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Agricola was possibly the best Roman soldier to serve the empire in Britain, but this was to be his final challenge.
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"Discover the farthest limits of Britain!"

A Roman centurion, a member of the Ermine Street Guard.

In 78AD, the Emperor Vespasian was persuaded by his son, Titus, to appoint his friend; Julius Agricola, a seasoned soldier and diplomat, to the Governorship of Britain. Agricola had served under the previous two Governors for short periods, and knew both the land and the legions well.

By all accounts he seems to have been a general of great ability. In his first year of Governorship, he subdued the Brigante tribe in Yorkshire, and swept the druids off the isle of Mona (Anglesey). The druidic movement was never to fully recover. The rest of the year was spent building two new northern forts; staging points for the invasion of Scotland. He built temples, houses and bathhouses and encouraged the wearing of the toga in the local tribal chiefs. Tacitus writes... "All this in their ignorance they called civilisation, when it was but a part of their servitude." Emperor Vespasian had two sons; both Titus and Domitian would rule as Emperor, but only Titus was considered fit to rule.

In the summer of 79AD, the political scene in Rome changed, but not to the detriment of Julius Agricola. The Emperor Vespasian died, to be succeeded by his eldest son, Titus. This meant that Agricola was under the direct orders of his old commander. We can assume that since Agricola advanced higher in the ranks after his campaigns with Titus in Judea, that there was a bond of friendship between them.

He was ordered by the Emperor Titus to conquer the whole of the island of Britain, and in early summer, invaded Scotland. Having already pacified the Votadini tribe with bribes, his sweep across the central lowlands was bloody and decisive. Under assault by two legions the Selgovae tribe were 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 consolodated his position, ensuring a non agression pact with the western tribes of the Damonii and the Novantae. In 81AD, the Damonii and Novantae tribes occupying some of Strathclyde, Ayrshire and Galloway rose against the Roman yoke.  Their rebellion cost Agricola a years campaigning.

In 81AD, however, the tribes in the south west revolted against the yoke of Roman occupation and Agricola's advance was halted whilst his forces quelled the Damonii and Novantae tribes. His forces forrayed north of the wall, but Agricola spent the rest of the year consolidating his position. Basically, he had lost a years campaigning.

To make matters worse, in Rome, Agricola's position was weakening. In September of 81AD, his friend Titus was poisoned and his brother Domitian proclaimed himself Emperor. Domitian was an arrogant and cruel young man, both Titus and his father, Vespasian, had been of the opinion that Domitian was "not fit to rule". Agricola's advance through Fife was quick and bloody.  The Venicone tribe were quickly subdued, many hundreds sent overseas to begin life as auxilliaries in Germany.(Photo IH/KD)

Domitian had no patience for Agricola's steady conquest, he needed a quick end to the war to prove to the senate and the people that he was fit for the office. He declared that he was not willing to give Agricola more time, and with two legions actively under his command, was given further orders to push the "limits of Rome to the sea". Unlike his father and brother before him, Domitian would brook no failures. The survivors of the invasion of Fife would have flooded to join the rebel army under Calach.(Photo IH/KD)

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.

Through the writings of Tacitus, we know that Agricola realised that he was now facing not a selection of tribes, but a firm coalition, led by a warrior-chief which Agricola, in his diaries, called "Calgacus". This is the first mention of the Pictish leader's name. (I have mentioned above why I prefer the more gaelic spelling). A female Pict is taken captive.

The campaign now changed to that of two well organised 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. It must be noted here that if Agricola is noted as a master tactician, then Calach must be afforded the same honour. Calach and his Pictish army kept two Roman legions busy for most of the year without coming to blows. Amateur warriors; farmers, hunters, and tradesmen against professional soldiers. The chief Calach kept the armies apart, until he decided to strike. The farmlands and coalfields of Fife would have been an important tactical gain.  The supplies of two legions was of vital importance.(Photo IH/KD)

Then, taking Agricola completely by surprise, Calach and his Pictish army struck. There is detailed mention of Calach's 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." At Lochore, the Roman re-inforcements would have arrived to a scene of fire and bloodshed.(Photo IH/KD)

The timely arrival of fast moving re-inforcements from Burntisland saved the legions from some embarrassment.

When Calach realised that he now faced two forces, he realised discretion was the better part of valour and ordered the retreat. His picts then disengaged and melted into the early morning mist.

Tacitus turns the seemingly even-sided engagement into a Roman victory... "Had not the flying enemy been sheltered by morasses and forests, this victory might have ended the war."

More to the point, if Calach and his Pictish army had been successful that night, the war may have had a very different outcome. Despite the night attack and all the tactical manouverings, however, the year ended without a convincing victory for either side.

The Governor of Britain was under severe pressure to produce a quick, decisive victory. He had three legions under his command, two of which were campaigning in Scotland; almost a tenth of the soldiers in the whole empire. Rome was not used to news of failure and stalemate. Domitian wanted results.

Click below to go to the main battle itself; Mons Graupius.

Click here to go to the next part of the story; The battle of Mons Graupius.