Battle of Mons Graupius

The Battle of Mons Graupius was, according to Tacitus, a Roman military victory in what is now Scotland, taking place in AD 83 or, less probably, 84. The exact location of the battle is a matter of debate. Historians have long questioned some details of Tacitus's account of the fight, suggesting that he exaggerated Roman success.

Battle of Mons Graupius
Part of Roman conquest of Britain
DateAD 83 (or 84)
North-east Scotland[1]
Result Roman victory
Roman Empire Caledonian Confederacy
Commanders and leaders
Agricola Calgacus
17,000-30,000+ 15,000-30,000+
Casualties and losses
360 dead 10,000 dead


According to Tacitus, Gnaeus Julius Agricola, who was the Roman governor and Tacitus's father-in-law, had sent his fleet ahead to panic the Caledonians, and, with light infantry reinforced with British auxiliaries, reached the site, which he found occupied by the enemy.

Even though the Romans were outnumbered in their campaign against the tribes of Britain, they often had difficulties in getting their foes to face them in open battle. The Caledonii were the last unconquered British tribe (and were never fully subdued). After many years of avoiding the fight, the Caledonians were forced to join battle when the Romans marched on the main granaries of the Caledonians, just as they had been filled from the harvest. The Caledonians had no choice but to fight, or starve over the next winter.

Battle details

According to Tacitus, allied auxiliary infantry, 8,000 in number, were in the center, while 3,000 cavalry were on the flanks, with the Roman legionaries in front of their camp as a reserve.[2] Estimates for the size of the Roman army range from 17,000 to 30,000;[3][4] although Tacitus says that 11,000 auxiliaries were engaged, along with a further four squadrons of cavalry, the number of legionaries in reserve is uncertain. The Caledonian army, which Tacitus claims was led by Calgacus (Tacitus only mentions him as giving a speech, probably fictitious),[5][6] was said to be over 30,000 strong. It was stationed mostly on higher ground; its front ranks were on the level ground, but the other ranks rose in tiers, up the slope of the hill in a horseshoe formation. The Caledonian chariotry charged about on the level plain between the two armies.

After a brief exchange of missiles, Agricola ordered auxiliaries to launch a frontal attack on the enemy. These were based around four cohorts of Batavians and two cohorts of Tungrian swordsmen. The Caledonians were cut down and trampled on the lower slopes of the hill. Those at the top attempted an outflanking movement, but were themselves outflanked by Roman cavalry. The Caledonians were then comprehensively routed and fled for the shelter of nearby woodland, but were relentlessly pursued by well-organised Roman units.

It is said that the Roman Legions took no part in the battle, being held in reserve throughout. According to Tacitus, 10,000 Caledonian lives were lost at a cost of only 360 auxiliary troops. 20,000 Caledonians retreated into the woods, where they fared considerably better against pursuing forces. Roman scouts were unable to locate the remaining Caledonian forces the next morning.

Criticisms of Tacitus's account

The decisive victory reported by Tacitus was criticized by some historians, however, who believe an engagement of some description did not occur. One author has suggested that the emperor Domitian may have been informed of the fraudulence of his claims to have won a significant victory.[7][8] Despite these claims, Agricola was awarded triumphal honours and was offered another governorship in a different part of the empire, so it would seem unlikely Domitian doubted he had achieved substantial successes. Suggestions that he invented the entire episode and was thereafter shunned by the emperor do not seem likely, given that he was awarded honours on his return.


Following this final battle, it was proclaimed that Agricola had finally subdued all the tribes of Britain. Soon after Agricola was recalled to Rome, and his post passed to Sallustius Lucullus. It is likely that Rome intended to continue the conflict but that military requirements elsewhere in the empire necessitated a troop withdrawal and the opportunity was lost.

Tacitus' statement on his account of the Roman history between 68 AD and 98 AD: Perdomita Britannia et statim missa (Britain was completely conquered and immediately let go), denotes his bitter disapproval of Domitian's failure to unify the whole island under Roman rule after Agricola's successful campaign.[9]

Battle location

Considerable debate and analysis has been conducted regarding the battle location, with the locus of most of these sites spanning Perthshire to north of the River Dee, all in the northeast of Scotland.[10] A number of authors have reckoned the battle to have occurred in the Grampian Mounth within sight of the North Sea. In particular, Roy,[11] Surenne,[12] Watt,[13] Hogan[14] and others have advanced notions that the high ground of the battle may have been Kempstone Hill, Megray Hill or other knolls near the Raedykes Roman Camp. These sites in Aberdeenshire fit the historical descriptions of Tacitus and have also yielded archaeological finds related to Roman presence. In addition these points of high ground are proximate to the Elsick Mounth, an ancient trackway used by Romans and Caledonians for military manoeuvres.[14] Bennachie in Aberdeenshire, the Gask Ridge not far from Perth and Sutherland have also been suggested.[15][16][17]

See also


  1. ^ Oxford Companion to Scottish History. p.459 - 460. Edited by Michael Lynch, Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-923482-0.
  2. ^ Duncan B. Campbell, Mons Graupius AD 83, Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2010
  3. ^ Edwards, Kevin J; Ian Ralston Scotland After the Ice Age Polygon 24 Jan 2003 ISBN 978-0-7486-1736-4 p.204 [1]
  4. ^ A temporary camp at Durno (20m or 32km NW of Aberdeen) covered 144 acres (60ha) and could have held 24000 men. Roger J.A.Wilson "A Guide to the Roman Remains in Britain" 2002 Constable, London
  5. ^ Braund, David Ruling Roman Britain: Kings, Queens, Governors and Emperors from Julius Caesar to Agricola Routledge; 1 edition (5 Sep 1996) ISBN 978-0-415-00804-4 pp.8, 169
  6. ^ Woolliscroft, D. J.; Hoffman, B. Rome's First Frontier; the Flavian Occupation of Northern Scotland Tempus (June 1, 2006)ISBN 978-0752430447 p.217
  7. ^ Henig, Martin (September 1998) "Togidubnus and the Roman liberation" British Archaeology 37. Retrieved 27 July 2008.
  8. ^ Now refuted by Duncan B. Campbell, Mons Graupius AD 83, Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2010.
  9. ^ Sunderland Frere, Sheppard (1987). Britannia: a history of Roman Britain. Routledge, p. 102. ISBN 0-7102-1215-1
  10. ^ On the battle's location, see Duncan B. Campbell, "Search for a lost battlefield", Ancient Warfare Vol. 8 issue 1 (2014), pp. 47-51.
  11. ^ William Roy, The Military Antiquities of the Romans in Britain, 1793
  12. ^ Gabriel Jacques Surenne, 1823 Correspondence to Sir Walter Scott
  13. ^ Archibald Watt, Highways and byways around Kincardineshire, Stonehaven Heritage Soc., Scotland
  14. ^ a b C. Michael Hogan, Elsick Mounth, The Megalithic Portal, ed. A. Burnham. [2]
  15. ^ Duncan B. Campbell, Mons Graupius AD 83, Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2010.
  16. ^ Wolfson, Stan (2002) "The Boresti; The Creation of a Myth" Tacitus, Thule and Caledonia. Retrieved 21 August 2010.
  17. ^ "Mons Graupius Identified" Retrieved 21 August 2010.

Further reading

  • James E. Fraser, The Roman Conquest Of Scotland: The Battle Of Mons Graupius AD 84
  • Duncan B. Campbell, Mons Graupius AD 83, Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2010.
  • A.J. Woodman (with C. Kraus), Tacitus: Agricola, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014.
  • Duncan B. Campbell, 'A note on the Battle of Mons Graupius', Classical Quarterly 65 (2015), pp. 407–410.

External links

AD 83

AD 83 (LXXXIII) was a common year starting on Wednesday (link will display the full calendar) of the Julian calendar. At the time, it was known as the Year of the Consulship of Augustus and Rufus (or, less frequently, year 836 Ab urbe condita). The denomination AD 83 for this year has been used since the early medieval period, when the Anno Domini calendar era became the prevalent method in Europe for naming years.

Burn of Monboys

Burn of Monboys is a stream that rises in the Mounth, or eastern range of the Grampian Mountains, northwest of Stonehaven and south of Netherley, Aberdeenshire, Scotland. Monboys Burn is a tributary to the Cowie Water.


According to Tacitus, Calgacus (sometimes Calgacos or Galgacus) was a chieftain of the Caledonian Confederacy who fought the Roman army of Gnaeus Julius Agricola at the Battle of Mons Graupius in northern Scotland in AD 83 or 84. His name can be interpreted as Celtic *calg-ac-os, "possessing a blade", and is seemingly related to the Gaelic "calgach". Whether the word is a name or a given title is unknown.

Cawdor (Roman fort)

Cawdor (Roman Fort), located near the small village of Easter Galcantray (15 miles east of Inverness), is suspected of being one of the northernmost Roman forts in Great Britain, though this evidence is controversial.

Cowton Burn

Cowton Burn is a stream that rises in the Mounth, or eastern range of the Grampian Mountains, on some of the northwest slopes of the Durris Forest west of Netherley, Aberdeenshire, Scotland. The Grid Reference for the headwaters is NO 925 823); Cowton Burn is a tributary to the Cowie Water. The Cowton Burn is crossed by the A957 road slightly northwest of Rickarton House.


Durno or Logie Durno, located 6 miles (9.7 km) north west of Inverurie in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, is the site of a Roman marching camp, first discovered by aerial photography in July 1975 and excavated in 1976 and 1977.With a total area between 57.2 hectares (141 acres) and 58.4 hectares (144 acres), it is the largest Roman camp that has been found north of the Antonine Wall. The exceptional size of the camp at Durno has led to it being suggested as the place where Agricola assembled his forces before the Battle of Mons Graupius in AD 84, though the evidence for this has been criticised as largely circumstantial.The camp was enclosed by a ditch 3.35 metres (11.0 ft) wide and 3.35 metres (11.0 ft) deep. The south west side of the camp was 3,230 feet (980 m) long, and the north west side 1,930 feet (590 m) long.


A hill is a landform that extends above the surrounding terrain. It often has a distinct summit, although in areas with scarp/dip topography a hill may refer to a particular section of flat terrain without a massive summit (e.g., Box Hill, Surrey).

James E. Fraser (historian)

James Earle Fraser (fl. 2000s) is a Canadian historian and Picticist. He is a graduate of the University of Toronto, and did masters work at the University of Guelph. He went on to do his Ph.D on the Christianization of Fortriu and its impact of Vikings at the University of Edinburgh, and was a senior lecturer in the School of History, Classics and Archaeology until 2015. Fraser has since returned to Canada as the Chair of the Scottish Studies Foundation at the University of Guelph.Fraser has completed articles on various dark age topics, including St Ninian and Adomnán's Vita Sancti Columbae. He has published two books relating to Pictish and northern British warfare, and recently authored the first volume in the New Edinburgh History of Scotland series, titled From Caledonia to Pictland: Scotland to 795 (EUP, 2009).

Kempstone Hill

Kempstone Hill is a landform in Aberdeenshire, Scotland within the Mounth Range of the Grampian Mountains. The peak elevation of this mountain is 132 metres above mean sea level. This hill has been posited by Gabriel Jacques Surenne, Archibald Watt and C.Michael Hogan as the location for the noted Battle of Mons Graupius between the Romans and the indigenous Caledonians. The major Roman Camp of Raedykes is situated about three kilometres to the west. From Kempstone Hill there are fine views to the North Sea facing east and slightly to the north of Muchalls Castle. There is a UK trigpoint installation on Kempstone Hill.

Limpet Burn

Limpet Burn is a watercourse in Aberdeenshire, Scotland whose discharge is deemed part of the North Sea coastal drainage. Prominent geographic features in the vicinity of Limpet Burn are Megray Hill and Kempstone Hill. Notable buildings in proximity to Limpet Burn are Ury House, Muchalls Castle and Chapel of St. Mary and St. Nathalan. Part of the watershed of Limpet Burn has been suggested by some as the site of the first recorded battle in the history of Scotland, the Battle of Mons Graupius.

Loch Ore

Loch Ore is a loch situated in Fife, Scotland. It forms the core of Lochore Meadows Country Park. It is used mainly for leisure purposes, especially yachting, although the uneven depth can make the likes of speed boating problematic.

The Roman General Agricola held winter quarters in A.D.83 on the edge of Loch Ore, soon after his invasion of Britain and before proceeding to meet Galgacus at the battle of Mons Graupius. The original loch was drained in the 1790s when the landowner, Captain Park, attempted to improve the estate and extend cultivation. The project was not a success and the land formerly occupied by the loch remained boggy and difficult to exploit commercially. The loch gradually returned in the mid 20th century, during the period when Lochore Meadows was a coal mine, and the mineral railway serving the pithead became an embankment surrounded by water. The return of the loch was due to subsidence caused by mining, and the 'new' loch occupies a different site to the original one. The loch is now stabilised but its depth still fluctuates. The islands in the loch are the remains of the former railway embankment.

The loch holds the annual Scottish Open Water Championships where the swimmers compete in a 5 km, 2 km and 4×1 km relay swim.

Megray Hill

Megray Hill is a low-lying coastal mountainous landform in Aberdeenshire, Scotland within the Mounth Range of the Grampian Mountains. The peak elevation of this mountain is 120 metres above mean sea level. This hill has been posited as a likely location for the noted Battle of Mons Graupius between the Romans and the indigenous Caledonians. The major Roman Camp of Raedykes is situated about three kilometres to the west. From Megray Hill there are expansive views to the North Sea facing east. The summit affords scenic vies of the historic harbour of Stonehaven.

Picts in literature and popular culture

The Picts, the people of eastern Scotland in the medieval Scotland, have frequently been represented in literature and popular culture.

Pulp fiction author Robert E. Howard wrote extensively about his romanticized version of the Picts, especially in his short stories revolving around the fictional character Bran Mak Morn, but also in many other of his stories. In his Conan the Barbarian series, the Picts are described as very similar in culture to the indigenous peoples of the Northeastern Woodlands, especially the Iroquois or Wyandot.

Rudyard Kipling devotes several chapters to the Picts in his book Puck of Pook's Hill.

Historical fantasy author Juliet Marillier's series The Bridei Chronicles tells of the Picts and Gaels in the sixth century A.D.

Nancy Farmer's series The Sea of Trolls depicts fictional Picts.

In his poem "An Irish Monk on Lindisfarne", Gael Turnbull wrote,On the road coming, five days' travel, a Pict woman(big mouth and small bones) gave me shelter, andlaughed (part scorn, part pity) at my journey.

Anne Rice also wrote of fictional Picts, crafting them into the Taltos for her book series The Lives of the Mayfair Witches.

Karen Marie Moning also wrote about the Picts for her third novel of the Highlander Series The Highlander's Touch.

Another use of the Picts in a fantasy setting comes in Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel's Legacy fantasy series concerning the Kingdom of Alba and the Picts, and their dealings with Terre D'Ange.

Matthew Stover's Bronze Age fantasy novels Iron Dawn and Jericho Moon chronicle the adventures of Barra Coll Eigg Rhum, a Pictish princess.

The 1982 film Conan The Barbarian features bodybuilder Franco Columbu in a cameo as a blue-tattooed Pictish scout.

The 2004 film King Arthur depicts Celts and Picts (called "Woads" in the film) as tattooed and painted savage forest people, led by the dark magician Merlin. Originally enemies to Arthur and his knights, they later unite to defeat the Saxons at Badon Hill.

Neil Marshall's 2010 film Centurion features a conflict between a band of Picts and the Roman Ninth Legion.

In Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels, particularly those featuring the Lancre witches, the Picts are an obvious influence on the Nac Mac Feegle, a race of tiny wood-fairies whose speech is influenced by Scottish Gaelic and who are tattooed with blue war-paint. In Carpe Jugulum, they are called "Pictsies."

Arthur Ransome, celebrated author of the classic Swallows and Amazons series of books, titled the eleventh book of the series "The Picts and the Martyrs". Published in 1943, it features the adventures of a group of children holidaying in the Lake District. In the book, two of the children are unexpectedly forced to live secretly in a ruined house in the woods, and they become "Picts". Another two must endure the unwanted presence of their Great Aunt, thus becoming "Martyrs". A general description of historical Picts is given by one of the children when they first take that name, and a somewhat more detailed explanation is given later by a parent in a letter.

Jack Dixon's The Pict, historical fiction, is told from the point of view of the 1st century Picts who resisted invasion by two Roman legions, the Ninth and the Twentieth, led by Gnaeus Julius Agricola in 83 C.E. The main character (Calach) is the Caledonian leader (Calgacus) who united the twenty Pictish tribes against the Roman invasion. The antagonist (Agricola) is sent by the emperor to conquer the whole of the British Isles or not return to Rome. The story offers an alternative to Tacitus's account of the battle of Mons Graupius, and it credits the unified Pictish resistance with a pivotal role in the development of the Scottish nation.

British rock band Pink Floyd performed a song on their 1969 Ummagumma album entitled "Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving with a Pict."

In the 2011 film The Eagle, directed by Kevin Macdonald, and starring Channing Tatum, Jamie Bell and Donald Sutherland. Adapted by Jeremy Brock from Rosemary Sutcliff's historical adventure novel The Eagle of the Ninth (1954), the film tells the story of a young Roman officer searching to recover the lost Roman eagle standard of his father's legion in the northern part of Great Britain. The story is based on the Ninth Spanish Legion's supposed disappearance in Britain. Aquila decides to recover it. Despite the warnings of his uncle and his fellow Romans, who believe that no Roman can survive north of Hadrian's Wall, he travels north into the territory of the "Picts", accompanied only by his slave, Esca.

In the 2012 game Civilization V: Gods & Kings, the Pictish Warrior is the unique unit of the Celtic civilization.

In the 2013 volume Asterix and the Picts, Asterix and Obelix meet the Picts.

The Charlemagne downloadable content was released for the 2012 game Crusader Kings II. The Picts are an existing culture, but may later become Scottish.

In the 2015 game Total War: Attila the Picts are a playable faction in the Celts DLC Culture Pack.

The 2017 Doctor Who episode The Eaters of Light is set in Scotland at the time of the Picts' wars with the Romans.

In the 2017 video game Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice, the player character is a Pictish woman.

The 2018 strategy game Total War Saga: Thrones of Britannia features the Pictish kingdom of Circenn as a playable faction.


Raedykes is the site of a Roman marching camp located just over 3 miles (5 km) NW of Stonehaven, Aberdeenshire, Scotland. National Grid Reference NO 842902. A marching camp was a temporary camp used mainly for overnight stops on a long route between more permanent forts, or as a temporary base while on campaign in hostile territory.

Roman conquest of Britain

The Roman conquest of Britain was a gradual process, beginning effectively in AD 43 under Emperor Claudius, whose general Aulus Plautius served as first governor of Roman Britain (Latin: Britannia). The Romans forced their way inland through several battles against Celtic tribes, including the Battle of the Medway, the Battle of the Thames, the Battle of Caer Caradoc and the Battle of Mona. Following a general uprising in which the Celts sacked Camulodunum, Verulamium and Londinium, the Romans suppressed the rebellion in the Battle of Watling Street and went on to push as far north as Caledonia in the Battle of Mons Graupius.

Roman invasion of Caledonia 208–210

The Roman invasion of Caledonia was launched in 208 by the Roman emperor Septimius Severus. The invasion lasted until late 210 when the emperor became ill and died at Eboracum (York) on 4 February 211. The war started well for the Romans with Severus managing to quickly reach the Antonine Wall, but when Severus pushed north into the highlands he became bogged down in a guerrilla war and he was never able to fully subjugate Caledonia. He reoccupied many forts built by Agricola over 100 years earlier, following the Battle of Mons Graupius, and crippled the ability of the Caledonians to raid Roman Britain.

The invasion was abandoned by Severus' son Caracalla and Roman forces once again withdrew to Hadrian's Wall.


Thomshill, located 6 kilometres (3.7 mi) south of Elgin in Moray, Scotland, is the site of an excavated rectilinear enclosure that has been interpreted as a possible Roman military camp or fort. The enclosure covers an area of approximately 3.25 hectares (8.0 acres) and is situated at a height of 72 metres (236 ft) above ordnance datum.Alongside similar sites at Boyndie, Balnageith, Easter Galcantray and Tarradale, the possibility that Thomshill represents a Roman fort has been seen as evidence that the Roman Army under Agricola occupied Moray after the Battle of Mons Graupius in AD84.

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