05:03. Gnaeus Julius Agricola.

Britannia Capta Part 5.


Chapter 05:03.

Gnaeus Julius Agricola.



05:03:01. Agricola the Man.


Thanks to his son-in-law and admirer Publius Cornelius Tacitus, more is known about Gnaeus Julius Agricola than any other Roman Governor of Britain, and the following is drawn largely from Tacitus’ work De Vita Agricolae. This is a biography of Agricola and details, amongst other matters, his incumbency as the eleventh Governor of Britain from 78 to 84.


However, although Tacitus was a splendid author, his prose elegant, pithy and informative, his writing must be approached with some caution. He was uncompromisingly Roman, his attitude to “the natives” being supercilious and imperial. Whilst his works make it clear that he strongly disapproved of the moral degeneracy of the Roman people, and admired a perceived innocence and dignity in barbarians to the point of portraying the latter in the stereotypical ‘noble savage’ format, we are nevertheless left in no doubt as to whom he considered to be the Master Race. His descriptions of Agricola are eulogistic to the point of sycophancy, and his blithe lack of geographical accuracy is infuriating. He spends much time putting topical speeches in the mouths of his characters and pays closer attention to literary style than to historical accuracy. Like all ancient historians, his works were as much moral commentaries and political polemics rather than historical studies in the modern sense, and were designed to be read aloud to appreciative audiences of glitterati rather than studied silently by scholars.


The object here, however, is not to analyse the character or literary style of one who, despite his drawbacks to the modern reader, was nevertheless one of the greatest writers and speakers of his age. Rather, it is to extract as much hard fact as possible from his writings, and these contain much that is invaluable for, at least as far as the Agricola is concerned, Tacitus writes from first hand experience. Of especial value is the fact that, with the sole exception of Caesar, Tacitus was the only Roman whose writings of Britain are based upon his own direct observation. He actually spent considerable time in Britain with his father-in-law and was present at many of the events described. For this reason his account must carry considerable weight, and his words must be presumed to be accurate unless proven otherwise.


Gnaeus Julius Agricola was born on 13 June 40 CE at Forum Julii (Frejus) in Gallia Narbonensis – what is now, more or less, Provence in the south of France. His nomen of Julius would indicate that a paternal ancestor had received Roman citizenship for military service under the late Republic, as Forum Julii was a colonia established in about 60 BCE by Julius Caesar for veterans of Legio VIII. Both Agricola’s grandfathers had been equites and his father, Julius Graecinus, had sat in the Senate. Graecinus had been a man of a literary bent with horticultural and viticultural interests. He wrote a book, now lost but quoted by Pliny the Elder, on the cultivation of the vine and this horticultural passion is probably the reason for his sons cognomen of Agricola – id est ‘farmer’. Graecinus was executed on the orders of the Emperor Gaius in somewhat murky circumstances in 40 CE, just after Agricola was born.


The young Agricola was raised by his mother Procilla, a woman whose name is a common Gaulish one, and which could thus indicate gallic descent. It has been speculated that she was a Gaul of high birth, a fact that would give the future general considerable esteem amongst ethnic Celts and some insight into their behaviour. It may also help to explain his relatively conciliatory and even handed administration in later years.


His career was the standard one for a young nobleman of ambition: an education culminating in studies in philosophy and rhetoric at the University of Massilia followed by a military career beginning as tribunus laticlavius, that is to say one entitled to wear the latus clavus, the broad purple stripe on the toga that indicated senatorial rank, in Britain from about 61 CE to 64 CE. Various other positions were held successively in a distinguished career that covered some twenty-three years in the Roman public service: after Britain he became quaestor in Asia in 64, Tribunus Plebis at Rome from 66, Praetor at Rome from 68, Legatus Legionis XX in Britain from 70 – 74, Legatus Praetorius in Aquitania from 74 -77, Consul for some months in 77 or 78, and finally his last official post as Legatus Praetorius of Britain from 78 to 84.


Agricola’s period as Governor of Britain is divided into seven distinct campaigns, as chronicled by Tacitus:


            1. 78 CE: The conquest and annexation of North Wales and Mona.


            2. 79 CE: Northern England to the Tyne – Solway line, i.e. the line later taken by Hadrian’s Wall which consolidated the Roman hold on Brigantia.


            3. 80 CE: The eastern lowlands  between the Tyne – Solway and Forth – Clyde lines, with expeditions beyond the Tay.


            4. 81 CE: The consolidation of the Forth- Clyde line.


            5. 82 CE: Galloway and the western lowlands.


            6. 83 CE: The east coast of Scotland between the forth and the Tay.


            7. 84 CE: The sea and land progression up the east coast as far as Inverness and culminating in the battle of Mons Graupius, following which naval expedition sailed beyond the Moray Firth, landed on the Orkneys and sighted the Shetlands, and continued on to circumnavigate Britain.




3:02: The First Problems: North Wales and Mona.

Agricola arrived in Britain to take up his position as Governor in the late summer of 78 at the age of 38, at a time when the legions were winding down from active campaigning and heading into their winter quarters. As always, the retreat to winter quarters was a time when the British were able to harass the troops, and the interval of the changeover from outgoing Governor to incoming Governor was also a period of which they could make good use. At such times there was uncertainty amongst the Roman commanders as no-one knew for sure just what would be expected of them and what new policy directions, if any, were likely to be dumped in their collective lap. Thus, in August or September of 78 there was a brief period in which the Romans dithered and of which the free British took full advantage. Several incidents occurred just before the new Governor arrived.


The most dangerous of these was the massacre by the Ordovices of a cavalry unit in north Wales. The army was ill-prepared to take retaliatory action, having settled down for the winter, but Agricola pulled them together rapidly. In the late autumn, with a force made up of auxiliaries and units gathered in from detached duty, he headed from Viriconium to north Wales. Here he was on familiar ground, for these men were none other than the XXth Legion, his old command of no more than four or five years before. He was amongst men who knew him and by whom he was apparently well-liked. More, north Wales was familiar ground to him as he had very possibly served there under Suetonius Paullinus nearly twenty years before during his tenure as military tribune. He marched straight into the hills and soundly defeated the Ordovices, inflicting heavy casualties.


In this instance Agricola seems to have adopted the principle of carpe diem. It was very late in the year, but he was already more than half way to Mona and had just roundly defeated the only serious opposition that he was likely to meet on the mainland side of the Menai Straits. To take advantage of this situation and the almost certain surprise of his attack, and also, probably, to firmly cement in his reputation as a force to be feared, he marched his troops west towards the sacred island. Agricola, through surprise and speed and probably more through luck than good management, had secured a relatively easy victory and saw a chance to improve on it quickly and easily. It must be remembered that Roman generals fought as much for personal aggrandisement as for anything else.


Because the whole thing had been conceived and executed so quickly, the Governor had no ships accompanying him but he did have some very strong swimmers amongst his auxiliaries, men who had been trained at home to swim carrying their arms and keeping their horses under control. From this description, it seems very likely that he had a unit of Batavians in his column. Batavians or not, these men managed to swim the straits, and it must have been a doughty feat as by now winter would have been closing in rapidly.


The Druids of Mona were taken completely by surprise. It was winter and out of the campaigning season: the last thing they expected at that time was a legion on the doorstep. What is more, according to Tacitus they had been expecting a seaborne invasion similar to that launched by Frontinus of Glamorgan only a year or two beforehand and may have been looking in another direction when Agricola arrived. He surely did not come upon them by stealth, as his column was of at least legion strength and one cannot hide such a force. His success was due to speed and surprise. The British were outmanoeuvred and resistance collapsed. Mona was taken, the island reduced and annexed, and garrisons set up at adjacent Segontium [Caernarfon] and Canovium [Caerhun].


Having finally secured this last stronghold of the west for Rome, Agricola quickly went about cleaning up his own administrative house and redeploying the garrison. Rearrangement of his troops was now essential as he had achieved something that had been a perceived need for more than thirty years: a short limes. The frontier of Rome now ran along the shortest possible British axis, a broad swathe from the Mersey to the Humber running as far north as York. Crucial to this defensive ribbon was the fortress of Deva (Chester), a position originally occupied as far back perhaps as the days of Scapula but long since abandoned. This garrison, which would shortly become the headquarters of Legio XX, is a classic example of the shrewd Roman eye for the optimum strategic positioning of strongholds. It securely guards the northern approaches to Wales, cutting communication between the Ordovican intransigents and the Brigantes, and commands access to the Irish Sea and the western coasts of Brigantia. This last was all important, as such a commanding position was essential to anyone contemplating the invasion and occupation of the North of England and the Scottish Lowlands.


Firm discipline was imposed on the troops, the excesses of the conductores and other officials were curbed, and venal officials were replaced with more trustworthy men, as Agricola was well aware that military conquest was pointless unless the subdued areas would find the new regime reasonably acceptable. In a climate where peace and its attendant excesses could often be more fearful than the horrors of war, there was little opportunity to establish a lasting conquest in which the conqueror can sit back and reap some of the gains. Agricola had to impose some order and justice in the new territories and effectively sell the benefits of Romanization to the British, to convince them that the way of Rome was to be preferred to the old ways. He was not going to stop his conquests at the Mersey – Humber line: he had ambitions of subduing the entire island, and to do so he would need all the troops at his command. He had to leave a placid population at his rear. He could not afford to antagonise the new subjects. Memories of Boudica were still excruciatingly vivid, and Agricola was not going to be another Catus Decianus.


The conquest of the entire island of Britain was a sound strategy and a sensible long term goal, but it posed certain problems.


The first was military. He had four legions and the Classis Britannica at his command, a truly formidable force of some fifty thousand men, but the nature of northern Britain was such that he was going to need every man and every boat that he could muster. This meant reducing the southern garrisons to their very minimum, which would mean exposing his rear to insurrection. This led to the second problem, which was: how to reduce the garrison while still maintaining peace and order. He was not going to repeat Paullinus’ mistake and go off campaigning only to find the natives rising in bloody rebellion as soon as he was out of earshot. Accordingly he spent much of his first year in offices correcting injustices and healing rifts to persuade the British that peace under Rome was more desirable than insurrection.


He had in the aged King Cogidubnus an influential and loyal ally, and the central territories were reasonably secure. Wales still had to be strongly garrisoned, and there was no way around that, but Icenia and the west Country could, perhaps be demilitarised. The answer seemed to be to disarm and demilitarise the natives as far as possible, a logical solution that needed diplomacy and tact: the result of Scapula’s disarmament of the Iceni some thirty years before had to be avoided at all costs.


This strategy involved more than simply removing all combat weapons. Many people, especially in the people in the West Country and particularly those of the northern Durotriges who dwelt on and around the Somerset levels, still dwelt in their ancient hill-forts and these people would have to be relocated. Agricola could not risk having such communities in the rear as possible centres of nationalistic feeling and rebellion. Accordingly the order was given to disarm the tribes and to evacuate any hill-forts or fortified settlements that might still be inhabited, and to move the inhabitants to open lowland settlements. Force could be used if necessary. The order was carried out promptly and efficiently, and no doubt most complied obediently if somewhat ungraciously. Some, however, did rather more than mutter and violent scenes occurred. The example of Cadbury Castle may be instructive ( see Alcock 1972 p160ff for this scenario. Alternatively, the move from the hill-fort may have occurred in the aftermath of Boudica’s war for which see Leach 1982 p5).


The word of the eviction order seems to have moved faster than the troops who executed it. The people of South Cadbury had sufficient time to consider their options and to decide on resistance. There would have been much acrimonious debate, as many would have pointed out the proven hopelessness of such a course, and moreover a small native settlement had been established at the base of the hill at what is now the village of South Cadbury since at least the 50’s [Alcock 1972 p17]. Many would have perhaps argued in favour of bowing to the inevitable and removing to the undefended village to make the best of things. But they were a fiercely independent people and the hill-fort was more than a home. It had very strong spiritual connections and was the focus of the ancestors. Like all such settlements in Britain it was as much a religious centre as a domestic and industrial community. They decided to stand their ground.


The defences, then more than fifty years old [Alcock 1972 p161], were put into repair and heightened with soil dug from inside the settlement. The main south west gate was strongly fortified and more defences were prepared: a crude but massive barricade was thrown up outside the gates [Ibid p171]. But the defences were, of course, unavailing, the valour and defence in vain. The result was a repeat in miniature of Maiden Castle a generation before.


A unit of the army, probably from II Legio, assaulted the south west gate with the usual deadly efficiency. The barricades were burned and the gates with them. The troops stormed in and there was a brief but bloody defence of the gatehouse, after which the little settlement was overrun and all too soon it was all over. More than thirty people, men, women and children, were massacred in the stone passage and outside the guard chamber [Alcock 1972 p105]. A scattering of cheap bronze brooches bestrewed the path, the remains, perhaps, of the stock of some trinket seller who had had a stall just inside the gatehouse at a prime selling spot. Maybe the trinket seller himself lay dead in the gatehouse, hacked down by a Roman legionary, and his body left to rot with the others. And left to rot they were: their sad remains were strewn about the gateway tunnel, but there is now little sign of injury from sword or pilum [ibid p105]. They were probably left to the crows and the wolves.


Agricola’s orders were carried out with merciless precision and despatch. Those people who survived were evicted, some, perhaps, to the village below, others to Lindinis some eight miles away. Many, no doubt, ended up in the slave pens and lived out their lives in servitude in alien lands. The settlement within the fortifications was razed and a working party from the legion was left behind to take care of the defences, setting up their tents in the north east corner of the fort [Alcock 1972 p171]. The defences themselves were destroyed with typical Roman thoroughness: the gatehouse was demolished, the stone facing of the defensive walls was pulled down and the wall core thrown into the ditches. Then they departed and what became known as Cadbury Castle was left to the birds and the beasts and much later, when times were less troubled and people had grown accustomed to life in the village on the plain and ancient pains were forgotten, the old fort was planted in crops.


Thus fared one little hill-fort, and without doubt it was a tale that was repeated elsewhere although there is no evidence to suggest widespread resistance. Although the enforcement of the eviction order was swift and those who resisted were treated mercilessly, there does not appear to have been the widespread bloodshed and punitive pogroms that so typified the days following the fall of Boudica. The Roman mood was stern but then conciliatory, instructive atrocitas followed by soothing clementia, and the indications are that Agricola’s policy was effective: the south remained quiescent.




3:03. The Consolidation of Brigantia.

In the summer of 79 Agricola marched from Deva to Eboracum (York) and through the north west, consolidating Roman rule throughout what had been the territory of the Brigantes. If Tacitus is to be believed, he constantly sent out raiding parties, often leading the men personally, and later extended favourable conditions to conquered parties. Thus, we are told, his reputation was continually enhanced and he became known and respected as a man terrible in war but generous in peace. His popularity amongst both troops and the subject British remained high.


In the middle of the year, on 23 June 79, Vespasian died. It was high summer and word would have reached Agricola very shortly thereafter. Travel in the ancient world was notoriously uncertain, and even more so when sea voyages were involved, but imperial couriers could command the best resources and in times of need could move very quickly indeed. It is probable that Agricola was aware that a new Augustus had assumed the purple within a month and there would then have followed an anxious time. Anything could happen. Far more than in any modern state, the personality and will of the Emperor had a profound, direct and immediate impact on the administration. Policy changes could be effected instantly, and presumably Agricola marked time, consolidating his rear and concentrating on routine matters until such time as he was advised of the new Augustus’ intentions for Britain. Fortunately Titus had served in Britain and he and Agricola appear to have been on amicable, perhaps even friendly, terms. As it happened, Titus endorsed all his father’s policies and things continued as before. Agricola, along with many others, would have breathed a sigh of relief.


Campaigning done for the year, Agricola returned south and turned his attention once more to administrative and social reforms. Reasoning that people who were rapidly acquiring more and more of the amenities and appurtenances of Rome and her powerful civilization would become seduced by the many good things that Rome had to offer – and hence more docile – Agricola spurred on the continuing process of Romanisation. The construction of fora, basilicae, temples, amphitheatres, and other public amenities were encouraged and the last scars of the Boudican destruction gradually erased. The sons of the native aristocracy were brought under Roman care, part students, part hostages, and schooled in Roman manners, language and liberal arts.


Agricola flattered the British aristocrats, expressing a preference for the artistically robust native works over the “trained skills of the Gauls”. He appears to have shown an interesting aesthetic sense in this matter and his taste is all the more intriguing in that it highlights the fact that there was then considerable difference in the native culture of Britain and Gaul, close as they were in so many other ways. For over a century, art had remained the privileged expression of an essentially rural milieu, little influenced by Roman fashions, strongly attached to its own traditions, and only slightly affected by the growing trend to the oppidum development of civic organisation that had been becoming more and more advanced on the Continent. Long after the conquest of Britain, local craftsmen were to perpetuate at least the formal aspects of the island’s art, thus giving Romano-British artistic production a specific character that had no equivalent in the other Celtic countries integrated within the Roman Empire (Forman & Kruta 1985; p99).


Romanization proceeded rapidly throughout the year and through the subsequent years, although Tacitus’ assertion that Agricola did more for the establishment of Roman civilization in Britain than any other Governor may safely be taken as sheer rhetorical hyperbole. Tacitus was an admirer of the ‘noble savage’ concept and frequently makes comparisons between the innocent integrity and unsophisticated dignity of the northern barbarian and the degenerate, luxury-loving Romans to the loss of the latter. Bitterly he remarks that the “unsuspecting Britons spoke of such novelties as ‘civilization’, when in fact they were no more than features of their enslavement”.


The country of the Brigantes, or at least the more accessible coastal areas, were secured for Rome at this time. Roads were built and perhaps as many as 38 forts built and garrisoned. All routes were secured and patrolled and any movement of the tribes, even in small numbers, was paralysed. Legio II Adiutrix, working from Viriconium, subdued the west coast as far as Stanwick and headed back around the western seaboard while Legio IX Hispana, based at Eboracum, marched along the east coast to consolidate the province as far as Corstopitum (Corbridge). Vexillations of regulars, cohorts of auxiliaries from each legion and alae of cavalry such as the ala Petriana garrisoned the forts. To paraphrase Tacitus, the native states were surrounded with forts and camps.




3:04. The Conquest of the Lowlands.

The spring of 81 saw Agricola heading north again, this time along the easterly route. The army penetrated as far as the Tava Aesturium, the Firth of Tay, which would have taken them through the territory of the Votadini of the eastern lowlands and this people may well have submitted without offering resistance. Subsequent events would suggest that the Votadini were to a considerable extent pro-Roman, and may well have accepted Caesar as the price of friendship with the conquerors and the security that the Roman army could bring. Their territory, roughly the eastern seaboard between Northumberland and the Tay, was thereafter lightly garrisoned, which would suggest an amicable settlement.


Not so the peoples to the west, the Selgovae of the central Lowlands. They resisted, but despite some atrocious weather Agricola managed to subdue them and established a line of strong, well-sited forts on the Forth – Clyde line, consolidating his defences and locking the northern British into what was virtually another island. His strategy was well thought out, simple but effective: a pincer movement began from Luguvalium (Carlisle) and Corstopitum and eventually met in the region of Inveresk. An expeditionary force crossed Bodatria Aesturium, the Firth of Forth, at Stirling not too far, perhaps, from the site of the present Forth Bridge, and, travelling via Strathallen and Strathearn, arrived on the banks of the Tava. The area thus encircled was large and hostile, almost as large as Brigantia, and a huge amount of work was required just to set up an infrastructure of forts and interconnecting roads, let alone administer it. It was a demanding task, but Agricola’s legions were up to it, although it took two campaigning seasons, the summers of 80 and 81, to do it.


Then, once more, disaster struck: The Emperor Titus, after a reign of a little under twenty-seven months, died on September 13, 81 CE, at his father’s estate at Cutiliae near Raete (Suetonius: Titus 11). The cause of death is something of a mystery, but he is generally considered to have died of a fever, his end hastened either by overly harsh medical treatment or intervention by his brother Domitian, although there is some speculation that a brain tumour was the culprit (Murison 1995). Whatever the cause, and there was no doubt intense speculation on the subject by all in Agricola’s force from the Commander on down, the death of the Emperor was a disruption of major proportions. What now? What would the new Emperor’s orders be? What were his feelings towards Britain and the campaign then in progress. Once again the legions and their commanders waited with bated breath.


The news would have taken some time to reach Agricola, but Roman communications could be amazingly swift when the occasion demanded and by the end of September the Governor would have learned of his friend’s demise and that young Domitian was now Caesar. What was the nature of the relationship between Agricola and Domitian? We do not know, but the evidence of Tacitus would suggest that it was at best cool. No doubt the Governor would have wondered just what was about to happen, and what would be the fate of his strategies in Britain and his own political future. Agricola seems to have been a reasonably popular commander with his men, both respected and well-liked, and he had provided them with victory and booty. Domitian would have been aware of this, and it is a fact that a military man’s favour at Domitian’s court was in inverse proportion to his popularity with the troops. But Agricola’s fears, if any, were unfounded. Whatever the message from Domitian, when it came at last it was clearly a variation on “Proceed as planned”. Agricola was still in Caesar’s good graces.


For the moment.


In the spring of 82, to fully complete the annexation of all lands up to the Forth – Clyde line, Agricola headed into the west and the Galloway Peninsula. How he got there is a matter of some conjecture as the manuscript version of De Vita Agricolae is somewhat ambiguous: nave prima transgressum may be contaminated and is open to several interpretations. It could mean that Agricola crossed in the leading ship. This would imply a seaborne invasion of the area, which is a strong possibility but unsubstantiated, and the confusion grows in that it is not known where Agricola spent the winter of 81 – 82. He may perhaps have wintered along the forts of the northern line such as Camelon, Castlecary, or Cadder, but this is most unlikely. He had business in the south, and it is likely that he based himself at Eboracum. His duties as Governor would have required him to be thus centrally located and it would have been general policy to pull the legionary troops at least back to the relative comfort of the fortresses for their hiberna, leaving auxiliaries to man the outlying forts. It is possible that nave is a misspelling of Anava, the Annan River that flows into the Solway Firth. If so, nave prima transgressus may simply indicate his line of advance and mean no more than that he first crossed the Annan on his way to the western lowlands. So what were his movements from the autumn of 81 and on into the following summer?


Having annexed and consolidated the eastern Lowlands, Agricola headed for Eboracum. Here he based himself for the winter of 81 – 82, attending to the many duties of his Governorship. In the spring of 82 he he headed north with his army to Corstopitum and then west to Luguvalium. Turning north again he crossed the Anava and entered into Galloway. He met resistance from the native peoples, principal of whom were the Novantae, but such opposition as there was broke swiftly. The legions penetrated deeply and the whole of Galloway and Ayrshire were occupied. Permanent forts were built and the western seaboard, especially that part that is closest to Ireland, was lined with Imperial troops.


Only a few miles away was the island that the Romans called Hibernia. The name does not mean, as is sometimes thought, ‘The Winter Island’ but is the usual Roman mispronunciation of a native name. Irish legend would have it that the island is named after the goddess Eriu, the name being used in its genitive form erinn. This may represent an earlier form ierne, which the geographer Ptolomy (trying to be rather more linguistically accurate) renders as Iurnia. The Romans managed to garble this word into the form Hibernia.


On the shores of the Mare Hibernicum, the Irish Sea, Agricola paused in his advance, perhaps on the Novantarum Paeninsula, the Rhinns of Galloway, and seriously pondered the invasion of Ireland. What was he really looking at? The possibilities of more conquests for the future, after the main island had been subdued, and the continuing glory that it might bring him? Roman generals were always on the alert for further conquests. The prospect seemed to hold some attraction for him and he expressed the opinion that a single legion, together with auxiliary backup, could easily reduce the smaller island, which would indicate that he knew at least something of its nature. Hibernia, through the activities of traders, had become fairly well known and Roman knowledge of Irish geography and politics seems to have been surprisingly comprehensive. The province of Britain, Agricola reasoned, would be all the easier to hold if all the islands of the archipelago were under Roman suzerainty and independence banished from all sight.


He was both right and wrong. Truly, any occupied territory is many times more difficult to control if there are free-willed, independent partisans living over the next hill or on the other side of the narrow straits, ever ready to stir up rebellion and providing succour for fugitive dissidents. A single legion, however, would not have been sufficient to conquer Ireland, as subsequent invaders have found to their cost.


But Agricola gave the notion considerable thought. The situation in Hibernia at that time certainly bore many resemblances to that of Britain just prior to Claudius’ invasion. There was political upheaval, internecine warfare, factionalisation amongst members of royal families, and influential refugees fleeing overseas just as Verica, Adminios and others had fled to Rome. Tacitus says that there was seditio – rebellion – in Ireland at that time, from which many prominent people fled for their lives. At least one such refugee sought sanctuary with Agricola and was kindly received although the way Tacitus puts it the regulus, which may mean a prince or a petty king, was more of a prisoner than a guest and Agricola quite probably kept him as a hostage for future reference. The ultimate fate of the young man is not recorded.


The complete picture of the events in Hibernia at that time cannot be restored, but Irish legend would suggest that Crimthann Nia Nair was High King at about this time (circa 74 – 90 CE) and it was also at about this time that the Revolt of the Vassals took place. It is said that the vassals revolted against their overlords, the people of Mil, murdering the lot of them at a banquet save only three women who managed to escape. The vassals set up a government to replace that of the overlords, but proved to be hopelessly incompetent. Meanwhile, the three survivors of the overlords each bore a son and as time went by the exasperated subjects recalled these young men to rule over them in the place of the murderous vassals. Thus the three became kings of Munster, Ulster and Tara, but, needless to say, the vassals did not give up without a fight, and more violence flared, forcing more refugees to leave the country.


Feradach, later king of Tara, is thought to have been born about 60 CE, so he could well have been Agricola’s guest. Equally it could have been one of the other two, or one of the displaced vassals.


Meanwhile, the legions were not idle and forts and roads were built with great speed. Nor was the fleet allowed to take life easy. Amongst the many tasks it performed was that of mounting an expedition along the north west coast of Scotland. The mission, which included the scholar Demetrios of Tarsus, may have been simple exploration, but it is much more likely to have been a reconnaissance group whose task was to examine the rugged western coast for possible landing sites. Perhaps Agricola, remembering Frontinus’ successes in Wales only a few years previously, hoped to find a similar geography that would enable him to repeat his predecessor’s exploit in the north. He may well have thought to repeat the eminently sensible manoeuvre by landing an army on the west coast, thus outflanking the Highland Plateau as Frontinus has outflanked the Welsh mountains. This was not to be the case, and if this had been his hope he was forced to abandon it.


Agricola also decided to abandon – or at least to shelve – such plans as he may have had for an invasion of Hibernia. Perhaps, as is likely, he planned to give it his attention when the whole of the main island was firmly under Roman sway and fully obedient. Like any good general, he firmly believed in the principle of consolidating his rear before attempting a further advance. Whatever his reasons, his decision was in the event wise and he turned away from Hibernia, leaving the Emerald Isle free of serious invasion for a further seven centuries.


Ireland and the rugged west coast of Scotland were set aside. His plans were now laid and he would head up the east coast, supported by the fleet. In the spring of 83 Agricola headed his legions north east towards Caledonia proper. The strategy now planned and skilfully applied was to gain firm possession of Strathmore, gateway to the north, to deny northern assailants the use of it as a springboard and then to provoke the northern tribes to a pitched battle of such a scale that its loss would cripple them militarily for a generation or more [Richmond 1955: p42].




3:05. The Mutiny of the Usipi.

In his account of the larger sweep of the events of the Agricolan invasion of the north, Tacitus pauses briefly to relate one of his few anecdotes. Sometime around the period 82 – 83, a unit of German auxiliaries mutinied, seized some ships and were blown around the north of Britain in a series of hair-raising adventures.


The Usipi were a Germanic tribe who lived across the Rhine between the rivers Lippe and Yssel, thus being neighbours and probably close relations of the Tencteri and Batavi. They were enthusiastic warriors and excellent horsemen, their very name, Usipi, possibly being a latinisation of a Celtic or Germanic original translating as ‘the good horsemen’ [Ogilvie and Richmond 1978 note 28:1]. Although their territory was not formally annexed until 83 by the Emperor Domitian, they had nevertheless joined the Roman army in such numbers as to be able to form a coherent unit of their own. Why this should have been is not known: perhaps they sought the rewards that the Roman army could offer, or perhaps their homeland was already under some form of Roman rule and, as so often happened, their military service was in lieu of tribute.


However is was that they came to be there, a cohors quingeneria [Ogilvie & Richmond 1978 note 28:1] of Usipi auxiliaries was camped somewhere on the west coast of Britain during the winter of 82 – 83 undergoing training. Where this was is not specified, but was probably somewhere between Deva and Luguvalium, or perhaps even in the newly annexed Galloway area. They did not like their training. So much did they dislike it that they mutinied and murdered their centurions and regular force instructors. Whether it was the Roman army, or service in Britain that was the bone of contention is moot, but whatever it was, they decided that they wanted to go home. To retreat overland, through the Midlands and the south-east to the Channel coast was out of the question, so they commandeered three Liburnian galleys, managing to take them intact. The fate of the crews is not mentioned, but presumably they were slaughtered, while the pilots were captured. One of the pilots, however, managed to escape and take word of the mutiny to the authorities. Foolishly, the Usipi murdered the other two pilots in retaliation.


The navis liburnica was a general term for any small military vessel, usually two-banked, square-rigged, open galleys with about sixty rowers and crew and would normally carry about thirty troops. In a pinch, they could hold sixty, a total of about one hundred and twenty men per ship. The five hundred Usipi somehow managed to cram themselves into these three little ships and set sail, so they thought, for home.


The mutineers headed out to sea, and the direction that they wished to take is unknown, and it is possible, even probable, that they had only the very haziest of notions as to where they were. As mentioned above, they had no pilots to guide them, and a pilot then was no mere steersman but a navigator and master mariner with as intimate a knowledge of the coasts, the tides, the winds and other such essential matters as was then available, and a man sea-crafty through long experience. It is possible that one or other of the pilots was still alive and in the hands of the Usipi as a means of insurance, as the text of Tacitus on this point [Tacitus: Agricola 28] is ambiguous and may be corrupt, but if so he was clearly not in command of a vessel. The Usipi were land-lubbers, and perforce went where tide and wind took them.


During the first stages of their journey they were reasonably successful. They headed north and may well have put into seaside garrisons for supplies on their way, giving out some bluff and doubtless hoping that news of their mutiny had not yet reached such remote outposts. Their luck held, as they seem to have been able to take on stores where needed and continue on their way unmolested. Tacitus does not say that they did land at other garrisons, but does not deny it. Instead, his report contains the cryptic and perhaps rather evasive note that ‘news of these events had not yet got about, and the ships seemed like a ghostly apparition as they coasted along.’ Cassius Dio is not so coy: he states quite plainly that the ships touched at least one fort along the way but escaped detection.


Eventually they sailed beyond Roman-held territory, beyond Galloway and into waters seldom crossed by outsiders. They still had to eat, however, and they took to raiding. Quite sizeable communities of Britons dwelt along the coasts and upon the adjacent islands, and the Usipi preyed on these. Although surprise may well have given the raiders advantage, the Britons of the west coast and the islands were numerous and quite ready and able to defend themselves and their property. The soldiers were frequently beaten off, and severe hunger began to loom before them. They became hungry, very hungry, indeed to the point of cannibalism. The weaker ones were killed and eaten first, then lots were drawn. In this manner they rounded Cape Wrath and were blown eastwards and southwards, where they were at last wrecked on the North Sea coast of Germany. They were taken, hardly surprisingly, as pirates, and the survivors did not fare well. Some were taken prisoner by the Frisii on the coast between the old Rhine and the Ems, others by the Suebi of the Schleswig coast. Survivors were sold as slaves, and passed from hand to hand, some eventually reaching the Roman bank of the Rhine where they recounted their tale. They and their exploits became notorious.


Martial notes that the incident was common knowledge by about 90, and no doubt the authorities on the Rhine held a court of inquiry when at last the stragglers turned up. The Roman army, like any army then and now, had very little tolerance for men who murder their officers and NCOs and no doubt the mutineers who finally reached the Rhine had an extremely unpleasant time explaining their actions. Their fate is unrecorded, but there was, at that time, a standard punishment for mutineers, traitors and runaway slaves: crucifixion.

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