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Roman Scotland: Chronology

A timeline of events in the history of Roman Scotland

325 BC: The Greek navigator and astronomer Pytheas sails the coast of Britain and names the island Pretani.

55 BC: Julius Caesar campaigns in southern England.

54 BC: Julius Caesar returns to campaign against tribes in southern England and extracts hostages and promises of annual tribute before being forced to leave for the continent to deal with Vercingoterix uprising in Gaul.

43 AD: Aulus Plautius invades southern England and smashes the southern tribes at a series of encounters at river crossings. Claudius arrives to receive the southern tribes formal submission at modern Colchester then leaves with instructions to Plautius to conquer “the rest”.

60 AD: Boudican rebellion by Iceni tribe and others in lower England, initially successful, subsequently stamped out by Suetonius Paulinus with great slaughter among the southern English tribes.

69 – 71 AD: The governorship of Vettius Bolanus. Bolanus is drawn into Brigantian dynastic power struggles in northern England in support of client queen Cartimunda against her husband Venutius, and reportedly in action beyond Brigantia. Papinius Statius records Bolanus as having campaigned in the “Caledonian fields of battle”, possibly against tribes in southern and central Scotland drawn into or with an interest in Brigantian affairs.

71 – 73 AD: The governorship of Petillius Cerialis. He finally stamps imperial authority on northern England by smashing Venutius Brigantians and their allies (termed “new peoples”) most probably at Stanwick Hill Fort. Cerialis also appears to have extended his activity into lower modern Scotland, possibly in continuing operations against these “new peoples”. The first fort at Carlisle is dated to his tenure and quixotic Flavian defences underlying or predating Agricolan structures are more commonly being attributed to Cerialis.

77 AD: Pliny the Elder (a reliable source) publishes his “Natural History” in which he claimed: “Nearly thirty years ago its (Britannia) exploration was carried out by the armed forces of Rome to a point beyond the neighbourhood of the Caledonian forest”. This may refer to exploration by naval landing parties.

77 – 78 AD: Iulius Agricola takes up the governorship, campaigns initially in Wales then in extreme northern England the following year (78). This activity may have crossed over the modern Scottish border in preparation for next season’s planned drive north.

79 AD: Agricola invades southern Scotland and overruns the territory of the Votadini on the east coast and in a brief lightning campaign he campaigns as far as the “Taus” (either the Tay or Teith rivers). The coastal Votadini either had prior contact and treaty with Rome or had shared in the Brigantian decimation at Stanwick where allies from “new peoples” are mentioned, a clear indication of peoples from the north. This northern campaign brought Roman forces into contact with the Venicones, a people of the Caledonian confederacy. The over-run territories are named “Vespasiana” in honour of the emperor around this time or shortly after his death.

80 AD: Agricola consolidates his hold on the eastern lowlands of Scotland, limiting expansion to efforts to penetrate and control Selgovae territory in the central lowlands. In anticipation of recall, or by having met the extent of expansion required by his Imperial instructions Agricola sets up a series of posts across the Forth- Clyde isthmus, (Scotland’s first Roman frontier) and initiates the building of the Roman road network.

81 AD: Maintained in his appointment as governor, Agricola consolidates his hold in central lowland Scotland and pushes forward in campaigns in southwest Scotland. This is difficult territory that had been bypassed in his drive north along the east side of Scotland in previous seasons. Contemplation is given to an invasion of Ireland from the Ayr shoreline. A naval reconnaissance is made of the western seaboard.

82 AD: Receiving new instructions, or quite possibly seeking glory (which Tacitus goes to some lengths to justify) Agricola moves north with major elements of the garrison of Britannia and campaigns north of the Forth- Clyde isthmus in a burning campaign aimed to force Caledonian resolve. While operating in Strathmore (or as far north as the Mounth) the Caledonians bypass the main Roman column and assault and sack various fortified posts to Agricola’s rear, possibly the Forth – Clyde line forts or any posts Agricola has managed to construct beyond. This action brings Agricola hurrying south while splitting his column into three battlegroups to better cover the possible routes the Caledonian forces were using. Subsequently, the battlegroup containing the ninth legion is famously attacked at night in camp by Caledonians and allies, an assault only fought off with great difficulty and reliance on a Roman relief column.

83 AD: Agricola with all forces to hand campaigns again north of the Forth – Clyde line and meets and defeats the mustered Caledonian tribes at Mons Graupius with heavy loss. Agricola leads a leisurely march back south. His governorship subsequently concluded he returns to Rome.

84 – 86 AD: Agricola’s successor, recently suggested as being Sallustius Lucullus, probably oversees a “show the flag” campaign beyond the Mounth on the first season following Mons Graupius while building fortified posts in the newly conquered territory up to and including Stracathro (if not further). A network of “glen blocking forts” are built with a mind to earlier Caledonian flanking attacks and a new legionary fort is put under construction at Inchtuthill on the Tay. The Gask ridge road leading ultimately to this post is supplemented with forts, fortlets and regular watchtowers providing defence in depth (Scotlands second Roman frontier). These locations are suggestive that either the battle of Mons Graupius had taken place fairly close to that location or that the Romans held the extent of land desirable – or alternatively- able to be held by the Roman forces available.

87 AD: New Roman governor, possibly Metilius Nepos, ordered to transfer one legion and supporting elements of British garrison to assist in a steadily worsening Danubian crisis. Whether on his initiative or more probably following Imperial directive the works (incomplete) at Inchtuthill are abandoned and Roman posts are given up north of the Tay probably due to overstretched manpower.

88 – 100 AD: Following reverses elsewhere in the empire the garrison of Britannia is put under continuing pressure with both troop relocations and from the resurgent Caledonian tribes. Roman withdrawal from Scotland is from hereon undertaken in fairly rapid then consolidating stages further south. These retreats probably closely paralleled tribal boundaries or major natural features such as rivers. Evacuated tribal areas were most likely bound with treaties and agreements of aid and military assistance as was common along the Rhine frontier. Suggested staged withdrawal:

1. The River Earn line abandoned early after the Tay.
2. A move back is made to the Forth- Clyde isthmus.
3. A move back is made to the line from Irvine (or Ayr) to Inveresk or Elginhaugh.
4. The frontier is then moved back to the more southerly line between large bases at Dalswinton and Newstead.

These retreats were such that Tacitus writing (with hindsight) in ca 98 would claim that Caledonia was: “conquered then immediately thrown away”.

105 AD: The Stanegate line, a well-established road along the Tyne Solway isthmus with major posts in northern England is formally reinforced as a frontier. Scottish posts are deserted or over-run as Trajan’s Dacian enterprise continues to drain manpower from the British garrison. Juvenal mentions warfare in Britain at this general led by a chieftain called Aviragus. The fort at Newstead is sacked around this time.

108 AD: The last inscription in Britannia found recording the ninth legion. The ninth legion was always heavily involved in providing vexillations for detached service on the continent and the scanty records of the ninth at Nijmegan on the continent are most probably for such a vexillation. Otherwise, the parent unit disappears from the historical record around this period and was never recreated, a sure sign of destruction in battle, probably in action in southern Scotland (see 117-119 below).

117 – 119 AD: Hadrian’s biographer, Spartianus refers to serious disturbances in Britain when Hadrian ascended to power: “the Britons could not be held under Roman control” while the contemporary Cornelius Fronto tellingly records the probable demise of the ninth: “as many Roman soldiers were killed by the Britons at the beginning of Hadrian’s rule as by the Jews” (which cross-refers to the loss of the twenty-second legion Deiotariana in fighting in the middle east). Fashionable modern suggestions that the ninth were transferred elsewhere in the empire for a date with destiny can be discounted as entirely unrecorded and unproven.

118 AD: War in northern Britannia with massive legionary vexillations from those stationed in modern Spain and Germany arriving to make up for losses (presumably the ninth) disembarking at modern Newcastle. The matter was brought to a conclusion by governor Quintus Pompeius Falco. However, the manner in which it was concluded is not recorded.

119 AD: Roman coin issues record the conclusion of the war in Britannia, though Hadrian takes credit on the inscription of the coin, an indication of the political value of the conclusion of the war after its poor start for the Romans.

120 – 121 AD: The Historia Augusta Hadrian XI.2 records that Hadrian crossed from Germania to Britannia at this time and: “made many changes and was the first to build a wall, 80 (Roman) miles long, which would separate the barbarians from the Romans”. Hadrian’s Wall, built between the Tyne and Solway is only slightly removed from and generally follows the then-existing Stanegate frontier line. Clearly, the policy of buffer tribes in southern Scotland had not worked well and in the face of weakening Roman power, the tribes of southern Scotland were, either alone or in concert with the more remote Caledonians, causing the Romans the recent difficulties which the wall was erected to counter. No mention of the wall’s construction as a policy of primarily controlling trade is made, the inference of both recent war and the need for separation is implicitly stated in the original source.

122 – 138 AD: Construction of Hadrian’s wall and outlying forts (including Newstead) by elements of the II Augusta, VI Victrix and XX Valeria Victrix legions and detachments from the fleet (Classis Britannica). Including several revisions to the construction work and by moving forts onto the line of the running barrier from the old Stanegate line, building work is considered to have ceased only on Hadrian’s death in 138 AD. Clearly, there had been some dissent on Hadrians many “showy” policies and a revision to his policy regarding southern Scotland would dramatically change everything.

138 AD: Antoninus Pius acclaimed Emperor. Antoninus was adopted as Hadrian’s successor shortly before his death, solely on the proviso that he passed the purple in turn to the young and promising Marcus Aurelius. Pius (meaning virtuous) reign is marked by moderation and a circumspect approach. Pausianus is forthright in declaring that Pius was: “not a proactive war-maker”. Trajanic expansionism was long gone however a move is made immediately back into southern Scotland and Pausianus refers to this being the only place in the empire where: “military action had to be taken”. Fashionable modern interpretations are skeptical and claim a Claudian style attempt to seek glory however the primary source is clear on the matter: “he conquered the (north) Britons through his Legate Lollius Urbicus, setting up another wall, this time of turf, when the barbarians had been driven back”. The implications are clear: due credit is given to the governor so the theory of seeking glory is weakened, warfare is recorded; possible Roman retaliation for 117-which Hadrian evidently failed to do satisfactorily and while Hadrians wall is impressive it could be and is demonstrably replicated more speedily and readily in the usual turf construction expected for such fieldworks. Finally elements had been driven back or away, had Caledonians asserted domination over the southern tribes militarily or dynastically? The peoples of Scotland have historically proven to be beatable temporarily but impossible to subdue in the long term and the Romans appear to have recognized something of this by splitting them along the cultural fault line with the Antonine wall.

138 – 139 AD: Urbicus campaigns in Scotland. Attempts to identify his campaigns are difficult as scholars tend to classify marching camps as either Flavian or Severan unless they are construction camps for work gangs next to the wall.

140 AD: Ptolemy’s “Geography”, the first remaining map of Scotland.

140 – 148 AD: Construction of the Antonine Wall between the Forth and Clyde. Construction of the wall, ditch, forts, and the military road is undertaken by elements of the II Augusta, VI Victrix, and XX Valeria Victrix legions. The locations of Antonine forts in southern Scotland make a telling picture with heavy policing the order of the day for southwest and central Scotland. Subsequently abandoned these posts are clearly a response to the original point of trouble and suggest warring tribes in southern Scotland. Outlying forts are also created to encompass Fife using the general arrangement of the Gask ridge installations from the mid-’80s. While the majority of the wall appears to have gone rapidly and smoothly between 140 and 141 it has been suggested that troop vexillations to troubles in Mauritania may have delayed the finish of the wall to the late 140s and may explain the different rates units were expected to build for the final western portion. As with Hadrian’s Wall changes take place during construction and additional forts are added, greatly increasing the walls garrison per mile above that of Hadrian’s wall. Forts tend to be larger to the western side and may reflect flashpoints of trouble while that part of the wall lies awaiting completion.

154 – 158 AD: Trouble on the northern frontier is recorded by the issue of a coin showing Britannia with bowed head with archaeology recording a spree of devastation at the wall being carried further south with large forts such as Castledykes and Birrens sacked. Repairs have been dated on some forts on Hadrian’s Wall to this time, though whether it was with the foresight credited by modern English commentators of re-commissioning it as the main frontier is highly doubtful. Vexillations return to all 3 British garrison legions from service abroad and damage is made good – with various commemorative stones reflecting a fairly wide-ranging reorganization of garrison units at this time. Many posts however appear to be abandoned at this stage particularly the smaller forts in southwest Scotland. Clearly, havoc descends from the tribes in northern and southern Scotland and coin hoards from this period also relate the general uneasiness extending down south past Hadrian’s Wall. It is possible that the garrisons on the Antonine Wall and southern Scotland may have suffered a rundown of manpower in the face of what appears a quiet situation and are over-run in a flashpoint episode that penetrates into northern modern England.

161 AD: Pius dies and Marcus Aurelius succeeds as Emperor (sharing initially with Lucius Verus).

162 AD: Sextus Calpurnia Agrippa appointed governor of Britannia with the mandate to sort out an obviously still far from the settled situation. It is possible that between 162 and 165 Agrippa “mothballs” the Antonine Wall in the face of yet more manpower crisis caused by the war in Parthia and Germania. Clearly, some forts are maintained such as Castlecary where legionary troops are in garrison as late as 180 and where a possible continuous occupation to this time is suggested by a lack of rebuilding in the intervening period. Occupation may also possibly extend at Mumrills, Cramond, and elsewhere. However, the Roman emphasis is slowly but steadily sliding or pushed in a southern direction towards a reactivated Hadrian’s Wall by the end of the decade.

169 AD: Trouble follows fast on the heels of retrenchment. The Antonine wall no longer functions as a barrier to the two developing tribal confederacies of the north, the Caledonians and a new name, the Maetae. Some current thinking places the Maetae between Strathmore and Clackmannanshire (based on an interpretation of probable Severan marching camps) though it is more plausible that the now-abandoned tribes of Scotland below the Forth-Clyde isthmus coalesce into an identity in the face of large aggressive neighbouring political entities. Place names in Clackmannanshire linguistically echoing the Maetae name probably record features at the boundary between the two peoples. Limited powerful outlier forts are maintained beyond Hadrian’s Wall such as a reconstructed massive Newstead, Birrens, and Risingham. A siege mentality appears in the Romans with the initiative apparently now lying with the tribes of Scotland.

179 AD: Endemic trouble on the northern frontier with Newstead succumbing to the sack for the final time. Cassius Dio records the action: “The greatest struggle was with the Britons. When the tribes in that island, crossing the wall that separated them from the Roman Legions, proceeded to do much mischief and cut down a general with his troops, Commodus became alarmed and sent Ulpius Marcellus against them”. Clearly, the run-down Antonine Wall proved an insufficient obstacle and the action noted above probably happened in Southern Scotland possibly at Newstead itself.

180 – 184 AD: Warfare in Scotland prosecuted for the Romans by the martinet General Ulpius Marcellus. Hostilities are not concluded till 184 when Commodus is acclaimed Imperator and takes the title “Britannicus”. An altar records a legionary vexillation based at Castlecary at this time while Mumrills may have been rebuilt. It is also possible Cramond and perhaps Carriden remained in continuous occupation through to early next century however by the mid 180s it would appear that all other Roman posts in Scotland without recourse to easy re-supply from the sea are given up as untenable.

Late 180s: The legions in Britannia embroil themselves in politics and several leading figures were approached with a view to becoming Emperor. The tribes in Scotland appear from records to be left in peace while the Roman garrison ferments political agitation, ending temporarily with the assassination of Commodus but resurfacing in support of the governor Clodius Albinus.

192 AD: Civil war within the Roman empire as various contenders fight for supreme control. Clodius Albinus, governor of Britain crosses to the continent with most of the British garrison and is narrowly but decisively defeated at Lyons by Septimus Severus. Probable that Hadrian’s Wall is denuded of troops during this episode and that the Caledonians and Maetae (who can safely assume to have been in treaty agreement with Albinus) act in concert to take advantage of the situation following the death of Albinus.

197 AD: Virius Lupus transferred from Lower Germany to the Governorship of Britannia. The remnants of the British legions and auxiliary forces return but it is improbable the forces are in any state to counter the combined strength and actions of the tribes of modern Scotland which will have escalated with the lack of firm response. Lupus is forced to pay off the Maetae and Caledonians gaining respite though ostensibly to: “recover some Romans taken prisoner” an indication of successful hostilities prosecuted by the northern tribes.

197 – 208 AD: Repairs are made to Hadrian’s Wall by three successive governors. So complete is the reconstruction required that the crop of centurial stones recording this work cause many sources from antiquity to antiquarians to believe the wall is originally constructed by Severus. Clearly, the wall and its associated installations have suffered some neglect, is in need of maintenance but had been thoroughly wrecked by hostile action from the north to merit such prolonged and thorough repair.

208 AD: After periods of extensive campaigns elsewhere in the empire Severus leads an expedition to Britannia, and apart from asides that Severus needed to stiffen his sons with military campaigning the contemporary Herodian records the real motivation: “The governor of Britain sent a dispatch to say that the barbarians of the province (sic) were in a state of rebellion, laying waste the countryside, carrying off plunder and wrecking almost everything. The governor requested that either the (weakened) garrison should be strengthened to give the province protection or that the emperor should come in person. This was welcome news for Severus, partly because he was a man who naturally liked glory in any case and wanted to win some victories in Britain”. Work on various installations precedes Severus’ subsequent landing which is accompanied by substantial army formations aimed to bolster the British garrison. The fort at South Shields is converted to an army-sized granary, while Cramond and Carriden forts are reinstated (if indeed as has been suggested they have ever been abandoned). 

208 – 210 AD: The army concentration point appears to have been at Newstead near the abandoned fort, prior to moving off in a burning spree in overwhelming force through Maetae territory before splitting to operate in separate battlegroups in Caledonian territory beyond the Forth. These range up through Strathmore and then beyond the Mounth, one possibly crossing the Tay on a pontoon bridge probably erected between Carpow and St Madoes (and celebrated on a coin issue of 208 or 9). Herodian notes a hard guerrilla campaign waged by the tribes against the Romans and records 50,000 Roman casualties, probably exaggerated but indicative of a hard-fought and costly venture for Severus. At an unnamed location – probably Bennachie due to the Severan characteristics of the Roman camp there which has notably diverted from the mainline of march- the battlegroups merged and the formal negotiations and either submission or treaties were secured from the mustered Caledonians. This therefore could offer itself to be the location for Caracalla’s infamous failed attempt to stab the emperor in the back as the imperial party rides to parley in the presence of both armies. Agreements are apparently made, hostages handed over to the Romans who in turn provide large cash subsidies. Land is formally surrendered to the Romans (probably Carpow). It is thought that the roundhouses built at Vindolanda at this time are to house the Caledonian hostages secured in this manner. 

210 AD: Probable date for the start of construction of legionary vexillation fortress at Carpow. Located similarly to the old Agricolan Inchtuthill site Carpow is superior in allowing easy re-supply by sea from depots at South Shields shipped via Cramond. Before the year is out Severus, now at the legionary fortress of York (where the imperial seat of power had been transferred to) learns that the Maetae were “causing trouble” in southern Scotland and that the Caledonians had also “broken” the terms of their treaties and were involved in acts of violence against the state of Rome. Caracalla campaigns in Scotland (Severus was too ill to campaign) however Herodians verdict on Caracallas performance was one whereby he spent more effort on winning personal loyalty from the troops than prosecuting aggressive action. The suggestion that Severus demand that all living things should be killed in this campaign is not probably carried through as there is no archaeological record of the effects of this bedridden genocidal command. It is suggested that Caracalla may not have strayed too far from his father’s sickbed (not least on account that he was attempting to bribe the doctors to hasten the death of the old man) and probably loiters at and around the large Severan marching camp at Castlecraig before returning to York in 211 reportedly without much achieved. 

211 AD: Severus dies early in the year (February). The main legionary forces are still south in winter quarters outwith the main area of operations. Caracalla abandons campaigning apparently coming to an agreement with and no doubt favourable to the northern tribes. Caracalla hurriedly withdraws to Rome to secure an uncontested succession which he further consolidates by murdering his brother Geta in 212. The Severan bases at Carpow, Cramond and Carriden may have soldiered on into the 220s but are eventually abandoned, imperial interest having drifted elsewhere. 

Post 211 AD: Caracalla is generally however credited with instigating a watch and ward system over lowland Scotland with a patrol system operating from the outlying forts of the Hadrians wall frontier system and the naval supplied frontier garrisons at Carriden, Cramond and Carpow. Tribal gatherings are monitored and restricted to various tribal “Loca” or regional hosting centres and Roman patrols will be a common sight in the Lowlands. This coupled with generous subsidies – reported in antiquity and quite common in the archaeological record – may perhaps account for the peaceful nature of much of the remaining 3rd C, as recorded by Roman sources. However, another possibility is that the endemic 3rd C AD civil wars and power struggles within the Roman empire which will have had cause to reduce the overall strength of the British garrison may have been matched in the north with similar internal conflicts within the large and relatively new political northern tribal confederacies. New names also however start to appear in the historic record, and Roman coastal extensions of the Hadrianic frontier suggest a new preferred modus operandi for raiders, possibly by sea and from new sources. By the end of the century the Hibernii then Scotti (from Ulster) appear and the northern tribes above the Forth have coalesced into a new and dynamic force known as the Picts. That the Picts and Scotti (ultimately Dalriadic Scots) will have fought with each other from the first need not be doubted as the Romans made comment on their “barbaric” fighting tactics. This and likely internal dynastic struggles of their own may account for the lack of large-scale newsworthy strife reported with the Roman state and buffer tribes north of Hadrian’s Wall and south of the Forth at this time. 

286 AD: Carausius, with the support of the British legions and substantial elements of the Rhine garrison creates the breakaway British and Gallic empire.

293 AD: Constantius Chlorus blockades and overwhelms Carausius Boulogne base, an act which leads to Carausius usurption and murder by Allectus.

296 – 297 AD: Allectus musters his available troops in the south (probably entailing evacuating northern installation by stages) in anticipation of invasion by Chlorus which duly takes place in 296 with resounding success. Britannia is returned to the imperial fold in 297. Chlorus starts repair and re-manning of the Hadrianic frontier system which the northern tribes have overrun and damaged with impunity. 

304 AD: Simmering trouble on the northern frontier seems to have come to a head with the Picts.

306 AD: Constantius Chlorus crosses to Britain and prosecutes war in the north against Picts. A deeply unwell man, an anonymous biographer of his son Constantine refers to Constantius: “defeating the Picts” and by recognising the approach of his death vowed: “to reach the end of the world as Severus had done and Agricola before him”. The broad distribution of small coinage finds from the late empire period in Scotland and some dateable pottery at Cramond and Carpow indicate a heavier Roman presence in lowland Scotland in this period than the lack of easily identifiable forts and camps from this period previously allowed. 

312 AD: Warfare breaks out as Constantius Chlorus son and heir Constantine campaigns against the Picts, no reasons are recorded but clearly the Picts had recovered from the events of 306 and were undertaking military action against the Romans or allied buffer tribes of southern Scotland.

342 AD: Endemic war culminates with the outpost forts at Risingham, High Rochester, Bewcastle and perhaps Netherby overrun and destroyed by the northern tribes, forcing Constans to arrive in Britannia with forces in January of 343. Constans instigated rebuilding at all sacked forts except High Rochester the most northerly of the outliers which was abandoned as untenable. Constans also introduces the arcani to replace the exploratrores who were based at the overrun forts and presumably wiped out. Ammianus states that their function was to: “disperse widely, near and far, and obtain information for the army command of any unrest between neighbouring tribes”. The inference of “between” tribes is interesting and suggests that the recent affair was one of warfare between tribal groupings, the possible inclusion of buffer tribes in such disturbance may have embroiled the Romans with subsequent disastrous consequences. The arcani therefore may have been more involved in high-level tribal politics than the exploratores standard patrolling role which on this occasion was not sensitive enough to pick up discord between larger tribal groupings in time for the Roman state to take adequate appropriate action. 

360 AD: The Scots and Picts carried out raids, having disrupted the “agreed” peace and: “were causing havoc in the regions around the frontier and instilling fear into the people of the province, who were worn out by the catalogue of past disasters”, action again clearly against allied buffer tribes in southern Scotland. The “senior” general Lipucinus was dispatched to Britain with reinforcements and these are likely to have campaigned in the north. By this stage however the Scots and Picts have clearly managed to cooperate militarily upon occasion in a coordinated manner. 

364 AD: Trouble near Hadrian’s Wall is recorded in 364 by Ammianus: “Now as though trumpets were blowing for war throughout the whole Roman world, the most fearsome tribes mobilised and poured across the nearest frontiers. At one and the same time, the Alammani were causing havoc in Gaul and Raetia, and the Sarmatae and Quadi in Pannanonia; while Picts, Saxons, Scots and Attacotti were inflicting on the Britons a continuous series of calamities.” 

367 AD: The “Barbarian Conspiracy”. A series of coordinated assaults on the British province and Gaul erupt with cataclysmic effect on the Roman order. Scots and Picts are joined by the ferocious Attacotti (probably from the western Highlands, seaboard and islands) in a coordinated attack on the Roman state, apparently in certain cases by surprise outflanking naval operations. Attacks on the continent by Germanic tribes, apparently timed to coincide with these actions in Britain result in widespread Roman military confusion and paralysis. The arcani, subsequently accused of treachery by succumbing to bribes do not report the northern tribes war preparations which successfully over-run Hadrians wall and the majority of the province in an unprecedented spree of devastation, possibly as far south as London. Ammianus, a contemporary and of a military background records: “Valentinian was much disturbed by alarming reports which indicated that Britain had been paralysed by a barbarian conspiracy: Nectaridus, commander of the coastal regions had been killed, and a senior military officer, Fullofaudes, had been ambushed and captured by the Picts, as well as the Attacotti, a race of warlike men and the Scots, were ranging far and wide and causing much devastation; while (on the continent) Franks, Saxons, and the neighbouring peoples, wherever they could burst in by land or sea, were laying waste the shores of Gaul, looting, burning and murdering all their prisoners”. 

368 – 369 AD: Valentinian sends two successive commanders to Britannia to restore order, and on their failure sends Theodosius (the elder) with troop reinforcements in early 368. His efforts to clear the province of bands of “marauders” are reported as successful though it is likely in Celtic fashion that most had long since returned to their homelands once booty had been gathered. Theodosius offers an amnesty to deserters to allow the collapsed Roman Army within the province to rebuild strengthens town defences and instigates extensive repairs to the fabric of Hadrian’s Wall. Germanic federate allies are possibly introduced to help militarily in the north of the province at this time Claudian, colourfully records punitive naval actions by the Roman fleet – possibly the only realistic option Theodosius had of taking retaliatory action in the north: “…Orkney being crammed with Saxon (sic) dead, the Shetlands drenched with the blood of Picts, and Hibernia weeping for piles of Scots dead”. Hyperbole aside such action seems attested by the presence of no less than four companies of Attacotti in the early fifth century Notitia Dignitatum, either recruited to or forcibly enlisted in the Roman Army at this general time while southern Scotland may have come again under direct Roman control for a while under the name “Valentia,” given in honour of the emperor. 

382 AD: Magnus Maximus, commander of the Roman Army in Britannia campaigns against the Picts and Scots, probably driving them (or their aristocracy) out of modern southern Scotland where they may have gained dominance. Maximus is popularly recorded as the forefather of federated “states” in southern Scotland with Galloway’s first ruler Antonius claiming dynastic descent from Maximus himself. 

383 AD: Maximus, with the frontier secured by buffer kingdoms, withdraws much of the garrison of Britannia to pursue his claim as Augustus on the continent, something he manages for a while with some success slaying Gratian but eventually going down in defeat in Italy in 388 to Theodosius.

388 – 395 AD: Scots and Picts take advantage of the weakness of the beaten and weakened Roman garrison with continual “raiding”. Efforts are made to shore up failing defences which Gildas (504-70) illuminates referring to the construction of: “a turf wall from sea to sea” at this time, possibly an attempt by the governor to re-commission the Antonine wall as a running barrier, if only as an obstacle to raiding and driving reived cattle. It has been suggested that a form of patrolling of the barrier (probably greatly different than the manned garrisons of the mid 2nd C) may have been undertaken by the allied states (or fledgling kingdoms) of southern Scotland formalised by Maximus. 

395 AD: Flavius Stilicho, famed general and guardian of the young emperor Honorius campaigns in the north, as recorded by Claudian in 400: “Then spoke Britannia……Stillicho defended me when I too was about to be destroyed by peoples across the frontier, and the Scots stirred up all Hibernia, and the sea foamed with the pull of their oars. Thanks to Stillichos attentions, I would not fear the spears and javelins of the Scots, nor quake before the Picts”. Gildas however mentions the wall of stone and it appears that any occupation of southern Scotland was either given up or left in the hands of the allied buffer states after a season or two of campaigning at the most. Any remaining outlying forts are finally abandoned and Hadrian’s Wall given rough and ready repair. 

401 AD: Stillicho removes troops from the British garrison due to increased pressure on forces on the continent. Claudian identifies the units withdrawn: “he withdrew the legion stationed to guard against those in the farthest north, which curbs the savage Scots and observes the lifeless tattoos on the bodies of dying Picts”, probable references to both the York and much of Hadrian Wall’s garrisons being abandoned with reliance on the defence of the north devolving to buffer states through treaty and payment of subsidies. 

402 – 405 AD: Stillicho fights a series of battles in northern Italy against Visigoths. Pressure from the Huns has created a ripple of population movements across Europe and near Asia creating great pressure along the continental frontiers. The garrison troops withdrawn from Britannia would never be returned in the face of these pressures on the continent. Gildas records: “No sooner were they gone than the Picts and Scots….hastily land again from their canoes …differing from one another in manners, but inspired with the same avidity for blood”. These events are popularly remembered when in 405 Saint Patrick, a Romanised Briton from the Carlisle area is carried off by raiding Scots under Niall Noigiallach (Niall of the nine hostages). 

406 – 408 AD: With Stillicho preoccupied on the eastern frontiers the British garrison acclaims as emperor Marcus, whom they murder then Gratian who shares a similar fate. He is replaced as emperor elect by Constantine III. Following the successful breaching of the Rhine frontier by swarms of Alans, Vandals and Suevi Constantine crosses to the continent and enjoys considerable success against these recent invaders as well as forces sent against him by the legitimate emperor Honorius. In 408 he sets up his permanent headquarters at Arles in southern Gaul, never to return to Britain. 

409 – 410 AD: Following further raids, now including seaborne assaults on the eastern coast by Saxons and other Germanic peoples facing continental migration pressure the various local authorities in Britain replace the officials left by Constantine and appealed for help from Honorius. It can be inferred at this time that the garrison of Britannia no longer exists in a meaningful way, and when in 410 Honorius replies that he could not help and that Britain had to look to herself the garrisoning of Hadrian’s Wall or any other installation will have melted away once pay or payment in kind dries up.

Euan Lindsay
Euan Lindsay
Euan is a former soldier, a retired architect, amateur historian and re-enactor with decades of experience.

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