05 November, 2014

Did the Scots Burn Roman London?

At some point in the mid 120’s much of London Burnt  to the ground, around the same time construction of Hadrian’s Wall was apparently abandoned, could these events be connected - just how bad crisis in Roman Britain?
“... under the rule of your grandfather Hadrian what a number of soldiers were killed by the Jews, what a number by the Britons”
Marcus Cornelius Fronto, letter to Marcus Aurelius, AD162 

It should be said at the outset, the use of the term “Scots” is generic for the people who still controlled the upper third of the island, and when Hadrian visited Britain the early second century,  were contending the middle third.   While we like to think of the Wall as a great triumph of Roman engineering, but at the time it may have been strategic disaster, a roman Maginot Line,  which was replaced by a shorter frontier further North by Hadrian’s successor. 
What we actually know about this period comes from a handful of references, inscriptions and archaeology,  thus it is quite possible to imagine a scenario where London was Burnt for a second time by rebellious Britons.  Like the possible disappearance of the IX Legion in this period, the early second century is full of potential mystery.  
Cause and Effect
Archaeologists in London as well as Colchester and St Albans are familiar with the layer of red burnt clay and charcoal left by Boudicca’s rebellion, but in the former there is a second destruction layer widely ascribed to the period 120s [1];  [St Albans suffered periodic catastrophic fires, so this not necessarily suspicious].   The fire may have been quite extensive, and was particularly evident along the line of Roman Cheapside, west of the Walbrook. The large public buildings initiated by Hadrian during his visit in 122 visit don’t seem to have been effected. [2]   It was clearly, a significant event, but there is no particular evidence of malice or loss of life, so it simply may have started accidentally in catillamen lane, but the inhabitants may have fled on either account.  
The temporary abandonment of the Wall building project perhaps more than once, [dislocations] [3], is widely accepted, the detailed study of the stonework by Peter Hill showed the work once resumed both the scale and quality showed a marked decline indicating a loss or shortage of skilled manpower. [4] There is a large army in northern England but it is spread out along a 80 mile frontier, the main legionary units are themselves probably split up into smaller units engaged in specialist construction work.   They face an over the horizon threat; while they have had political and military relationships with the lowland tribes for forty years, beyond these buffer states, the highland and Islands, even Ireland, are still something of unknown quantity, beyond their immediate scrutiny and reach.
It is thought that the northerners had lots of cavalry,[5], so a fixed barrier makes sense; while it possible to overpower it, making a breach takes time, allowing for a counter attack. The weakness in the wall was not only its length, but also the number a gates, while these allowed for mobility and counter attack, a Roman forte, they were also ready-made breaches in the wall.
The Temporary Wall
I have argued that the evidence demonstrates the existence of the temporary Timber and Turf wall with camps for the legions and the auxiliaries engaged in the construction and guarding the frontier [6].  Also, I contend that that the Vallum was dug a road foundation trench, work normally ascribed to slaves, and in this context probably prisoners of war; another complication when security breaks down, [7].  After securing the frontier with temporary works, construction of stone Wall started in the east, where the Romans probably had their strongest position.  It all seems to have gone wrong when they reached the the Tyne and were about to build section that the tourist now visit.  
The whole enterprise was predicated on the temporary defences, this is the WW1 tactics of holding a line at all costs, but as WW2 demonstrated, if the enemy achieves a significant break through, its game over for the battle plan.
It is my view that the Northerners broke through in this central section, which was unfinished, furthest from the coasts, and gives them the high ground in the centre with various options to head south.  While from a simplistic point of view the high ground looks an unlikely place to attack, it offers broken country and dead ground, and perhaps surprise.
In 63 AD the tribes of southern England had rebelled and burnt London and other towns to the ground, massacring their population; apart from taking on the army, that’s how rebellions went. So is it possible that having broken into England, the Caledonians would they head south and burn London?
The North-South Dynamic
History repeats itself because geography is slow to change, and it was April 1746 before the fighting in the North finally came to an end at the Battle of Culloden near Inverness.  This marked the end of the final Jacobite rebellion led by Charles Edward Stewart, and was probably close to the lost site of battle of Mons Graupius, where Tacitus tells us that Agricola defeated an army of 30,000 Caledonians, the high water mark of Roman power in the North [8]
Charles Edward Stewart, the Young Pretender, arrived in the Outer Hebrides on 2 August 1745, by November 8th he'd crossed into England, and by the 18th controlled Carlisle.  By 4 December, he was in Derby on only 125 miles (200 km) from London,  a determined effort could see them approaching London within a week; it is alleged that there was some degree of panic in London on Friday 6th, the day the Jacobite began their retreat.  The advance on London was achieved by bypassing serious concentrations of Loyalist Troops, including those of general General Wade based at Newcastle who still effectively held the East end of the Wall; [which he later had demolished to build his Military Road ].  
The point of this tale is to illustrate that London is not far from Carlisle, and a determined force can reach it in less than a month, especially if it avoids open battle and sieges.  Any loss of control in the north can have serious implications in the south.  
The following emperor the frontier was moved north, the Antonine Wall was shorter, easily supplied by sea, and closer to the threat.  This suggests that the Army's attempt hold and build Hadrian’s Wall had been a failure, quite what the consequences of this were may never be known, but not for the first time, or even the last, the future of Roman Britain was probably on the line. 

Sources and Further Reading.
[1]. G. C. Dunning, 1945,  Two Fires in Roman London', Ant. J. 25 (1945) 48-77.
Roskams, Steve & Watson, Lez 1981 `The Hadrianic fire of London - a reassessment of the evidence' London Archaeol 4, 1981 62-6
[2] Roman London By Dominic Perring P72.
[3] Breeze, D.J. 2003. "Warfare in Britain and the Building of Hadrian's Wall." Archaeologia Aeliana 32, 13 –16
[4] Hill, P. R. 2006. The construction of Hadrian's Wall. Tempus.
[5] Vindolana tablets ; . the Britons are unprotected by armour (?). There are very many cavalry. The cavalry do not use swords nor do the wretched Britons mount in order to throw javelins.'
[6]Hadrian's Timber Wall - Free Download
[7] Reverse Engineering the Vallum
[8] http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Agricola 


dustbubble said...

Just a practice run, Geoff :¬p

The high ground in the middle,north end of Dorsum Brittania, was as you well know the preferred raid-and-run-for-it stomping ground of those other light irregular cavalry experts, the Border reiver tribes.
Dry, with wide open views and not much more than heather, since sheep were invented. Remains eminently passable even in a hard winter, as the snow doesn't drift on the tops (unless someone's been silly enough to chuck a whacking great turf, timber or stone dyke across it for the snow to pile up against) and the going remains good to firm all year round underfoot.

Geoff Carter said...

Hi DB, you are familiar with the ground, and can see that if you war gamed this, the defenders were in big trouble.
The Forts in the Brigantes territory south of the Wall were abandoned in this period, and whatever the state of reserve in York / Chester they were in trouble of their own; moving North may not be advisable.
My guess is that a salient may have survived around the East end; we know they did regain control, and the "Scots" are probably not looking to occupied territory. The attackers are trying to avoid a set piece battle and sieges on Roman terms; the defenders are trying to concentrate and regroup.The Roman Cavalry was auxiliaries, and not as disciplined as the Legions, and have the means of escape.
It would be an interesting to wargame.
The Buffer States up your way were between a rock and a hard place, and would be finished as a Military force in any event.

dustbubble said...

The Antonine limes is on the face of it a far more informed choice.
The apparent land-bridge between Caledonia proper and the debateable lands south of it is not at all conducive to the organised movement of any sort of cavalry or even infantry. For much of its breadth it's transected by the Highland Boundary Fault in the form of the Campsie Fells (Bannawg, i.e. "pointy bits" to the Brits)and looks like this.


To the West it's more or less impassable and easier to go by ship.

And to the East, an impenetrable chain of scrub-topped fens, carse-land and morasses filling the Forth floodplain as far as the Campsies. Past Bannockburn, to be clear ...

So you can sit at e.g. Croy, with your caligae up by the brazier and a mug of mulled, watching only the prominent skyline some difficult miles to the North, and not have to fret about anything W of Strathblane

apart the Crow Road at Lennoxtown

or E of the Fords o' Frew (the traditional routes round Bannawg).

Leave it up to the Classis patrolboats to pick up any "foul hordes" creeping past in their curraghs and coracles across Cluta or Bodotria Aestuaria. Which in my opinion they'd be disinclined to do without their precious cuddies, if they were up against a proper Army.

Geoff Carter said...

Good links, really gives a good idea how the land lies. The Antonine Wall was actually quite impressive.
Important point about the Navy, and I like the use of the word Cuddies.

Dustbubble said...

Mmm that reminds me. In the age of Concrete Bob McA, and the wonderful Kubota 360, it's hard to imagine the enduring, haunting impact of abandoned solid mason work on the barbarian mind.
Y Goddodin may have breezed past it the one way, but them as came up against it t'other did tell the odd tale.

"Ea-la bright beaker! Ea-la byrnied warrior!
Ea-la the chiefs majesty! How those moments went,
Grayed in the night as if they never were!
A wall still stands near the tracks of the warriors,
Wondrously high! Worms have stained it
A host of spears hungry for carnage
Destroyed the men, that marvelous fate!
Storms beat these stone cliffs,
A blanket of frost binds the earth,
Winter is moaning! When the mists darken
And night descends, the north delivers
A fury of hail in hatred at men.
All is wretched in the realm of the earth;

Oh come on lads, chin up, Ponteland bridge isn't all that bad.

Geoff Carter said...

Very interesting;
"And night descends, the north delivers
A fury of hail in hatred at men".

Well not much changed there.
Stone built structures were not uncommon, but usually in combination with timber, but Y Goddodin could be referring to the Wall, these larger structures and landscape features tend to be incorporated into stories and myths. A serviceable fort may continue in use into the dark ages.

"It's hard to imagine the enduring, haunting impact of abandoned solid mason work on the barbarian mind".
mmmm too hard for me anyway.