Tuesday, 1 March 2011

The Romans quit Scotland - On (or about) this day in Scottish Military History - 211AD

In the Roman historian Tacitus's book 'Agricola', about General Gnaeus Julius Agricola, he quotes a Caledonian chieftan.

Calgacus is addressing his fellow cheiftans in 82AD just before the Battle of Mons Graupius

"...[The Romans] create a desolation and call it peace."

On four occassions since 70AD the Romans had advanced into Scotland to subdue the Celtic tribes and incorporate their lands into Britannia. But even with overwhelming force they had not managed to retain control of the country.

They had built the Antonine Wall between the Forth and Clyde, and built Hadrain's Wall to protect their settled colonies in Britannia (England).

In 208AD the Emperor himself - Septimus Severus, had launched a major campaign across the South of Scotland and up the North Sea coast to try and stamp out the troublesome tribes of the North once and for all.

His plan was brutally simple. Ethnic cleansing. With his 50,000 soldiers he would drive the natives off the fertile lands and then once the Caledonii and others were in the Grampian mountains they would either starve to death or sue for peace.

After two years on campaign Severus had all but beaten his enemies but had returned to Eboracum (York) in 210AD to recover from a serious illness. He left his son Caracolla to finish the job.

Caracolla has gone down in history as one of Rome's most ruthless generals. Not for his campaign in Scotland but for his later campaigns in Germany and the Middle East.

From those wars we know the sort of brutal man he was, and there can be little doubt that the people who lived in what is now Aberdeenshire and Morayshire suffered under Caracalla's Legions.

In early Febuary 211AD Caracalla would have got the news he wanted. Not victory over the tribes but the death of his father.

Records don't survive which tell us where Caracalla was on 4th Febraury 211 when his father died. He may have been in Caledonia but given he would kill his own brother within ten months it wouldn't be surprising if he hastened his father's death whilst being near York.

Even if Caracalla was in Scotland or not when he found out he was Rome's new Emperor, he had two problems. His first was that he was only joint Emperor. He had to share the title with his brother Geta (until he managed to do away with him in December 211).

The second was that he was in the middle of a campaign on the fringe of Empire when he needed to be back in Rome to make sure no one else could take the throne.

Serverus's plan to conquer the whole of the British Isles was swiftly abandoned and the Romans retreated behind Hadrian's wall.
They would still launch punative raids against the Caledonii and Maeatae and pay bribes to keep the peace over the next two hundred years but never again would a Roman Emperor try to rule what is now Scotland.

No one knows the exact date Caracalla's army marched back behind Hadrian's Wall. It would have been in Spring 211AD so I have picked this day, one thousand eight hundred years ago, as the day in Scottish history when the Romans marched south to Britannia and gave up on conquering Caledonia.

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