The Eagle and the Bear: a new history of Roman Scotland


Roman Scotland has long been a battleground. The remarkable remains of military works testify to the manpower that Rome committed to northern Britain, while the ancient literature reports fighting of varying intensity. An absence of any known Roman-style civilian settlements – unless you count the extramural settlements beside military bases – emphasises that Scotland’s experience was restricted to the sharp end of Roman imperialism. But in more recent decades the skirmishing has been between specialists seeking to understand the root cause of this. Were Rome’s advances into, and then withdrawals from, Scotland a product of soldiers being siphoned off to fight ‘proper’ enemies elsewhere in the empire, thereby thwarting attempts to hold territory that the empire had little interest in anyway? Or was it that Rome coveted this land for centuries, but was repeatedly humbled by its inhabitants?

This book, by John Reid, chair of the Trimontium Trust, sets out the story of Roman Scotland by looking at both the surviving evidence and the role of the zeitgeist in its study. Rather than be constrained by the boundaries of the modern nation, Reid makes forays into northern England – with Hadrian’s Wall receiving a chapter – which allows him to present a cohesive account of Roman activity in northern Britain. He also tackles areas of scholarly dispute head-on, outlining rather than glossing over the key controversies. Along the way, we encounter a wealth of captivating subjects, including the nature of the events that played out at Burnswark – a site that Reid has been instrumental in investigating in recent years – and the fate of the 9th Legion. Once believed lost in the East, Reid lays out the case for its destruction ‘within a radius of 50-70km of Carlisle’. This reviewer would not be surprised if he is one day proved right.

Reid has an enjoyable writing style, and this book is generously illustrated. His conclusions, though, are grim. Rather than acting as ‘improvers’, the Romans were engaging in ‘persistent long-distance martial retribution’ against effective foes. In Reid’s view, the original plan was for a brief military presence until the conquest was completed, before letting ‘the procurator’s henchmen tax whomever was left’. It certainly did not play out that way.

John H Reid
Birlinn, £17.99
ISBN 978-1780278148]