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Battle of Mons Graupius AD83

According to Tacitus, the Battle of Mons Graupius took place in AD 83 or, less probably, 84. Gnaeus Julius Agricola, the Roman Governor and Tacitus' father-in-law, had sent his fleet ahead to panic the Caledonians, and, with Light Infantry reinforced with British auxiliaries, reached the site, which he found occupied by the enemy.

Even though the Romans were outnumbered in their campaign against the tribes of Britain, they often had difficulties in getting their foes to face them in open battle. The Caledonians were the last to be subdued. After many years of avoiding the fight, the Caledonians were forced to join battle when the Romans marched on the main granaries of the Caledonians, just as they had been filled from the harvest. The Caledonians had no choice but to fight, or starve over the next winter.

According to Tacitus, allied auxiliary infantry, 8,000 in number, were in the centre, while 3,000 cavalry were on the flanks, with the Roman Legonaires in front of their camp as a reserve. Estimates for the size of the Roman army range from 17,000 to 30,000; although Tacitus says that 11,000 auxiliaries were engaged, along with a further four squadrons of cavalry, the number of legionaries in reserve is uncertain. The Caledonian army, which Tacitus claims was led by Calgacus (Tacitus only mentions him as giving a speech, probably fictitious), was said to be over 30,000 strong. It was stationed mostly on higher ground; its front ranks were on the level ground, but the other ranks rose in tiers, up the slope of the hill in a horseshoe formation. The Caledonian chariots charged about on the level plain between the two armies.  After a brief exchange of missiles, Agricola ordered auxiliaries to close with the enemy. These were based around four cohorts of Batavians and two cohorts of Tungrian swordsmen. The Caledonians were cut down and trampled on the lower slopes of the hill. Those at the top attempted an outflanking movement, but were themselves outflanked by Roman cavalry. The Caledonians were then comprehensively routed and fled for the shelter of nearby woodland, but were relentlessly pursued by well-organised Roman units.

It is said that the Roman Legions took no part in the battle, being held in reserve throughout. According to Tacitus, 10,000 Caledonian lives were lost at a cost of only 360 auxiliary troops. We must allow for the usual exaggeration of fatalities here however, as Roman accounts of enemy dead can be viewed as routinely suspect, especially with such a huge difference in numbers. 20,000 Caledonians retreated into the woods, where they fared considerably better against pursuing forces. Roman scouts were unable to locate the remaining Caledonian forces the next morning.

Calcagus' Speech
Whenever I consider the origin of this war and the necessities of our position, I have a sure confidence that this day, and this union of yours, will be the beginning of freedom to the whole of Britain. To all of us slavery is a thing unknown; there are no lands beyond us, and even the sea is not safe, menaced as we are by a Roman fleet. And thus in war and battle, in which the brave find glory, even the coward will find safety. Former contests, in which, with varying fortune, the Romans were resisted, still left in us a last hope of succour, inasmuch as being the most renowned nation of Britain, dwelling in the very heart of the country, and out of sight of the shores of the conquered, we could keep even our eyes unpolluted by the contagion of slavery. To us who dwell on the uttermost confines of the earth and of freedom, this remote sanctuary of Britain's glory has up to this time been a defence. Now, however, the furthest limits of Britain are thrown open, and the unknown always passes for the marvellous. But there are no tribes beyond us, nothing indeed but waves and rocks, and the yet more terrible Romans, from whose oppression escape is vainly sought by obedience and submission. Robbers of the world, having by their universal plunder exhausted the land, they rifle the deep. If the enemy be rich, they are rapacious; if he be poor, they lust for dominion; neither the east nor the west has been able to satisfy them. Alone among men they covet with equal eagerness poverty and riches. To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they make a solitude (desert) and call it peace - Both Calgacus and the speech may be figments of Tacitus's invention.

Following this final battle, it was proclaimed that Agricola had finally subdued all the tribes of Britain, which is not strictly true, as the Caledonians and their allies remained a threat. Indeed, even if the inflated account of Caledonian fatalities were to be accepted, the bulk of their forces were still intact to fight again. Soon after Agricola was recalled to Rome, and his post passed to Sallustius Lucullus. It is likely that Rome intended to continue the conflict but that military requirements elsewhere in the empire necessitated a troop withdrawal and the opportunity was lost. That Agricola's successor's failed to neutralise the threat to Roman security in the north of Britain had important consequences for the remainder of the period of occupation.

Tacitus' statement Perdomita Britannia et statim missa (Britain was completely conquered and immediately let go), denotes his bitter disapproval of Domitian's failure to unify the whole island under Roman rule after Agricola's successful campaign. Some have doubted whether Agricola had defeated the last of British resistance, pointing to the uneasy peace of the next few decades and the construction and occupation of the Glenblocker Forts and Inchtuthil in succeeding years, bases for a garrison of the southern part of Scotland.

Painting of a tattooed Iron Age warrior standing on the backs of two poniesAs has already been suggested, in the absence of any archaeological evidence and with the very low estimate of Roman casualties, the decisive victory reported by Tacitus may be an exaggeration or even an invention, either by Tacitus himself, or by Agricola, for political reasons. Despite his apparent successes Agricola held no further posts. One author has suggested that Domitian may have been informed of the fraudulence of his claims to have won a significant victory.

Also there are no other accounts of the Battle apart from Tacitus's account. There is no reference in histories pertaining to the legions that supposedly took part and no legends or traditions inherited by Scottish descendants describing such a Battle or Calgacus the supposed leader. According to Cassius Dio "Tacitus never let the truth get in the way of a good story". Also Agricola was Tacitus's father in law so there is undeniable evidence of bias. Also the account of the battle is a complete contradiction to Caledonian warfare experienced by later Roman expeditions which was almost exclusively Guerrilla warfare including fort raids, ambushes and other hit and run tactics. Roman military doctrine found these tactics very frustrating to deal with because they had to spread their forces out. Also the lightly armoured and fast moving Caledonian skirmishers and horsemen with their knowledge of the terrain could easily out run and out manoeuvre marching Roman Columns, ambushing isolated elements and then disappearing again before reinforcements could arrive. Most likely Agricola was frustrated by this time consuming and indecisive warfare and being 43 years old and having only 10 years left to live decided to fabricate the story of Mons Graupius to satisfy political ambition. Unfortunately for Agricola this didn't work. He was relieved of his post in Britain in 85 and he died in his family estate in 93.

Considerable debate and analysis has been conducted regarding the battle location, with the locus of most of these sites spanning Perthshire to north of the River Dee, all in the northeast of Scotland. A number of authors have reckoned the battle to have occurred in the Grampian Mounth within sight of the North Sea. In particular, Roy, Surenne, Archibald Watt and C. Michael Hogan and others have advanced notions that the high ground of the Battle may have been Kempstone Hill, Megray Hill or other knolls near the Raedykes Roman Camp. These sites in Kincardineshire fit the historical descriptions of Tacitus and have also yielded archaeological finds related to Roman presence. In addition these points of high ground are proximate to the Elsick Mounth, an ancient trackway used by Romans and Caledonians for military manoeuvres. Bennachie in Aberdeenshire, the Gask Ridge not far from Perth and Sutherland have also been suggested.


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Last modified: 01/09/2013