Julius Agricola arrived in Britannia in the year 77 and took up the office of governor. He had a decorated résumé, as he previously served as governor of Aquitania from 74-76 and held the office of suffect consul of Rome in 76 before being sent to govern Britannia. Agricola also had plenty of prior military experience in Britain; he had served with Governor Suetonius Paulinus during the devastating revolt of Boudicca in 60 or 61, and Emperor Vespasian appointed Agricola to command the Twentieth Legion in Britannia from 69 to 73. With such administrative experience, as well as his knowledge of Britain’s geography and people, he was an ideal pick for the job of running Roman operations in Britannia.
Agricola’s two predecessors as governor of Britannia had been considered successful military leaders. Governor Petillius Cerialis (r. 71-73) led significant campaigns against the powerful Brigantes, while Julius Frontinus (r. 73-77) conquered the Silures of southern Wales. When Julius Agricola took the reins of government in Britannia around year 77, he quickly set to work showing that he was equal, nay superior, to his lauded predecessors. In his very first year in office, Agricola spread Roman influence into northern Wales, and even conquered the troublesome island of Mona (now Anglesey). Over the next several years, Agricola turned his attention to the north. By the year 79, he was campaigning by the Forth-Clyde Isthmus and the River Tay. Agricola started pushing toward the Highlands around 82, invading what the Romans called Caledonia, by land and sea. The highlight of the campaign—and the most famous moment of Agricola’s career—was the Battle of Mons Graupius, fought between the Romans and the Caledonians (or more likely a coalition of Pict tribes) in the year 83.
According to the historian Tacitus (Agricola’s son-in-law), the Roman fleet in Britannia was sent out to pillage and cause confusion during the days leading up to the confrontation at Mons Graupius. While the ships were causing terror and worry, Agricola marched his army to Mons Graupius, where a large number of hostile warriors were gathering under a leader whom the Romans called Calgacus. The location of the battle unfortunately remains disputed, but from the name Mons Graupius (‘Graupian Mountain’), the terrain was obviously mountainous or hilly. There were also thick patches of woods within running distance of the site, which would eventually play a part in the battle.
When the Roman army arrived at Mons Graupius, Agricola’s scouts reported that more than 30,000 enemy warriors were present. The Roman legionnaires, although reportedly assisted by 8,000 auxiliary infantry and 3,000 cavalry, were said to have been significantly outnumbered by the Caledonians. Agricola’s arrival at Mons Graupius apparently did not immediately cause a battle to erupt—the Romans had time to build a walled camp at the foot of the hill or mountain. The tense peace, however, would not last, as, according to Tacitus, the Caledonian war-leader, Calgacus, soon sent a portion of his army down the slope to challenge the Roman camp.
Agricola chose to meet the incoming warriors in the field instead of behind his camp walls. He put his auxiliary troops and cavalry on the front line, and positioned his legions in reserve, backed against the walls of the camp. When the two armies came into range of each other, the battle opened up with back-and-forth volleys of missiles. Yet, what was most frightening to the Romans were the numerous chariots rolling out in front of the Caledonian forces. Agricola sent a large portion of his cavalry against the chariots, doing so presumably around the same time as the projectile exchange, for the deadly vehicles were apparently lured away from the front lines and were detained during the opening stages of the battle.
When the first wave of Caledonians had marched down to level ground, Agricola sent forward six Germanic auxiliary cohorts to meet the incoming warriors with swords and shields. These six cohorts were reportedly not chosen arbitrarily, but picked because their fighting style gave them a significant advantage against the Caledonians. The auxiliary forces reached their opponents without any harassment from the chariots, and began battling with the opposing infantry line. Agricola’s choice of the Germanic cohorts apparently paid off, as the warriors from Germania began pushing the first wave of Caledonians back toward the slope of Mons Graupius. When the frontline of the battle began to slowly creep up to higher ground, giving an increasing advantage to the Caledonians, Agricola sent more infantry from his reserves to reinforce the auxiliary cohorts. Around this time, the chariots were also completely defeated by the Roman cavalry, so the horsemen could refocus their efforts on other sections of the battle. Agricola kept some of the horsemen in reserve, but others were sent to crash into the flanks of the Caledonian infantry.
Calgacus and the rest of the uncommitted warriors on Mons Graupius, noticing that Agricola had sent more infantry and cavalry into the fray, finally made the decision to advance with the rest of the Caledonian forces into battle. These fresh warriors charged down the slope and began to envelop the Roman forces who were fighting on the frontline. Agricola countered this move by sending in the rest of the Roman cavalry, which had been held in reserve. Now it was the Caledonian side that was enveloped.
The hammer-and-anvil strikes of the Roman cavalry reportedly won the day. Unable to withstand the flanking attacks of Agricola’s horsemen, Calgacus’ warriors began retreating to the nearby forests. The Caledonians were evidently still organized when they withdrew into the woods, for they set up an ambush against the pursuing Romans. Yet, Agricola thwarted the ambush by ringing his infantry carefully around the woods like hunters, and sent his cavalry charging into the least brushy regions of the forest. These maneuvers reportedly ended any hope for a Caledonian ambush, and Calgacus’ formerly focused troops now began truly fleeing from the battlefield. According to Tacitus, Agricola’s army pursued the Caledonians until nightfall, and by the end of the day, around 10,000 of Calgacus’ warriors were slain.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Calgacus at Mons Graupius, in Pictorial History of Scotland A.D. 79-1646, 2 vols, vol. I, (London, 1859), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Agricola and Germania by Tacitus and translated by Harold Mattingly and revised by J. B. Rives. New York: Penguin Classics, 2009.