species, mostly because there is so little forest left. In fact, forest makes up only 1% of the landscape. Another endangered animal is the large heath butterfly, and steps have been taken by the British government to protect all of these species and their habitats. The increase of tourism to the area may further endanger these animal species.

8. Act and Harm Sites

Act Site: United Kingdom

Harm Site: United Kingdom

Example: Deforestation due to increased settlements

III. Conflict Aspects

9. Type of Conflict: Interstate

10. Level of Conflict: Low

11. Fatality Level of Dispute: 200,000

The fatality level is an estimate based on combined total deaths from the Roman invasion and pacification of Brittania. The revolts of the British natives in the first century A.D. resulted in the deaths of 70,000 Romans and their allies and 80,000 Britains. It is also reported that the Romans defeated an army of 30,000 Scots along the frontier near Hadrian's Wall. While maintaining Hadrian's Wall, the Romans must have faced several attempts to cross the frontier by the Northern tribes. These battles likely resulted in numerous casualties. The level of conflict is low because the conflict spanned a long period of time.

IV. Environment and Conflict Overlap

12. Environment-Conflict Link and Dynamics:

Sources have given different depictions about the cost of building Hadrian’s Wall. On the one hand, Bedoyere writes that the Wall cost the Roman Empire nothing because the soldiers would have been paid anyway and all of the natural resources were free. As evidence of its low cost, Bedoyere points to the fact that the Wall was abandoned only twenty years after it was built. On the other hand, Birley gives a different account when he describes the Wall as the most costly building project of the Romans up to 122 A.D. It has been estimated that 3,700,000 tons of stone were used to build the Wall. The cost alone of transporting this stone and building the roads over which it traveled must have been enormous. Bedoyere estimates that 8-10,000 Roman troops were stationed along the Wall; the cost of maintaining these troops would have been high, too.

The Roman Empire had strong economic interests in the region and the Wall served to protect those interests. Britannia became an important source for raw materials like timber, silver, lead, and animal products. Roman investment and immigrant entrpeneuers spurred the British economy, causing industry and trade to spread quickly across the island (Frere, 280). The conflict on the frontier allowed the economy to grow because stabilty, order, and peace are essential for development. Hadrian's Wall, by sealing off the tribal conflicts in the North created the peace necessary for the growth in Britannia's economy. Consequently, the exploitation of the natural environment increases as developmet and trade increases.

The settlements that sprung up around the Wall must have created new environmental conflicts, too. As the natural resources were used up, especially the local timber, inhabitants would have to go farther and farther away, possibly across the frontier to get these resources. The military roads became essential to the survival of the frontier since the local resources were quickly depleted.

Causal Diagram

13. Level of Strategic Interest: Medium

The Romans invaded with the hopes of finding gold and silver. Cicero decries that not much gold was found, which Tacitus later confirms by writing that little gold was found and that the pearls from the oceans were of poor quality (Frere, 275). In contrast, silver was abundant in Britannia and was coupled with lead, another important metal for Roma industry in the rock ore. The silver-lead industry, with mining, smelting, and exporting, took off shortly after Roman conquest and this industry, much like the fur trading in North America, drove the economy and expansion of the Roman Empire in Britannia.

The silver-lead industry was only the beginning of Roman exploitation of British natural resources. Copper and Tin, used to make Bronze, were soon mined, and stone quarries produced good stone for building puporses. Timber was abundant enough to be exported.From the frontier came Scottish slaves and animal products like fur, hides, and wool (Frere, 286). Accordingly, Britannia became an important source for raw materials for the Roman Empire, increasing the strategic interest in the island. Hadrian's Wall protected these economic interests.

Taxation was another economic interest that tied Rome to Britannia. Taxes came in several forms: payment in kind (often to feed the Roman army), gold and silver, and local men for service in the army. As the Roman Empire declined, the Roman Army relied heavily on these troop payments to maintain manpower.Tacitus claimed that Britons submited to taxation without resisting as long as there was not any abuse (Frere, 98).

14. Outcome of Dispute: Victory

Great Britain (Includes England and Scotland)

  • Common Law
  • Romanized
  • Roman archetechture
  • Road system
  • Canal System
  • Government
  • Latin Languange influence
  • English Dialect


As a result of Hadrian’s Wall dividing a Romanized South from the “barbaric” North, the economies of the two lands were set on divergent paths. Before the Roman invasion, the island of Britain was populated by isolated tribes who traded amongst each other using a barter system. Fearing attacks be neighboring tribes, the tribes never built roads: a fact that seriously hampered trade. For Britannia, the situation changed along several fronts as a direct result of Roman occupation. First, the Britons accepted Roman currency, which made trade easier and more prevalent. The Romans built an extensive road system and legal system to protect property; both factors increased trade. Finally, business and trade usually flourishes when there is stability, peace, and order, and the Romans provided all of these things.


  • Civil Law
  • Clans
  • Scottish Music
  • Scottish Food
  • Scottish Dress
  • Scottish Dialect

We can assume that the tribal economy stayed the same in Scotland, with the possible exception of the adoption of Roman currency and some cross border trading. This split in economies due to Hadrian’s Wall, because the Romans stopped the frontier before conquering the entire island, might explain the difference in living standards and economic development between Scotland and Britain up to today. Scotland has always been much poorer than England and this trend continues to this day.

This split not only affected the two economies but helped create two different peoples who have different cultures: the Scottish and the English. Whereas most people are divided by natural geographic features, this cultural division occured because of man made conflict. Romanization in England created a new culture that synthesized Roman and Celtic cultures. Britons accepted Roman law, customs, and dress, and Latin became the dominant languange of the elite and educated. Roman architechture, including magnificent bath houses, and city planning were infused into the Britannia with the occupation. Building roads for the military and trade quickly unified England into one people with one culture as tribal distinctions faded away. The nature of nobility changed: where nobles once led their tribe into battle at the front, nobles in the Roman Empire were expected to be the most cultured and educated rather than the strongest fighters. Finally, Britannia accepted the Roman coinage, increasing its level of trade.

The contrast with Scotland is stark. Clinging to the clan system, Scottish culture still holds onto its tribal roots. The Scottish have a different dialect, style of music and dance, food, and other customs which separate them from the English people. Scottish wars for indepence testify to this division between two peoples who have separate identities and cultures.

V. Related Information and Sources

15. Related ICE Cases

WALL (Great Wall of China)







16. Relevant Websites and Literature

Paterson, Anna Scotland’s Landscape: Endangered Landscape Polygon of Edinborough. Copyright 2002
Birley, Anthony R. Hadrian: The Restless Emperor Routeledge London copyright 1997

Walker, D. “The Late Quaternary History of the Cumberland Lowland” in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences, Vol. 251, No. 770. Copyright 1966

Donaldson, Allison “ A Pollen Diagram from Hallowell Moss, Near Durham City, U.K.” in Journal of Biogeography, Vol. 4, No. 1. ( March, 1997) pp. 25-33

Davies, G. “Pollen Diagrams from Northumberland” in New Phytologist, Vol. 82, No. 3 May, 1979 pp. 783-804

Durant, Will Caesar and Christ MJF Books New York copyright 1944

Frere, Sheppard Britannia: A History of Roman Britain, Third Edition Routledge and Paul: London Copyright 1987

Poscold, P. and Wallisdevries, M.F. “The historical and socioeconomic perspective of calcerous grasslands—lessons from the distant and recent past.” in Biological Conservation 20020400, vol. 104, no. 3, pp. 361- 376

West, S., Charman, D.J., Grattan, J.P., and Cherburkin, A.K. “Heavy metals in Holocene peats from south west England: detecting mining impacts and atmospheric pollution.” In Water, Air, and Soil Pollution 19971200, vol. 100, no. 3-4, pp. 343-353

McCarthy, M.R. “Archaeological and environmental evidence for the Roman impact on vegetation near Carlisle, Cumbria.” In Holocene 1995 vol. 5, no. 4, pp. 491-495

Donaldson, Alison and Turner, Judith “A Pollen Diagram from Hallowell Moss, Near Durham City, U.K.” in Journal of Biogeography 1977 vol. 4, no. 1, pp. 25-33

Walker, D. “The Late Quaternary History of the Cumberland Lowland.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences, 1966 Vol. 251, no. 770, pp. 1-210

Dumayne-Peaty, L. “Continuity or Discontinuity? Vegetation change in the Hadrianic- Antonine frontier zone of Northern Britain at the end of the Roman occupation.” In Journal of Biogeography 19950500, vol. 26, no. 3, pp. 643-665

Davies, P. and Turner, J. “Pollen Diagrams from Northumberland.” In New Phytologist 1979 vol. 82., no. 3, pp. 783-804

Goerres, M. and Frenzel, B. “Ash and Metal Concentrations in peat bogs as indicators of anthropogenic activity.” In Water, Air, and Soil Pollution 19971200, vol. 100, no. 3-4, pp. 355-365

Dumayne, L., Stoneman, R., Barber, K., and Harkness, D. “Problems associated with correlating calibrated radiocarbon dated pollen diagrams with historical events.” In Holocene 1995, vol. 5, no. 1, pp. 118-123

Manning, A.; Birley, R.; Tipping, R. “Roman impact on the environment at Hadrian’s Wall: Precisely dated pollen analysis from Vindolanda, northern England.” In Holocene 1997 vol. 7, no. 2, pp. 175-186

Nicol, David "Picture of Hadrian's Wall and Landscape"

Golash, D. "Picture of Hadrian's Wall and Bust of Hadrian"

December, 2000