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 fortified Britain, as far as it was useful, with a wall led across the island to each end of the Ocean.”
Aurelius Victor ‘Liber de Caesaribus’ Chapter 20 (written c.360)
“He had his last war in Britain, and so that he might protect the recovered provinces, he led a wall for 133 miles from sea to sea.”
Eutropius ‘Breviarium Ab Urbe Condita’ Book VIII Chapter 19 (written c.369)
“Clodius Albinus, who had made himself Caesar in Gaul, having been killed, 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)
“He fortified Britain – and this was the greatest glory of his reign – with a wall led across the island to the Ocean at each end; in recognition of this he also received the title Britannicus.”*
Aelius SpartianusHistoria Augusta’ Severus Chapter 18 (written c.395?)
“He led a wall in Britain for thirty-two miles from sea to sea.”
Anonymous ‘Epitome de Caesaribus’ Chapter 20 (written c.395)
“The victorious Severus was brought 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 marked off by a wall from the other, unconquered peoples. He therefore led a ditch and a very strong wall, fortified as well with frequent towers, for 132 miles from sea to sea.”
Orosius ‘Historiarum Adversus Paganos Libri Septem’ Book VII Chapter 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 him. Possibly this piece of misinformation was disseminated by Caracalla, to reinforce the notion that he and Severus had achieved their objective. It seems clear 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:
“The inhabitants [of Roman Britain] were commanded [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 enemies and a protection to the citizens. The wall being made not of stone but of turf, proved of no advantage to the rabble in their folly, and destitute of a leader.”
Gildas ‘De Excidio Britanniae’ Chapter 15
Then, when Britain was finally being abandoned by Rome:
“Because they [the Romans] were also of opinion that it would bring a considerable advantage to the people they were leaving, they construct a wall, different from the other, by public and private contributions, joining the wretched inhabitants to themselves: they build the wall in their accustomed mode of structure, in a straight line, across from sea to sea, between cities, which perhaps had been located there through fear of enemies ... ”
Gildas ‘De Excidio Britanniae’ Chapter 18
When Bede wrote his ‘Historia Ecclesiastica’ (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 into Britain by the revolt of almost all the confederated tribes; and, after many great and severe battles, he thought fit to divide that part of the island, which he had recovered, from the other unconquered nations, not with a wall, as some imagine, but with a rampart. For a wall is made of stones, but a rampart, with which camps are fortified to repel the assaults of enemies, is made of sods, cut out of the earth, and raised high above the ground, like a wall, having in front of it the trench whence the sods were taken, with strong stakes of wood fixed above it. Thus Severus drew a great trench and strong rampart, fortified with several towers, from sea to sea.”
Bede ‘Historia Ecclesiastica’ Book I Chapter 5
Following Gildas, Bede writes:
“But the islanders building the wall which they had been told to raise, not of stone, since they had no workmen capable of such a work, but of sods, made it of no use. Nevertheless, they carried 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 enemies. Of the work there erected, that is, of a rampart of great breadth and height, there are evident remains to be seen at 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].”
Bede ‘Historia Ecclesiastica’ Book I Chapter 12
Bede has clearly, and not unreasonably, associated Gildas' first wall with the Antonine Wall (actually built in the early-140s), on the Forth-Clyde line. As for the second:
“... thinking that it might be some help to the allies, whom they were forced to abandon, they constructed a strong stone wall from sea to sea, in a straight line between the towns that had been there built for fear of the enemy, where Severus also had formerly built a rampart.”
Bede ‘Historia Ecclesiastica’ Book I Chapter 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 ditch-and-mound 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 (H.E. Book I Chapter 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 sods, cut out of the earth, and raised high above the ground, like a wall”. This distinction is actually Bede's own – murus and vallum both mean ‘wall’, and the earlier sources 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 H.E. Book I Chapter 8). However, Bede pointedly notes “some imagine” that Severus built a murus. Aurelius Victor and Aelius Spartianus (‘Historia Augusta’) both use murus to describe Severus' wall. If Bede had access to the ‘Historia’, he would have known that Hadrian and Antoninus Pius were both 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 claimed that a turf wall and a stone wall had been built during the chaotic last years of Roman Britain.* Bede saw these as the Antonine Wall and Hadrian's Wall. It was important, therefore, for him to establish that Severus did not build a stone wall, so that he could identify the one remaining structure – a substantial earthwork running across the country, to the south of Hadrian's Wall (for details: At the Empire's Edge) – as the rampart constructed by Severus. This earthwork is now called the Vallum.
Many centuries would pass before just who-built-what became apparent. In 1698, an inscription was discovered (at Balmuildy) which conclusively identified the earthwork remains called Grime's Dyke or Graham's Dyke, as the turf wall of Antoninus Pius, i.e. the Antonine Wall. Another century passed, but the origins of the works at, what John Collingwood Bruce called, “the Great Barrier of the Lower Isthmus” still 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 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 mastermind” 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, Herodian and Dio Cassius.
“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’ Chapter 5
In 1903, Francis Haverfield argued that Hadrian had built a turf wall across the whole isthmus, which Severus subsequently replaced in stone – he was wrong. 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. The sequence of building has been considerably refined, but the precise purpose that dictated the Vallum should have taken such a distinctive form remains the subject of debate.
Gildas ‘De Excidio Britanniae’ by Hugh Williams
Bede ‘Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum’ by A.M. Sellar
other translations by Anthony R. Birley
See: The Caledonian Campaigns of Septimius Severus.
Numerous resemblances – the selection of facts, shared errors and similar phraseology – between Aurelius Victor, Eutropius and the ‘Historia Augusta’, led Alexander Enmann to conclude (in a paper published in 1884) that they had drawn on a common, no longer extant, source. This phantom work is known as the ‘Kaisergeschichte’ (History of the Emperors).
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. Mark Hassall (in ‘Footnotes to The Fasti’, published in a compilation of 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. Hassall admits that the easternmost part of the turf section had definitely been rebuilt in stone long before Severus' time, but suggests that the missing text's author 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 AD325 – 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 here falls under the 2221st year of Abraham, which seems to equate to 205.
See: Ruin.
Gildas uses murus for both his walls – the first he qualifies as “being made not of stone but of turf”, the second as being built “in their accustomed mode of structure”, i.e. in stone.
The ‘Historia Augusta’ (in the guise of Aelius Spartianus) had previously attributed the construction of the first wall across Britain to Hadrian, and (in the guise of Julius Capitolinus) the construction of a second, this time of turf, to Antoninus Pius. The ‘Historia Augusta’ is the only source to have preserved this information. See: At the Empire's Edge.
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.”