Who Was Septimius Severus and Why Did He Campaign in Scotland?

History Hit Podcast with Simon Elliott

3 mins

05 Oct 2018

Image credit: Carole Raddato / Commons

This article is an edited transcript of Septimus 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.

Septimus Severus was one of the great Roman warrior emperors who hacked his way to power in the year 193 AD. In so doing, he fought off all challengers before embarking on successful wars of conquest in the east where he fought the Parthians and other eastern powers.

He actually sacked the Parthian capital, which very few Roman emperors did. He was native to Africa, born as he was in the blistering heat of a North African summer to one of the richest families in the empire.

Severus was of Punic origin, so his forebears were Phoenicians, yet he died in the freezing cold of a Yorkshire winter in 211.

Dan sits down with Tom Holland to discuss Rome's first five emperors - the Julio-Claudian dynasty. From Augustus to Nero, they are some of the most colourful characters in history. But how much of what we know about these figures is actually true?Listen Now

What was he doing in Yorkshire?

In both 208 and 2010, Severus took around 57,000 men to try and achieve what no Roman emperor had done before: conquer Scotland. It was during the second campaign – the last major attempt by the empire to subjugate Scotland – that he fell fatally ill. He died the following year in Yorkshire.

A bust of Septimius Severus – likely posthumous – displayed in the Capitoline Museums. Credit: antmoose () at https://www.flickr.com/photos/antmoose/17433741/

Severus failed his objective despite taking an enormous army to Britain to invade Scotland. Indeed, his force was so big that it must have been one of, if not the, largest campaigning army ever to arrive on British soil.

During the second campaign, he became so frustrated by the fact he couldn’t conquer the north that he gave a genocidal order. It basically said, “Kill everybody”.

Although Severus failed to conquer Scotland, dying preemptively, the ramifications of his second campaign were nevertheless huge. They are now coming to light via the medium of archeological data, which shows that there was a major depopulation event in Scotland for about eight years.

The Scottish threat

When we discuss the 1st-century Agricolan campaign, the tribes in Scotland are referred to under the bracket term of “Caledonian”. But within another 100 years, they had coalesced into two broad tribal confederations.

One of these confederations, the Maeatae, was based in the middle Midland Valley, around the Antonine Wall. The other was the Caledonians, who were based to the north in the northern Midland Valley (located in the northern Lowlands), and then in the Highlands as well.

It was probably interaction with the Romans in the north of England that caused the confederations of the Maeatae and the Caledonians to come into being.

Rome still had an interest in Scotland during the 2nd century and carried out punitive expeditions. In fact,  it was during this time that the Romans built both Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall. But it doesn’t look like they tried to conquer Scotland in any meaningful way.

Dan finds out what's going on with recent excavations at Vindolanda, one of the largest Roman forts near Hadrian's Wall. All manner of discoveries have been made, including the largest collection of Roman footwear found anywhere in the world.Listen Now

Towards the end of the 2nd century, however, the tribal confederations had reached a level of organisation where they were beginning to really trouble the northern border.

Around the time that Severus came to the throne in 193, the governor of Roman England was Clodius Albinus, who more or less had the border with Scotland secure. But in the decade that followed, trouble began to occur – and that trouble ultimately led to Severus travelling to Britain.

Lack of source material

One of the reasons why the Severan campaigns haven’t been covered in detail to date is because there are only two main written sources on which to rely for information: Cassius Dio and Herodian. Although these sources are near-contemporary – Dio actually knew Severus – they are problematic as historical sources.

A number of other Roman sources on the campaigns, meanwhile, date from between 100 and 200 years later.

However, in the last 10 to 15 years, a lot of data has come through from some fantastic excavations and investigations in Scotland that has enabled us to look at the Severan campaigns in a lot more detail.

There is archaeological evidence of a large sequence of Roman marching camps in Scotland, which were built by the Roman military at the end of a marching day to defend themselves in enemy territory.

Thus, given the size of the force that Severus had, it is possible to match the larger marching camps to the Severan campaigns and actually track his routes.

In addition, there have been major investigations into some of the campaigning sites across Scotland that have enabled archaeologists to understand more about the nature of the warfare at that time.

For example, there is a hill fort that was assaulted by the Romans during the Antonine period, which has now been properly investigated and shows that the Romans were fast, vicious and vindictive when taking such settlements out.