Roman History
Romans in Northern Britain

The Roman army invaded Britain in 55 BC under Julius Caesar, but this was only a limited incursion with the main invasion under the Emperor Claudius in AD 43. The push to the North of England took place in the 70s AD during the governorship of Julius Agricola, the HQ being at Eboracum, York.

Roman Soldier - 15 Kb The aim was to move still further North, incorporating more tribes, and a key part in achieving this advance was played by the building of Dere Street, the mediaeval name for the Roman road from York to the Firth of Forth (close to present day Edinburgh). It was 180 miles long and completed around 81 AD. With a campaign each year by AD 84 the Romans had far extended this Way to reach the Moray Firth. Back in South Scotland they had set up a major supply base at Trimontium (the place of the Three Eildon Hills ) where Dere Street crosses the Tweed. The first fort here was built under Agricola in 79 AD.

Also built at this time were key forts, in the West at Carlisle and further East at Corbridge. The East-West Stanegate road joined these forts and this forms part of the Roman Heritage Way from Maia at Bowness to Trimontium.

The native tribes were controlled by the usual mixture of diplomacy, bribery and the use of force, as required. After twenty years in Scotland the Romans were faced with trouble in the Balkans and shut down their Scottish operation. They left Trimontium in 105 AD and re-grouped along the Stanegate frontier. Some fifteen years later the Emperor Hadrian devised the new protective frontier cum customs barrier that bears his name, Hadrian's Wall, built by the Roman legions to the North of the Stanegate using the Great Whin Sill between the Solway and the Tyne in a ten year period after 122AD. In the province of Britannia to the South of the Wall the Romans encouraged the building of towns and the spread of 'Romanisation'. This did not suit the more hilly areas where the economy was more pastoral and certainly threatened the freedom of the Caledonian and Celtic people.

The 80 mile long Hadrian's Wall involved the building of a series of supporting forts starting in the West with Maia and in the East with Segedunum (Wallsend). Along the Wall key locations that form part of the Way are Birdoswald, Carvoran, Aesica (Great Chesters), Housesteads, Brocolitia (Carrawburgh), Chesters, Onnum (Halton, by Dere Street) and Vindobala (Rudchester).

After the death of Hadrian, the new Emperor, Antoninus Pius, required a campaign success to bolster his position. It was decided to move the army back into Scotland. In 138-139 AD the governor, Quintus Lollius Urbicus re-established a presence in the Scottish Lowlands and built the Antonine Wall - a turf wall on a stone base fronted by a ditch - incorporating a series of forts between the Clyde and Forth estuaries. The occupation of the Antonine Wall apparently lasted till 165 AD only, when Roman politics dictated that most of the army could be withdrawn from Scotland to the line of Hadrian's Wall. Trimontium remained occupied as an important forward post for some years. The last coin found at Trimontium is dated 180 AD and Trimontium itself must have been given up some five years or so after that.

Brigantium  - 15 Kb All along the length of Dere Street there are Roman forts, camps, practice grounds and signalling stations. The Roman Heritage Way goes directly past Chew Green, Woden Law, Pennymuir and Cappuck and close to Habitancum, Dargues and Bremenium Fort (with an officer's tomb and military cemetery) behind Brigantium Archaeological Park at High Rochester.

From time to time there was unrest among the native peoples. Hadrian's Wall was renovated during the early part of the third century AD and the Emperor Septimius Severus, with his two sons, made a punitive expedition into Scotland in 208-210, dying at York in 211. Later Emperors in the third and fourth centuries sent in armies on the occasions when more than diplomatic measures were required. The disintegration of the Roman Empire in the fifth century led to the withdrawal of finance and certain army units and ultimately to the obsolescence of forts and the Walls which became subject to despoliation by the locals.

Dere Street

Map of Dere Street - 23 Kb Dere Street, the mediaeval name (from Durham) for what may have been the via Domitiana, so called after the Emperor, when it was built, was one of the principal Roman roads in Britain. It connected with Watling Street which came from Dover to York. From there Dere Street ran North to the Firth of Forth (180 miles) and on round the estuary NE towards Ardoch in Perthshire. It was completed to the Forth c 81 AD.

Like all Roman roads it formed part of the political control system, like the forts and towns. A significant engineering exercise, its 'terrace' - from ditch on one side to ditch on the other - could be as wide as 17 metres, not flat but with a considerable camber or 'agger' in the middle, where it was paved, to allow two columns of soldiers to pass each other. The earthen sides of the camber were graded down to the kerbstones of the ditches on either side. It is perhaps on these 'sides' that the trees now commonly found along Roman roads gained a hold. Roads provided quick (for these times) communications for the Roman army and good supply lines to the temporary camps and permanent forts. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Roads were therefore built in straight sections where the lie of the land allowed. The soldiers built the roads, presumably also with 'pressed men' from the locality as required.

As can be seen on the ground, Dere Street developed from its initial phase to a road of considerable width. After 2,000 years parts have disappeared under the modern network or been grassed over and parts have shrunk with age. The line of the 'terrace' is still visible on parts of the Way. If you are looking for a Roman road - think big.

Ideally the textbook construction would consist of four layers viz a clay or sand base; heavy stones; clay or broken pottery; and a top surface of cobbles or gravel, the latter providing good 'footing' for horses, vehicles and marching men. In forward areas such as S Scotland a lesser specification could be used, with the upcast from the ditches on either side forming the heaped 'agger' in the middle on which the top surface was laid.


Trimontium stone marking the western end of site - 14 Kb This Roman complex consists of a large fort, surrounded by four settlements, a military amphitheatre, and a field system. Dere Street passes to the East, is linked to the fort and settlements or 'annexes' by side roads, and is carried over the River Tweed at Leaderfoot en route North to the Forth. The road mound to the river is visible; traces of the piers are looked for but have not yet appeared.

The name 'Tri-montium' comes from the three peaks of the Eildon Hills. It is likely that it was called first 'castra trium montium' , the camp of the three hills or place of the three peaks or Triple Mountain, and shortened to a nickname which became accepted. With fort, annexes, amphitheatre and field system it extended to 370 acres. Perched above the crossing of the Tweed it was a key site for much of the occupation and the hub of the 500 mile Roman road system in Scotland. The one Roman milestone found in Scotland near Edinburgh gives the distance from 'Trimont'.

It was no acccident that the Romans set their South of Scotland HQ beside the Triple Mountain. This had been a tribal sacred enclosure but abandoned long before the invasion. The Romans placed their signal station on the Western tip of Eildon Hill North.

There are half a dozen phases of fort construction at Trimontium. The first in 79 AD was probably built by the Ninth Legion during Agricola's Northern series of campaigns ending in the victory at Mons Graupius in 83 AD. About 10.5 acres in extent (double the size of a small fort) it was built of turf and timber and defended by an enormous rampart of earth cast up all round the playing-card shape of the fort from the 20 feet wide ditch.

About 86 AD the Agricolan fort was extended to 14.5 acres and its defences strengthened (rampart now 43 feet wide and 25 feet high). The timber-walled buildings were now placed on stone footings for longer life.
Trimontium site - 12 Kb

Settlements grew all round the fort to house trading and industrial activities and their workers. In the East annexe evidence has been found of the public house and entertainment area for the troops; large residential houses for the stallholders trying to make their fortune on the frontier; and a bazaar to catch Dere Street travellers stopping off en route. The South annexe had both an industrial estate and agricultural buildings attached to the outlying fields.

When the Antonine Wall was built in the early 140s AD, Trimontium gave up its role as a forward post and became a support fort in the rear. The garrison was reduced and there was time to build a permanent fort in stone. With the decline of the Antonine Wall Trimontium reverted to front-line duties as a possible fighting base instead of a centre for production and distribution. The final period of occupation at Trimontium lasted from the abandonment of the Antonine Wall in the 160s until the army withdrew from Scotland again, probably about 185 AD.

The Roman army and fleet returned yet again to Scotland under the personal command of the Emperor Septimius Severus and his two sons, coming from their HQ at York in 208-210 AD. They may well have gathered their forces at Trimontium en route North to campaign in Fife and Perthshire. The Emperor died at York in 211 AD and again the army withdrew.

Hadrian's Wall

Hadrian's Wall at Cawfield Crags - 12 Kb The Wall, started from both ends at the same time, ended up with some 17 forts along its length. Seen as both functional (a barrier) and symbolic (limit of Empire and the pax Romana) it was garrisoned by about 12,000 men, including cavalry. A defence system and observation line, it was also a launch pad to tackle any threat from the North by allowing troops to advance at speed through the gates and engage the enemy in the open, which was the basic Roman tactic. During the life of the Antonine Wall many of the gates in Hadrian's Wall were widened and parts of the wide Vallum were filled in to permit even easier passage. When the frontier returned to the Tyne-Solway line these gates were blocked or narrowed and the Vallum re-dug.

Hadrian's Wall was built with stone (up to 4 million tons) from local sources and stood some 15 feet high and 7 to 8 feet thick. In front of it there usually ran a 27 feet wide, 9 feet deep ditch, separated from the wall by an open flat space or berm, some 20 feet wide. To the South of the Wall ran a military road and the Vallum - a flat-bottomed ditch, 20 feet wide and 10 feet deep, with two mounds, 20 feet wide, one on either side, set back 30 feet from the lip of the ditch. 'Thus a cleared area 120 feet across was provided along the rear of the Wall which could not be crossed unwittingly or unobserved.' (Breeze and Dobson p50)

Thanks has to be given to Mr Donald Gordon of the Trimontium Trust who reviewed and corrected parts of this text.

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