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History Of The Scottish Nation
Vol 1, Chapter 13 - Scotland as seen by Agricola and described by Tacitus and Herodian


After long ages—how many we do not know, for they reach back into the primeval night, and offer us nothing to guide our hesitating steps but the dubious memorials which the poor barbarian has left behind him in cairn and cist—we gladly welcome the rising of the light of history. It is a Roman hand that carries the torch that first illumines our sky, and reveals the face of our country to us. Time has not yet come to its "fulness," nor has the world’s grand epoch taken place, yet there on the coast of England is the Roman fleet searching along the shores of Kent for a place of anchorage and disembarkation. The invasion is led by the great Julius in person. That remarkable man, uniting letters with arms, touches no spot of earth on which he does not shed light; alas! Also inflict devastation. He has just set foot on a new shore, and he feels the curiosity of the discoverer as well as the lust of the invader and conqueror. We see him, on the evening after the battle, retiring to his tent, or to his ship, and noting down, in traces rapid and brief, but destined to be ineffaceable, whatever had fallen under his own observation, or had been reported to him by others respecting the appearance of the country, and the manners, opinions, and condition of the barbarians on whose shore he had just hurled his legions.

It is verily no pleasant or flattering picture to which the pen of Caesar introduces us. And the darkness of that picture is deepened by the sharp contrast which so strongly suggests itself betwixt the country of the writer, then just touching the acme of its literary and warlike glory, and the poor country which his pen seeks to portray. That contrast has since that day been most strikingly reversed. But if civilisation and empire have transferred their seat from the country of the polished writer and invincible conqueror to that of the skin-clothed man, on whose neck we see Rome now imposing her yoke, we behold in this no proof, though some might regard it as such, of the fickleness of fortune, and the instability of power and grandeur.

This change of place on the part of the two countries, looked at below the surface, is, on the contrary, a conspicuous monument of the steadfast and unchangeable working of those laws and forces that determine whether a nation is to go forward or to fall back—forward to empire or backward into slavery. Nations may win battles, or achieve great triumphs in art, but there is a mightier power in the world than either arms or arts, though the Roman knew it not, and statesmen still make but small account of it; and in the stupendous revolution of which we have spoken we trace simply the working of this Power: a power compared with which the strength of the Roman legions was but as weakness: a power, moreover, that crowns itself with far other victories than those which the mistress of the ancient world was wont to celebrate with such magnificence of pomp and haughtiness of spirit, on her Capitol.

It is England rather than Scotland which the invasion of Caesar brings into view. No foot of Roman soldiers, so far as is known, had yet been set down on Scottish soil. Slowly the Roman eagle made its way northward into Caledonia, as if it feared to approach those great mountains, dark with tempests, which nature had placed there as if to form the last impregnable defence of a liberty which Rome was devouring. It was in the year 55 B.C. that Julius Caesar invaded Britain; but it was not till about one hundred and thirty-five years after this, that is, in the year 80 of our era, that Agricola, leading his legions across the Tweed, brought Scotland for the first time into contact with Rome. All England by this time was comprehended within the limits of the empire, and had become a Roman province. It was dotted with Roman camps, and studded with Roman cities, in which both foreigners and natives were living the life of Italy under a northern sky. England, in a word, was already very thoroughly permeated by those refining but emasculating influences of which Rome was the centre, and which she studied to diffuse in all her provinces as a means of reconciling to her yoke, and of retaining under her sceptre, those countries which her sword had subjugated. But as yet Scotland was untouched by these insidious and enfeebling influences. Roman luxury had not relaxed its barbaric vigour, nor had Roman power tamed its spirit, or curtailed its wild independence. But now its subjugation was begun.

The task of conquering it, however, Agricola found a difficult one. Scotland was not to be so speedily subdued, nor so securely retained, as the level country of England. The forests were more dense, the swamps more impenetrable, and the mountain strengths more formidable on the north of the Tweed than in the southern country. The natives, moreover, less readily accepted defeat, and though routed and dispersed in battle, they would again renew the attack with revived desperation and in augmented numbers. But Roman disciple and perseverance at last surmounted these obstacles, though neither wholly or permanently. The legions hewed their way into the country, scattering or crushing every living thing that opposed their progress. Advancing from stream to stream, and from one mountain range to another, guarding the passes behind him with camps, erecting forts of observation and defence on the hill tops, throwing bridges across rivers, and lying down lines of roads through forest and moor, and ever presenting a stern front to the natives, who kept retreating before him, unless when at times surprised and slaughtered by his soldiers Agricola held on his way till at last he stood on the shores of the Firth of Forth. Here, in sight of the north hills, the conqueror halted, and drawing a chain of forts across the country from the Forth to the Clyde to repel the attack, or shut out the irruption of the natives still numerous in the country beyond, the Roman general fixed here for the time the boundary of the now overgrown empire of Rome. His future progress northward, and the sanguinary battles it cost him to make good this advance, will fall to be narrated in subsequent chapters., Meanwhile let us pause and look around on the country and the people amid which the triumphs of Agricola have placed both him and us.

Happily for us, in the invasion of Scotland under Julius Agricola, as in the previous invasion of England under Julius Caesar, letters and arms were once more conjoined. Not, however, as before, in the same person, although in the same expedition. Along with this Roman general came his son-in-law, Tacitus, the great historian.1 While the soldiers, with keen eye scrutinised the strategic points of the country, and determined the movement of the legions, the historian, equally alert, noted down the more prominent and remarkable characteristics of the new region into which they had come, and the peculiar qualities and appearance of the race among which they found themselves. The touches of a feebler pen, especially when engaged on a country so obscure as Scotland then was, would have speedily faded into utter oblivion. The picture produced by the genius of Tacitus, posterity has taken care to preserve. It is vivid, but not complete or full. To see Scotland as it disclosed itself to the eyes of the two great Romans, it is necessary to fill in the bold outline of the great master with the fragmentary and casual glimpses which we obtain from the pen of other writers, chiefly those which flourished subsequent to the time of Tacitus.

There is a time for countries as for men to be born. Till that time had come to Scotland, the country lay shrouded in night; but now the hour had arrived when the world had need of this land lying far off in the darkness and storms of the Northern Ocean. Jerusalem had newly fallen. The Seer of Patmos was closing the canon of Inspiration. The light, which had been waxing in brightness ever since its first kindling in the morning of time, was now perfected as a revelation or system of truth. It needed to be placed where it could be seen, and where the nations might be able to walk in its radiance. Providence had notified by a terrible event that henceforth it was not to occupy its old site. The city where, till now, it had been enshrined, had been cast down with tragic horror, and the Jews whose glory it had been that they were the keepers of the "holy oracles," were deposed from their great function, and scattered to the four quarters of heaven. The philosophy of Greece, after shedding a false brilliance over that fair land for centuries, had gone out in darkness, never more to be rekindled. And with the failure of Greek philosophy all the wisdom of the previous ages had failed as the great guide of men to happiness; for the schools of Chaldae, of Egypt, of Phoenicia, and of all the earth, had emptied their intellectual treasures into the schools of Greece, that, through Athens, as the embodiment of the world’s wisdom, they might make trial to the utmost of what the wisdom of man could do. The answer was a people emasculated and sensuous, and a state enslaved and fallen. Rome, whose name filled the earth, and whose sword had subjugated it, was reeling under the number of her victories, and was fated to sink under the more enormous burden of her ambition and her crimes, and to pull down with her into the ruin of corruption a wisdom not of this world, so far as it had been committed to her keeping. It was as this hour of impending terrible revolution that a new country was summoned out of the darkness to be in Christian times what Judea had been in early days—a lamp of light to the world. Agricola had gone forth on the errand of Caesar, as he believed. He sought only to illustrate the greatness of Rome by adding yet another country to her already too vast dominions. But in truth he was doing the bidding of a greater than Caesar, who had commissioned him to search in the North Sea, far away from the pride of learning and the pomp of empire, for a savage land and a barbarous people, where Christianity might build up from its foundations an empire of more durable estate and truer glory than that which Rome had succeeded in rearing after ages of intrigue and toil and blood. Neither learning nor the sword could claim any share in the brilliant achievement now to be witnesses in our solitary and barbarous isle. The work would here be seen to be entirely the doing of Christianity, and would remain a monument of its power to the ages to come. With Agricola, we have said, comes the historians of the age, whose pen alone could do justice to the wild country, and draw such a picture of it as the world would keep for ever in its eye, and measure by it the transformation the country was about to undergone, and confess that only one power known to man was able to have effected a change so marvellously vast, brilliant, and beneficent.

Let us mark it well. The Scotland of the age of Tacitus rises on the sight ringed with breakers—"lashed," says the historian, "with the billows of a prodigious sea!" Here it is upheaved in great mountains, there it sinks, into deep and far-retreating straths, and there it opens out into broad plains never burned by the plough, and where neither is sower to be seen in the molient spring, nor reaper in the mellow autumn. The clothing of the surface is various. Here it wears a covering of brown moor, there of shaggy wood. The places not covered by heath or forest lie drowned mostly in reedy swamps and sullen marshes. The sea enters the land by numerous creeks. Arms of ocean intersect in the country, and run in silvery lines far into the interior, up dusky glen, and round the base of dark, rocky mountain, their bright gleam imparting a softening touch to the rugged scenery. The tides flow and ebb along there firths. The rushing floods poured along these narrow channels by the ocean’s pressure, so unlike the gentle risings and fallings of the Mediterranean, are a source of wonder to the Romans, who speak, in rhetorical phrase, of the tossing and foaming waters as presenting the picture of a sea-tempest in the heart of the quiet country.2

The forests are of Nature’s planting. To nature, too, has been a committed the task of rearing them. they have grown wild from primeval time. Their trunks stand close together, their branches overlap and interweave, and the gloom underneath their matted and tangled boughs is almost like that of night. If any of these great trunks lie overturned, it is the winter’s tempest, not the axe, that has laid them low; scarce a branch has been lopped off. In their dark recesses lodge bears, wolves, boars, and other beasts of prey, which find secure and peaceful hiding in their labyrinths and mazes, which even the barbarian hardly knows or dares to track.

To the rivers has been extended the same exemption from man’s control which the forests so amply enjoy. The torrents wander at will in the channels which nature had dug for them. No embankment regulates their current or restrains their overflow; and when the skies of winter let fall their contents, the brooks are converted into raging cataracts and the rivers expand into lakes. The devastation they work where they burst their bounds gives but small concern to the natives, for hardly are there any cornfields to drown, although it may happen now and then that herd of cattle, of the old Caledonian breed, are caught in the rising waters and swept off in the flood.

Pathways there are none, save the hunter’s or the shepherd’s track, which may be seen winding capriciously over hill or across heathy strath, and losing itself in the far-off hazy edge of moorland. No bridge gives passage to the wayfarer over the stream. When the snow melts, or the autumnal rains descend, and the waters are swollen, the traveller swims the flood or wades the ford, and goes on his way over black bog or trackless moor., The roads which are one day to afford the means of communication betwixt the territory of tribe and tribe, and link hamlet to hamlet, await the coming of a future age with its necessities and arts. They are not needed in this, for the hunter disdains their use, and the trader has not yet found his way to a land where there is neither taste to appreciate nor money to purchase his wares.

The seas around the coast are even more solitary than the land. Seldom or never is the white gleam of sail seen upon them. They are vexed with frequent tempests, which, descending upon them from the north, raise their waters in mountainous masses, and hurl them against the shore as if they would drown the land;’ and even when the tempest has spent its fury and the billows again subside, it is not to sparkle gaily in the light like the seas of southern climes, but to lie sullen and dark, as if they still harboured their angry mood, and but waited an opportunity of renewing the war against the great rocks that guard the coast. In the long line of its rockbound shore, no beacon light shines out to guide the mariner, and no harbour opens amid the wave to give shelter to his vessel, which driven by the winds, reels onward to inevitable shipwreck. To these very real and formidable dangers, the imagination of the mariner added others, which were only the more alarming that they were vague and unknown. Rumour spoke of the region as overhung by perpetual darkness, and abounding in unknown perils and monsters of dreadful shape; and when the navigator found himself drawing nigh this haunted shore, he put his helm about and bore away to other and safer coasts. "If we trust the description of Procopius, Scotland was the real infernal region of the ancients, to which the souls of the dead passed in Charon’s boat from the opposite shore of Germany’ and where, of course, Ulysses must have gone to converse with them."3

"From earth a night

There of dim clouds ascends, and doubtful light."

Such was the Scotland which presented itself to the eyes of its first invaders, Agricola and Tacitus. What an intense earth-greed must have possessed the Roman when he coveted this poor country!


FOOTNOTES

1.The author has assumed that Tacitus accompanies his father-in-law to Britain. This impression, amounting to almost certainty, was produced by his perusal of the "Life of Agricola." In describing the country and its inhabitants, Tacitus takes the attitude of an eye-witness. When he speaks of those parts to which Agricola and the legions did not penetrate, he gives us the testimony of others, using the phrase, "they represent," but he drops the phrase when he has occasion to speak of what he himself must have seen, on the supposition that he accompanied the army into Scotland. Referring to former writers who had treated of Britain, he says, "I shall describe anew on the evidence of facts." Moreover, his sketches abound in minute and graphic traits, the picture of the battlefield at the foot of the Grampians, for instance, such as would linger in the memory and flow from the pen of only an eye-witness. Since forming this opinion, the author has been confirmed in it by discovering that Dr. Leonard Schmitz had come to the same conclusion, and on much the same grounds. "In A.D.78, he (Tacitus) married the daughter of Agricola," says he, "and as in the same year the latter proceeded to Britain, it is not unlikely that Tacitus may have accompanied him; for in some parts of the life of Agricola he shows a knowledge of the country which could scarcely have been acquired without seeing it."—A History of Latin Literature, by Leonard Schmitz, LL.D., p. 167, Lond. 1877.

2. Tacit., Vit. Agric., cap. 10.

3. Pinkerton, Enquiry into the History of Scotland, vol. ii. 50.