Atrax in 198 BC

At Atrax in 198 BC, Quinctius Flamininus threw up a siege embankment to carry rams up to the wall, and although his troops entered the town through the resulting breach they were repulsed by the Macedonian garrison. The siege tower that Flamininus then deployed almost fell over when one of its wheels sank in the rutted embankment, and the Romans finally gave up (Livy 32.18.3). Their failure can probably be attributed to inexperience in mechanized siege warfare: first, their siege embankment was obviously insufficiently compacted to bear the weight of heavy machinery; and second, they seem rarely to have used a siege tower before.

PHILIP V. Philip V of Macedon reigned more than a century after Alexander the Great. His family were the Antigonids, who had risen to power some 80 years before. Mercurial by nature, capable of military brilliance as well as acts of colossal stupidity, Philip was a brave and charismatic general who spent his entire reign fighting enemies to the north, south, east and west. The war with Rome was to prove his nemesis.

TITUS QUINCTIUS FLAMININUS. Flamininus was a fine example of the politician who let nothing get in his way. Serving as various types of magistrate during the war with Hannibal, he succeeded in becoming consul – one of the two most senior magistrates in the Republic – at the tender age of 30. Unusually for the time, he could write and speak Greek, but his love of all things Hellenic did not stop him spearheading a successful invasion of Macedon.

Northern Greece


Under Philip II and his son Alexander the Great, Macedon rose to a position of pre-eminence never equalled by any Greek city state before or after. By the late third century BC, the kingdom had seen better days. That said, although it was much reduced in size, it remained the dominant military power in Greece and continued to exert huge influence over the region. Naturally, this made it unpopular. Macedon ruled the central region of Thessaly, and through three well-situated fortresses (Chalcis, Demetrias and the Acrocorinth, the so-called `Fetters of Greece’) exerted military control over the area around Athens, as well as on the Peloponnese peninsula. Macedon also ruled part of the coastline of Asia Minor, as well as some of the islands in the Aegean Sea.

The rest of Greece remained divided into city states, small powers ruled by their own citizens. It’s important to stress here that there was almost no sense of `Greekness’ at this time. People identified themselves by the place they lived in, and were often at odds with those from other towns or city states. Powers such as Athens and Sparta, which had ruled supreme centuries before, were but shadows of their former selves. Thebes no longer existed, having been crushed by Alexander, and Corinth lay under Macedonian control. Aetolia, in west-central Greece, was one of the stronger city states, and a bitter enemy of Macedon. Other powers included Argos, Elis and Messenia on the Peloponnese, tiny Acarnania in southwest Greece, and Boeotia, the latter two both being allied to Macedon.

Carthage, Macedon and the Seleucid Empire – had all been beaten by Rome in war. In a mere 50 years, the Republic had morphed from a regional power with few territories into one that utterly dominated the Mediterranean world. This seismic change set Rome on the road to becoming an empire, a self-fulfilling path from which there was no turning back.

The Republic’s war with Carthage lasted for 17 bitter years, from 218 BC to 201 BC. It was a conflict initiated by the Carthaginian military genius Hannibal Barca. Invading Italy by crossing the Alps in winter, he inflicted crushing defeats on the Romans at the Trebbia, Lake Trasimene and Cannae. Yet Hannibal never succeeded in forcing his enemies to surrender. Obdurate and resilient, Rome recruited new legions to replace those that had been annihilated, and fought on. It was a long, drawn-out war that spanned four fronts: mainland Italy, Sicily, Spain and, lastly, Carthage, in what is now Tunisia.

Old grudges die hard

One might think that the Romans would have had enough of war once victory over Hannibal and Carthage had been secured. Far from it. Less than two years after the decisive Battle of Zama, the Republic opened hostilities with King Philip V of Macedon. his wasn’t a conflict that had come from nowhere, however: the Romans and Philip had history with one another.

In 215 BC, the year after the Battle of Cannae, the chance interception of a ship off the southern coast of Italy had brought to light a most unwelcome revelation. Documents seized by the Roman navy proved that Philip and Hannibal had come together in secret alliance against the Republic. The Senate immediately sent a fleet to the east, its task to contain the Macedonian King. Events in Illyria soon took on a life of their own, and in 214 BC, war broke out between Rome and Macedon.

The conflict lingered on until 205 BC, a stop-start affair that played out all around the Greek coastline. Macedon fought alone, while the Romans had allies throughout the region. here were sieges, lightning-fast raids and withdrawals, victories and defeats on both sides. When peace was finally negotiated, the Republic’s war with Hannibal was nearing its final act – it suited the Romans to end the conflict with Macedon. Aetolia, Rome’s chief Greek ally, had had enough too. Philip, on the other hand, had reason to be content, having lost none of his territories and gained part of Illyria.

In the five years that followed, Hannibal was defeated by Scipio at Zama, while Philip busied himself campaigning on the coast of Asia Minor, where he had some successes against Rhodes, the Kingdom of Pergamum and others. For every achievement, however, it seemed Philip suffered a setback. He besieged but failed to take the city of Pergamum, and in a naval battle at Chios he lost a large part of his fleet, as well as thousands of sailors and soldiers. he most humiliating incident was the six months in the winter of 201-200 BC that Philip spent barricaded in a bay in western Turkey by a Pergamene and Rhodian fleet. Finally escaping by night, slipping past the ships of his enemies, he made his way back to Macedon.

Whatever other misjudgements Philip had made, he had been astute enough to avoid conflict with the powerful Seleucid Empire, which controlled most of modern-day Turkey and sprawled eastwards into the Middle East, Afghanistan and India. He also entered into a secret agreement with the Seleucid ruler, Antiochus III, that allowed both powers to attack settlements belonging to Ptolemaic Egypt.

Rome’s revenge

Philip’s actions in Asia Minor were to have major repercussions. In the autumn of 201 BC, Rhodes and Pergamum both sent embassies to Rome pleading for aid against him. Despite having rebuffed Aetolian emissaries asking for the same help only a few years before, this time the Senate listened – but its first motion for war was rejected by the Centuriate, the people’s assembly.

It is no surprise that the very people who had bled and died in vast numbers during the struggle against Hannibal were reluctant to pick up their swords and shields again so soon, but their resistance was short-lived. Politicians have always been prone to ignoring decisions made by plebiscite, and after six months – and in all likelihood, after some significant back-room politicking – the Centuriate reversed its decision.

It was late in the summer of 200 BC before an army was dispatched to Illyria. he chosen commander was Publius Sulpicius Galba, an experienced politician and leader who had served in various positions during the war with Hannibal, including that of consul. Setting up base near the city of Apollonia by September, Galba sent a legion up one of the several mountain valleys that led to Macedon. After a short siege, the town of Antipatreia was taken and sacked. Prudently deciding to end his year’s campaign before winter arrived, Galba consolidated his position in Apollonia and waited for the spring.

Philip did the same in Macedon, but as soon as the weather began to improve in early 199 BC, he marched his army west from his capital of Pella. It was difficult to know which route Galba would use to invade; history doesn’t record whether Philip had scouts watching every valley, but it would have made sense to do so.

In the event, Galba chose the Apsus Valley. Philip rushed to defend it, but Rome’s legions smashed past his phalanx and into western Macedon. Although the defeat was incomplete – Philip’s army escaped almost entirely – this was a pivotal moment in the war, when the extraordinarily maneuverable Roman maniple proved itself superior to the rigidly structured phalanx.

Galba’s army marched eastward in search of Philip’s host, and a game of cat and mouse ensued through the summer, with each side seeking battle on its own terms. A victory for the Romans at Ottolobus, when Philip almost lost his life recklessly leading his Companion Cavalry against the enemy, was countered by a Macedonian win at Pluinna. Sadly, the locations of both Ottolobus and Pluinna have been lost to history.

The harvest of 199 BC arrived without a conclusive outcome. Galba, far from his base of Apollonia, with his supply lines at risk of being cut by snow or the Macedonians, took the sensible option and retreated to the Illyrian coast.

Titus Quinctius Flamininus

In many ways, the politics of 2,000 years ago were no different to today: the new man always likes to take control. Although it was common in the mid-Republic for a general to be left in command of the war he was prosecuting, Galba found himself supplanted by the current consul, Villius, soon after his return to Apollonia. Villius in turn was replaced only a few months later, in early 198 BC, by the brand-new consul, Titus Quinctius Flamininus thirty years old – a young age to be in command of a large army – he was a formidable figure who took the invasion in his stride. A lover of all things Hellenic, he could speak and write Greek, something unusual for Romans of the time.

Flamininus decided to try a different valley to Galba, that of the River Aous. He found his path blocked by Philip’s phalanx and an impressive series of defences, leading to a 40-day stand-off during which the Romans must have mounted many unsuccessful attacks. A dramatic meeting between Flamininus and Philip took place during this time, across the Aous. The Roman historian Livy records that Flamininus demanded Philip remove his garrisons from all Greek towns and pay reparations to those whose lands he had ravaged: Athens, Pergamum and Rhodes. Unpalatable though these demands were – being issued to a Hellenic king on his own territory by a non-Greek invader – Philip conceded. Unsurprisingly, he balked at Flamininus’ next demand, that he should surrender the towns of Thessaly to their own populations, reversing a legacy of Macedonian control of more than 150 years.

The impasse resumed, but soon after a local guide was found to lead a Roman force up and around the Macedonian positions. Attacked from in front and behind, Philip’s army broke and fled; it was thanks only to the phalanx that a complete slaughter was prevented. Pursued eastward, Philip had to abandon the same Thessaly he had refused to deliver to Flamininus only days before. It was a humiliating moment for the Macedonian King, all the more so as he had to torch his own farmland and towns to deny supplies to the enemy.

Defeat seemed imminent, but redemption was to come from an unexpected quarter. Despite the loss of the strategically important fortress of Gomphi, Philip’s forces proved victorious at another stronghold, Atrax. When the Roman catapults battered a hole in the wall and the legionaries charged in, they were faced by the phalanx in a tightly confined space. he sources are silent on details, but what happened there persuaded Flamininus to retreat from Thessaly.

Fine September weather meant that the year’s campaign did not come to an end at the usual time. Flamininus’s considerable successes saw the Greek city states, many of which had been playing neutral, move towards the Roman camp – or in the case of Aetolia and Achaea, join it outright. Several towns in Boeotia fell to the legions, and the mighty fortress of the Acrocorinth was besieged by a combined force of Romans, Pergamenes and Achaeans. his attack failed, but it signalled the end of Philip’s ability to retain territories outside Macedon. he future looked bleak.

Macedonian phalanx

The Romans had been fighting the Macedonian phalanx for more than a century. Pyrrhus defeated the Romans with it in the early third century, the Carthaginians in Africa in the middle of the century did as well, and Hannibal did the same later. In 197 bc the Romans had won a terrifying victory against Perseus’s father at Cynoscephalae, a battle that vividly illustrated the terrible power of the phalanx’s charge, even on unsuitable ground. In the year 198 bc before Cynoscephalae, the Roman siege of Atrax had failed when a Macedonian phalanx drawn up in a breach in the wall had proved quite impervious to Roman attack. Polybius’s judgment that “when the phalanx has its characteristic virtue and strength nothing can sustain its frontal attack or withstand the charge” will have been no news to Roman commanders. The phalanx’s fatal flaw, Polybius says, is that it requires flat terrain so that it can preserve its close order. Perseus’s father’s unwise decision to fight on broken ground allowed the Romans to defeat him at Cynoscephalae. But Aemilius Paullus consented to fight the Macedonian phalanx on a plain, ideally suited to it, on ground that Perseus had chosen for exactly that reason.

Crisis of conference

In likely recognition of this, Philip agreed to a conference with Flamininus and his allies in November 198 BC. It also suited the wily Flamininus to negotiate, because in Rome, consular elections were around the corner. If he was to be replaced (as he had done to Villius) then a peace treaty with Philip was the best option; if his command was renewed, on the other hand, Flamininus could fight Macedon to a finish.

Three days of heated negotiations without agreement saw Philip request to send an embassy to Rome; he would abide, he said, by the decision of the Senate. Flamininus agreed, knowing full well that once there, Philip would be asked to surrender the three fortresses that protected Macedon to the south – the so-called `Fetters of Greece’, Acrocorinth, Chalcis and Demetrias. And so it proved. Flamininus’ command was renewed, and Philip’s outwitted ambassadors could not agree to the Senate’s demand to evacuate the Fetters. Both parties retired for the winter.

In spring 197 BC, the war resumed. Rather than in mountain valleys, this year the fighting would take place in Thessaly. By May, both armies were marching towards each other on the coast. Taking account of his allies, Flamininus had about 26,000 men; Philip’s troops were of similar strength, including 16,000 phalangists.

Skirmishes and maneuvering saw both parties march westward, separated by a range of hills. As is often the case with battles of vital importance, the fighting began by accident when Flamininus’s scouts clashed with Philip’s advance force in bad weather, atop the hills of Cynoscephalae. Reinforcements were sent by both sides as the skirmish spiralled out of control and, before long, both commanders had deployed their armies.

The phalanx falters

Unhappy with the ground and lacking half of his phalanx (which was out scouting), Philip went to battle reluctantly. At first, things went well, with his phalangists driving the Roman left flank down the hillside towards their own camp. Victory might have seemed possible, but things changed fast when Flamininus led his right flank up towards the second half of Philip’s phalanx, which had arrived late to the battle. Panicked by the Romans’ elephants, these disorganised phalangists broke and ran.

Misfortune then turned into disaster for Philip when a quick-thinking Roman officer broke away from Flamininus’ position with several thousand legionaries and attacked the exposed flank and rear of the remaining half of the phalanx. Unable to defend themselves, the phalangists were slain in large numbers; the rest fled the field.

The defeat did not see Philip removed from his throne by Flamininus. Rome was well aware of the threat posed by the wild peoples to the north of Macedon and the Seleucid Empire to its east. Philip could serve nicely as a buffer, while also paying reparations and sending one of his sons to Rome as a hostage.

Effectively, Cynoscephalae signalled the end of Macedonian and Greek independence. he city states that had allied themselves to the Republic would realise this too late, and just a year later, in 196 BC, the Aetolians lamented how the Romans had unshackled the feet of the Greeks only to put a collar around their necks.


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.

Caesar’s Army

The Republican period ran from a traditional start date established after the last King of Rome in 509BC and ended after Caesar was assassinated and Augustus became supreme ruler in 31BC. Detailed archaeological and historical evidence for this period of Roman military history is somewhat elusive, but we do have three authors who provide us with some evidence of the structure and behaviour of the early Roman army: Livy, Polybius and, of course, Caesar himself. Their descriptions are good as far as they go, but provide us with only a narrow view of the army of the late Republic. The authors, excepting Caesar, do not provide a contemporary view of Caesar’s army and tend to focus only on an idealized image of the legions, with little or no attention given to other units such as allies or mercenaries. The case is not much better with regard to the archaeological evidence. Here we can find some suitable contemporary evidence for the Roman army of the late Republic, but it is extremely limited, focusing on a few camps in Spain and naturally Alesia. Unfortunately, as most of this data was unearthed over a century ago, even this evidence is patchy. Our understanding of Caesar’s army, therefore, is built from a mix of contemporary and not so contemporary sources, scholarly research and debate.

Clearly Caesar’s legions did not simply spring to life fully formed. While they were raised as complete units, this arrangement came about as part of an inherited system of behaviour. To understand the character of the Caesarean legion it is worth taking a brief look at how the legions developed from their foundation. In reviewing the development of the legion as a whole, some of the relationships between Gaul and Rome will become apparent. The legion, as we understand it, was the consequence of a long period of changes absorbed in the wake of military defeat. Although the Roman legion is now seen as the epitome of military genius, the reality was somewhat different; in fact, Rome’s success as a military power seems to have been due more to its ability to learn from its mistakes. Rome’s brilliance was that it could accept its weaknesses and adopt the successful elements of its enemies, whilst all the time placing these within a structured military system. In due course, the legion developed from the propertied man’s annual obligation to fight to protect his land during the summer months, to the requirement for all males to fight lengthy warfare for a campaigning season (usually March to October) and finally to professional soldiers paid to fight constantly over prolonged periods of many years. This transformation was concurrent with the expansion of Roman territory and the change from the protection of the local community to the requirements for a standing army to protect a vast and diverse Empire.

The armies of early Italy were little more than war-bands of infantry and cavalry, raised by local tribes or princes when required, and fighting when the seasons allowed. Charismatic and powerful men led these bands, the best of which could provide protection for the individual and an opportunity for advancement. It could be argued that these traits were enshrined in the system from this early date, as the patronage of wealthy and powerful leaders can be seen in the armies of Rome throughout its history. Caesar was certainly a general who instilled in his legions personal devotion to him. Finally, the early system of ad hoc recruitment became more standardized, in order to provide a more regular and predictable turnout of men. The first Roman armies consisted of around 3,000 men and were organized on the basis of tribal groups, called a legio or a ‘levying’. Each tribe contributed 100 men towards the total force – the origin of the ‘century’ of Caesar’s legion. The wealthy elites in the tribe were relied upon to supply the cavalry for the army, as only they could afford expensive equipment and horses. This group, the equites or knights, survived as a social group long after their original function had vanished, serving as officers in Caesar’s army. In essence these early armies fought in similar ways to most early European armies of the period. Warrior bands would fight under the command of their local leader in unstructured groupings, while commanders would range around the battle, urging them on to fight and selecting suitable enemy leaders for combat. It is interesting to consider that the Gallic armies Caesar faced were very much on a par with these early Roman armies.

After the Roman Republic began in 509BC, the Roman army became far more formalized, along the hierarchical lines society was taking. Greekstyle Hoplite warfare was the most advanced military tradition at the time and represented a significant advancement on earlier military tactics. In Hoplite warfare, troops fought as a densely packed line of heavily armed spearmen. Cohesion was the key to this style of fighting and so the hierarchical nature of Roman society was replicated in the legion. Only those men with property were allowed to fight, giving the men a sense of duty and an interest in preserving the State. It is worth noting here that Roman citizens were providing the entire range of troop types in the army – a situation that was not to last. As Rome expanded the areas coming under its domination, there also came a necessity for an expanded army. The increased wealth of Rome meant that the number of infantry and cavalry centuries could also be increased.

By the fourth century BC, Rome’s experiences of fighting with the Latin and Gallic tribes had revealed serious weaknesses in the Hoplite form of warfare. The more flexible fighting styles of the Gauls and Samnites often highlighted the sluggish and formulaic nature of Hoplite warfare. To counteract this problem the Romans began to adopt less dense formations, which in turn required a revision of their tactics and equipment. The Roman phalanx was reorganized into fighting formations called maniples – literally ‘handfuls’. The overall result was slowly changing the legions from the rigid defensive formation of the phalanx into a cohesive collection of flexible offensive fighting units. The fourth century BC saw the entire Italian peninsula come under the control of Rome and as the sphere of influence increased, so did the embracing of allied Italian peoples into the Roman army. On campaign it became common for allied soldiers to comprise about the same number of troops as the Roman legionaries. Armed like the legionaries, these allied troops formed up either side of the legions in alae or wings. From this time on, allied or mercenary units came to be a significant feature of the Roman army.

‘On the expedition he [Marius] carefully disciplined and trained his army whilst on their way, giving them practice in long marches, and running of every sort, and compelling every man to carry his own baggage and prepare his own victuals; insomuch that thenceforward laborious soldiers, who did their work silently without grumbling, had the name of Marius’ mules.’

[Plutarch, Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, 13]

The turn of the first century BC saw a significant change in the character of the Roman army. This has often been attributed to just one man, Marius, but this may be somewhat overstated and simplistic. Transformations had been taking place over the course of the previous three centuries, therefore Marius’ role is most likely to have been as a catalyst for the changes already developing. The army was now spending long periods away from home and it was becoming a genuine career choice with the possibility of gaining wealth and land from the proceeds of victory. Previously, the Roman army had been an organized militia, galvanized with discipline and training. Increasingly, the army was becoming more specialized and developing a core of professional soldiers as Roman society became geared for on-going war. Pragmatism was required in the face of the demands put on the army by the ever-expanding areas of land to be controlled. This also resulted in a relaxation of the prescribed requirements for entry to the army, which had gradually been eroded almost as soon as the legion was developed. The acceptance of elements of the non-land owning populace into the army had only been done in extremis before, but now Marius attempted to increase the strength of the army by changing the property requirements for service. He allowed the recruitment of proletarii, the landless citizens of Rome, making the class-based system redundant. The state had for some time been supplying equipment to the army and so standardization was already occurring. Hence by Marius’ time, the army was equipped fairly uniformly and the complex strata exhibited in the previous system was removed. Thus Marius was unwittingly responsible for homogenizing both the equipment and structure of the legions, by allowing the process to become formalized.

In accepting the landless into the army, the State also had to accept the responsibility of arming the legions, which, up until then, had been paid for by the soldiers themselves. After their service these landless soldiers were left to fend for themselves, so while they were in the legions they were willing to follow any charismatic leader that promised them land afterwards. Gradually, a subtle difference in the mind-set of the legions emerged, from a landed militia protecting their own Roman lands, to a professional army dominating annexed foreign provinces. Soldiers began to develop greater loyalty to their generals, identifying with their leaders who, like them, sought personal enrichment rather than seeing the maintenance of the structure of the State as the purpose of their fighting. Individual grants of land and money, distributed after military successes and service, were now becoming commonplace. The politics of the late Republic were becoming ever more competitive, hence in the struggle for advancement senators succumbed to more and more aggressive policies and expansionist pressure. This was the world that Caesar made his own.

Caesar leaves out much of the detail of his army because his audience was well informed about the character of the Roman army of the period. Caesar does tell us that he was using a system of cohorts, a simplified version of the previous maniple system. Marius is thought to have been responsible for the change from maniples to cohorts but it is likely that both systems could have been in place together for a period. When Caesar set out on his Gallic adventure in 58BC the cohort system was well established. Manipular legions were made up of three distinct lines of formation, each one equipped differently and socially differentiated. The cohort legion did away with these equipment complexities, replacing them with a flexible body of similarly armed men. It is likely that the system was introduced to deal with the difficult nature of warfare in Spain. Tactics had to be developed to combat both the Spanish guerrilla warfare and the mountainous character of the landscape. The system retained the three-line formation, with a strengthened rear rank as a reserve.

Caesar formed his legions for battle into what is called a triplex acies formation, being four cohorts in front, with two lines of three cohorts behind. This formation was something of a compromise between being wide enough to form a broad frontage and deep enough to have reserves. The middle cohorts provided the reserve for the front cohorts, while the rear cohorts could be used for outflanking the enemy or if the legion was attacked in the rear. The basic building blocks of the legion were the eighty-man centuries, each one commanded by a centurion. Caesar depicts the centurions as the fundamental glue of his legion, providing harsh discipline and motivational inspiration in equal measures. Six of these centuries would provide a 400-man cohort: this played the role of an individual tactical unit on the battlefield, ten cohorts together forming the legion.

In the last century of the Roman Republic the command of the army was removed from publicly elected consuls. Only after their period of office could they command – a circumstance that had the effect of further breaking the army’s connection to a citizenry. Caesar tells us that most of the legions for his Gallic campaigns were raised during the winter months, when campaigning had ceased. As governor of three provinces, he inherited the four legions that were stationed in them and these could be augmented by further recruitment from the provinces. Initially it seems that Caesar would raise the legion out of his own money, then, after gaining acknowledgment of the unit from Rome, the legion would become the responsibility of the State to maintain. Caesar enlisted troops into the legions of both citizen and part-citizen ‘Latin’ status, thus continuing the process of blurring the qualifications for entry to the legions. By collecting these diverse groups into unified legions, and by exerting direct personal control over them, Caesar was able to place himself as the main focus of the legion’s loyalties, before that of any other – even the State. This meant that his forces were extremely loyal to him: a factor that was to play its role in the subsequent Civil War (49–45BC).

The officers of the legions were not trained. In fact, most received their posts as part of their political career. Six tribunes were placed as middle-ranking officers of the legion and these were generally young and untested men of aristocratic birth, often lacking in initiative or bravery. Caesar chose the tribunes personally, many purely on the basis of political expediency and patronage. Above the tribunes was a quaestor, a junior senator who oversaw an entire province and provided Caesar with finances. Overall control of a legion was placed in the hands of a legatus. Caesar chose a number of legati; usually former tribunes, they were senators from a variety of backgrounds and experiences, but were usually politically motivated choices.

Over the course of the Gallic Campaign, Caesar increased his legions from the four he inherited, to twelve at the height of the fighting for the Alesia Campaign. Thus, Caesar could have had up to 57,600 men at his disposal. However, this number was only the paper strength of the legion, based on around 4,800 men per legion. The actual number would, more likely, be half this amount by the campaigning of late summer 52BC. Battle casualties, infirmity, exhaustion and general wastage from the previous months’ campaigning would all have played a part in reducing this tally to less than 30,000 men at Alesia.

The 30 miles of fortifications – making up the circumvallation and contravallation at Alesia – may seem very large, but when one considers that its construction was divided among almost 30,000 available men, each soldier would only have had to dig around 5 feet of trench and rampart in the six weeks it took to prepare. In this light, the defences do not seem such a superhuman task. In fact, when one considers that it was usual for Roman legionaries to build a camp at the end of the day’s march, the building of these fortifications seems well within the capabilities of the average soldier. In truth, the greater task would have been the logistics of the operation, including the planning, design, organization, supply and implementation of the construction. However, this is where the Roman military machine came into its own. If the defences at Alesia are exceptional, this is only because the management of the army was exceptional and equal to the Herculean task. Motivation to create such an engineering feat was an important factor in Caesar’s army. Infantry training tended to focus on physical ability, including running, jumping, marching and building – clearly necessary for the construction work.

Increasingly, espirt de corps was also encouraged. The legions began to be individualized by number and by name. Added to this, individual legions were picked out by nicknames, often recognizing their exploits, and by use of awards and honours on their banners and standards. This is not to say that the legions were uncritically loyal to their leaders. While the soldiers were made to give oaths of allegiance that imposed legal and religious constraints on them, the Roman army was still prone to revolts and indiscipline was common, mainly over pay or ill treatment. Often rewards would be granted to keep the legionaries content. Caesar would often bestow on his soldiers a promotion as part of the system of rewards, especially for centurions. At Alesia Caesar’s handing over of slaves and booty to his soldiers after the defeat of Vercingetorix is a clear example of this. To this was added the spoils of war, along with donativa, one-off payments made by the general in gratitude of service. After the Alesia Campaign, Caesar decided to double the pay to ensure the loyalty of his soldiers for the coming civil wars.

The remaining archaeological evidence from Alesia is confined to the siegeworks themselves. Roman weapons of the late Republic are scarce throughout Europe, most coming from siege sites in Spain. At Alesia there is surprisingly little in the way of Roman military equipment and this is likely to be due in part to biases in the excavation of material. In the main, archaeologists have focused their attentions on understanding the form of the Roman defences. This means the results have concentrated upon the character of ditches that bordered the Roman circumvallation and contravallation. These, it has been discovered, were filled with javelins and arrowheads, which make up the predominant proportion of the total weapons discovered at Alesia. While some Roman pila (the legionary’s offensive missile) have been found, most of the other weapons are likely to be Gallic in origin. If one considers that the ramparts were mainly the focus of incoming missiles from the Gallic army, then outgoing Roman missiles would have been fired into areas further from the ramparts, where little or no excavation has been undertaken. Similarly, all the swords so far discovered seem to be of Gallic origin, and again this may not be unusual, as Roman weapons would have been retrieved after the battle had finished to be used in future campaigns, whereas Gallic ones would only have been recovered if they were considered valuable.

‘Gaius Sulpicius … commanded those who were in the front line to discharge their javelins, and immediately crouch low; then the second, third, and fourth lines to discharge theirs, each crouching in turn so that they should not be struck by the spears thrown from the rear; then when the last line had hurled their javelins, all were to rush forward suddenly with a shout and join battle at close quarters. The hurling of so many missiles, followed by an immediate charge, would throw the enemy into confusion.’

[Appian, History of Rome: Gallic Wars, 1]

Archaeological evidence shows that the panoply of equipment of the Roman soldier differed only in detail from that of the better-equipped Gallic warriors – sword, long shield, helmet, mail armour and spear. Nevertheless, their appearance was different enough for one soldier to comment that soldiers in the distance were not Roman because of their ‘Gallic weapons and crests’. The Romans’ equipment wasn’t the only thing that was different from the Gauls; their fighting techniques varied too. After throwing their pila, the legionaries would engage the enemy adopting a crouching stance and using a juxtaposition of punches with the shield boss and stabs with a sword. It is evident from sculptural and archaeological evidence that the majority of Roman legionaries were equipped to fight in this style, with heavy armour and equipment. A large number of weapons have been found at Alesia, almost 400 in total, 140 of which are either javelins or spears. Unfortunately, these could be either of Roman, Gallic or German origin. Some of the spearheads must be Roman but it is unclear which, as leaf-shaped spearheads were a common form used across Europe at the time. However, using other sources of evidence, we can piece together a picture of Caesar’s legionaries. In the late Republic the average legionary would have a decorative tall bronze helmet with a short neck guard and large cheek pieces, a derivative of Gallic styles. The form was called ‘Montefortino type’ and was sometimes enhanced with horsehair or feather trappings. These decorative helmets were beginning to be replaced by a more easily produced, plain style of helmet called a ‘Coolus’ or ‘Buggenum-type’ helmet. It is likely that both types were in use at Alesia. In general, legionaries would wear a mail coat that reached nearly to the knees, which was hitched up with a military belt. Some sculptures suggest that these coats could have further mail reinforcing on the shoulders. Pieces of chest fastenings from these mail coats have been found at Alesia. However, as the Gauls were the inventors of this form of defensive equipment, defining whether these fittings are Gallic or Roman is very difficult. All legionaries would also carry a long curved wooden shield, strengthened by a vertical central spine and which had a small bronze boss covering the handgrip. On a legionary’s belt there would have been a stabbing sword on the right hip and a long dagger on the left. Both these weapons seem to be copied from types common in Spain.

‘[Caesar’s] … soldiers, hurling their javelins from the higher ground, easily broke the enemy’s phalanx. That being dispersed, they made a charge on them with drawn swords. It was a great hindrance to the Gauls in fighting, that, when several of their shields had been by one stroke of the pila pierced through and pinned fast together, as the point of the iron had bent itself, they could neither pluck it out, nor, with their left hand entangled, fight with sufficient ease; so that many, after having long tossed their arm about, chose rather to cast away the shield from their hand, and to fight with their person unprotected.’

[Caesar, The Gallic War, I. 25]

The one piece of the legionary’s equipment that can be directly attributed to Roman invention was his primary offensive weapon, the pilum. Pila were a form of spear with a long thin metal shaft and a small pointed head. Although pila are a Roman invention, examples of similar types of weapons were also developed in Gallic and German contexts. Among the huge number of missile weapons found at Alesia, pila are the predominant Roman weapons evident. Up until recently, only fragments of pila were discovered, mainly coming from the foot of Mont Réa. But in 1991 a complete example of a Roman pilum was discovered in Fort Eleven. The examples from Alesia are characterized by long thin shanks and points that come in pyramidal, leaf-shaped or lance-shaped forms. There are different ways in which pila were connected to the wooden shaft: some were connected by a socket that fitted over the shaft and was riveted to it; other pila shafts had a wide tongue that was sandwiched between the shaft and riveted in place. A final type had a pointed tang that was driven into the shaft and secured by a collar. Usually, a round shaft was used for the socketed and collared pila, whereas a square shaft was used for the tongued versions. It is likely that the socketed pilum was lighter than the tanged pilum, this is because the tanged pilum was often weighted to provide extra penetration on impact. After his excavations at Alesia, Napoleon III had replica pila made and tested. The results showed that the reconstructed examples could be launched 30m and penetrate wood 3cm thick. Heavier pila were weighted with lead and could have been thrown up to 70m. It is likely, therefore, that pila were thrown at the Gauls before they entered the defences of the circumvallation and contravallation at Alesia.

The equipment available for use by the legionary was extensive and the legionary himself carried much of it. The requirement that legionaries carry all their equipment is attributed to Marius: hence the term ‘Marius’ mules’, although the likelihood is that this is a misattribution. The soldiers had always been required to carry their equipment, a regulation that was regularly flouted. It is likely that Marius simply reinforced a standing regulation in an attempt to make the soldiers more self-reliant and less reliant on a baggage train – part of creating a professional army. Vegetius suggests up to 60 pounds of equipment should be carried during training and Josephus claims each soldier carried a saw, a basket, an axe, a pick, a strap, a billhook, a length of chain and three days’ rations. The rest of a soldier’s equipment, his tents and so on, were carried with the baggage. Along with this equipment, the Roman army took with it large numbers of servants and slaves, who were usually not armed but had sufficient knowledge of tactics to be of use. Sometimes these groups were added to the regular army to give the impression of a larger force than was actually available, such as at Gergovia, where they were mounted on horses to look like cavalry. Merchants and camp followers would also be part of the train, providing services that would otherwise be unattainable in foreign countries. Large numbers of followers and baggage had the tendency to slow the column on marches and so attempts were made to reduce these numbers. One way of reducing the reliance on camp followers was the local requisition of supplies and the creation of storage bases along the route of march. In Gaul, where Vercingetorix had instigated a scorched earth policy, this was impossible to maintain and so it is likely Caesar had more followers than he would have wished to have.

The legions also took on campaign with them numbers of artillery pieces. These could be used aggressively, either in open battles and sieges to provide preparatory fire, or defensively to protect camps and siegeworks. Roman artillery comprised various sizes of ballista (sometimes called a catapulta or catapult). The ballista was a torsion catapult that used two twisted skeins of hair or tendons to provide energy for a string that fired projectiles. The ballista was built in various sizes that fired anything from small crossbow-sized bolts to large cannonball-sized stones. Parts of ballistae occur occasionally on archaeological sites. At Alesia three bolt heads were discovered, betraying the presence of ballista there. Ballista would allow Caesar to cover most of the regions outside his defences with a combination of fire from the hills surrounding the defences and the ramparts of the circumvallation. The larger engines were probably fixed in place once built and reserved for siege work, whereas the smaller artillery was often broken down and moved on pack mules, but could also be erected on carts or wheels (carroballista) to make them mobile on the battlefield.

Caesar´s Germanic Cavalry

Caesar’s Allies

‘It was the practice of the Romans to make foreign friends of any people for whom they wanted to intervene on the score of friendship, without being obliged to defend them as allies.’

[Appian, History of Rome: Gallic Wars]

Throughout the Republican period, Rome relied heavily on its allies for additional infantry and cavalry forces to make up for a lack of manpower. In some cases these were specialist fighters recruited on an ad hoc basis and in varying strengths from the locality. More important were the allied light troops who were drawn from Mediterranean regions Rome had long been in contact with and with whom they had the closest relations. These troops were customarily raised for the duration of a campaign, which sometimes led the Romans themselves to questions their allies’ quality and commitment. Allied formations were usually under the control of an individual unit’s chief, and were armed, equipped and fought in the particular unit’s traditional style.

Usually the allied contingent of the Roman army was of equal or larger size than the legionary force and was usually formed along Roman lines. Units regularly seem to have been about 500 or 1,000 strong and broken down into either six or ten centuries. These could be arraigned with the main army in the centre of the Roman line or placed on both wings. Sometimes the more lightly armoured allied contingents were mixed with the heavier armed legionaries to prevent the allies from being picked off. Along with the heavily armed troops, many of the allies provided specialist light infantry troops, such as archers and slingers. These units are likely to have been dressed according to their ethnic origin, although there is no definitive evidence of which units were at Alesia. Over forty arrowheads have been recovered from Alesia and it is thought that some of the Roman forms of arrows with one and two barbs are likely to have been used by allied Roman troops. Roman arrows were manufactured from iron and were up to 7.8cm long and 2.5cm wide. Tests of reconstructed bows suggest they would have had a maximum range of around 300m, and so they would be able to fire at the Gauls beyond even the deepest of Caesar’s defences. Slings were also used and a number of examples of slingshot come from Alesia, most notably three with inscriptions on them. Reconstructed slingshots have shown a range of up to 400m, easily enough to provide covering fire from any of the hilltops around Alesia into the valleys below.

Throughout his campaigns in Gaul Caesar does not define the constitution of his cavalry and so we cannot be certain about their number or ethnicity. It is likely that at least some of the cavalry at Alesia were Roman. At the beginning of the conflict, Caesar was also able to call upon friendly Gallic tribes to provide him with Gallic cavalry and these were employed as warriors, as well as scouts, guides, interpreters and messengers. However, Caesar had always considered them unreliable, a belief which was confirmed once Vercingetorix rebelled and Caesar lost the majority of his Gallic troops to his rival. Some must have been retained however, if only in an intelligence role, but by the beginning of the Alesia Campaign Caesar was forced to employ new cavalry in the form of German mercenaries.

‘Caesar, as he perceived that the enemy were superior in cavalry, and he himself could receive no aid from The Province or Italy, while all communication was cut off, sends across the Rhine into Germany to those states which he had subdued in the preceding campaigns, and summons from them cavalry and the light-armed infantry, who were accustomed to engage among them. On their arrival, as they were mounted on unserviceable horses, he takes horses from the military tribunes and the rest, nay, even from the Roman knights and veterans, and distributes them among the Germans.’

[Caesar, The Gallic War, VII. 65]

Caesar tells us that the bulk of the German mercenaries were cavalrymen. Evidence for Germanic cavalry in the archaeological record at Alesia is slight; this is partially because German weapons are hard to distinguish due to their similarity with Gallic weapons. One shield boss with a central projecting stud is almost certainly German, given its similarities to later German bosses. Bones of horses coming from the ditches discovered at the foot of Mont Réa have been identified as coming from a male horse of no more than three years old. These bones may represent the well-bred young stallions given to the German cavalry. If this is correct, the evidence would conform well to the German cavalry attack on this region. Recent interpretation suggests that these horse remains may have been deliberately buried in the ditches, not simply to cover them up, but in a form of sacrificial burial. It was the Gallic custom to bury sacrifices in the peripheral ditches of sanctuaries. In Gallic eyes, the circumvallation ditch may have been associated with the practice of ritual sacrifice in these periphery ditches after the defeat.

‘There is not even any great abundance of iron, as may be inferred from the character of their weapons. Only a very few use swords or lances. The spears that they carry – framea is the native word – have short and narrow heads, but are so sharp and easy to handle, that the same weapon serves at need for close or distant fighting.’

[Tacitus, Germania, VI]

Along with the cavalry, the Germans are described as using spearmen who mingled with the mounted troops. This tactic may explain the successes of the German cavalry during the Alesia Campaign. Tacitus tells us that German warriors were lightly armed, the cavalry often having only a spear and shield. The infantry were armed in a similar manner, with the addition of a number of small javelins. All the Germans were dressed lightly with few wearing armour or helmets. Some even fought completely naked. In the main, German warriors wore breeches and large cloaks that would be draped over their shoulders in regional style. Their clothing was manufactured in simple colours and patterns, the only ostentatious part of their dress being elaborate knotted hairstyles. These varied from tribe to tribe and so identified each warrior as the member of a particular clan, a practice that had continued for hundreds of years.

‘[The Germans are] … a people who excelled all others, even the largest men, in size; savage, the bravest of the brave, despising death because they believe they shall live hereafter, bearing heat and cold with equal patience, living on herbs in time of scarcity, and their horses browsing on trees. It seems that they were without patient endurance in their battles, and did not fight in a scientific way or in any regular order, but with a sort of high spirit simply made an onset like wild beasts, for which reason they were overcome by Roman science and endurance.’

[Appian, History of Rome, 3]

Caesar tells us that the River Rhine marks the border between the Gallic peoples to the south and the Germans to the north. German warriors were famed for their physique, size and fearlessness – attributes which in Roman eyes made them appear as savages. Like the Gauls, the Romans had a stereotype for the Germans, who were seen as brutish to the point of indifference to death (a recurrent image even up until the present). As ever, the reality was very different; the German peoples had as complex a society as any other of the period. There were close affinities between Celtic peoples and Germans, in art, religion and culture. An innate conservatism meant that German tribes were slow to change and reduced access to resources seems to have meant that their technologies were less advanced than in Gaul. What they lacked in technology the Germans made up for in vigour. It was this trait that so impressed Caesar in his brief excursion across the Rhine into Germany – a trait that was to put to great use during the Alesia Campaign.

The World beyond Rome I

The Roman Empire was involved in networks of trade, diplomacy, and influence that, at their greatest extent, spanned Europe, Africa, and Asia. In the north, a Roman glass cup was buried in a fourth-century grave mound in Føre, Norway, above the Arctic Circle. In the east, a Roman glass bowl was buried in a fifth-century tomb in the Nara Prefecture in Japan. In the south, four Roman beads made of glass, silver, and gold were deposited in a third-century context at a trading site at Mkukutu in Tanzania. While these finds trace the outer edges of the reach of Roman trade goods, these regions were too far from the empire to play much role in frontier society. It is doubtful whether the nobles and merchants of Norway, Japan, and Tanzania who received these objects had any conception of the Roman Empire or knew where the luxury goods in their possession had been made.

Some knowledge of Rome reached China, where the Roman Empire was called “Great Qin.” Chinese sources reflect some eclectic but not inaccurate knowledge of Roman geography, government, and law. Romans had a similarly vague knowledge of the Chinese, whom they called “Seres,” being aware that their land was the source of silk and lay to the east beyond Parthia and India, but contacts were neither direct nor regular enough to leave much trace on the frontiers. The peoples, networks, and power centers that had a stronger impact on the frontier were found closer to the territory that the Romans had claimed as their own.

In North Africa, Roman administration covered the coastal agricultural regions, but in the broad zone of marginal lands between the coast and the Sahara desert there were numerous peoples, known to the Romans by such names as Mauri, Gaetuli, and Garamantes, who lived partly in and partly beyond the frontier region. Some of these peoples were dry-zone farmers who managed large-scale irrigation works. Others lived as nomadic pastoralists. There has been a long debate in the scholarship whether the settled and nomadic peoples of Rome’s desert frontiers, in Africa and elsewhere, lived in a state of cooperation or competition; the answer may well be both, depending on local circumstances and the fortunes of their farms and herds.

South of Egypt, on the middle reaches of the Nile, was the kingdom of Kush. In the aftermath of Octavian’s victory over Antony and Cleopatra and the incorporation of Egypt into the empire, Roman and Kushite forces clashed over control of the borderlands. After brief hostilities, Queen Amanirenas of Kush sent ambassadors to make a treaty with Augustus, and the peace held for most of the next few centuries. Occasional diplomatic missions helped keep the peace. One of these, likely from the third century, appears to be documented by a Latin inscription at Musawwarat es-Sufra in which one Acutus from Rome formally presents his good wishes to an unnamed queen. Evidence for the study of Greek in Kush may represent local officials keeping up the necessary language skills to send their own ambassadors in return. Kush also participated in the trade routes that connected the Mediterranean with the Indian Ocean and central Africa. Concern for the security of trade may have encouraged both states to keep relations stable.

The Arabian frontier, like North Africa, presented a mix of settled kingdoms and nomadic peoples. The trade routes that passed through the region brought in substantial wealth but also further complicated the relationships between these societies. The Nabataean kingdom was a Roman client state for the better part of two centuries. Its capital at Petra was adorned with rock-cut temples in ornate Hellenistic style, and its kings were important regional leaders. Trajan annexed the territory in 107 as the province of Arabia Petraea, or “Rocky Arabia.” Other kingdoms and tribal alliances competed for power and control of trade routes, sometimes allying with Rome and sometimes raiding the frontier.

The largest and most powerful of Rome’s neighbors was the Parthian Empire. The Parthian state, though a match for Rome in its ability to muster forces for campaigning, was decentralized, prone to divisive court intrigue, and contained numerous semi-autonomous subkingdoms. The administration of this unruly empire was as unwieldy a task as the administration of the Roman Empire with its restless provincials and ambitious generals. It is no wonder that, in the first century CE, the two empires mostly contrived to leave one another alone. Nevertheless, Parthia loomed large in the Roman imagination. It remained the big prize, the enemy against whom flattering writers and propagandistic artists could always imagine emperors leading the good fight. Rome was equally significant to Parthian policy. The Parthian kings positioned themselves as heirs to the Achaemenid dynasty and champions of the Iranian peoples against western aggression.

The period of relative stability was broken by Trajan, who invaded Mesopotamia and Armenia in 113. Although Trajan’s conquests were quickly reversed by his successor Hadrian, Roman-Parthian relations remained unsettled for the following century. Several emperors initiated or contemplated military action against Parthia, and several Parthian kings pursued more aggressive policies on their western frontier. No substantial changes to the border were lasting, however, and diplomatic relations continued in between bursts of conflict. The historian Herodian even reports that the emperor Caracalla, in the early third century, proposed marrying a Parthian princess, and that Caracalla’s successor, Macrinus, celebrated a peace treaty and hailed the Parthian king Artabanus V as a loyal friend.

On the Black Sea steppes, a variety of nomadic and seminomadic peoples continued to live in traditional ways while some peoples of the region also developed settled kingdoms. Romans tended to describe the region in vague terms that drew as much on the literary tradition going back to Herodotus’ Scythians as they did on contemporary knowledge, but we should not assume that life on the steppe was static. Literary sources name various peoples in this region, including Sarmatians and Alans. In some cases, these names seem to correspond to identifiable ethnic and political groups, but they can also be unreliable, as the complexities of steppe identities were sometimes lost on writers from sedentary cultures.

In the late second century, there is evidence of cultural changes around the northern shores of the Black Sea and the lower Danube that may reflect the arrival of migrating warrior bands from somewhere to the north and west. These new peoples are reflected in a distinct archaeological pattern of settlement types, pottery styles, and burial practices. These features are the earliest evidence for a cultural pattern that would become more pronounced in the third and fourth centuries CE, which modern archaeologists have termed the Chernyakhov culture. It is generally believed that the Chernyakhov culture is related to the people known as “Goths” in the literary sources, but how consistent the Chernyakhov-Goth connection is and how early we can speak of a Gothic presence in the region are matters of debate.

The Romans referred to the peoples who lived along the middle to upper Danube and Rhine as “Germans” (barring a few exceptions, such as the Dacians and Iazyges), but it is unlikely that the tribes and kingdoms of this region felt any kind of shared identity. Many individual tribal names are also known, but, as elsewhere, we cannot be confident that the Roman authors who recorded those names were applying them accurately. Many cultures existed in this region with different kinds of social and political organization. Some, such as the Dacians and Marcomanni, appear to have reached an early stage of state development, with power centralized in well-established royal families. Other peoples, such as the Frisians, lived in small, egalitarian communities with little in the way of formal power structures.

Farther to the north, away from the frontier zone but in close contact with the Roman world, another major power was rising. At Himlingøje in Denmark, a group of lavish burials filled with Roman luxuries marks the center of a commercial and political network that established itself in the late second century and spanned the Baltic Sea and southern Scandinavia. The warrior nobles of Himlingøje fought as auxiliaries in the Roman army and maintained strong trade and diplomatic connections to Rome after they returned home. Through these connections they acquired Roman goods, which they then used as prestigious gifts to expand their network of influence in the North. The numerous ritual deposits they made in Danish bogs of the weapons and armor of their defeated enemies show that they expanded their power in more aggressive ways as well. While many of the peoples who lived closer to the Roman frontier had unsettled histories with Rome, the rulers of Himlingøje appear to have remained on good terms with the Romans throughout their history.

Rome also had staunch allies in Scotland with the Votadini whose power center, a fortified hilltop site at Traprain Law, has yielded an extraordinary wealth of Roman imports ranging from gold brooches to iron door hinges. The precise boundaries of Votadinian power are uncertain, but other peoples certainly lived beyond the British frontier, both in Scotland and Ireland. Some of these peoples had large, settled societies, but others were small and mobile.

The peoples who lived in and beyond the Roman frontier zone varied widely in their ways of life, social organization, and political structures. While some maintained long-term diplomatic ties with Rome, others had volatile relations with the empire. This wide variety of frontier peoples challenged Rome’s limited capacity for maintaining foreign relations and managing the frontiers.

Emperors and Frontiers

The frontier was always an area of special concern to the emperors, even those with little direct experience of it. Imperial power depended on the support of two groups: the army, which was mostly stationed on the frontiers, and the people of Rome, who approved of victories over barbarians. Although imperial activity on the frontier could be haphazard and inconsistent, few emperors could afford to ignore the frontier entirely.

After the defeat of Varus, Augustus soured on expansion. He initiated no more conquests, and his final advice to his successor Tiberius was to keep the empire within its boundaries. The meaning of this counsel has long been debated. It is unlikely he meant that the empire should never expand again. The conquering ideal remained fixed in Roman ideology, and Augustus was not shy of bragging about the conquests accomplished under his authority. More likely it was personal advice to his successor not to embark on a new series of foreign campaigns for political purposes.

On the whole, most of Augustus’ successors followed his advice. On the grand scale, the frontier was mostly stable. There were only a few large additions to the empire in the following centuries: the southern half of Great Britain, parts of North Africa, Dacia, parts of Arabia, Armenia, and Mesopotamia. The conquests of Mesopotamia and Armenia were brief accomplishments of Trajan’s and Septimius Severus’ wars against Parthia and did not long endure. Some of the expansions in Africa and Arabia came from incorporating client kingdoms rather than conquering new lands. On the small scale, however, the frontier was turbulent. Almost every emperor from Augustus to Severus Alexander fought frontier campaigns or faced unrest in frontier provinces. Most of these campaigns added little, if any, new territory to the empire, but few emperors actually treated the frontier as a limit not to be crossed.

Emperors who felt insecure in their position used foreign wars to prove their worth in the traditional expansionist mode. Claudius, who came to power unexpectedly, initiated the conquest of Britain, which the unloved Nero continued. Domitian, another surprise emperor, began his reign with a campaign in Germany that even his fellow Romans criticized as unwarranted. Trajan, though he grew to be one of the most beloved emperors, came to power through obscure political machinations, which may help explain his ambitious program of conquests in Dacia and Mesopotamia. Septimius Severus, the victor of a civil war, spent much of his reign fighting in Mesopotamia, North Africa, and Scotland. These campaigns not only showered military glory on the emperors but also enriched the empire with plunder and slaves while keeping potentially restless soldiers occupied.

Restless soldiers were no trifle. Revolt by troops who felt ignored by the emperors was a recurrent threat to imperial stability. Sometimes this discontent could be softened by letting the soldiers pillage across the frontier. On other occasions, successful frontier generals could harness their soldiers’ dissatisfaction in a bid for the throne. Vespasian and Septimius Severus both came to power in this way, and many more attempted the feat unsuccessfully or managed it only to be quickly ousted by a rival general.

While the Romans pushed the frontier, the frontier pushed back. There were few major incursions on Roman territory in the first centuries of the empire, but some threats demanded the emperor’s attention. Relations with the Parthian Empire remained unresolved as both empires pressed for greater influence along their mutual border, but neither could secure a lasting victory over the other. Trajan, Severus, and Caracalla all led major campaigns against Parthia, but their gains did not last. The Parthians backed Pescennius Niger, a general in Syria who competed with Severus for power, but Pescennius’ bid for the throne failed.

Away from the Parthian front, the most serious threat to the Roman frontier in this period developed along the Danube in the late second century. Termed the Marcomannic Wars by modern scholarship, this diffuse and protracted series of conflicts involved many of the peoples of the region, chiefly the Marcomanni, Quadi, and Iazyges, and kept the emperor Marcus Aurelius occupied from the early 160s to 180. Smaller-scale troubles rarely claimed the attention of the emperors, but raiding, local resistance, and discontent among the soldiers were constant nuisances in the frontier zone that could flare up into more serious trouble if not kept in check.

Emperors undertook a variety of different policies toward the frontier. In the early empire, rulers such as Augustus and Nero were content to govern from a distance and entrust even major campaigns to subordinates, but the rise of frontier generals as claimants to the throne demonstrated that it was dangerous for an emperor to leave the frontier in anyone else’s hands. There were those, such as Trajan and Severus, who threw themselves into aggressive frontier campaigning. Others, notably Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius, were led, either by temperament or circumstance, to focus on consolidating and defending the territory claimed by their predecessors. Only a few emperors such as Antoninus and Elagabalus largely ignored frontier problems, being either fortunate enough to rule in a period of relative calm or else too busy with their own concerns.

Because of the practicalities of governing a continent-spanning state in an age when messages could take weeks and armies months, if not years, to reach the frontier, an emperor’s ability to effectively manage the frontier was limited. At the same time, as proven by generals such as Vespasian and Severus, delegation of too much power was risky. Wars against barbarians or restless provincials were potent propaganda tools, and emperors were wary of letting anyone else get their hands on them. It was a conventional charge against bad emperors that they did not trust their subordinates, but even the most popular emperors understood the importance of preserving personal control over frontier policy. After the Julio-Claudian age, most emperors learned to keep frontier generals on a short leash.

The World beyond Rome II

Fort at Vindolanda, AD 105. The fort housed the First Tungrian cohort and a Batavian cohort.

The effects of imperial neglect can be seen on the British frontier. The archaeological evidence from Scotland shows a lively cross-frontier exchange in the first and early second centuries. Roman goods found their way into native hands, from fine enameled brooches and sets of bronze tableware to hinges and horseshoes. While the Votadini enjoyed a profitable alliance with the Romans, deposits of mixed Roman and non-Roman scrap metal at several sites indicate that local smiths were also doing jobs for the Roman soldiers stationed on the frontier. Even some modest farmsteads had access to Roman goods. During this period of strong cross-border ties, many emperors devoted at least some of their energies to Britain, and the frontier was briefly advanced into Scotland in the mid-second century. Starting around 160, however, the Marcomannic Wars took imperial attention away from Britain for several decades. Despite some frontier shakeups under Commodus, it was not until 208 that another emperor, Severus, took an active interest in the province. Roman artifacts in Scotland show a corresponding decline after 160. Even casual exchanges, such as Scottish crafters working for frontier soldiers, seem to have dried up. While we might have expected provincial commanders to take up the slack and maintain regional ties when an emperor was busy elsewhere, the Scottish evidence suggests that they did not—or, more to the point, they were not permitted to.

The Roman emperors’ relationship to the frontier was contradictory. They could have enormous effects on frontier societies, whether by leading their soldiers out on campaign or by pulling them back and assigning them to border control. When an emperor turned his attention to a frontier area, it must have been akin to an earthquake or flood: an unpredictable, irresistible event that could change local conditions for generations, but whose aftereffects were mostly left to the locals to deal with. When they turned their attention elsewhere, their subordinates were limited in what they could do to compensate for their neglect. Most of the empire’s frontiers, most of the time, were left to themselves, shaped largely by the actions of the peoples who lived along them.

The Army on the Frontier

The most stable Roman presence on the frontier was the army. While some frontiers were more fully militarized than others, all were marked with fortresses and outposts where Roman soldiers were stationed to maintain security and control. In regions with urbanized societies, such as Egypt and Syria, the army’s influence was mostly limited to the hinterland zones. In other areas, where local societies functioned on a smaller scale, such as Britain and Arabia, the army’s effect on social and economic conditions was more widespread. Across the Roman world, the peoples who lived at the fringes of Roman power mostly knew Rome through its army, whose presence could be both beneficial and disruptive.

Soldiers were usually well paid, since the emperors depended on their loyalty. The regular provision of wages and supplies brought a steady flow of cash and merchants into regions that in many cases had previously been economically underdeveloped. The frontier army was a market for goods and services from both inside and outside the empire. In the West, the pottery and bronze industries of Gaul were stimulated by demand in the frontier regions. The economic effect was less visible in the more developed East, but in outlying regions such as the Egyptian oases, Roman forts provided a new market for local goods. The reach of the frontier market extended well outside the range of Roman authority. Peoples as far away as Himlingøje and Mecca increased their leather and textile production to meet Roman demand.

The Roman army also offered employment to soldiers recruited in and beyond the frontier zone. Barbarian auxiliaries were a vital part of the Roman army for the same reasons that Greek mercenaries had been employed by Egyptians and Persians: economically underdeveloped regions make prime recruiting grounds for troops. After the revolt of Batavian soldiers serving near their homeland in 69 CE, the Roman army began to station auxiliary units away from the regions where they were recruited, so that future rebels would not have the benefit of being surrounded by their own people. Once stationed in their new locations, these units tended to recruit locally and lose their original ethnic character over time, but troops were also relocated from one part of the empire to another as military needs dictated. Because of this reshuffling of personnel, we find, for example, a Pannonian soldier commemorated with a funerary stela at Gordium in central Anatolia and offerings to Syrian gods in the forts of Hadrian’s Wall in northern Britain. Some of these soldiers married local women and started families, creating new communities with ties to both the army and the local peoples. Their sons were often recruited into the Roman army a generation later. Other auxiliary veterans returned home across the frontier and played a role in mediating trade and diplomatic connections between Romans and non-Romans. Recruitment from beyond the frontier fostered the growth of a distinct military society that was neither entirely Roman nor native to the lands in which it developed.

The Roman army could also be disruptive. The militarization of the frontier interfered with traditional trade routes and seasonal movements of laborers and pastoralists. Tacitus noted that unimpeded border crossing was a privilege reserved for few, such as the friendly Hermunduri tribe:

For them alone among the Germans is there trade not only on the [Danube] riverbank but even deep in the most magnificent colony of the province of Raetia. They cross here and there without guards and while to other people we show only our arms and forts, to them we have opened our homes and estates.

The portoria, a customs duty of 25 percent, was collected on all goods entering the empire’s eastern provinces. On other frontiers the rates may have been lower, but there were still fees. The eastern trade routes could be highly profitable: the record of a loan contract from Egypt documents a cargo of perfumes, ivory, fabrics, and other luxuries from India in the second century CE valued at more than 9 million sestertii. (For comparison’s sake, by the late second century, a fortune of 20 million sestertii could put one in the lower echelons of the imperial aristocracy.) High customs fees and valuable cargoes encouraged smuggling. The Romans began to station customs enforcers in client kingdoms beyond the frontier to help monitor the traffic.

Simply knowing what was going on along the frontier was a challenge in itself. Surveillance posts and patrols were obtrusive shows of force, but more subtle forms of spying are hinted at by the historian Ammianus Marcellinus’ mention of the arcani, or “hidden ones”: “Their duty was, by hastening far and near, to keep our generals informed of disturbances among nearby tribes.” A fragmentary tablet from Vindolanda, a Roman fort in northern Britain, with the text miles arcanus (“hidden soldier”) may relate to these same spies, and another Vindolanda text possibly records a scrap of an intelligence report on the locals’ fighting capabilities.

All this surveillance can only have been an aggravation to those who lived along the frontier. Tacitus described a Germanic tribe complaining that the Romans would not allow them to meet with their fellow Germans who lived within the borders, “or else charge us a fee to meet unarmed, practically naked, and under guard, which is even more insulting to men born to arms.” The authority of frontier soldiers to stop, search, and tax travelers was ripe for abuse. A merchant’s letter of complaint found at Vindolanda suggests some of the misconduct soldiers indulged in. The beginning of the letter is damaged, so the details are unclear, but it seems both the merchant and his goods were threatened with violence, perhaps as part of a shakedown:

he beat me further until I would either declare my goods worthless or else pour them away. . . . I beg your mercy not to allow me, an innocent man from abroad, about whose honesty you may inquire, to have been bloodied with rods like a criminal.

The letter further details how the mistreated merchant had appealed up the chain of command as far as the provincial governor with no luck.

If a merchant who could write good Latin and knew how to work the system got so little satisfaction for his grievances, the ordinary people who lived in the outer shadow of Rome’s frontier cannot have fared much better. With no effective recourse against exploitation, peoples of the frontier zone resorted to raiding and revolt, such as the Frisians, who were required to pay a tribute of oxhides to Rome, even though they lived beyond the Rhine. In 28 CE the Roman centurion assigned to oversee the tribe demanded hides of higher quality than the Frisians could supply. When their appeals for relief brought no results, the Frisians revolted, killing more than a thousand Roman troops before they were subdued.

Acting both as agents of imperial power and on their own motivations, Roman soldiers made up one of the main forces at work on frontier society, but Rome was not the only force along the frontier. Many other peoples, cultures, and political forces, both those local to the frontier zone and those farther away, interacted with Rome, pursuing their own agendas and putting their own pressures on those who lived at the edges of Roman power.

Between Rome and a Hard Place

A series of inscriptions from Volubilis in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains on the Atlantic coast of North Africa records eleven occasions over the first and second centuries CE when Roman officials held negotiations with the Baquates, a collection of seminomadic tribes. To judge from the inscriptions, the negotiations seem to have come to a satisfactory end on each occasion. These inscriptions testify to the possibility of peaceful coexistence among those who lived at the fringes of the Roman world, but the fact that these negotiations had to be repeated over and over again also indicates that, in the long term, frontier relations remained unstable.

What was true at Volubilis was true of the frontier as a whole. While a tranquil coexistence was sometimes possible, and large-scale hostilities were relatively rare in the empire’s first two and a half centuries, the frontier was never quite settled. The disquiet of the frontier arose partly from the nature of the societies along it, but also from the way it was caught between worlds. The society of the frontier was constantly being pushed and pulled by many different forces, both Roman and non-Roman. These tensions were felt both inside and outside the demarcated boundaries of Roman control. The conflict between different forces with different agendas destabilized local societies.

Many of the peoples who lived in and around the Roman frontiers are conventionally described as “tribes.” This vague word is applied to various kinds of small-scale societies with no formal government that are held together by networks of extended family ties and personal relationships. Where Roman authors such as Caesar and Tacitus imagined stable ethnic groups with names and defining traits, we should instead see most of the Roman frontier zone inhabited by loose and changeable conglomerations of people who were ready to form, dissolve, and re-form alliances as their interests shifted. Trying to cope with these unstable groups was a challenge for the limited resources of Roman foreign policy. The brutality in many of Rome’s interactions with these peoples only sowed further disruption.

There were other societies at the edges of the Roman world that were larger, more stable, and better able to deal with Rome on an equal footing, including Kush, Parthia, and Himlingøje. For much of the first few centuries of the Roman Empire, these peoples enjoyed relatively peaceful relations with Rome. Their stability and organization made it easier for them to pursue consistent long-term policies toward Rome and to rebuff Roman efforts to meddle in their spheres of influence, but the existence of smaller, less well organized states and peoples in between these major players also helped stabilize relations. Kush had ongoing conflicts with the same desert raiders that harassed the Roman southern frontier. Rome and Parthia managed to keep the peace for more than a century in part because they were able to limit their conflicts mostly to competition over influence in Armenia. Relations in the North were helped because, during the Marcomannic Wars, the rulers of Himlingøje were at war with the same peoples the Romans were fighting.

Caught in between these larger forces, the “tribal” peoples of the frontier did what was necessary to survive. Sometimes they were able to make a profitable peace with Rome and their other powerful neighbors. Sometimes they were pushed into open war. Much of the time, they got by in a state of uneasy cooperation, taking chances to profit from trade or military service when they could get them, indulging in petty raiding and customs evasion when they could get away with it, and suffering the abuses of bored soldiers when they had to.

Good fences may make good neighbors, but what is good for the neighbors is not always good for the fence. Earlier conceptions of the Roman frontier often imagined the peoples just beyond the Roman borders as an outer wall of client states, held in place by Roman diplomacy and intimidation as a bulwark against uncertain threats from the unknown lands of the far distance. When significant new threats to the security of Roman military and political authority arose in the third century, however, they did not come from the far-off reaches of Scandinavia or central Asia but from the frontier zone itself. The peoples that Rome had been bribing, intimidating, patrolling, and generally meddling with for centuries finally began to push back in more effective ways. In the third century, peoples all around the edges of the Roman world—in Scotland, Germany, the Black Sea steppes, Arabia, and North Africa—began to succeed at what Arminius had attempted in the first decade CE: to create large, stable alliances that could stand up to Roman power.

Roman Britain’s Navy

The Classis Britannica was responsible for patrolling the north-western waters of the Roman Empire. It was based at Boulogne (Bononia).

In AD 69-70, the Rhine frontier was in tumult. The aftermath of Nero’s reign and suicide had left not just Rome in disarray. During the so-called `Year of the Four Emperors’, the civil war that convulsed Rome as multiple rivals tussled for the imperial throne, disaffected former allies rebelled. Notable among them was Gaius Julius Civilis, an auxiliary Roman officer and prince of the Batavi, a prominent Germanic tribe of the Rhine delta in what’s now the Netherlands.

Angered by Rome’s treatment of his tribe after years of stalwart service – including important contributions to the invasion and subjugation of Britain from AD 43 – Civilis launched a revolt, persuading other nearby Germanic tribes to join him.

After a number of battles and sieges, Civilis was subdued. Tacitus, who recounted the story in his Histories, describes how the Legio XIV Gemina (`Twinned 14th Legion’) was transported across from Britain to help the mopping-up operation. The legionary commander, Fabius Priscus, marched his troops to suppress the Nervii and Tungri tribes – and in doing so left his fleet exposed. The nearby Cannenefates tribe launched an assault, destroying or capturing most of the ships. And so the narrative of Britain’s maritime power – this being the first recorded mention of the Classis Britannica, the first navy of Britain – enters the historical record in ignominy.

First fleet

The Classis Britannica was the regional fleet of the Roman province of Britannia from the mid-first century to the mid-third century, one of 10 such fleets across the empire. These fleets originated with the Augustan reforms of the Roman military, replacing the larger ad-hoc fleets that had served Rome well during its earlier conflicts in the Mediterranean.

The Classis Britannica as a named body came into being shortly before the AD 69/70 Batavian Revolt described earlier. However, the origins of the fleet stretch back to the Claudian invasion of Britain in AD 43.

After the initial invasion, the fleet took part in every aspect of the subsequent expansion across the islands of Britain, eventually taking geographical responsibility for the Atlantic approaches, the English Channel, the east and west coast of Britain and the North Sea basin. As is clear from its deployment to Germany during the Batavian revolt, it was also given responsibility for protecting the north-west European coast, with its headquarters fortress at Boulogne. Less than two centuries later, the Classis Britannica disappears from the historical record; the last known reference came in AD 249, relating to Saturninus, a North African-born captain.

During its existence, the Classis Britannica had more than one role. The commander of the British regional fleet was appointed directly by the emperor, and reported to the province’s procurator, who was tasked with making the province pay. So the fleet undertook civilian tasks – for example, running key industrial enterprises such as the principal iron-working sites in the coastal weald. It was, though, primarily a military force, and its martial duties fell under the aegis of the province’s governor. These military roles included controlling maritime zones around Britain, regular patrolling, gathering intelligence, transport, amphibious warfare and communications.

The chief fighting ship was the liburnian, a war galley equipped with ram and ballista. Being a small bireme (powered by two banks of oars), this was more agile than the larger polyreme galleys of the Republican navies. Numerous types of cutters and skiffs were also employed, as were a wide variety of transport ships. These were usually built in the Romano-Celtic tradition, with shallow hulls for navigating coastal waters, and high bows and sterns for riding out heavy seas.

The ships were manned by a fighting and sailing crew organised in a similar way to land counterparts. The sailing company comprised marines, valarius sailors and remiges oarsmen – professionals, not slaves. From the outset, the mix of men was cosmopolitan, reflecting the empire itself. The original fleet used in the Claudian invasion was built around a core of experienced men from the Classis Misinensis regional fleet in Italy; later, most of its sailors and shipbuilders came from various European tribes – including the latterly rebellious Batavi.

During the Claudian invasion of AD 43, 900 ships were constructed to carry Aulus Plautius’s invasion force of 40,000 legionaries and auxiliaries in three waves across the English Channel. The fleet then supported the spearheads during the breakout from the invasion beaches of eastern Kent. It remained prominent in the final defeat of the Catuvellauni (who led the British resistance), and carried Claudius himself across from Gaul to take credit for the successful campaign.

The regional fleet then played a key role in the various conquest campaigns, an example being Vespasian and his Legio II Augusta (Augustus’s Second Legion) in south-west Britain during the late AD 40s. The Classis Britannica provided support during the future emperor’s relentless advance, providing the vital transport capability that enabled the land forces to leap ahead, objective by objective. After four seasons of campaigning, the southwest was fully conquered and the fleet, based in a series of new fortified harbours, was beginning to forge up into the Bristol Channel.

By the mid-AD 70s, the province was effectively established along lines recognisable for the rest of the occupation, with south and east fully functioning as part of the empire, and the north and west being a militarised border territory. With the northern border set along a line between the Solway Firth and the Tyne, later to be fortified under Hadrian, the scene was set for the Classis Britannica to again play a major campaigning role, this time under governor Gnaeus Julius Agricola, who made ambitious attempts to conquer Scotland.

Agricola arrived in Britain in AD 77 and, after a brief campaign in Wales, turned his attention northward. His targets were the native tribes of Scotland, broadly referred to as the Caledonians, and in the spring of AD 79 he launched his forces in that direction. This campaign featured the familiar pattern of coastal legionary spearheads on both the east and west coasts supported by the Classis Britannica, which controlled the sea close to the shore and fulfilled the supply and scouting roles.

The presence of the fleet was evidently a shock to the natives: in his Agricola, Tacitus reports that its galleys spread terror among the Caledonians. Agricola mounted four subsequent campaigns in the north, building military anchorages on the east and west coasts of Scotland and far north-west England to support the fleet. The fighting included a successful amphibious assault either north across the Solway Firth from Cumbria or west across the river Annan in Dumfries and Galloway, and in the fifth year of his campaign Agricola brought the natives to battle at Mons Graupius below the Moray Firth in the Grampians. The result: the total defeat of the Caledonians. The Classis Britannica then completed the first Roman circumnavigation of Britain.

Agricola was recalled to Rome some time before AD 85, after which the empire lost interest in the far north of Britain. The Classis Britannica spent much of the second century supporting the military presence on the northern border. It came to prominence again in AD 196 when the British governor Clodius Albinus launched an unsuccessful usurpation attempt against the emperor Septimius Severus. It appears that the Classis Britannica sided with Albinus – the fleet would have been needed to carry his troops to the continent – and so fell from imperial favour.

However, the fleet made a spectacular return to action in the early third century, when Severus attempted his own `shock and awe’ conquest of Scotland. At this time the Maeatae in central Scotland and Caledonians farther north had become so troublesome that the governor made a desperate request for new troops or for the emperor himself. He was lucky: he got both.

Imperial assault

In AD 208, Severus crossed the Channel with a huge imperial entourage including the Praetorian Guard and crack units from the continental legions. Carried by the Classis Britannica, this force landed at Richborough (near Sandwich in Kent), travelling north and collecting British legions en route to York, where Severus set up his imperial capital.

The emperor launched the first of two massive assaults northward in AD 209, deploying 50,000 men and massively expanding the fort and harbour at South Shields to act as his main supply base. As this enormous force headed north, the Classis Britannica again sat tight on the maritime flank, its galleys and transports surging ahead of the land forces to harry the natives and secure assault harbours. The regional fleet’s importance in this campaign is indicated by the number of coins featuring a naval theme issued at this time.

Once again, as the legionary spearheads probed northwards, fortified harbours at Cramond on the Forth and Carpow on the Tay were used. The campaign progressed steadily, though it is clear that the stream of casualties from guerilla warfare began to mitigate against Roman success. When it became obvious that the natives wouldn’t oblige with a meeting engagement, a truce was agreed and the emperor headed back to York with terms that met his satisfaction.

The terms clearly weren’t so agreeable to the natives, who revolted the following year, prompting Severus to plan a new campaign. Ill health got the better of him, and the advance was led by his son, Caracalla. This campaign, undertaken in AD 210, was especially brutal: Severus ordered his troops to kill all of the locals they encountered. Though the campaign again concluded without a major battle, it was ultimately successful in that peace fell on the northern border for a period of 80 years.

The navy vanishes

The campaigns of Severus marked a high point in the career of the Classis Britannica – though he himself died in York in AD 211. The fleet then found itself combatting a new menace in the form of Germanic maritime raiders travelling across the North Sea.

The fleet disappears from the historical record in the middle of the third century, but its fate is a mystery. A number of events offer explanations; in each case the fleet was vulnerable, at some stage backing the wrong horse during the sometimes violent and dramatic changes in imperial leadership, and suffering as a result. One was the scramble for imperial control between senate and military after the assassination of Alexander Severus in AD 235, which initiated the `Crisis of the Third Century’. Another was the `Gallic Empire’ founded by Postumus that lasted from AD 260 to AD 274. Finally, there was the `North Sea Empire’ established by the usurper Carausius, which lasted from AD 286 to AD 296.

In my opinion, the most likely of these scenarios would have been in the context of the `Gallic Empire’, by which time it might also have been the case that the fleet was simply too expensive to maintain given the economic troubles of the empire. However it came about, we know that sometime in the middle of the third century Britain’s first navy disappeared – the end of a major fighting force that played a vital role in the story of Roman Britain.

Sea Eagles of Empire: Simon Elliott (History Press, 2016)

The Roman war machine comprised land and naval forces. Although the former has been studied extensively, less has been written and understood about the naval forces of the Roman empire and, in particular, the regional navies which actively participated in most military operations and policed the seas and rivers of the Empire. Until the mid-third century, in a British context, this navy was the Classis Britannica—a strong fighting force in its own right. The composition, ship types, roles, tactics, and technology have never been studied at length. Here Simon Elliot tells the story of this illustrious naval force in their metal-beaked galleys and their exploits defeating enemies of the Empire and keeping the peace around the British Isles.

The Roman Navy: Ships, Men & Warfare 350 BC – AD 475 by Michael Paul Pitassi (Seaforth, 2012)

The Roman Navy was remarkable for its size, reach and longevity. As significant as the Royal Navy was to the British Empire in the nineteenth century, the Roman Navy was crucial to the extraordinary expansion of Imperial power and for its maintenance over a period of more than 800 years. The fabric and organisation of this maritime force is at the core of this new book.

Roman Britain and the Roman Navy by David JP Mason (History Press, 2009)

So much has been written about the Roman army in Britain that the vital role of the navy – both in support of the army and in the defence of this distant Roman province – has been largely overlooked. In providing the first comprehensive account of the Roman navy’s importance in the conquest and defence of Britain, David Mason has redressed the balance. Combining archaeological evidence from recently excavated ships and harbour works with information from ancient sources, the author demonstrates the fleet’s vital importance to the success of the Roman military conquest. He also provides new insights into the logistics and tactics of the Roman naval forces and their close cooperation with the Roman army.


Over time major rebellions against Roman rule ceased, even if this took a little longer in Judaea. Small-scale revolts did occur in a number of provinces, although even these were rare. In AD 171 or 172, a group called the Boukoloi (or Bucoli) – ‘cowboys’ or ‘herdsmen’ – rebelled in the Nile Delta. Our sources are poor, with the fullest little more than a paragraph from a much later epitome of Dio’s account, whose collator focused on the lurid and bizarre. He claims that some of the Boukoloi disguised themselves as women, so that they could get close to the centurion sent to collect money from them. The Roman officer was taken by surprise and hacked down, and a companion butchered as a sacrifice, his entrails being eaten to bind the rebels in a dreadful oath.

Joined by a group led by a priest named Isidorus – described as ‘the bravest of them all’ – the rising gathered momentum. The Romans responded in the usual way and attacked, but the force sent against the rebels was defeated. By this time Egypt was garrisoned by a single legion, supported by at most a dozen auxiliary units. Some of these troops were stationed on the province’s southern frontier, guarding the Upper Nile, and others patrolled the roads to the Red Sea ports or were dispersed in small detachments, guarding quarries or granaries, and acting as policemen and administrators. Such a deployment makes it unlikely that the column sent to deal with the rising was either large or consisted of the best-trained and motivated troops in Egypt, making the defeat less surprising.

Success encouraged the rebels to advance on the great city of Alexandria, although clearly this was some months later, for they were blocked by forces sent from Syria and led by the legate of that province, Caius Avidius Cassius. Senators were forbidden from visiting Egypt, and this intervention must have been ordered by the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, requiring a report to reach him, an order to be sent to Syria, and time for a force to be mustered and then moved to Egypt. Cassius avoided a major battle and instead wore the rebels down, fighting many smaller actions and defeating each of the rebel groups separately. This suggests that they had either dispersed as raiding bands or each settled down to defend their own homes.

Many important details of the episode elude us. For instance, the attack on the centurion suggests that Roman levies were resented, but it is not clear whether this was the main cause of the revolt. A gruesome human sacrifice and the mention of the priest Isidorus both hint at religious fervour, whether simply as a unifying force and reminder that they were ruled by foreigners of a different culture, or as a promise of divine aid like that Mariccus offered to his followers among the Boii. Yet we should be cautious, given so brief an account. Greeks and Romans alike saw the people of Egypt as excessively superstitious and alleged that they practised strange and savage rituals, and so were inclined to depict their behaviour in this way. The Boukoloi also appear in ancient fiction, turned into a caricature of wild barbarians given to human sacrifice and cannibalism, and this fictional imagery may well have seeped into historical narratives.

For all our doubts about the rebellion, some aspects are revealing. As was often the case, it appears to have taken the Romans by surprise, in the long as well as the short term, for the gradual reduction in size of the garrison of Egypt in the later first and second centuries AD suggests that no major trouble was anticipated. Whoever the Boukoloi really were, and whether or not they were truly as savage as the sources claim, they were just one group within the wider population of rural Egypt. Others joined them, but the revolt was not by a unified people with a common sense of identity, and instead consisted of multiple communities loosely banded together. If the scale of the revolt is unclear, there is no hint that it involved anything more than a small minority of the provincial population, and while the rebels were clearly hostile to Rome, the move on Alexandria suggests little sympathy for other subjects of the empire. That city was always described as Alexandria ‘near Egypt’ rather than ‘in Egypt’ and was a metropolis with a population of several hundred thousand. Founded by Alexander the Great, its inhabitants were mixed, but the dominant group was legally and culturally – if not necessarily ethnically – Greek. Groups like the Boukoloi and the rural population in general had little affection for this ‘foreign’ city, any more than the Alexandrians had any liking for them.

The mix of populations within a province was one of the main reasons why even the major rebellions struggled to unite the entire population of a single province against the imperial power. Lesser rebellions tended to focus on small regions or groups, and found it difficult to spread, because other provincial communities were antipathetic or openly hostile to them. Few of the areas in the empire had experienced peace and stability before the Romans arrived, and memories of past feuds remained strong. The experience of conquest reinforced some divisions among the indigenous population, as did any subsequent real or perceived favouring of particular leaders and sections of the population. In the eastern Mediterranean, where the Romans were merely the latest in a succession of conquerors, their arrival did not remove every long-standing division created or exacerbated by earlier empires. Even if the Alexandrians and the Egyptians from the countryside both felt alienated by Roman rule at the same time and rebelled, there was no prospect of them joining together. In fact, throwing off Roman rule was likely to make them eager to revive far older quarrels.

During the civil war after the death of Nero, the hatred between Lugdunum and Viennensis (modern Vienne) in Gaul flared into new life, and led to skirmishes ‘too savage and frequent for anyone to believe that they fought on behalf of Nero or Galba’. Later, the leaders of Lugdunum tried to persuade an army on its way from the Rhine frontier and fighting for another claimant to the throne to sack Viennensis as a place ‘foreign and hostile’ and also rich in plunder. The people there managed to placate the soldiers by a dramatic display of submission and by handing over money and weapons to them. Later during the same power struggle, the cities of Oea and Lepcis Magna in North Africa went from disputes between peasants stealing each other’s cattle and crops to ‘proper weapons and pitched battles’. Oea enlisted the aid of some of the Garamantes to the south, ‘an ungovernable people well practised in raiding their neighbours’, and so gained the upper hand. Eventually a force of auxiliaries arrived and drove off the Garamantes, recapturing the plunder they had taken, apart from the goods already sold off to distant communities, and peace was restored.

Even Italy was not free of rivalries between its cities. During some fighting in this same civil war, the ‘most splendid’ amphitheatre outside the city walls of Placentia (modern Piacenza) was burned down. No one was quite sure whether the blaze was started by the besiegers or by the defenders hurling burning missiles at them, but afterwards the ‘common folk of the town’ alleged that the building had been packed with combustible material by unknown agents of other Italian cities who envied Placentia its magnificent monument. The games were a great opportunity to parade civic pride, both in the grandeur of the venue and the scale and style of the gladiatorial fights and other shows. In AD 59 this exploded into violence between Pompeii and its neighbour and rival Nuceria at a show staged in the amphitheatre at Pompeii. A few bits of graffiti from the city hint at long-standing hostility – ‘Good luck to the Nucerians and the hook for Pompeians and Pitheucusans’. At first there was simply chanting and mutual abuse of the type common enough between rival fans at many sporting events, but Tacitus then says that this was followed by ‘stones, and finally cold steel’. A famous wall painting from a house in Pompeii showing gladiators fighting in the arena while other figures battle it out on the streets outside surely depicts the disturbances that followed. The visiting Nucerians were heavily outnumbered and soon had the worst of it, with many being killed or wounded. Some of the injured were taken to Rome, and the matter was brought to the attention of Nero, who ordered the Senate to hold an enquiry into the whole incident. They found against the Pompeians and banned the city from holding games for ten years.

Fighting on this scale was unusual anywhere in the empire and especially in Italy, and we know too little of the background to identify what sparked the trouble. The Senate exiled several leading culprits, including the man who staged the games, who had been expelled in disgrace from their own ranks before this incident. Although competition between cities was common throughout the empire it was mainly peaceful, if only because there were few occasions when large crowds of hostile communities would meet. More common was bickering over the boundaries of their jurisdiction, where the risk was of small-scale violence and theft. An inscription from Sardinia records the formal end of hostility between two villages after 185 years, the peace deal being imposed by the Roman authorities in AD 69, centuries after the region became a province. This only occurred because the Romans threatened to use heavy force against one of the rivals. For many provincials Rome was a distant presence, resented rather less than the ongoing annoyance of living close to old enemies.


Around 160 years after Cicero landed at Ephesus on his way to govern Cilicia, another former consul arrived there on his way to his own provincial command of Bithynia and Pontus. Pliny the Younger (Caius Plinius Caecilius Secundus) had not dawdled like the reluctant Cicero, but even so arrived later than he hoped, his ship delayed by bad weather. More delays followed as he pressed on to his province. The heat was excessive, making overland travel by carriage arduous, and Pliny went down with fever and had to stay some days at Pergamum, but when they took passage on trading ships operating along the coast they were again held back by the weather. It was not until 17 September AD 109 that the new governor reached Bithynia, allowing him to celebrate the birthday of the Emperor Trajan on the next day.

Pliny was a ‘new man’ like Cicero, his family coming from one of the towns of Italy, in his case Comum (modern Como, on the picturesque lake of the same name). He was also a highly successful advocate in the courts and a prolific author who published nine books of edited letters in conscious emulation of his famous predecessor. Pliny’s correspondents included many of the distinguished senators of the era, notably the historian Tacitus, and dealt with domestic themes, literature, admirable behaviour by prominent men and women, and the conduct of some of the important trials in which he was involved. There were also a number of letters soliciting favours for himself or his associates. Wholly absent is Cicero’s concern for the outcome of elections, for building political friendships with others, for the changing balance of power and influence within the Senate and with the details of legislation. The reader of Pliny’s Letters can be left in no doubt that this was a state controlled by a princeps, whose influence – malign in the case of Domitian and benevolent in the case of Trajan – was everywhere. It is no coincidence that the only one of Pliny’s published speeches to survive is a panegyric of Trajan, for senators under the Principate were dependent on imperial favour to a degree that Cicero could scarcely have imagined, even during Caesar’s dictatorship.

It was as a representative of the emperor, as legatus Augusti on a special commission, that Pliny went out to Bithynia, his appointment made by Trajan and not subject to senatorial debate or lot. Even so his authority was greater than that of anyone else in the province, except in the highly unlikely event of the princeps coming in person. However, the greater power of Trajan could not be ignored. Pliny took with him a set of instructions (mandata) issued by the emperor, which were longer and more prescriptive than the suggestions the Senate made to someone like Cicero. It would be difficult for provincials to appeal over his head to Rome unless they had his permission, but it was certainly not impossible. There was also a procurator overseeing the imperial estates and some of the taxation of the province and this man corresponded directly with the princeps and his advisors. In this case the relations between the two men were good.

Bithynia and Pontus was not a major military province and was garrisoned by at most a handful of auxiliary units – one cohors equitata consisting of infantry and a small force of cavalry is definitely attested, a second is almost certain, and there may have been other regiments. In normal times the province was under senatorial control, its governor a proconsul selected by lot from a list drawn up by the Senate of sufficient men to fill the number of posts coming vacant in the public provinces. Sometimes the princeps’ advice on selection was sought, and even when it was not it is clear that they would not choose anyone who was obviously out of favour. In office, these governors had limited independence and their decisions could be overruled by the princeps if a matter was brought to his attention. They were also bound by rulings made by past emperors, and would need to seek approval to change these. Augustus may at first not have issued mandata to proconsuls, but probably began to do so later in his reign and this became normal under his successors.

In the early second century AD Bithynia and Pontus was a troubled region. Several of its former governors were prosecuted for corruption, while there were bitter rivalries for dominance within its major cities and widespread misuse of public money. Trajan decided to intervene, temporarily adding the region to his provinces and sending Pliny there as his legate. He was princeps and the Senate could not refuse, although in this case it is unlikely that it resented the move, since it still meant that one of their number was given the command.

On the whole, proconsuls and imperial legates did much the same job, and successful senators served in both capacities at different stages in their careers. The essentially civilian role of the proconsul was emphasised in the wearing of the toga on ceremonial occasions, while the overtly military legates wore a sword, military cloak and cuirass. The former were accompanied by six lictors bearing fasces, the latter probably by five, marking their lesser imperium as representatives rather than magistrates in their own right. Both types of governor held essentially identical authority over the garrisons of their provinces in every important respect, and it was simply that the proconsuls had far fewer troops at their disposal. Their tenure was also shorter, often no longer than the traditional twelve months. In contrast it was rare for a legate to hold command for less than three years, and many were in post for even longer, giving the province greater continuity of leadership and allowing the governor to address more serious problems, whether military or civil. Pliny died before the end of his third year in the post and we do not know how long he was due to be in the province, but he was sent expressly to restore order to its finances and administration so there may not have been a fixed term.

Throughout his time in the province Pliny wrote to Trajan, often seeking guidance on specific problems. A tenth book of correspondence was published posthumously, consisting of letters to the emperor, and it is dominated by his time as governor – his letters from Bithynia and Trajan’s replies make up 107 out of a total of 121. Although we do not know the circumstances of their preparation and release, this must surely have occurred with at least the approval and perhaps the active involvement of Trajan and his advisors. It was an era when many technical manuals were being written, and in some ways the letters from Bithynia have a similar, instructional feel to them, showing the way that a good governor should go about his job. Pliny’s approach to a problem involved looking for precedents and past rulings, trying to find the most beneficial solution for the provincial communities, and seeking the emperor’s decision on some issues where he was unsure. This was clearly how Trajan wished his principate to be seen, as efficient, benevolent, respectful to local traditions and obedient to the spirit as well as the letter of the law. The Trajan of these letters has the same tone of friendship and interest in the welfare of provincial communities that can be seen in many inscriptions recording replies from emperors to requests from cities and individuals.

All imperial legates sent reports and queries to the princeps, and we cannot say whether or not Pliny wrote more often than was normal – or indeed whether there were originally far more letters, some too brief or too mundane to be included in the published version. The tendency to address just one issue in each letter was more likely intended to make it easier for the imperial secretariat to check for precedents and to respond or advise the princeps rather than being a sign that letters were extensively rewritten before publication. It is possible that some of the questions were asked in order to permit Trajan to give the official response, although this would assume that it was always planned to publish the letters. One instance is the repeated requests for specialists such as architects and surveyors to be sent out from Italy or from a military province – the army produced very skilled technicians of all kinds. Only once does the princeps agree, saying that he will instruct the legate of Moesia to send a man to supervise a complex canal-building scheme. Otherwise, he invariably assures Pliny that not simply Bithynia but any province will have competent specialists among the population, an answer with a general application.

All in all, the letters in Pliny’s tenth book appear genuine and give us our best picture of a provincial governor under the Principate, worthy of comparison with Cicero’s letters from Cilicia. As always, the different circumstances of the early second century AD compared to the middle of the first century BC are obvious. No doubt Pliny wrote plenty of letters to friends, relations and other connections while in his province, but none of these were published. What mattered was the relationship between princeps and legate and the provincial communities. Throughout Pliny addressed Trajan as domine – master or lord – and was in turn called ‘my dear Secundus’. Augustus had not cared to be called dominus, but under his successors – even ones considered to be good rulers and respectful of the Senate – this became normal. Some of the replies have a formal style, reflecting their drafting by imperial secretaries, but now and again the tone of familiarity or of exasperation at the provincials is surely the authentic voice of the emperor.