This node will attempt to show the rise and fall of Roman influence in northern England and Scotland, or Caledonia, as it was known by the Romans. It will also detail some of the many conflicts between the Romans and the Picts and Scots.

The Romans arrive

Julius Caesar led the first attacks on Britain in 55 and 54BC, landing in Kent in south-east England. Claudius was to follow up these initial landings with an invasion of an estimated 40,000 troops in 43AD. The Roman occupation of Britain was consolidated over the coming years until by 81AD, they had reached as far as the Forth and Clyde valleys of central Scotland, thwarted only by the "Caledonii" in the north.


Julius Agricola was the British governor at the time, and in the summer of 80AD he had advanced as far as the river Tay, and began setting up forts to protect his territory against the Caledonian tribes of the far north. Two years later he moved into northeastern Scotland, and his fleet explored the Western Isles.

In 84 AD the Romans defeated the Caledonians in a battle in the Grampian mountains (possibly Bennachie). 30,000 Caledonians fought a similar number of Romans and British auxiliaries, with Roman cavalry and weapons proving more effective. The Caledonians had been carrying out a scorched-earth policy, depriving the Romans of homes, cattle and crops in the land they captured. Agricola was recalled to Rome in this year, possibly through Emperor Domitian’s jealousy at his success. He was succeeded by Sallistus Lucullus as governor.

The Romans withdrew from northern Scotland circa 86 AD, as their troops were required by Domitian for his Romanian campaign. A new border for Roman territory was drawn between Newstead and Dalswinton.

Hadrian’s Wall

In 122 AD, the Emperor Hadrian made the momentous decision to build a great wall across Britain, stretching between Carlisle and South Shields. This would help split the unruly Brigantes tribe to the south from the Selgovae and Novantae to the north, as well as preventing any invasion from the northern tribes.

Legionaries and slaves built a wall 2.4 metre thick and 3.7 to 6.1 metres high. A ditch between two earthen ramparts lay to the south, and 16 forts were built into the wall, with smaller fortlets every mile.

The wall was manned by 11,500 troops, with their headquarters at Carlisle, where a cavalry unit of 1,000 was housed, with the main legions based at Chester and York. It was completed in 132 AD.

Antonine Wall

Thirteen years later, in 145, Hadrian had been succeeded by Antonine, who advanced north again, and built another wall, between the Forth and Clyde rivers. This wall was about 40 miles or 64km long, built of turf and clay in some places, with stone foundations. Forts were built at intervals along the wall, connected by a roadway leading to a harbour at Dumbarton. A ditch was dug to the north of the wall, and it was manned by about 7,000 troops.

Around 156 AD, a rebellion by the Brigantine tribe, south of Hadrian’s wall, forced the withdrawal of troops from the Antonine wall. Although these troops were re-garrisoned in 159, by 163, on the death of Antonine, the new governor decided it was too costly to keep them there, and the wall was abandoned.


In 194, Clodius Albinus, governor of Britain and deputy emperor, made a treaty with the Caledonii and other tribes north of Hadrian’s wall, enabling him to march with his three legions on Rome, following the assassination of the emperor Pertinax. Albinus was forced to gamble on Caledonian loyalty, but he was playing for higher stakes.


By 208, after Albinus had committed suicide following an unsuccessful rebellion, the new emperor Septimius Severus advanced into northern Britain. He made it almost as far as Aberdeen, and the northern tribes were forced to give up land to the foreigners. The Votadini tribe were rewarded for their assistance by being given confiscated land in Fife. Revolt broke out again, and Severus retaliated, but further action was still necessary when he returned to York in 210. He was to die in February the following year, his work incomplete.


Circa 300 AD, the emperor Constantius Chlorus ordered major repairs to Hadrian's wall following years of neglect and vandalism. Four years earlier many of the troops in the wall's garrison had supported the British usurper Allectus against Constantius, but they had returned by this date. Forts further north were refurbished, and defences at York were strengthened in line with its new role as capital of the Britannia Secunda province.

Constantius carried out a major campaign north of the Forth in 306, but died shortly after his return to York.


Around 310 the new emperor, Constantine, reformed the Roman army following raids from the north. The idea was to create a mobile "fire-fighting" force, with cavalry and crack legions ready to move quickly to trouble-spots.


In 360, an expeditionary force under Lupicinus, an officer known for his cruelty, was sent to northern Britain to quell raiding by tribes including the Picts and Scots. He had been sent by the deputy emperor Julian, who subsequently withdrew his forces to support Julian's bid for the empire.

The "barbarians" turn the tables

Between 365 and 367, the Picts, Scots, and Attacotti tribes launched simultaneous attacks on Roman Britain, exploiting the empire's weakness caused by yet another succession crisis. Two senior Roman commanders, Fullofaudes and Nectarides, were killed in the attacks, and the "barbarians" continued to advance until checked by the Roman general Theodosius, who was sent to suppress them. Hadrian's wall and various coastal defences were strengthened in 370 following the attacks.

Flavius Stilicho

In 397, Flavius Stilicho, the supreme military commander in the western empire spearheaded a campaign to restore control over northern Britain which had suffered renewed attacks, and by 400 he had largely succeeded in this task. Stilicho was forced to withdraw many of his troops in 401, however, when northern Italy itself came under pressure from the "barbarian" Visigoths.

Romans left in the country hoped that the worst attacks by the Picts, Scots, and Saxons had been repelled, but the depleted numbers of Roman troops on the island left its defences increasingly shaky.

The end of Roman rule in Britain

In 407, a rebel Roman soldier was proclaimed Constantine III by a dissident army faction in Britain. His forces left for Gaul(France) and won control there, but thereby lost his hold on Britain. By 409, native Britains had ousted Roman officials in order to raise militias to fight the Saxons raiding the coasts. In the following years, anarchy and fear led to the breakdown of law and order in the towns and cities of Britain, and mercenaries were recruited to protect some towns. The age of Roman occupation of Britain was over.

Chronicle of Britain (Chronicle Communications Ltd, 1992)

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