Caledonians and Romans
The reputation of the Romans and their Empire must have been well known to the Caledonian tribes of Scotland long before the Romans invaded. Since AD 43 they had conquered southern England and suppressed Boudicca’s rising. The Caledonians had decided they were not to be subject to Rome, a decision many paid for with their lives.
Agricola’s Invasion AD 79 – 84
In AD 79 Agricola, the Roman governor of Britannia, sent a fleet to survey Scotland’s coast. As Agricola advanced, conquering southern Scotland by AD 83, the Caledonian tribes faced imminent invasion.
According to the Roman historian Tacitus, the Caledonians then “turned to armed resistance on a large scale”, attacking Roman forts and skirmishing with their legions. In a surprise night-attack, the Caledonians very nearly wiped out the whole 9th legion until it was saved by Agricola’s cavalry.
In the summer of AD 84 Agricola advanced into the Caledonians’ stronghold in the north-east, hoping to force battle. Somewhere on this march, at a place called Mons Graupius (the Grampian mountain, perhaps at Bennachie near Inverurie), the Caledonians confronted them.
|Possible site for the Battle of Mons Graupius at Bennachie. The Romans approached the Caledonians, who awaited the attack on the slope of the hill.|
The Battle of Mons Graupius, AD 84
Everything depended on this encounter. 30,000 Caledonians faced a Roman army about half that size, they also held the higher ground, but they lacked the organisation and military tactics of a Roman legion.
The Romans were tightly disciplined and relied on a short stabbing sword in combat. Their front line was made up of Germanic auxiliary troops from Holland and Belgium, with the Roman legionaries in the rear. Brutal hand to hand fighting must have followed. At one point the Caledonians, using their greater numbers, outflanked the Romans only to meet hidden Roman cavalry suddenly closing on them.Any hopes of a Caledonian victory vanished. In a merciless bloodbath 10,000 were slaughtered. Many fought valiantly to the end, more fled into the surrounding woods and hills, burning their houses, or, in fear of Roman reprisals, even killing their own wives and children.
The following day Tacitus tells us, “…an awful silence reigned on every hand; the hills were deserted, houses smoking in the distance, and our scouts did not meet a soul.”