Gnaeus Julius Agricola became the Governor of Britain in 78 AD and was charged with bringing Northern Britain under Roman control. He was exceedingly successful as he routinely quelled uprisings including revolts in Wales and by the Brigantes in Northern England. Events came to a head at the Battle of Mons Graupius in 83 or 84 AD. The exact location of the battle is unknown with as many as 29 different sites purported to be the battleground.
Indeed, the entire conflict is shrouded in mystery since the only account of it comes from Tacitus. We have to be careful when analyzing his version of events in this particular instance because Agricola was his son-in-law and the Roman commander at the battle. What we do know is that Agricola established fortifications between the Clyde and Forth rivers by 82 AD. He decided to press forward once his supply and troop lines in the south were set.
According to Tacitus, the Romans had 11,000 auxiliaries and four squadrons of cavalry against up to 30,000 members of the Caledonian Confederacy. After a brief exchange of missiles, the Romans marched forward in tight military formation. The enemy, used to small raids and tribal battles, rushed to meet the Romans chaotically. As a result, the auxiliaries were able to crush the tribes to the extent that the Romans were able to keep the legion in reserve throughout.
Tacitus claimed that the Romans lost 360 men compared to 10,000 Caledonian deaths. As it was normal for Roman writers to diminish their losses and exaggerate those of the enemy, his figures are highly suspect. However, the Caledonians did flee the field in what amounted to a significant Roman victory. Agricola did not get the chance to advance north because he was recalled to Rome, and the Romans never conquered modern day Scotland.
Although the Romans failed to take Scotland, they were firmly established in England by the end of the first century AD. By this stage, there were approximately 8,000 miles of roads completed in Britain which made it easy to send troops and goods across the country. When Emperor Trajan assumed control of the Empire, he ordered a total withdrawal from Scotland and the development of a frontier between Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Carlisle.
Emperor Hadrian ordered the construction of the famous wall which bears his name in 122. It is likely that the idea for Hadrian’s Wall was first mooted in 118 or 119. The reasons behind the creation of the barrier vary. Some say it was a symbol of Roman power while other historians suggest it was indicative of Hadrian’s policy of defense ahead of expansion. It was a wise strategy at that point because under Trajan; the Empire had grown so large that it was becoming difficult to control.
Whatever the reasons, construction began in 122, and Hadrian’s Wall was finished in 128. Upon completion, the barrier was 10 feet wide and 15 feet high with parapets of up to 20 feet. The wall was 80 âRoman Miles’ long which equates to 73 miles. There were also 80 âmile castles’ to add further reinforcement to the already impressive structure. It is worth noting that most of the early forts on the wall face south into Brigantine territory; an indication of how dangerous the recently subverted tribes still were.
It may surprise you to learn that despite its place in history, Hadrian’s Wall as effectively abandoned around a decade after its completion. While additional fortifications were added in the 130s, the wall was relegated to a âsupport’ defensive role once Emperor Hadrian died in 138. Marcus Antonius used Hadrian’s Wall as his main defensive unit in 164, but Septimius Severus preferred the Antonine Wall although the Romans returned to Hadrian’s creation after failing to conquer Caledonia.
5 – The Antonine Wall & Further Caledonian Failures (From 140)
Antoninus Pius became Roman Emperor in 138, and within two years, he ordered the creation of the Antonine Wall to restore order to Britannia and attempt to take Caledonia. The Romans had trouble in Scotland ever since they invaded Britain and while they had a major victory at Mons Graupius in 83/84, they never built upon it.
Instead, the barbarians continued to harass the Romans, and successive emperors tried different ways to solve the problem. First Hadrian, and then Antoninus Pius, tried to create defensive barriers to prevent the enemy from raiding the Roman part of the island. Construction of the Antonine Wall began in 142 and finished six years later. It was built after governor Quintus Lollius Urbicus occupied part of the Scottish Lowlands.
Upon completion, the wall was 10 feet high, 16 feet wide and 63 miles long. There was also a deep ditch on the northern side and probably a wooden palisade on top of the turf. As impressive as the structure was, it did nothing to prevent the Caledonians from attacking Roman territory as frequently as they did before. Ultimately, the Antonine Wall was abandoned sometime between 162 and 165 whereupon the Romans retreated to Hadrian’s Wall which was some 90 miles south.
The Antonine occupation of Scotland didn’t last long; a revolt by the Brigantes from 155 to 157 forced the Romans to retreat. Although Governor Gnaeus Julius Verus suppressed the rising and recaptured the Antonine Wall sometime in the late 150s, the wall was abandoned once again within a few years. The issues with Caledonia continued for several decades until finally, one emperor had enough and launched a wide-scale invasion.
The latter part of the second century AD was filled with riots and rebellions in different parts of Britannia. Clodius Albinus was the Governor of Britannia and became embroiled in a Roman power struggle after the assassination of Commodus in 192. Albinus declared himself emperor in 193 and 196. However, he was defeated by Septimius Severus at Lugundum in 197, and his death left a vacancy in Britannia that was filled with anarchy.
After a decade of suffering raiding and plundering at the hands of barbarians, Roman Britain was in chaos and Severus decided to sort things out once and for all. He arrived in Britain in 208 with 40,000 men and rebuilt Hadrian’s Wall. After completing a rebuild on the Antonine Wall, Severus marched north in 209 but suffered heavy casualties due to the guerrilla tactics used by the Caledonians.
As a result of these tactics, Severus elected to adopt a strategy of retaking the old forts once occupied by Agricola and destroying any territory he couldn’t conquer. After peace talks failed in 210, Severus’ son, Caracalla, led an expedition north of the Antonine Wall with the sole purpose of murdering, looting and destroying. The idea was for Caracalla to cause chaos and Severus would follow with his army and occupy Caledonia once and for all. However, the Emperor became ill and remained at York.
Severus never recovered and died on February 4, 211. Caracalla called off the invasion and returned to Rome. The Romans never again campaigned deep into Caledonia. It is difficult to tell whether or not Severus would have succeeded in his conquest had he not taken ill. According to Cassius Dio, up to 50,000 Romans died in the two-year attempt. Would Severus have continued with such heavy casualties? If he did, it is probable that Rome would eventually have conquered Scotland. Although the quest was a failure, there were some practical benefits. It resulted in the strengthening of Hadrian’s Wall and the conflict weakened the barbarian tribes. It took them decades to regroup and launch raids in large numbers.
During the Crisis of the Third Century, Britain became part of the Gallic Empire with Gaul and Spain. It was a short lived exercise as the Romans recovered the territory in 274. However, trouble wasn’t far away, and another important piece of Roman British history began in 286. In that year, a Roman naval commander named Carausius declared himself Emperor of Britain and Northern Gaul. He had been accused of collaborating with pirates for personal gain and was sentenced to death by Maximian, the Roman Emperor in the West.
In 293, the Western ‘caesar’, Constantius Chlorus, regained the Gallic territory but was unable to retake Britain until he strengthened the navy. Meanwhile, Carausius was murdered by his subordinate Allectus who assumed control of Britain. In 296, Chlorus finally had a strong enough navy to attack Britain.
Chlorus sent two naval forces; he led the first while the second was under the command of Julius Asclepiodotus. The latter group reached the British mainland undetected due to fog and burned their ships once they reached the shore before heading to London. This action forced Allectus to engage the enemy. Chlorus arrived soon afterward.
Allectus met Asclepiodotus at Silchester, known as Calleva Atrebatum. In what was apparently a fairly short battle, the invading Romans defeated the rebels and Allectus was killed in action. The fleeing rebels went to London with the intent of looting it but ran into a contingent of Chlorus’ soldiers en-route and were massacred. With the death of Allectus, Britain was once again part of the Roman Empire, and Chlorus was hailed as a liberator by the natives. The Roman Empire was showing major cracks, and the rest of Rome’s occupation of Britain was beset by problems.
After the Battle of Silchester, Roman was split into four provinces. The level of barbarian raids on Roman Britain intensified in the 4th century when it became clear that the Empire was crumbling. By 367, Scottish, Irish and German barbarians were coordinating attacks and routinely plundered towns throughout the province. As a result, Britain descended into anarchy.
Although future Emperor Theodosius managed to drive back the enemy in 369, the status quo didn’t last long. The barbarians renewed their massive attacks on Britain in 396 and in desperation; the Romans sent reinforcements from other parts of the Empire to quell the unrest. After three years of fighting, peace was restored in Britannia, but it only lasted a few years.
In 401, a large amount of troops were withdrawn from the province in order to help defend Rome against the attack by Alaric. Britannia came under siege once again as barbarians continually breached its borders. The near collapse of the Roman Empire meant that no further reinforcements came to Britain after 406. The following year, a Roman general in Britain was declared Constantine III of the Roman Empire. He decided to assemble an army and invade Gaul.
With only a small Roman force remaining, the natives decided to throw off their allegiance to Rome and remove the last vestiges of imperial authority in 409. In 410, Britain was under attack from the Picts, Saxons, Angles, and Scots, so the population appealed to Emperor Honorius for aid. He famously sent them a letter which said they should “look after the defenses.” His refusal to help effectively marked the end of Roman Britain. In the same year, Rome was sacked by Alaric in what was the beginning of the end of the Western Empire.