Monday, 15 April 2013

Mons Graupius

 M is for Mons Graupius

What do we know about the battle between the Roman Empire and the Celtic Caledons that was named Mons Graupius?

Sadly -not nearly enough!

The aftermath of the battle of Mons Graupius was that the Roman Empire withdrew from the north east of Scotland, and never returned in huge numbers till many decades later.

(Britons and British in the following translations refer to Celtic tribes who had long been conquered by the forces of Rome: men who had been conscripted into the Roman auxiliary forces.)

"He [Agricola] sent his fleet ahead to plunder at various points and thus spread uncertainty and terror, and, with an army marching light, which he had reinforced with the bravest of the Britons and those whose loyalty had been proved during a long peace, reached the Graupian Mountain, which he found occupied by the enemy. "
Tacitus, Agricola (XXIX)

According to Tacitus there were more than 30,000 Caledons. Agricola had amassed 8,000 auxiliary infantry and 4 to 5000 auxiliary cavalry- these troops boosted by the addition of Celts (most likely from the far south of Britannia) It’s unknown how many legions there were, but the foreign auxiliaries were in front, with the Roman legions held behind in reserve.

Agricola wanted as few Roman casualties as possible.
Wikipedia - near Bennachie

“The Caledons held the high ground, with their chariots on the plain in front. The Roman auxiliaries were arrayed opposite, Agricola, himself, leading them on foot. After an exchange of missiles, the auxiliaries closed in hand-to-hand combat, their short swords more effective than the longer swords and small shields of the Caledons. At the same time, the cavalry dispersed the Caledon chariots and engaged with the men on foot. As the rest of the Caledon forces moved down the slope, Agricola threw in the reserve cavalry, which broke through the line and attacked the Caledons from the rear. The native force was completely routed and only the coming of night saved the remainder. Ten thousand Caledons died; on the Roman side, says Tacitus, only 360 fell. By dawn, says Tacitus, there was only the silence of desolation. As Calgacus had bitterly remarked of the Romans before the battle, "They make a desert and call it 'peace'" (XXX).

Tacitus also states that the 20,000 Caledons who did not die scattered into the mountains.

Who was in charge of the Caledons? Tacitus names the Celtic leader as Calgacus (one translation being Swordsman) Tacitus spends time in his writing to give a very dramatic account of Calgacus rousing his troops before the battle. Tacitus' account has spawned many representations of a warrior rallying together Celtic warriors who never normally came together in large battles, small border and tribal territorial skirmishes beiing their usual. To have 30,000 Celtic warriors ammassed together was something that must have been quite fantastic - if true. Since Tacitus' writing is somewhat biased in favour of his father-in -law, Agricola, historians are tending to treat his work 'with a pinch of salt'.

The image following is one that I love (1859 by W. Greatbach) though it seems more romantic than accurate. It depicts Calgacus rallying the Celtic warriors with the Roman standards in the background at left... and below the mountain? That is a bit confusing as the account states the Roman troops faced the mountain and the Caledons lined the slopes of Mons Graupius. The troops on the slope at right I think are meant to be Caledons.The plaids and footwear follow a fairly typical 'Victorian' imagery- the addition of a harpist a nice touch but again I wonder how practical that would have been at the site of a battle.

Wikimedia Commons

(Steel engraving of a sketch depicting the speech of Calgacus before the Caledonians at the Battle of Mons Graupius.)

However, it appears that during Gnaeus Julius Agricola’s tenure as the Governor of Britannia something momentous enough happened to earn him a very prestigious commendation when he returned to Rome in AD 84. Not being of the Imperial family he could not have an official ‘triumph’ conferred on him but he was awarded honours and a statue was created. That ‘something/event’ is thought by many experts to have been significant success in battle at Mons Graupius.

As a novelist, I prefer to believe Agricola gained his honours after significant battle with the Caledon tribes of north-east Scotland, and I also prefer to believe the site of the battle of Mons Graupius is Bennachie, which lies to the north-west of Aberdeen –close to the area I have personally lived in for 25 years. 

Durno, the largest marching camp in northern Scotland, sits opposite the highest point, Mither Tap, of Bennachie which is actually a series of hilltops. Durno is thought to be of both Agricolan and Severan occupation, the former being the smaller site.

The area near Durno seems a likely enough setting, the landscape near the camp matching Tacitus' description of the site of battle. The valley floor is wide enough to have accommodated a mile worth of extended lines of troops and the slopes of Bennachie are steep enough to provide a defensive position and give the impression of tiered troops on the Caledon side. To the west the mountains are not so far away and could have been a haven for the defeated and fleeing Caledons. The river on the valley floor is problematic but fordable in many places.

There has been much speculation over the possible site of the battle with a number of reasonable possibilities but, for me, the clincher is in the recent archaeological evidence found in north-east Scotland. The Roman marching camps at Kintore and Durno had long been thought to be Agricolan, hence Bennachie (only 9 miles away from Kintore) as the battle site being a good contender. In 2002-2004, the excavations at Kintore found evidence that surpassed what had been known before. Thought to have been used by more than one group of Romans, during different eras, the size of the camp at Kintore is now known to have housed many more soldiers during Agricolan times than had been previously estimated. An early estimate of less than a legion at around 4,000 men was revised to being more like 10,000 men.

I prefer to believe that 10,000 soldiers camping first at Kintore, and then marching on that 9 miles to Durno, near Bennachie, was a prelude to a large battle – called Mons Graupius.

Mons Graupius features in my current writing (temporarily suspended due to extensive research for this A to Z Challenge) – my work in progress being a sequel to The Beltane Choice. The Roman Camps at Durno and Kintore also feature in my time-travel novel for early teens, Dabbling With Time, that's still to be published.



  1. What a fascinating history lesson. I can relate to having to put your current WIP on hold, during this challenge.

    Hi, I am your newest follower from the A to Z challenge, although I almost missed out on joining your blog as a follower, because your GFC is at the very bottom of your blog. I'm glad I saw it. I am number 528 on the list.

    1. Hi, Melissa. It's love;y to have you stop by and Im glad you enjoyed it.


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