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"They [the Romans] are few in number, scared and bewildered, staring round at the sky itself and the sea and the forests, all strange to them—they are in a way like men imprisoned and chained, and the gods have delivered them into our hands....There is nothing beyond them to fear: just empty forts, coloniae of old men, towns sick and disunited between unwilling subjects and unjust rulers."
Tacitus, Agricola (XXXII)
Although Calgacus (Calgacos), the leader of the confederacy at Mons Graupius, is the first Caledonian to have a recorded identity, nothing else is known about him. He is mentioned only in Agricola, where Tacitus says that he was "one outstanding among the many leaders for his valour and nobility" (XXIX, although more may have been recorded in one of the lost books of the Histories).
Etymologically, Calgacus means "swordsman" and is related to the Irish calgach. But whether the word is a title or a given name is not known. Certainly, the long and unwieldy swords of the native Celts (Agricola, XXXVI) must have been as esteemed as they had been for the Iceni, who revolted when the Romans attempted to disarm them (Tacitus, Annals, XII.31).
It is the impassioned speech that he delivers before the Battle of Mons Graupius for which Calgacus is remembered, reported to have been "in words like these."
"You have not tasted servitude. There is no land beyond us and even the sea is no safe refuge when we are threatened by the Roman fleet....We are the last people on earth, and the last to be free: our very remoteness in a land known only to rumour has protected us up till this day. Today the furthest bounds of Britain lie open—and everything unknown is given an inflated worth. But now there is no people beyond us, nothing but tides and rocks and, more deadly than these, the Romans. It is no use trying to escape their arrogance by submission or good behaviour. They have pillaged the world: when the land has nothing left for men who ravage everything, they scour the sea. If an enemy is rich, they are greedy, if he is poor, they crave glory. Neither East nor West can sate their appetite. They are the only people on earth to covet wealth and poverty with equal craving. They plunder, they butcher, they ravish, and call it by the lying name of 'empire'. They make a desert and call it 'peace'" (XXX).
Although Calgacus is the only Briton to speak in Agricola, his words are those of Tacitus, whose set piece on libertas and servitium reflects his own embitterment, both for himself and his father-in-law Agricola, who had been appointed governor of Britain by Vespasian in AD 77. That support was lost, however, with the death of the emperor and the accession of Domitian, whose rule, recounts Tacitus, stole fifteen years from the lives of those who suffered it and forced all to experience "the depths of slavery" (Agricola, II). As for Agricola, who handed over to his successor, "a province peaceful and secure" (XL), it seemed that Britannia was abandoned by Domitian almost as soon as it had been conquered (Histories, I.2).
Calgacus is represented here by this picture of the Scottish highlands, taken about the same time of year as the battle itself.
Reference: The Roman Conquest of Scotland: The Battle of Mons Graupius AD 84 (2005) by James E. Fraser.
See also Wales and Roman Perceptions of Britain.
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