BATTLE OF MONS GRAUPIUS (AD 83)
“There are no people beyond us, nothing but tides and rocks”. With these words, Tacitus summed up the palpable excitement and sense of achievement that must have been felt across the ranks of the Roman army as they prepared for the Battle of Mons Graupius in Autumn AD 83. After forty years of fighting, Britannia would finally be subdued.
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The Roman conquest of Britannia, started by Emperor Claudius in AD 43, had taken longer than anyone expected. Rebellion and resistance, particularly in Wales and Northern England, had tied down military resources for decades. Accordingly it wasn't until the late AD 70s that Roman forces were ready to penetrate into modern day Scotland. By this time the Governor of Britannia was General Gnaeus Julius Agricola - an experienced military commander with extensive knowledge of the province having served there during the Boudica revolt (AD 60). His first years were spent in campaigns against the Welsh and the Brigantes tribe (Northern England) but by AD 80 he invaded deep into Scotland proceeding along the east coast as far as the River Tay. He was accompanied, at least for the first few years, by his son-in-law Tacitus.
Over the following two years (AD 81-2) Agricola consolidated his advance on the Clyde/Forth isthmus establishing many of the forts later rebuilt for the Antonine Wall whilst concurrently eliminating resistance in Southern Scotland. But by AD 83 he was ready to move north again against the Caledonian tribes who had formed themselves into a confederation headed by Calgacus to repel the invaders.
Bennachie has a distinctive shape with no less than four distinctive summits and in AD 83 also hosted a substantial hillfort, Mither Tap. Both factors made it an ideal muster point for the tribes converging from across northern Scotland to join the army of Calgacus. Such a mobilisation would not have escaped the notice of Agricola and he moved to intercept. Approaching Bennachie from the south-east (probably along a similar line as the modern A96 from Aberdeen), the Romans established a substantial marching camp near Durno protected on the southern side by the River Urie which separated their base from the mustering Caledonians.
Whilst Tacitus' narrative refers the Britons as 'Caledones', the vast numbers he was able to muster meant support from other tribes must have been significant and it is likely that many sent warriors to fight the Romans:
- Vacomagi and Taexali (both Aberdeenshire)
- Venicones (Angus/Perthshire)
- Cornavii, Lugi and Smertae (Sutherland)
- Dumnonii (Stirlingshire)
- Creones, Carnonacae and Caerini (Western Highlands)
Roman forces had been depleted due to the requirement to augment military operations against the German Chatti tribe. Certainly a detachment of the Ninth Legion (Legio IX Hispana) was on the Rhine AD 82-83. However the Roman battlegroup remained a significant size - with the Legionary forces at least matched in numbers by auxiliary regiments. These soldiers were non-Roman citizens recruited from the various Roman provinces and it is quite possible that many of those who fought at Mons Graupius were from southern Britain.
The site of the battle is yet to be established beyond doubt. Whilst several marching camps have been located, no archaeological evidence has yet definitively indicated the actual field of battle. Furthermore our knowledge of the specifics of the action comes from a single source - a biography of Agricola written by his son-in-law Tacitus some sixteen years after the battle. Nevertheless that narrative and the discovery in 1975 of a substantial marching camp near Durno, seem to strongly point to Bennachie near Inverurie as the scene of the battle. The interpretation below is therefore based on the battle being fought at that location.
- Stage 1: Deployment
The Caledonians deployed on the lower slopes of Bennachie with their front ranks on the plain and those behind on the higher ground. This would have given their ranks good views of the battlefield and would doubtless having been an intimidating sight for the Roman forces who would have been left with no doubt as to the scale of their task. In front of the Caledonian infantry were chariots manned by the tribal nobles and the most accomplished warriors.
After addressing his men Agricola deployed his forces from their marching camp, crossed over the River Urie and drew his men up in battle array on the southern bank. His frontline consisted of the auxiliary infantry regiments with the flanks each covered by three regiments of auxiliary cavalry. The Legionary force and a further four regiments of cavalry were held in reserve. Why Agricola put his auxiliaries in the front is unknown - Tacitus suggests it was honourable not to spill Roman blood but there is no evidence of such a policy elsewhere. It seems more likely Agricola used them for military reasons - given many may well have been Britons themselves, he perhaps felt their fighting techniques were better suited to the Caledonian threat.
- Stage 2: Agricola Extends Frontage
Upon approaching the Caledonian line, Agricola ordered his auxiliary regiments to increase their spacing. Tacitus suggests his reasoning was to prevent his line being enveloped by simultaneous attacks on both his front and flanks. Superficially this makes sense but, if that was the General's real concern, it would surely have been prudent to bring forward the Legionaries. An alternative analysis is that Agricola anticipated a chariot attack and felt a looser formation was the better option.
- Stage 3: Fighting Starts
The Roman cavalry, predominantly drawn from auxiliary regiments, charged and defeated their Caledonian rivals who immediately fled the field. Agricola ordered the auxiliary infantry to advance.
- Stage 4: Chariot Advance
Little is recorded of how (or even if) the Roman forces defeated the Caledonian chariots. The expanded frontage would have allowed the auxiliaries to adopt the standard military tactic of breaking formation in front of a chariot to allow it to penetrate the ranks where each could be surrounded and neutralised. This stratagem had been devised centuries earlier to deal with war elephants but whether the Romans needed to use it here is uncertain. For the Britons, chariots were used as an early form of dragoon, i.e. a rapidly deployable infantry force often consisting of their best warriors/nobles. The chariot driver would approach the enemy and his warrior would disembark, fight a short action and then withdraw quickly by re-boarding the chariot. It seems unlikely then that chariots sought to penetrate the Roman lines. At Mons Graupius Tacitus refers to a missile exchange and it seems likely these were delivered as part of the chariot action.
- Stage 5: Auxiliaries Advance
The Roman forces, headed by the auxiliaries, now advanced upon the massed Caledonian infantry. As they advanced they compressed the space in which the chariots could manoeuvre until they were pushed into the Caledonian infantry. Now static both charioteers and the Caledonian infantry started to suffer heavy casualties as the well armed - and heavily armoured - auxiliary infantry pushed forward. The Romans started to gain ground hacking their way onto the lower slopes of Bennachie. It is possible Calgacus was killed in this part of the fighting.
- Stage 6: Caledonian Reserves Attack
Given the relative sizes of the two forces, a large portion of the Caledonians’ had not yet engaged in the battle and had climbed to watch events from the summits of Bennachie. These troops now descended the hill and attempted to outflank the Roman lines. In response Agricola deployed his four regiments of auxiliary cavalry which he had kept in reserve. These experienced soldiers quickly routed the Caledonian reinforcements.
- Stage 7: Caledonian Defeat
The auxiliary cavalry now turned on the flanks of the main body of Caledonians resulting in a collapse of order. Each of the tribes now tried to save itself resulting in a fragmentation of the whole Caledonian line. The Romans used their cavalry to ruthlessly pursue those who fled with the slaughter only coming to a halt at dusk.
The battle was an overwhelming tactical victory for the Romans whose causalities, according to Tacitus, numbered a mere 360. Given the contemporary official administrative records that would have verified this figure, this can be presumed an accurate account. He also recorded 10,000 Britons killed which is perhaps more suspicious - yet even if half the figure was true it was nevertheless a stunning victory for the Romans. However, given the lateness of the season, Agricola had little choice but to withdraw his forces to their winter quarters which meant the bulk of the battle group leaving the operating area. Certainly the Twentieth (Legio XX Valeria Victrix), presumed to be the back bone of the Legionary forces, was moved back to Carlisle. Agricola did however send the Classis Britannica (the British Roman Navy) - now relieved of the duty of providing logistical support to the main field army - to sail around the north of Britain. This undoubtedly ensured the message of the Caledonian defeat was carried far and wide - including Caithness, Orkney, Shetland and the isolated west Highland coast.
Roman consolidation in the north resumed in AD 84 although, by this time, Agricola had been recalled to Rome. With the immediate threat of a large scale Caledonian uprising having been neutralised by Mons Graupius, the Romans would doubtless have expected the defeated Caledonians to shift tactics to guerrilla strikes from the comparative safety of the Highland massif. As with previous insurgencies in northern England, the Romans started construction of a militarised frontier aiming to encircle this vast geographical area and contain the threat. The spine of this new frontier was a new Roman Road that ran from Camelon on the Clyde/Forth line, via Doune and then north-east towards Aberdeenshire passing by the new Legionary fortress at Inchtuthil - intended to become the base of the Twentieth Legion. For day-to-day policing and security duties forts, fortlets and watchtowers were built along the road's length including an unusually dense concentration of the latter along a ten mile ridge of high ground running east/west near modern day Perth - now christened the Gask Ridge frontier.
Despite this flurry of military activity following Mons Graupius, Roman occupation of northern Scotland ended a few years later. AD 85/86 saw hard fighting on the Danube (modern day Serbia) and in AD 87 the Second Adiutrix (Legio II Adiutrix) was permanently withdrawn from Britannia. With the reduction in the military presence in the province, the Romans slowly withdrew to the Solway-Tyne isthmus where they remained for the next sixty years famously building Hadrian’s Wall. Scotland was left to the Caledonians but the details of the battle were immortalised in AD 98 when Tacitus published his biography on his father-in-law - De vita Iulii Agricolae.
Location of the Battle
A variety of different locations have been mooted as the site of the Battle of Mons Graupius. The most convincing sites are:
In 1975 a large Roman marching camp near Durno was identified just to the north of the mountain range of Bennachie. It has subsequently become the favoured location for the battle.
1. Bennachie is a notable and distinctive landmark.
2. Fits with Tacitus's description.
3. The Marching Camp was unusually large - certainly big enough for Agricola's force but could also have housed the facilities required for an extended stay including medical services and workshops.
4. The marching camp at Durno near Bennachie is out of position for an army simply moving north indicating it was built for a special purpose.
1. No archaeological evidence yet found on the suspected battlefield.
- Knock Hill
Knock Hill is distinctively shaped mound overlooking the Pass of Grange and is one of the more northerly sites mooted for the battle.
1. It is a notable landmark.
2. It is in the far north which chimes with Tacitus’s claim “there are no people beyond us, nothing but tides and rocks”.
1. No archaeological evidence yet found on the suspected battlefield.
2. The only known Marching Camps nearby are at Auchinhove and Muiryfold but both are too small for a force of nearly 20,000 men and are also some way from the likely battlefield.
3. Doesn’t quite fit with Tacitus’s narrative in particular where he refers to the reserve Caledonian forces defended from the “hills” whereas Knock is most definitively a single summit.
Raedykes is situated at the southern end of the Grampian foothills and is sited near Stonehaven.
1. A large Marching Camp is in the vicinity (although this might date from the second century AD).
1. No archaeological evidence yet found on the suspected battlefield.
2. It is not a notable landmark that would be identifiable to a wide variety of tribes who were unfamiliar with the area.
3. It is too close to the sea to chime with the comments by Tacitus that the Romans would be in severe trouble if they lost the battle as evacuation by sea via the Classis Britannica could have been achieved at nearby Stonehaven.
4. Tacitus placed the following words in the mouth of Calgacus: “There are no people beyond us, nothing but tides and rocks” – whereas there were at least two further tribes north of Raedykes.
Roman Marching Camps
Roman marching camps were used by the army as a means of penetrating deep into hostile territory. Roman tactical thinking assumed that any enemy could be defeated in the field by the superior training and equipment of the Legionaries but, like any regular army, they were vulnerable to unconventional attack particularly at night. The defence to this threat was the marching camp - a makeshift fortification that could be dug by the soldiers in a few hours at the end of a day's march.
The marching camp was defended by a ditch, perhaps only 1 metre deep and 2 metres wide, which provided spoil for a rampart. This was then topped with stakes - the Legionary marching equipment included two per soldier - which were lashed together to form caltrops. The overall camp would be a configured into a 'playing card' shape although, unlike their forts, this was regularly modified to suit the local terrain. Within the enclosure the same layout of tents would be used each time enabling every soldier to know where they were accommodated and, more importantly, where their station was in the event of attack. A significant gap between ramparts and the tents enabled a mustering area and ensured the accommodation was out of range of any projectiles thrown over the ramparts. There were no gateways but entrances to the camp were protected by an additional earthwork.
The aim of the marching camp was not a fortress impenetrable to attack - but rather one that would slow an enemy down sufficiently for the Romans to form up in battle order and defeat them. Using such techniques the Romans could advance their armies into enemy territory.
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The site of the Roman camp can be viewed but little is visible other than a very small Historic Scotland label marking the spot. The Archaeolink Prehistory Park (Touch of Scotland) is well worth a visit even though it ceased being maintained in 2011. However, a climb to the top of Bennachie is the ‘must-do’ event here. Mither Tap hillfort on the summit offers superb views of the battlefield and region.
Bennachie. The distinctive shape of the mountain would have made it a clear landmark for the tribes as they converged to deal with the Romans.
Durno Marching Camp. The marching camp at Durno was larger than normal. The reason for this is unclear but, if Bennachie was the site of the battle, could be explained by the post-battle requirements such as enhanced field hospital facilities and workshops for processing captured enemy weapons.
Durno Marching Camp.
Mither Tap Hillfort. Built upon one of the four summits of Bennachie this was possibly occupied as early as 1000 BC. The defences, which doubtless evolved over time, consisted of inner and outer stone ramparts. Both were over 7 metres thick with evidence of a parapet walkway at least on the lower/outer wall. The entrance consisted of a hornwork - an Iron Age version of the medieval barbican. A number of roundhouses seemingly existed between the inner and outer ramparts and a square structure, perhaps some form of hall, was built in the centre. The only reliable dating of the structure comes from analysis of charcoal remains which were dated to AD 340-540 and AD 640-780 respectively. It is uncertain therefore whether the fort existed at the time of the Battle of Mons Graupius.
Marching Camp Reconstruction (Archaeolink Park). A scaled version of a Roman marching camp forms part of the Touch of Scotland park (regrettably now abandoned).
The Roman Camp is found on an unnamed road connecting Old Rayne with Whiteford. It is not sign-posted and it is likely you will miss it unless you use an OS map or the co-ordinates above.
The Archaeolink Park, although now closed, is still sign-posted and accessible and there is a car park in the immediate vicinity.
Bennachie is a popular destination with walkers and has its own visitor centre with facilities. The walk to Mither Tap is well sign-posted and a well trodden route.
Durno Marching Camp
Archaeolink Prehistory Park
Bennachie Car Park / Centre
Mither Tap Hillfort
Knock Hill (Alternative Location)
Raedykes (Alternative Location)