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The Battle of Mons Graupius

"He [Agricola] sent his fleet ahead to plunder at various points and thus spread uncertainty and terror, and, with an army marching light, which he had reinforced with the bravest of the Britons and those whose loyalty had been proved during a long peace, reached the Graupian Mountain, which he found occupied by the enemy. The Britons were, in fact, undaunted by the loss of the previous battle, and welcomed the choice between revenge and enslavement. They had realized at last that common action was needed to meet the common danger, and had sent round embassies and drawn up treaties to rally the full force of all their states."

Tacitus, Agricola (XXIX)

Agricola was governor of Britain from AD 77-83/84 and the father-in-law of Tacitus, who wrote his biography. To subdue the recalcitrant Caledonian tribes to the north, Agricola marched beyond the isthmus formed by the Firth of Clyde and the Firth of Forth into the highlands of Scotland, establishing a series of temporary camps along the way. Meanwhile, the fleet was sent ahead to raid the coast and provide supplies. Probably by the late summer or early fall of AD 83, in the seventh and final campaign season of his governorship, Agricola and Calgacus, leader of the Caledonii and a confederation of northern clans, confronted one another at a place named Mons Graupius.

Tacitus writes that the Britons numbered more than thirty thousand men. Agricola had eight thousand auxiliary infantry and four or five thousand auxiliary cavalry chosen from loyal tribes. Although he does not say how many legions there were, the Romans may have numbered as many. Foreign auxiliaries were in front, with the legions at camp in reserve—victory, writes Tacitus, being more glorious if there was no cost in Roman blood.

The Britons held the high ground, with their chariots on the plain in front. The Roman auxiliaries were arrayed opposite, Agricola, himself, leading them on foot. After an exchange of missiles, the auxiliaries closed in hand-to-hand combat, their short swords more effective than the longer swords and small shields of the Britons. At the same time, the cavalry dispersed the British chariots and engaged with the men on foot. As the rest of the British forces moved down the slope, Agricola threw in the reserve cavalry, which broke through the line and attacked the Britons from the rear. The native force was completely routed and only the coming of night saved the remainder. Ten thousand Britons died; on the Roman side, says Tacitus, only 360 fell. By dawn, says Tacitus, there was only the silence of desolation. As Calgacus had bitterly remarked of the Romans before the battle, "They make a desert and call it 'peace'" (XXX).

Twenty thousand men retreated that night and, in spite of Tacitus' statement that the island had been conquered, the highlands still were relatively free beyond the Forth-Clyde isthmus. Early the next year, Agricola was recalled to Rome to confront a resentful Domitian who, jealous of his success, would deny him any further imperial appointments. In AD 85, there were barbarian attacks from Dacia in the east, and Domitian eventually was obliged to withdraw what military presence had remained behind in northern Britain. The fort at Inchtuthil, part of a series of garrisons that closed off the highlands, was dismantled not long after it had been completed and, with it, any plans to conquer the land.

Tacitus' description is the only literary evidence for the Battle of Mons Graupius, the location of which is not certain. Wherever the site, the requisites are that there be a mount, with an expanse of open ground before it, and the presence of a nearby Roman campalthough, even when there is a camp, it cannot always be certain that it was contemporary with Agricola or built by a successor or later still during the campaigns of Septimius Severus in AD 208-211. Since Calgacus sought a confrontation, he presumably would have chosen a site on a route likely to be followed by the Romans. Or, more opportunistically, Agricola himself may have taken advantage of the tribes assembling in one place.

Several locations meet these requirements for the site of the battle. One of the first to be put forward was Raedykes, a large camp situated where the Grampian foothills come closest to the sea and form a narrow corridor. Here, it was argued, is a strategic site where the Romans would have to be confronted if they were not to advance farther north. Although large enough to contain Agricola's men, Raedykes may be Severan in origin. It also would seem too far south to be reconciled with Agricola's belief that he had reached the northern-most part of the island, indeed, that he was at "the furthest point of Britain" (XXXIII; also Calgacus that "there is no people beyond us, nothing but tides and rocks," XXX). The heights do not seem prominent enough to give the impression of serried ranks on its slopes, nor is there necessarily sufficient moorland to maneuver.

The discovery of Durno, the largest marching camp in northern Scotland, near the mount at Bennachie, seems a more probable setting. The terrain satisfies Tacitus' description of the battle. There is room to have extended the Roman line and still allow for the movement of cavalry, and the slope opposite the camp is steep enough to provide a defensive position and give the impression of tiered troops. The highlands to the west also offer a refuge for the defeated Caledonians. Still, there are objections, one of which is that Bennachie actually may be too broad a field for the combatants. The camp, too, which may not be Flavian, is larger than necessary for what was, after all, an expeditionary force. There also is a river that runs between the mount and the Roman camp which, although a necessary source of water, is not mentioned in Tacitus' account of the battle. Finally, the site may be too far from the coast and the fleet.

More northerly still is the Pass of Grange, overlooked by Knock Hill. Here, the Grampian mountains again come close to the sea and there is an approach to the Moray Firth. It is an advantageous site to defend and less than twenty kilometers from sheltered anchorage, where Agricola's fleet could have waited. But the Roman camp at Auchinhove and a larger one at Muiryfold both seem too small and too removed from the battle site.

Given that the battle of Mons Graupius took place late in the season and that the army quickly reached the site, a southern alternative has been proposed at Duncrub, a hill west of the Firth of Tay. The name likely derives from crup, meaning a hump, and is etymologically related to Craupius, which seems to have been the Latinized version of the original name. There also is a large Flavian camp at Dunning. But Duncrub would seem too low for Tacitus to remark on the Britons being "packed together on the slopes of the hill, rising up as it were in tiers" (XXXV). And, for a battle said to have taken place in the north, Dunning is the most southern of the suggested Roman marching camps.

Most recently, Fraser has identified Gask Ridge as the site of the battle. But this escarpment, which is across the River Earn from Duncrub, has its own weaknesses, the most important of which is that the river meanders through the middle of the battle field and would not have allowed room for the chariots to maneuver. Too, the ridge itself rises so abruptly from the river that it may have been difficult for the Britons to advance.

Durno had been discovered not long before Salway completed his book on Roman Britain, which may account for the pronouncement that "it is very likely indeed that the mountain now known as Bennachie is rightly to be identified as Mons Graupius." In a later revision, however, he was more circumspect: "Pending new evidence, we can do no more than say that it was somewhere in north-east Scotland." With Dunning and the suggestion of Gask Ridge nearby, even that tentative conclusion may have to be revised.

Some possible locations for Mons Graupius have been placed on a detail above from the Ordnance Survey Historical Map of Ancient Britain (2005), which includes the national and historical monuments from the neolithic to the early medieval periods. The only other map in the series is Historical Map of Roman Britain (2001).

References: Tacitus on Britain and Germany (1948) translated by H. Mattingly (Penguin Classics); Tacitus: Agricola and Germany (1999) translated by Anthony R. Birley (Oxford World's Classics); A Battle Lost: Romans & Caledonians at Mons Graupius (1990) by Gordon Maxwell; The Roman Conquest of Scotland: The Battle of Mons Graupius AD 84 (2005) by James E. Fraser; Roman Britain (1981) by Peter Salway; Agricola and the Conquest of the North (1987) by W. S. Hanson; The Fasti of Roman Britain (1981) by Anthony R. Birley.

A bibliographic note: Peter Salway is one of the most authoritative authors on Roman Britain, and the Oxford University Press has published a number of his books, some of which appear in more than one edition. In 1937, the first volume in The Oxford History of England series was published, and Roman Britain and the English Settlements by R. G. Collingwood and J. N. L. Myres has remained an important reference ever since. Originally, Salway was invited to revise it but instead wrote an entirely new book: Roman Britain, which was published in 1981 and reissued in paperback in 1984.

Oxford University Press also has a series of illustrated histories, one of which is The Oxford Illustrated History of Britain by Peter Salway and John Blair, which was published in 1984. Four years later, the first two chapters of that book were reprinted in paperback as Roman and Anglo Saxon Britain in The Oxford History of Britain series. In 1993, another handsome volume in this illustrated series appeared: Salway's The Oxford Illustrated History of Roman Britain. Four years later, it, too, was issued in paperback as A History of Roman Britain.

As which to read: In paperback, there are two choices: Roman Britain (1981/1984) and A History of Roman Britain (1993/1997). The first is two hundred pages longer and footnoted; the second is a condensed and revised version of the earlier book that takes into account later research and, in hardback, is beautifully illustrated.

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