Friday, 18 June 2010

The Battle at the Edge of the World

Mons Graupius AD83It seems that there is a new book about Mons Graupius, the famous battle in Scotland where the Roman army of Agricola defeated the Caledonian tribes and brought Britain into the Roman empire.

The battlefield is notoriously unlocated, with many candidates proposed over the years, and there are still those who cling to the previously-fashionable date of AD 84. But it looks as if we now have a firm date, at least.

All of this is good news. The last book about Mons Graupius appeared twenty years ago, and has long been out-of-print: if you can find a copy, you'll discover that Gordon Maxwell's A Battle Lost is a wonderful little book, beautifully written and meticulously researched by an acknowledged expert in Romano-Scottish archaeology. But Maxwell was unwilling to commit to one or other of the date ranges then current for Agricola's governorship (consequently dating the battle to AD 83/84), and favoured a southerly location for the battlefield. On the contrary, Tacitus' description would lead us to place the battle as far north as possible. And Tacitus is currently our only guide, until some metal-detectorists attempt to rectify the situation.

If Mons Graupius AD 83 delivers half as much as some other recent Osprey Campaign volumes (I have seen a particularly readable Pharsalus 48 BC, for example), then we are all in for a treat!

The book is available directly from Osprey Publishing.


  1. I'm always amused about this battle, because supposedly it was won without the loss of "Roman" lives--the implication being (so I've heard) that only auxiiary units were engaged.

    I guess we'll see what the book says.

  2. Ohh, I must get that one. I have the Maxwell, but as you said, it shows its age a bit.

  3. Looks as if you have a few days to wait, Gabriele: Amazon Deutschland.

  4. I see the book has already picked up three favorable reviews at Amazon (click), and one nasty negative one from a Pict named Thormod!

  5. This book is essential reading for anyone with an interest in the Roman era, and in particular for anyone wanting to know more about the Roman campaign in Scotland between AD77 and AD83.

    The approach is inclusive, and the wider background across the Roman Empire at the time is covered, both in setting the scene for the campaign and in explaining why the Romans effectively turned their back on the conquest of these islands which was within their grasp after their overwhelming victory at the Battle of Mons Graupius.

    The text is well researched and written in an accessible and engaging style. This is ably complemented by the numerous images of relevant scenes, of artifacts, of re-enactors: alongside plentiful clear maps and fine pictures of the development of the battle itself.

    Elements such as a clearly laid out chronology add greatly to the reader's understanding of a military campaign which took rather longer than is usually understood, and descriptions of the opposing forces and the societies which produced them help set the events which took place in a wider context. The book then goes on to look at the Roman campaign on a year by year basis, while the latter half looks at the Battle of Mons Graupius in some detail, and its aftermath.

    What is particularly good is the way the author is up-front about the limitations of the historical records about the battle. These largely depend on the account written fifteen years later by Tacitus, who happened to be the son-in-law of the man who led the campaign, the Roman Governor of Britain, Julius Agricola. As a result there are historians who believe that Mons Graupius was actually fought somewhere other than on the slopes of Bennachie in Aberdeenshire, which plays a starring role in the book: and as the author states, there are even some who question whether the battle took place at all.

    Against this background, any attempt to present a detailed account of the battle might seem ambitious, but Duncan B Campbell does it very well indeed, and very convincingly.

    Perhaps at some time in the future someone might unearth a letter, perhaps at the Roman fort at Vindolanda on Hadrian's Wall, complaining that parts of Tacitus's biography of his father-in-law were a work of fiction: but unless they do, as far as we are concerned the location of Mon Graupius at Bennachie is compelling: and on that basis, this book is as near a definitive account of what took place as is ever likely to be written.

    Quoted from Undiscovered Scotland web site.

  6. Reviewed on Amazon (3 star rating):

    Whilst I have always had a passing interest in Mons Graupius I would not claim to be an expert. However I have read a couple of books on it and have tried to make sense of the campaign in a historical context. I am always very wary of extremes of view on Amazon, ranging from 5 stars to 1. In my view this book deserves neither.

    It is well written and easy to follow and, as one expects from Osprey, nicely illustrated. However, I think it takes too much for granted in terms of historical evidence (or lack of). We are of course stuck with a limited range of sources and Tacitus was certanly not unbiased. Therefore we need to be careful in terms of taking his numbers and "facts" at face value. We simply do not know how fierce the battle was as there is no archeological evidence to back this up and little in terms of literary source either.

    Perhaps the greatest problem I had with the book was its unquestioning acceptance that Bennachie was the site of the battle. That it coud have been I accept as a possibility but others have argued strongly for other sites (e.g. Fraser and others argue for the Gask ridge in Perthshire) and these do not merit a mention in the book.

    The problem I have with it all is it presents as historical fact (or at least probability) something that is not proven and this makes for questionable objectivity when other alternatives are not presented. The danger is that the uninitiated accept at face value something which should be questioned.

    I admire the attempt to write a battle history on a battle for which there is so little corroborating evidence but I would certainly have liked more recognition of some of the weaknesses in the evidence base.