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.
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
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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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)