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Caledonia (Scotland)

The northern region of Great Britain comprising present-day Scotland was known by the Romans as Caledonia, after a local Celtic tribe, the Caledones. Caledonia was inhabited by two main groups of people. The first group, people of Celtic origin, began migrating into northern England from mainland Europe in approximately 7,000 BC and continued well into the time of Caesar, in the late first century BC. The second group, known later as the Picts, are the subject of much debate and theories of their origin include: they may have been an aboriginal people who lived and evolved in Northern England, migrations from Germany and Scythia (todays Eastern Europe and Central Asia), or as a mix of aboriginal and Celtic peoples, among others.

Development of these pre-Roman inhabitants evolved in a similar pattern to Celtic people all over mainland Europe. The whole of the south of Scotland, up to the very edges of the Highlands, became covered in small settlements. These settlements were usually made up of about six huts surrounded by wooden palisades. In the north and west, where trees were scarce, they built with stone, though in the same style.

They were farmers, cultivating wheat, oats and barley, and keeping pigs, herds of cattle, and flocks of sheep and goats. They depended on their livestock for food much more than they did their crops.

The Celts knew the skill of weaving, using a strong wooden frame called a loom and threads hung from its top cross bar, each pulled taut by a weight of baked clay or stone hanging near the floor. Fleece, shorn from their sheep using a sharp knife and spun into yarn, was woven to make woolen fabric. They used a wooden shuttle to pass the weft threads under one and over the next of the weighted warp threads, which were raised and lowered to let the shuttle pass easily.

They also wove other materials, basketwork and matting from rushes, wattle hurdles from thin or split branches, which they used for walling. Leather working was common, making clothing and harnesses, and even containers, which were easier to carry than the pottery ones previously used.

The people of ancient Scotland were energetic seamen -- traveling to Ireland (Hibernia), the Outer Hebrides and mainland Europe. The most powerful were fond of displaying their wealth. Beautiful gold and silver, arm, neck and ankle decorative bands have been found all over Britain.

They were highly skilled in working iron. Armor and weaponry took an evolutional leap forward due to their iron working abilities. The Celts were the first race to use the long sword and small shield (a type of buckler shield) in Europe. Previously, knives, daggers, short swords, axes, etc., were the accepted weapons of war. This three and one-half foot long sword later put fear into the invading Romans. The great Roman historian, Tacitus wrote of the Celtic weapon -- "...their (Celts) swords of this iron materials, and extreme length seemed a poor choice of sword to the legions until they saw that these monstrosities could actually be used quickly and efficiently with proper training. The Ninth Legion under Agricola, in Britain, feared the barbaric Caledonians extreme advantage in reach, with this overly long sword."

Calgacus, Agricola and Roman Invasion

(Note: a great deal of the "history" of this era comes from the writing of the Roman historian Tacitus. While invaluable as an ancient source, his work is tainted by the fact that he was the son-in-law of the general Agricola. Much of his work may have been embellished to lend support and glory to Agricola and Rome, as was common with ancient sources)

With the Claudian invasion of Britannia in the mid first century AD, and subsequent conquest of the southern tribes, the relative obscurity and isolation of the Caledonian people was about to end.

About 78 AD Gnaeus Julius Agricola was appointed governor of Britannia. His predecessor Cerialis, was primarily concerned with pacifying and Romanizing the local tribes, but Agricola had more "glorious" intentions. He wasted no time in carrying out a devastating campaign against the Ordovices in Wales and various other northern British tribes.

In 79 AD, the Emperor Vespasian died and Agricola was ordered by his successor, Titus, to conquer the whole of the island of Britain, and in early summer, invaded Scotland. Having already pacified the Votadini tribe, his sweep across the central lowlands was bloody and decisive. Under assault by two legions, the Selgovae tribe was decimated. On reaching the Forth/Clyde valleys, he secured his position with a turf wall between the rivers (This wall would be the foundation for the Antonine wall 60 years later). In the remainder of the year, he consolidated his position ensuring a non aggression pact with the western tribes of the Damonii and the Novantae.

In 81AD, however, the tribes in the south west revolted against the Roman occupation and Agricola's advance was halted while his forces quelled the Damonii and Novantae tribes. With that deed accomplished his legions moved north of the wall, but the campaigning season was coming to a close. Late in the same year, Domition succeeded his brother Titus, as Emperor, through treachery. Domition was at odds with Agricola and demanded a quick and decisive victory.

In the spring of 82AD, Agricola advanced his troops through Fife, with crushing defeats over the local Venicone tribe. He then advanced his position to include most of Tayside, and began the construction of a patrolled frontier along the entrances to the highland glens. This is known as the Gask frontier and was a series of forts, roads and signal stations. This frontier was connected to the wall in the south by a series of roads, and supplied from the sea along the Tay estuary.

As he pushed farther north Agricola realized that he was now facing not a selection of individual tribes, but a firm coalition, led by a warrior-chief, which in his diaries, he called "Calgacus". Tacitus provided a record of the words, or at least a common sentiment of Calgacus and the tribes of Britannia, as he came into contact with the Roman Legions. "They create desolation and call it peace. Let us then, unconquered as we are, ready to fight for freedom, prove what heroes Caledonia has been holding in reserve!"

With a seemingly unified front against the Romans, the campaign changed to that of two well organized armies jostling for position. Tacitus makes mention of vast military sweeps across the countryside, and of both sides splitting their forces, trying to gain the tactical upper hand. Calgacus and his Pictish army of warriors, farmers, hunters and craftsmen kept an entire professional Roman army occupied for the greater part of a year, employing guerilla tactics and avoiding the superiority of the Romans in a massed battle.

The Romans spent this inconclusive time continuing to build forts and defensive works to consolidate their position, once again. Agricola's emphasis may have been on the possibility of conquering Ireland. He may well have made a crossing from South West Scotland via the Solway Firth. He believed the whole of Ireland could be taken with just one legion and a few auxiliaries, but the Picts had other ideas.

In the summer of 82 or 83 AD, there was an uprising in the Forth - Clyde region. To suppress this revolt, Agricola launched an assault by land and sea. He divided his forces into three, playing into the strengths of the Picts. Taking Agricola completely by surprise, Calgacus and his Pictish army struck. There is detailed mention of this night attack on a legionary base near Lochore, in Fife. Tacitus describes a barbarous native assault on the weakened ninth legion's camp, which almost succeeded.

Tacitus writes, "they cut down the sentries, who were asleep or panic-stricken, and broke into the camp."

The Roman army was saved by the fast and timely arrival of reinforcements, and the tide began to turn. But when Calgacus realized that he now faced two forces, he ordered a retreat. His Picts then disengaged and melted away to fight again another day.

The Battle of Mons Graupius

In 83 AD, under pressure from Domitian to end the war, Agricola advanced north, supported by a Roman fleet, to a place which Tacitus named "Mons Graupius". The troop laden boats made a shore landing and spread inland to instill fear into the natives. Agricola engaged Calgacus, who this time, was there to fight it out. According to Tacitus, Agricola had 8,000 auxiliary infantry, 3,000 auxiliary cavalry, and two full legions. The total size of his forces is uncertain, but based on Tacitus estimates it must have been approximately 20,000 men. Calgacus was well aware of Roman tactics of taking the higher ground, so the Picts positioned themselves above the Romans first, placing their chariots in front of the main body of troops.

Tacitus describes lengthy pre-battle speeches by both generals to inspire their men and added further glory to Agricola. Dismounted from his horse, Agricola led the charge from the front. The Romans believed it was good to boost the morale of their troops by leading from the front.

The first part of the battle consisted of the exchange of missiles, followed by hand to hand combat. At the same time, the cavalry appeared and went among the tribal forces scattering them as they went. Calgacus attempted a last-ditch effort to win the day. He ordered chariot forces down the slope to flank and encircle the Roman rear. Unfortunately for the Picts, Agricola held cavalry in reserve, and at a signal, four squadrons of cavalry came forward. They burst through the Pictish lines, circling round behind them and sending Calgacus and his army into disarray and flight.

Tacitus says that some 10,000 tribal forces fell for the loss of 360 Romans. By night, two thirds of them had fled back to the highlands from where they had come. While a brilliant victory described by the slanted Tacitus, perhaps as many as 20,000 Picts were able to escape and live to resist Roman occupation. After the battle, Agricola withdrew to the Gask line forts. The battle reconfirmed that the tribal forces were no match for the Romans in an organized traditional Roman style fight. The survival of the Picts and northern Celts would in the future rely on continuing guerrilla efforts. Roman victory in a pitched battle over these tribes was not difficult for the might of the Roman army, but the wild mountainous terrain of Caledonia made the total subjugation of this remote Highland people a formidable and rather unprofitable task.
Perhaps the best and only real chance for the complete Roman conquest of Britain rested with Agricola. But back in Rome, Domitian was jealous and worried by Agricola's popularity, and recalled his successful general. He was sent off as governor of Syria and later retired to private life, and despite later efforts, the Romans would never advance farther north than Agricola.

Hadrian's Wall

The Romans held the Gask ridge for no more than a year or two, and then withdrew southward to pre-Agricola positions. Little is known of the next 30 years. As the Picts and Celts didn't yet keep written record, it was a quiet period historically, in the absence of Roman occupation. Assuredly, there were skirmishes between Romans and Picts; the tribes moved south into the lowlands, re-establishing their forts and farms, and the Romans sent sorties north from their bases at Carlisle and Newcastle.

In 121AD, during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian, the fighting between the two nations had become such a problem to the Romans that they felt northern properties were in danger to Pictish raids. Hadrian ordered the construction of a stone wall, 72 miles long from Carlisle on the west coast to Newcastle on the east coast. They constructed watchtowers every mile and large forts along its length were the only means to cross. Hadrian's Wall is an enduring monument to the Roman occupation of Caledonia and northern Britannia and the resistance of its people.

The Antonine Wall

Antoninus Pius succeeded Hadrian to the Roman throne in 138 AD and he may have felt that he needed an immediate military triumph to boost his prestige with the army. He ordered Quintus Lollius Urbicus, governor of Britain, to advance the border further north. A new wall was constructed in the early 140s, named after the emperor, running the 37 miles/60 kilometers across the narrow neck of land between the Forth (Bo'ness) and the Clyde (Old Kilpatrick). Antonine's Wall was built from blocks of turf, laid on a stone foundation.

Sometime around 154 AD, there was a southern revolt, possibly by the Brigantes, and units of the Roman garrison were withdrawn to the south. Now vulnerable, there were raids on the Wall, itself, and the destruction of some of its forts. These raids were eventually repressed and the wall was reoccupied by 158 AD. Its defense, however, was still not tenable and, sometime after Antoninus' death in 161 AD, it was abandoned altogether. By 164 AD, once again, the northern frontier of Britain reverted to Hadrian's Wall.

During the subsequent reign of Marcus Aurelius, most of Roman attention was focused on the Danube in Germania, but raids and conflict prevailed along Hadrian's Wall as well. Later Emporers (Septimius Severus, Caracalla) would again attempt Caledonian conquest, but at the time of Commodus in 180 AD, the status quo for the Roman's was maintaining the border along Hadrian's Wall.

Tribes of Caledonia

Despite their attempts at conquest Romans brought a certain amount of order to Scotland. They identified and classified 17 tribes and loosely identified the territories they occupied. In addition they also observed that tribal chiefs had a religious as well as a royal function. The succession of leaders was matrilineal: it mattered more who their mother was than who their father was. This perpetuated the myth, that later romantics enhanced, that Pictish society was democratic, but it was in fact full of social different nations.

Under the tribal leader there was a class who maintained Chariots and fought from them. These charioteers had the status of Baron's, owned cattle and land in their own right and usually they owned slaves who worked their land and sea are in their homes. The slaves would normally be prisoners of war, although their status was often hereditary. There may also have been raids to obtain slaves from other tribes and vulnerable coastal communities. Between the ranks of barons and slaves were the freeholders, who owned shares in the common land of each tribal group.


The Pictish homeland was mainly in the low-lying coastal areas of Eastern Scotland where they sustained themselves through fishing and farming. The name Pict itself is believed to be derived from the Latin word Pictii, "the painted men". Celtic neighbors seem to have known them by the name Cruithni.

As mentioned earlier, the origin of the Picts is not known. They developed a similar language to that of Celtic and seem to have eventually blended in to Celtic culture. Whether they were a separate race or a name given to a collaboration of Celtic tribes fighting the Romans doesn't change the fact that they were a fierce and formidable adversary. After the withdrawal of Rome, the Picts would dominate the military and political culture of Scotland until the 9th Century AD.


The Celts were never one kingdom or unified culture. They inhabited and ruled most of Europe but never as a unified nation. Families formed clans and clans formed tribes. They were all loyal to their own kings and queens, and had their own social and economic orders.

There were the Damonii, who lived in the west, an area that covered from what is now known as Ayrshire, all the way to Clyde. Then, further south were the Novantae, whose territory spread over Galloway and Dumfries. On the east coast were the Votadini, whose people lived as far north as the River Forth. The Votadini had their capital on a hill in East Lothian called Traprain Law. Twenty miles away from Traprain Law there was another Votadinian center, which would later become Edinburgh. The fourth of these southern tribes, the Selgovae, held the area between the Votadini (in the east) and the two western coast tribes.

The other 12 tribes lived to the north of Scotland, above the Forth and Clyde. They ranged from the Epidii in the Mull of Kintyre to the Cornovii in Caithness, and from the Cerones in northwestern highlands to the Taezali, whose territory is now known as Aberdeenshire, and the Caledones from whence "Caledonia" got its Latin name. The other remaining tribes were the Venicones, Vacomagi, Decantae, Carnonocae, Caereni, Lugi and Smertae.


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Caledonia - Related Topic: Agricola


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