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The Romans in Scotland

The First Invasion 79-84 AD

In 79 AD, the same year in which the Roman city of Pompeii was destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, Julius Agricola the most famous Roman Governor of Britannia, invaded what is now Scotland from two staging posts on the Stanegate Frontier; Carlisle and Corbridge. He had four legions and auxiliaries at his command, up to 40,000 men, although many would have been left to control the already conquered province to the south. With this army, he quickly overran the lowlands as far as the Forth-Clyde isthmus.

During the next two campaigning seasons, he established a series of forts at the entrances to the Highland glens, including the Gask Ridge Frontier, as well as a new Legionary Fortress at Inchtuthill for the 20th Legion. The Caledonians, realising that they could not hope to challenge the Romans in open battle, adopted guerrilla tactics. Their most successful action was a night attack on the 9th legion, which was badly mauled, but was not, as is popularly believed, destroyed in Scotland.

The native Caledonians were finally brought to bay and were forced to fight a pitched battle against the technologically superior but smaller Roman army at Mons Graupius, which they lost. The Romans did not have much time to celebrate their success, as reports of the loss of another legion on the Danube frontier meant Agricola had to send one of his own legions away to replace it. Agricola himself was recalled to Rome as his governorship ended. The 20th Legion dismantled its new but incomplete fortress at Inchtuthill, and retreated to Chester, where it remained based for the rest of the period of Roman rule in Britain. The Romans gradually withdrew back to their starting position, although they did maintain some forts in southern Scotland until around 103 AD.

The Emperor Hadrian visited Britannia and ordered the construction of his famous wall just north of the Stanegate frontier. Work started in 122 AD and was completed in 128 AD, although modification were made continuously until Hadrian’s death in 138 AD. The fact that there were earthworks on both sides of the boundary suggests that the Romanisation of the northern population was far less successful than was the case further south.

The Second Invasion 139-165 AD

Hadrian’s successor, Antoninus Pius needed to establish some military prestige, so he ordered a re-conquest of Scotland, probably as far as the River Tay. He ordered the abandonment of Hadrian’s Wall and construction of the Antonine Wall across the Forth-Clyde Isthmus. Towards the end of Antoninus’ reign, around 150 AD, the decision was taken to withdraw back to Hadrian’s Wall. The precise reasons for this are unclear, but native unrest seems a likely explanation.

The Final Invasion 208-212 AD

The Emperor Septimus Severus invaded Caledonia in person, but died in York in 211 AD before he was able to consolidate his gains. His son, Caracalla had other things on his mind, and quickly abandoned his father's conquests.


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