05:04. The Farthest Reach of Empire.

Britannia Capta Part 5.


Chapter 05.04

The Farthest Reach of Empire


05:04:01. Beyond the Tay.

As the summer of 83 approached, Agricola began to push northwards again, overrunning the coastal lowlands between the Forth and the Tay. But he advanced cautiously, reconnoitring the harbours and carefully and using the fleet that suggests the first combined operation in recorded history. No more was the fleet simply a floating supply base or the army. The ships were manned by marines and seaborne assaults were carried out to complement the movements of the infantry and cavalry formations on land. He was worried about the very real possibility of a general alliance forming out of the many disparate and usually mutually antagonistic native tribes, especially those of the unexplored interior, the Highlands For this reason, and with characteristic caution, he built a line of forts sealing off the mouths of the Glens leading into the Highlands, the natural roads of egress for counter-attackers.


His chief assailants were the Caledonii, a numerous and widespread tribe or confederation of tribes whose territory covered much of the Highlands from the Great Glen to the Tay, and the Damnonii who dwelt on the coastlands and who would have borne the brunt of the Roman advance. These were the warriors who first attacked Agricola when first he entered Scotland proper, and the effect of the Caledonian defensive movements especially must have been deeply felt. Although the Caledonii were but one tribal grouping of several, albeit perhaps the most powerful north of Brigantia, they made such an impression on the Romans that forevermore, apart from the occasional purist quibblers, all people of the Scottish Highlands were known as Caledonii. The whole land they named the country of the Caledonii – Caledonia.


The invasion continued by land and sea, and it is here that Agricola gives us one of the rare glimpses of the human face of the Roman army:


“The war was pushed forward simultaneously by land and sea, and infantry, cavalry and marines (nauticus miles), often meeting in the same camp, would mess and make merry together. They boasted, as soldiers will, of their several exploits and adventures and matches the perilous depths of woods and ravines against the hazards of storms and waves, victories on land against the conquest of the Ocean” (Tacitus: Agricola 25).


Surely a vivid and evocative picture.


The hazards of woods and ravines, or, more specifically, the British fighting men who issued from them, were many. Agricola’s advance was by no means easy and uncontested. The Caledonii and their allies massed in force and began attacking the rapidly growing chain of forts with such success that panic began to infect the legions. Members of Agricola’s staff urged a strategic retreat back to the Forth-Clyde line, arguing that it would be preferable to march out than to be thrown out. Reversals were obviously severe and retreat a real option.


While the matter was being debated, dire news came to Agricola’s hand: several columns of British warriors were advancing on his beleaguered force. He promptly split his own force into three and prepared to meet the enemy head on, but the British got wind of the countermoves in good time. They changed their plans and decided to head for a fortress manned by Legio IX. This position seems to have been a weak link in the Roman chain of defences, as the Ninth was below strength thanks to the withdrawal of a large vexillation under Lucius Roscius Aelianus for service in Germany to help Domitian in his Chattan War.


Exactly where the Ninth was stationed is a matter of conjecture, but a possible site was the fort later known as Victoria which was in the territory of the Damnonii and possibly identifiable as the one known to have been built at modern Dealgin Ross. It was one of the smaller forts erected when the main force had divided into three and each division was acting alone. From Tacitus’ description, it was furnished with the distinctive Strathacro gateways, an ingenious entrance design in which the outside ditch formed on one side an oblique spur set at 45 degrees to the main line and on the other side a key-shaped clavicula, thus creating a killing ground for defenders to destroy opponents massed within a constricted area. Small the fort may have been, but it was sophisticated and eminently defensible.


But for all their ingenuity, the hastily erected fortifications were in vain. Eschewing the usual clamour and braggadocio that ensured that prospective opponents were aware of their coming well in advance, the British struck at night, cutting down the sentries and overrunning the gates. The sleeping Romans were thrown into panic, and the fight was raging inside the fort by the time that Agricola’s scouts brought him word of the change in direction of the British columns. Sending cavalry and the swiftest of his infantry on ahead to harass the enemy as best they could, Agricola force-marched his men with all speed towards Victoria. The relief column arrived with the dawn. The legions set up a great shouting, and the sunlight glinted upon the signa to the dismay of the British who were now caught between two fires.


The men of the Ninth took heart and fought with renewed vigour, while the relief column attacked the British rear. The Ninth recovered sufficiently to make a sally, and there was bitter fighting in the narrow gateway area, a struggle that ended when the surviving British fled in disarray into the surrounding forests and marshes. The battle was over and victory snatched from the jaws of defeat, and it may not be too romantic to suggest that it was at this point that the camp gained its name of Victoria. Everyone made a grab for the glory of victory: the newcomers boasted that they had brought relief while the men of the Ninth asserted that they had been doing quite well, thank you, and had not needed anybody’s help. As Tacitus cynically remarks:


“That is the crowning injustice of war: all claim credit for success, while defeat is laid to the account of one” (Tacitus: Agricola 27),


an observation that is true in all fields of endeavour and in every age of the world.


This resounding success strengthened Roman morale immensely, and there was no more talk of strategic withdrawals or of retreat back beyond the Forth-Clyde line. The troops were now afire with enthusiasm, declaring that nothing could stop them and begging to be led onward, fighting battle after battle until they had reached the farthest reaches of Britain and the entire island lay  firmly under the heel of the legionary caliga. The British, also, were not particularly downcast. They attributed Agricola’s victory to the skilful use of a very lucky break and their own defeat on sheer bad luck rather than lack of skill or courage. They may well have been right.


Spirits unbroken, the British armed every able-bodied man, sent the women and children into the security of the mountain fastnesses and prepared to resist the invader with all their strength. The tribes assembled and swore allegiance, ratifying their oaths with sacrifices and solemn ritual. As the winter of 83 drew in, the attitudes of both sides hardened further and further. Roman and Briton alike knew that soon there would come a full confrontation, the final showdown, and they would fight toe to toe to decide the fate of the north. The British were ready to defend their land to the very last, the Romans were straining at the leash of winter to push their conquests to the very farthest reaches of Empire.




4:02. Mons Graupius.


            S S Frere: Hyginus and the 1st Cohort. Britannia XI.

            Dobson/ Mann: Britons in the Roman Army. Britannia IV.

            Hind: Agricola’s Fleet. Britannia V.

            Breeze/Close: Burials at Camelon. Britannia VII.

            St Joseph: Durno. Britannia IX.

            An Agricolan Praesidium on the Forth-Clyde Line. Britannia Vol XI.

            Potter: Biglands Milefort. Britannia VIII.


In the spring of 84 Agricola prepared to march into the far north to extend Roman rule over the entire island of Britannia. The omens were not good, as his infant son, born the year before, died and this was a grievous blow to him. Parenthetically, this datum would indicate that his wife was with him, as she had been in Asia, and the emotional blow would have been all the heavier as this was the second son to die in infancy. He showed fortitude, however, and distracted his mind with the conduct of the invasion.


The assault by land and sea was now begun in earnest. Agricola sent the fleet on ahead to plunder, to distract enemy resources, and to terrify the tribes that lay in the path of the advancing land forces. These latter, marching lightly, moved swiftly. With the legions marched cohorts of British from the south of England, men whose loyalty to Rome had been proven over years of living under Roman authority [Tacitus: Agricola 29]. They may well have been young men drawn from the Cantii, the Regni or the Cattuvellauni, tribes who had acknowledged the rule of Caesar virtually from the beginning and who would never have known a life other than one ordered by Rome as the invasion of Aulus Plautius had occurred forty years before, when their fathers were in their youth.


British troops had, in fact, been recruited into the auxiliary forces almost from the beginning of the province. The earliest definitely attested British unit serving overseas with the Roman army was an ala of cavalry, I Flavia Augusta Britannica, which was stationed in Germania Superior in 69. British regiments fought at Bedriacum in the same year. Without a doubt, Agricola would have raised units in the south for his campaigns in the north and for service overseas. Increasingly there was a policy to send troops raised in one province to duty in others, hence units of Batavians, Treveri, Pannonians, Hamians and Asturians saw service in Britain, while British units served in Pannonia, Germany and North Africa and many other corners, no doubt, of the Empire. Agricola’s use of British units in the north of Britain would have been perhaps the exception rather than the rule but nevertheless entirely plausible. Indeed it is possible that the Roman administration was beginning to perceive Britain north of the Tyne – Solway line as a different province to Britain south of that line.


A string of forts and marching camps was thrown up following the route of advance of the army as it headed for the fertile and densely populated plain around Varar Aesturium (The Moray Firth), the heartland of northern Scotland. The tribes were bound to defend this territory, and it was here that Agricola sought to draw them into battle. 30,000 fighting men of the northern tribes gathered, and more were streaming in, resplendent in their battle attire of which the central article was the beautifully crafted torque. They clamoured for battle, these warriors of the Caledonii and Taezali, of the Venicones and Decantae, of the Lugi and Smertae, of other peoples that are now only names. They must have presented a fearsome and formidable force. Their commander-in-chief was a man named Calgacus, which appears to have meant ‘swordsman’ (cf. Irish calgach) and which Tacitus uses as the given name of the war-leader of the Caledonii and the united tribes, but it has to it something of the ring of an epithet or even a title.


Tacitus puts a long and rhetorically elegant speech into the mouth of Calgacus, in which he deplores Rome, her actions and her degeneracy. Although completely fictitious, the speech is beautifully crafted and contains witty and telling epigrams such as the much quoted “ubi solitudinem faciunt pacem appellant”: “where they create desolation, they call it peace” [Tacitus: Agricola 30]. Powerful as they are, this speech and the corresponding address of Agricola to his troops are essentially polemics inserted by Tacitus in what was primarily a political pamphlet. These speeches are extremely significant for the insight that they provide into Tacitus’ political and ideological perspectives, but they have no relevance to the action that took place on a summer’s day in 84 in northern Scotland, and reflect little, if anything, of the words that actually were spoken by the respective war-leaders to their troops before the battle.


Where was the battle of Mons Graupius fought? Tacitus, as is usual, gives no geographical fixes whatsoever, and save that the site is presumably somewhere north of the Tay its exact position may never be established. Mons Graupius itself may have been Knock Hill, as the lie of the known camps would suggest that that the battle was fought near the Pass of Grange [Ogilvie & Richmond 1967: p282]. Equally, it may have been the Hill of Bennachie in Garioch near the town of Inverurie, some twenty kilometres from Aberdeen [Delaney 1986: p44]. A large camp, the last of the Agricolan series, at Auchinove in Banffshire may hold a clue for the battle, as according to Tacitus [Agricola 35] the battle was fought in front of a camp. Whatever its precise location, there can be no doubt that the battle was fought somewhere not too far from the North Sea coast, in Banffshire just east of the Moray Firth.


The armies formed up opposite each other, the Romans on the flat ground outside their camp and facing the heights, the British with their forward ranks on the flat and the balance on the heights.


The Roman troops were wildly enthusiastic, eager for the fray, and would have hurled themselves into the British, but discipline prevailed and Agricola marshalled them with care. Some sixteen cohorts of auxiliary infantry, Batavians, Tungrians and British, to a total of eight thousand men formed the centre, while six cavalry regiments were distributed on the wings. Behind the 8,000 foot and 3,000 horse the regular heavy infantry of the legions were stationed in reserve in front of the camp, together with a further four cavalry regiments. The British auxiliaries were probably placed in a position accessible, if need be, to the legionaries. Despite that they were the “bravest of the Britons who had proved their loyalty” [Tacitus: Agricola 29], Agricola would nevertheless have been none too sure of their steadfastness when confronting their countrymen. To the men of the Cantii and Atrebates, of course, the Caledonii and Smertae were as alien as the Romans – perhaps even more so – for while there were many cultural and linguistic similarities between the two groups there was no sense of political or national kinship. The concept of a unified nation of Britain was many centuries away, but Agricola would still have hedged his bets and placed his British cohorts where the legions could cut them down if they suddenly decided to change sides at the last minute. Such things had happened before and would happen again. The Romans could never bring themselves to completely trust the Celtic peoples, especially half wild ones who had been “broken to obedience but not yet to slavery”[Tacitus: Agricola 13].


This relatively new practice of putting auxiliaries in the forefront of the battle to tack the brunt of the attack, and using the regular Roman troops only if the auxiliaries were in danger of being routed, was becoming increasing commonplace. It had always been policy to save as many Roman lives as possible, despite the loss to peregrine auxiliaries. For one thing, native Romans were becoming increasingly reluctant to sign up with the colours, a trend that would gradually increase over the generations to come, and therefore those that did march with the legions were exposed to the minimum possible risk. For another, although the coveted epithet of imperator, he who conquers in war with a minimum of loss, had long been arrogated to the exclusive use of the Emperor, the glory attached to the achievement remained the same: “victory would be vastly more glorious if it cost no Roman blood” [Tacitus: Agricola35]. The political kudos that would accrue from such a feat were vast. Objectively a sound and sensible policy, it does little service to the image of the valour of Roman arms.


The front ranks of the British were on the flat facing the legions, the other ranks set further up the hillside in long tiers while the chariots manoeuvred on the level ground between the two armies to the consternation of the Romans. Agricola realised that his auxiliary troops were heavily outnumbered and, fearing that he might be outflanked, he opened up his own front ranks to the point of dangerous thinness. Alarmed, his staff officers urged him to bring up the legions to reinforce the line, but Agricola was supremely self-confident. He ordered the arrangement to stand, sent away his horse and took up his position with his staff in front of the vexilla, the regimental colours of the auxiliaries, although strictly speaking the term vexillum denotes the regimental standards of alae, the troop standards of the mounted sections of cohortes equitatae and the ensigns of all detachments [Ogilvie and Richmond 1967: p273]. The signal for battle was given.


The engagement began, as was usual, with an exchange of missiles, the British showing great skill in deflecting the Roman javelins with their longswords and small shields. In this, it is curious to note how some things changed so little over the centuries: the great swords and the small shields of the Caledonii were probably little different from the claymores and the targes of the much later Highland Scots. It is a poignant thought that the remote descendants of the Caledonii who fell under the Roman gladii at Mons Graupius, the gallant Highlanders who fell to the muskets and bayonets of the English at Culloden Moor, fought with virtually the same weapons (and in much he same manner) as their distant ancestors, and perhaps not so very far from the scene of the later debâcle.


Volley after volley of British missiles rained upon the Roman auxiliaries and battle was closed in earnest. The Roman cavalry poured down to the level ground to the dismay of the chariots: the Batavian and Tungrian (but not the British) cohorts advanced in close formation. Veteran troops, these soon proved the superiority of the short stabbing sword over the slashing longsword in close quarters engagement, where the greater strength and agility of the British warriors was nullified. Under these conditions, the long swords and small shields of the Celts were next to useless. Butting the enemy with the bosses of their shields, stabbing with their short, vicious swords, the Roman troops quickly overran the British and pushed them back up the hill, inflicting appalling slaughter. The success of the charge inspired other cohorts to attack the nearest enemy with vigour and so swift and successful was the charge that many British were left behind in its wake, dazed but unwounded, to be swiftly taken prisoner.


The cavalry, meanwhile, had routed the chariots and now proceeded to tear into the massed ranks of tribesmen. This tactic caused consternation at first amongst the British, but the slopes and the roughness of the ground and the solid ranks of the British slowed the Roman charge and brought it to a standstill. The British did not give way as the Romans obviously thought that they might. The Roman infantry, too, was slowed down and the horsemen began to get in the way of the foot soldiers. As the British held their ground with the advantage of the slope, so the cavalry pushed at the rear of the infantry, crushing them between two opposing forces. Runaway chariots and riderless horses careered into and through the ranks of Rome, causing havoc and breaking up the formations. The disciplined battle order of the cohorts began to break up into a huge, formless mêlee of men and horses. The danger to the Romans was now extreme: their strength lay in their superb organisation and teamwork. If discipline was lost, their overwhelming tactical advantage over the numerically superior British would be lost and they would be swamped by sheer numbers. Higher up the slope the British troops who had not yet joined the battle took note of the relatively small numbers facing them and of the upheaval below: gradually they began to move down the slopes in a movement calculated to come around to the rear of the Roman forces, enveloping them.


The battle hung in the balance.


Agricola, watching from his point of vantage, could see the intent of the British. He threw the four cavalry regiments that he had held in reserve for just such a contingency against the British, turning the charge into a rout. The cavalry formations that had attacked the first wave now veered around and attacked the British rear. The Caledonian ranks broke and fled in disarray, pursued to the death by the Roman horse: many were taken prisoner, only to be slaughtered as more warriors were overrun. The rout of the British was complete, men fleeing in all directions. Some, disarmed, deliberately threw themselves on the Roman swords, unable to bear the thought of a life in chains.


But some fought back, and, reaching the woods, bands of fighting men rallied. The pursuers suddenly became the pursued and the speed and totality of the defeat could well have been reversed, bringing disaster in turn upon the Romans, had not Agricola showed his mettle as a general.


Disciplining his men, he reformed them and set regiments of light infantry to ringing the woods like hunters beating for their prey, while dismounted cavalrymen scoured the denser thickets and mounted units combed the less tangled areas. Seeing the Romans reformed and advancing in renewed and orderly pursuit, the British gave up all resistance and scattered as best they could.


The pursuit continued until darkness fell. Tacitus reports 10,000 British dead and 360 men on the Roman side. Ancient casualty reports must be read with extreme caution: does Tacitus mean 360 men on the Roman side, or 360 Roman citizens? Does his body count include Tungrians and Batavians and men from auxiliary British units? And 10,000 seems a very neat and rounded figure: could caesa hostium ad decem milia [Tacitus: Agricola 37:6] perhaps be taken as a rhetorical statement meaning rather “an enormous number of the enemy fell”? Perhaps. Whatever the true meaning, there can be no doubt that a very great number of British warriors fell in a disastrous battle that effectively wiped out opposition in the North for a long time to come. Mons Graupius has many parallels with Culloden.


That night the victors celebrated their triumph and their booty while the vanquished wailed in the darkness, seeking their dead and wounded. Their demoralisation was total: terrible in battle, the Celts became quite docile with the shock of defeat in such a manner, and this was the primary reason for their domination by Rome. Warfare amongst the Celts was to a great extent a matter of show and ritual, of much clashing of weapons and shouting threats and boasts. Individual champions and heroes met before masses of warriors to decide the day in glorious single combat. They were aggressive, disputatious and combative, but they were not militaristic. Individually valiant, their very individuality and honour was their downfall and they were unable to adapt to the total warfare waged by the legions. The warrior was no match for the soldier.


The next day revealed to the Romans the extent of their victory:


“An awful silence reigned on every hand: the hills were deserted, houses smoking in the distance, and our scouts did not meet a soul.” [Tacitus: Agricola 38].


Agricola’s victory was complete and absolute.




4:03. The Aftermath.

It was now September or October of 84 and winter was settling in. Agricola took hostages in the territory of a tribe Tacitus calls the Boresti, an otherwise unknown people resident, presumably, somewhere in the region of the Moray Firth. Here the fleet lay at anchor, and from here they sailed on Agricola’s orders, on a voyage of circumnavigation of Britain. The fleet sailed north, landing at the Orcades (Orkneys), and sighting Thule, in this case almost certainly the Shetlands. Thence, aided by favourable winds, they headed back south along the western coast of Britain to the base that Tacitus names as Portus Trucculensis, which has never been identified either as a settlement or an area. It is possible that he meant Rutupiae or perhaps Bosham, then the biggest naval bases in Britain.


Agricola marched his men southwards in easy stages, taking the opportunity to thoroughly overawe the natives of the eastern seaboard regions, back to their winter quarters, perhaps to the forts of the Forth Clyde line or perhaps to Trimontium. The regular troops may even have pulled right back to Eboracum and Deva, leaving the northern forts manned by auxiliaries.


In the winter of 84 – 85 Agricola was recalled to Rome. Domitian directed that he be given all the customary honours: ornamenta triumphalia, a statue, an ovation in the Senate, all the trappings of the victor bellarum, the conquering hero. Tacitus reports that Domitian recalled Agricola out of jealousy of the latter’s victories in Britain, his own (Domitian’s), being a sham, as he calls them. Domitian was certainly as nasty a piece of work as ever one would hope to avoid, but he seems to have suffered as much from a `bad press’ as anything else. If he was so jealous, why did he bestow the full cycle of honours on Agricola? He certainly did not have to do such a thing, although there would have been a popular outcry if he had. Furthermore, archaeology has largely vindicated his actions during the Chattan war of 83, for which he adopted the agnomen of Germanicus: the results of his campaigning were substantial and pushed Roman domination to the Taunus Mountains. Frontinus certainly thought that Domitian had done a fair job on the campaign, remarking that victis hostibus cognomen Gemanici meruit [Frontinus: Stratagems:], which is to say that he who defeated the enemy surely earned the title Germanicus. It is also hinted that Agricola was to be offered the plum job of Governor of Asia as a reward for his British accomplishments, but was forced to refuse it by Domitian, it is inferred, out of spite. We shall never know for sure.


What we do know, however, is that Gnaeus Julius Agricola, the longest serving Roman Governor of Britain and conqueror of large areas of the province, was recalled to Rome in the winter of 84. Nine years later, on August 23, 91 CE, he died at Rome in his fifty-fourth year. Subsequent to his recall from Britain he never again held public office or was employed in the imperial service.

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