This article is an edited transcript of Septimius Severus in Scotland with Simon Elliott on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 9 April 2018.
Septimius Severus was a Roman emperor who set out to subjugate Scotland, his primary goal being to suppress the Scottish tribes who were creating problems for the Roman province of Britain or Britannia. On paper, it was a very asymmetrical campaign. Severus brought around 50,000 men with him to Britain in 208, and he also had the Classis Britannica fleet on the east coast.
He marched up Dere Street, went through Corbridge, passed through the Hadrian’s Wall, crossed the Scottish borders, and then eviscerated everything in his way – completely scouring the place.
We know his route because he built a sequence of marching camps that measured up to 70 hectares in size each and could house his entire 50,000 force. One of these was at Newstead; another at Saint Leonards. He also flattened the Vindolanda fortress, south of Hadrian’s Wall, and made a plateau out of it, building hundreds of late Iron Age roundhouses on top in a Roman grid pattern. It looks like the site could have been a concentration camp for natives in the borders.
Severus reached Inveresk, crossed over the river there and continued westward on Dere Street, reaching the Antonine Fort at Cramond which he rebuilt, turning it into a major supply base. He then had two links in the campaign’s supply chain – South Shields and Cramond on the river Forth. Next, he built a bridge of up to 500 boats across the Forth, which is probably the line that the Forth Railway Bridge follows today.
Sealing off the Highlands
Severus then divided his forces into two-thirds and one-third, with the former group marching to the Highland Boundary Fault, under the command of his son Caracalla. A series of 45-hectare marching camps were built by Caracalla which would have been capable of housing a force of that size. Caracalla’s group was likely accompanied by the three British legions who would have been used to campaigning in the region.
The group marched south-west to north-east on the Highland Boundary Fault, sealing off the Highlands. That meant that all the people to the south, including members of the Maeatae tribal confederation around the Antonine Wall and members of both the Maeatae and Caledonian confederations in the Lowlands above, were locked in.
Caracalla also used the Classis Britannica to seal them off by sea. Eventually, the naval fleet and Caracalla’s legionary spearheads met somewhere near Stonehaven on the coast.
By 209, the whole of the Lowlands had been sealed off. The Caledonians in the Highlands were pinned in in the north and the Maeatae were trapped in the south. Severus then took the remaining third of his force – which probably consisted of elite troops, including the Praetorian Guard, the Imperial Guard Cavalry and the Legion II Parthica, as well as a similar number of auxiliaries – to Scotland.
This force drove through Fife and built two 25-hectare marching camps that today reveal its route. The group then reached the old Antonine Harbour and Fort on the river Tay, which is called Carpow. This harbour and fort was also rebuilt, providing Severus’ campaign with a third link in the supply chain. Severus then built his own bridge of boats across the Tay at Carpow before slamming into the soft underbelly of the Maeatae and Caledonians in the Midland Valley and brutalising the place.
There was no set piece battle as there had been during the 1st-century Agricolan campaign in Scotland. Instead, there was brutal campaigning and guerrilla warfare – and all in terrible weather conditions. Sources suggest that the natives were better at fighting in those conditions than the Romans.
A victory (of sorts)
The source Dio says that the Romans suffered 50,000 casualties during Severus’ first Scottish campaign, but that is a bizarre number because it would have meant that the entire fighting force was killed. However, we should perhaps see it as literary license demonstrative of the campaign’s brutality. The campaign resulted in some kind of victory for the Romans – probably the cession of Fife to Rome.
Coins were minted showing that Severus and Caracalla had been successful and a peace was agreed. The northern frontiers were garrisoned properly and marching camps were maintained with garrisons, but the majority of Severus’ forces headed south in 209 to winter in York. Thus, it initially seemed as though Severus could say that he had conquered Britain.
But suddenly, over the winter, the Maeatae rebelled again. They were clearly unhappy with the terms they had received. When they rebelled, Severus realised that he had to go back to Scotland. Bear in mind, Severus was in his early 60s by that point, riddled with chronic gout, and he was carried in his sedan chair for the whole of the first campaign.
He was frustrated and fed up with the Maeatae rebelling again and the Caledonians predictably joining them. He reset, and then ran the campaign again, almost like a video game. Reset, and start again.