A new book challenges the myth that Scotland was never conquered by the Romans

Part of the Antonine Wall at New Kilpatrick Cemetery, Glasgow
Part of the Antonine Wall at New Kilpatrick Cemetery, Glasgow
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TOWARDS the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th, there was a profound and fundamental shift in thinking across Europe in terms of how countries imagined their relationship with the Roman Empire.

Various states – Britain, France, and most notably the German, Netherland, Austrian and Italian territories held by the Holy Roman Emperor – had figured themselves as the successors of the Romans, the heirs of that continent-controlling empire. As new political ideas about authoritarianism and liberty were discussed, some writers and thinkers sought to identify their country’s national spirit with the indigenous peoples conquered by Rome. In France, interest in Vercingetorix, who was defeated by Caesar at the Battle of Alesia, culminated in Napoleon III erecting a statue to him. Boadicea become the topic of plays and poems in England. Germany began to honour Hermann of the Cherusci, the Teutonic warrior who defeated the Romans at the Battle of Teutoberg Forest. Perhaps the most bizarre commemoration is also one of the most recent: in 2004, after ten years of work, the largest rockface statue in Europe was unveiled in Romania; an image of Decebalus, who fought against (and lost to) the Emperor Trajan.

The Cramond Lioness - roman sculpture unearthed at Cramond, Edinburgh

The Cramond Lioness - roman sculpture unearthed at Cramond, Edinburgh

Rediscovering resistance to Rome went hand in hand with the nationalisms that swept across Europe in the 19th century. Scotland – despite its more recent incorporation into the United Kingdom – was no different, and a great deal of patriotic pride was associated with the idea that Scotland was never subdued to the might of Rome: an idea which obviously chimed with the importance of Protestantism in Scotland. At a meeting of the Highland Society in 1804, reported in the Scots Magazine, the Earl of Moira praised “the descendants of ‘the Scots who oft with Wallace bled,’ who had resisted all the force of the Roman Legions, and had kept Scotland unconquered when all the rest of Europe fell,” in a speech which continued that they “were neither to be contaminated by the principles of the French, nor conquered by their arms”. John Monipennie’s popular abridgement of the Scottish Chronicles described the “ancient kingdom of Scotland unconquered, under the empyre and government of an hundreth and sixe kings…and in special when almost the whole world was brought under the Romane empyre by the sword”.

The Scots had a ready-made hero in the figure of Calgacus, whom we know about only through the work of the Roman historian Tactitus. Tacitus wrote a work in praise of his father-in-law, Gnaeus Julius Agricola, who was Governor of Britain between 77 and 85 AD, and who pushed furthest into “Caledonia”. It is one of the weirder ironies of history that an area of Scotland (and a former television station and local government region) actually takes its name from a typo. Agricola fought a decisive battle at “Mons Graupius” against Calgacus. Although the earliest manuscripts have the word “Graupius”, the printed edition by Franciscus Puteolanus in 1476 had the misspelling Grampius, and thanks to the fact that printed books reached many more readers than manuscripts, the name stuck.

Tacitus is, like every historian, partial; even more so when writing about his family. His deep dislike of the ruling Flavian Dynasty meant he never lost an opportunity to contrast the lax, suspect, spineless ruling class with what might anachronistically be called “noble savages”. Agricola was recalled to Rome before the conquest was entire, and in some ways, the idea of the “unconquered Scotland” is a myth; a notion given hard factual basis by the excellent work done by Rebecca H. Jones. Jones has shown that Scotland has more traces of camps – temporary or semi-temporary stopping places for the legions – than any other part of Europe. In part, the fact that many parts of Scotland remain as uninhabited as they were in the 1st and 2nd centuries allows us to see these shadowy structures, often no more than a line of slightly higher crops visible from a plane. It’s much harder to detect these traces if they lie under a roundabout outside Milton Keynes, or have fallen into the sea generations ago. But it does suggest a higher degree of determination than previously considered.

The Roman attitude to Britain is complex. It was strategically unnecessary, and it provided little to the running of the Empire in comparison with the “bread basket” of Egypt or the fertile plains of Gaul and Iberia. But, since every Emperor tried to outdo his predecessors, it was a wonderful site for political displays of power. Caesar had set foot in Britain in 55 and 54 BC. Almost 90 years later, the Emperor Claudius returned, cementing his precarious position by a Falkland-esque victory. The gradual Romanisation reached an apogee with Hadrian’s construction of his Wall in 122 AD. Agricola had reached modern- day Inverness 40 years beforehand so the idea of Hadrian’s Wall as a bulwark against rampaging Picts is utterly unfeasible. It represents a limit: everything behind the Wall was wholly Roman, but an area of soft control existed beyond it. The Emperor Antoninus Pius capitalised on this semi-Romanised buffer zone with his construction of a further wall in 142 AD, trumping Hadrian without besting him, and announcing Roman total control between the Forth and the Clyde.

The existence of such artefacts as the Cramond Lioness, let alone the fort at Trimontium, near Melrose, shows that Rome’s presence north of Hadrian’s Wall was more persistent and more imposing than the idea of the sole hold-out in Europe might suggest. Although sculptures like the Lioness – a gruesome image of a prisoner being eaten by the beast – imply a kind of “shock-and-awe” approach, there is fascinating archaeological evidence which may show a level of mutual trade. A dig near the village where I grew up showed that the local pottery – usually made from “snakes” of clay linked up on top of each layer to make a vessel – was there alongside thrown, smooth-edged pottery, a technology Rome imported.

In a rather sad way, the decline of Rome’s significance in Scotland was more to do with apathy and poverty than with Braveheart-ish sending them home again to think again. As the Empire fragmented and over-extended, successive Emperors thought to control the heart around the Mediterranean rather than bother with a province which gave little to the imperial coffers and cost a lot to keep going. The expedition of Emperor Septimius Severus is perhaps the last gasp, and allows a very Caledonian rebuke to the African-born Emperor and his consort, Julia Domna, who had criticised the sexual behaviour of Caledonian women. The wife of the local chieftain, Argentocoxos replied to her that “we fulfill the demands of nature in a much better way than do you Roman women; for we consort openly with the best men, whereas you let yourselves be debauched in secret by the vilest”. There is a topic that the next Irvine Welsh or Jackie Kay might take up.

The work of scholars like Rebecca Jones has radically changed the way we approach the time that Romans spent in Caledonia. The idea of an intermittent pillage is now debunked. It is a link to the past that we fail to engage with: I never knew that Pennymuir, up in the Cheviots and near where my Grandpa and I used to walk, is, in her words, “among the best preserved camps anywhere in Britain”. It is surely time to forgo all the “Eagle of the Ninth” vainglorious legend-making and start realising the wonders that are literally under our feet.

• Roman Camps in Scotland by Dr Rebecca Jones is published by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland