Romans in Scotland

The Romans in Scotland

Period Years 43 AD — 411 AD

43 AD Romans reach Britain.

79 AD Romans first invade southern Scotland.

84 AD Battle of Mons Graupius.

98 AD Cornelius Tacitus first writes down his account of the Roman invasion.

122 AD Start of the construction of Hadrian's Wall.

142 AD Antonine Wall constructed.

185 AD Antonine Wall abandoned.

211 AD Scotland abandoned again by the Romans.

305 AD New Roman campaigns against the Caledonians.

350 AD Ninian born.

411 AD The Romans finally abandon Britain.

Scotland's reputation as a warlike, fierce and independent nation was carved out from its earliest days. Until the coming of the Romans nearly 2000 years ago, the country was home to a series of disparate tribes. However, the arrival of the greatest military force the ancient world has ever seen brought these tribes together in a fight against a single common enemy. The Caledonians could not easily beat the Romans in battle, but they caused them enough trouble to ensure that Scotland never really became part of the empire.

THE ROMANS may have established the greatest empire the ancient world had ever seen - but they never really managed to conquer Scotland.

They won a critical battle to capture the whole country, but had neither the nerve nor the resources to see their victory through.

The result was that Scotland managed to hold on to its independence - a feat which instilled a national pride which remains to this day.

The Romans first arrived in Britain in AD43, but it wasn't until 36 years later that the governor, Julius Agricola, decided to try and bring the north of the island under the empire's control.

His plans were thwarted from the very start. The Caledonians, as the people of Scotland were called at that time, were determined that they would not be conquered.

They were not barbarians, as subsequent history has painted them, but a proud, highly civilised and resistant people who were not prepared to simply fall under the yoke of Rome.

Even then, centuries before the clan system was fully established, Scotland was dominated by tribes with fierce rivalries. However, they had the sense to put their differences aside and join together again the common invading enemy.

Agricola first sent his fleet north to survey suitable harbours for potential landings but at the same time, he alerted the Caledonians to his military strength. They began armed resistance against the invaders, challenging their forts and causing huge concern among the Romans.

Some of Agricola's commanders wanted to retreat back south of the River Forth, but their boss wouldn't hear of it. He pushed forward, narrowly averting serious trouble when he was tipped off about a night attack on his Ninth Legion.

It was a lucky escape, and it became clear that it would only be a matter of time before the two sides met in full combat.

Despite its fearsome reputation, the Roman army in Britain was not as powerful as it looked. Only a small proportion of its membership was composed of Roman troops: most of the soldiers were much less experienced auxiliary troops from conquered lands such as present day Germany, Holland and Belgium.

In the summer of AD84, Agricola mounted a major push north, his army reinforced by soldiers from the south of Britain who he felt could be trusted. But the Caledonians were waiting for them. They were determined to challenge Roman authority once and for all, and had amassed a huge force of their own to take the invaders on.

The battle finally took place at Mons Graupius in North East Scotland. It is estimated that the Caledonian forces had 30,000 men - a huge number and far more bodies than the Romans could muster.

The Caledonians were well prepared. As well as having more soldiers, they knew the landscape intimately and their morale was high. They were fighting for their freedom, while the Roman troops were merely fighting to try and subdue a land they cared little for.

However, the Romans had other advantages. Their army was technically more efficient, meaning it could compensate for its numerical disadvantage. Their troops were also tremendously disciplined.

As the battle raged, the Romans eventually managed to win the upper hand. The bravery of the Caledonians was no match for their superior expertise and their skill in close combat.

The Caledonians, realising that the skirmish was being lost, started to flee the field. They were pursued by their opponents and either hunted down and driven away. By the time the battle had finished, it is estimated that 10,000 natives had died compared to less than 400 Roman troops.

Having secured his authority and reputation, Agricola moved to consolidate his hold on Scotland by sailing his fleet round into the Pentland Firth, seizing control as far north as Orkney and proving for the first time that Britain was an island.

Despite their victory, however, the Romans had little appetite for conquering Scotland on a long-term basis. It was too far north and too troublesome to be of much real value to the empire.

Later that year, Agricola was recalled to Rome, where he retired in comfort. There was little real will to capitalise on his great military success in Scotland. The troops were thought to be needed on continental Europe, so they were withdrawn south. A giant fort at Inchtuthill on the Tay was abandoned even before it had been completed.

It was not, however, the end of Roman influence over Scotland. Some 40 years after Mons Graupius, they began to build Hadrian's Wall, stretching right across the country from the Solway to Wallsend on the Tyne and named after the emperor of the time. The aim was to keep the Caledonians both out of the empire and under surveillance.

The building of the wall - large parts of which can still be seen today - was a major feat of engineering. In 138AD Hadrian's successor as emperor, Antoninus Pius, ordered the troops forward again and a new wall was built across central Scotland from Bo'ness on the Forth to Old Kilpatrick on the Clyde.

The new structure - named the Antonine Wall - was not as impressive as Hadrian's wall - it was probably only about 10 feet high - but it was well fortified, with forts every two miles.

Instead of repelling attacks, however, the new wall just seemed to encourage them. Worn down by constant assaults from the northern tribes, the Romans began to abandon the wall again in 158AD, finally pulling out altogether in 185 and retreating back to Hadrian's Wall.

Eve, this, though, did not calm the Caledonians. In 208, the Roman emperor himself, Septimus Severus, was forced to come to Scotland to quell constant guerrilla attacks.

He pushed as far north as the Moray Firth but failed to win any battles and retreated, leaving his son Caracalla to make a grudged peace with the local tribes and to head back south again.

Once again, Hadrian's Wall became the northern frontier of the empire. Things stayed mostly quiet until there was another attempt against the northern frontier in 367. It was repelled, but pressure continued right up until the time the Roman empire started to crumble and troops were completely withdrawn from Britain in 411.

Scotland, then, was the land the Romans never really managed to subjugate. However, their presence over centuries did have one marked effect. It gradually pulled together the disparate tribes into just one - the Picts.

Others - Angles, Britons and Scots - were also to inhabit Scotland in the coming centuries, and the battles these ancient people fought with each other as well as against the English would last for the better part of 1000 years.

There was something else, too, which still had to come to Scotland. While the Romans were busy subduing the northern tribes, one man was causing a huge stir at the other side of their giant empire.

He called himself the Messiah, and claimed he was the son of God. Eventually he was put to death, but his legacy would have a huge and lasting impact on Scotland as an emerging country.

 Print