Book review: The Eagle and the Bear: A New History of Roman Scotland, by John H Reid

John H Reid offers a thought-provoking new examination of what we know about Scotland in the Roman period, writes David Robinson

Why, asks Trimontium Trust chairman John Reid, at the start of this comprehensive, accessible and thought-provoking study, did Romans spend so much time, money, materiel and lives on a few tribes in north Britain?

By its end, we still don’t know for sure, just as we can only make educated guesses about the purpose of those two massive walls (Hadrian’s and Antonine), the site of the battle of Mons Gampius, or how the IX Legion was defeated (if indeed it was). We know even less about the lives of the Caledonians and Picts, the gods they worshipped and their intertribal relations.

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The little we do know about the Romans in Scotland only makes it onto the historical record by its fingernails. If the medieval world’s only copy of Tacitus’s Agricola had been lost or damaged in a German monastery, we’d have lost our sole source about the Roman invasion of Caledonia. The only other Roman text to mention Hadrian’s visit only rates the 80-mile wall he ordered to be built – the largest single structure in the empire – to be worth a single sentence.

John H ReidJohn H Reid
John H Reid

This doesn’t, Reid hastens to add, mean that the Romans' secrets are forever lost to us. On the contrary, archaeology is still adding to our knowledge, along with studies of the legions’ ranks, strategy, military tactics in other countries, and pollen profiles, landscape assessments and studies of Caledonian and Pictish crannogs, hill forts and brochs.

Behind all of this, though, lie the swirling assumptions the present makes about the past. Put simply, Victorian Britain had such strong Romanocentric sympathies that the two walls made little sense other than an imperial vanity project, displacement activity for a bored army, or an anti-rustling or customs barrier. Native resistance was downplayed, ignored, or interpreted away: two Roman assault camps on either side of the Burnswark hill fort in Dumfriesshire were just, it was suggested as late as 1963, places where the Romans did their training and practised firing all those small lead bullets with holes in them that made them whistle in flight.

These days, with the near-universal discrediting of imperialism, the historiography has shifted. The Romans, Reid suggests, needed those walls. For a third of a millennium, they kept vast numbers – at one time as many as one soldier in eight in the entire empire – to defend them or go on violent raids into the mysterious north. Scotland was, he says, their Afghanistan, and ultimately what the Romans did for us was “to introduce the possibility that a sense of resistance... may have become an indelible trait of northerners”. Discuss.

The Eagle and the Bear: A New History of Roman Scotland, by John H Reid, Birlinn, £17.99

The Eagle and the Bear, by John H ReidThe Eagle and the Bear, by John H Reid
The Eagle and the Bear, by John H Reid
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