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Roman Legions Invade


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Caesar Conquers Western Europe, and Raids Britain-

Western Europe was the last great region to come under Roman control.  First, they had thrown back the Gaulish tribes who swept into Italy in the fourth century BC.  After 190 BC, they advanced beyond the Alps, and by 125 BC, had become masters of the lower Rhone and formed the province of trans-Alpine Gaul.

In 59 BC, the Roman Assembly passed a law giving command of Cisalpine Gaul (i.e. northern Italy between the Apennines and the Alps) to a Roman aristocrat, Gaius Julius Caesar, and a cart-blanche to expand in Europe.  He was about 42 and had already proved himself as a soldier, statesman, and administrator.

In a series of brilliant campaigns, Caesar overcame Germanic tribes invading from across the Rhine, Celtic Helvetii moving in from Switzerland, the Belgae coming from north-east France,  and the Veneti to become master of north-western Europe.  Thus in 55BC, Julius Caesar gazed across the English channel to the mysterious land where many of his beaten enemies had fled.

The Roman Legions swept through the known world in the first century AD due to the
  discipline and superior tactics of their soldiers.  Highly motivated and ruthless, they
  established an empire that lasted for over 1,000 years.

When Julius Caesar raided Britain in 55 and 54 BC, his official motive was to "teach the natives a lesson" by a show of Roman strength.    Unofficially, it was probably a matter of personal pride - and one of Caesar's mistresses was infatuated with the giant fresh water pearls that were only found in Britain. Caesar fought several battles against various British chiefs and exacted tribute and hostages from them before departing Britain to pursue his path to power.   Permanent occupation was not contemplated.  The Romans would not return for another 97 years.

Britain Is Invaded-

In AD43, the Roman Emperor Claudius sent Narcissus, a freed slave, to northern Gaul to command an invasion of Britain.  Narcissus was successful in raising four legions and several auxiliaries for a total of about 50,000 soldiers.   The reasons for invading were probably (a) increasing trade relations with Britain had revealed the potential wealth of the island; (b) south-eastern Britain was no longer the home of separate independent tribes but had become a powerful kingdom; (c) the English Channel was no longer a good frontier; Britain harbored refugee Gaulish malcontents, and provided a base for an attack on the Roman mainland.

They sailed across the English Channel under the command of Aulus Plautius in three divisions and landed with no opposition.  After several frustrating attempts, the Romans finally succeeded in finding, then battling Celtic British armies, to eventually subdue all of southern Britain.

So it came to pass that in AD55, south-eastern Britain became a Roman province.  The Romans were probably unaware that the Celt warriors who resisted them were also very recent newcomers to this island.   The Roman legions passed by mounds of chieftains who had died 1,700 years before they were born.

By subterfuge, military skill, and coercion, the Romans subdued every Celtic minor king they came across in southern Britain.  The Celts were never able to form a united front against the Romans, their petty rivalries ensured a Roman victory over southern Britain.  Soon the area became Romanized and the army of occupation merely became policemen who guarded against encroachments from barbarians in Wales and northern Britain.

In 71AD, the 9th Roman Legion was moved north to York.  In AD78, the current Governor, Agricola, decided to eliminate the harassments by the Welsh and the Caledonians. After defeating the Welsh that year; in AD79, he pushed up to the Tyne and Solway, established there a line of forts,  which forty years later, Emperor Hadrian would build into a wall, linking a chain of forts, fortlets and military outposts.

The Romans used auxiliary soldiers as shock troops and front line guards.  They would normally keep their best centurions in reserve to mop up after the enemy had been battered.  The legions occupied permanent bases behind the frontier, ready to go to any threatened point if the frontier-line had been breached.

Hadrians Wall, the world's best preserved Roman fortification. 

The Romans are harassed by Caledonii-

When the Romans entered the area now known as Northumberland, they met the Caledonii.  The Caledonians were the largest tribe of the Picts so the Romans called the entire area from Northumberland northwards as Caledonia.  These warriors were unlike any other in Britain, and would occupy the Roman legions in running battles for four hundred years.

They were described as "tall, fair or red haired chiefs in primitive tartan, their shields and helmets gay with enamel, driving their pairs of small, tough, fast-moving ponies; they were followed by thousands of half-naked, barefoot British infantry, bearing small, square, wooden shields, with a metal handgrip, and spears, with a knob at the butt-end, which could be clashed with a terrifying noise."

Archeological digs have proved that  Roman descriptions of Caledonian weaponry were in error at best, and dishonest at worst.  They were actually much more sophisticated than for what the Romans gave them credit.

In well prepared battles in the open, Roman soldiers triumphed.   However, the Caledonii persisted in their running attacks on isolated outposts, and in night time surprise attacks on stronger positions.

Today, it would be called 'guerrilla warfare.'  In those olden days of Roman occupation, Roman officials were itching to chase the Caledonii as far north as necessary  to attain a final solution  to this 'thorn' in the side of an otherwise relatively peaceful Roman province.

In AD79, the Roman soldier-Governor of Britain, Julius Agricola, was busy campaigning in northern Britain, pushing up to the Tyne and Solway, establishing a line of forts near which, forty years later, Hadrian would build his Wall to keep out the Caledonii.

Agricola Invades Caledonia (Albann)

In AD80, Agricola raided as far north as Tay, but as winter set in, he consolidated the Forth-Clyde isthmus with a chain of forts.  Sixty years later, these forts became the Antonnine Wall, a line of forts established too far into hostile territory to adequately secure, and eventually abandoned, after constant penetrations by the Caledonii.

In AD83, the year of his sixth campaign, Agricola prepared a big new offensive to deal with the Caledonians once and for all.  Leading 30,00 troops, he easily subdued the lowland tribes of Novantae, the Segolvae, the Votandini, and the Damnoni.  Ahead hidden in their dark hills were the northern Caledonii, whom he determined to bring to battle.

He had no illusions regarding the task ahead.  Previous reconnaissance had revealed the tangle of mountains and glens in which the enemy lurked.   Their great leader was given the Roman name, Galgacus, a name meaning "swordsman".  His name was actually "Gilgidi".  The Romans considered the Caledonii with their red hair and large limbs to be of Germanic origin as they were not yet familiar with Scandinavians.

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The winter of AD83, Agricola left the 20th legion and auxiliary cohorts to man a series of forts to secure his gains and to keep the Caledonii from entering the lowlands.  In the Spring of AD84, it was Agricola's seventh year of campaigning - and his last.  Agricola sailed north up the east coast with an invasion fleet to plunder and spread terror.  Reinforced with loyal Britons, Belgians, German and Dutch auxiliaries, Agricola commanded more than 30,000 troops for what was hoped would be the final battle with the Caledonii.

What was never reported by Tacitus was that a legion of German auxiliaries, after being severely mauled by Pict forces,  mutinied, killed their Roman officers, stole three ships and sailed back to Germany.

The Great Battle of Mons Graupius- (As related by the Romans)

Agricola found the Caledonii occupying a mountain they called "Graupius."   They swept down onto the plain and the stage was set for a final battle for northern Britain.  It would go down in history as the Battle of Mons Graupius, and it was recorded by Tacitus, a historian and Agricola's son in law.  With his future career at stake, Tacitus had everything to gain by recording Agricola as a conquering hero for posterity.

Tacitus reported Agricola's pre-battle speech to his troops (which was a total fabrication):

"This is the seventh year, comrades, that you by your valor, by the divine blessing of Rome and by my loyal efforts have been conquering Britain.  All these campaigns, all these battles, have made great demands - on courage in the face of the enemy, on patient toil in the face of Nature herself.... And so we have passed the limits that held back former Governors and their armies.   Our grip on the ends of Britain is vouched for, not by report or rumor, but by our encampment here in force.... How often on the march, when you were making your weary way over marshes, mountains and rivers, have I heard the bravest of you exclaim, When shall we find the enemy?  When shall we come to grips?"  Well, here we are, dislodged from their lairs.  The field lies open as you so bravely desired it...."

Tacitus credits "Galgacus" (Gilgidi) with a stirring speech to his army before the battle and reported it word for word.  It is doubtful that Tacitus was ever near the battle scene, and the credence of this speech is highly doubtful.  The Pict War Chief certainly did not speak Latin, and the Romans did not understand Pict.  However this is what Tacitus reported was said:

"Battles have been lost and won before, but never without hope; we were always there in reserve.  We, the choice flowers of Britain, were treasured in her most secret places.  Out of sight of subject shores, we kept even our eyes free from the defilement of tyranny.  We, the last men on earth, the last of the free, have been shielded until today by our very remoteness and the seclusion for which we are famed.... But today the boundary of Britain is exposed; beyond us lies no nation, nothing but waves and rocks and the Romans, more deadly still than they....

Brigands of the world, they have exhausted the land by their indiscriminate plunder, and now they ransack the sea.... East and west have tried to glut their maw.  The are unique in being violently tempted to attack the poor and the wealthy.

Look at it, a motley agglomeration of nations, that will be shattered by defeat as surely as it is now held together by success....   Most of them have no country, or, if they have, it is not Rome.  See them, a scanty band, scared and bewildered, staring blankly at the unfamiliar sky, sea and forests around!  The gods have given them, spellbound prisoners, into our hands.

They create a desolation and call it peace!"   

The battle opened with an exchange of missiles; the Caledonians showing great skill in parrying the shots with their swords or catching them on their shields.  It was the veteran Batavi from the Netherlands and the Tungrians of Belgium who took the first shock of battle.  Agricola ordered them to close with the enemy and fight it out at the sword's point. This manoeuvre was familiar to the veterans, but most inconvenient to the Britons with their small shields and unwieldy swords - swords without a thrusting point....The Batavi began to rain blow after blow, push with the bosses of their shields and stab the Britons in the face. They routed the enemy on the plain and pushed on uphill.
The legions had not moved.  Agricola was keeping his crack troops in reserve.   Meanwhile, as the Briton infantry gave way before the Batavi, the Roman cavalry routed the Caledonian chariots, and then swinging around, plunged into the infantry battle.  But the Britons stood their ground and brought the Roman onslaught to a standstill.
By now (writes Tacitus) the battle looked anything but favourable to us, with our infantry precariously perched on the slope and jostled by the flanks of he horses.   And often a stray chariot, its horses panic-stricken without a driver, came plunging in on flank or front.
Higher up the hill were masses of Briton infantry who had not yet joined in the fight.  Now they began slowly to descend and take the Romans  in the rear.   Anticipating this move, Agricola gave the order for his cavalry reserve to block their path.  The trumpets sounded, and the auxiliary horsemen, gripping their lances, hurled themselves into the advancing Briton infantry.  "He thus broke and scattered them in a rout as severe as their assault had been gallant."
It was the critical moment of the battle; the Caledonians, losing their cohesion, split up into small groups.  They began to waver and then scatter.  Then Roman discipline triumphed.  While the enemy were in disorder, the Roman troops retained their fighting formations.  "Our squadrons, obedient to orders, rode round from the front and fell on the Britons in the rear.  The spectacle that followed over open country was awe-inspiring and grim.  Our men followed hard, took prisoners and then killed them as new prisoners appeared....  Arms, bodies, severed limbs lay around and the earth reeked of blood; and the vanquished now and then found their fury and courage again."
Still the Legions had not moved, nor was there now any reason to use them, for now it was a cavalryman's battle.  The enemy retreated to the woods and tried to rally, but Agricola ringed the woods with his horsemen, while others dismounted, discarded their equipment and scoured the forests.  Finally, the enemy, despairing at seeing the Romans still firm and steady while they were disorganized and leaderless, made their escape into the hills.  When night came, Agricola was master of the field.   According to Tacitus "10,000 of the enemy fell; on the Roman side only 367."
Thus ended the last great battle of the Great Invasion, forty-one years after Aulus Plautius landed in Kent.  After Mons Graupius, the Caledonians were broken for a generation, and the northern frontier was secure for a time.  It was not the end of fighting, for in later centuries the tribes of northern Britain, (renamed Pictii) arose again and again in guerilla warfare, and Alba was never completely conquered.
A Roman fort on the Antonine Wall
The Romans never built permanent settlements in Scotland, however south of the Antonnine Wall, so many Roman forts were established that they carpeted the landscape and  were in sight of one another.  Finally, the Romans abandoned hope, and retreated back to "Hadrian's Wall." The fact they inundated the Scottish countryside with forts and that they finally retreated to set up their frontier much farther to the south - speaks volumes of the Picti and their ability to effectively harass the Romans.
Hadrian's Wall was 120 km long, every mile (about 1500 m), there was a small fort, called a mile-castle, there were sixteen large forts also.  It would establish the permanent northern frontier of the Empire in Britain.  Heavy fortifications were constructed in 122AD along the line that would ensure the unconquered Picts would not penetrate Roman Britain.  The Romans never again advanced beyond the Tyne/Solway line.  The invasion, as such, was over.
The chronicling of the battle of Mons Graupius was written by Tacitus who was also Agricola's son-in-law, and it is suspect.  The number of casualties was obviously falsified.  Facts were distorted to show Agricola in the best possible light.  However, it is known that the Romans won the day and did punish the Caledonians severely, although how much is open to speculation.
It is generally agreed that Tacitus was not even present during the battle but put together his record of the battle from second hand accounts, and he obviously spiced it up to make his father-in-law look good.  Ever the politician, Agricola went on to become the all-powerful Roman Emperor.

The fact is that the Picts were never completely defeated, they continued to harass the Romans in a prolonged guerrilla war that lasted for over 300 years.  In the fourth century AD, the Romans could not cope with increasingly devastating raids and started losing their grip on Britain.  Their Legions finally left about AD 453 although the Roman imprint remains on Britain to this day..

The Legacy of the Antonnine and Hadrian Walls-

Although the Antonnine was a "wall too far", it did serve to limit Caledonian (Pictic) settlement southwards beyond the wall.  That divide would later result in a great cultural schism between Highlanders north of the line and Lowlanders to the south.  The devastating losses incurred on the Picts by the Romans, weakened them and eventually  allowed Irish Gaels to settle in 'Dalriada', Welsh Gaels in Strathclyde, Anglo-Saxons in Lothian, and the later incursions by the Vikings in the north and west.  These later migrations would be the Picts undoing.

Roman overseer tending to  forced labourers building Hadrian's Wall

The Hadrian Wall was a more secure and therefore a more permanent instrument to isolate the northern British people.  For four hundred years, it performed its function of safe-guarding the northern frontier and to keep the 'barbarians out.'  The mind-set of this dividing line between a 'civilized, peace-loving and industrious' people to the south, and  'wild, rampaging hooligans' to the north, would remain for centuries after the Romans left Britain.

In a humiliating term of the peace treaty with the Picts, the retreating Romans actually had to pay the tribesmen to their north not to attack them.  These terms met the Picts' needs until the next Spring, when weather conditions made it easier to harass Roman positions along Hadrian's Wall again.