To the best of our knowledge, the first Roman military expeditions into Scotland occurred during the later half of the 1st century AD. The identity of the Roman governor under which campaigns in Scotland began is somewhat unclear — it is quite likely that the first major effort to conquer Scotland was undertaken by Gnaeus Julius Agricola, governor of Roman-controlled Britain (“Britannia”) between AD 77-83, but there is some evidence suggesting earlier occupation in the southwest of Scotland, possibly under Petillius Cerealis (c. AD 71-74)1. Much of what we know about Agricola’s campaigns comes from a biography of him, written by the by the Roman historian Tacitus. However, it is with careful consideration that historians examine the content of this particular piece of Tacitus’ writing, as Tacitus was Agricola’s son-in-law2.
According to Tacitus, Agricola conducted a series of campaigns into Scotland, known to the Romans as Caledonia, during the reigns of the emperors Vespasian and Titus. Culminating in the defeat of a large Caledonian army at the battle of Mons Graupius (the site of which is unknown), Agricola’s campaigns left behind many temporary camps and other defensive fortifications. One set of these fortifications is located between the Firth of Forth and the Firth of Clyde, two inlets from the Atlantic Ocean that create a narrow part of the island, and is connected to the earlier campaigns. Another trail of camps and locations goes much farther north, near the Moray Firth3.
Despite the initial successes of Agricola, over time the fortifications built by his forces were abandoned, and the marches of his campaigns were likely the farthest north that the Romans ever reached. The Roman frontier seems to have retreated into modern-day England, along the area where the stone border wall known Hadrian’s Wall was constructed in the early 2nd century AD. The Romans did not advance into Scotland again until a few years after the crowning of emperor Antoninus Pius in AD 1384. Under the leadership of Britain’s governor Lollius Urbicus, the Roman army again advanced into Scotland and again reached the Forth-Clyde area, creating a turf wall known as the Antonine Wall across the island. To a modern observer this might appear to be a good strategic move — this area is the most narrow part of the entire isle of Britain, significantly shorter than the length at Hadrian’s Wall — but again, this frontier was abandoned shortly afterwards during the 160s AD.The reasons for this abandonment are not particularly clear in the histories, although historian David J. Breeze surmises that the Roman army’s resources in Britannia became too thin to defend the areas beyond Hadrian’s wall after several transfers of troops out of the province5.
The third and final major Roman expedition into Scotland came during the early 3rd century, between AD 208 and AD 212, during the reign of emperor Septimus Severus. Severus, in response to calls for aid from governor Alfenus Senecio, gathered a field army and led an expedition beyond Hadrian’s Wall and into Scotland in person with his sons, including future emperor Caracalla. Severus initially won some minor victories against the inhabitants of Caledonia and forced them to give up some territory despite reportedly heavy losses, and then again ordered punitive expeditions after one of the beaten tribes revolted, but by the time of these secondary expeditions Severus seems to have been in ill health and was likely not able to continue his campaigns in person. Severus is believed to have died in AD 211, and under the reign of his son Caracalla the Romans gradually abandoned what territory had been gained, retreating once again beyond the boundary of Hadrian’s Wall6.
The end of Severus’ campaigns seems to have ushered in a relatively long period of peace in Britain, which would remain in place until the late 3rd century, when political instability created the opportunity for various tribes, including an increasingly powerful group known as the Picts, to easily harass the frontier regions of Roman Britain. A few punitive expeditions beyond Hadrian’s wall appear to have occurred under Constantius Chlorus at the end of the 3rd century and Theodosius during the later 4th century, but never again would Rome attempt to conquer Scotland in any meaningful way. Eventually, as the influence of the Roman Empire began to fade, Roman control over any part of the island, let alone Scotland, became a distant memory7.
- Jones, Rebecca H., Roman Camps In Scotland (Edinburgh: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 2011, Print): 97.
- Maxwell, Gordon S., The Romans in Scotland (Edinburgh: J. Thin, 1989, Print): 29.
- Breeze, David J, Roman Frontiers in Britain (London: Bristol Classical Press, 2007, Print): 29-36
- Maxwell, Roman Camps In Scotland: 32-33.
- Breeze, Roman Frontiers in Britain: 51-63.
- Maxwell, The Romans in Scotland: 33-35.
- Maxwell, The Romans in Scotland: 35-36.
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