Arch of Septimius Severus, Rome
Arch of Septimius Severus, Rome

Septimius Severus in Scotland: The Northern Campaigns of the First Hammer of the Scots

                                                                                by Dr Simon Elliott


In 2018, Greenhills Books published my third – and my best-selling – book to date. This covered the amazing story of the AD 209 and AD 210 campaigns in Scotland of Septimius Severus, when the great warrior emperor led a force of 50,000 legionaries and auxilia, and the Classis Britannica regional fleet in Britain, on Rome’s final attempts to fully conquer the far north of Britain.

Severus had actually arrived in AD 208 after the governor in the province, Lucius Alfenus Senecio, reported trouble in the north that was severe enough to require either the emperor to attend in person, or to send reinforcements. He got both, with Severus arriving with the Imperial household to turn York into his capital for the final three years of his life.

The first campaign was sanguineous in the extreme, with the Romans launching massive legionary spearheads in a sophisticated assault that soon saw the Scottish Borders and Midland Valley up to the Highland Line conquered. Despite a vicious guerilla campaign against the invaders, the native Britons in the north eventually succumbed to the weight of numbers and signed a peace agreement. However, over the winter they rebelled again. This led Severus to repeat the campaign, this time giving orders to carry out a genocide that caused a depopulation event in the region that lasted for generations. He was too ill himself to lead the latter, with his son Caracalla taking charge. However, Severus died in York in February 211. After this, the Romans lost interest in the far north of Britain again, with the northern frontier once more falling back to the line of Hadrian’s Wall.   

When I write my books, I love to travel to all the sites in order to carry out primary research and take photographs. In the case of this book, that included Rome. Here, much of the Forum Romanum and the palace on the Palatine Hill date to the time of the Severan dynasty. One of my own highlights when I lead Andante Travels tours in Rome is to take guests behind the Arch of Septimius Severus (pictured above), where you can physically see where Caracalla carried out a damnatio memoriae against his younger brother Geta, having murdered him within a year of Severus dying.    

However, it is another area of research for the book that inspired me to suggest my Romans in the North tour for Andante Travels. This was travelling with a friend the entire route of the Severan campaigns to the far north over a week.

We started in York, tracing out the legionary fortress there and its civilian canaba settlement. We then followed the line of the A1 and A68, effectively Roman Dere Street, visiting Corbridge, the Roman fort sites at Vindolanda, South Shields, Wallsend, and Newstead near Melrose.

Carrying on further north, we tracked the series of 70 ha marching camps Severus built for his campaigns all the way to Inveresk on the Firth of Forth. We then travelled west to the fort and naval supply base at Cramond, before a welcome overnight stay in lovely Edinburgh, which included a trip to the National Museum of Scotland.

The highlight was on our last day when we travelled through Fife to the fort and naval supply base at Carpow on the Tay. Here, the kind locals actually guided us around the site. We then travelled west to the Gask Ridge, where Severus rebuilt the Flavian series of watchtowers to keep an eye on the Highland Line. Standing on one of the watchtower sites there, the hairs on the back of your neck stand up as you have exactly the same experience as the Roman legionaries and auxilia, looking north east to see the Highlands and its Glens. 

We knew that at the foot of each of the latter Severus and Caracalla had built a fort to close off the Highlands. As the drizzle set in, it felt even more real! Finally, we headed to the amazing fort site at Ardoch, occupied by the Romans through numerous phases, including during the Severan campaigns there. This features a total of five defensive ditches. As you can see, this was an amazing journey to undertake, and I look forward to sharing it with guests on tour.  

Join Simon on his Romans in the North tour this September – and save £250pp

If you're interested in what Simon has written about, why not join him on his Romans in the North tour this September? Taking place in northern Britain, this historic and archaeological break will see you follow in Septimius Severus' footsteps, exploring sites that range from Vindolanda, one of the most important civilian and military sites of the north, to the remains of the Antonine Wall, the most northerly frontier wall. What's more, book a place on the 21st September departure and you'll save £250pp. 

Click here for the full itinerary and to book. 

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Septimius Severus in Scotland: The Northern Campaigns of the First Hammer of the Scots was published on 1 April 2020