Monday, 14 July 2014

The Antonine Wall - Part 2

They came and went…and came back again!

The Antonine Wall - Part 2 

In Part 1 of this post, I referred to the fact that there were many Roman Marching Camps all over Scotland and their construction was rapid. In After Whorl; Donning Double Cloaks, Book 3 of my Celtic Fervour Series of historical adventures, my main protagonist Brennus pushes northwards to seek a Caledon leader who will amass the Celtic forces of the north to fight against the Roman Empire. When planning my Celtic Fervour Series I based my geographical routes of travel loosely on the writings of Tacitus - who wrote of the northern Campaigns of Agricola.

In Book 3, my fictitious Roman Tribune Gaius Livanus Valerius is posted to many Roman forts for a temporary time as he follows in the wake of Agricola’s front line during the Northern Campaigns. The front line troops built the marching camps, but Gaius’ function in my novel is that of a supply officer who must establish and maintain the needs of the permanent forts and fortlets which sprang up where some of the marching camps had been created. In my novel, Gaius is at Ardoch for a short time and moves on to the brand new garrison supply fort at Pinata Castra - Inchtuthil. I've used the original archaeological names in my novel mostly as geographical place markers, though I've attempted to be as accurate as possible in my use of historical terms during the writing.

Ardoch Roman Fort

Ardoch Roman Fort is one of the prime surviving examples of northern Roman fort layout. It’s believed that it started as a Marching Camp with ditches as described in part 1 of this post, and then developed into a permanent fort site during the years of the Agricolan Northern Campaigns (possibly AD 80-86)  

The techniques of ditch digging provided the turf needed to construct the ramparts for the forts, fortlets and block walls of the watch towers which I refer to in Book 3.

But what has this to do with The Antonine Wall? 

Following the Roman historical advances of their westernmost Empire outposts is not a simple matter- and neither do I find writing about it simple either.  It’s fair to say that the Romans came and went …and then came back again! 

After the Agricolan conquest of Northern Britannia (as written by historians like Tacitus) it’s recorded that the bulk of the forces of Agricola retreated back to other parts of the Roman Empire around AD 86/87 - the soldiers apparently recalled, by order of the Roman Emperor Domitian, to quell the unrest around the Danube in Germania. Though vast amounts of soldiers appear to have marched northwards in Scotland during AD 81-86, indications being there were some 30,000 plus in parts of Aberdeenshire (the Durno Marching Camp), it’s unlikely that any of the force was left to defend the northern countryside just claimed for the Roman Empire. No permanent fortlets or small forts have been found in Aberdeenshire and Morayshire. The retrenchment orders appear to have firstly been to retreat the bulk of the forces to south of the River Forth by AD 87, and then presumably most of them were sent onwards to the Danube.

Is that when they built The Antonine Wall? No - the answer is that I’m afraid it wasn’t !

For whatever reasons - and they are not at all clear - by approximately AD 100, the Roman forces left in central Scotland retreated even further south to a nominal boundary line from the Solway to the Tyne in present day northern England- a boundary marked by Roman installations. These were permanent forts, fortlets and watch towers. I need to find a lot of clarification to say whether any forces at all remained in southern Scotland during the following two decades after AD 100, but Rome was definitely still firmly in charge of England.
When Hadrian’s Wall was built in AD 122 it was a frontier line which roughly equates to that earlier boundary between the Solway and the Tyne and incorporated many of the forts etc. Built of solid stone construction, Hadrian’s Wall was a very impressive statement, political and military, to demonstrate the Roman Emperor Hadrian’s supremacy on the Western fringes of the Empire.

Marching into hostile territory, claiming the lands for Rome and then retreating the whole military machine was not unheard of in Roman military history. It was also par for the course that at a later time Roman forces marched back into earlier claimed territory and this is what the Romans did around AD 139 in Scotland. Having used the barrier of Hadrian’s Wall for more than a decade as the western frontier, new orders pushed forces of Rome back up into the central Belt of Scotland to create yet another more northerly frontier line.

Under orders from the Emperor Antonius Pius, in AD 142,  The Antonine Wall construction was begun but largely as a turf rampart on a stone foundation. Some of the older Flavian forts and fortlets were absorbed into the new defence line and became part of the new wall. It took around 12 years to complete the wall.

Wikimedia Commons
Unlike the relatively shallow ditches of the Roman Marching Camps, the wall of Antonius rose to a majestic height of around 10 feet high; it was 14-16 feet thick and ran for over 40 Roman miles from Old Kilpatrick in the west to Bo’ness in the east. The very deep ditch to the northern side provided even more security for the Roman troops garrisoned to the south of the wall.

Wikimedia Commons
That didn’t mean that there was no Roman action to the north of The Antonine Wall. Roman military history doesn’t seem to be that simple. Over the decades some earlier northern forts on The Gask Ridge may have been redeployed, but in general The Antonine Wall was a military statement. It was a deterrent, preventing attack from the native ‘barbarian’ Celts, though how often raids on the wall occurred is debatable, conjectural and disputed by some historians. Some trade is thought to have continued north of the wall and possible trade routes/roads maybe remained open.

The Antonine Wall was only garrisoned for around 8 years after the wall was completed because by AD 162 the legions again retreated south to Hadrian's Wall. 

The legacy the Roman legions left, in The Antonine Wall, is impressive. Walking The Antonine Wall, running up and down its banks is a wonderful feeling. I can thoroughly recommend it to anyone who can make it to The Helix Park southern end. If you look at the map above, the Helix Park extends to the places marked Watling Lodge and Rough Castle near Falkirk- both very impressive parts for visiting The Antonine Wall.    

Of course that wasn't the end of the romans in Scotland. They came and went…and came back again! Another day, I'll write about the campaigns of Emperor Severus who came to put his stamp on Scotland around AD 208- 210. (My time travel novel for early teens- still unpublished - is about the Roman invasion of Severus). I may also write about Hadrian's Wall since my Gaius Livanus Valerius was stationed in at least two of the forts which adjoin the wall. 

I can't wait to get back down to The Antonine Wall again since it's a good number of years since I walked along it. I hope you enjoyed my brief details of this amazing feature and how it came to be there across central Scotland.


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