By David J Breeze
Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Vol.118 (1988)
Introduction: In the late summer of his seventh and final season (AD 83) the army of the Roman governor of Britain, Gnaeus Julius Agricola, defeated a larger Caledonian force at the battle of Mons Graupius. Agricola’s son-in-law, the historian Tacitus, writing at the end of that century, was able to say, perdomita Britannia, ‘Britain was conquered’. However, he goes on to state, ‘statim omissa‘, ‘it was immediately lost’. No permanent Roman forts of first century – or any other date – have been found beyond the Mounth, where the Highlands reach the sea at Stonehaven, though Roman camps are known, while archaeological evidence suggests that by about 90 all installations on and north of the Forth-Clyde line had been abandoned. Tacitus may have been indulging in hyperbole – not all Britain was lost, only the northern part – but nevertheless the Romans had failed to complete the conquest of the island, and had even withdrawn from territory which they had overrun.
The campaigns of Agricola, which from his second season (78 accepting the latest suggestions for the dating of his governorship, cf Birley 1981, 77; Campbell 1986) to his seventh (83) brought Roman arms from previously conquered Brigantia to victory at Mons Graupius, were the first of at least three occasions when Roman armies marched north to extend their empire. None appears to have lasted longer than about 25 years. Agricola’s northern progress was part of a continuous advance of Roman arms which led, within a period of 15 years, to the absorption of Wales, northern England and southern Scotland into the empire. Mons Graupius was merely the latest victory in a series, though it seems to have been last in that series.
The second northern advance was under the Emperor Antoninus Pius in the early 140s. This was a much more limited operation, whch resulted in the abandonment of Hadrian’s Wall and the establishment of a new frontier on the Forth-Clyde isthmus, the Antonine Wall. These conquests appear to have been abandoned soon after the death of Antoninus Pius in 161.
The third occasion was in 208. The Emperor Septimius Severus travelled to Britain and, together with his son and co-emperor, Caracalla, waged war on the Caledones and Maeatae. His aim, according to the contemporary historian Cassius Dio was to conquer the whole of the island, and he is recorded as reaching nearly the end of the island. The northern tribes submitted but then rebelled and it was while Caracalla was putting down this revolt that his father died at York and the son abandoned the newly won territory, together with Roman forts, and returned to Rome. Thus ended the last serious attempt to complete the conquest of the whole island: subsequent campaigns, for example, under Constantius Chlorus in 305/6, seem to have been punitive expeditions rather than attempts to conquer (there may have been earlier punitive expeditions, for example, under Ulpius Marcellus in the early 180s).