Scotland and the Roman occupation



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.

The economic and political impact of Rome can be quantified to a greater or lesser extent, but what of the cultural impact? The Roman view of the Caledonians, as expressed by Tacitus, was as `the last men on earth, the last of the free’. Participation in long-distance trade brought the inhabitants of northern Britain into contact with an international economic system which was centred on the Mediterranean. Did direct contact with Roman citizens give them, for the first time, a sense of their own peripherality? Without doubt the most important and enduring intellectual legacy of Rome dates from the end of the period: the introduction of Christianity. Since the early fourth century Christianity had been the prevailing religion of the Empire but we are sorely ignorant of the means by which it reached northern Britain. We have no contemporary accounts and are forced to rely almost exclusively on archaeology. The only documents we have were written centuries later and present a version of events tailored to fit greatly changed political circumstances. Mounting archaeological evidence reveals the osmotic spread of the new religion from Christian communities in the Roman frontier zone, focused on the bishopric at York, via Carlisle, to Galloway and along the river valleys of Liddesdale and the Tweed basin to Lothian. This first phase of Scottish Christianity can be traced in the new `long-cist’ cemeteries as far north as Angus. These were ordinary Christian cemeteries of slab-lined graves oriented east-west. The burials of the privileged few might also be marked by a cross-slab or inscribed stone. The earliest of these is the fifth-century memorial to Latinus and his young, unnamed daughter at Whithorn. In its lettering and layout this monument reflects the Roman roots of the new faith, but the family were not incomers. Although Latinus was given a name of Roman origin, the name of his grandfather is a Celtic one.

At about this time, British missionaries, most famously of course Bishop Patrick, were actively evangelizing beyond the Empire in Ireland, but we have no contemporary evidence for such campaigns among northern British pagans. Attempts have been made to find a north British equivalent of the missionary Patrick in the shape of Ninian of Whithorn, but on close inspection the evidence for such a figure is slight, some would even say non-existent. As we have it, the legend of Ninian is a creation of the eighth century, clearly shaped by the desire of both Picts and Angles to assert Christian origins independent of, and pre-dating, those of Gaelic Iona. The later prominence of the cult of Ninian has obscured the efforts of other early churchmen. The Briton Uinniau (Finnian), a major figure of the mid-sixth-century Church who was known as an early teacher of Columba, has strong associations with the southwest. Later in the sixth century Kentigern was head of an episcopal church associated with the British kingdom of Dumbarton, and further east, at least according to Brittonic sources, his younger contemporary Run, son of the British king Urien, worked among the Angles, baptizing the English king Eadwine (Edwin) and a great number of his followers.

The wine and oil required for the rituals of the new religion came to the lands bordering the Irish Sea from the eastern Mediterranean and, later, from the emporia of Atlantic Gaul. All that remains of this important, though shortlived, trade is the distinctive pottery which contained and accompanied it. Whatever perishables these commodities were exchanged for, long-distance trade was tightly focused on royal sites and, by allowing kings to control the flow of goods to their own ends, played a significant role in the political development of the Celtic West. Though direct contact with the Mediterranean can be traced only from the late fifth to mid-sixth centuries, links with Gaul were maintained till the end of the seventh and provided a conduit for artistic and intellectual innovations from the Merovingian Church, above all profoundly influential ideas about monasticism.

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