The mighty Roman frontier, Hadrian's Wall
The mighty Roman frontier, Hadrian's Wall

The Romans in the North

Dr. Simon Elliott is one of our fantastic expert Guide Lecturers and will lead our upcoming Romans in the North tour, which departs in both June and September this year. Ahead of this tour, he has written a guest blog post for us about Septimius Severus, who was Roman emperor from 193 to 211 and is also the subject of one of Elliott's books. 

Septimius Severus, by Dr. Simon Elliott

The Romans never conquered the far north of Britannia. This permanently changed the nature of this far flung province, given it always required an exponentially large military presence to maintain this northern border, some 12% of the entire Roman military establishment in what was only 4% of the Empire’s geographic area. In effect, Britain became the Wild West the Roman world, with the entire economy of the north and west of Britannia bent on maintaining the military there. The Empire mounted two serious attempts to conquer Scotland, the first under the fighting governor Agricola in the early AD 80s. This came the closest to success, winning a meeting engagement against the Caledonians in the Grampian Mountains and ordering the Classis Britannica regional fleet to circumnavigate the main island of Britain.


However, the Emperor at the time of his last campaign in the far north, was Domitian who had no interest in Britain and ordered the military to withdraw to the line of the Salway Firth – Tyne, later fortified as Hadrian’s Wall. This campaign is well understood, but until recently the second attempt was not. This was by the warrior Emperor Septimius Severus who arrived in Britain in AD 208 at the behest of the governor who had written to him in Rome to say the entire main island was in danger of being overrun from the north. Severus established York as his Imperial capital on arrival, bringing the royal family, key senators and treasury with him. He then mounted two mighty campaigns into what is now modern Scotland in AD 209 and AD 210 with a force of 50,000 men. This is the largest campaigning force ever to fight in Britain. In the first year in the far north, he eviscerated native resistance, forcing the Britons there to counter with a savage campaign of guerrilla resistance which caused much hardship and misery among the Roman legionaries and auxilia.

Weight of numbers told in the end, with the native Maeatae and Caledonian confederations suing for peace. However, they rebelled over the winter and the Romans invaded again, this time under Severus’ eldest son Caracalla, given the Emperor was too ill to participate. In this latter campaign the primary sources say a genocide was carried out against the natives in the Scottish lowlands, and in the past decade archaeological evidence has emerged to show that this was indeed the case. Sadly for Severus, his success in the north wasn’t to last, for he died in York in February AD 211. Caracalla, the eldest son, and his brother Geta couldn’t wait to get back to Rome to press their individual claims to be Emperor and once more, without any political imperative to remain in the far north, the border dropped back to the now built Hadrian’s Wall.

Dr. Simon Elliott filming a segment for television

About Dr. Simon Elliott and his upcoming Romans in the North Tour


Dr Simon Elliott has recently illuminated these enormous and brutal campaigns in his best-selling work "Septimius Severus in Scotland" through Greenhill Books, and will now recreate them for Andante Travels in his new Romans in the North tour. This will begin in York where the Roman city will be examined in detail. The tour then progresses up Dere Street following the Emperor’s route, taking in key locations as it travels north – Corbridge, Vindolanda, Hadrian’s Wall, South Shields and Wallsend-on-Tyne. Crossing into the Scottish Borders, the fort and marching camp site at Newstead is then visited, before we arrive on the Firth of Forth at Inveresk, then turning west to visit the key supply base at Cramond. Roman Scotland is then studied in detail in Edinburgh. Next we cross into Fife to visit the supply base at Carpow on the Tay, then the Roman signal station chain along the Gask Ridge, and then the key Roman fort site at Ardoch, before travelling south again to visit the Antonine Wall fort site at Rough Castle. This tour will depart on both the 8th June and then the 21st September, 2020. Book your place today.