Roman Scotland

Friday, August 13, 2010

The knock-on effect in Scotland of the centuries of Roman occupation in southern Britain was considerable, but the actual Roman presence in the north was fleeting. The first incursion came in the summer of AD 79 when the Roman governor Agricola led his army deep into Caledonia. The campaign which followed was recorded by his son-in-law, the historian Tacitus, and culminated in Roman victory at the battle of Mons Graupius in AD 83. Roman priorities, however, lay elsewhere, and Agricolan ambitions to bring all of Britain within the Empire were abandoned. A frontier was established much further south with the building of Hadrian’s Wall on the Tyne–Solway line in the 120s and 130s. In the middle of the second century southern Scotland was brought within the Roman province of Britannia when a second wall, of more modest construction, was built on the Forth–Clyde line, c.143. But this Antonine reoccupation lasted little more than a decade and the northern wall was abandoned in the mid-160s. A punitive campaign against the northern barbarians was waged by the Emperor Severus from 197, but his death at York in 211 brought the initiative to an end and Roman troops drew back to the Wall.

In the extreme south-west of Scotland, around the western terminus of Hadrian’s Wall, the Roman presence was strong because of the legionary fortress of Carlisle, and more or less continuous until the mid-fourth century. Further north, military intervention was limited to these few discrete episodes, all of them short. In attempting to assess the impact of all this on native society it is easy to be misled by the impressive physical remains of the military majesty of the Empire: the enormousness of Hadrian’s Wall itself, the monumental carved distance slabs from the Antonine Wall, the remains of the huge legionary fortress at Ardoch, Perthshire, the dazzling parade armour found at Newsteads in the Tweed Valley. Much harder to see is the kind of effect prolonged proximity to the Empire had on the society of northern Britain. It would be a mistake to assume constant local hostility to the ‘imperial oppressor’ for, in reality, the Empire held many attractions. The dichotomy was not so much between ‘Roman’ and ‘Native’, as between those inside and those outside the Empire. Recruits to the Roman army were drawn from all over the Empire including, after the initial period, Britain: a grave slab from Mumrills, on the Antonine Wall, commemorates a Briton, Nectouelius, serving in the Roman army in Scotland. From the very outset it is clear that some outsiders saw the Empire as something which they could exploit to their own advantage. One such was Lossio Ueda who proudly proclaimed himself ‘a Caledonian’ on an impressive Roman-style votive inscription at early third-century Colchester, Essex.

The impact of Rome on those who stayed behind in the north varied greatly according to region. Archaeologists perceive a cultural boundary at the Tay, 100 miles north of Hadrian’s Wall. There is no doubt that Roman influence on the ‘near zone’ of southern Scotland was profound. The presence there of low-value Roman items reflects the functioning in this frontier area of a limited monetary economy, of markets and of merchants. In the unconquered ‘far zone’, north of the Tay, it is trinkets and a few luxury items which are found circulating amongst the elite, as far as Shetland and the Outer Isles. Prestige goods are found in the south too: the great early fifth-century hoard from Traprain Law, East Lothain, alone contains more than 50 lb of silver (it has been suggested, only half in jest, that Rome’s biggest contribution to Scotland consisted of silver plate!). Differential access to the great wealth and prestige of Rome had a disruptive effect on local politics. Those who failed to take advantage of these new resources to express and enforce their social position might find themselves squeezed out by more favoured rivals. A similar pattern of political and social destablization can be seen all round the rim of the Empire especially after imperial power began to collapse in the generation before c.400. The complete lack of Roman pottery in the ‘Inter-Wall’ region from the second half of the fourth century suggests that trade had effectively ceased there by then. This decline in the ready supply of Roman goods may help explain the references in fourth-century Roman sources to devastating seaborne raids from beyond the Walls. The concerted attacks of the 360s were particularly intense and involved not only Picti and Scotti but also Saxons from across the North Sea.


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