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Issue 1 - Roman holiday

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Scotland Magazine Issue 1
March 2002


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Roman holiday

James Irvine Robertson asks the searching question: 'What have the Romans ever done for us?'

The Romans are unique. In the history of mankind no other people have ever been so in advance of their contemporaries that they were able to conquer the known world. From their Mediterranean isthmus, thanks to their astonishing organisation and administration, they created a tightly-controlled empire covering most of Europe, northern Africa and Asia Minor which lasted half a millennium. Then it imploded and vanished.

In the colonial wars of the 19th century, European troops exterminated savage armies. Firearms scythed through the natives of Africa and the Americas, often killing a hundred for every one of their own. The armies of Rome had the same unstoppable impact. Their discipline and technology of war laid waste to enemy territories and, within their legion-guarded frontiers, conquered tribes enjoyed a peace and prosperity they would not see again for over a thousand years.

But not in Scotland. The Roman occupation of most of England lasted nearly four centuries but they never conquered the Picts and Caledonians. Under the Emperor Claudius, the legions invaded Kent in 44 AD and it took 40 years for them to work their way up the island to the mountains, bogs and moors of the north. York was the frontier town. Beyond that pacification rather than civilisation was the best the Romans could achieve. At various times southern Scotland was subjected to military occupation and other tribes were under treaty obligations to keep the peace but the invaders’ hold on these lands was never secure.

Agricola made a thrust north to the line of the rivers Forth and Clyde in 80 AD where he built a string of forts. A couple of years later his legions, supplied by sea, invaded the north east as far as Aberdeenshire. To prepare the case for making Agricola the emperor, his nephew Tacitus wrote an account of his uncle's campaign, making it a great victory.

Using Tacitus, archaeologists have been able to trace these incursions with some precision. The legions built temporary camps each night of their march as well as more permanent forts whenever they lingered or left a garrison and most of these have been discovered, often from crop markings. Agricola built forts – glen stoppers – at the passes into the Highlands in an attempt to stop the Caledonian tribes from swarming from their unconquerable mountains to attack the Lowlands. Only once did he succeed in bringing them to battle in 80 AD at Mons Graupius, whose location is lost, when they combined under Calgacus the Swordsman, the first named Scotsman. Tacitus allows the Caledonian leader a stirring speech before the conflict: “They make a desolation and they call it peace”. Agricola won with great slaughter but he did not dare follow the defeated enemy into its Highland safehold.

The Romans could never consolidate their advances in Scotland. Britannia was the most expendable of frontier provinces and legions were frequently pulled out to meet other threats to the empire in Africa or continental Europe. A huge fort was begun at Inchtuthil on the north bank of the Tay at the edge of the Highlands which would have provided a pivotal point in controlling the north but it was never completed and the troops withdrawn in 87 AD.

Between 122 and 129, The emperor Hadrian built a 741/2 mile wall between the Tyne and the Solway, south of the present Anglo-Scottish border. Often seen as a barrier to keep out the northern barbarians, an examination shows that it was defensible against attack from either side. Its function was to split the rebellious tribes in the south from their kinsmen to the north and prevent them linking up.

The failure of the policy is shown soon afterwards in the Antonine invasions of 138-9 when the legions came north again in an attempt to subdue southern Scotland and built another great defensive wall between the rivers Forth and Clyde. This was abandoned in 154, reoccupied around 161, abandoned again and perhaps reoccupied again for a short time at the end of the century by which time the Caledonians and the associated tribe of the Maetae were collectively know by the Romans as the Picts, the Painted People. A century later, in 306, the Romans were back but this was the last gasp of the empire. Hadrian’s Wall was being overrun by the Picts and the incoming Scots from Ireland by 367. It was finally abandoned in 400 AD in the dying decade of Roman power in Britannia.

All this took place before history but archaeology can provide some cultural evidence of Roman influence. Abundant indications of trade and a spectacular silver hoard have been discovered at Traprain Law, the ‘capital’ of the Votadini. This tribe, whose territory stretched south to the Tyne, seem to have lived at peace with the Romans since neither forts nor their linking roads seem to have been necessary to subdue them. Roman coinage and pottery has been found deep in the Highlands. The Romans themselves also lived well. Cramond fort recently yielded a magnificent lion sculpture. At Inchtuthil, a hypocaust to provide hot baths and heat the general’s quarters was unused before the fort was
abandoned. A million nails were found in perfect condition, buried to keep them from the Caledonians.

Save for Tacitus, a few inscriptions and other fragments there are no written records of the Romans in Scotland. Oral history can scarcely have survived over the centuries of Roman domination, let alone the centuries since. Ninian was bringing Romanised Christianity to south west Scotland before Hadrian’s Wall was abandoned but the Celts dominated the country in subsequent centuries. From Ireland came St Columba and the Scots who eventually ousted Pictish culture. And their church flourished until superseded by Roman Catholicism in the 11th and 12th centuries.

But ancient whispers still run through the glens; the Lost Legion, for instance. After Mons Graupius, legend says the Caledonians launched revenge raids on fortresses built on their territory. The 9th Legion marched north to sort them out and disappeared without trace, ambushed by the Highlanders, their bodies and equipment hidden in a loch.

Perhaps the oddest tale of all and one which illustrates the dangers of the oral tradition is the story that Pontius Pilate was born at the Roman Camp in Fortingall at the mouth of Glen Lyon in Highland Perthshire. His father was said to be a Roman ambassador sent north to negotiate with the Caledonian kings. Alas, the camp is now known to be medieval and the two or three excellent local historians of the early 1800s fail to mention the tradition at all. It seems to have sprung, fully formed, into existence in the middle of the 19th century.

For a dozen generations, the length of time between now and the Pilgrim Fathers or the English Civil War, the Romans were in Britain. For decades at a time the Highland tribes were left alone and the invaders would become no more than subjects of myth and tales told to wide-eyed children round the fire at night. Then the iron-clad legions would roll north once more. This was the first time the inhabitants of Scotland were faced with a vastly more powerful and interfering neighbour to the south, a pattern that became established over the next two millennia. The Vikings may have been the next strangers to harry the country but the nation’s history is the result of being on the periphery of Europe, away from the Mediterranean centre first established by the Ancient Greeks and Romans.