Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.03.10 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.03.10

Simon Elliott, Septimius Severus in Scotland: The Northern Campaigns of the First Hammer of the Scots.   Barnsley, South Yorkshire:  Greenhill Books, 2018.  Pp. 208.  ISBN 9781784382049.  £19.99.  


Reviewed by Kathryn McBride, Harvard University (mcbride@hsph.harvard.edu)

The subtitle of Simon Elliott’s volume “the Northern Campaigns of the First Hammer of the Scots” draws a fitting comparison between Roman emperor Septimius Severus and the 13th century English king Edward I (a.k.a. Edward Longshanks, a.k.a. the adversary of Mel Gibson’s William Wallace and more recently Chris Pine’s Robert the Bruce). It is an apt assessment: both men were revered for their strong leadership skills, military might, and dedication to law and order—unless of course, you were Scottish.

Elliott’s book sets out to deliver historical background for both the man (Septimius Severus) and the mission (his conquest of northern Britain), and in many ways, it is successful. The book provides a clear picture of Severus—his family, motives, and character—and the factors that ultimately contributed to one of the most notorious military campaigns in Roman history. The volume does have a few flaws, however, including a slightly unfocused mission, uneven chapters, and only a slim representation of the conquered peoples of Iron Age Scotland.

The introductory chapter of the volume opens by clearly laying out the mission of the book: to provide thorough contextual information—especially regarding the military and the political situation—of the 209 and 210 CE Severan campaigns in Scotland. By all accounts this was a particularly brutal period for north Britain, and here Elliott begins to untangle why Septimius Severus felt the need to launch his ruthless expeditio felicissima Britannica. This chapter continues with a review of the data and sources used in the investigation, and a short list of definitions of different military camps and settlement types.

The next eight chapters are arranged in roughly three sections: chapters 1-3 provide the reader with ample general background on the early to mid-Roman Imperial period; chapters 4-6 offer a biographical sketch of Septimius Severus himself; and the final two chapters detail the campaign into Scotland and its aftermath.

Chapter 1 is a catch-all collection of information ranging from the geology and climate of North Britain and Scotland to the political organization of the Empire to the Roman economy, including a condensed literature review of the evolving scholarly opinions on Romanization. For a reader unfamiliar with these topics, it is an effective introductory overview.

It is clear from the depth and breadth of research included in Chapter 2 that the author’s background and scholarly interests lie in the Roman military. (Elliott, in fact, informs the reader that this is the case.) This chapter is far more detailed than any other and provides both peripheral and useful contextual information about the Severan campaign, including the military reforms undertaken by Severus (e.g., changes to the dress and arms of the Roman army), the ethnic makeup and cultural identity of his troops, and a summary of key military sites in Britain, with short discussions of the Hadrian and Antonine Walls. The original contributions related to the key role of the navy in imperial conquest both in Britain and the wider empire are particularly welcome.

The final chapter of the general background section is a very brief (eight pages) review of the conquest of Roman Britain. Elliott sets the stage for the Scottish campaigns with a short rundown of the previous operations in Britain throughout the 1st and 2nd centuries CE, including a list of the major native tribes and their corresponding locations, a topic to which I will return later.

Chapters 4 and 5 are biographical in nature, relying heavily on historical sources to paint a picture of the early life of the experienced and hardened emperor Septimius Severus, who eventually engaged in one of the most brutal campaigns in Roman history. The first chapter (Chapter 4) starts quite broadly with a brief history of Roman North Africa, the birthplace of Severus, before turning to his early life. This section goes into great detail regarding Severus’ family (as far back as his grandfather), his early education, and his path along the cursus honorum. This chapter in particular probably could have been eliminated or at least heavily edited or split between other chapters, as it was full of information that did not further the book’s thesis in any meaningful way.

Chapter 5, in turn, offers more understanding of how Severus’ early life influenced his later turn as emperor, as Elliott focuses on the long road Severus took to attain the most powerful office in the empire. This chapter is fairly straightforward in its aims—it follows Severus from provincial appointment to provincial appointment, offering key insights into the strategic and ruthless character of a man on the rise. The author notes that Severus was well into his career, and his 30s, before he gained any meaningful military experience—a point that is intriguing, considering the vital role the military played in his later life. Elliott argues that this may have been a deliberate decision made by Severus to gain exposure to military action, and perhaps it was there that he saw the key to his own eventual rise to ultimate power. Elliott offers another tantalizing glimpse into the character of the future emperor in his inclusion of a story of his treatment of a political rival who had tried to impeach Severus when he was proconsul of Sicily. The rival was eventually defeated, and later crucified for his actions. This vignette is clearly meant to establish Severus’ public demeanor as a leader who does not suffer fools (or adversaries).

While the first several chapters of the volume provide a framework for the period in which Septimius Severus lived, it is really only in Chapter 6 where the promised narrative begins to come together. This chapter “sets the scene on the ‘shock and awe’ campaigns” (p. 113) of Severus in Scotland by situating the invasion within the region of north Britain. The author first offers a review of the development of the regional capital of York, Severus’ base camp and the eventual place of his death, before turning to the mobility and economic landscapes of the north. Elliott portrays the far north, beyond the two walls, as a “Conradian heart of darkness” (p.127), containing a population relatively unknown to the Romans, who possessed only a passing familiarity with Rome itself, and who lived under a social and economic structure too unsophisticated for any kind of meaningful Romanization to latch on to. With this final point in mind, the author ends the chapter with a discussion of why Severus even bothered with the northern campaign in the first place, considering his own ill health and the major scale of such an invasion.

The action finally culminates in Chapter 7, which provides a step-by-step account of the Severan campaigns of 209 and 210 CE, moving from the emperor’s arrival in York, his strategy moving northward, and the experience of the conquest, if largely from the Roman perspective. What little is known about this campaign suggests it was hard fighting against an enemy who, in addition to being accustomed to the hardships of a cold and sparse climate, used the terrain to their advantage, melting away into forests and marshes rather than facing their opponent in a pitched battle. Whether the Romans were capable of inflicting the genocide that Elliott claims (or whether this is another use of a familiar Roman trope) is unclear, but the author does make the point that either way, the campaign was successful. The movement of tens of thousands of troops through Scotland over a period of two years ravaged the landscape and left the agriculturally-based, non-monetized economy in tatters.

The final chapter reviews the consequences of the invasion, both for the empire and for Scotland. After Severus’ death in early 211 CE, his sons Geta and Caracalla hastily agreed to terms with the devastated enemy before speeding back to Rome to fight between themselves for control of the empire. The local population in north Britain was left to put the pieces of their society back together, with very light oversight by the Roman military. Elliott ends the volume with a discussion of the role this final campaign played in the legacy Severus left behind. He concludes that the reputation of Severus is one of stability, military strength, and imperial patronage, which is countered by the extreme ruthlessness he periodically showed, including in the Scotland campaigns, a major military venture against a less than threatening enemy at the furthest extent of the empire.

The most innovative contributions of the book come from what is clearly the author’s research specialty and the focus of his earlier PhD work—the Roman navy—and his insights into the reasons behind the campaigns in Scotland. He considers multiple angles, from the personal (Severus was bored and sought glory in his final years) to the political (Severus was worried about his less than adequate sons as future emperors) to the economic (the northern tribes were hungry for Roman wealth, and perhaps just plain hungry due to a possible famine). He, rightly, does not point to any single overriding cause (though some seem to be more valid than others) but considers the historical and practical sides of each argument, before landing on a multi-layered reason to explain why the emperor bothered with such an expensive, cumbersome endeavor at what he certainly knew was the end of his years.

Elliott’s volume, with all its insights into Severus’ character and original contributions regarding the Roman navy, is a bit uneven, however. Chapters alternate between brief and summary (Chapters 1, 3, and 7) and very detailed and lengthy (Chapters 2 and 4), including some sections with no clear connection to the narrative and only tangentially related to the emperor himself, such as the long digression on Severus’ grandfather (p. 88–90). At another point the author notes that this is not a biography of Severus (p. 108). He is both right and wrong. The volume is almost a biography of Severus, almost a review of the empire generally and the Roman military specifically at the beginning of the tumultuous 3rd century CE, and almost a detailed account of the important Scottish campaigns in 209 and 210 CE. But it is really not any one of these, and the target audience of the volume is unclear. A more nuanced and narrative method with relevant information on the military or economy or background of Severus’ life entering as they became necessary to the larger story might have yielded a more coherent result.

Furthermore, the native populations in north Britain and Scotland are almost invisible in this account, other than in a short list of their tribal names (and these were assigned to them by outsiders) and general locations. Considering the great lengths that are taken to flesh out and contextualize the Roman side of the invasion over six chapters, even a slightly more symmetrical treatment, particularly of a people who suffered what Elliott refers to as a genocide, would have been welcome. While the Romans may not have known much about the Iron Age peoples living in the north of Britain, we certainly do now: there is great archaeological work being done on local-Roman interactions in Scotland by David Breeze, Louisa Campbell, Richard Hingley, Fraser Hunter, and Dominic Ingemark, to name only a few.

Despite the unevenness of the chapters and the asymmetrical treatment of the Roman army and the local populations, Elliott’s volume does offer an abundance of information to contextualize both the era of the expeditio felicissima Britannica, and the man who ordered it. His thorough treatment of matters related to the Roman army will be helpful to scholars who share this interest, and the book as a whole is a good overview and introduction to both Severus himself and to his final, bloody campaign.

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