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History Of The Scottish Nation
Vol 1, Chapter 18 - Expedition of Severus, and withdrawal of Romans from Britain


To follow the tide of the imperial conquests in Britain in its every flow and ebb is no part of our plan. A mightier power than the Roman entered our country about this time, the early conquests of which we wish we could clearly trace and minutely chronicle; but its footsteps are in silence, and meanwhile we must give our attention to a power whose battles are with "confused noise," and its victories with "garments rolled in blood." It is the fortune of the Roman arms in Britain now to advance, and now to recede. The frontier of the empire is never for more than a few years on end stationary and fixed. It is a moving line. Now it runs between the Tyne and the Solway, coinciding pretty nearly with what is now the "Border," and including the England of our day, Northumberland excepted, a county which, from the ruggedness and picturesqueness of its surface, seems rather to claim affinity with the northern land. And anon, the line that bounds the empire is pushed onward to the Firth of Forth and is made to embrace the southern shires of the modern Scotland. We have seen the attempt of Agricola to carry it even farther to the north, but that attempt was foiled by men whose valour was the better half of their armour. Here, then, is the extreme northern verge of the Roman world, and here we can imagine the sentinel going his rounds, his attention divided betwixt the prowling native hordes outside the wall and the play of light and shade on the green Ochils in the distance, a happier man than Domitian, who, though master of an empire which touched the Nile and the Euphrates on the south, and the shores of the Forth on the north, dared not stir across the threshold of his palace for fear of the dagger.

Soon after his battle, Agricola was called to Rome to receive from his dark and jealous master the double gift of thanks and a cup of poison. His line of forts was converted into a continuous fortification, probably about A.D. 139. It formed a triple rampart, consisting of earthen or turf walls of broad ditch, and military road, thirty-six miles in length. The wall ran along in the middle, and was twenty feet high. It had the ditch on its outward or north side, forty feet wide and twenty deep. The causeway, or military road, was on the inward side. At every two miles throughout its whole extent rose a tower by which intelligence could be signalled from end to end with a speed not greatly below that of the modern telegraph. Antoninus Pius being emperor, the work bore his name, though constructed by his lieutenant Lollius Urbicus. After eighteen centuries, traces of Antoninus’s wall still remain in the form of grassy mounds; and the traveller by rail betwixt the cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow has the satisfaction of thinking that he is being carried along on the almost identical line that formed the northern boundary of the greatest of ancient empires, over the forgotten site of Roman camps and towns, and the resting-place of many a now nameless warrior.

Within less than thirty years from the battle of Mons Grampius, we find the north Britons again gathering in force, descending like a cloud on Agricola’s line of forts, driving the Romans before them, and recovering the territory which the invader had wrested from its original occupants to subject it to Rome. Again the boundary of the empire had receded to the Solway. Here an arrangement of sea and land, not unlike that which farther north had attracted the military eye of Agricola, offered itself to the leader of this renewed invasion, and of this a similar advantage was taken. The Emperor Hadrian, about A.D. 120, built a wall between the Tyne and the Solway, seventy miles in length, again joining the eastern and western seas. Hadrian’s wall was vastly stronger than Agricola’s fortifications; it was of solid masonry, laid down in courses of great and carefully hewn blocks of freestone, strengthened with square massy towers at short distances, in which garrisons were lodged, and defended on the side towards Scotland by a broad ditch, while within, on the English side, ran successive parallel rows of earthen ramparts. Onward it went, straight as an arrow, turning aside for no inequality of ground, climbing the brow of the loftiest eminence, and again, by steep and rapid descent, seeking the valley. It was a prodigious undertaking; lofty and broad, like battlements of city—indeed, of superfluous strength—and finished almost like wall of palace. Its magnificent remains impress with wonder the beholder at this day, suggesting as they do, the many millions that must have been lavished upon it, the hundreds of thousands of men employed in rearing it, and the engineering skill that superintended the whole. How much must Rome have respected, not to say feared, the valour of those barbarians against whom she erected this mighty bulwark! And how much must she have prized those provinces which she was careful to defend at a cost so immense, and with labor so prodigious!

But Rome could not abide within this limit. The fortification of Hadrian was not to be a final boundary; it was only a temporary halting place, a convenient base whence Rome might conquer northwards. And soon that insatiable hunger of sea and land, which animated the mistress of the world, began—again to stir within her. Antoninus Pius had now assumed the purple. Not content with the now well-cultivated meadow-lands of England, he began to covet the country of moorland and mountain that stretched away to the north from Hadrian’s wall. By dint of fighting he again advanced the Roman dominion to the old line of Agricola, and once more the sentinels of Rome took up their position on the shores of the Forth and the Clyde, and their eagles were again within the shadow of the great mountains. Antonine strengthened the new frontier by converting, in the manner we have already said, Agricola’s line of forts into a regular fortification, and at the same time he attempted to carry out, by means of military forts and camps, an semi-occupancy of the country on the north as far as to the foot of the Grampians.

But the near approach of the Romans to these hills awakened anew the tempest which had only slumbered. Patriotism may burn as strongly in the breast of the barbarian as in that of the civilised man, though it may not be able to express itself so finely; and one must grant that the love of liberty and of country, mingled with and ennobled that thirst for vengeance which animated the fierce and warlike tribes which now rushed down from their mountains to raise the cry of battle against a power which, mistress though she was of the fairest kingdoms on the globe, had sought them out at the end of earth to put her yoke upon their neck.

The legionaries retired before the storm that rolled down upon them from the hills. They fell back to Antonine’s wall at the Forth. The barbarian host followed them thither, their numbers increased doubtless as they advanced. Even the fortification the legionaries found untenable against the fierceness of northern assault, and they had to retreat to the stronger and more southern wall of Hadrian. Again the limits of the empire are rolled back to the Solway.

It was now the year A.D. 204. The reigning emperor, Severus, incensed by these repeated affronts to the power of Rome offered by barbarians, resolved on striking a blow which should quell, once for all, the insurrections of these northern tribes, and annex all Britain for ever to the empire. In order to this, he raised an army, which he led in person, so intent was he on the accomplishment of his design. An old man—he was now sixty—racked with gout, and unable to keep the saddle, he made himself be carried in a litter at the head of his soldiers.1 He entered Scotland with an army of from fifty to a hundred thousand men. The Caledonians did not venture battle. This mailed and disciplined host which followed Severus was odds too great to be met in the open field. They remembered the slaughter which Agricola had inflicted upon them with half that number of soldiers a century ago, and they profited by the lesson. They sought to deprecate the wrath of the gouty old emperor by meeting him at Hadrian’s wall with offers of peace. Their terms were scornfully rejected. They must first taste the vengeance of Rome, and know of what a crime they had been guilty when they rose in insurrection against her. Severus gave orders to have the roads cleared, the bridges repaired, and every obstruction removed out of the way of his troops. Thus began their march northwards. Around them, day after day, as they advanced into the land, were silent moors and gloomy forests, but inhabitants there were none that were visible. The Romans eagerly courted battle, the Caledonians as eagerly avoided it. But the legions soon began to feel that the enemy, though invisible, was never far away. The Caledonians, concealed in their numerous ambushes, which the woody and marshy country afforded them, and secure in their mountain fastness, left their powerful invaders to wage unprofitable war with the pathless forests, the naked rocks, and the fierce tempests of the great mountains. If the natives ventured from their lurking-places, it was only to fall on his flank and rear, and after cutting off his detached parties, to vanish once more in the friendly mist or in the dark wood.

They contrived to make their very herds bear their part in this great national struggle. The food magazines of the Romans were getting low. The Caledonians made them welcome to replenish their exhausted stores from bare moor or hunt of wild boar in the wood or thicket, if they were able; but they had taken care that no supplies should they glean from field or barnyard. They had not sowed that the Roman might eat. Ziphiline, in his abridgment of Dion Cassius, tells us that at times they would leave a few head of cattle, as if by oversight, in the way of the legions. It was a tempting bait to hungry soldiers. They would rush upon the beeves, but as they were making merry over their prize, and in the act of bearing it off, a band of ambushed Caledonians would start up, fall upon the spoilers, and handle them so severely, that it was rare that even one escaped to carry tidings of the trap into which they had fallen. The snare was sure to be set for their comrades on the morrow. The misery the Romans endured was extreme. Worn out with their march through bogs and woods, they sank on the earth, begging their fellows to kill them that they might not die by the hands of the Caledonians.

Continuing his march in this fashion, triumphant over woods, moors, rocks, and hills, everything, in short, but the natives, Severus traversed the chain of the Grampians, descended on Strathspey, and at last reached the shores of the Moray Firth. His army encountered, in their route, hardships tenfold greater than would have been those of the most fiercely contested battle. They had to hew their way with the axe through dense forests, they had to bridge rivers, and with spade and pick extemporise roads over wild mountains. In these exhausting toils, to which were added the frost and snows of winter, fifty thousand men, it is said, perished. Even here, on this northern shore, Severus had not reached the extremity of his wild land. He would descry, rising on his startled sight, still further to the north, the precipices that line the coast of Caithness, and the great mountains that rise in the interior of Sutherlandshire. And as regarded the natives, whom he sought to conquer, he had driven them into hiding, but he had not compelled them to submission. The emperor waited here on the southern shore of the Cromarty Firth, uncertain whether to retreat or to go forward, and his stay was so prolonged that it gave him opportunity to mark the long light of the days in summer, and the equally long darkness of the winter nights.

At length Severus, breaking up his encampment, set out on his return journey. The Caledonians, feeling that each day’s march brought them a new enlargement and liberty, were careful to put no obstruction in the path of the retreating host. The emperor halted at York, and there he received tidings that startled and enraged him. The whole north was in insurrection behind them. How would this inglorious campaign tell at Rome? An army wasted, but no conquest achieved.! No train of captives, and no wagons laden with rich spoil had he to lead along the Via Sacra, and evoke the plaudits of the populace when he should re-enter the capital! Only the wolves of Badenoch fed with Roman flesh! It had been foretold that Rome he should never more see; and it required no gift of prophecy to presage that a sickly and gouty old man like Severus would never return from a campaign prosecuted amid the mists and snows of Caledonia. The master of the world had failed to make himself master of Scotland. The emperor died at York in A.D. 211, as he was planning a terrible revenge upon tribes whose crime was that they had dared, "at the extremities of the earth and of liberty,"—to make use of the words which Tacitus puts into the mouth of Galgacus —to assert their independence at the cost of the glory of Rome.

From the hour that Severus breathed his last, the Roman dominion in Britain steadily declined. The evil days had come upon Rome herself. Torn by faction, and weakened by profligacy at her centre, attacked on her extremities by the natives of Germany and Scythia, she had to gather in her armies, in order to repel that ever-increasing host of assailants whose vengeance she had provoked by her oppression, and whose cupidity she had awakened by her riches. After an occupancy of well-nigh five centuries, the Romans, in A.D. 414, quitted our shores, never more to return.

It was passing strange that the mistress of the world should so intently covet our remote and rugged isle. Her sceptre was swayed over the fairest realms and the richest kingdoms of earth. Egypt was hers: she stored her granaries and fed her populace with the harvests of the Delta and the corn of the Nile. The wealthy cities of Asia Minor, replenished with the various elegances and luxuries of art and commerce, were hers. Hers were the dates and spices of Arabia; the coral and the pearls of Indian seas; the ebony of Ethiopia; the gold, the silver, the iron, and the tin of Spain; the fruits and wines of France; the timber and hides of Germany: in short, everything which tree or field, river or ocean, yielded between the Euphrates and the Atlantic, for hers was the ample and fertile territory which in former days owned the sway of the ancient Babylon. More precious treasures by far than any which the soil produces, or the handicraft of man creates, did she possess. Greece had labored, and Rome had entered into her labours. What was the wealth of the mine or of the mart compared with the intellectual treasures—the thinking of the greatest sages of the heathen world—which had descended to her as a peerless heritage! And yet, as if it had been nothing to possess a world, so long as she lacked the little Scotland, she strove for centuries to seize and hold that diminutive territory. For this end she freely lavished her blood and treasure. She sent great armies to subjugate it, and these, as we have seen, were at times led by the emperor in person; and when insurrection threatened to deprive her of her conquests in this remote quarter, yet greater armies did she send to make sure her hold upon them. Such attractions had our heath-clad, storm-swept, and sea-engirdled country in the eyes of her who was "Lady of Kingdoms." This is out of the common course, and cannot be explained on the ordinary principles of ambition. The hand of Providence is here. Our island has been chosen to act a great part in the future; it was to become a fountain of loftier and purer influences than any that ever emanated from the Roman capitol, or the Greek acropolis; and it pleased Providence to employ the sword to begin our education for our high destiny.

We behold the Romans quitting our shores. What benefits do they leave behind them? The Roman occupancy, it is to taken into account, lasted nearly five hundred years; that is, about as long as since the battle of Bannockburn to the present hour. Such was the duration of the Roman period in southern Britain. Its length in Scotland was somewhat shorter, being only about three centuries and a half, and its area only a comparatively narrow strip of the country. In either case there was sufficient time to allow of great changes. And great changes did take place. The face of the country was changed; the manners and dwellings of the people were changed; arts and literature, cities and city life were introduced, especially into that part of Britain which forms the modern England. In what is now Scotland, the action of the Romans was less continuous, their frontiers oscillating between the Forth and the Solway, and the impression they made on Northern Britain was less marked. The men of the hills did not so readily respond to the strong touch of the Roman hand as did their neighbours, who occupied and soft meadows and breathed the milder air of the south.

To secure their hold on the country the conquerors found it necessary to cut down woods, drain marshes, and construct roads and bridges. Their roads were great undertakings; they were the links that knit the most distant provinces to the capital. Starting from the golden milestone of Augustus, in the capitol, they traversed the empire in all directions: this running off towards sun-rise, that stretching away towards the western sea; this turning towards the torrid south, and that towards the frozen north. These roads were solidly made, as befitted an empire that deemed itself eternal. Their bed was filled in with successive layers of gravel and stones, and they were finished atop with large hewn blocks of tufa, so smooth that the luxurious Roman found no inconvenience in driving along upon them in a carriage without springs. The tempests, the earth-quakes, and the wars of two thousand years have not entirely obliterated them. Vestiges of the Roman roads, in a wonderful state of preservation, are to be seen at this day, not in Italy only, but in almost all countries that once formed part of the empire of Rome.

The great road that ran northwards to Britain terminated at Boulogne. Resuming, on the English side of the Channel, on the shore of Kent, it held a straight course to London. From London it ran northwards like a white ribbon stretched across the green land, rising and falling as it passed from mountain-top to mountain-top. Trodden by the myriad feet of centuries, and ploughed by the torrents of two thousand winters, it can yet be traced, with numerous breaks, on the face of the country, and is known as "Watling Street." This great road was continued into Scotland. Crossing the valley of the Tyne near Hexham, it ran on by Jedburgh, skirted the Eildon Hills, traversed the Pentlands, and taking a westward slant to Cramond, held on its course to Camelon, on the Roman wall. This was not the only line of communication which the Romans maintained in Scotland. A second road starting from near Carlisle, and running on by Langton, it was prolonged to the western extremity of Antonine’s wall, near Old Kilpatrick, Dumbartonshire. Nor were Camelon and Old Killpatrick the terminating points of the Roman roads in Scotland. The invaders had frequent occasion to act on the north of the Forth and of the Tay, and needed highways for the passage of their armies. The strath of the Earn, and the valley of Strathmore were traversed by Roman roads, which ran on till they touched the Grampians. This great chain seemed a natural boundary, setting limits to the engineering operations as well as to the military conquests of the Roman power; the solitary instance of Severus excepted. What a contrast between the dreary and silent wilds amid which these roads drew to an end, and the pomp and luxury, the trophies of conquest and the symbols of empire which crowded the Forum, where they took their rise! We can imagine the Caledonian, as he crosses them in the chase, pausing for a moment to call up the contrast, which, after all, he could but dimly realise.

The Romans, moreover, encouraged husbandry. England was greatly greener and fairer in the last centuries of their occupancy than when Caesar first touched its shore. Its natural rich soil responded to the hand of the Roman farmer in abundant harvests. Its corn now began to be carried across the Channel and sold in the markets of France. Scotland, it is probable, with a less fertile soil, did not mark and equal agricultural advance. Nevertheless, with so practical a people as the Romans in it for more than three centuries, it could not be but that rows of fruit-trees now cheered the spring with their rich blossoms, and broad cornfields gladdened the eye in autumn with the gold of their ripened grain, where aforetime had been brown moor or dark wood. The sixth legion continued to be stationed at York for three hundred years, and the soil around the ancient city is, to this day, the better for their residence. Roman remains, too, are often dug up in it—altars, images, pottery, and even fragments of Roman furniture.

The trade and commerce of Britain did not owe their beginning to the Romans, but doubtless they received a great impulse from them. The tin of Cornwall drew the Phoenicians first of all to our shores, and these early merchants gave us our first lessons in commerce. In exchange for the ore of our mines, the Phoenicians bartered the fruits of the East, and doubtless also the curious and costly articles wrought on its looms, and in the workshops of Asia. They paid for what they carried away, at times in coin, but more commonly in rich robes, in cutlery, and in weapons for war. The war chariots in which Caesar found the natives of Britain taking the field are just as likely to have been brought across the sea, in the large Phoenician vessels, as to have been manufactured in the country. The spirit of trade thus awakened at the south-western extremity of our island would soon spread along the shore, extend inland, and finally centre in the capital, which bore the same name it does at this day. The Romans called it Augusta, but viewing the new name as but the livery of the conqueror, it dropped it and resumed the old British appellation of London. Tacitus 2 makes mention of London, describing it as a city renowned for the multitude of its merchants, and the extent of its commerce. But though they did not originate, the Romans greatly stimulated the commercial and trading operations of the early Britons. The arts they introduced, and the greater wealth that followed: the richer harvests, the consequence of an improved industry, the more numerous exports the Briton now carried to the foreign market, and above all, the roads with which the conquerors opened up the country, administered stimulants to trade, and furnished facilities for its prosecution, which till then had been unknown in Britain.

The Romans were great builders as well as great road makers. The wall of Hadrian remains, even in its ruins, an imperishable monument of what they could plan and execute in this way. Besides the great works undertaken for military purposes, they were the founders of towns and the builders of villas. This holds true mainly of England. Beyond the Forth the barbarian remains master of his moors, and repelled with scorn the touch of that imperious hand which sought to refine, but which sought also to enslave. Yet the Caledonian was not able wholly to keep out the subtle and permeating spirit of progress which Rome brought with her. It is calculated that there were forty-six military stations and twenty-eight large cities between Inverness and London.3 In most cases towns grew up around the military stations, just as in the middle ages burghs sprung into existence beside the baron’s castle; the inhabitants being naturally desirous of planting their dwellings where they had most chance of protection. These towns were most numerous along the line of the two walls. In the belt of country traced out between the Tyne and the Solway by Hadrian’s rampart, there would seem to have been about a score of towns, great and small. These, judging from their remains, contained theatres, temples, and baths, such as the Romans were wont to frequent in their own country in quest of relaxation and amusement. On the line of the northern wall a considerable Roman population existed. There was a large Roman town at Camelon, in the neighbourhood of Falkir, and another at Castlecary, where was also a Roman station, right through the centre of which now runs the railway.

In the south of England, Roman villas and towns were frequent. Several of the latter have been disentombed of late years. One of the latest to be laid bare was the Roman town at Wycomb, six miles east of Cheltenham, at the Coltswold hills, near the sources of the Thames. On the soil being removed, an almost entire town disclosed itself, the seat of an activity and life long extinct. The line of streets and the arrangement of the town were plainly visible. The foundations showed where private dwellings or where public edifices had stood. There was all that could minister to the luxury and the amusement of the citizen: baths, amphitheatres for his entertainment, temples for his devotion, and a tomb to receive him when dead. The tesselated pavement remained in many places; much buried money, including coins of all the emperors, was dug up on the site. Emblem of the men who used it, this treasure, prized dearly once, and kept bright and shining, passing rapidly from hand to hand, had long since been abandoned to rust, and trodden under foot, and has ceased to have part of lot in the business of the world.

The numerous remains of Roman villas which have been discovered in England we take as a certain indication that the Italian gentleman of that age, in many instances, chose south Britain as a place of residence in preference to his native land. Nor is it surprising that he should do so, for England, even the England of that day, had some attractions which Italy could not boast. Few countries in the world can compete, in point of soft and beautiful scenery, with the tract lying between Worcester and Bristol. There swellings more graceful, woods more umbrageous, and richer pastures than are to be found in Italy, regale the eye. The air temperate, the fields green all the summer through, no severe alternations of heat and cold as in Italy, the milk and butter delicious, the "roast" such as England only can show, the spring-time now pleasant! The air loaded with the odours that exhaled from the blossoms of the numerous fruit trees; even the dog-days tolerable; autumn, with its clear, crisp air, wooing one a-field; the dwelling embellished with the elegances of Italian art, and the library table covered with the productions of the Italian muse; it is difficult to discover why the self-expatriated Roman should not find life just as enjoyable in England as at home, and, if he loved quiet, perhaps a little more enjoyable. In the meadows of the Trent and the Avon, he was far removed from the turmoil and intrigue with which faction was now filling Italy. York, and the country around it, seem to have had not a few charms for the Romans. It was a favourite resort of theirs, and even to this day there is a Roman air, an imperial halo, as it were, round that old city. There Constantine, the first Christian emperor, was born, and there Constantius Chlorus lived and died.

It only remains to specify, as the final benefit bestowed by our invaders, the introduction of the law and literature of Rome. For the wild justice of the native chiefs there was now substituted the regulated and equitable procedure of the Roman code. In the calm, passionless judge who occupied the tribunal, and who saw the cause but not the parties before him, the Briton was able to see the difference, in some degree, between law as a principle, and law as a mere force. The Roman tribunal became the open door through which he obtained a glimpse into an ethical world which had hitherto been veiled to him. His belief in the right, and his resolve to practice it, would be strengthened. This was a greater, because a deeper, and more lasting benefit than any direct and immediate advantages, though these were great, which flowed from a righteous administration. Some of the towns were privileged with municipal government, and thus was gradually created a sense of corporate rights. Not a few of the youth of Britain began to study the literature and to speak the polished tongue of Rome. They were henceforth conscious, doubtless, of a subtle but powerful influence revolutionising their whole intellectual being, and imparting a capacity for pleasures of a more refined and exquisite nature than any they had tasted heretofore.

Thus it came to pass that when the five centuries of their occupancy came to an end, and the Romans bade a final adieu to our country, they left behind them, in their roads, in their tribunals, in their municipal corporations, in their marts and channels of commerce, domestic and foreign, and in the mental discipline of their literature, not only the entire framework of the civilisation, as it then existed in the empire itself,—a civilisation which, as we shall see, was afterwards wholly swept away,—but what was far better, a young but pure Christianity which was destined to form the basis of the ultimate and enduring civilisation of Britain. When that civilisation which Rome imparted had, like a too early blossom, or an untimely birth, perished and been forgotten, that which the Gospel gave lived and flourished in the expanding power and growing prosperity of the country


FOOTNOTES

1. Herodian says—Senex, et morbo articulari laborans: tanta autem animi virtute quanta nemo (unquam) vel juvenum. Igiter iter ingressus lectica plurimum vehebatur, nulloque cessabat locl.—Herod. Hist., lib. iii. p. 265.

2. Londinum copia negotiatorum et commeatum maxime celebre.—Tacit. Ann., xiv. 33.

3. Cosmo Innes, Scotland in the Middle Ages, p. 42, Edin. 1860.


 

 


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