Saturday, 1 March 2008

Roman nonsense

Mehercule! What a lot of Roman nonsense there is on the internet.

One of my posts from January 2007 (entitled The Lost Legion) recently attracted a comment which relied on information drawn from an official-looking web site. The web site in question,, with its clashing colors and flashing graphics, was purportedly "designed to introduce the West Highland Way in its national, historic and cultural richness". (There is, incidentally, an official West Highland Way web site, which is altogether easier on the eye.) But along the way, Mr Albawest provides two lengthy pages on "The ancient Picts of Caledonia and their resistance to Roman invasion". Sadly, the content, lacking the charm of historical fiction, falls squarely into the category of misinformation.

Map borrowed from PICTART web site

Roman Scotland

Our knowledge of Roman-era Scotland (which, of course, wasn't called Scotland at the time, but rather Caledonia) comes largely from two ancient writers. One, a Greek geographer named Ptolemy, helpfully listed the indigenous peoples known at the time. (I have borrowed a map from to illustrate where these peoples are thought to have lived.) And the other, a Roman senator named Tacitus, happened to be related to the Roman general who first set foot in Caledonia, and wrote a flattering account of his military campaign. Mr Albawest devotes the bulk of his survey of the Picts to this very campaign, without apparently noticing that neither Tacitus nor Ptolemy ever mentions Picts. (In fact, the Picts first emerged as a people only around AD 300.)

Comedy of errors

First of all, for some obscure reason, Mr A insists on calling the Roman province "Pretania", rather than Britannia. And secondly, he refers to Roman "legionnaires", a term properly restricted to the French Foreign Legion. Third: he calls the Flavian amphitheatre in Rome the "Coliseum', which is a well-known theatre in London. (The famous Roman amphitheatre inaugurated in AD 80 was actually known as the Colosseum, on account of a colossal statue nearby.) Fourth: the Roman general Agricola may well have "brought his son-in-law the historian Tacitus with him on the invasion", but Tacitus wrote his father-in-law's biography (with the description of his Caledonian campaign) fully 20 years later, and not (as Mr A seems to think) as an embedded reporter! Worst of all, Mr A calls me "Antonius Pius" and claims that my wall was "lost after less than 10 years of guerilla war". (In fact, I'm rather proud to say that the Antonine Wall was occupied for about 20 years!)

The Lost Legion (again)

My correspondent was evidently duped by Mr A's entirely fictional account of the Ninth Legion and its involvement in Agricola's conquest of Caledonia. Mr A puts a bizarre new spin on the disappearance of the legion by dating it to AD 82! By implication, of course, because Mr A isn't inclined to give us facts when there is fiction to be spun. But he draws the setting of his tale from Tacitus' report of Agricola's sixth season (Agr. ch. 26), normally dated to that year. (Incidentally, we know that the legion was still functioning happily in AD 108.)

First, we are told that "the IX [Ninth] Legion seem to have been especially hated by the Picts perhaps because of some heinous act of brutality" ... for which there isn't a shred of evidence or a glimmer of likelihood. Then, we are asked to believe that a 30,000-strong Pictish war-band over-ran the legion's camp and cut them to pieces. "Agricola eventually came to the rescue just in time to save the remnants of the IX. More than half the Ninth Legion had been lost." Mr A goes on to explain that "they had to bring in a replacement Legion, pull the remnants of the IX out of Caledonia, re-form the whole Legion and repopulate it with new recruits and officers. ... The new IX Hispana Legion proudly marched north - and simply disappeared."

There's more ... but it only gets worse. What a lot of Roman nonsense.


  1. Excellent post, Pius. I work in Washington DC, so "nonsense" is something I have become very accustomed too. If anything your post has reminded me that I need to reread Agricola. Thanks.

  2. All part of the service, Jeff!

  3. Ave o imperator! Blogiturus te salutat! Impudentiae nostrae veniam des deprecationemque nostram animadvertes. Rogatus a Michelle de Hefenfelth (quod vulgo dicitur) memi suae novae adferre, cogitavi responsio tua quæstioni meae rem optimam futura esse...

  4. Cur bloggo? magnae et graves causae!

  5. Antoninus, whilst I concede you do indeed give as accurate a depiction of the historical/archaeological evidence as is possible for a classicist, like myself, I might suggest you take heed of the words of your successor Marcus Aurelius; 'From Alexander the Grammarian: not to leap on mistakes, or captiously interrupt when anyone makes an error of vocabulary, syntax, or pronounciation, but neatly to introduce the correct form...' Meditations Book 1. I would suggest you attempt to correct the errors of your readers with a touch less vehemence. In any case it is a minor point.

  6. Twenty years is not a very long time for an army to occupy a fortification. And if the Picts were so easy to control, the Romans would not have gone to the ridiculous length of building not one but two walls from coast to coast to defend against them. Nor would they have resorted to paying the Picts a large tribute in a futile effort to keep them away. Part of this tribute can be seen in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. Yet we are still expected to believe this outdated codswallop of a colonial supremacy. Roman nonsense indeed.

  7. I suppose a 1921-year old emperor might be outdated, but I don't remember writing anything about colonial supremacy.

    (Nor do I remember "vehemently correcting the views of readers". Rather an obscure criticism from Eoin, who advocates not criticising. Hmmm.)

    I would point out, yet again, that the Antonine Wall had nothing to do with Picts. But why let history get in the way of a good rant -- eh, Thormod?

  8. The Antonine Wall was built to mark the limits of Roman Britain and as a defence against invasion from the north. The Picts were the chief power in the north of Britain, so it follows that the wall had plenty to do with the Picts, who attacked and overran it. Don't you think it's a trifle silly to pose as a Roman Emperor? Do you even have Italian ancestry, or are you simply like all those delusional old classicist gents of the Victorian era who fancied themselves wearing the toga and having Latin as their native tongue even though they knew they were probably Saxon or Irish or a combination of both?. The World Wide Web is brimming with fantasists.

  9. You seek to lecture me on the Antonine Wall?! My own wall?!

    If I were as ignorant as you clearly are, Thormod, I wouldn't go around boasting about it.

    If you have anything useful to contribute, then I'm listening. Otherwise, please take your insulting behaviour elsewhere.

    (And who said I was "posing" as a Roman emperor, anyway?)

  10. I'll lecture you on the Antonine Wall if I please, and anything else for that matter. You deny posing as a Roman emperor, yet you describe it as 'your own wall'. What an absurdity. You're calling yourself Antoninus Pius, so that means you're pretending to be a Roman emperor. What a sad character and a silly fraud to boot. I won't waste more of my time on you.

  11. Our friend from Fife sounds like a thoroughly nice, well-balanced and intelligent individual. What a pity he won't be back.

  12. Well there are many archeologists who would disagree with your comments on the Antonine wall, including Dr Breeze who has excavated forts up and down the Gask ridge. It was certainly a fortification to keep the Northern Tribes out (Caladonians). But as with any true Emperor our Antoninus Pius cannot accept a stalemate - he wanted to win at everything, so lets do what the Romans were best at, re write history.

  13. "Well there are many archeologists who would disagree with your comments on the Antonine wall, including Dr Breeze who has excavated forts up and down the Gask ridge."
    Hmmm, interesting comment.

    (1) Which particular comments would these anonymous archaeologists disagree with? (As far as I can see, all I said about the Antonine Wall was that it was occupied for 20 years.)

    (2) And how do you know that Dr Breeze would disagree? Unless of course you are Dr Breeze! Wow -- what an honour! I've been commented by Dr Breeze.

    (3) Hey, wait a minute. If you are Dr Breeze, then you probably know that you haven't excavated forts up and down the Gask Ridge. Aha -- an imposter!

  14. If anyone's an imposter, it's you, my pretend Roman. Just popped back to see if you're still writing your nonsense and of course you are. The previous visitor Calag is correct. The Antonine Wall was raised as a defence against the Caledonii. You will as usual deny this, preferring no doubt to view it as some architectural folly rather than a fortification against an implacable enemy. Have you visited the psychiatrist lately? Like all those other deluded individuals who think they are Napoleon or Cleopatra. Look in the mirror, my friend and hail imperator praestigiator.

  15. I think maybe you're an imposter, Thormod ... unless that really is your name! You sound a lot like Calag, actually. If that really is her name!

    I wonder why you keep returning to this year-old posting, unless ... you're Mr Albawest, too. Aren't you?! There can't possibly be three of you who believe this "implacable Picto-Caledonian" drivel. Makes sense if you're really one and the same deranged person.

    By the way, I may be an emperor (imperator) but I'm no magician (praestigiator).

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  17. I'm not the one with the split personality, nor am I deranged, as you clearly are. It is perfectly possible to have three of the same mind and more, especially when the argument makes perfect sense. But you, in your fantasy world refuse to see it. Anyone of sound mind who peruses your blog will read your statement claiming to be an emperor and conclude only one thing.

  18. From the excellent site (section Lucius Septimius Severus):

    'The Antonine Wall had never really acted as a perfectly successful barrier to the troublesome barbarians to the north of it. By this time it had in fact been virtually abandoned, leaving the British provinces vulnerable to attack from the north. In AD 208 Severus left for Britain with his two quarrelsome sons. Large military campaigns now drove deep into Scotland but didn't really manage to create any lasting solution to the problem'.

    This clearly flies in the face of your insane claim that the Antonine Wall had nothing to do with the Caledonian threat.

  19. Thormod: "I'm not the one with the split personality, ..."
    Okay, so your real name is Thormod? That's a new one on me. But then, I'm only 1922 years old, and certainly haven't seen everything.
    Thormod: "... nor am I deranged, as you clearly are."
    Err, I'm not the one who keeps coming back to a post about Flavian Scotland, in order to rant about the Antonine Wall!
    Thormod: "From the excellent site"
    Excellent web site, eh? Just a random selection: Augustus was never named Gaius Julius Octavius; Nero's Praetorian Prefect wasn't called Burrhus; it was Antonius Primus, not Antoninus Primus, that led the Flavian march on Rome; "Vespasian had been fighting, commanding troops organizing and administrating for thirty years" -- oh, really? thirty years? I calculate about nine: legionary legate AD 43-7 + 3 year gap, consul AD 51 + 11 year gap, proconsul of Africa AD 62 + 4 year gap, Judaea AD 66-70; "the settlement of the succession lay with the soldiery and primarily with the praetorians" -- how many emperors were put on the throne by the praetorians?! Excellent web site? Don't think so.
    Now go away.

  20. "Anyone of sound mind who peruses your blog will read your statement claiming to be an emperor and conclude only one thing."
    That I'm an emperor? [hopping from foot to foot] Ooh, I hope it's that one. [flapping his toga majestically] I hope it's that I'm an emperor.

  21. Gods, you really ARE crazy. I'll leave you to your madness, and no doubt your stupid last word.

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  23. All very entertaining, imperator meam! Personally, I think that you are probably the sanest man in Britannia today (assuming that you are in Britannia, of course).

    I do wish that 'Thormod' would show you a little more respect. You are, after all, an emperor. One can respect one's adversaries, even while slitting their throats, surely?

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  25. Caratacus was a Roman quisling;p

  26. Wow this has been equally pathetic and intriguing to read! The pathetic part speaks for itself and the intriguing part leaves me feeling pathetic myself for it is all fantasist rubbish by a pathological with some form of issues with his/her "real" background or personality.
    If history taught us anything then it is to believe nothing - especially "documented facts" as was proven fairly recently by investigations into Hitler and his chain of command throughout the reich, and even more recently with investigations into the invasion of Iraq by Britain and allied forces (USA).
    The Antonine wall was built to mark the limit or Roman invasion and as an attempt to hinder guerilla tribal attacks. The end.

  27. "The pathetic part speaks for itself ..."
    Not sure what that's supposed to mean.
    "the intriguing part ... is all fantasist rubbish"
    Not sure what that's supposed to mean, either.
    "The Antonine wall was built to mark the limit or Roman invasion and as an attempt to hinder guerilla tribal attacks. The end."
    Strange. This post wasn't even about the Antonine Wall! Why did you even bother posting your strange comments, Mister Anonymous?