The Roman Army on the Borders

Colin Martin describes how, on the frontiers of Caledonia eighteen centuries ago, the Romans kept watch from camp and wall over turbulent northern tribes.

The struggle to keep alive the customs and comforts of the homeland, all the time under the gaze of repulsed but never conquered partisans: that was the lot of Britons who served their country on India’s Northwest frontier. It was also the experience of the Romans, once stationed in Rome’s frontier zone on the Scottish borders.

In A.D. 79 the Roman general Agricola led his armies into Scotland. The problem of Caledonia, as the Romans called this unknown land, could only be resolved by firm action. The year before, Agricola had tried to contain the wild tribes of the North within their own lands by building a series of forts linked by a road, between the Solway and the Tyne. It was not enough.

Aggressive military action seemed the only solution. Agricola decided on a pincer movement to isolate and destroy the powerful Selgovae, a tribe whose capital city of Trimontium crowned the North Eildon Hill, above Melrose. This tribe, along with the warlike Brigantes of the North of England, who had just been brought to heel by the legions, constituted the biggest threat to peace in North Britain.

Agricola led the Twentieth Legion on the west flank (he had commanded this legion in security operations against the Welsh hill tribes and the Brigantes in the Pennines several years earlier), while the Ninth Legion advanced on the east along the line of Dere Street.

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