How we really loved the Romans
New research explodes myth that Scots were untameable barbarians
October 28, 2002
By Juliette Garside
The enduring myth that the Romans left the 'barbarians' of Scotland untouched during their conquest of the rest of the British Isles has been shattered by a new archaeological find. Not only did they settle in Scotland for around 15 years in the first century AD ... they even got our ancestors to swap their beer and lard for wine and olive oil.
For hundreds of years, historians who based their theories on the classical writer Tacitus have always assumed the first major Roman push into Scotland was a brief and bloody affair. The then governor of Britain, Gnaeus Julius Agricola, was supposed to have marched his legions as far north as the Moray Firth and fought a decisive battle there in 84AD, before being immediately recalled to Rome by a jealous emperor Domitian.
History tells that his troops stayed on for a brief 18 months before a quarter of the British legions had to return home to fight at the Danube , in late 86 or early 87AD, and the frontier retreated to northern England, where Hadrian's Wall now stands.
The belief had always been that Agricola's stay in Scotland was too short to have had any significant cultural impact on the local population, a Celtic race whom Tacitus referred to as Caledonians.
While the English were learning to build villas with underfloor heating and baths with latrines, the northernmost inhabitants of the British Isles fought off the invaders and remained 'barbarians', untouched by Roman civilisation.
Tacitus's history of Agricola's career, made up and put into the mouth of one of the Caledonian chiefs, characterised the invaders as bringing nothing but destruction: 'To robbery, butchery and rapine, they give the lying name of 'government'; they create desolation and call it peace.'
Now the findings of a husband-and-wife team of archaeologists from Manchester University, to be revealed in the BBC documentary series Time Flyers next month, show the Romans were in Scotland for a stay as long as 15 years before their eventual withdrawal in late 86AD.
The archaeologists, David Woolliscroft and his wife Birgitta Hoffmann, have excavated along the line of the Gask frontier, a series of Roman forts and watch towers stretching from Perth to Dunblane which marked the line reached by Agricola.
They have found that the strong oak forts were rebuilt, in some cases not once but twice, suggesting the Romans stayed much longer than 18 months. The evidence of rebuilding and coins found on the sites have led the team to put the date of the first Roman conquest at around 70AD -- a decade earlier than was previously thought.
This means it would not have been Agricola, who happened to be the historian Tacitus's father-in-law, doing the conquering, but one of his predecessors, Petilius Cerealis or Sextus Julius Frontinus.
If the occupation did indeed last 15 years, a generation of ancient Caledonians grew up alongside the Roman barracks in the first century AD. Far from spending their time at war with the enemy, there is evidence the locals enjoyed an economic boom, with the production of meat and grain increasing in order to feed the foreign army, and luxury goods such as wine, olive oil, pottery and silverware finding their way into homes.
'The famous quote is the Romans make a desert and call it peace -- our research is showing probably the opposite,' said Woolliscroft, speaking in advance of the BBC show.
'The picture was the Romans arrived, they broke heads and they left again. We now have evidence that the Romans came and stayed longer than we thought and in certain areas their arrival may have been a benefit and stimulated the local economy.'
Excavations this August at a typical Celtic roundhouse near Doune uncovered fragments of glass bottles. These would have been of a square design, and used to hold olive oil or wine.
From the recovered pollen, the archaeologists found one well-off family were cattle owners rather than grain growers. And during the period of the Roman occupation, there are signs the number of animals on the surrounding land increased. There were even less trees than there are today, and the type of weeds that don't survive intensive grazing seem to have been killed off for a while.
'We are seeing signs that while the Romans are here agricultural activity really intensifies, either because of taxation or because the locals are supplying the army,' said Woolliscroft.
On other Celtic sites, luxury goods such as tableware and trays, amphorae, coins and glass have been found.
'A whole generation grew up alongside the Romans.' said Hoffmann. Far from fearing the invaders, local children would probably have hung about the nearest fort in the hope of getting little treats from the soldiers. 'They would have known that if you went to the fort you could get the equivalent of chocolate. Roman soldiers would have been like the GIs in the second world war.'
The first episode in the Time Flyers series is on Tuesday October 29th,
2002 at 7.30pm on BBC2