Warriors of Epona is set against the backdrop of the Severan invasion of Caledonia (modern Scotland). It was a massive campaign, and Rome’s last major attempt at subduing the tribes north of the Antonine Wall.
However, this was not the first time Rome had attempted to invade Caledonia. In fact, Septimius Severus’ legions were using the infrastructure of previous campaigns into this wild, northern frontier.
In this fifth and final part of The World of Warriors of Epona, we’re going to look briefly at the Roman actions in Caledonia prior to and including the campaigns of Emperor Septimius Severus.
The full scale conquest of Britannia was undertaken in A.D. 43 under Emperor Claudius, with General Aulus Plautius leading the legions. Campaigns against the British tribes continued under Claudius’ successor, Nero in A.D. 68.
The conquest of the South of Britain involved overcoming the tribes, including Boudicca and the Iceni, the Catuvellauni, the Durotriges, the Brigantes, and others, and the attempted extermination of the Druids on the Isle of Anglesey.
Eventually, after much blood and slaughter, the South was subdued, and the Pax Romana began to take root in that part of Britannia. (It pains me to gloss over so large a part of the history of Roman Britain, but we’re talking about Caledonia here…)
It was not until A.D. 71 that Rome decided it was time to invade Caledonia, and the man assigned this task was Quintus Petillius Cerialis, a veteran of the Boudiccan Revolt, and governor of Britannia at that time.
Once Cerialis’ legions were able to break through the Brigantes, it was time to press north into Caledonia.
The person who is most associated with these initial campaigns in Caledonia is none other than Gnaeus Julius Agricola, who had served in the campaigns against Boudicca in the South and who was also governor of Britannia from A.D. 77-85.
In around A.D. 80, Emperor Titus (A.D.79-81) ordered Governor Agricola to begin the campaigns into Caledonia by consolidating all of the lands south of the Forth-Clyde (roughly between Edinburgh and Glasgow). This involved taking on the tribes of the Borders, including the Selgovae, Maeatae, Novantae, and Damnonii.
It is in during this campaign that the fort at Trimontium, and many others were established in the Borders.
By A.D. 81, Emperor Domitian had decided to order Agricola and his legions into Caledonia, and within two years, Agricola is said to have brought the Caledonians to their knees at the Battle of Mons Graupius.
He [Agricola] sent his fleet ahead to plunder at various points and thus spread uncertainty and terror, and, with an army marching light, which he had reinforced with the bravest of the Britons and those whose loyalty had been proved during a long peace, reached the Graupian Mountain, which he found occupied by the enemy. The Britons were, in fact, undaunted by the loss of the previous battle, and welcomed the choice between revenge and enslavement. They had realized at last that common action was needed to meet the common danger, and had sent round embassies and drawn up treaties to rally the full force of all their states. (Tacitus, Agricola; XXIX)
The Roman historian, Tacitus, was actually Agricola’s son-in-law, and his account, De vita et moribus Iulii Agricolae, provides us with the best first-hand account of Agricola and his invasion of Caledonia.
This is a time of legions exploring the unknown reaches of the Empire.
Sadly, the battlefield for Mons Graupius has not been identified, though there are certain candidates.
What is fortunate, however, is that Agricola’s legions left a long train of breadcrumbs in the form of marching camps, legionary bases, watch towers and of course, roads, all the way to northern Scotland.
And it is network of war that was to be used in later invasions of Caledonia.
War broke out again on the Danube frontier at this time, and so Roman man-power was sucked out of Britannia and Caledonia to meet threats elsewhere in the Empire.
And so, the legions in Caledonia went into a period of retrenchment and pulled back to the Forth-Clyde by A.D. 87.
By the time of Emperor Trajan’s reign, c. A.D. 99, Rome had retreated farther to the South to the Tyne-Solway, the future line of Hadrian’s Wall, construction of which began in A.D. 122.
The Caledonian lands for which Agricola and his legions had fought, had been given up for the time being.
As was the case for centuries to come, the lands between the Forth-Clyde line, and the Tyne-Solway line, the area known today as the Scottish Borders, went into a period of push and pull, of occupation, retreat, and re-occupation.
It was during the reign of Antoninus Pius (A.D. 138-161) that it was deemed necessary to re-occupy the lands lost during the Flavian period, and so the army advanced again across the borders, using those same roads and forts that had been constructed by Agricola, and constructing new ones.
Twenty years after construction began on Hadrian’s Wall, Antoninus Pius ordered the construction of a new wall in Caledonia itelf in A.D. 142. This was the Antonine Wall, and it’s earth and timber ramparts ran the width of Caledonia from the Forth to the Clyde in an attempt to hem the raucous tribes in on their highlands.
But, after more campaigning and entrenchment by Rome, the Antonine Wall was abandoned during the reign of Marcus Aurelius in around A.D. 163.
A few outposts remained in use to the north of Hadrian’s Wall, but for the most part, the bones of the Empire were left to rot and be overwhelmed by the Caledonians and their allies.
For the next forty years, the northern tribes became a menace, breaking through the frontier defences twice, once during the reign of Commodus (c. A.D. 184) and then again during the early part of Septimius Severus’ reign in A.D. 197.
When Septimius Severus took the imperial throne, he was immediately engaged in consolidating the Empire after the civil war, and then taking on the Parthian Empire. He was a military emperor, and he knew how to keep his troops busy, and how to reward them.
The Caledonians had been a thorn in Rome’s side for a long while at that time, but it was not until A.D. 208 that Severus was finally able to deal with them. And so, the imperial army moved to northern Britannia, poised to take on the Caledonians once again.
We’ve already touched on Severus’ campaign in previous parts of this blog series. However, it’s important to note that this is believed to be the last real attempt by Rome to take a full army into the heart of barbarian territory.
Severus moved on the Caledonians with the greatest land force in the history of Roman Britain, making use of his predecessors’ fortifications (such as the Gask Ridge frontier) and roads, and penetrating almost as far as Agricola’s legions over a hundred years before.
According to Cassius Dio, when the inhabitants of the island revolted a second time, Severus:
…summoned the soldiers and ordered them to invade the rebels’ country, killing everybody they met; and he quoted these words: ‘Let no one escape sheer destruction, No one our hands, not even the babe in the womb of the mother, If it be male; let it nevertheless not escape sheer destruction.
Rome was poised for a final push, and ultimate victory over the Caledonians.
But Fortuna was not on Severus’ side, for it was at that time that his chronic health problems finally got the better of him.
In A.D. 211, the man who had won a brutal civil war, and who had finally brought the Parthians to heel, died at Eburacum (modern York) in Britannia.
His son, Caracalla, who was ill-equipped to handle the situation, struck a deal with the Caledonians, abandoning all the headway his father had made in that northern land, and all of the blood shed by fifty-thousand Romans in the Severan campaign.
What happened after the death of Severus is for another story (i.e. for the next book!). However the Severan conquests in Caledonia did usher in a fleeting period of tranquility.
Later expeditions into the North were mounted in c. A.D. 296 by Constantius Chlorus, and by his son, the future Emperor Constantine, in A.D. 306. However, neither of these campaigns were on a scale comparable to the Severan campaign.
Like other remote corners of the Empire, Caledonia must have seemed like a lost cause.
But the Eagles and Dragons series is not yet finished with this exciting period of history in Roman Britain. Like Severus, we are poised for a final punitive push into the Highlands.
It’s a fascinating period in Roman history, and I hope you have enjoyed this journey through The World of Warriors of Epona with me. If you missed any of the previous blog posts in this series, you can read them all on one page by CLICKING HERE.
If you would like to learn a bit more about the Romans in Scotland, I highly recommend checking out the documentary Scotland: Rome’s Final Frontier with Dr. Fraser Hunter.
Warriors of Epona is out now on Amazon, Apple iBooks/iTunes, and Kobo, so be sure to get your copy today.
Remember, if you haven’t yet read any of the Eagles and Dragons novels, and if you want to get stuck in, you can start with the #1 Best Selling prequel novel, A Dragon among the Eagles. It’s a FREE DOWNLOAD on Amazon, Apple iTunes/iBooks, and Kobo.
Thank you for reading!
What was it like to live on the very edge of the Roman Empire?
When writing Killing the Hydra, this was something I asked myself many times. What was life like for soldiers, commanders, women, children, and locals under Roman rule? What was it like to be so isolated in a place that, for many, sat on the precipice of the known world?
In this fifth and final part of The World of Killing the Hydra, we’re going to look at the place where Lucius Metellus Anguis is posted to, and where his family joins him – the legionary base at Lambaesis.
Lambaesis was located in the province of Numidia (modern Algeria), and was the base for the III Augustan legion at the beginning of the third century A.D. when this story takes place. Lambaesis was established by Emperor Hadrian between A.D. 123-129 when the III Augustan legion moved there.
Hadrian toured the Empire and on his visit to Lambaesis, he addressed the troops of this desert legion. Evidence of this address has come down to us in the form of a pillar inscription that was located on the large outdoor parade ground of the base.
The III Augustan legion, however, was older than that. It originated under Pompey the Great in the civil war against Julius Caesar and was eventually moved to North Africa in 30 B.C. by Octavian (who became Augustus) after his victory over Mark Antony.
Eventually, the III Augustan came to be based at Lambaesis, one of only two Roman legions in North Africa, the other being based in Aegyptus.
The III Augustan played an important role in the security and urbanization of North Africa, helping to build roads, aqueducts, fortifications, theatres and more. This work in turn connected towns and cities, facilitated trade, and provided protection for outlying settlements. The work of the army engineers and surveyors brought Roman civilization to this remote frontier.
The III Augustan was a veteran legion, and of the remains present in that place, apart from the arches of Septimius Severus and Commodus, temples, baths and cemeteries, the principia with its open courtyard is the most stunning of its remains.
This base was on the edge of the deep desert in modern Algeria, backed by the Aures Mountains. At first glance, this seems to have been a lonely windswept place, just as it is today. However, during the Roman period, Lambaesis would have been a busy, thriving place.
This was not so much an active frontier like that of the Danube or Parthian fronts, but rather a more peaceful place, punctuated with occasional incursions by Garamantians, nomadic Berber tribes and others.
For the most part, the veterans of the III Augustan took part in public building works and improvements, as well as patrols. The men of the legions were a part of society at Lambaesis and the surrounds.
Previously, men of the legions were not permitted to marry, but this law was changed under Septimius Severus, and so many men would have had families living in the vicus outside the base’s walls, or in some instances within the walls.
Add to this the presence of the large, prosperous colonia of Thamugadi, just seventeen miles away, and you have a frontier that was busy, social, and economically vibrant.
The colonia of Thamugadi was where veterans of the III Augustan legion retired to once their military service was at an end. It was founded by Emperor Trajan in about A.D. 100 under the name of Marciana Traiana Thamugadi. It was a walled settlement, but not fortified, and had a population of about 15,000.
Today, it is made up of some of the most intact and vast ruins of Roman North Africa, including the well-preserved arch of Trajan. It had twelve public baths, theatres, a public library, a basilica and a magnificent temple of Jupiter.
One imagines that it was lonely for soldiers’ wives and their children, being posted to such a remote location, compared with other parts of the Empire, but with the changed laws regarding marriage for troops, the close proximity of Thamugadi to Lambaesis, and the thriving economy of Roman North Africa at this point in time, it seems like Saharan frontier life may not have been the sort of lonely, wasteland existence that I had in mind when I started my research and writing.
I always try to travel to the places I am writing about, but sometimes that just isn’t possible, or safe. Lambaesis was one of those places.
At the time of my Tunisian research for Children of Apollo and Killing the Hydra, we were told there was a travel ban to Algeria where the remains of both Lambaesis and Thamugadi are located.
Our 4X4 skirted the military border between the two countries, distant guard towers and barbed wire visible as a long grey line cutting across the North African landscape.
We asked our guide if we could drive into Algeria but he was adamant that it wasn’t possible. “No chance. It is forbidden. They will shoot at us,” he said.
I don’t know if that was true or not, but some things are not worth the risk. After all, we have the internet now and a myriad of resources on-line.
So, we had to settle for pulling our truck over on the gravelly roadside and gazing westward across the guarded border to the Aures Mountains of Algeria and imagining what remnants of Rome lay scattered in that vast expanse.
The light was dull that day, an iron-grey winter sky, so the feeling of loneliness and desolation was acute. Somewhere out there was the base of the veteran III Augustan legion. There was a colonia for veterans filled with the amenities of Roman civilization.
This was a land where my character was to be posted, along with his family, and the families of his fellow officers and troops. Many would have had family and friends in Thamugadi, done business there, and used the network of roads that really did, in one way or another, lead back to Rome…
It was hard to imagine as I stood there with the dust whipping around us, our guide looking nervously in our direction as if we might attempt something stupid.
The relief on his face when we said “OK. Let’s go.” was darkly comic. It was also real.
But maybe that hints at Saharan frontier life in the Roman Empire?
Despite the fact that this was not one of the most active (militarily) fronts of the Empire, or that Roman civilization was indeed present and thriving in this remote place far from the heart of the Empire, Lambaesis was nevertheless a place of war, a place of danger, a place where one could not let one’s guard down. When war was not being waged, there were still battles to be fought on the political front, and enemies lurking in the shadows.
History has taught us that complacency can lead to trouble, and in the Roman Empire this was a fact of life.
Will Lucius Metellus Anguis come out of it alive? Will he be able to protect his family in that remote corner of the world?
Well, you would have to read the book to find out.
I hope you have enjoyed this series on The World of Killing the Hydra.
Writing this book was a fantastic adventure that took me to places I never expected to reach, but which are endlessly fascinating. If you read it, I do hope you enjoy it.
And if you missed any of the posts in this blog series, you can read the full set of blog posts by CLICKING HERE.
If you have not yet read any of the Eagles and Dragons series books, remember you can always get the first book, A Dragon among the Eagles, for FREE. Just CLICK HERE.
Thank you for reading.
My research for the current book I’m writing has taken me to a place that has been in the news of late.
The news from the Middle East has not been good for many years, especially on the human scale. But things have taken another sad turn with the added destruction of cultural heritage in Iraq. A couple weeks ago, we heard of the wanton destruction of the ancient, Assyrian Bronze Age city of Nimrud, and this loss of world heritage has shaken the archaeological and historical communities.
But last week, came yet another catastrophic blow. The ancient city of Hatra, just 290 kms northwest of Baghdad, was bulldozed to the ground. The supposed reasons for this vile act being that Hatra did not represent the religion of the group in question.
Prior to the levelling of this ancient site, I had been admiring its magnificent, intact ruins as part of my research for a prequel to my novel, Children of Apollo. This is… was… an amazing place.
Hatra was built in the third century B.C. under the Seleucid Empire, founded by Alexander the Great’s general, Seleucas. It was later located on the edge of the mighty Parthian Empire with which Rome would wage terrible war.
The city of Hatra was one of the best-preserved Parthian cities in the Middle East. It had inner and outer walls that were about 6 kms around, with 160 towers. These walls were so strong and well-fortified that of all the Parthian possessions, including the capital of Ctesiphon, Hatra was the only frontier city that withstood attacks from Rome’s legions.
The emperors who laid siege to Hatra were no slouches either! Both the warlike emperors Trajan (in A.D. 116/117) and Septimius Severus (in A.D. 198/199) attacked the city, only to be turned away by the walls, the defenders, and the harsh environment outside of those walls. Some say, the gods themselves had a hand in the successful defence of Hatra…
Eventually, the city fell to the Sassanid Emperor, Shapur I in A.D. 241, but that warrior ruler did not destroy the city. Hatra stood for over two thousand years… that is, until last week.
It wasn’t the walls that kept Hatra standing, nor the power of the Parthians, for both of those things were breeched in the end. What kept Hatra alive, so to speak, was respect and a common sense of heritage.
In my research, it has been interesting to read about how Hatra was a place of religious fusion, of great harmony among faiths.
The architecture may have been a beautiful melding of Hellenistic and Roman styles, but the great temples at the heart of Hatra belonged to the Assyrian and Babylonian faiths, to the beliefs of Greeks, Syrians and Aramaeans, Arabians and Mesopotamians. The age-old gods of all of these faiths co-existed at the heart of this circular city in the desert, standing proud and protected around the base of the Great Temple itself, with its 30 meter columns.
I’ve not seen recent pictures, but from what I’ve heard, Hatra has been levelled.
There are no words, really.
Think of it this way – even Saddam Hussein saw value (however selfishly) and wanted to restore Hatra, as well as Nineveh, Nimrud, Ashur, and Babylon. He didn’t bulldoze them.
For over a thousand years, Muslims have preserved these ancient sites, including Hatra, because they represented a glorious past, humankind’s past. The towering columns and temple pediments, the ornate reliefs carved by our ancient ancestors did not represent a threat. They were artistic glories, the ornamentations of the houses of many gods, side by side.
In my prequel to Children of Apollo, I’ll be writing about Septimius Severus’ two sieges of Hatra, and how, despite his rage and being repelled twice, the city yet stood. Some stories say it was the threat of mutiny, others that it was the Empress, Julia Domna who urged him to spare the city because of the magnificent temples within that honoured so many gods.
Whether the story is true or not, Severus respected the gods, and the monuments built in their honour. He left them alone, even though the Hatrans angered him with their stubbornness.
Severus now crossed Mesopotamia and made an attempt on Hatra, which was not far off, but accomplished nothing; on the contrary, his siege engines were burned, many soldiers perished, and vast numbers were wounded…
…He himself made another expedition against Hatra, having first got ready a large store of food and prepared many siege engines; for he felt it was disgraceful, now that the other places had been subdued, that this one alone, lying there in their midst, should continue to resist. But he lost a vast amount of money, all his engines, except those built by Priscus, as I have stated above, and many soldiers besides. A good many were lost on foraging expeditions, as the barbarian cavalry (I mean that of the Arabians) kept assailing them everywhere in swift and violent attacks. The archery, too, of the Atreni was effective at very long range, since they hurled some of their missile by means of engines, so that they actually struck many even of Severus’ guards; for they discharged two missiles at one and the same shot and there were many hands and many bows hurling the missiles all at the same time. But they inflicted the greatest damage on their assailants when these approached the wall, and much more still after they had broken down a small portion of it; for they hurled down upon them, among things, the bituminous naphtha, of which I wrote above, and consumed the engines and all the soldiers on whom it fell. Severus observed all this from a lofty tribunal. When a portion of the outer circuit had fallen in one place and all the soldiers were eager to force their way inside the remainder, Severus checked them from doing so by ordering the signal for retreat to be clearly sounded on every side. For the place enjoyed great fame, containing as it did a vast number of offering to the Sun-god as well as vast sums of money; and he expected the Arabians to come to terms voluntarily, in order to avoid being forcibly captured and enslaved. At any rate, he allowed one day to pass; then, when no one came to him with any overtures for peace, he commanded the soldiers to assault the wall once more, though it had been built up during the night. But the Europeans, who alone of his army had the ability to do anything, were so angry that not one of them would any longer obey him, and the others, Syrians, who were compelled to make the assault in their place, were miserably destroyed. Thus Heaven, that saved the city, first caused Severus to recall the soldiers when they could have entered the place, and in turn caused the soldiers to hinder him from capturing it when he later wished to do so.
(Cassius Dio – Roman History LXXVI)
Who was living in Hatra last week, when it was ground to dust? No one.
All that was there were the silent stone monuments of history, tufts of grass and wildflower sprouting up from around the column bases, and the desert sand whirling about them, as it had for so many centuries.
You may not have known of Hatra before last week, but now, I would urge you to spare a thought for its ghost and the shared history of the peoples who called it home over the ages.
Thank you for reading…
What are your thoughts on the destruction of Hatra and other sites? Let us know in the comments below…
Here is a video from UNESCO that will give you a short tour of this once-beautiful city: