BMCR 2006.11.17

Rome’s First Frontier: the Flavian Occupation of Northern Scotland

, , Rome's first frontier : the Flavian occupation of Northern Scotland. Stroud: Tempus, 2006. 254 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations (some color), maps ; 25 cm. ISBN 0752430440. £19.99.

Roman frontier studies have long attracted archaeological interest, and one of the major questions still facing scholars is: how did these frontiers evolve over time? Were the extensive walls and fortifications meant to last? In order to answer this question, scholars have looked to the German Limes as the prototype frontier. Recent research, however, has placed its building from the mid-first century to the late-first/early-second century. This startling evidence means that the Gask Ridge frontier system in northern Scotland, supposedly started in the reign of Domitian in the AD 80s, is now seen as the prototype Roman frontier. The Roman Gask Project was formed in 1996, to document the surviving evidence. An extensive campaign of surveys, archive work, and excavation has taken place; to date, twenty-seven excavations have taken place on eighteen sites. In addition, eleven other sites, including six entire Roman forts, have been photographed and documented from the air, resulting in thousands of pictures.

The Roman frontiers were expected to protect the empire from full-scale invasions, but this did not mean that their design was focused exclusively on that function. Many known Roman frontiers were indefensible against large-scale attacks, because their garrisons were spread out along a line that even a small, organized invasion force would have been able to conquer. The Romans employed what is known as invasion defense: maintaining large battle-ready groups at strategic points along the line of defenses with the ability to concentrate spread-out forces into a large, single army; and what is known as “preclusivity,” total control of all movement into and out from the line. Preclusivity also allowed frontiers to be collection points for import and export duties, and to maintain the Pax Romana that the Roman government saw as its most important public relations achievement.

The book is divided into two major parts. Part 1 provides a detailed outline of the archaeological remains of the first-century occupation of the Gask Ridge in northern Scotland, found mainly on the northern side of Strathearn, in Perthshire. The authors indicate that their research is best read in concert with large-scale (preferably 1:25,000) maps. Many of the sites mentioned are marked on these maps, and six-figure National Grid references are provided for every one. An electronic equivalent of these maps is available free of charge online at the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland’s (RCAHMS) website, if you click on Canmore. Part 2 discusses the archaeology in its historical context, as well as some of the challenges that the military systems faced. One of the peculiar aspects of the Scottish invasion was that the Romans invested considerable personnel and expense to invade and conquer the country, and just as everything was up and running, they did something that they had never done before: they left. It appears to have been a totally voluntary and unilateral act. They retreated more than eighty miles to the southern border lands, and by the early years of the second century, were firmly ensconced on the Tyne-Solway isthmus where Hadrian’s Wall would eventually be built in the 120s.

In Chapter 1, the authors provide basic information and background on the Roman military sites in Scotland. They also give a brief guide to the first-century Roman army’s organization and fortifications. There is a nice schematic plan of a first-century Roman fort, and an extensive discussion of frontier fortification buildings and fortresses along a frontier line. A map of first-century Flavian Scotland, showing all of the legionary fortresses, forts, and towers along the Gask Ridge provides a welcome reference point, as the authors move into Chapter 2 and examine each of the forts and their archaeological evidence.

Chapter 2 begins discussion of the Gask Ridge by discussing the highland line of fortifications. This includes the fort of Drumquhassle near the modern village of Drymen; Malling, on the western shore of the Lake of Menteith; Dalginross, near Comrie; Fendoch, between the River Almond and the Fendoch Burn; and finally Inchtuthil, about three miles from Cargill. Inchtuthil was the base of the only legion permanently positioned in Scotland, held at least one-third of the entire garrison, and was the key site of the whole military occupation. Inchtuthil dwarfed all the other Gask forts. For each of the these five forts/fortresses, the authors provide detailed descriptions of the archaeological evidence, aerial renderings and photographs, and the current look of each site. For both Fendoch and Inchtuthil, a plan of the fortification is provided; the Inchtuthil discussion also shows the bath block and officers’ compound.

Chapter 3 examines the Gask Ridge from Camelon to Strageath. While this part of the fortification line was not the most powerful in terms of manpower, it was the most closely watched and was the only defensive element that had a road connected to it. All of the entrances to the forts are oriented on this road. The authors discuss four major fortifications: Camelon, Doune, Ardoch, and Strageath, again with very nicely detailed plans for each, some current photographs of surviving evidence, as well as some interesting documentation related to the three towers between Ardoch and Strageath—Blackhill Wood, Shielhill South, and Shielhill North. In addition, Kaims Castle, a small fort on the line, is examined along with Westerton Tower. The authors also spend some time talking about the Roman road that was built along this section.

The Gask fortifications from Strageath to Bertha are the focus of Chapter 4: a line of single-ditch towers, twelve in all, with one major fort in between, Midgate, along with the final fort, Bertha. The Strathmore forts are discussed in Chapter 5. These include Cargill, Black Hill, Cardean, Inverquharity, and Stracathro.

In Part 2, the authors discuss at length the evidence regarding the first-century occupation of present-day Scotland. Tacitus’ Agricola, a short account of the life of his father-in-law, Gnaeus Julius Agricola, a former governor of Roman Britain who is credited with leading the first-century invasion of Scotland, is of primary importance. A great deal of time is spent linking archaeological evidence from the Roman Gask Project to some of Tacitus’ statements, including testing ancient pollen trapped in the turf used in Roman ramparts to help make dating estimates. Other Roman literary sources are also examined, including the historian Cassius Dio, who provides the only other surviving account of Agricola’s activities.

Chapter 7 examines a question that has always challenged researchers: the effect of the Roman invasions on the native populations. It is apparent that, even after their first withdrawal, the Romans returned to their original fortifications twice: in A.D. 142, probably to bolster the prestige of the Emperor Antoninus (138-61), and in A.D. 208, when the Emperor Severus (193-211) tried to invade and permanently conquer the Scottish frontier. Discussion on economic, political, and social ramifications of the Roman invasions brings up some interesting conjectures, such as the development of brochs based on the Roman model of ditchwork.

In their conclusion, the authors take up the question of what exactly a Roman frontier was, and how examination of the prototype fortifications along the Gask in Scotland have assisted current researchers and scholars in their understanding of how the Romans operated along their frontiers, what were their motivations and concerns, and how they learned from their early frontiers and applied this information later as they tried to maintain and conquer new areas. The book contains an extensive bibliography, and thirty-one color plates, which are exceptional in showing these archaeological sites from the air. Anyone involved in research in the areas of ancient Rome, Roman frontiers and/or occupation, and the Roman settlement of Britain, will find this book a valuable addition to his or her collection.