2.1 A broad view

While the area now known as Scotland lay on the periphery of the Roman Empire, and only episodically was incorporated within it, there was a relationship with Rome for over 300 years which can only be properly understood within the framework of wider Roman Empire studies.

The Roman invasions of Scotland can best be understood within the world of Roman politics, known primarily from textual sources, which saw the ebb and flow of Roman arms related to the interest of successive emperors. Vespasian, who took part in the invasion of AD 43, sent governors to Britain with specific instructions which appear to have included orders to impose the will of Rome over the whole island. These injunctions ultimately brought Agricola to Mons Graupius in the year 83. The personal disposition of Antoninus Pius, who lacked military experience, has been related to the decision to abandon Hadrian’s Wall and re-occupy southern Scotland in 139. Cassius Dio and Herodian, in their respective Histories both offer reasons for the campaigns of Septimius Severus from 208 to 211, including that the Emperor enjoyed campaigning and that he wished to take his sons away from the flesh- pots of Rome.

Events elsewhere also might have an effect on activities in north Britain. Roman defeats on the Danube in the 80s led to the withdrawal of about a quarter of the army of Britain and the abandonment of the Flavian conquests of Agricola. A requirement to send reinforcements to the Mauretanean War of the late 140s may have resulted in apparent delays in the building of the Antonine Wall, and it is possible that a general overstretching of resources may have lain behind the decision to abandon this frontier in the 180s. The death of Severus at York in 211 led to the abandonment of his conquests and the return of his sons to Rome.

It was, it would appear, always the advent of trouble on the northern frontier which brought the Emperor to Britain. Hadrian’s visit in 122 followed unrest in Britain, though whether that led directly to the building of Hadrian’s Wall is another matter. Severus came following warfare and, arguably, with the intention of completing the conquest of the island. Constantius I with his son Constantine came to fight the Picts in 305; Constantine possibly visited again later; and his grandson Constans came to Britain in 342/3 probably because of trouble on the northern frontier.

Roman Scotland was also part of a wider trading network. Pottery came to the northern frontier from Gaul as well as southern Britain. Arms, armour and other items of equipment were imported over long distances to the northern frontier. A good deal of food might have been grown locally but, together with wine, much was also imported from various places, including the Mediterranean.

Table 1: Table of Roman Dynasties, Emperors and notable events

Dynasty Emperor Events / people
Flavian 69-96AD Vespasian 69-79AD
Titus 79-81AD
Domitian 81-96AD
Flavian invasion c.78-86
(Agricola as governor c.77-84)
Adopted emperors 96-138 AD Nerva 96-98AD
Trajan 98-117AD
Hadrian 117-138AD
Unrest on northern frontier; building of Hadrian’s Wall 119AD onwards
Antonine 138-192 AD Antoninus Pius 138-161AD
Marcus Aurelius 161-180AD
Lucius Verus Commodus 180-192AD
Antonine invasion c.139-165 Antonine wall 140-141AD
Wars under Commodus
Abandonment of Antonine Wall during 170s ?
Severan 138-192 AD Severus 193-211AD
Caracalla 211-217AD
Severan campaigns 208-211


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