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Genocide on the northern frontier?

While the ancient written sources for the Severan campaigns north of Hadrian’s Wall discussed in the last step offer one perspective on events, the archaeological evidence offers another.

We now know that after Severus’ death the Romans did not occupy Scotland. Indeed, the bulk of their forces returned once more to the Tyne-Solway line in what is today Northern England. Does this mean that they would have regarded the campaigns as a failure, as Dio and Herodian appear to do? After all, a ‘peace’ of sorts was achieved. For over eighty years after the campaign no major attacks were launched against the Wall.

Archaeological evidence may yet offer further insight into evolving Roman intentions and strategy. It takes various forms, but consists most notably of military camps and of high status goods. We will discuss the latter in Step 5.6. For the moment, however, let us focus on the camps.

We discussed evidence for temporary camps when we looked at the first century campaigns in Northern Britain. Similar camps were used by Severan armies too. It is difficult to date temporary camps with precision. Their brief occupation and lack of permanent structures has often made it hard to recover dating evidence, but two sizes of marching camps commonly associated with this period run beyond the Forth into Eastern Scotland. Camps of both sizes are known from Ardoch in Perthshire, suggesting to some scholars that the different sizes reflect different seasons of Severan campaigning.

The first series averages 25 hectares (63 acres) in size and runs beyond the Forth, through Strathmore (the location of some of Scotland’s finest arable farmland) and into Fife. The second, series of camps ranges from 48 hectares (120 acres) to 66 hectares (165 acres) and also runs beyond the Forth into Strathmore.

Alongside these temporary camps, we must also consider the (better dated) evidence for more permanent structures. We can see expansion at Corbridge and also at South Shields (see Step 5.4), together with the establishment of bases at Crammond and Carpow (there is more information if you are particularly interested in the evidence at Carpow in the links listed below), on the banks for the Forth and Tay estuaries respectively. This appears to indicate a concern with sea borne supply.

Was the use of large, concentrated campaigning armies suggested by this reading of the evidence really the best way to draw an enemy seasoned in guerrilla warfare into a decisive battle, or should we envision a different Roman strategy?

In 1995 Dr Colin Martin argued that the distribution of possible Severan camps suggests something different. He posited that it could be best explained by a Roman plan to systematically devastate the landscape, a genocidal scorched earth policy that would lead to devastating famine.

  • Can we identify genocide/attempted genocide through archaeological analysis?

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Hadrian's Wall: Life on the Roman Frontier

Newcastle University

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