Caledonia and Rome

On, then, into action; and as you go, think of those that went before you and of those that shall come after.

Words attributed by Tacitus to the Caledonian chieftain Calgacus, AD 84

Before the Picts made their first appearance in history, their territory in what is now Scotland was inhabited by an earlier population. These were the ancestors of the Picts and were the people encountered by Roman armies during the Empire’s attempt to conquer the northern parts of Britain. Theirs was a typical Iron Age society of farmers, fishermen and craftsmen grouped into tribes and ruled by a landowning aristocracy. They spoke a dialect of Brittonic, the Celtic language used in most parts of mainland Britain in pre-Roman times. Like other ancient Celtic peoples, the ancestors of the Picts lived in well-organised communities within a hierarchical society ruled by a minority upper class. Most of the population lived in small settlements scattered across the landscape, owing their primary allegiance to local chiefs who in turn acknowledged the authority of greater chiefs or kings. The economy was based on livestock – sheep, pigs and cattle – and on crops such as oats and barley. The majority of houses were built of timber, but some were of stone. Kings and chiefs built fortified residences on prominent hilltops, in valleys or in coastal locations. In some areas prosperous lords constructed large stone towers around which smaller dwellings were clustered. These towers are known today as ‘brochs’ and a few still survive in ruinous form. They are the most visible and impressive reminder of the prehistoric forefathers of the Picts.

It was around the time of the broch-builders that the Romans first came to Britain. The island was already familiar to Rome because it lay adjacent to her newly conquered territories in Gaul but its interior was largely unknown. The first Roman forays across what is now the English Channel were made by Julius Caesar in 55 and 54 BC. These brought him into conflict with the south-coast tribes but, on both occasions, he returned to Gaul after making a token show of force. In common with his newly conquered Gaulish enemies, the native Britons who opposed him spoke a Celtic language and were similarly well-organised in tribal groups under the rule of kings. Rome regarded their land as rich in agricultural and mineral resources, but Caesar knew that the warlike inhabitants were unlikely to give up their wealth without a fight. A large-scale military campaign would therefore need to be mounted if Britain was to be brought to heel and drawn within the Empire. Although this was not accomplished in Caesar’s lifetime, it was inevitable that Rome would one day return.

Conquest was considered by the emperors Augustus and Caligula but postponed until the middle of the first century ad. In AD 43, during the reign of the emperor Claudius, the project commenced in earnest with a full-scale invasion from Roman Gaul. The initial assault was followed by campaigns against tribes in the southern parts of the island. Some of these surrendered, or made deals with Rome, but others fought bravely to preserve their independence. Within thirty-five years, after crushing all serious resistance and quelling revolts, the invaders successfully brought much of Britain under their sway. Consolidation of the conquered territory proceeded swiftly, driven by a steady process of Romanisation and the reorganising of native political structures. These changes were enforced by a large and permanent military garrison housed in strategically placed forts linked by a network of roads.

Agricola and the Highlands 

By the end of the third quarter of the first century the main phase of the conquest was complete. Half the island lay under imperial control and the Britons in these areas became subjects of the Empire. The southern tribal kings were either dead, exiled or working for Rome as urban bureaucrats in newly built towns and cities. The emperor entrusted the task of running the new province to a governor who, because of the volatile character of the natives, was usually an experienced general. In AD 78 the governorship passed to one of Rome’s most capable men, Gnaeus Julius Agricola, a career soldier who had already seen service in Britain as commander of the Twentieth Legion. Agricola returned to the province and immediately launched campaigns to subdue rebellious tribes in Wales and the Pennines.

A contemporary account of Agricola’s career was written by his son-in-law, Tacitus, whose work has survived. This account bears the simple title Agricola and appeared in AD 98, five years after the death of its subject, as a eulogy in praise of his character and achievements. It does not offer a straightforward, factual report of administrative policies or military campaigns, nor is it concerned with presenting an objective view of the peoples and places encountered by Agricola during his time in Britain. Its value for the present chapter lies in what it says about the people of Celtic Britain. Tacitus paid special attention to the northern parts of the island, the area now known as Scotland. It was here that Agricola found his ambitions thwarted by troublesome natives and an inhospitable landscape. In the Highlands across the firths of Forth and Tay, beyond the furthest limit of Rome’s early conquests, dwelt tribes of untamed barbarians. Tacitus provides fascinating information about these people, much of it gleaned at first-hand in conversations with his father-in-law, who knew them as well as any Roman could.

The natives of the Highlands are described by Tacitus as having ‘reddish hair and large limbs’, a typically stereotyped barbarian image rather than an objective view. They were a proud people whose warriors were brave and fierce, but Rome had met such folk elsewhere and did not fear them. As far as Agricola was concerned they stood in the way of a total conquest of Britain and needed to be swept aside. He was not the kind of man to leave such a task to others, nor did he lack the means to accomplish it. First, however, he had to deal with another obstacle: a group of unconquered tribes between the Pennines and the Forth-Clyde isthmus. In AD 80, the third year of his governorship, he marched north into what is now the Scottish Lowlands to bring these tribes within the Empire. They offered little resistance and were subjugated so quickly that the Romans were able to spare time for the construction of new forts in the conquered districts. Before the end of the summer, Agricola’s advance brought him to the southern edge of the Highlands. He then crossed the River Forth and led his troops into territory where no Roman army had gone before.

The invaders soon found themselves battling wet, windy weather of the kind familiar to any modern visitor who travels among the lochs and glens. Storms hindered the army’s progress after it crossed the Forth into what is now Stirlingshire, but the advance pressed on. Communities of terrified natives could do little but watch helplessly as their lands were plundered by foraging bands of Roman soldiers. The march soon reached the estuary of the Tay, bringing Agricola within sight of the northern mountains, but at this point he decided to advance no further. Instead, he turned around and marched back to the Forth to consolidate his gains in the Lowlands. There he spent the next year building forts and installing garrisons of auxiliaries. The following year, AD 82, saw him campaigning near the Solway Firth in unconquered territory west of Annandale. The tribes of this region were swiftly defeated, their capitulation bringing Roman troops to the shore of the Irish Sea. Agricola briefly considered the viability of an invasion of Ireland but decided against it. A more pressing matter – the subjugation of the far north – still preyed on his mind. With all territory south of the Forth-Clyde isthmus now firmly under Roman control, he knew that the free peoples beyond the Firth of Tay represented a lurking menace. Such a situation was intolerable and had to be resolved by a major campaign of invasion and conquest.

In AD 83 Agricola marched across the River Forth at the head of an army of 25,000 men. Three renowned legions – the Second, the Ninth and the Twentieth – provided the core of his fighting strength, the remainder being cohorts of auxiliaries. These cohorts included some highly experienced infantry units together with several thousand cavalry. As well as these land forces, a fleet of warships under the command of an admiral shadowed the army’s progress. The admiral’s task was to keep the troops supplied and to make a detailed reconnaissance of the coast. Aboard the ships were units of tough marines who periodically came ashore to scout the best harbours and terrorise the natives. Sometimes the soldiers, sailors and marines camped together to share tales of their achievements and adventures, or to joke about the bad weather and the harsh terrain. Eventually the land forces reached the River Tay and crossed it, entering for the first time a region called Caledonia. Here they were harassed by a group of people whom Tacitus calls Britanni, ‘Britons’, like the other inhabitants of the island. Modern historians generally refer to these folk as Caledonians. They were a tribe or confederation whose core territory included large tracts of the central Highlands as well as most of eastern Scotland between the Firths of Tay and Moray. A memory of their presence survives today in three place-names within their old heartland: Dunkeld (‘Fort of the Caledonians’), Rohallion (‘Rath of the Caledonians’) and Schiehallion (‘Fairy Hill of the Caledonians’).

Unlike their neighbours in the South, the Caledonians were not content to stand idly by while Roman troops plundered their lands. They retaliated swiftly, launching a series of devastating raids on the forts and camps established by Agricola in the wake of his advance. Using hit-and-run tactics, the native warriors caused such dismay that some Roman officers advised their commander to make a strategic withdrawal. At that moment, however, Agricola learned that the enemy was planning a full-scale attack on his column and decided to thwart it by splitting his army into three divisions. This in turn prompted the Caledonians to amend their original plan by launching a night-attack. Their target was the Ninth Legion as it lay sleeping in a temporary camp, but Agricola anticipated the assault and brought up the rest of his forces behind the enemy’s rear. At the same time, the soldiers of the Ninth rose up to defend themselves, not only to expel the raiders but also to show the relief force that they could win the fight on their own. The Caledonians were routed, the survivors vanishing into impenetrable forests and marshlands. Tacitus observed that the Roman victory would have ended the campaign had not the Highland landscape aided the enemy’s retreat. This was clearly an echo of his father-in-law’s assessment of the battle. Like all Roman generals, Agricola was irritated by an enemy who used hit-and-run tactics. He longed to meet the Caledonians in a pitched battle, but this began to seem like a forlorn hope. Eventually he grew so frustrated by their refusal to stand and fight that he described them as ‘just so many spiritless cowards’. This label was unfair and undeserved: the natives were merely waging war in their own way, utilising the landscape of their homeland to its best strategic advantage.

After the failed attack on the Ninth Legion the Caledonians regrouped. They placed their families in safe locations away from danger and began to muster for the kind of encounter that Agricola wanted. Their reasons for abandoning guerilla tactics are unclear. Perhaps their leaders believed that their superior numbers could overwhelm the Roman force in a set-piece battle? Certainly, by the following summer a huge native army was ready to meet the invaders in a final, decisive engagement. Tacitus speaks of tribes forging ‘treaties’ with each other to unite their warriors under a common purpose, but this is likely to represent a Roman rather than a native way of doing things. In reality, the Caledonians probably rallied around a single paramount leader, the king or chieftain of a powerful tribe, whose authority was strong enough to persuade or coerce other tribal leaders to follow him into battle. Similarly, when Tacitus speaks of native warriors ‘flocking to the colours’ he is applying the imagery of Rome to a people whose military organisation was markedly different. The Caledonian forces did not have well-drilled regiments of professional soldiers, each with its own standard or ‘colours’: they were made up from the personal warbands of individual kings and chiefs.

The great clash of arms occurred in late August or early September at Mons Graupius, a name that later inspired the naming of the Grampian Mountains. The slightly different spelling arose from an error on the part of a fifteenth-century Italian writer who, in preparing the first printed edition of the Agricola, transcribed Graupius as Grampius. This mis-spelt name was subsequently applied to the formidable mountain range which since medieval times has been called ‘The Mounth’, a term of Gaelic origin with the simple meaning ‘mountain’. The precise location of the battlefield of AD 84 is a matter of considerable debate, chiefly because Tacitus gives few clues as to where it lay. The hill of Bennachie in Aberdeenshire has been put forward as a likely candidate: its most distinctive peak, the Mither Tap, is certainly deserving of the Latin description mons. Another candidate, although hardly a mons, is the Perthshire hillock of Duncrub which rises to no great height from the farmlands of Lower Strathearn. Although the name Dun Crub might correspond to a Pictish or Gaelic equivalent of Mons Graupius, the site seems too far south to be acceptable to those who envisage Agricola’s victory taking place north of the Mounth. The line of Agricolan forts and marching-camps running northward from the Tay suggests that he advanced a long way beyond the fertile valley of the Earn. On the other hand, somewhere in the vicinity of Duncrub lies an unlocated Roman fort whose Latin name was simply Victoria, ‘Victory’. Perhaps this name was given in commemoration of a great triumph over local natives? Some historians believe that the victory in question was indeed Mons Graupius, despite the insignificance of Duncrub as a landmark. Opponents think it more likely that the Romans named their fort to honour a different battle.

Wherever Mons Graupius lay, it was on its lower slopes that the Caledonians mustered a huge force of warriors, ranging from young men to old veterans, under the command of many kings and chieftains. Tacitus names one of these leaders as Calgacus, whose name is a Latinisation of a Brittonic term meaning ‘The Swordsman’. Tacitus shows this heroic figure giving a stirring speech about courage, freedom and heroism. It is one of the most vivid passages in the entire narrative of the Agricola. Standing before the assembled multitude, Calgacus gives words of hope to his people and a solemn vow that Rome will never conquer the Highlands. He predicts that the inexorable advance of the imperial army will be stopped in its tracks by the valiant warriors of the North, whose isolation has hitherto protected them from invasion:

We, the choicest flower of Britain’s manhood, were hidden away in her most secret places. Out of sight of subject shores, we kept even our eyes free from the defilement of tyranny. We, the most distant dwellers upon the earth, the last of the free, have been shielded until today by our very remoteness and by the obscurity in which it has shrouded our name . . . Let us then show, at the very first clash of arms, what manner of men Caledonia has kept in reserve.

Tacitus describes how this rousing address was greeted with euphoria by the gathering of 30,000 native warriors, who sang and yelled as they eagerly prepared for battle. Above the din, Calgacus closed his speech with these final words: ‘On, then, into action; and as you go, think of those that went before you and of those that shall come after’. Historians tend to believe that Calgacus was invented by Tacitus to present an idealised image of a noble savage, but the speech and its setting certainly capture the spirit of a proud barbarian people defying the power of Rome. In similar vein, the account of the ensuing battle – embellished from Agricola’s own words – is detailed and full of action. The scene unfolds with the noise of native chariots manoeuvring into position on the flat terrain between the two armies. Both sides then hurl spears at each other before Agricola orders six cohorts of war-hardened German auxiliaries to engage the enemy. Tacitus describes how these tough, disciplined veterans throw the Caledonians into disarray and push them backwards up the hill, ‘raining blow after blow, striking them with the bosses of their shields and stabbing them in the face’. Meanwhile, the chariots are easily dispersed by Roman cavalry and career wildly into their own lines. Other Roman horsemen charge the Caledonian rear and break the ranks, causing many warriors to break and flee. Some bravely stand their ground, or rally in nearby woods to launch small counter-attacks, but by then the battle is already lost. With customary efficiency the Romans ensured that they finished the job, and Tacitus tells that ‘the pursuit went on till night fell and our soldiers were tired of killing’. He may be exaggerating when he puts the Caledonian losses at 10,000, a third of their force, but the intensity of the slaughter need not be doubted. Roman casualties were less than 400.

Mons Graupius was a resounding victory which could have brought the final conquest of Britain within Agricola’s grasp. However, the result did not turn out to be as decisive as he might have hoped or expected. Two-thirds of the barbarian horde survived the onslaught and managed to return to their homes. Moreover, the summer campaigning season was waning and there was no time to establish control over an area as vast as the Highlands. Agricola duly assessed the situation and realised that consolidating his victory would be impossible, especially with autumn approaching and with large numbers of Caledonians still lurking in the hills. The task of rooting them out, while facing the inevitable nuisance of hit-and-run ambushes, presented an unappealing prospect. He and his officers knew that neither the Highland landscape nor its inhabitants were compatible with the Roman way of war. The invading army duly turned about and returned to winter quarters in the south, leaving a small number of garrisoned forts to guard the glens of Perthshire. Hostages were taken from a people called the Boresti, who may have been among the tribes defeated in the great battle, but the Roman advantage was lost. Agricola nominally held sway over all native territory south of the Moray Firth, but political machinations deprived him of an opportunity to consolidate his gains: the emperor Domitian, consumed by jealousy and paranoia after hearing of the victory, ordered Agricola to leave Britain and return to Rome.

After Agricola: The Two Walls

Tacitus tried to portray the victory at Mons Graupius as a spectacular success but could not hide the fact that Caledonia remained unconquered. Calgacus and his warriors, ‘the last of the free’, were still free. One small consolation for Rome came when the fleet that had shadowed the army’s progress completed its operations. After the battle it made a token gesture of dominance by continuing northward along the eastern seaboard and sailing around the top of Scotland, intimidating the natives with a final display of Roman power before sailing home down the western coast. During this voyage the admiral gathered plenty of information about the geography of the northern lands and learned the names of the tribes who dwelt there. This data, together with similar information gathered by Agricola’s army, was later reproduced on a Roman map which survives today in a version drawn by Ptolemy, a Greek geographer of the second century. The map is a unique and fascinating document which shows how the British Isles appeared to Roman eyes. As well as naming and locating important topographical features, it identifies the tribes who inhabited Britain and Ireland and indicates the approximate positions of their territories.

The map shows sixteen tribes inhabiting Scotland, twelve of them occupying areas north of the Forth-Clyde isthmus. A number of place-names, denoting Roman forts and native sites, are also shown, but none appear on the map in areas north and west of the Great Glen. This distribution suggests that Agricola’s land-campaign never reached beyond Loch Ness or the Moray Firth. The people of Caledonia appear on the map as the Caledonii, but it is curious that the Boresti, from whom the Romans took hostages after Mons Graupius, are absent. The map places the Caledonii across the central Highlands, in territory southwest of a people called Vacomagi, who seem to hold Moray and the Spey valley. Much of what is now Aberdeenshire is shown as lying within the territory of the Taezali, while Fife appears to be the home of a tribe called Venicones.

Within a decade of Agricola’s withdrawal, the Romans had become deeply pessimistic about the idea of ever conquering the Highlands. The forts established in Perthshire during the campaigns of AD 80–4 were abandoned, thereby removing the infrastructure for any future invasion. A new legionary fortress at Inchtuthil, on the north bank of the Tay, was dismantled before its construction could be completed. The frontier shrank back to the river’s estuary and was marked by a line of wooden watch-towers, but these and their associated forts were abandoned by AD 90. In the Scottish Lowlands the garrisons lingered on for a further ten years, but the second century dawned with an urgent need for manpower on the Danube causing a major withdrawal of troops from Britain. The northern frontier fell back again, shrinking the limits of Empire to the Tyne-Solway isthmus.

The early years of the second century saw the northern barbarians launch a series of attacks on Roman Britain. Whether or not the Caledonians were among these raiders is unknown, but the incursions left a trail of devastation in their wake. The situation became so serious that the emperor Hadrian ordered his soldiers to build a mighty wall of stone along the Tyne-Solway frontier. This great work was begun in 122 or 123 and was still in progress when Hadrian’s successor, Antoninus Pius, launched a vigorous campaign in the North. The new emperor’s objective was not another attempt to subdue the Highlands but a reconquest of what is now Lowland Scotland and the consolidation of a viable defensive line below the River Forth. Antoninus entrusted the venture to Britain’s newly appointed governor, Quintus Lollius Urbicus, who began the campaign sometime around 140. Within a couple of years Roman authority was restored along the Tay estuary and new forts were built to make the gains permanent. The imperial frontier was fixed slightly to the south, being marked by a barrier – the Antonine Wall – across the Forth-Clyde isthmus. The new barrier was not built of stone, but consisted of a turf rampart with a ditch in front. Sixteen forts sited at regular intervals along its forty-mile length accommodated a total garrison of 6,000 men, while several Agricolan forts and some new ones north of the line were maintained as forward outposts. Despite its impressive appearance and large garrison, the turf wall was probably constructed as a display of prestige by Antoninus rather than for practical defensive reasons. For a while it became the new northern border of the Empire and made Hadrian’s Wall redundant. It did not, however, survive long as a stable frontier. It was briefly abandoned in the 150s, its soldiers moving south to quell a revolt among the Brigantes of the Pennines, before being permanently evacuated in the following decade. The final withdrawal came soon after the death of Antoninus Pius in 161, which allowed his successors to downsize the northern frontier army. A handful of outpost forts beyond the Forth were still garrisoned, but the imperial boundary shrank back to Hadrian’s Wall.

Caledonii and Maeatae

Before the end of the second century the Caledonians were assailing the Scottish Lowlands with increasing ferocity. The Roman writer Cassius Dio described how events took a very serious turn when Hadrian’s Wall was overwhelmed sometime between 180 and 184. Although the onslaught on the Wall was brief, it was a symbolic disaster for Rome and a huge achievement for the barbarians. The great stone barrier was quickly recovered, but all the forts to the north of it were temporarily abandoned to the enemy.

The third century dawned on a rather unsettled situation. The Romans now faced two large groups of hostile natives across the war-ravaged isthmus between the Firths of Clyde and Forth. One was their old enemy the Caledonians, who ended the previous century in some kind of uneasy treaty with Rome. The other was the Maeatae, whose territory corresponded roughly with present-day Stirlingshire. A memory of this people survives in two place-names in the region they once inhabited: Dumyat (from Dun Myat, ‘Fort of the Maeatae’) and Myot Hill. According to Cassius Dio, the Maeatae dwelt immediately beyond the Antonine Wall, while the Caledonians inhabited lands further north. This shows that Caledonian territory still included Perthshire, as had been the case in Agricola’s time, although the precise extent of these lands in either the first century or the third is unknown. Ptolemy’s second-century map shows the name Caledonii covering a wide swathe of northern Scotland from the west coast to the east, but this might denote nothing more than Roman perceptions of the fame and status of this people. On the other hand, it is clear that the Caledonians and the Maeatae were large and powerful political entities, each perhaps an amalgamation of peoples under the sway of a single dominant group. Of the twelve tribes shown on Ptolemy’s map as second-century occupants of the Highlands, some had already been amalgamated into larger groupings during his lifetime. Using information collected by Agricola’s forces, Ptolemy showed four tribes in the area between the Firths of Forth and Moray: the Caledonii, Vacomagi, Taezali and Venicones. By the third century the Caledonii had evidently absorbed the others and subsumed their identities. Given the undoubtedly warlike and ‘heroic’ character of Iron Age society, it is hard to imagine that the process of absorption or amalgamation was voluntary rather than enforced. Even with the threat of a Roman invasion providing a persuasive argument for smaller tribes to join larger ones, the amalgamation was unlikely to have been peaceful. Between the menace of Rome and the dominance of the Caledonii the leaders of the Vacomagi, Venicones and Taezali may have had little choice but to surrender their sovereignty within the Caledonian ‘confederacy’. The alternative was military conquest by one foe or another, the most immediate threat coming not from the legions but from the Caledonians. The Caledonians and the Maeatae are sometimes viewed by historians as voluntary associations formed by separate tribes seeking mutual assurances of protection by amicable agreement. It is more realistic to see these two ‘confederacies’ as the enlarged hegemonies of powerful kindreds who, in a period of uncertainty, exploited the vulnerability of fearful neighbours to forge large groups that they could control as paramount rulers.

In 197, the emperor Septimius Severus emerged victorious from a destructive civil war in Gaul to deal with the growing barbarian menace on his borders. On the northern frontier in Britain the Maeatae were still belligerent and were being held back only by large gifts of Roman cash, while the Caledonians were on the verge of breaking a fragile treaty with the Empire. During the early years of the third century Roman diplomacy maintained control of the frontier but, in 205 or 206, the two confederacies launched an invasion. Britain’s governor appealed to Severus for more troops or, better still, for the direct involvement of the emperor himself. At that time, Severus was eager to take his sons Caracalla and Geta away from the decadence of Rome to give them some experience of generalship. Bringing them to Britain seemed an ideal solution and so, in 208, he arrived on the island at the head of a large army. Taking personal command of the military situation he marched north, crossing the Forth-Clyde isthmus to attack the Maeatae. Fierce fighting ensued, with the barbarians waging a guerilla war on their home territory until they were beaten into submission. At this point, Severus revived the old Agricolan scheme for a conquest of the North and began to plan the construction of a massive new legionary fortress in Perthshire, at Carpow on the Tay.

In 210, however, the Maeatae rose again, at a time when Severus was stricken by illness. The task of crushing the revolt was given to Caracalla, whose brutal methods provoked the Caledonians under their chieftain Argentocoxos (‘Silver Leg’) to join the fight against Rome. The decisive event in the drama came in early 211, when the death of Severus elevated Caracalla to the purple. The new emperor consolidated the Antonine frontier, but he soon realised the futility of a permanent scheme to subjugate the North. He eventually made peace with the barbarians and then, like Agricola before him, withdrew his forces south of the Forth-Clyde line while he himself hurried back to Rome. Construction of the new fortress at Carpow had already begun but was promptly abandoned. With Caracalla’s withdrawal came the end of any realistic hope of conquering the whole island of Britain. No Roman general would ever again march towards the Tay to threaten the tribes who dwelt in the hills and glens. From that moment on, the destiny of the far North lay in the hands of its native inhabitants.

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