Friday 30 October 2020

#AncientRoman Army Diet - Western Empire #Frontier

Roman Army diet at forts along what became the Hadrian’s Wall area.

I have a tendency to scribble on sheets of A4 paper as I do research, or if I need to clarify some particular aspect when I'm creating my novels. It's a really bad habit because I end up with loads of bits of paper which have to be cleared out. What follows are from research scribbles all bundled together. 

Vindolanda Fort(s), and other excavated Roman fort sites have provided some evidence for what may have been included in the general diet of the Roman soldier who served on the western frontier. What is more difficult to establish is close dating, so finds of food consumption tend to be related to a fort duration on a particular site, which may cover a number of years before a subsequent fort was rebuilt on the same site. The multi-layered sites like Vindolanda and Trimontium (Newstead), which have had a better exploration, have divulged some really interesting items. The products below are only a few of what has been uncovered in Britannic sites. Where I have found the associated Roman name, I have included it, the main sources coming from the Vindolanda tablets information. 

Olium- oil (olive). This provided some fat content and was able to be transported in clay amphorae. 

Olivae- olives. Now considered to be a mono-unsaturated fat source and good for you - like nuts - olives would have been low-calorie anti-oxidants which, taken in reasonable quantities, would have helped to keep the soldiers healthy.

The image here is a suggestion of how clay amphorae (oil and other liquids) may have been transported in ships like the liburnae of the Roman Navy (Classis Britannica) as they sailed from the shores of Gaul (France) to Britannia (Britain). 

Wikimedia Commons 
Vinum- vintage wine. This was probably drunk by officers but less likely for he lower ranks. 

Posca-/acetum vinegared wine/vinegar The vinegared wine was (apparently) easier to ‘keep drinkable’ during the long transport across the Roman Empire from its source. As vinegar, it was used in cooking but could also be used to disinfect wounds. 

Mediterranean wine growing-
source from 123rf dot com
Garum- fish paste The stinky/well matured fish paste travelled well and was used to add some taste and variety to what was a fairly standard and repetitive diet.

Fabea- beans (dried). Being a naturally gluten-free food, these would have been a source of protein, vitamins and minerals – including thiamin, riboflavin, folate, iron and would have provided much needed fibre.

Frumentum- wheat.  This was transported across the Roman Empire to feed the soldiers and would have come to the ‘Hadrian’s Wall’ area from more southerly climes. It wasn’t easy to grow wheat in northern Britannia (though a spelt variety was possible) so it’s thought that filling the granaries at forts and fortresses would have meant any local supplies were supplemented from grain from either southern Britain, or from sources across the wider Roman Empire. Emmer was a popular variety. 

Halica- durum wheat (semolina) flour also seems to have been transported to northern Britannia. This has gluten and may have 'risen' more than other (panis) breads that were slow baked. A twisted loaf is mentioned (turta). This was also good as a pudding-type meal. 

Oats. Much easier to grow in Britannia and this grain would have been a staple diet for many soldiers barracking in a permanent fort, as well as while on military campaigns in the north. It could be eaten as a porridge; a thinner brose (which would have made the quantity of grain last longer, or spread further); and baked as biscuits or bread. 

Hordeum- Barley. There’s some evidence that this was not a particularly liked grain which is unfortunate since it's the easiest of all three kinds to grow in northern climates. There are references to barely being a ‘punishment’ grain. Whether this was because of what it did to the soldiers’ digestions, or whether it was regarded as an inferior supply given for poor performance, is an interesting question! Like oats it could be milled and made into bread and biscuits; used as thin or thick porridge or added to soups and stews. 

**Horreum was the name given to a granary, grain store/ supplies store in the Roman fort. (horrea pl.)

Bucellatum- Hard Tack biscuits (much harder than oatcakes) would have carried better than fragile cakes/biscuits. If oil or wine was available the milled ‘flour’ may have been cooked like a pancake or a flat unleavened bread. (early pizza).

I'm cheating below since the image is of an incredibly old ship-biscuit from c. 1852 (Kronborg Castle, Denmark) but it is similar to what typical bucellatum may have been like. 

Bucellatum look-alike Wikimedia Commons

A clibanus was used to cook some of the above meals. This was a covered vessel, generally ceramic/ clay, and was akin to the tagine of north African cooking of today.

Whichever way the grains were cooked additions of nuts; herbs; dried fruits; olives or other stored fruits would have given a little variation.

It’s estimated that in peace-time fort situations, a soldier might have a ration of some 2-3 pounds weight of grain per day. The amount issued to a marching soldier on campaign may have been less, or limited to the amount that could survive and be still edible over a particular ‘marching’ duration. I tend to make a comparison with my breakfast bowl of porridge that's about 4 ounces worth (113g/ 1/3 cup). If the grain ration was 3 lbs. per day, that would be equivalent to around 12 days-worth of my breakfast.

Meat. This seems to have been less commonly eaten by the rank and file soldiers but small amounts of the following products may have been supplementary to the ‘grain’ rations: roe deer (caprea); venison (cervina); goat (caro/hircina); chicken (pullus). Different pork uses have been identified - pork cutlets (offella); pigs trotter (ungella); young pig (porcellum) ; ham (perna); pork crackling (callum)/ pork fat (axungia). Lard (lardum) seems to have been produced from all animal consumption. Milk from goats, or the small cattle that was the norm of the era, produced butter (buturum) and probably cheese.

Fish. There’s evidence that oysters (ostria) and other small fish (apua) may have been imported to the Hadrian’s Wall forts though fish bones do not survive well. It was thought that the local ‘Iron Age tribes perhaps avoided eating fish or water ‘animals’ for religious reasons but this is up for debate.

Ova- Eggs. These may have been the main reason for having fowl around the fort though eggs may have also been collected from wild birds. 

Vindolanda has produced evidence for the consumption of garlic (alium) probably as stored garlic and as garlic paste (alliatum); plums (prunolum); beans and raddish (radices), though during the earliest fort occupation it's not known how much would have been delivered there. 

Celtic beer (cervesa) consumption would have been influenced by either accessibility via the local tribes, or as a preference of any of the garrison who originated from a Celtic  tribe. 

Local herbs may have been gathered for cooking when identified e.g. evidence for lovage (ligisticum) was found at Vindolanda. Salt (sel) was used. Pepper (piper) and some spices (condimenta) were imported though these were very expensive and no doubt used sparingly. 

Mel-Honey Local honey would have been used to sweeten foods but it was also added to wine to create mulsum which seems to have been a Roman version of mead. 

Local fruits and nuts would have been gathered to supplement the diet. when in season and from stores -  apples and local berries of types like blackberries, damsons, sloes which grow in harsher climates. Hazelnuts may have been locally sourced but chestnuts (sweet) were possibly only imported from continental sources during the era of my writing (AD 71-89) till the chestnut trees that the Romans planted in Britannia had matured. 

All this writing of food stuffs is making me hungry! 

Till next time and more information...


Wednesday 28 October 2020

Vinovia Fort - Extract from #BeathanTheBrigante

As promised in the last post about Vinovia Roman fort and Dere Street... here is an extract from Beathan The Brigante, book 5 of my Celtic Fervour Series. 

Beathan has been in and out of many different Roman forts during the time he has been held as a hostage of General Gnaeus Iulius Agricola. By the time the reader gets to Chapter Twenty-Eight, they know that Beathan has managed to escape, but regrettably that situation changes when he, and his two friends, return to northern Brigantia. They wondered if they could trust some of the locals who offered them shelter... but here we find out if they were wrong or right...

I've included my working copy map of my fictitious Vinovia Roman Fort which I used as I wrote this chapter. It's a bit feint, and I can see the need to buy a slightly thicker marker pen, but it gives you an idea of what I was imagining. 

My working copy map of Vinovia Roman Fort 

Vinovia Roman Fort AD 86

“Out, now!” The guard bellowed before he even had the door properly open.

Beathan struggled to his feet. They were the most welcome words he had heard for days.

Prodded in front of the guard, he was hassled along the pillared walkway of the principia, the sounds of tramping feet reaching him well before he got near the wide exit doors. Once outside, and onto the street, his guard pushed him against the wooden wall, using the length of his pilum to block him in. The via principalis thronged with wave after wave of legionary soldiers walking four-abreast, all of whom headed out the far gate.

He had seen the legion’s emblem recently: the winged horse that was the emblem of the Legio II Adiutrix. After a half-century had marched past, a series of baggage wagons followed, hauled along by raucous, braying mules.

He felt the tip of the pilum slicing his cheek when his guard yanked it away and upright. “Move now. Along to the praetorium.”

“Where are the Legio II Adiutrix going?” His question seemed to startle the soldier. Not so much that he had dared to ask, but he felt more because he knew which legion was on the move.

“Eboracum.” The guard was not exactly talkative while they awaited entry at one of the doors along the praetorium’s walkway, but Beathan persisted.

“I have never seen a whole century, with baggage wagons march right through a fort like that, along its via principalis.”

The guard stared. “How many forts have you been in to know anything?”

“Quite a few.” He pretended indifference to what had been an insult. “I have been in forts all the way to Rome itself.” That latter statement was not quite true, but the guard could not know that.

The legionary’s guffaws were loud enough to draw the attention of the sentries back at the entrance.

“Rome? Are you telling me that a menial tribesman like you has visited it? And that you walked our Roman roads to get there?”

Beathan could not blame the man. It did sound like one of his Uncle Brennus’ tales around the fireside. On that thought, he felt a smile appearing. When he got home, he would have no end of stories to tell, though they would all be true.

“If the Legio II Adiutrix are heading for Eboracum does that mean they have been replaced by another legion?”

“You know nothing!” The legionary was dismissive. “The whole legion has been recalled by Emperor Domitian. They are heading for some proper engagement in Dacia, not the furtive little forays of those cowardly Caledonians.”

He gulped, but he made sure his thoughts were not revealed in his expression. He had no idea where Dacia was but the Legio II Adiutrix had been supporting the Legio IX, and Legio XX, in northern Caledonia. If his kin were still in Taexali, or Caledon territory, then there must be fewer Roman troops occupying the far north. That would mean less of the enemy’s oppressive presence.

Pure excitement gripped him. He needed to escape to find out.

“Have other troops been sent north to replace this legion in the forts across Caledonia?” he asked.

Once again the guard stared at him as though he was an imbecile. “Most of the northern forts have already been abandoned. Those are the last of the Legio II Adiutrix to go south.”

Beathan’s insides were erupting. He could barely contain the elation he felt, but he wanted more information. He made himself sound incredulous.  “Has Trimontium been dismantled?”

The soldier chuckled again. “Ha! You might want that, but no. Trimontium has been re-garrisoned.”

He chose not to respond to the mocking, but when he looked at the soldier the abrupt change to livid scorn on the man’s face was startling.

“And everything that General Agricola annexed north of those three hills is now in the keeping of the cowardly Caledons!”

Beathan’s head was in a whirl. The man’s contempt was palpable, but it was hard to determine if the soldier was blaming Agricola for the loss of the territory.

He could still hear the tramping of feet and the loud trundling of the wagons which probably meant a whole cohort was on the move. Understanding dawned, his smile even wider than before.

“Vinovia is a good-sized fort, but it cannot house so many extra soldiers overnight. Were they camped on the north side of the fort? And they now travel southwards using the via principalis right inside the fort?”

The legionary’s small nods and glowers made him continue.

“Did the site builders of Vinovia make a mistake over where they placed the main road? Or were they just very clever?” He could not keep amusement from his tones, though his guard did not appreciate his humour.

The man grumped. “I hate being on sentry duty at the main East and West gates. Every single person, animal or vehicle has to be double checked at both ends of our via principalis.” The soldier lifted his chin and peered at him. “If you have been in so many of our forts you will know that almost nowhere else allows civilians to prance their way right through our defences.”

Beathan agreed. He had never been on any Roman road, used by the public, that went right through a fort, but it was good knowledge to have.

“Bring him in!” The call came from a non-uniformed person. From the stylus still in the man’s hand, Beathan guessed him to be a secretary.

In moments he was standing, once again, in front of Liberalis who was having one of the straps of his moulded breastplate adjusted by a young servant.

“Leave!” the legate ordered. When the secretary hesitated, Liberalis waved him out, too.

Beathan felt the power of the man when Liberalis stood before him fully armoured. The man’s polished helmet poised on top of the uniform stand drew his gaze, and his awe. The metal ornamentation was even more impressive than Agricola’s, and though more battered the general’s helmet had been stunning.

“You have given me a problem I could well do without, Brigante Beathan.”

He stared. It was not a question, so he gave no response. He had plenty of problems of his own.

“Rome gives men frequent marching orders.”

Beathan absorbed the terse tones and tried to interpret the legate’s words. Although the room was cleared of his staff, it was possibly not a totally private conversation.

“You mean that the Legio II Adiutrix has been recalled to Rome to go to fight a…less cunning enemy?”

Liberalis almost smiled. “The emperor demands their presence.”

He nodded since Liberalis’ expression seemed to indicate it was necessary.

He dared to add a little more. “I have heard that the Legio IX, and the Legio XX, have also been withdrawn from Caledonia. From all of the northern forts.”

The legate’s expression was calculating. “You learn the most fascinating information, Beathan the Brigante. Perhaps General Agricola was correct and that you do need to be handled very carefully.”

He chose not to reply. Handling was something he had plenty of experience of.

“You have seen many of our forts but not, I think, Pinnata Castra?”

He had heard about that one from Ineda of Marske, his Uncle Brennus’ hearth-wife, but he chose to only nod.

“Agricola was very proud of that fortress.” Liberalis sounded reflective. “I believe he would have liked to show you it.”

He found he could not hold back. “It has also been abandoned?”

Liberalis’ chuckles were bitter. “I am glad he was not there to see his beloved Legio XX leave.” The legate’s smile became snide. “You, on the other hand, might have been impressed by the situation.”

The glare that came his way made Beathan refrain from asking any more questions.

Liberalis’ tone dipped again. “Like General Gnaeus Iulius Agricola, past Governor of Britannia, I am also recalled to Rome. Though unlike Agricola, I will be embarking a ship well before Londinium, to take me to the shores of Gaul.” Liberalis’ voice quietened to a rasping whisper, as intense as his stare. “Agricola and I share a friendship and probably the same fate. But presently, I have no desire to leave any unravelling threads which he saw fit to loosen.”

Beathan felt his throat seize up. What was the man talking about?

Liberalis leaned forward, closing the gap between them, his words a murmur. “Rome seems to have had no place for you…and neither does this fort. Because of the acquaintance I share with Agricola, I will not kill you, but you will go where you are less likely to cause yourself an early death.”

For a brief moment Liberalis looked away. Beathan waited. He could tell there was more to come since the man seemed to be fighting with something unseen. When Liberalis returned his focus on him, he could not avoid noticing that a deeper anger was now interlaced with the earlier threat.

“I have been unable to keep your arrival a secret, so news of you being here has already caused some tongues to wag. You are not as inconspicuous as you may think you are, Brigante. And I cannot afford to be tarnished with allowing a fugitive to escape, again.”

Beathan swallowed. Was Liberalis saying that even he had foes around him?

“Yes. Brigante. I do have my own enemies. I may, or I may not, manage to arrive in Rome hale and hearty.” Liberalis broke off to laugh quietly, but it was a snide, bitter one. “Unfortunately, I will not have a champion like you to defend me – instinctively, or otherwise.”

Beathan could not help the disbelieving frown that furrowed his forehead. Liberalis would make sure to set a substantial personal guard around him. Did the man mean he was not even sure that he could trust them?

“For some reason Fortuna appears to favour you, Brigante. I should like to drag you back to Rome as my personal good luck charm. However, I cannot acquire any form of remission for you. Neither could General Agricola, though he did try, to his own detriment. You are still an official hostage of Rome.”

Beathan bit down the flood of bitterness that those words brought forth, his jaw tensing.

The legate continued his threatening whisper. “Though you are a mature young man now, you have still not learned to school that defiant expression, Beathan of the Brigantes. I advise you to remember some caution.  You know already that Rome’s centurions are trained to be vicious towards those who are slow to learn discipline.”

Beathan felt his cheeks tighten even more. A sudden hatred of the man would not be quelled. He inhaled through his nose and forced himself to not reach out and punch the face that was close enough.

After a few long stares, Liberalis called for the guard to enter.

“Fetch Centurion Spectatus.”

Beathan reckoned the man must have been close by since he strutted in almost instantly.

“This captive will go to Vindolanda Fort with the next shipment of goods. Double the usual guard and make sure he gets there. He is a slippery one. He will remain there till…” Liberalis paused to pop on his helmet and fix the neck strap. “…further orders are received.”

“What about my friends? Derwi and Gillean? Where are they?”

Liberalis slid a knife from a pouch at his waist with great deliberation.

Beathan had never seen anything like the carving on the hilt, was not even sure what the hilt was made of. It was shorter than the pugio that most soldiers wore at their waist, but longer than an eating knife. His panicked fascination with the quality dwindled when the extremely sharp tip was tucked under his chin.

“Let us just say that they will be imprisoned in a fort that is closer to their home territory than where you are going.”

After one long stare, Liberalis removed the blade and slipped it back into its sheath.

Beathan’s last sight of Legate Liberalis was one he would never forget. A small smirk quirked up the man’s mouth and a twisted amusement flashed across his determined expression.

The word captive resonated.

Liberalis had demoted him from hostage… to captive.  


#5 Beathan The Brigante

Celtic Fervour Series page link Amazon


#Vinovia Fort - A special road!

Roman Roads 3

This time I'm writing about the road we now name as Dere Street, although what the Ancient Romans named it themselves is a mystery. And I'm particularly writing about the stretch of Dere Street which, quite unusually, ran right through a Roman Cavalry Fort.

Vinovia/ Binchester Roman Fort
Wikimedia Commons

Vinovia (Vinovium) Roman Fort is also known by the modern name of Binchester Roman Fort. Not far from Bishop Auckland and close to the River Wear, the fort was situated on higher ground which commanded a great view of the surrounding area. It was the largest Roman fort in County Durham. The plateau was cleared of trees and brush vegetation and the soil substantially levelled before the construction began. There’s evidence of two phases of wooden barrack-building during the earliest fort phase which could be attributed to deterioration and replacement, or perhaps to a change of garrison which often seemed to entail a complete rebuild on the same site as the previous occupants had used.

It’s estimated that the first fort was constructed in approx. AD 75-80. If constructed during the earlier of those parameters, it would have been built during the Britannic governorship of S. J. Frontinus (Governor approx. AD 74-77). However, Frontinus’ troops are not attested (yet?) to have been active in the area, so it’s more likely that the first fort was built a little earlier by his predecessor P. Cerialis (Governor approx. AD 71-74), or later by Frontinus’ successor Gn. I. Agricola (Governor approx. AD 77-85). During his northern campaigns, Cerialis was known to have engaged the enemy on the eastern side of Brigante territories with mainly the Legio IX, whilst Agricola (in post as Commander of the Legio XX) marched his troops up the western areas.

During his tenure as Governor of Britannia, Agricola had troops all over the north over the course of perhaps six, or maybe all of his (probably) seven summer campaign seasons. Archaeologist findings of 4 coins of Emperor Vespasian - who ruled from AD 69-79 - in the Vinovia Fort area have given some bias to it having been constructed as part of Agricola’s campaigning, though coin evidence can only do so much to corroborate a definite time by defining the earliest possible deposit of the coin, according to a known mint.

Part of a map created for 
Beathan The Brigante c. Nancy Jardine

At around 17 acres, Vinovia was a sizeable fort and around 3 times larger than most of the forts that were built in what was to become the Hadrian’s Wall area. It was constructed of turf and timber and was possibly initially garrisoned by an auxiliary cavalry detachment associated with the Legio IX, which was around 1000 strong. For housing that amount of men, the Vinovia site was surprisingly large.

Vinovia was one of the forts which lay along the line of Dere Street. This was the main Roman conduit to the far north, from Eboracum (York) northwards to Corstopitum (Corbridge) and it then carried on into Caledonia. As well as the size of Vinovia being of note, it’s also highly unusual in that Dere Street carried on straight through the Vinovia Fort.

The map below post-dates the initial fort at Vinovia, but the map indicates the importance that Dere Street  held for hundreds of years worth of Roman transport of goods and personnel to the north.  

Cropped from a map from Wikimedia Commons (~Frere)
I have named Dere Street as its via principalis in my imaginary fort of Vinovia. The actual plan for the original wooden Vinovia fort has been hard for archaeologists to establish, due to the reuse of the area for subsequent wooden and stone forts. The line of Dere Street, that’s been established archaeologically, veers off to the north-west after skirting a deep bend of the River Wear. 

My WIP copy River Position of Vinovia
for Beathan The Brigante c. Nancy Jardine 

After traversing the fort, Dere Street heads on to cross the river further north-west. Because of these details, I’ve oriented my fictitious fort to have a less important via praetoria closer to the eastern end of the fort and put the via principalis as the main street through from east to west. 

My working copy of Vinovia Fort for 
Beathan The Brigante c. Nancy Jardine 

I haven’t yet found out what would have made the Ancient Roman engineers route their main thoroughfare right through the centre of the fort, but it was such an interesting concept that I had to write about it. Few other Roman forts or fortresses across the empire had what was effectively a public street running right through a fort.

I imagine that this would have meant a different sort of monitoring system needed to be in place. Access to a fort was highly controlled, the sentries at each gateway monitoring all movement into and out of the establishment. That routine monitoring aspect would have been similar at Vinovia but the process of people and wagons, many of whom intended to continue on northwards, would have meant (I think) much more observation along the via principalis. Security must surely have been much tighter than in a ‘usual’ fort?

I’ve opted to add in a fabrica building near the east gate on my plan, next to the praetorium, but I wondered about adding a sort of very early ‘mansio’ type building for travelling personnel who were maybe not military though were using the main Roman route, and who could not be housed overnight in official military quarters.

Subsequent Roman forts were built at Vinovia using the same site over the ensuing centuries, with additional and considerable settlement (vicus) buildings established nearby. It’s thought that Vinovia continued to remain a cavalry fort for much of its Roman existence. The wooden buildings were eventually replaced by stone ones and there’s substantial evidence uncovered now for tourists and keen historical amateurs (like me) to visit. Remains of the extensive commander’s house and the close by bathhouse of a later period of Roman occupation are now kept under cover of a wooden building (s). The remains of the hypocaust system and flooring of the bathhouse are arguably the best to be seen across Britain. The warm room floor of Roman concrete is still well-preserved considering it’s around 1700 years old.

Bathhouse - Vinovia Fort
Wikimedia Commons

The bathhouse remains were uncovered during the early 19th century when a cart and horse disappeared down into a hole in the middle of the ruins. Part of the hypocaust system had collapsed leaving a gap big enough for the discovery. I’ve yet to find out what happened to the poor horse, but it doesn’t sound like it would have been very good for the unfortunate beast. 

Regrettably, some of the fort stonework was appropriated during more recent centuries for re-use in local buildings, some of which may have given us more clues about the conclusive identity of those garrisoning the fort. 

Stone inscriptions which mention the site refer to Frisorum Vinoviensium and equites catafractariorum. Cavalry units of the ala Vettonum (Frisian soldiers) are also cited and there’s a possibility that the  Legio IX may have garrisoned the fort at some point. The site has provided a couple of wonderful stone altars and the small head of a god thought to be named Antenocitus since it’s similar to another local Celtic god statue with that name which was found at Benwell Fort (not so far distant). Since the Vinovia god head is dated to the 2nd century, it is possibly a Roman god which has been conflated with that of a local Celtic god.

Antenocitus (? ) -
FutureLearn Hadrian's Wall Course material

Since this post is already quite long, please pop back for the next blog post where you'll find an extract from Beathan The Brigante, #5 Celtic Fervour Series. In the short excerpt, Beathan works out why Vinovia Fort is different from other forts he has already encountered during his periods of captivity. 

Thank you for reading.


ps I thoroughly recommend the Futurelearn Hadrian's Wall course. I did it a couple of years ago but, in some form, it may be available again in the future.


Thursday 15 October 2020

HWF October Blog Hop - A long tale of 2 men!

Tacitus & Agricola

When the Historical Writers Forum suggested an October Blog Hop, with the theme of ‘Our Favourite Historical figures…and why’, I jumped in with both feet! Though, I'm about to cheat since I have two joint-favourite historical figures.

The two previous posts on the October Blog Hop have been about very interesting figures. There's Lynn Bryant's Peninsular war Hero Sir Edward Codrington and my Ocelot Press fellow author Jen Wilson's Mary Queen of Scots.  You can hop on over and read them at your leisure...

But on this hop - here are my big feet! And my long and well-paced-out post of two men...

One foot is for Gnaeus Iulius Agricola.

And the other is for Publius Cornelius Tacitus, the ancient writer to whom I can credit most of what I know of Agricola

This post is about the influence of Cornelius Tacitus on the knowledge of Gnaeus Iulius Agricola, and of Roman Britain in general during the 1st Century AD. Agricola has featured a lot on this blog already, in the context of me writing my Celtic Fervour Series, but today I'm presenting Agricola via the lens of Tacitus, the mannie on the top right corner of the HWF poster. 

Hand up if you’ve ever heard of General Gnaeus Iulius Agricola?

Raise your hand again if you knew that Ancient Roman troops advanced all the way to the Moray Coast in north-east Scotland, and that Agricola possibly camped opposite my house when on that northerly invasion?

No, that isn’t a trick question.

General Agricola- Bath 

My fascination with Agricola starts with the Roman temporary marching camp at Deer’s Den, Kintore, north-east Scotland, and the fact that one corner of the temporary camp rampart was situated about 30 metres from my garden gate. There’s archaeological dating evidence that strongly suggests the huge encampment was created by Agricola’s troops during the Flavian era, c. AD 83/84. (The extent of the camp approx. 60 average football pitches.) Learning that potentially 10,000 Roman soldiers tramped over my garden, it kick-started my need to write about Ancient Roman invasions of northern Britannia. 

There are no written records from the indigenous Iron-Age tribes, and the main ‘GO TO’ reference from antiquity was written by Publius Cornelius Tacitus. (Pliny the elder, Suetonius, Cassius Dio and other ancient writers like Josephus, Statius, Zonoras – make brief mentions but don’t fill in much detail.)

Tacitus - Agricola’s son-in-law - wrote about the life of Agricola in De vita et moribus Iuilii Agricolae, and in the Annals. The purpose of Tacitus’ Agricolae is unclear. It may have been an extended eulogy (laudatio or encomium) to give proper honour to Agricola, though it was written (or published?) about four years after Agricola’s death in AD 93. Some scholars accept it as a biography of Agricola’s military career, spent in Britannia. Others believe it's a political document, only ‘published’ (perhaps orated at the Roman Forum?) after the assassination of Emperor Domitian in AD 96 when Tacitus felt it was safe to write it, and publicly share it. Some scholars name it a historiography, written by someone who lived during the era, even though Tacitus was unlikely to have been present at (most of) the events related.

Cornelius Tacitus
lithograph by Julien

Regardless of Tacitus’ purpose, his statements about Agricola’s achievements fascinate me. They also make me want to fill in the gaps with the known archaeological record. And that, in turn, is totally absorbing since being ‘organic’ archaeological theories are frequently modified, or altered, when up-to-date scientific techniques give us a better (different) perspective of discoveries in Britannia.

So, what do I know about General Gnaeus Iulius Agricola? Does a man become a great invader overnight? I don't think so!

Here are some of the supposed 'facts' about Agricola - as come down to us from Tacitus - and plenty of my own observations which are prefaced by **. Take a deep breath and… read on, because Agricola was in Britannia for the bulk of his career. The problem is that the intertwined stories of Tacitus and Agricola do not follow in absolutely cast-iron chronological order, and the historical record of Tacitus does not always 'match' the archaeological one. Known and guessed-at become confusing! 

Gnaeus Iulius Agricola [most dates are not precise]

Born 13th June AD 40, Forum Iulii, Narbonensis (southern Gaul).

His father: Iulius Graecinus - a senator who achieved the rank of praetor; wrote literary works on vine cultivation. Unfortunately Graecinus was too principled and (probably) too outspoken. Graecinus refused to prosecute M. Silanus (a second-cousin of the emperor) and his execution was ordered by Emperor Gaius/Caligula when Agricola was an infant.

adapted - Nancy Jardine

Agricola’s CareerCursus Honorum  - normal entry at approx. 18 (by virtue of his father’s patrician status.) This was the usual age to do initial army service and to begin on a ‘Roman’ career. Before this, Agricola was said to have been studious and was very inclined towards philosophy, according to his mother. However, philosophy probably didn’t pay the bills, so he embarked on the usual military and political career. 

AD 58-62 Agricola's first posting to Britannia 

Tribune under Governor of Britannia, Suetonius Paulinus. Possibly as a member of Paulinus’ personal staff. Perhaps assigned to Legio II Augusta, since Tacitus mentions the name Poenius Postumus, who was the Legio II Augusta camp prefect. 

**The importance of this military posting? Paulinus was in charge of subduing Boudica’s Iceni rebellion of 61. Agricola may well have been very close to that action and may have experienced his first confrontational engagement with the enemy. He might have gained good knowledge of the tribes of Britannia and perhaps even learned some of the local language/ dialects during his 4 years there. 

AD 62 Back to Rome; marries the well-connected Domitia Decidiana. Civic/military position unknown but probably administrative. 

AD 64 Quaestor (province of Asia) Public official; lowest ranking position but early rung on the political ladder. Tacitus indicates that Agricola was not enamoured with the corruption that was rife across the province, the present governor just a little bit implicated.

AD 66 prestigious post in Rome as a tribune of the plebs An important step if entry to the Senate was on the ‘big’ plan.

AD 68 Praetor in Rome. An elected magisterial position. Agricola appears to have spent the usual time at most of his earlier administrative posts and was in those positions at the earliest possible times, according to the fairly rigid career structure. 

AD 69 he is documented as 'cataloguing the temple treasures' during Galba's short term as emperor. 

**However, regarding the job of Praetor, I like the fact that Agricola seemed to have earned ‘bonus points’ i.e. a year’s remission two times over, by becoming a father to two children in quick succession. This meant Agricola was a Praetor at a ‘young’ age and two years earlier than the normal on the Cursus Honorum. I like to think it was because of his dedication to doing a good job and to his competence levels. Sadly, around this time, his first-born - a son (name not known) - seems to have died the same year that his daughter Julia Agricola was born.

AD 69 -73 Agricola's second posting to Britannia

In AD 69, the civil war across the Roman Empire ended. Vespasian became emperor, and Agricola received a posting in Britannia as Legate of the Legio XX 

**This, I believe, is a pivotal point in Agricola’s career. I think a personal hunger to subdue the whole island of Britannia probably began when he was given this position of higher command. 

AD 69 One of Agricola’s immediate tasks after arriving in Britannia was to whip the Legio XX into better disciplinary shape, since there had been seditious disruption under the command of Roscius Coelius during the Civil War period of 68 into 69. 

**It’s possible that as a follower of Vespasian, Agricola needed to do a bit of persuasion within the Legio XX to bring them over to Vespasian’s side. The three emperors prior to Vespasian had not had sufficient allegiance among the 28 (approx.) legions across the empire to keep themselves in power.  In 69, Vespasian controlled enough legions to assume power, but he also needed to have it continue that way.

**If true that Agricola needed to ensure the obedience of the Legio XX , it would have required him to have a selection of well-used skills of persuasion. He'd have needed to engender sufficient respect and to have instilled firm leadership. This experience would have stood him in good stead for the even more senior commands which were still to come. 

**During the period of 69-71, under Vettius Bolanus as Governor of Britannia, Tacitus doesn’t mention any particular events that put Agricola into the limelight. However, it’s possible that if Bolanus ordered invasion and expansion into northerly territory that had not yet been occupied (Brigantia and maybe Caledonia), and if Agricola was involved in this exploration with the Legio XX, it would have given Agricola very useful first-hand knowledge of the nature of the terrain and of problems in subduing the natives. 

Wikimedia Commons- 'Frere'

**Recent archaeological dating is providing more evidence of occupation of northern Brigantia and southern Caledonia during the late 60s. Tacitus does not write about this – though it's unknown if this was on purpose. However, not hearing about activity in these areas from Agricola himself seems unlikely - unless the lack of settled success at that time meant Tacitus did not mention it because he had no desire to 'spoil' Agricola's record.  

**Traditional (early) historians gave Agricola the main credit for invading Caledonia during the period 77-84 because they largely relied on Tacitus' account of Agricola's 7 'summer-long' military campaigns. (campaign season traditionally March - October). Frere's map above was constructed in the 1950s/1960s mainly using the information given to us by Tacitus. The map is now regarded as 'out of date' but if you imagine some of the grey, and pale blue lines of Bolanus and Cerialis extending into Caledonia by the late 60s/early 70s, perhaps even as far as the central belt of Scotland, it's quite mind-blowing. The possibility changes the 'beliefs' of centuries of historians. But what would make Tacitus not mention any Caledonian invasion during the tenure of Bolanus? 

Archaeology is inching closer towards proving more conclusively that there were quite a few Caledonian incursions during the late 60s. If so, it seems reasonable to suggest that a more settled climate in parts of northern Brigantia was necessary for this and maybe Agricola's Legio XX was responsible for some control in western tribal areas. 

It's a good place to note, however, that what was invaded did not always stay settled without serious military control. 

AD 71 Quintus Petillius Cerialis became Governor of Britannia. (Cerialis was Emperor Vespasian's son-in-law. Favouritism? Cronyism? It's definitely not a new concept!) Cerialis had prior knowledge of the province of Britannia having been in command of the Legio IX Hispana during the Boudican rebellion. Even though Cerialis seems to have been unsuccessful in the 'bloody battles with Boudica, Tacitus indicates Cerialis redeemed himself during a later posting in Germania. Cerialis' conduct in Germania was then sufficient for him to be made Governor of Britannia in AD 71. 

Agricola was still in Britannia at this point, still commanding the Legio XX

In AD 71, the Brigantes Tribal Federation (roughly speaking present day Yorkshire/ Cumbria and Northumberland) was causing Rome an even greater headache than before, and this is where Agricola’s career becomes more interesting. General Cerialis stepped up the expansionist /settling processes in Brigantia. According to Tacitus, Cerialis again commanded the Legio IX Hispana and actively subdued more of eastern Brigantia, while Agricola campaigned on the western side with his Legio XX.  

Stamp Legio IX Hispana
Carlaeon Fortress 
Wikimedia Commons

(Think of this as being a positive step for the Romans, but they still had to ensure control everywhere to the south of their latest campaign area and 'Wales' was proving to be continually troublesome.) 

** These northern engagements would have given Agricola a lot more experience of the landscape of northern Britannia, and he would have acquired really useful knowledge of the tribes of the north. I also think that if he did not already understand/speak some of the local language/s then this 4-year posting would have been the perfect time for him to learn. 

**Why do I think Agricola would have bothered to learn anything about the local tribes? I think it was in his interest to do so, but being of a philosophical 'bent' (according to Tacitus) it would have been natural for him to want to know about them so that he could implant Roman values on them more easily. 

**Some linguists, and philological experts, lean towards a theory that there may have been a common 'tongue' that existed across Europe at this time 2000 years ago (a very early form of  'Old Welsh'/ i.e. a basic 'Celtic' language). This, they propose, would have been understood in a basic form across huge areas of Europe, though was probably spoken with regional dialects. This is a notion which I have to say inspires me so much I've used it in Book 5 of my Celtic Fervour Series. 

The Roman army was drawn from so many geographical areas, so spoken Latin is surmised to have been at the most basic level for the bulk of the lower ranks. As Roman citizens of high status, Agricola and his fellow officers would have spoken fluent Latin, but that doesn't mean they'd not have had a smattering of the indigenous language of their birth-region. 

AD 73 Agricola goes back to Rome. Achieved official patrician status 

AD 73-76 (approx.) Governorship of Aquitania. At this time of the empire, Aquitania had no permanent legion stationed there since the area had been settled for decades, and was peacefully 'Roman' oriented. This posting was possibly an easy job as a 'pen pusher' for Agricola and of a civic nature rather than military. Probably useful for picking up the skills he needed later for administration in Britannia. 

AD 76 or 77 Agricola Back in Rome and made Suffect consul A highly prestigious post. He was also elevated to the College of Pontiffs. the highest-ranking priests of the 'state religion'. Tacitus indicates that Agricola took his Pontiff status seriously, being highly religious and typically superstitious. Although being a member of the college of Pontiffs was, by then, a pretty nominal post with few duties attached.

AD 77 (?) Tacitus is betrothed to Agricola's daughter Julia. They marry the following year (78?) 

AD 77-84 (or very early 85) Agricola's third posting to Britannia 

AD 77 (approx.) marks the beginning of Agricola's 3rd term in Britannia. His title was Legatus Augusti pro praetore, the ‘Augusti’ part meaning he was governor of a province where legions were stationed, and that Agricola had been specially chosen by the emperor (Vespasian). Agricola commanded in place of Emperor Vespasian across the province - top dog over any other Britannic official! 

**It was fairly unusual to be serving in a place for a third time, so Agricola may have been regarded as a bit of a 'specialist' regarding Britannia. Because Agricola had a typical career background, including posts as a civic administrator, he perhaps also felt compelled to mould Britannia into shape as a better-run province both in military and 'municipal' terms. Tacitus notes that Agricola had been disturbed and appalled by the corruption that was rife at the top echelons of Roman administration when he was a quaestor in the province of Asia and was firm about it being eradicated from the running of Britannia. Tacitus speaks of Agricola being proud of the civic reforms that he instigated and the Roman customs that he established.  

**I think by AD 77 Agricola was also hell-bent on conquering all of the Britannic territory that had not been invaded and already deemed to be settled.

c. Nancy Jardine (some of the known forts)

What then were Agricola's targets between approx. AD 77 and the end of 84?

During his very long tenure of some seven years as Governor of Britannia, Agricola systematically seems to have made his mark on, and/or subdued many of the northern tribes. He either re-used temporary camp sites, or forts, established by his predecessors (Bolanus, Cerialis, Frontinus) or he created new ones. 

Archaeology is truly wonderful, but it's really difficult to be absolutely sure of what Agricola and the Roman legions managed during the years 77-84. Interpretative evidence suggests that he conquered, or at least had permanent forces monitoring stability in:

  • What we would now term Wales.
  • What we now call all of northern England
  • Probably most of southern and some of central belt Scotland

Agricolan Era forts c. Nancy Jardine 

**I like to think that the seriously magnificent supply fortress of Inchtuthil was ordered to be built by Agricola. Inchtuthil is the most northerly fortress in the whole Roman Empire and might be the one Ptolemy names as Pinnata Castra (not Victoria since the map created from his co-ordinates is very skewed). Since I'm a writer of fiction, I've included Inchtuthil/ Pinnata Castra in my Celtic Fervour Series, Agricola visiting it in Book 5 Beathan The Brigante. There is also a short story the Ocelot Press Anthology Doorways To The Past where Ruoridh of Garrigill is a bit perplexed about Pinnata Castra in late AD 86, after the Romans have abandoned the huge supply fortress. 

It's hotly contested exactly how much of northern Tayside and Aberdeenshire could have been termed conquered by Agricola. Stracathro (about 37 miles south of Aberdeen) is the most northerly known wooden fort. It's  possibly originally Agricolan, though was also likely to have been used by later Roman forces (Antonine, or more likely Severan).

Beyond Stracathro there's only evidence for temporary camps in north-east Scotland, but there is a wonderful line of them which roughly follows the present-day trunk road named the A 96 (Aberdeen to Inverness). This road skirts the fringes of the Grampian mountains and was possibly much the same route taken by the Agricolan infantry. 

William Roy, the military cartographer of the mid 1700s, made some fascinating maps which indicate stretches of road which may have originally been laid down by Roman troops. [Roy's drawings of some of the Roman forts in Perthshire and Tayside - like Ardoch - are absolutely splendid, and are truly works of art!] When he 'scoped' out some of the Roman activity in the north-east, the construction of the installations was still very visible which meant very accurate measuring. The ditches and ramparts had not yet been ploughed out by aggressive farming techniques.

(Check out The National Library of Scotland for Free online access to the fabulous ROY maps)

Roman Forts and temporary camps
c. Nancy Jardine

Agricola is thought to have built, or reinforced many impressive forts, though it's presently an archaeological guessing game of exactly who ordered the building of which installation. 

But back to my friend Tacitus!

What does Tacitus mention regarding Agricola's exploits in northern Caledonia? Well...we have the magnificently eloquent and prosaic description of the Battle of Mons Graupius. We have Tacitus' poetic version of what Agricola said before the battle when rallying his troops, which may have been upwards of 20,000 men. We have Tacitus' version of what the Caledonian leader Calgacus shouted to rouse his 30,000 warriors into a frenzy. We have Tacitus' version of how the battle progressed and of how after a horrendous bloody conflict some 350 Romans died compared to 10,000 of Calgacus'  Caledonians.

What we don't have is an attested battle site, or a shred of evidence that a battle actually took place. 

Nonetheless - that lack of battle-site evidence didn't stop me writing in a battle between the Caledons and Agricola in my Celtic Fervour Series (Book 3). It's not called Mons Graupius, for how can I prove it? My battle site is called Beinn na Ciche, the present-day hill range at Bennachie, Aberdeenshire,  being one of the main contender sites according to the topographical information given to us by my joint-favourite  man, Tacitus! 

One of my pile of Roman texts
This image is very like Bennachie! 
Bennachie is directly opposite the encampment marked Durno on the above map and Durno is easily large enough to have housed Agricola's upwards of 20,000 troops. At 58 hectares, the Durno camp is the largest in north-east Scotland  and is also big enough to have sheltered the 30,000 men that Emperor Severus brought to the north of Caledonia in AD 210, though Tacitus couldn't have known that fact!

(I've written about Severus and Caracalla at Durno, Beinn na Ciche, in The Taexali Game, my time travel historical)

And sometime soon after Mons Graupius, Agricola was recalled to Rome by Emperor Domitian. Many theories abound about whether Agricola had totally fallen out with Domitian over the conquest of Caledonia. What Tacitus indicates is that from soon after Domitian became emperor, lots of troops were withdrawn from Britannia leaving Agricola very short-handed. Making a conquest in one rebel area means troops cannot be deployed in  a control and monitoring capacity elsewhere and they become stretched too thin! 

Tacitus tells us that Agricola was given the best triumphant regalia possible on his return to Rome, but for some reason entered at night and without 'fuss'. (Only an emperor could enter Rome with his army in tow, and only an emperor could have a triumphal arch built). Unfortunately, if Agricola did have the statue commissioned that Tacitus mentions, it's never been found or identified. Tacitus says that Agricola refused to accept Domitian's offer of a new post and retired to his 'estates' in Gallia Narbonensis. Rumours abound that Agricola did not die of natural causes at the age of 53, some 8 years after leaving Caledonia. 

I'd dearly love to know about the doctors tending Agricola before his death, you know those ones sent by Emperor Domitian! 

During the course of writing the 5 novels in my Celtic Fervour Series, I've added many different posts to this blog about Agricola's exploits in Caledonia which give lots more information about my 2 favourite men. (Please use the blog search box to find more about Agricola or Tacitus). 

The next post in the Historical Writers' Forum is by Sharon Bennet Connely. Hop on over to her blog from the 17th October 2020 and catch her reasons for choosing Matilda Marshal! 

Thank you for reading and enjoy the HWF Blog Hop. 

Celtic Fervour Series link HERE
Inchtuthil (Pinnata Castra) short story - Ocelot PRESS 2020 Anthology -DoorwaysToThePast

(psst! If you're reading this post on the 15th Oct 2020, you'll find some lovely surprises over on Amazon for The Celtic Fervour Series- some reductions and even a FREEBIE!)