The North Road

It was like a monster from a nightmare as it snaked through the countryside. Wearing uniforms, marching in columns, moving as one, almost certainly singing soldiers’ songs, the II Augusta Legion made its way westwards from the south-east coast, penetrating deep into the kingdom of the Durotriges. Those who saw the monster pass had never known its like. Cavalry had scouted the countryside ahead of the line of march, ever watchful for ambush, and the 5,000 crack troops of the Augusta were supported by many regiments of auxiliaries. Their commander, Titus Flavius Vespasianus, rode at the head of the column and, with his senior officers, he had considered all the available intelligence. Immediately following the invasion of AD 43, they had decided to strike at the heart of the territory of the Durotriges. It lay before them on the horizon, the huge hillfort of Mai Dun, now known as Maiden Castle.

From the ramparts, the warriors watched their enemies approach. Four rings of deep ditches and a high timber palisade defended the capital place of their kings. Ammunition had been stockpiled. Thousands of slingshot pebbles the size of plums had been picked up on nearby Chesil Beach, arrows lay in sheaves, and in their hands warriors held spears at the ready. But when the legion approached the huge hillfort, Vespasian kept his men well out of range. No attack appeared to threaten. Instead oxen pulled forward a series of machines. Next to mangonels with throwing-arms the length of trees, ominous piles of large stones were set down. A battery of smaller engines was strung out in a line, and men took much trouble in adjusting their height. The Durotriges could do nothing but watch and wait. A handle on one machine was slowly cranked, and ropes made from sinew groaned and stretched as a bolt was placed on what looked like a large crossbow. More like a javelin than an arrow, it was suddenly released with a tremendous snap and, to the astonishment of the warbands sheltering behind the palisade, it flew more than 300 metres, clearing all the ditches and tearing into the grass paddocks inside the enclosure. Once the range had been found, Vespasian ordered a murderous volley fired into Maiden Castle. It struck home hard. Archaeologists have found the skeleton of a Durotrigan warrior with the iron point of a ballista bolt embedded in his spine.

Once the defenders had been both thinned out and terrified by the Roman artillery barrage, an assault on the east gate was launched. Almost certainly using the testudo formation, which had served so well at Bigbury on the Medway, the legionaries got close enough to fire the gates and break into Maiden Castle. There followed the screams of a massacre. Near the gateway the bodies of men, women and children were found buried in shallow graves. Perhaps they were the Durotrigan royal family or aristocrats. Clinical, disciplined and ruthless, the attack of the II Augusta must have seemed like the wrath of the gods.

Maiden Castle was in reality not a castle at all. With a perimeter far too long to be effectively manned, an outward military appearance more symbolic than practical, Maiden Castle occupied a huge 50-acre site. Also misnamed as hillforts, these elaborate rings of ditches and ramparts were very difficult to defend. More likely a combination of sacred enclosure and royal or aristocratic compound, the hillforts were probably believed to have power of a different sort. The occupants prayed that their gods could somehow descend and repel the Roman defilers. Their warbands could never hope to.

Between the invasion of AD 43 and the summer of 47, Suetonius later wrote that Vespasian fought thirty battles, subjugated two warlike tribes, and captured more than twenty towns [meaning hillforts], besides the entire Isle of Wight. The armies of the southern British kings no doubt fought as hard as they knew how, but their strategists faced an irreducible problem. The legions were trained for combat in pitched battles across open ground and were near-invincible in close order. British armies depended on the impact of a tearaway charge and, when it became clear that the Romans could counter this very effectively with volleys of javelins and an iron discipline, native kings were forced to turn to guerrilla tactics. The rolling countryside of southern England, with many open fields, high ridgeways with little cover and few forests, did not make ambush or surprise attack easy. The British were compelled to retreat to their hillforts and the desperate hope that their gods would drive back the many-headed monster which trampled through their sacred lands.


When a Roman army was on the march, its men carried all of their personal kit. But as the army penetrated further and further north, the men began to need tents to keep out the wetter and windier weather. Each leather tent slept a contubernium, a platoon of eight men, and had to be tall enough in the ridge to allow standing. Approximately twenty-five animal skins, usually goatskin or calfskin, were required to make each tent. It was very heavy and impossible for one man to carry, so a legion’s tents were rolled up into fat cylinders and loaded onto the pack-saddles of mules. The arithmetic and logistics are remarkable. Each legion had to have at least 30,000 animal skins to make its tents. The auxiliaries and the cavalry will have added greatly to that total. With a garrison of four legions, the Roman army in Britain needed around 120,000 skins to keep the rain off and the wind out. Statistics like these show the amazing scale of what Rome achieved.

After the capture of Camulodunum in 43, the invading legions fanned out across the south. The IX Hispana pushed north towards Lincoln and the Humber estuary beyond. In the Midlands lay the kingdom of the Catuvellauni, the people of Cunobelin and the dominant force before the invasion, and the XIV Gemina marched to subdue them. The XX Valeria was left in reserve at Colchester while the II Augusta drove into the West Country.

As they won victory after victory (at other hillforts the legionaries only had to set up a single ballista to persuade the defenders to surrender), Vespasian’s cavalry troopers searched for Caratacus, the son of the great British king Cunobelin. As the focus of resistance, and no doubt the leader of a substantial refugee warband, he could prove a source of continuing trouble, tying up much valuable manpower.

By 47 Caratacus was doing exactly that. Having allied himself with the vigorous Silures of South Wales, he led raids into the Roman-controlled areas of the Midlands, possibly the kingdom of the Cornovii, around modern Birmingham. Showing immediate strategic flair, the new Governor of Britannia, Publius Ostorius Scapula, drove a wedge north-westwards, pushing the legions into the Cheshire Gap and to the shores of the Irish Sea. By the end of the campaigning season of 48, he had put his men between the Welsh kingdoms and those in the north.

No frontier was created. Lines on a map mattered little to Roman army commanders. Control was what counted and, to make that effective, the legions began to build. Metalled, free-draining roads soon patterned the landscape of Britain and they connected mighty fortresses planted at strategic places – river-crossings, valley-mouths, trading centres. Speed in war, wrote the military theorist Vegetius, is more important than courage. And a highly mobile, well-trained and well-led army could hold down vast swathes of territory.

When the Romans extended their reach further westwards and built legionary fortresses at Gloucester and Wroxeter, near Shrewsbury, Caratacus and his warriors retreated deeper into the Welsh mountains. The British king made an alliance with the Ordovices – but foolishly found himself forced to fight a set-piece battle at Caersws, at the headwaters of the Severn. After the inevitable defeat, a desperate Caratacus fled north. His support had probably begun to melt away.

As the invaders’ grip tightened, the fleeing king made his last – and fateful – move. The most populous kingdom in all Britain, the kingdom of the Brigantes, remained free of Roman occupation, and was as yet unconquered. While its queen, Cartimandua, had concluded an alliance, it was surely becoming clear to her that the Roman advance might continue north. Client realms might fall in its path. If Caratacus had hoped to persuade Cartimandua, or, more likely, detach some of her aristocracy, he was to be quickly disappointed. In 51 she had him arrested and handed over to the Romans.

Caratacus had become famous. Throughout the Empire his exploits had been marvelled at. Few resistance leaders had been as successful and lasted so long against the might of the legions. Much in the way underdogs are still supported, it appears that the Roman public had taken to its heart this king from the edge of the world.

The Emperor Claudius was delighted at Caratacus’ capture. It set the seal on his glorious conquest of Britannia, but a second triumph through the streets of Rome was out of the question. Instead the parade ground of the Praetorian Guard was chosen for a march past of all the British prisoners. Huge crowds gathered and the Guard turned out in all their menacing finery. Warriors from the royal warband, Catuvellaunian aristocrats, Caratacus’ brothers, his queen and his daughter were all laden with chains and forced to walk past a dais. There Claudius and his court sat, basking in all their power, making the unmissable point that Rome ruled the world, even to its farthest margins.

The chained captives were awed and terrified by all the panoply and show. And they will have known the fate of those led in chains through Rome and its baying crowds. Many pleaded for their lives. But even great kings like Jugurtha of Numidia in North Africa and Vercingetorix, the resistance leader of the Gaulish rebellion against Caesar, had been humiliated in this way and then taken to the dungeons of the Mamertine prison. Under the Capitoline Hill, this dark and hellish place had witnessed many miserable ends. Originally a water cistern with two levels, it was entered from above. Bound in their chains, Jugurtha and Vercingetorix were lowered through a hole in the floor into the black darkness of the bottom level, where an executioner waited in the shadows to garotte them. It was said that their bodies were then despatched into the sewer system which led to the Tiber.

Walking at the very end of the procession into the Praetorian parade ground, Caratacus knew that a sinister death in the Mamertine waited. When he reached the imperial dais, it was said that he turned and looked up at Claudius. In his Annals of Imperial Rome, Tacitus put these fine words into Caratacus’ mouth:

. . . humiliation is my destiny, glory is yours. I had horses, men, arms, wealth. Can you be surprised that I am sorry to lose them? If you wish to rule the world, does it follow that everyone else should welcome enslavement? If I had surrendered without a blow before being brought before you, neither my downfall nor your triumph would have become famous. If you execute me, they will be forgotten. Spare me, and I shall be an everlasting token of your mercy.

It is more likely that Caratacus spoke Latin than Claudius had a command of Old Welsh. And even more likely that Caratacus made no speech at all. But Tacitus’ invention does echo the politics of the time. Caesar had had Vercingetorix strangled after his triumph, but Claudius would not only exceed the deified Julius in actually conquering Britain, he would also show himself more merciful in sparing its most famous warrior-king. Politics had already decided Caratacus’ fate.

However all that may be, the story of this failed rebel does have one illuminating effect. For at least a moment, it lifts the grey portrayal of native British kings out of the background shadows and puts words, albeit invented, into their mouths.

While all this was being played out on the parade grounds of Rome, war in Britain blazed into life once more. Without their captured leader the Silures had nevertheless defeated a legion and struck back hard against the tide of invasion. Their own kings believed that they faced extinction – the Governor, Ostorius Scapula, had said that they must be annihilated – and they fought like a people with nothing to lose. In the north, Cartimandua’s consort, Venutius, took over Caratacus’ role and led opposition amongst the Brigantes. If it had been a matter of imperial policy in Britain to gain control of the fertile and wealthy south, and only contain Wales and the north, that policy was no longer tenable. Trouble was flaring on two fronts.

In AD 54 Claudius died in suspicious circumstances, possibly from poison. His stepson, Nero, became emperor, and although it was said that he considered abandoning Britain, his actions spoke of the momentum of more conquest. Highly capable soldiers with experience of fighting in difficult terrain elsewhere in the Empire were sent as governors during his reign. Suetonius Paullinus led the assault on Anglesey in 60, and as his men ravaged the island in an attempt to extirpate the cult of the Druids, urgent messages galloped along the coast road. Far behind his lines, far to the south, in the heart of what the Romans believed was now a peaceful part of the province, a rebellion of extraordinary violence had exploded.

In Colchester in 43 Claudius accepted the submission of the kings of the Iceni. Famously wealthy, they ruled the north of East Anglia and the Fens. Trouble had flickered briefly in 47 when Ostorius Scapula had been forced to campaign amongst the dangerous marshes and creeks in the east of the kingdom, but under King Prasutagus there had been peace. When he died in 60, the blundering ineptitude and sheer greed of Roman officials converted a difficult transition into the fire and slaughter of the great rebellion led by Queen Boudicca.

In order to protect the integrity of his kingdom and preserve part of its wealth for his family, Prasutagus had named the Emperor Nero as one of the beneficiaries of his will. But not the only one. The king’s daughters, the royal princesses of the Iceni, also stood to inherit a great deal. The Romans ignored Prasutagus’ wishes. In their view the kingdom should revert entirely to the Empire and be absorbed without delay. In Roman eyes women had the same rights as children – and perhaps for that reason Boudicca’s vigorous objections to their takeover astonished them. Their reaction was brutal. The queen was stripped and whipped with rods while the young princesses were raped by soldiers. Wealthy Icenian landowners were cast out of their estates, and the rest of the royal family treated like slaves. Cash bounties thought to be gifts from the Emperor turned out to be loans and Roman aristocrats began to demand repayment. These included the surprising figure of the philosopher Seneca, Nero’s tutor. The Iceni had not only seen their queen humiliated and her daughters viciously defiled, they also felt they had been grossly deceived.

The effect was incendiary. As the warbands of the Iceni armed and mustered to evict those who had attempted to steal their lands and possessions, they were joined by the Trinovantes of the south. When Colchester had been designated a colonia, a settlement where retired Roman veterans were given plots of land, much abuse had taken place. Not content with their allotted plots, the veterans had grabbed more, and were encouraged by serving soldiers with an eye to their own retirement.

Boudicca’s growing army swept down to Colchester, a hated imperial symbol. There were no walls and few defenders. Suetonius Paullinus and his legions were far away in North Wales. The Iceni torched the streets of the colonia and drove all who could resist to take refuge inside the ultimate focus of their fury, the temple of the Imperial Cult. Built over a sacred native site, it was a desecration to be erased. The gods would smile as it blazed. Boudicca’s warriors surrounded the temple, but they had no equipment to besiege it. The garrison inside fought bravely and held out for two days before the Iceni stormed the makeshift defences and slaughtered everyone they could find.

From the vexillation fortress at Longthorpe, near Peterborough, Petilius Cerialis hurried south with detachments of the IX Hispana and a squadron of cavalry. They were overwhelmed. The legionary infantry stood no chance and were surrounded and annihilated. Cerialis scrambled onto his pony and galloped for his life and the safety of the walls of Longthorpe. Rome’s hold on Britain was loosening.

When he received news of the rebellion, Suetonius Paullinus immediately abandoned his campaign in North Wales, and with extraordinary speed he and his advance guard reached London before Boudicca could swing her army south. London had grown into the principal town of Roman Britain, but when Paullinus heard of Cerialis’ defeat he decided to abandon all hope of a successful defence. This ruthless but sensible decision was to prove a turning-point in the campaign, and without delay the Governor rejoined the main force of his legions somewhere on Watling Street.

Meanwhile the Iceni rampaged into Roman London, the newly paved streets ran red with blood, and smoke blackened the skies over the banks of the Thames. Brimming with confidence, Boudicca led her warriors north and went to find Paullinus, probably to meet him head-on, and kill more Romans. St Albans was destroyed in her wake, and reports of appalling atrocities began to circulate. Dio Cassius wrote that female Roman captives were bound and taken to a grove sacred to the Celtic war goddess Andraste. There they were tied to trees, and had their breasts cut off and stuffed into their mouths. Then they suffered the unimaginable agonies of impaling, when a sharpened stake was inserted into their anus and shoved up through their bodies.

Paullinus knew that a decisive battle was coming and he sent to Exeter for the battle-hardened II Augusta. But its commander, Poenius Postumus, refused to follow orders and leave his fortress. The Silures were not subdued, were near at hand and might join the rebellion. Perhaps Postumus believed the whole province would go up in flames, perhaps he had heard stories of the savagery of Boudicca’s warriors.

In any event Paullinus prepared for battle with the troops he had and, fatally, Boudicca allowed him to choose his ground. The legions formed up in a defile somewhere near Towcester, on the line of Watling Street. The tactics were familiar, the outcome predictable. After a volley of javelins had fatally slowed the charge of the warbands, the legionaries fell into the flying wedge formation and tore into the disorganised ranks of the British. They drove them back into their baggage train, no doubt swollen with loot, and the battle turned into a massacre. Boudicca fled and probably committed suicide soon afterwards. Paullinus scoured the countryside for fugitives, allies, even neutrals. Roman vengeance was terrible, and smoke rose on every horizon as the soldiers punished southern Britain for daring to rebel.

It was, to paraphrase a more recent general, a close-run thing. In the calm after the fire and sword, the legions were showered with honour; the XIV Gemina added Martia Victrix to its name, while the XX became Valeria Victrix. In Rome it was decided that further conquest would bring tighter control and a more certain peace. It did not. There would be frequent spasms of warfare in Britain for almost sixty years.


Perhaps one of the most common and potent symbols of ancient Rome, gladiators and the public games they appeared in were a bloodthirsty but fascinating phenomenon. Professional fighters were first seen at funeral games, celebrations mounted in honour of dead soldiers. Caesar widened out this tradition, and games were mounted to gain favour with the Roman mob. Augustus had 5,000 pairs of gladiators fight in eight separate series of games. Not just any weapons and armour were used. There were four sorts of combatants. Most alike were the Murmillo and the Samnite who wielded short swords (a gladius in Latin, hence ‘gladiator’), wore visored helmets and protected themselves with oblong shields. Perhaps the most recognisable was the Retiarius. With little armour, he used a net and a trident. The Thracian had a broad-bladed scimitar and a round shield. Sometimes slaves, sometimes free men, all gladiators were expensive and, contrary to Hollywood convention, the baying crowds often voted to spare their lives. The Colosseum was the largest venue in Rome, and Domitian ruled that gladiatorial games could only be mounted by the Emperor. In 325, Constantine banned them.

The chaos of the summer of AD 60 was followed by a winter of retribution of a different sort. Boudicca’s army had been largely made up of farmers. It is very likely that little seedcorn had been sown in that fateful spring, and only a meagre harvest was ripening in the fields. But calm and common sense did eventually arrive in the shape of Julius Classicianus, the new provincial procurator. His was a pivotal role. As chief financial secretary in Britain, responsible for the management of taxation and the imperial estates, Classicianus reported directly to the Emperor and his chancery. The previous incumbent had been Decianus Catus, and it was his greed and incompetence which in part goaded the Iceni into open revolt. When Boudicca threatened London, he wisely fled to Gaul.

In contrast to Paullinus’ lust for vengeance, Classicianus preached moderation. He was himself of Gaulish origin and may have been able to understand and talk to British aristocrats in a language which was cousin to Old Welsh. There were also clear political motives. How could the imperial procurator raise tax revenues while Paullinus’ legions continued to terrorise the countryside? After the recall of the Governor to Rome, Classicianus was joined by someone who had not seen the savagery of Boudicca’s warriors or the baleful remnants of their atrocities. Petronius Turpilianus shared the procurator’s view that Britain badly needed a period of calm, a time for recovery. Tacitus did not approve, and in The Annals he sniffed:

Publius Petronius Turpilianus, neither provoking the enemy nor provoked, called this ignoble inactivity peace with honour.

As the wounds healed, the Governor and procurator began to rebuild – both civic buildings and political trust. They knew that the role of the British kingdoms had to be absolutely central in the new province. Basing their administrative structure on their old territories, Turpilius and Classicianus reinvented them as civitates. It was continuity of a sort. Towns were founded as centres for commerce and local government, and the native aristocracy was encouraged to become magistrates and councillors at the likes of Durnovaria (Dorchester, capital of the Durotriges) or Venta Icenorum (Caistor by Norwich, capital of the Iceni). Whether through exhaustion and a weary compliance, or a genuine acceptance that Rome was not going to go away, these administrative arrangements began to take. In 67 the XIV Gemina, the legion which had defeated Boudicca, was withdrawn. The British garrison shrank to three legions, enough to hold what had quickly become a peaceful province. There was never to be another rebellion in the south.

It was different in the north. Old enmities simmered. It was almost two decades since the Brigantes had been divided between the pro-Roman Queen Cartimandua and the independent-minded Venutius. Surprisingly he had not ridden to Boudicca’s side in AD 60, and perhaps he and his wife had reached some accommodation. But in 69 resentments reignited. Cartimandua renounced her marriage to Venutius and replaced him with a younger man, his own armour-bearer, Vellocatus. Unmistakable echoes of melodrama sounded around the Pennines as this soap-opera subplot played out. Shamed and insulted, Venutius rose in rebellion once more against his headstrong queen. This time he called for help from outside. North of the Brigantes lay the lands of the Selgovae and the Novantes, and it seems that their captains led warbands down the hill trails to Brigantium.


In the fifth century BC Latin was a dialect of Italic spoken by a very few people around the small and insignificant town of Rome. Other languages and dialects were much more widely spoken in the Italian peninsula. Greek was common in the south and Sicily; Lepontic, a Celtic language, in the north, the Po Valley and as far down the Adriatic coast as Ancona. Osco-Umbrian was a much larger speech community and it stretched down the centre of Italy from Arezzo to Calabria. Politics changed all that. As Rome gained dominance, so did its language. But Latin did not obliterate local dialects entirely. When Italy reunified in the middle of the nineteenth century abrupt regional differences still existed – so much so that a standard Italian (based on Tuscan) had to be imposed by the government. But even now, even in Tuscany, dialect is still strong. The small town of Pitigliano has its own dictionary and, without it, those who imagine they are fluent in Italian discover that they are most certainly not.

International politics also promised to help the rebels. The increasingly unstable and psychotic Emperor Nero had been forced to suicide. Rome was reeling in a bitter civil war. In 69 there were no less than four emperors. Venutius will have followed the ebb and flow, and he knew that the provincial armies all over the Empire were involved in supporting different candidates. There would be confusion and uncertainty amongst the depleted garrison in Britain. Now was the time to summon his northern allies and strike.

The provincial Governor, Vettius Bolanus, sent troops to support Cartimandua and her young consort, but all they could manage was a desperate rescue. Venutius had made himself undisputed king of Britain’s most populous realm. Rome now had a powerful enemy in the north.

Once Vespasian had established himself as Emperor, he turned his mind to Britain. After his campaigns in the 40s with the II Augusta, he understood the strategic situation well. The north could not be left like a wolf prowling outside the fold, able to strike at any time. Another veteran of British warfare was appointed Governor; Petilius Cerialis had suffered defeat by Boudicca’s warriors and been forced to make an ignominious retreat. He was not likely to underestimate the Brigantes.

What greeted Cerialis on his arrival in Britain in 71 was not encouraging. After a few years of relative peace, discipline had slackened amongst the legions and there appears to have been a mutiny. Having brought the newly formed II Adiutrix and stationed them at Lincoln, Cerialis led the IX Hispana up the north road. At York they built a legionary fortress in a bend of the River Ouse. In the first century AD the tide washed up from the Humber as far as York, and the small liburnae (sixty-man patrol ships) could supply the army base from the sea. If a long campaign was anticipated, this sort of ready access was more than usually important.

As important as geography and logistics, politics also placed the IX Legion at the bend in the Ouse. It looks as though York lay between the kingdom of the Brigantes and the territory of the Parisii. Occupying much of the old East Riding, the Parisii were recent immigrants from Gaul (and their cousins gave the French capital its name). It is not known whether or not these neighbours were hostile to each other, but the site of the new headquarters at York seems to have been a version of the old Roman dictum of divide et impera, divide and rule.

York grew into an impressive citadel. Much of the Multangular Tower at the west corner of the fortress is still upstanding and other massive foundations recall an imposing symbol of imperial power. At least three emperors came to York and none will have felt out of place. It was a good place to locate a garrison, and the city has a long and distinguished military history.

Cerialis appears to have struck north-west into the Pennines. Near what is now called Scotch Corner, Venutius’ warbands and his allies mustered at a huge hillfort at Stanwick. The outer perimeter measured almost 8 miles in length, and even an inner ring of defences was more than a mile in circumference. The Brigantes were overrun.


Roman soldiers still drill on British parade grounds. Centurions and optios still roar the Latin equivalents of Left! Right! That is, sin for sinister (left) and dex for dexter (right). No records of legionaries marching to these commands exist, and the Roman re-enactors who bark them admit that they are improvising. But little else is done without regard for the finest degrees of historical accuracy. Their gleaming uniforms are faithfully reproduced and the result of astonishing cost and commitment. For example, a chain-mail shirt takes 800 hours to make, and the more common sort of armour to protect the abdomen, the lorica segmentata, is also very expensive. At summer events along Hadrian’s Wall and elsewhere in Roman Britain, several groups of re-enactors can be seen. They drill, form a testudo, charge, fire arrows at targets, and their cavalry soldiers show feats of genuine horsemanship. There are six or seven groups in Britain but each has only twenty or so members at most. What would be most impressive is a combined force – close to a legionary double century. But this is apparently impossible. The different groups do not get on well, each one sniffing at the others’ lack of attention to detail, commitment and, well, general Roman-ness.

In the ditches of the old hillfort, archaeologists have found the remains of broken beliefs and failed gods. Below the ramparts guarding the gates several skulls were uncovered. Unrelated to any skeleton and probably older than AD 71, the date of the battle for Stanwick, they formed part of a ghost-fence. To turn back the ranks of hard-bitten legionaries, Venutius’ Druids had set up rows of skulls on the stockade. Their magic would surely be strong. No man would dare to cross the fence they made. As the legionaries stormed the gates safe under the testudo, the IX Hispana will not even have noticed what was staring hollow-eyed down at them.

By tracking Cerialis’ marching camps across the Stainmore Gap and down into the Eden Valley, archaeologists have traced his advance north. At Carlisle, on a low rise between the Caldew and the Eden, another navigable river, the IX and the XX built a legionary fortress. From its ramparts they could see the distant shores of Galloway, the territory of the Novantae and the Selgovae. Allies of the Brigantes, their help from outside, some of their warbands probably fought in the hopeless rout at Stanwick.

The XX Valeria Victrix were under the command of a young man soon to become famous, Gnaeus Julius Agricola. He already knew Britain well and had fought with Suetonius Paullinus in the Boudicca rebellion. This was also Cerialis’ second tour of duty, but neither had ever come as far north as Carlisle and the Cumbrian Mountains. Their intentions were governed by imperial policy. In the reign of Claudius, a successful and glamorous general, Domitius Corbulo, had led his soldiers across the Rhine and beyond the limits of the Empire. Whatever the compelling strategic motives, Claudius would have none of it. There would be no freelancing, and Corbulo was quickly recalled. Conquest was an exclusively imperial prerogative, and from that time on no general could extend the frontiers of Rome without an express commission to do so. Cerialis and Agricola knew that very well, and if they were tempted to seek retribution across the Solway and in the Southern Uplands, they resisted it.

Recent historians of Roman Britain have argued that Vespasian had encouraged Cerialis to push northwards as far as seemed logistically sensible. Perhaps the Emperor’s own knowledge had persuaded him that a conquest of the whole island would settle all strategic issues. As ever at the beginning of a new reign, the prestige of military success at the edge of the world would do no harm. It is difficult to be sure what happened when the legions reached the Tyne–Solway isthmus in AD 73.

Often archaeology is all that remains of the historical record, and rickles of stones and the humps and bumps of earthworks rarely have much to say about individuals, their motives and actions. But the movement of Roman armies across the landscape can be accurately tracked by following the line and type of marching camps dug by the legionaries. Aerial photography can pick up the location and outline in great detail, often when nothing much can be seen on the ground. It has been suggested that Cerialis did indeed march up the north road from Carlisle, probably on the line of what is now the A74. Some believe that he penetrated as far as the Firth of Tay. This assertion is not merely a facet of one of those entertaining and occasionally vicious academic squabbles, it touches on a very important issue. Either Cerialis or Agricola (when he became Governor of Britannia) was responsible for the Gask Ridge frontier system, a line of forts and watchtowers linked by a road which ran north-westwards from Doune, near Stirling, up the Allan Water valley, along the ridge and ultimately to Perth. It was almost certainly designed to divide the territory of the Venicones in Fife and Kinross from the Caledonians of the Eastern Highlands. Its greater significance was that it was a first. If Cerialis ordered its construction, it predates similar arrangements in Roman Germany. The Gask Ridge may have been the first frontier.

Whatever the reality, Cerialis’ initiative cannot be proved, at least not until a definitive archaeological find changes the picture. All the watchtowers and forts are the right sort of shape and style to suit the period but no certainly datable objects such as coins or inscriptions have been discovered. By contrast it is absolutely confirmed that Agricola was on the Gask Ridge in 79 and the story of the construction of its frontier system will wait until he and his legions arrive.

Meanwhile, Cerialis was recalled to Rome in 73 and another battle-hardened general replaced him as Governor of Britannia. Julius Frontinus turned his energies to the west. Having seen that Cerialis had contained the problem of the Brigantes, the new commander-in-chief wanted to secure all of Britain to the south of them. Wales had never ceased to resist. The Silures had defeated a legion and were clearly highly capable warriors. For the first time the legions marched into their territory to build a mighty fortress. At Caerleon on the Usk (now the northern suburbs of modern Newport), a site was chosen which could be serviced and supplied from the Bristol Channel. Interestingly the present place-name is derived from Latin. Caerleon is a flattened-out rendition of Castra Legionis, while the Roman name was Celtic in origin. Usk is from Isca, which means ‘water’ as in the sense of river and is cognate to Esk, of which there are several in the north; it is also related very distantly to uisge, the root of ‘whisky’.

Frontinus attacked the Silures. Their fierce independence had glowed undimmed since the first invasions. The new Governor led the II Augusta, the men who stormed Maiden Castle and subdued the West Country, out of their new base and into the fertile cornlands of the Vale of Glamorgan. The campaign appears to have been successful and there are reports of forts being built in mid Wales. Cavalry squadrons patrolled the north, the territory of the Ordovices and the Deceangli. At last, it seemed, the West had been won.


At Caerleon the amphitheatre is well preserved. Built conveniently near the legionary fortress, its customers, at least in the early days, will have been mostly soldiers. Touring companies of actors, acrobats and wrestlers will no doubt have tailored their material to suit. Mime appears to have been popular, a universal language without words, with actors wearing masks to signify stock characters. Multilingual audiences will have understood everything. For the rough-and-ready sense of humour of the soldiers sitting on the tiered seating, this will have been ribald, knockabout stuff: adult pantomime. Troupes of travelling acrobats, like those who sent the Emperor Claudius a golden crown, and musicians may also have been on the bill, but one of the most puzzling entertainments was boxing. Sculpture and illustrations of boxers show not gloves on their fists but a pair of brutal, thick knuckle-dusters. Around their forearms and wrists were wound iron-studded thongs; blows landed with this equipment will have been devastating – teeth, skin and bone flying. The face of a defeated boxer would have been a pummelled mess of shattered cheekbones and severe cuts. The mystery is – why did they do it? Equally matched professional boxers (unequal matches would have been short and less entertaining) would have had very brief careers, having literally knocked lumps out of each other.

Agricola had departed with Cerialis in AD 73 and become Governor of Aquitania, a province in south-western Gaul. His tenure pleased the Emperor and, in 76, Agricola was given the great honour of a consulship. It was no less than he might have expected. In the chaos of the Year of the Four Emperors, Agricola had been quick to pledge his support to Vespasian – even before he had emerged as a claimant to the imperial throne. There were family reasons behind this gamble. One of the four emperors, Otho, had sent his fleet to harry the Ligurian coast of north-western Italy. In the confusion and the fighting, Agricola’s mother had been killed. And Vespasian trusted him for another reason: he was a man largely untouched by the poisonous politics of Rome. Agricola’s family came from Frejus (Forum Julii) in Provence and his cognomen (Agricola, ‘the Farmer’) spoke of the bucolic virtues of the provinces.

In what was to turn out to be as significant a move as his consulship, Agricola allowed his daughter to marry Publius Cornelius Tacitus. The historian would guarantee that both their names would become famous. A year after the marriage, Agricola was appointed Governor of Britannia, by now a prestigious posting, and it is very likely that he took his new son-in-law with him as a military tribune.

As soon as he arrived in the province, Agricola hurried north to the legionary fortress at Wroxeter, the headquarters of his old comrades-in-arms, the XX Valeria Victrix. It was late in the campaigning season but the new Governor wanted to make an immediate impression, set the tone for his time in the province he knew so well. The cavalry patrolling the lands of the Ordovices in North Wales had been attacked and destroyed. Vengeance moved swiftly as the XX marched along the coast road. Retreating in front of Agricola, the Ordovices sought the sanctuary of the Welsh mountains, refusing pitched battle, hoping that the onset of autumn, and the winter behind it, would persuade the Romans to return to their barracks and their granaries.

Knowing that time was short, Agricola pursued the warbands into the high valleys with himself at the head of the column so as to impart his own courage to the rest by sharing the danger. It was a bold, even foolhardy, decision to take on the Ordovices in the landscape they knew intimately. Snowdonia is known in Welsh as Eryri, the Eagles’ Lair, impregnable, almost sacrosanct. Snowdon itself is Yr Wyddfa, the Throne of Kings, the place of heroes. But the strategy worked. In a brutally brief sentence, Tacitus reported:Almost the entire people was cut to pieces.

Agricola quickly followed his success in the mountains by returning to a place he will never have forgotten. In AD 60 with Suetonius Paullinus, as a twenty-year-old tribune, he had faced the Ordovices and the curses of their Druids at the Menai Strait, and almost immediately afterwards raced southwards at the news of the Boudicca rebellion. This time Agricola did not hesitate. The Batavians and their ponies swam the Strait once more, and the sacred island of Anglesey was forced into submission and into the Empire.

To cement his gains, Agricola moved the II Adiutrix up to a fortress at Chester. Close to the Dee estuary and the Irish Sea, a naval base was established. Having been recruited only eight years earlier from the sailors of the Italian fleet at Ravenna, the II Adiutrix was in essence a naval legion, staffed with shipwrights who could build the ships needed in western waters. Piles for a huge jetty were driven into the mudflats below the fortress, and the jetty stretched out into the midstream of the Dee to allow ships to dock and sail in all tidal conditions. Out of Chester, the army could be supplied up the Irish Sea coast and beyond. Agricola was clearly planning a move up the north roads.

The following summer he made it. Brigading the legions and auxiliaries into two battle groups, he advanced from the new fortress at Carlisle and from the Tyne, from a base built at Corbridge. Diplomacy paved the way and dictated the line of march. The Votadini of the Tweed basin and the Lothians were productive farmers, able to grow a corn surplus and, as had been established before a legionary set foot out of his camp, willing to sell it at reasonable prices – which was of great importance to Roman quartermasters.

The eastern battle group pushed north up the line of the modern A68, reaching the watershed ridges of the Cheviots a few miles east of where the road now crosses into Scotland, at the Carter Bar. Agricola was probably riding at the head of the western army. Following the line of the modern A74, they proceeded with great caution. The planned pincer movement hoped to encircle the Selgovae, the onetime allies of Venutius and the Brigantes. But like their Border Reiver descendants fourteen centuries later, these warriors knew their windswept hills and hidden valleys very well. They could disappear into nowhere and appear out of nowhere. Roman caution is recalled by the decisions of the engineers who built the road north of the fort at Crawford. Instead of following the flat ground by the headwaters of the River Clyde, the road zigzags up a hillside and onto a boggy plateau. It seems a perverse decision – until the alternative route is looked at closely. If the Roman road-builders had taken the easier option, they and their comrades would have had to march through a narrow defile between steep slopes on one side and the river on the other. A perfect place for a Selgovan ambush.

Seventeen hundred miles to the south, the political weather was changing. On 23 June AD 79, the Emperor Vespasian died (engagingly, his last words were those of a tough and sceptical old soldier: Dear me, I think I am turning into a god). Having made his eldest son, Titus, commander of the Praetorian Guard, the soon to be deified Vespasian will have had few anxieties about the succession. And, as usual, there was an immediate imperial need for prestige. Titus had served in Britain with Suetonius Paullinus. He knew and trusted Agricola, and as the Governor halted his advance to await orders from the new emperor, there will have been little doubt that the word from Rome would be Onward!

Success was suitably spectacular. By the late summer of AD 79 the legions stood on the shores of the Firth of Tay. Titus celebrated. And it seems that Agricola decided that his men would build Rome’s first identifiable frontier in Britain, perhaps in the Empire: the Gask Ridge.

Tacitus is disappointingly vague at this point. The legions had encountered new peoples but he does not say who they were. Later sources suggest that the kingdom of the Venicones lay to the east of the new frontier along the Allan Water and the Gask Ridge. With territory comprising Fife and Kinross, the Venicones seem to have been allies of the Votadini and, interestingly, their name translates as ‘the Kindred Hounds’. Like their cousins across the Forth, the Venicones were corn producers, and in the second century AD map of Britain drawn by Ptolemy, he marks a place in Fife called Horrea. It means granaries. Perhaps there was more than one collection point for corn in the kingdom of Fife. The fort of Birrens, just north of the Ridge, was known by the nickname of Blatobulgium, ‘the corn sack place’. Between Cupar and St Andrews lies the hamlet of Blebo and its name derives from the same source.

On the western side of the Gask Ridge were the hill peoples collectively known as the Caledonii. Later place-names whisper at their presence. Dunkeld means ‘Fort of the Caledonians’ and Schiehallion is ‘the Magic Mountain of the Caledonians’. The name Caledonii itself may mean something unhelpful like ‘the Warrior People’. Other names flit around the historical record. More than a century later the Romans encountered a warlike people known as the Maeatae, and again place-names remember them. On the southern rampart of the Ochil Hills stands Dumyat, ‘the Fort of the Maeatae’, while a few miles further south is Myot Hill. It seems that the new frontier lay along a pre-existing boundary, one which divided the Caledonii from the Venicones, hillmen from plainsmen, shepherds from ploughmen, those friendly towards Rome from those hostile.

Traces of eighteen watchtowers have been found in the valley of the Allan Water and on the Gask Ridge. Two-storey buildings of timber and turf, they were manned by a platoon or contubernium of eight soldiers, and placed approximately a mile apart so that each could be easily seen by its neighbour. They were connected by a road which also linked four forts at Doune, Ardoch, Strageath and Perth. Smaller fortlets lay between each tower. It appears to have been a considered design, which ought to have worked well.

If it does date to the time of the Agricolan invasion (or even earlier), then the Gask Ridge is the first example of an artificial frontier in the Empire. A similar arrangement was laid out in Germany east of the natural barrier of the Rhine – but probably in the reign of Trajan (AD 98 to 117).


Sandals supply a telling clue to the presence of women in the Roman forts. Because of their size and the particular points of wear found on their soles, leather sandals preserved in anaerobic, peaty ground have been identified by archaeologists as definitely belonging to women. They appear only occasionally in the written record, but there is no doubt that at Roman forts there lived more than just a few women. A tiny minority were the wives of senior officers, some were the common-law wives of soldiers (who were not officially allowed to marry until retirement or discharge) and some were prostitutes. As forts settled into permanent garrisons in Britain, many of the civilian villages which grew up around them will have had a brothel somewhere. When the Italian town of Pompeii was submerged under 5 metres of volcanic ash in AD 79, several brothels were preserved. And they show how differently the Roman saw this unsavoury aspect of life. Menus and prices were clearly advertised. Some women were very cheap, others expensive, others offered specialities. Their working names showed versatility – Panta (Everything), Culibona (Lovely Bum) and other much more graphic attributes. Entertainingly their patrons’ nicknames are occasionally recorded: Enoclione (Brave Toper) and Skordopordonikos (Garlic Farter) appear both to have been regulars. Britain, and particularly the large garrison in the north, will have supported a thriving sex industry. But it was not driven underground. The Romans blushed at other things.

Forward of the frontier three forts were built in the mouths of glens which reached into the Highland massif. Bochastle, Dalginross and Fendoch were positioned to detect and observe movement: if the numbers made sense and it was hostile, challenge it. Behind these forts, the watchtowers could do only that, watch for trouble and report to the commander of the nearest fort along the line.

In times of peace, movement across the frontier was controlled. In Germany the native peoples were only allowed into the Empire during daylight, if they were unarmed and at particular crossing-points. No doubt a toll was collected, especially if travellers were carrying goods to trade. The Gask Ridge is very likely to have operated in the same way.

Agricola commanded a large army, perhaps 20,000 legionaries, auxiliaries and cavalry. Wherever they halted to consolidate, they had the numbers and the skills to achieve a massive building programme. Such speed and skill was an integral part of military strategy. After terrorising an area and then offering surprisingly reasonable – and therefore attractive – terms to whomever had suffered the short, sharp Roman shock, they then tightened their grip by building roads and forts. This not only gave an immediate impression of tremendous power, it also allowed Agricola’s soldiers to stay on through the winter. There was no respite for native kings to regroup. The Romans had come and conquered.

In 81 it seems that forts were built across the Forth–Clyde isthmus before Agricola returned to the XX Legion’s base at Carlisle. While it was not a precursor for the Antonine Wall of the next century, the building programme was certainly a recognition that the narrow waist of Scotland was a good place for a frontier. Here is Tacitus’ appraisal:

. . . a frontier had been found within Britain itself. For the Firths of Clota (Clyde) and Bodotria (Forth), carried far inland by the tides of the opposite seas, are separated by a narrow neck of land. This was now being securely held by garrisons and the whole sweep of the country on the nearer side was secured: the enemy had been pushed back, as if into a different island.

As the arms of his pincer had struck through southern Scotland in 78, Agricola cut off the kingdoms of the south-west – Dumfries and Galloway, and Ayrshire – from their former allies in the Cheviots and the Pennines. The Novantae appear to have been a naval power. The Solway coast is indented with dozens of natural harbours, sailors are rarely out of the sight of land in the Irish Sea and it was much more of a highway than a barrier. One of the most sheltered harbours faces north. From Loch Ryan modern ferries sail for Ireland but their journey is an ancient one. The name is a remnant of Rerigonium, a place marked by Ptolemy at the foot of the loch, near where Stranraer stands now. It means ‘Most Royal Place’ and may have been the seat of Novantan kings.

Agricola’s push north needed consolidation behind it, and he knew that he could not safely leave a hostile people on the northern shores of the Solway. He crossed in the leading ship, reported Tacitus, and defeated peoples up to that time unknown in a series of successful actions. He lined up his forces in that part of Britain that faces Ireland, an expression of hope rather than of fear. Since Agricola believed that Ireland could be taken and held by a single legion and some auxiliaries, it is well he did not attempt to confront the warriors of the Ulster kings – even if Cuchulainn had long before fought his way into legend.


As those who read the New Testament will know, the Romans were keen on making a regular census of populations in even the farthest reaches of the Empire. It was done mainly to make tax-raising more efficient. Sadly, no census of the province of Britain has survived, but historians have estimated that Roman England, essentially, was inhabited by about a million people. Rome itself was at least as populous (probably two million if slaves are counted) and other cities around the Empire were also very large. Alexandria, Carthage, Antioch, Pergamum, Ephesus and Lyons in Gaul had between 100,000 and 300,000 people living in each of them and the territory immediately adjacent. At the death of Augustus in AD 14, there were around 54 million in his empire.

Like that of all victorious armies, Roman military intelligence was good. As a matter of routine, Agricola’s staff officers interrogated prisoners, traders, disaffected native aristocrats, anyone who could supply information about enemy positions, strength, even morale. When the first rumbles of rebellion in the north reached Agricola, he began to plan a general advance into Scotland. But he could not move without imperial approval. Titus had died suddenly, perhaps suspiciously, and his younger brother, Domitian, followed him onto the throne. Tacitus thought him loathsome, a despicable tyrant. And since Tacitus was a senator for most of Domitian’s reign, he was close enough to the imperial court to form a firm view. Much of the tone of the Agricola is set by the notion that good men can still behave honourably and achieve good things even when a bad emperor rules in Rome. Suetonius shared a poor opinion of Domitian, listing his many vicious cruelties and the names of the good men he had had unjustly executed.

Nevertheless, the order from Rome was positive and Agricola began the long march north. Scotland’s geography dictated his strategy. Forced to advance up the eastern lowlands of Perthshire and Angus and the Mearns, Agricola decided not to brigade his legions and auxiliaries into one huge army group. Intelligence reports had warned that the Caledonians (probably a federation like the Brigantes) had massed a vast host and fearing encirclement by superior forces familiar with the country, he himself divided his army into three divisions and advanced.

Perhaps with the expert advice of the officers of the II Adiutrix, Agricola had organised for a fleet to shadow his land invasion. The east coast of Scotland is blessed with several beaches suitable for landings by supply boats and their protective warships. Lunan Bay, the Montrose basin and Bervie Bay all lie close to the line of march and forts dug by the legionaries. The natural harbour at Stonehaven is less than two miles from the marching camp at Raedykes.

Agricola’s caution was not rewarded. Having committed the fundamental error of dividing his forces (something not pointed out by the loyal Tacitus), disaster almost struck. The IX Legion was the smallest of the three divisions and, as it moved north, Caledonian scouts counted its numbers and watched and waited. Once a halt had been called in a likely location, a ditch dug and a rampart piled up, the scouts sent gallopers to alert native generals to the opportunity. And the warbands massed for a night attack.

Roman marching camps were all very similar in layout. Tent lines were pegged out in the same places each time and units always pitched in the same part. This was not simply a matter of habit or bureaucracy. In moments of emergency, soldiers knew exactly where to run to and muster when trumpets sounded or commands were shouted. Even in the darkest, moonless night, they could fall properly into their ranks. Between the lines of tents and the rampart a wide space known as the intervallum was left. This ensured that missiles, slingshots, arrows or javelins launched from outside the perimeter could not reach where the soldiers slept and kept their kit. It also served as an area where units could form up into battle order. The Roman military instinct was always to get out into open field to fight. In restricted spaces their great advantages in equipment, tactics and discipline were less determinant. Visitors to the ruins of Roman fortresses are often surprised at the number and width of the gates. Used to looking at medieval castles with only one heavily defended entrance, they wonder at such obvious points of weakness. But in fact the gates were designed to allow Roman soldiers to get out of their forts in as large a number and as quickly as possible.


Trajan’s Column is an extraordinary historical object. Standing in the centre of Rome, having miraculously survived for nineteen centuries, its sculpture tells a highly detailed story of the Emperor’s wars in Dacia, modern Romania. Like a film with no soundtrack, the narrative winds up the column, recording several triumphs and hard fights on its way. The reliefs supply an invaluable insight into Roman military methods: battlefield tactics, uniforms, weapons, how marching camps were dug, and a wealth of other information illustrated nowhere else. It is now 95 feet in height (originally 125 feet) and stood on top of Trajan’s mausoleum. Despite a vigorous use of colour (now all gone) to pick out the busy, action-packed scenes, those near the top must have been almost invisible. Hadrian was Trajan’s immediate successor, and the style of almost everything depicted on the column will have looked exactly the same as on the Wall and in the province of Britannia.

Marching camps had no wooden gates, only defended openings in each of the four sides. As darkness fell in the summer of AD 82, the Caledonian generals who watched the IX Legion light their campfires and settle down for the night will have noted that the gateways were heavily guarded but not blocked by anything solid. The ramparts were also not formidable, able only to slow down an assault but not to stop it.

To launch a night attack, it is likely that warhorns sounded the charge, and out of the shadows the Caledonian warriors raced towards the gates, roaring their war-cries. They cut down the sentries and burst into the sleeping camp, creating panic, wrote Tacitus. With little or no time to buckle on armour, the legionaries grabbed their helmets, shields and weapons and fought back as best they could, blundering amongst the tents and guy ropes. Earlier in the campaign the warbands had attacked forts and knew what to expect. It looked as though there would be a great slaughter and, just as three legions had been annihilated in the forests of Germany seventy years earlier, the IX would be wiped out in the fateful shadow of the Scottish Highlands.

But help came. Perhaps the commander of the IX had somehow got horsemen away out of the melee and they had found Agricola’s division. Perhaps Tacitus was telling the unspun truth, rather than promoting his father-in-law’s acumen, when he wrote that it was his scouts who had reported the enemy attack. But he seems to suggest that Agricola’s men were still on the march – at night? Whatever the reality, reinforcements arrived in the nick of time, and by dawn the warbands had been driven off. Memorably, Tacitus wrote: At first light the standards gleamed.

The ability of the fleet to supply his land army allowed Agricola to penetrate far to the north. But it also had another advantage. When Caledonian commanders saw Roman ships appear on the horizon again and again, keeping in step with the army pushing up from the south, they must have felt that there was no escape. So they began to turn their minds from guerilla warfare and night attacks to preparation for a battle, a mighty battle which would bring either revenge or enslavement.

In consecutive passages Tacitus talks of alliances, exchanges of embassies and a united front amongst the kings of northern Scotland. It was clearly a federation which fought the advance of the Romans. Ptolemy noted the names of its probable members. The kings of the Vacomagi ruled in Angus and the Mearns, and north of the Mounth, the Taexali were in Aberdeenshire and the north-east, and the Decantae, the Smertae and the Lugi in Ross and Sutherland. These peoples remain mysterious. Little sense of their personality has survived, only the occasional glint of meaning flickers. The name of the Lugi translates as ‘the People of the Raven’ and, as it hints, Smertae means ‘Smeared’, the warriors who smeared themselves in blood before battle.

Tacitus does identify one man, the first named Scotsman (forgetting the anachronism for a moment) in history. The Caledonian federation was commanded by a war-leader supreme over all the kings of the north. Calgacus may well have been his nickname for it means, simply, ‘the Swordsman’ or ‘good with a sword’.

In 83 the confederate army of the north chose its ground. Calgacus arrayed his men in battle order at a place called the Graupian Mountain. In time-honoured style Tacitus put a long speech in his mouth. It contains several ringing phrases: We are the last people on earth, and the last to be free, and They make a desert and call it ‘peace’, and there is much talk of the virtues of freedom and the evils of slavery. It ends with a telling exhortation:

On then into battle and as you go, think both of your ancestors and of your descendants.

The atmosphere in the ranks of the warbands will have been unmistakable. On the slopes of the Graupian Mountain there stood an army of families, of fathers and sons, brothers and cousins, and they had come to that place to fight for more than their lives. The land, those who had gone before and would come after them, their whole sense of themselves – for all of these they stood with all their courage and stared hard at the legions massing below them, at the most feared army the world had ever seen.

Almost seventeen hundred summers later another army of brothers, fathers and sons mustered to fight for the same things. There are of course many differences between what happened at Culloden in 1746 and at Mons Graupius in 83. But both were battles between a professional army and a host, people who fought with passion rather than for pay. They were contests between the power of a furious Celtic charge and a front of disciplined, trained ranks whose officers implored them to stand fast. But, most of all, these two battles were fought between groups of men who shared ties of blood and soil and an army of individuals who had been welded together by hard-won experience and comradeship. Before Culloden the sloinneadh began, the naming of the ancient names. Many of the clansmen recited their genealogy, remembered who they were and where they came from before raising their broadswords and tearing across the heather into the murderous hail of musket fire.

Once Agricola had made his speech (oddly, not as rousing or poignant as Calgacus’), he put his battleplan into action. Facing the warbands directly were the auxiliary regiments, 8,000 soldiers in all, and protecting their flanks were 3,000 cavalry. The legions werestationed in front of the rampart, clearly near a camp, but behind the auxiliaries to act as a reserve. Tacitus was quick to point out that a victory was esteemed all the greater if no Roman blood was shed.

The preliminaries were dominated by charioteers racing back and forth on the ground between the two front lines. Volleys of javelins were exchanged. And then Agricola ordered the Batavian and Tungrian auxiliary cohorts to advance in close order. There appears to have been no Caledonian charge at this point. The long Roman shields and short stabbing swords were far more effective than the cavalry sabres and small parrying shields of the native warriors, and the auxiliaries began to gain ground, moving up the slopes of the mountain. Then Calgacus engaged the bulk of the confederate army in a flanking movement, an attempt to roll up the Roman line and encircle them. But Agricola sent in his reserve cavalry and they themselves not only prevented this but managed to work themselves in behind the warbands.

At that moment everything changed. Panic seems to have seized the Caledonian army. From Tacitus’ description, the battle broke into a series of separate rearguard actions. The warbands retreated, regrouped and fought back. But momentum was with Agricola’s men and by nightfall they had won the field. They could not follow victory with annihilation, the sort of mass slaughter which often disfigured Roman strategy. The bulk of Calgacus’ army vanished into their mountain heartlands. Agricola continued his march but, since the campaigning season was almost over and winter was threatening, the army returned to camp.

Domitian professed himself delighted at the victory at Mons Graupius (Tacitus was doubtful: what he dreaded most of all was for the name of a subject to be exalted above that of the Emperor) and awarded Agricola triumphal insignia, a public statue and an honorary triumph. At Richborough something even more spectacular was created. On the site where Claudius’ troops invaded Britain in 43, Domitian had a huge triumphal arch erected to mark the moment when he completed the conquest of the province with the battle at Mons Graupius. The arch was clad with Carrara marble and had gilded bronze statuary to decorate it. The imperial family, Domitian’s father, brother and uncle, had all served in Britain and it seems that he saw its final subjugation as a personal Flavian triumph. Perhaps a state visit was planned. It never happened and all that remains are some impressive foundations at Richborough.

Tacitus was bitter about Domitian’s shoddy treatment of Agricola on his recall to Rome:

So that his entry would not attract attention by crowds flocking to welcome him, he avoided the friends who wanted to pay their respects and came into the city by night, and by night also, just as he had been instructed, to the Palace. He was greeted with a perfunctory kiss and then dismissed without a word, into the crowd of courtiers.


Historians are never objective, and while Tacitus did not waver from his adulation of Agricola, his father-in-law, he does sometimes make surprising comments – for a Roman aristocrat. For example, he affords some dignity to barbarians and is occasionally cynical about the motives and methods of the Empire. His own life story may offer some clues to the origin of these unexpected sensitivities. Publius Cornelius Tacitus was born around AD 58, and his father had been an imperial official of some sort in the Rhineland. The family may have come from southern Gaul, like Agricola, and may have spoken Latin with a slight Celtic accent. The name is unusual and was probably coined as a nickname – the Quiet Man. Tacitus did not live up to it. After being made a senator by Vespasian, promoted by Titus and even by the hated Domitian, he became famous as a public speaker as well as a historian. The ultimate accolade came in 97 when Tacitus served as a consul.

With the conclusion of the Agricola, the written historical record for Britain is plunged suddenly into darkness. After so much detail for the years from AD 77 to 84, there is very little surviving material between then and the mid 90s. Even the name of Agricola’s successor as Governor of Britannia is unknown.

It is clear, however, that Mons Graupius was the stimulus for a huge building project in Scotland. At Inchtuthil, on the River Tay near Perth, a legionary fortress was begun in 84. The XX Valeria Victrix, Agricola’s own legion, was to be stationed there and, much in the way that Caerleon glowered at the Silures of South Wales, Inchtuthil was to keep the defeated Caledonii in check. But the fortress was never completed. Trouble threatened elsewhere in the Empire and a legion was withdrawn from Britain. Deliberately and carefully dismantled (a million iron nails were found buried in a pit), Inchtuthil was abandoned in 86 and the edges of the Roman Empire retreated south from Caledonia – and stayed there. Tacitus could not restrain his disgust: Britain was completely conquered – and straight away let go.

Much further south Agricola’s consolidation and good government began to have its effect. The Romans were not only in Britain to stay, but they and their empire also presented opportunities. Those who wanted to do business with the garrisons had to learn Latin, and there is evidence that many merchants and manufacturers did. This process of acculturation is partly reflected in the nature of the 600 or so loanwords from Latin which are still detectable in modern Welsh. These were adapted for things new to Britain after 43 and they say something about cultural difference. For example, llyfr is from liber for a book, ffos is from fossa for a ditch, and ffenestr from fenestra for a window. Even Welsh christian-names remember the Empire. Iestyn is from Justinus and even Tacitus survives as Tegid.

In the Agricola, Tacitus relates how the Governor had fostered Romanisation as a matter of policy:

. . . those who had once shunned the Latin language now sought fluency and eloquence in it. Roman dress too became popular and the toga was frequently seen. Little by little there was a slide towards the allurements of degeneracy: assembly rooms, bathing establishments, and smart dinner parties. In their naivety the Britons called it civilisation when it was really part of their servitude.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!