3.7 Severan activity (c. AD 208-211)

Severan camps and forts, adapted by ScARF from © Crown Copyright Historic Scotland.

The evidence for the Severan campaigns (Birley 1999b, 170-187; Breeze 1982 , 128-136) comes primarily from literary sources, propaganda coin issues and the distribution of temporary camps, although the dating of these latter is less secure than often claimed. However, they broadly support a large army heading up Dere St to the Forth, reducing in size slightly when heading into north-east Scotland; the northern limit of campaigning is unclear, but the east-coast focus is notable, indicating where the problem areas were seen to be. The navy was clearly a vital element in the supply chain, as indicated by the rebuilding of (coastal) South Shields as a massive grain store, the reoccupation of (coastal) Cramond and the use (new or continuing) of the coastal fortress at Carpow. A string of denarius hoards of this general date up the north-east has traditionally been linked to the progress of the Severan army, but is better seen as a broader diplomatic phenomenon in the decades before and (to a lesser extent) after the invasion (Hunter 2007c).

A fresh study of this period with a broad perspective would be of benefit, looking at the invasions in a wider chronological context (from the late Antonine period), considering evidence from elsewhere on the northern frontier (such as the South Shields rebuilding, the enigmatic Vindolanda circular huts, and the evidence from York; Bidwell 1999, 73-8; Birley 2009), reviewing the evocative propaganda evidence (not just the well-known coinage, but sculpture (eg Piggott 1968) and gemstones (eg Elliot and Henig 1999; Marsden 2011), and considering the effects on the local population; there are arguments for seeing this time as pivotal in the history of indigenous societies due to Roman political as much as military interference (Hunter 2007a).

Some workers (e.g. Whittington and Edwards 1993; Martin 1995) have suggested a dramatic impact on the local population tantamount to genocide; the evidence for this is not strong, but the question merits further work, especially to strengthen the palaeoenvironmental arguments of Whittington and Edwards substantially.


3.6 From the end of the Antonine Wall to the Severan invasions

Oblique aerial view of Carpow fort © RCAHMS

The new frontier arrangements were different from those in place during the first phases of Hadrian's Wall (Breeze 1982, 136-40). North of the Wall there were still three outpost forts to the west, at Birrens in SW Scotland, Netherby and Bewcastle in England. Now, however, there were complementary arrangements to the east. Forts remained in occupation along Dere Street running north from Hadrian's Wall at Portgate. These appear to have extended as far north as Newstead and may have included Cappuck, and perhaps Inveresk (Breeze, in press; Bishop 2004, 185). These most northerly forts appear to have been abandoned in about 180. It is likely that the frontier unrest of that time resulted in a reappraisal of Hadrian's Wall and the forts to its north. While these changes are often dated to the early third century and are regarded as a re-organisation of the northern frontier by the Emperor Caracalla, there are indications that some arrangements were already in place before that time, and it is possible therefore that they date to the post-180 settlement.

The post-180 arrangements included the basing of a thousand-strong mixed infantry and cavalry unit at Risingham and High Rochester on Dere Street with a couple of 'irregular' units. Scouts were probably also based at Netherby, called Castra Exploratorum, while a thousand-strong unit appears to have been at Bewcastle; Birrens was abandoned (Breeze 1982 , 136-140). The purpose of these arrangements was presumably to allow the army to maintain watch over the lands well to the north of Hadrian's Wall.

There is debate over whether some sites continued in occupation through this period (such as Cramond, where Holmes (2003, 154-5) argues the excavated evidence shows no clear break in occupation). It is also increasingly plausible that there may have been new foundations at this time. The legionary base at Carpow has long been seen as a Severan foundation, but reappraisal of both inscriptions and tiles from the site has been used to argue for suggested a Commodan foundation (RIB III, 3512-4; Warry 2006, 65-9). This would be, on current knowledge, a very isolated outpost, albeit one with good maritime connections, and if the interpretation is sustained raises questions about the nature of activity in Scotland at this time.

The sequences at the key sites of Cramond and Carpow, and the question of the end of Inveresk, need reappraisal as they are becoming critical to this period. A study of their pottery assemblages in the light of improved knowledge of the sequence on Hadrian's Wall at this date (from work at South Shields and Wallsend) would be very valuable.