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A history of the Antonine Wall and a guide to the surviving remains of Rome’s Northernmost Frontier

Roman Conquest of Scotland


The Roman armies had invaded Britannia in AD 43 on the instruction of Emperor Claudius who had sought a military triumph to secure his political position. By the late Summer Colchester (Camulodunum), the capital of the powerful Catuvellauni tribe, had been taken where the Emperor personally received the submission of eleven British Kings including one from Orkney. Just a matter of weeks since the first Legionaries had waded ashore, Claudius declared victory and returned to Rome. But in actual fact the conquest of Britannia would take much longer. Sustained insurgency and open resistance, particularly in Wales and Northern England, tied down military resources whilst the Boudica rebellion (circa-AD 60) almost ended the Conquest completely. It was not until AD 80 that Roman forces had stabilised England and Wales sufficiently to consider an advance into Scotland.

The Roman invasion force is believed to have landed at Richborough, Kent

Conquering Scotland

In AD 77, General Gnaeus Julius Agricola was appointed as Governor of Britannia. He was an experienced military commander with extensive knowledge of the province having served there during the Boudica revolt and later as Legate of the Twentieth Legion (Legio XX Valeria Victrix). His first years were spent in campaigns against the Welsh and the Brigantes tribe (Northern England) but in AD 79 he invaded deep into Scotland proceeding along the East coast as far as the River Tay. He spent the subsequent two years (AD 80 to AD 81) campaigning in southern Scotland whilst consolidating his advance along the Clyde/Forth isthmus. His biographer and son-in-law, Tacitus, records that he established forts along this thin neck of land. Castlecary was almost certainly founded at this time with some evidence to suggest Balmuildy, Cadder, Camelon and Mumrills were also contemporary. All sites that would later be used on the Antonine Wall.

Agricola advanced north from the Clyde/Forth isthmus in AD 82 and AD 83 campaigning against the Caledonian tribes who had formed themselves into a confederation headed by Calgacus. The Romans engaged and defeated this force at the (unlocated) Battle of Mons Graupius late AD 83. As was standard military practice, construction started on a network of forts aimed to encircle and isolate the Highland massif - the centre of expected resistance. The lynchpin was a new Legionary fortress at Inchtuthil on the River Tay that would be the new home for the Twentieth Legion (Legio XX Valeria Victrix).

Roman Withdrawal From Scotland

Despite Agricola's successes, trouble elsewhere in the empire saw a change in Roman policy in Britannia. The Second Adiutrix Legion (Legio II Adiutrix Pia Fidelis) was redeployed to Dacia (modern day Moldova) around AD 86/7 permanently reducing the British garrison to three, rather than four, Legions. The withdrawal of this 5,000+ man force would have been matched by a drawdown of associated auxiliary regiments leaving the Governor of the province, Sallustius Lucullus, the unenviable job of scaling back the military operations. Inchtuthil was abandoned with the Twentieth Legion (Legio XX Valeria Victrix) relocated to Chester (Deva). This left the Ninth Legion as the northernmost force at York (Eburacum) making continued military control of Scotland untenable. Accordingly the Romans commenced a staged withdrawal towards the Solway-Tyne isthmus. By AD 100 the Stanegate Road between Corbridge and Carlisle had become the new frontier.

Corbridge Roman town and fort on the Stanegate Road

Hadrian's Wall

Publius Aelius Hadrianus (Hadrian) became emperor in AD 117 and, recognising that continued expansion of the Empire was no longer sustainable, set upon a new policy of entrenchment. Frontiers were formalised: in Germany he ordered construction of a timber palisade barrier, in North Africa a mud and brick wall known as the Fossatum Africae and in the Carpathian Mountains, Romania he built earthwork barriers. Hadrian visited northern Britain in AD 122 surveyed the Stanegate frontier and ordered the construction of his Wall on the Whin Sill. Extending 73 miles (80 Roman miles) from Wallsend to Bowness-on-Solway, it was supported by an extensive series of fortlets and forts in the surrounding area and along the West Cumbria coast.

Hadrian’s Wall running along the crags of the Whin Sill

The Frontier

Hadrian's Wall remained Rome's northern frontier throughout the rest of his reign. Historians remain divided on its function; was it built for military or economic reasons? Undoubtedly there was a military nature to the Wall. The large garrison (similar in size to the British force in Helmand during the height of the 2003-14 Afghanistan campaign and accounting for one-tenth of the entire Imperial Roman Army) is indicative of a significant threat and there were certainly wars in Britannia in the years preceding its construction. However it was never intended to be an impenetrable barrier through which no Roman dared go. Trade between north and south would still have been allowed and probably encouraged – especially if the throttled access facilitated by the Wall enabled effective taxation. Furthermore Roman military outposts were at Bewcastle, Risingham and High Rochester – all evidence of their interests north of the frontier.

Back Into Scotland

Emperor Hadrian died in AD 138 and was succeeded by Antoninus Pius who, almost immediately, instructed his Legions to advance once more into Scotland. His motivation for this remains unknown but it is certain that Hadrian's policy of retrenchment had been deeply unpopular and abandonment of the ultimate symbol of this - his vast stone Wall in the North of England - perhaps brought the new Emperor significant political capital. But there is also evidence to suggest there was a war in northern Britain at this time, concluded in AD 142, and perhaps the advance into the Scottish lowlands was indicative of victory over the Novantae and/or Selgovae tribes who lived in the area. Whatever the motivation, Roman military forces moved north to the Clyde/Forth isthmus and commenced construction of the new frontier; the Antonine Wall.

Click for larger map. Each part of Section 3 has a map showing more detail.

Roman Legions in Britain (AD 138)

The term ‘Legion’ derives from the Latin for levy implying conscription which historically was how Rome recruited its military manpower. However by the first century BC, the army had been restructured into a full time professional force rather than relying on conscripts. Each Legion was a deployable army adept at fighting but also including all the skills needed to conduct construction activity. By the time Antoninus Pius became Emperor of Rome in AD 138, three separate Legions were serving in Britannia.

Second Augustan Legion

(Legio II Augusta)

This legion was founded by Pompey the Great sometime before 49 BC but was reformed by Octivian (Augustus Caesar) from which it got its name. It was one of the four Legions that invaded Britain in AD 43 at which time it was under the Command of Titus Vespasianus (the future emperor Vespasian). By the Antonine era it was based in Caerleon having been assigned there in AD 75 to suppress the Silures tribe. The majority of the Legion was sent north to work on the Antonine Wall suggesting South Wales was relatively peaceful in the mid-second century.

Sixth Legion

(Legio VI Victrix)

Formed by Pompey the Great in the mid-first century BC, the Sixth Legion had spent much of the late first and early second century on the Rhine. Between AD 120-2 it transferred to Britannia, seemingly with some urgency, to replace the Ninth Legion (Legio IX Hispana) at York (Eburacum). The unit was still based there during the Antonine period and sent a detachment (vexellation) to support the building activity on the Wall.

Twentieth Legion

(Legio XX Valeria Victrix)

One of the four Legions involved in the invasion of Britannia in AD 43, the Twentieth Legion had been founded by Julius Caesar in 49 BC. In the AD 50s it was based in Colchester (Camulodunum) but moved onto Gloucester and then Wroxeter. By AD 84, after the successful campaigns of Gnaeus Julius Agricola in Scotland, it built a new Legionary fortress at Inchtuthil. But this was soon abandoned and the Legion relocated to Chester (Deva) and it was still there in the Antonine period. As with the Sixth, the Legion dispatched a detachment (vexellation) to support construction of the Wall.

Site of Inchtuthil, the Legionary fortress on the River Tay

 High Rochester Roman Fort - an outpost to the north of Hadrian’s Wall

Continue to 'History of the Wall, Pt2'

After decades spent quelling insurgencies in Wales and Northern England, the Romans advanced into Scotland in the AD 80s but, when a Legion was withdrawn from the province, sustained occupation became untenable. The Romans withdrew to Hadrian’s Wall yet in the mid-second century they marched north once more and built the Antonine Wall.

History of Antonine Wall

Conquest of ScotlandGrim's Dyke

History of Antonine Wall