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Mons Graupius, probably the biggest single battle to be fought on British soil, but we know so little about it, nor can we find the battlefield.
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Mons Graupius; the culmination of four years of war.

The impression of both legions displayed on the battlefield must have been daunting, but, according to Tacitus, they were outnumbered by Picts.

In 83 AD, under pressure from Rome to make an end to the war, Agricola advanced north, supported by a Roman fleet, to a place which Tacitus named "Mons Graupius" (from a subsequent translation error, the Grampian Mountains get their name).

Tacitus plays down the number of Roman troops present, but does mention 8000 auxilliaries and 3000 cavalry, in addition to the two legions. This makes his force around 22,000. He gives the number of the local force at 30,000, a remarkable number for Calach to have drawn together. In true oratory fashion, Tacitus then describes in great detail the speeches given by both leaders before the battle. Both sides would have consulted with their Gods, portents looked at, sacrifices made.  Druids and priests would have been consulted.(Photo IH/KD)

Tacitus writes that Calgacus gives a speech of in excess of 1000 words; "To robbery, slaughter and plunder they give the lying name of Empire; they make a solitude and call it peace".

Calach further encites the Pictish passions by emphasising how crucial the battle will be; "There are no tribes beyond us, nothing indeed but waves and rocks."

Calach eventually concludes; "Think, therefore as you advance to battle, of your ancestors and your posterity." The Roman legions would have looked formidable, but Calach would remember the night attack on the Ninth Legion, and would have been inspired.

Looking back 2000 years, both the interpretor and scribe should be commended for their speed and their remarkable hearing.

Agricola replies more briefly, and makes mention of the night attack the year before... "You and I have passed the limits reached by former armies.... the enemy is now before you, driven from his lair!"

The dialogue given to the two protagonists would find themselves more at home on a hollywood screen than on a battlefield!

Considering the length of the speeches, it is no wonder that both armies are said to be suitably inspired by their respective leaders. The battle itself begets less text than the speeches, but is written as bloody and long.

The Ermine Street Guard form up for another re-enactment.

Tacitus writes.... "They poured on us a dense shower of darts..."

Then Agricola orders the auxiliary troops to bring contact with the enemy... "the other cohorts joined with eager rivalry in cutting down all the nearest foe..."

The battle rages for most of the day, in which Calach unleashes attack after attack on the Roman formations. His last-ditch attack by his chariots are foiled by a "masterly" cavalry charge, and the Romans win the day.

Tacitus does admit that the Romans had to be careful how far they persued the Picts. Although they were retreating, they still had a sting in their tail... "serious loss would have been sustained by the confidence of our troops"

Eventually the superior Roman tactics and skill win the day and Calgacus and his warriors vanish into the night to lick their wounds. The battle of Mons Graupius closed another year of the war, and Agricola withdrew his extended forces to winter at the Gask line. When the Romans camped, their organisation was superb.  Even an overnight stop meant that they dug a trench and wall for their camp.

Although the Tacitus text makes marvelous reading, it must be seen as a heavily biased viewpoint, giving Agricola credit for every phase of the campaign. A less scrupulous person might think that the Emperor had been "given the news he wanted to hear".

When Domitian heard word of Agricola's great victory at Mons Graupius, it was compared to Domitian's rather stale victories in Germany. In a cold political climate, Agricola was recalled to Rome immediately after news reached the Emperor. Domitian already considered Agricola a possible usurper of his crown and wanted to take the soldier out of the political limelight.

Rome was bedecked in splendour for Agricola's return, but an unpopular Emperor was wary of everyone who held a fraction of the 'love' of the people.

Although the Emperor Domitian recieved the victor of Mons Graupius with all due pomp and ceremony; Tacitus remarks later that some of the ceremony was "on purpose" overtly lavish which detracted from the honour Agricola recieved. He was hailed as a hero of Rome, then quickly given the safe Governorship of Syria. Effectively Agricola was out of the military scene, but he did enjoy the visits of several powerful senators; Agricola was still a powerful figure.

Julius Gnaeus Agricola, the hero of Mons Graupius, never enjoyed his retirement. He died in 93AD of poisoning; a seemingly common occurance around Domitian. Even Tacitus finds it difficult to viel his suspicions, but writes that he had no proof of the Emperor's involvement.

He writes... "The Emperor's personal physicians came more frequently than is usual... this was perhaps solicitude, perhaps espionage."

Click below to go to the next part of the story; the aftermath of the battle, and why the Romans left.

Click here to go to the next part of the story; The aftermath.