Mons Graupius Identified
Addendum: 84 AD
What happened in 84 AD and where?
Late 83 AD saw the end of Agricola’s tenure as Governor of Britannia. Tacitus’s work tells of Agricola’s triumphal honours and later years in Rome, but is hereafter silent on Scotland except for one cryptic remark in another of his histories.
Here he reflects that Britain (read Scotland) once conquered was "immediately forgotten" - the alternative translation is "thrown away".
This has been correctly interpreted to record the later (not immediate) drift southwards in Roman control of Scotland over the years that separated Agricola’s governorship to the time when Tacitus actively wrote his histories during the early years of the Emperor Trajan’s reign some fifteen years later.
The bulk of this period belonged to Domitian’s reign, and Tacitus, the political weathervane, writing at the start of Trajan’s reign is eager to criticise Domitian’s tyrannical rule.
We do not therefore have Tacitus’s detailed – if partial - account of actions in Scotland to rely on for the years that followed.
Agricola’s successor as Governor was Salustius Lucullus, and our knowledge of this important Governor – for certain key activities took place during his years of tenure – is hampered by a silence in the historical record which can be explained by his "damnation" by a jealous Emperor Domitian.
This event, we are told elsewhere, came about – strangely enough – by Lucullus agreeing to have a particular type of javelin named after him, an act which would appear to have been sufficient to draw the ire of the Emperor. We know little of the matter and the episode smacks of typically quirky ancient tittle-tattle that probably merely serves to mask murkier reasons why Lucullus fell prey to Domitian’s anger.
Certainly his damnation, which effectively was an enforced erasure of his memory after execution would explain the silence that now reigns in the historical written record for the consolidation works he led in Scotland in the years following Mons Graupius.
What Sallustius Lucullus’s true crime was we shall probably never know with certainty. His memory was certainly never reclaimed for posterity and he was never venerated as a martyr following Domitian’s death, suggesting few - if any - felt much common cause with the man.
What is clear from archaeology is that after Mons Graupius, most likely the following year Lucullus put in hand building works which would encompass the lands of the tribes where Agricola had actively campaigned in 82 and 83 AD.
This would, based on current knowledge, extend no further north than Stracathro near Edzell in Angus and may mirror the extent of Agricola’s furthest penetration north in 82 AD.
It would however make strong strategic sense to continue the occupation up to the Mounth at Stonehaven and it appears likely from the vast haul of nails found in the workshop at Inchtuthil that this is exactly what was planned, if perhaps never taken to fruition.
It was 84 AD - at the earliest – when work got underway constructing the legionary fortress at Inchtuthil, quite far inland on the banks of the River Tay under Lucullus.
It is undoubtedly this post that received the honourary sobriquet of "Victoria" (shown hereabouts in Ptolemy’s later map) celebrating Rome’s victory at Mons Graupius the preceding year, and it was – interestingly - a name probably coined by Lucullus himself.
We can be forgiven therefore for taking time to wonder if Lucullus in turn wished to bask in the reflected glory of Agricola’s victory - Lucullus may have viewed it as Rome’s victory and may have considered that he was the current stakeholder of such kudos.
Perhaps therefore Lucullus’s penchant for naming places and weapons was more widespread than we now know, a habit which may have caught the eye of– or been pointed out to - a jealous and vindictive Emperor!
The fortress Victoria at Inchtuthil was not alone. It sat as the lynch pin in a network comprised of a wide range of installations, creating a frontier line with defence in depth which ran north-north-east from Doune up to Stracathro, always skirting the highland massif on its left.
This frontier line came some four years after Agricola’s range of posts were thrown up across the Forth – Clyde isthmus and was to be Roman Scotland’s second frontier, its most northerly whose extent – without exception - comfortably encapsulated all the territory where the events of Agricola’s campaigns in 82 and 83 AD were played out.
A chain of forts were built at the various glenmouths of the highlands fronting Strathallan and Stirlingshire, many on the same sites used by Agricola’s marching camps when he attempted in late summer 82 AD to control "the routes the Caledonians were using".
Behind these forward posts a communications road running north passed beyond Agricola’s reconstructed forts at Ardoch and Strageath onto the Tay, and almost without doubt (if currently incompletely understood) further north connecting the frontier forts beyond the Tay.
Along this road, now better known by association with its mid 2nd C AD Antonine reincarnation as the Gask Ridge frontier, were located a series of signalling towers. There were almost certainly fewer of these, more widely spaced than their 2nd C AD Antonine period successors which in turn owed more to post Hadrianic concepts of fixed frontier "limes".
These signal towers, notoriously difficult to date with any degree of accuracy, do however hint at one of several perceived needs following Agricola’s campaigns in the north.
While line of sight from these towers up to the advanced "glen blocking forts" – even those like Dalginross in proven "bandit country" – was limited, they did however provide speedy communication south from the main line of forts on the road, and undoubtedly (though still to be proven by archaeology) up to the legionary fortress "Victoria" at Inchtuthil at the very least.
These dispositions undertaken under the governorship of Lucullus clearly show the Romans learnt the lessons contained in army after-action reports dating to the two preceding years (forget Tacitean spin claiming undiminished success, that would not be written for another 15 years).
These certainly would appear to confirm our hypothesis that the forts – like Agricola’s marching camps were placed in the lower highland glenmouths to control movement and provide early warning of the movements of tribal warbands or armies.
The GHQ north of this planned network – Victoria – it would appear was planned to have a ready communication link into southern Scotland where, just as Agricola had done for much of the fateful summer of 83 AD, much of Rome’s manpower in northern Britain was posted.
We can reasonably speculate therefore that in the same way the glen blocking forts attempted to solve one problem for the Romans, the communication towers were also put in hand to counter another failing.
Had Agricola not received word from north of the Forth as quickly as he would have wished once the Caledonians were found mustering?
Did the original messengers sent from his troops reconstructing wrecked forts in Strathallan fail to get through, losing Agricola precious days in which to catch the Caledonian hosting?
We shall never know for sure but the construction of a signal network appears a salutary response to something which – just like the inability to control the glenmouths - the Romans took heed of and sought to rectify with simple expedient steps on the ground in 84 AD and the years that followed.
Lucullus therefore was the man under whose governorship Rome started pinning down the lands of the Venicones and Vacomagi and, it would appear, the highland Caledonii septs by controlling the routes they used to gain access into lowland (Roman controlled) Perthshire and Angus by constructing permanent forts and associated signal towers along the newly extended road from the south.
The agriculturally productive Venicones, Vacomagi and others would undoubtedly pay their newly imposed Roman taxes in grain. Another piece of recent archaeology in Scotland casts a spotlight on the nature of tribute imposed on the upland Caledonii. The pastoral upland tribes would however, as their descendents continued to do for centuries, have relied on cattle rearing.
Therefore it was to process a Caledonian tribute of cattle that the fort at Elginhaugh in the Lothians was converted into a livestock gathering post in the years immediately following Mons Graupius.
The troops detached from Britain’s garrison to help Domitian’s Chatti campaign had returned to the Britain by now, giving Lucullus a greater strength than Agricola had available in 82 and 83 AD.
The remains of marching camps hint at the deployment of these troops in the field in the years immediately after Mons Graupius.
Around 11,000 men appear to have been tasked with the construction of Victoria (in the first season of building work at least before being subsequently reduced to around 8,000 men).
Many others will have been involved in the other construction work for this new northern frontier. It would appear however that the need was felt to operate in the lands of the Taexali north of the Mounth, i.e. beyond the lands now being studded with permanent garrisons.
This clearly suggests that the Taexali and the tribes to their north west in Ross and Caithness may not have been committed at Mons Graupius, and while this did not necessarily mitigate against the Romans setting garrisons in their land, it may have been deemed – Tacitus records Agricola’s verdict on the matter – as an "extension" of operations.
There must in 83 AD therefore have been little ambiguity that the tribes there, even if not committed to the Caledonian confederation in the battle were nonetheless hardly philo-Roman in their political outlook. That Agricola sent his fleet "ahead" after Mons Graupius to "carry the terror of Rome" before him proves the point.
Lucullus therefore probably concurred and deemed "immediate" annexation of lands north of the Mounth as an unnecessarily provocative "extension of operations", at this stage at least.
The series of (circa) 30 acre sized marching camps - holding around 7,000 men - arcing up through Strathmore, beyond the Mounth to Auchinhove (at least) point however to Lucullus taking steps to secure the lands beyond his newly created northern frontier by treaty. In Maxwell’s term this column undertook a "show the flag" procession through these subdued if not entirely cowed lands.
It must be borne in mind however – and we cannot stress this strongly enough - that this was the only time Rome ever dared march so small a force in such extended operations in the far north – all later camps here are massive; rarely under 100 acres in size.
Proof indeed that this column marched north in the year(s) immediately following Caledonian defeat in battle.
In doing this they will have aimed to intimidate and coerce treaties from the tribal leaders at their customary tribal gathering places. As Mons Graupius clearly did not happen at Tillymorgan and places like it, then evidently this is exactly what did take place here, submission would have been demanded and received from what must have been a major tribal sept of the Taexalis at their traditional hosting place.
Archaeology may in time point to where this force - or forces over a few seasons -ultimately marched.
Fragmentary remains of small camps or forts – as yet unproven - dot the northern coast of Buchan along to Moray but firm identification and dating as yet remains inconclusive.
The most northerly accepted site, the marching camp at Bellie is greatly eroded by the powerful shifting River Spey and may possibly mark the terminus point of the 30 acre camp series.
However, it is just as probable that these fragmentary remains, mostly coastal, are the remains of later short lived attempts to dominate the tribes of the far north, most probably in the early 3rd C AD Severan period.
However we can not rule out the possibility that Lucullus, once construction of his limes were well underway may have made a brief attempt to create permanent posts in the far north, an attempt cut short by the sudden Roman redeployment southwards that took place sometime between 86 and 90 AD.
Notwithstanding the lack of longevity of Rome’s presence in the far north under him, we may ask one thing of Lucullus.
As he clearly was the governor under whom Roman land forces marched so far north, and if his men reached the Spey (given the small numbers we must consider it extremely unlikely that he accompanied them) then it is under his aegis that claims could reasonably be made on more geographical terms for reaching the "end of the known world" than Agricola.
Was this why Tacitus twelve years later tried so hard to attribute the honour of reaching "the end of the world" to his father in law (who in fairness had indeed won the actual battle against the northern tribes even if he did not physically set foot so far north) when he later wrote Agricola’s eulogy?
It remains entirely plausible that in Agricola’s eulogy - composed over a dozen years after Lucullus time - Tacitus took the opportunity to vent the partisan ire he probably felt as a young man when, fired with the zeal of his father in laws success, he heard of the notoriously boastful Lucullus’s claims concerning the geographical extent of his military and political endeavours in northern Scotland. Until that time this had been the sole preserve of Agricola.
Lucullus suffered damnation from a remorseless Emperor Domitian who - like most paranoid despots through history - was only too ready to listen to the malicious whispers of his immediate circle of sycophantic senatorial cronies in Rome.
Tacitus, in not going into detail on Lucullus’s fate (as he was to do on behalf of others) is entirely out of character. Indeed, Tacitus, a Senator himself during Domitian’s ill starred reign goes to no little length to justify by proxy (he used Agricola as his model) how a good man could survive the reign of a despot with his character still clean.
We suspect Tacitus is trying just that little bit too hard here, and, coupled with his almost deafening silence on both Lucullus’s actions in Scotland and ultimate fate it prompts us to quite reasonably speculate that underhand motives may lie behind all of this.
Insufficient evidence is available to lend strength to any legal pleading on the matter. However it seems not unreasonable to speculate that Tacitus – irked we must remind ourselves by Lucullus’s undoubted loud boasts over his actions in Scotland – himself may have been actively whispering poison in Domitian’s ear concerning Lucullus, an act he understandably will not have wished recorded for posterity given Lucullus’s ultimate fate.
After the event, Tacitus’s written works, as would be expected under such circumstances dissemble over the entire matter, leaving the way free for them to focus for posterity – without distraction - on Agricola alone.
Lucullus simply had no-one to make his case for him nor any remaining written record to defend his correct place in history.
Tacitus, by implying a magnified geographical kudos for his father in law, attempted to obfuscate the credit due to the later governor and until now he has allowed Agricola to successfully hog centre stage on the matter.
The greatest impact however, unknown by Tacitus at the time, would be that which his record – slanted to overshadow Lucullus - would have on history’s understanding of the location where the battle of Mons Graupius - Agricola’s crowning glory- took place.
Simply put; until now - where our "four factors" have allowed a wide ranging and rigorous analysis of all the current available evidence – simplistic and incautious readings of Tacitus has had everyone searching for Mons Graupius – Scottish antiquities Holy Grail - looking in the wrong places!
©2009 Roman Scotland. All Rights Reserved
First Published February 2009