How One Roman Emperor Ordered Genocide Against the Scottish People

History Hit Podcast with Simon Elliott

4 mins

21 Sep 2018

The remains of a fort close to the summit of Dumyat hill (pictured) may have marked the northern boundary of the Maeatae tribal confederation. Credit: Richard Webb

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. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.

Initially, Roman Emperor Septimius Severus’ first campaign in Scotland had seemed to successfully subjugate the Caledonians and the Maeatae, the two main tribal groups in the region. But in the year 210 AD, the Maeatae rebelled again.

That was when Severus gave the genocidal order. According to the source Dio, Severus quoted Homer and the Iliad to his army as it was massed in front of him in York.

The quote in question runs along the lines of, “What shall I do with these prisoners?”, with the response being, “You should kill everyone, even the babes in their mothers’ wombs”.

It is clear that an order was given to carry out a form of genocide.

Severus was too ill to campaign the second time and so his son Caracalla, who was even more hard-bitten than his father, led the campaign and carried out the genocidal order in full.

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The campaign was brutal and evidence has shown that there needed to be reforestation in the Lowlands, so devastating were the razing tactics used by the Romans.

There is also evidence of settlements being abandoned.

It is clear that an order was given to carry out a form of genocide.

Another peace was agreed between the Romans and the Scottish tribes at the end of 210 and there was no rebellion afterwards, probably because there was no one in the Lowlands left to rebel.

Severus planned to fully man Fife and possibly the whole of the Lowlands within the Roman Empire. If he had succeeded and survived, southern Scotland’s story would have been completely different and it would perhaps have been home to stone-built settlements and things like that.

Whether the Picts would have come into being in the same way is also questionable. However, Severus died in February 211 in York.

A lust for power

Caracalla, meanwhile, was desperate for the throne. He is quoted by primary sources as saying that he almost carried out a patricide against his father in 209. You could almost imagine him as Joaquin Phoenix’s character in the film Gladiator.

Thus, as soon as Severus was dead, the two brothers completely lost interest in the Scottish campaign. The Roman forces returned to their bases, with the vexillationes (detachments of Roman legions that formed temporary task forces) going back to the Rhine and the Danube.

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There was then an almost unseemly scramble from Caracalla and Geta to return to Rome and each try and become emperor. Severus wanted them both to rule together but that clearly wasn’t going to happen and, by the end of the year, Caracalla would have actually killed Geta.

Geta apparently died bleeding in his mother’s arms in Rome.

As soon as Severus was dead, the two brothers completely lost interest in the Scottish campaign.

Meanwhile, although the actual outcome of the Severan campaigns wasn’t the conquest of Scotland, they did result in probably the longest period of comparative peace along the northern border of Roman Britain in pre-modern history.

The border was once again reset along Hadrian’s Wall, but there were 80 years of peace in the Scottish Lowlands, according to the archeological record.

Military reform

Severus was the first of the great reforming emperors of the Roman military after Augustus, who ruled in the Principate (the early Roman empire). You could argue that the first Roman field army was the field army he put together for the conquest of Scotland.

If you look at the monuments in Rome, you can see the transition taking place from the Principate, to the later Dominate (the later Roman empire). If you look at the Column of Marcus Aurelius and Trajan’s Column, the Roman legionaries are largely wearing lorica segmentata (type of personal armour), and they have the classic scutum (type of shield) with pilums (type of javelin) and the gladius (type of sword).

If you look at the Arch of Septimius Severus, built not long afterwards, there are one or two figures in lorica segmentata but they also have large oval body shields and spears.

The Arch of Septimius Severus at the Forum in Rome. Credit: Jean-Christophe-BENOIST / Commons

If you look closely, you can see that a lot of the legionary figures are depicted in long, thigh-length lorica hamata chainmail coats and, again, with oval body shields and long spears.

This shows that there was a transition between the Principate legionary (Roman foot soldier) and the Dominate legionary in terms of how they were equipped.

From the time of Constantine, all legionaries and auxiliaries were then armed in the same way, with a large oval body shield, spear, lorica hamata chainmail and the spatha.

You could argue that the first Roman field army was the field army Severus put together for the conquest of Scotland.

The reason for this change was probably nothing to do with the British expedition, however, but rather Severus’ experiences in the east, fighting the Parthians.

The Parthians were predominantly cavalry-based and Severus would have been looking for weapons that had longer reach.

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The other point to remember is that, shortly after Severus’ time, there was the Crisis of the Third Century, which involved a large economic crisis.

The changes Severus began were then accelerated because it was cheaper to maintain and make chainmail and oval body shields.