Wednesday, 14 October 2015

#Welcome Wednesday and Marcus Vettius Bolanus

My #Welcome Wednesday slot has no guest today but I'm writing about someone I'd dearly love to interview properly - the man being Marcus Vettius Bolanus. 

I'd like even better to have an image of him - but, sadly, I can't find one. Since the times I'm writing about were turbulent and complicated, it helps me to understand them better when I write about them - so please bear with me...

As an author, I wish I could launch in immediately and give details about the life of Marcus Vettius Bolanus, the Roman governor of Britannia from AD 69-71, but as I’ve found with other historical figures I feel the need to explain first a bit of his background, and the situation he inherited as Governor of Britannia.   
Nero - Wikimedia Commons

Around June of AD 67, the Emperor Nero believed the province of Britannia to be sufficiently stable to remove one of the four legions stationed there. He removed the Legio XIV Gemina Martia Victrix, it’s thought, with the intention of using it to strengthen his forces in the Caucasus regions. That doesn’t appear to have happened since events were not going in Nero’s favour. By AD 68, Nero was overthrown; he committed suicide; and thus followed a period of extreme unrest amongst the legions and governors of the provinces who were fighting for supremacy as Emperor.

The death of Nero meant the end of the Julio/ Claudian dynasty but the events following Nero’s death are notable in that from this period on it wasn’t actually necessary for a candidate to be present in Rome when declared the next emperor.

The Year of the Four Emperors (AD 68/69) was a turbulent time for the Roman Empire. Governors of high rank, who had been in charge of different provinces, vied for the supreme title of emperor but gaining that, and retaining it, depended largely on the support of the legions and also on the Senate in Rome.

Sulpicius Galba had the support of the Senate along with the Spanish legions and was declared next emperor after Nero but, after about 7 months, he was assassinated by the Praetorian Guard

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Otho denarius Wikimedia Commons

Marcus Salvio Otho’s coup, supported by the Praetorian Guard, was also a short lived 3 months because Aulus Vitellius was the victor when the legions of Otho and Vitellius clashed at the Battle of Bedriacum. 

Otho committed suicide leaving the throne to be claimed by Vitellius- commander of the legions in Germania Inferior. 

However, Vitellius only lasted 8 months before being murdered by the troops of Titus Flavius Vespasianus, the man who commanded the eastern legions. It was something of a ‘dog eat dog’ time.

Vespasian as
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What did the Year of the Four Emperors mean for Britannia and in particular with regard to my Celtic Fervour Series of novels which start in AD 71?

 In AD 68, the Governor of Britannia was Marcus Trebellius Maximus who had assumed the role in AD 63. During the five years of his governorship (according to Tacitus) he didn’t claim any new territory but consolidated the areas towards the south of Britannia which had already been settled upon by the Roman armies. London continued to grow as a Romanised settlement and he rebuilt Camulodonum, after the ravages of Bouddica’s rebellion. However, not being a military man he had little control of the legions who grew restive with no new campaigning and—it appears—they also hated his meanness.

When the Civil War began in AD 69 for the position of emperor, Britannia sent no successor as the other Roman regions had done. Though it appears that the province of Britannia itself remained calm, mostly regarding the natives in the south, Trebellius Maximus and Roscius Coelius, commander of the Legio XX, were constantly quarrelling. The situation became so troublesome between them that eventually Trebellius Maximus, no longer in control of the troops, fled from Britannia and went to join Vitellius.

From my point of view as an author, such a situation had to have been a lucrative one for the Celtic Brigante tribes of the north. Any hint of the Roman governorship being weakened had to have been a situation the tribes would have exploited whenever possible.

After Vitellius took control of the Empire, Trebellius Maximus was replaced by Vettius Bolanus and the Legio XIV was sent back to Britannia since that legion had been supporting the cause of Otho. Back on Britannia's shores they would have been regarded as less troublesome to Vitellius. 

The situation Bolanus inherited in Britannia in AD 69 wasn’t actually so peaceable. The south of Britannia (southern England) might have been amiable and accepting of the strictures of Rome but the north wasn’t (northern England), and neither was the west (Wales). Bolanus was immediately to find the supporters of King Venutius of the Brigantes a sore trial to him. The Queen of the Brigantes, Cartimandua, had been a loyal client- kingdom ruler for 20 years but her ex-husband King Venutius wasn’t as happy about their suppressed status.

King Venutius launched a successful second rebellion against the armies of Cartimandua and Vettius Bolanus had to send in his troops to evacuate Cartimandua from the territory. It seems that Bolanus only sent auxiliaries to do this and the best he could manage was to rescue Cartimandua. At this point King Venutius was not defeated by Rome and remained in charge of Brigante territory.

This seems to have been a turning point for Roman expansion of the north. Till AD 69 conquering the north wasn’t given much priority but events appear to have changed at this point.

Dendrochronolgy, and other more recent dating techniques, of sites of Roman encampment, guard towers, fortlets and forts in what was Brigante territory are pointing towards an occupation more like AD 69/70, rather than AD 79 during the campaigns of Agricola. Being able to use more than coin finds for dating purposes of these historical sites is very exciting. It makes much more sense to me, as an amateur historian, that Roman troops were being deployed to search and inhabit northern Britannic territory long before Agricola sent his troops north.

Having been involved in extricating Cartimandua from the north, it seems reasonable to believe that Bolanus would have deployed troops in the north as soon as he was able in order to stabilise the region and to conquer more territory for Rome- even if it was a piecemeal and slow process.

The poet Publius Papinius Statius (Silvae) claims that Bolanus claimed territory from a British king and established forts. If that can be corroborated from other sources, then parts of northern Britannia were conquered during the time of Bolanus rather than almost a decade later by Agricola.  

I await the day when more archaeological finds declare that the troops of Bolanus were in southern Scotland. If any new findings can prove his troops definitely settled in central Scotland, I’ll be delighted because I hint in my Celtic Fervour Series of novels that Bolanus and his successors as Governors of Britannia (Cerialis and Frontinus) were there long before Agricola.


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