New book sheds light on brutal Roman battle in Scotland

It is the earliest recorded battle in Scotland’s history, and it remains one of the bloodiest.

A new book has shed light on the life of the Roman statesman and the brutal war he waged against Caledonian tribes in the hills of Aberdeenshire. For nearly two millennia, the story of the Battle of Mons Graupius has been passed down from one generation to the next, telling of how a tightly drilled invading Roman force defeated a band of Caledonians nearly twice as strong in number.

It is said around 10,000 Caledonians were slaughtered under the command of Gnaeus Julius Agricola, the Roman governor of Brittania, with his soldiers even killing prisoners and chasing deserters to ensure there were as few survivors as possible. But that historical account stems from just a single source – a biography of Agricola written by Tacitus, the Roman historian who also happened to be married to Agricola’s daughter.

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No archeological evidence has ever corroborated any of the conflicting theories about where the battle was fought. Now, centuries later, the new book by Simon Turney aims to separate fact from fiction, and present the real story of Mons Graupius, fought in 84AD.

The history penned by Tacitus is notable for its gory descriptions, and details how the Roman cavalry outflanked the Caledonians and attacked them from the rear. “Some, who were unarmed, actually rushed to the front and gave themselves up to death,” Tacitus wrote. “Everywhere there lay scattered arms, corpses and mangled limbs, and the earth reeked with blood.”

Mr Turney said while the depiction of such “wanton butchery” and the lack of mercy shown by Agricola may have shocked Roman audiences, it was accurate, and demonstrated the importance of victory. It was seen, he explains, as the “last stand of the last tribes”, and Agricola’s only chance to complete his conquest of what would become Scotland.

Elsewhere, however, Mr Turney raises questions of the only primary source material about the battle. One of the most problematic issues is the Roman death toll.

In his text, Tacitus wrote that for every Roman killed during the battle, 28 Caledonians perished. But such numbers, Mr Turney believes, are “clear and typical Roman exaggeration”.

Simon Turney's new book sheds light on the battle waged by Agricola and his Roman soldiers. Picture: Contributed

“With the best will in the world, the notion that for every Roman on that field who died, 28 natives joined him in the afterlife is laughable,” he explained. “We cannot guess at how many Agricola truly lost in the fighting, although I suspect it is safe to say that there were more than the 360 Tacitus notes.”

He also said he believes the speeches given by Agricola, and his opposing number Calgacus, a Caledonian chieftain, were almost certainly a “complete fabrication” by Tacitus. Indeed, he points out there is no mention of Calgacus elsewhere in history, and that he is likely to be a fictional creation in service of the “noble savage” narrative.

Mr Turney said it should not come as a surprise that some facts were twisted by the Romans, and points out that as well as a biography, Tactitus intended his book to serve as a eulogy, a political statement, a declaration of the values of Rome, and last, but not least, a “damn good read.”

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‘Agricola: Architect of Roman Britain’ is published by Amberley Publishing.

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