When the governor of Roman Britain, Clodius Albinus, took an army to Gaul in pursuit of his ambitions for the throne, his province's northern frontier, with its depleted garrison, became vulnerable to attack. Albinus' adventure ended in his death, following the defeat of his forces by those of Septimius Severus, in a battle which saw heavy losses on both sides, near Lyon, on 19th February 197. Severus quickly despatched one Virius Lupus to govern Britain.


At the outset of the struggle for power, that ensued following the murder of the emperor Pertinax, in 193 (see: Beginning of the End?), Septimius Severus bought-off Clodius Albinus by making him his ‘Caesar’ – the title conferred on an emperor's junior colleague and intended heir. Perhaps unsurprisingly, when his other opponents had been neutralized, Severus ditched Albinus, and made his own eldest son, Bassianus, Caesar. Bassianus was renamed Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, after the earlier (161–180) emperor, and it is generally as Antoninus that he appears in classical texts. He is, however, undoubtedly better known by the nickname Caracalla – from a type of ankle-length hooded cloak which he popularized. By 9th June 197, Severus had arrived in Rome following Albinus' defeat and death. Caracalla was now being called imperator destinatus (emperor designate). Having purged the senate of Albinus' supporters – 64 senators were brought to trial, of whom 35 were released and 29 were executed – Severus set out for the East, against the Parthians. The Parthian capital, Ctesiphon (approx. 20 miles south-east of Baghdad, Iraq), was captured, and, on 28th January 198, Severus was able to claim that he had conquered Parthia. He promoted, not-quite ten year old, Caracalla to ‘Augustus’ – the same rank, i.e. full emperor, as himself. Caracalla's younger (by less than 12 months) brother, Geta, then received the title Caesar.
Virius Lupus is mentioned in three British inscriptions, all in the north of England. The wording of one of these, from Ilkley in West Yorkshire, places it in 197:
“The Emperor Severus Augustus and Antoninus Caesar, [emperor] designate, restored [this], under the direction of Virius Lupus, their propraetorian legate.”
An inscription from Bowes, County Durham, also reads as if it belongs to 197:
“To the Godess Fortuna, Virius Lupus, propraetorian legate of Augustus, restored this bathouse, having been destroyed by fire, for the First Cohort of Thracians, under the direction of Valerius Fronto, prefect of cavalry of the Ala Vettonum.”
The phraseology could conceivably imply that the Bowes inscription was set up prior to the one at Ilkley, since it refers to a singular Augustus but no ‘emperor designate’. The third Lupus inscription is from Corbridge, about 2½ miles south of Hadrian's Wall:
“A detachment of Legio VI Victrix Pia Fidelis [i.e. the Sixth Legion], [built this] under the direction of Virius Lupus ...”
Lupus disappears from history after his term in Britain. Presumably he was replaced after about three years in office, around the year 200.
Lupus apparently had insufficient troops to counter the incursions he found himself facing in the north of his new province. Dio Cassius reports that:
“Inasmuch as the Caledonians did not abide by their promises and had made ready to aid the Maeatae, and in view of the fact that Severus at the time was devoting himself to the neighbouring war, Lupus was compelled to purchase peace from the Maeatae for a large sum; and he received a few captives.”
Dio Cassius (fragment) ‘Romaika’ Epitome of Book LXXV Chapter 5
This is the first mention of the Maeatae. Dio explains:
“There are two principal races of the Britons, the Caledonians and the Maeatae, and the names of the others have been merged in these two. The Maeatae live next to the cross-wall which cuts the island in half, and the Caledonians are beyond them.”
Dio Cassius (Xiphilinus) ‘Romaika’ Epitome of Book LXXVI Chapter 12
The “cross-wall” referred to by Dio is probably the Antonine Wall, on the Forth-Clyde line.


By “Britons” Dio clearly means the people who live beyond Rome's control. On the face of it, then, “the cross-wall which cuts the island in half” should, at this period, be Hadrian's Wall, on the Tyne-Solway line – the Antonine Wall would appear to have been abandoned for some three decades* – in which case the Maeatae would probably comprise an amalgamation of tribes living between-the-walls, whilst the Caledonians would, not unreasonably, be an amalgamation of tribes living in Caledonia, i.e. north of the Antonine Wall. There are, indeed, those who hold that view, but probably the greater weight of opinion is behind the theory that the “cross-wall” is actually the Antonine Wall – that Dio (a senator and contemporary of these events) considered the Antonine Wall to mark the limit of Rome's power – the implication being that the Caledonian tribes had consolidated into a southern faction, the Maeatae,* and a northern faction, the Caledonians. At any rate, Dio continues with a few travellers' tales:
“Both tribes inhabit wild and waterless mountains and desolate and swampy plains, and possess neither walls, cities, nor tilled fields, but live on their flocks, wild game, and certain fruits; for they do not touch the fish which are there found in immense and inexhaustible quantities. They dwell in tents, naked and unshod, possess their women in common, and in common rear all the offspring. Their form of rule is democratic for the most part, and they are very fond of plundering; consequently they choose their boldest men as rulers. They go into battle in chariots, and have small, swift horses; there are also foot-soldiers, very swift in running and very firm in standing their ground. For arms they have a shield and a short spear, with a bronze apple attached to the end of the spear-shaft, so that when it is shaken it may clash and terrify the enemy; and they also have daggers. They can endure hunger and cold and any kind of hardship; for they plunge into the swamps and exist there for many days with only their heads above water, and in the forests they support themselves upon bark and roots, and for all emergencies they prepare a certain kind of food, the eating of a small portion of which, the size of a bean, prevents them from feeling either hunger or thirst. Such is the general character of the island of Britain and such are the inhabitants of at least the hostile part of it.”
Dio Cassius (Xiphilinus) ‘Romaika’ Epitome of Book LXXVI Chapter 12
To which Herodian adds some more:
“Most of the regions of [northern] Britain are marshy, since they are flooded continually by the tides of the ocean; the barbarians are accustomed to swimming or wading through these waist-deep marsh pools; since they go about naked, they are unconcerned about muddying their bodies. Strangers to clothing, they wear ornaments of iron at their waists and throats; considering iron a symbol of wealth, they value this metal as other barbarians value gold. They tattoo their bodies with coloured designs and drawings of all kinds of animals; for this reason they do not wear clothes, which would conceal the decorations on their bodies. Extremely savage and warlike, they are armed only with a spear and a narrow shield, plus a sword that hangs suspended by a belt from their otherwise naked bodies. They do not use breastplates or helmets, considering them encumbrances in crossing the marshes.”
Herodian ‘History of the Empire after Marcus’ Book III Chapter 14
For a few years Britain slips from notice.
“The sons of Severus, Antoninus [Caracalla] and Geta ... went to all lengths in their conduct. They outraged women and abused boys, they embezzled money, and made gladiators and charioteers their boon companions, emulating each other in the similarity of their deeds, but full of strife in their rivalries; for if the one attached himself to a certain faction, the other would be sure to choose the opposite side...
At this period [the few years starting 205] one Bulla, an Italian, got together a robber band of about six hundred men, and for two years continued to plunder Italy under the very noses of the emperors and of a multitude of soldiers. For though he was pursued by many men, and though Severus eagerly followed his trail, he was never really seen when seen, never found when found, never caught when caught, thanks to his great cleverness... Severus, informed of these various occurrences, was angry at the thought that though he was winning the wars in Britain through others, yet he himself had proved no match for a robber in Italy ... [Bulla was eventually captured] he was given to wild beasts, and his band was broken up – to such an extent did the strength of the whole six hundred lie in him.”
Dio Cassius (Xiphilinus) ‘Romaika’ Epitome of Book LXXVI Chapters 7 & 10
“In the midst of the emperor's distress at the kind of life his sons were leading and their disgraceful obsession with shows, the governor of Britain informed Severus by dispatches that the barbarians there were in revolt and overrunning the country, looting and destroying virtually everything on the island. He told Severus that he needed either a stronger army for the defence of the province or the presence of the emperor himself. Severus was delighted with this news: glory-loving by nature, he wished to win victories over the Britons to add to the victories and titles of honour he had won in the East and the West. But he wished even more to take his sons away from Rome so that they might settle down in the soldier's life under military discipline, far from the luxuries and pleasures in Rome.”
Herodian ‘History of the Empire after Marcus’ Book III Chapter 14


Herodian's assertion, that “the governor of Britain” appealed to Severus for help, seems at odds with Dio's, that Severus “was winning the wars in Britain through others”, and it may be an example of Herodian improving the plot. Anthony R. Birley, in ‘Septimius Severus: the African Emperor’ (Revised Edition, 1988), is scathing in his criticism of Herodian's account of Severus' reign (“riddled with mistakes, omissions and inaccuracies”), and he opines:
“It is better to reject Herodian's story about the British governor's letter as pure invention.”
Britain's governor at the time was almost certainly Lucius Alfenus Senecio. He features in nine British inscriptions, all found in the north of England. Four of them are from forts on Hadrian's Wall, and one records the restoration of the outpost-fort at Risingham (a dozen or so miles along Dere Street, beyond the Wall). The inscription (as restored) from Risingham reads:
“For the Emperor-Caesars, Lucius Septimus Severus Pius Pertinax Arabicus Adiabenicus Parthicus Maximus, thrice consul, and Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Pius, twice consul, the [two] Augusti, and for Publius Septimus Geta, the most noble Caesar, the First Cohort of Vangiones, one thousand strong, part-mounted, with its own tribune Aemilius Salvianus, restored from ground-level this gate and its walls, which had collapsed through age, by order of His Excellency Alfenus Senecio, consular governor, Oclatinius Adventus, procurator of our [two] emperors, having charge.”
The reference to Caracalla “twice consul” dates the inscription 205–207.
“Severus, seeing that his sons were changing their mode of life and that the legions were becoming enervated by idleness, made a campaign against Britain, though he knew [from omens] that he should not return... He took along with him an immense amount of money.”
Dio Cassius (Xiphilinus) ‘Romaika’ Epitome of Book LXXVI Chapter 11
The year was 208.
“... although he was now well advanced in years and crippled with arthritis [or gout], Severus announced his expedition to Britain, and in his heart he was more enthusiastic than any youth. During the greater part of the journey he was carried in a litter, but he never remained very long in one place and never stopped to rest. He arrived with his sons at the coast sooner than anyone anticipated, outstripping the news of his approach. He crossed the channel and landed in Britain; levying soldiers from all areas, he raised a powerful army and made preparations for the campaign. Disconcerted by the emperor's sudden arrival, and realizing that this huge army had been assembled to make war upon them, the Britons sent envoys to Severus to discuss terms of peace, anxious to make amends for their previous errors. Seeking to prolong the war so as to avoid a quick return to Rome, and still wishing to gain a victory over the Britons and the title of honour too, Severus dismissed the envoys, refusing their offers, and continued his preparations for the war. He especially saw to it that dikes were provided in the marshy regions so that the soldiers might advance safely by running on these earth causeways and fight on a firm, solid footing... When it seemed to him that all was in readiness for the campaign, Severus left the younger of his two sons, Geta, in the section of the province under Roman control; he instructed him to administer justice and attend to imperial affairs, leaving with him as advisers his more elderly friends. Then, accompanied by Antoninus, the emperor marched out against the barbarians.”
Herodian ‘History of the Empire after Marcus’ Book III Chapter 14
“Its [Britain's] length is 7,132 stades, its greatest breadth 2,310, its least 300. Of all this territory we hold a little less than one half.
Severus, accordingly, desiring to subjugate the whole of it, invaded Caledonia.”
Dio Cassius (Xiphilinus) ‘Romaika’ Epitome of Book LXXVI Chapters 12 & 13
It was probably 209 by now.
“After the troops had crossed the rivers and the earthworks [presumably the Antonine Wall] which marked the boundary of the Roman empire in this region frequent battles and skirmishes occurred, and in these the Romans were victorious. But it was easy for the Britons to slip away; putting their knowledge of the surrounding area to good use, they disappeared in the woods and marshes. The Romans' unfamiliarity with the terrain prolonged the war.”
Herodian ‘History of the Empire after Marcus’ Book III Chapter 14
“... as he [Severus] advanced through the country he experienced countless hardships in cutting down the forests, levelling the heights, filling up the swamps, and bridging the rivers;* but he fought no battle and beheld no enemy in battle array. The enemy purposely put sheep and cattle in front of the soldiers for them to seize, in order that they might be lured on still further until they were worn out; for in fact the water caused great suffering to the Romans, and when they became scattered, they would be attacked. Then, unable to walk, they would be slain by their own men, in order to avoid capture, so that a full fifty thousand died. But Severus did not desist until he had approached the extremity of the island. Here he observed most accurately the variation of the sun's motion and the length of the days and the nights in summer and winter respectively. Having thus been conveyed through practically the whole of the hostile country (for he actually was conveyed in a covered litter most of the way, on account of his infirmity), he returned to the friendly portion, after he had forced the Britons to come to terms, on the condition that they should abandon a large part of their territory.
A bronze sestertius of M[arcus] Aurel[ius] Antoninus Pius Aug[ustus], i.e. Caracalla, depicting Victory, with hand on trophy, Britannia and sitting captive. The legend arcing around reads:
(Victories in Britain).
S[enatus] C[onsulto], i.e. by decree of the senate, below.
Antoninus was causing him alarm and endless anxiety by his intemperate life, by his evident intention to murder his brother if the chance should offer, and, finally, by plotting against the emperor himself... when both were riding forward to meet the Caledonians, in order to receive their arms and discuss the details of the truce, Antoninus attempted to kill his father outright with his own hand. They were proceeding on horseback, Severus also being mounted, in spite of the fact that he was weakened by infirmity in his feet, and the rest of the army was following; the enemy's force were likewise spectators. At this juncture, while all were proceeding in silence and in order, Antoninus reined in his horse and drew his sword, as if he were going to strike his father in the back. But the others who were riding with them, upon seeing this, cried out, and so Antoninus, in alarm, desisted from his attempt. Severus turned at their shout and saw the sword, yet he did not utter a word, but ascended the tribunal, finished what he had to do, and returned to headquarters. Then he summoned his son ... ordered a sword to be placed within easy reach, and upbraided the youth for having dared to so such a thing at all and especially for having been on the point of committing so monstrous a crime in the sight of all, both the allies and the enemy. And finally he said: “Now if you really want to slay me, put me out of the way here; for you are strong, while I am an old man and prostrate. For, if you do not shrink from the deed, but hesitate to murder me with your own hands, there is Papinian, the [Praetorian] prefect, standing beside you, whom you can order to slay me; for surely he will do anything that you command, since you are virtually emperor.” Though he spoke in this fashion, he nevertheless did Antoninus no harm ... on the present occasion he allowed his love for his offspring to outweigh his love for his country; and yet in doing so he betrayed his other son, for he well knew what would happen.”*
Dio Cassius (Xiphilinus) ‘Romaika’ Epitome of Book LXXVI Chapters 13 & 14


There were three legions resident in Britain – II Augusta, VI Victrix Pia Fidelis and XX Valeria Victrix – but, as indicated by Dio and Herodian, Severus will have brought considerable additional forces with him – in particular, it is supposed, the recently formed II Parthica legion, which was based near Rome and would seem to have taken on the role of a reserve-force, and a substantial part of the Praetorian Guard. Nicholas Reed (‘The Scottish campaigns of Septimius Severus’, Proc. Soc. Antiq. Scot. 107, 1975–6) guesses that “Severus probably had the equivalent of six, not three, legions campaigning in Scotland”.
Archaeological evidence – the remains of marching-camps of various size – might tend to suggest that initially the army was divided in two: one section proceeding from Hadrian's Wall up Dere Street, whilst the other section set-out from the western end of the Wall. Beyond the Forth, the army advanced up the eastern side of Caledonia – perhaps two sections in parallel up to about Montrose – as far as the Moray Firth. The evidence – the complicated pattern of marching-camp sites – is, though, very much open to interpretation. For instance, Nicholas Reed, taking into account the images on various coin issues, proposes that Caracalla actually arrived in Britain prior to Severus, and that he “led the British legions through the territory of the Selgovae in 207”, which accounts for the series of smaller marching-camps between the western end of Hadrian's Wall and the Forth.
The army would, of course, need to be fed. The fort at South Shields, on the south bank of the mouth of the Tyne, was converted into a supply depot – its existing accommodation being demolished and replaced by granaries. A Severan inscription (the governor's name is, unfortunately, missing) from Corbridge (on the Tyne, some 23 miles inland from South Shields, and on Dere Street, about 2½ miles south of Hadrian's Wall) records the construction of a new granary, whilst an altar there was dedicated by the man (his name is missing) who was “in charge of the granaries at the time of the most successful British expedition”. The task of keeping supplies flowing would have fallen to the fleet, which appears to have been augmented for the campaign. An inscription from Rome implies that a commander (his name too is missing) had charge of not only the British fleet (classis Britannica), but the Rhine fleet (classis Germanica) and Danube fleets (classis Moesica and classis Pannonica) also. The ships would have delivered supplies to bases at Cramond, on the south bank of the Forth (north-western Edinburgh), and Carpow, on the south bank of the Tay (just east of its junction with the Earn). A stone fortress was built at Carpow, which would seem to be a clear indication that Severus intended Roman occupation to be permanent.
The ‘Historia Augusta’ begins a (somewhat tedious) anecdote, about a portent of Severus' impending death, with the remark:
“After giving a Moor his discharge at the Wall in Britain, when he [Severus] was returning to the next halting-place, not merely as victor but having established eternal peace ...”
Aelius Spartianus ‘Historia Augusta’ Severus Chapter 22
This incident would, then, seem to be set during Severus' journey south, almost certainly bound for Eboracum (York), after concluding his treaty with the Britons (though the peace established at that time was to be far from “eternal”). The Wall in question would be, what we know today as, Hadrian's Wall. By the 4th century, however, a misunderstanding had arisen as to just who had built the Wall. The ‘Historia Augusta’ states:
“He [Severus] fortified Britain – and this was the greatest glory of his reign – with a wall led across the island to the Ocean at each end; in recognition of this he also received the title Britannicus.”
Aelius Spartianus ‘Historia Augusta’ Severus Chapter 18
Though there was rebuilding on the Hadrianic frontier during his reign, the Wall was not, of course, the work of Severus (see: The Wall of Severus). After coming to terms with the Britons, Severus and both his sons took the title ‘Britannicus’. Geta was raised to the rank of Augustus. Tiles found at Carpow, stamped with the legend: LEG VI VIC B P F, can only mean that Legio VI Victrix had acquired the title ‘Britannica’. It is possible the other legions were similarly styled.
Just to the south of Hadrian's Wall, around 14 miles along the Stanegate to the west of Corbridge, is the Roman fort of Vindolanda. There were actually a number of forts built successively on the same site. The archaeological evidence suggests that, in the early-3rd century, the existing fort buildings were demolished and replaced with as many as three hundred, native-style, circular stone-built huts. It is thought possible that the site had become a prisoner-of-war camp, built to house up to two thousand British hostages, during the Severan campaigns. In their turn, the huts were soon demolished to make way for a new fort.
About 90 miles down Dere Street from Corbridge was Eboracum – location of the fortress of Legio VI Victrix and an important Roman town. It seems clear that, when he wasn't on campaign, Eboracum was Severus' base in Britain. An inscription from Aenus, in Thrace, shows that, on some 12th September (208?), Carracalla and Geta received a delegation from Aenus at Eboracum. A rescript, issued jointly by Severus and Caracalla, at Eboracum, is dated 5th May 210. And Severus was to die there on 4th February 211.
The peace did not last long. The Maeatae rebelled in 210, and Severus ordered their extermination:
“When the inhabitants of the island [the Maeatae, it turns out] again revolted, he summoned the soldiers and ordered them to invade the rebels' country, killing everybody they met; and he quoted these words [from Homer]:
“Let no one escape sheer destruction,
No one our hands, not even the babe in the womb of the mother,
If it be male; let it nevertheless not escape sheer destruction.” ”
Dio Cassius (Xiphilinus) ‘Romaika’ Epitome of Book LXXVI Chapter 15
The army was apparently headed by Caracalla alone.
“Now a more serious illness attacked the aged emperor and forced him to remain in his quarters; he undertook, however, to send his son out to direct the campaign. Antoninus, however, paid little attention to the war, but rather attempted to gain control of the army. Trying to persuade the soldiers to look to him alone for orders, he courted sole rule in every possible way, including slanderous attacks upon his brother. Considering his father, who had been ill for a long time and slow to die, a burdensome nuisance, he tried to persuade the physicians to harm the old man in their treatments so that he would be rid of him more quickly.”
Herodian ‘History of the Empire after Marcus’ Book III Chapter 15
The harsh treatment meted out to the Maeatae evidently persuaded the Caledonians to join them in rebellion:
“When this had been done, and the Caledonians had joined the revolt of the Maeatae, he [Severus] began preparing to make war upon them in person. While he was thus engaged, his sickness carried him off on the fourth of February [211], not without some help, they say, from Antoninus.”
Dio Cassius (Xiphilinus) ‘Romaika’ Epitome of Book LXXVI Chapter 15


In his paper ‘The Scottish campaigns of Septimius Severus’, Nicholas Reed attempts to integrate the rather vague, literary, numismatic, epigraphic and archaeological evidence. He conjures-up a detailed chronology for the campaigns, which he summarizes:
“207  Caracalla comes to Britain. Conducts campaign with the 3 British legions from Hadrian's Wall up to the Forth, through territory of Selgovae. Severus arrives in Gaul.
208  Uncontested advance of both Augusti through Fife (Maeatae), establishing bridges at Queensferry and Carpow with a road between.”
The rivers Forth and Tay must certainly have been crossed, but the remains of those crossings have not, as yet, been found. Reed argues that the permanent bridge, depicted on the Severus coins of 208, was at Carpow, on the Tay, and the boat-bridge, depicted on the Carracalla coin/medallion, was at Queensferry, “where the Forth Railway Bridge now stands”. Unfortunately for that argument, the Caracalla coin is of 209, not 208. His summary continues:
“209  Caracalla advances with 3 British legions against Caledonians, close to old Agricolan route up to Keithock. Severus with Praetorian Guard and II Parthica advances via Carpow to Kinnell (and probably Montrose); both leave 63-acre camps. Fleet, drawn from 4 navies, brings supplies north from South Shields.
210  Advance of all forces, with supplies, from Corbridge to Inveresk, planting 165-acre camps. Army, under Caracalla, continues near old Agricolan route at least as far as Kair House, planting 130-acre camps. Fleet sails N from Cramond, taking supplies. Extensive casualties; no big battle; concessions made by Caledonians.”
Most commentators would place the guerilla campaign fought by the Britons and the resulting heavy Roman losses (which preceded the treaty mentioned by Dio, but not Herodian), in 209; and equate the campaign led by Caracalla because Severus was too ill (mentioned by Herodian, but not Dio), with the attempted genocide of the Maeatae (mentioned by Dio, but not Herodian). Nicholas Reed, though, as can be seen from his summary, has Severus and Caracalla fighting inconclusively in 209. The following year, 210, they advance as far as the south bank of the Forth (Inveresk). Severus, being ill, goes no further, so Caracalla carries on alone, to fight against the Britons' guerilla tactics with heavy losses. Reed conjectures that Caracalla's campaign “started in June, was over by September at latest”. He concludes his summary:
“Late in year [“in September or October”], Maeatae revolt. Severus' attempted genocide provokes Caledonians to revolt as well.”
“In the eighteenth year of his reign, now an old man [he wasn't yet 66] and overcome by a most grievous disease, he died at Eboracum in Britain ...”
Aelius Spartianus ‘Historia Augusta’ Severus Chapter 19
“... [Severus] was succeeded by his young sons, to whom he left an invincible army and more money than any emperor had ever left to his successors. After his father's death, Antoninus seized control and immediately began to murder everyone in the court; he killed the physicians who had refused to obey his orders to hasten the old man's death and also murdered those men who had reared his brother and himself because they persisted in urging him to live at peace with Geta. He did not spare any of the men who had attended his father or were held in esteem by him.* He undertook secretly to bribe the troop commanders by gifts and lavish promises, to induce them to persuade the army to accept him as sole emperor, and he tried every trick he knew against his brother. He failed to win the backing of the soldiers, however, for they remembered Severus and knew that the youths had been one and the same to him, and had been reared as equals from childhood; consequently they gave each brother the same support and loyalty. When the soldiers refused to uphold him, Antoninus signed a treaty with the barbarians, offering them peace and accepting their pledges of good faith. And now he abandoned this alien land and returned to his brother and mother [at Eboracum]. When the boys were together again, their mother tried to reconcile them, as did also men of repute and the friends of Severus who were their advisers. Since all these opposed his wishes, Antoninus, from necessity, not from choice, agreed to live with Geta in peace and friendship, but this was pretended, not sincere.”
Herodian ‘History of the Empire after Marcus’ Book III Chapter 15
“... before Severus died, he is reported to have spoken thus to his sons (I give his exact words without embellishment): “Be harmonious, enrich the soldiers, and scorn all other men.” After this his body, arrayed in military garb, was placed upon a pyre, and as a mark of honour the soldiers and his sons ran about it; and as for the soldiers' gifts, those who had things at hand to offer as gifts threw them upon it, and his sons applied the fire. Afterwards his bones were put in an urn of purple stone, carried to Rome, and deposited in the tomb of the Antonines. It is said that Severus sent for the urn shortly before his death, and after feeling of it, remarked: “Thou shalt hold a man that the world could not hold.”
Dio Cassius (Xiphilinus) ‘Romaika’ Epitome of Book LXXVI Chapter 15
“Thus, with both of them managing imperial affairs with equal authority, the two youths prepared to sail from Britain and take their father's remains to Rome. After burning his body and putting the ashes, together with perfumes, into an alabaster urn, they accompanied this urn to Rome and placed it in the sacred mausoleum of the emperors. They now crossed the channel with the army and landed as conquerors on the opposite shore of Gaul.”
Herodian ‘History of the Empire after Marcus’ Book III Chapter 15
“... Antoninus assumed the entire power; nominally, it is true, he shared it with his brother, but in reality he ruled alone from the very outset. With the enemy he came to terms, withdrew from their territory, and abandoned the forts; as for his own people, he dismissed some, including Papinian, the prefect, and killed others ... As for his own brother, Antoninus had wished to slay him even while his father was yet alive, but had been unable to do so at the time because of Severus, or later, on the march, because of the legions; for the troops felt very kindly toward the younger brother, especially as he resembled his father very closely in appearance. But when Antoninus got back to Rome, he made away with him also [on 26th December 211].”*
Dio Cassius (Xiphilinus) ‘Romaika’ Epitome of Book LXXVII Chapter 1
Caracalla's abandonment of Caledonia saw Hadrian's Wall become, once more and finally, the Empire's frontier – though a number of outpost-forts, between-the-walls, were garrisoned. His, apparently hastily concluded, treaty would, though, appear to have been rather more successful than might be expected – there is no record of trouble on the frontier for the best part of a century.*
Dio explains that Caracalla, following at least part of his father's deathbed advice:
“... was fond of spending money upon the soldiers, great numbers of whom he kept in attendance upon him, alleging one excuse after another and one war after another ...”
Dio Cassius (Xiphilinus) ‘Romaika’ Epitome of Book LXXVII Chapter 9
In order to fund his extravagance, Caracalla increased taxation. He also (by what is known as the Constitutio Antoniana, of 212) conferred Roman citizenship on all of the Empire's free inhabitants:
“... nominally he was honouring them, but his real purpose was to increase his revenues by this means, inasmuch as aliens did not have to pay most of these taxes.”
Dio Cassius (Xiphilinus) ‘Romaika’ Epitome of Book LXXVII Chapter 9
All of its free people were now Roman citizens, but that was not the only major constitutional change applied to Britannia. In order to reduce the forces a single governor would have at his disposal, should he choose to emulate Clodius Albinus and mount an attempt on the throne, Severus had decided to split the province in two. (Syria, province of another of Severus' erstwhile rivals, Niger, had been similarly treated.) Herodian says that the division was carried out immediately after Severus' defeat of Albinus, in 197, but the balance of evidence indicates that this is too early. At any rate, the northern part of the province became Britannia Inferior (Lower Britain), with Eboracum (York) as its capital, and the south became Britannia Superior (Upper Britain), with Londinium (London) as its capital. There were two legions, II Augusta and XX Valeria Victrix, based in Britannia Superior and one legion, VI Victrix, based at Eboracum in Britannia Inferior. The border between the two provinces would seem to have run, more or less, from the Wash to the Mersey – Deva (Chester), being the home of XX Valeria Victrix, was in Britannia Superior; Lindum (Lincoln) was in Britannia Inferior. Incidentally, II Augusta were based at Isca (Caerleon, near Newport, South Wales). Before division, Britannia had always had a governor of consular rank, and Britannia Superior was similarly governed. Britannia Inferior, however, had a lower (praetorian) ranking governor. The governors who acted in the north under Severus were consular, so the division of Britannia was probably implemented under Caracalla.


Dio Cassius gives the disposition of the legions at the time he was writing (which was only a few years after these events):
“... the Second Augusta, with its winter quarters in Upper Britain ... the two Sixths, of which the one, Victrix, is stationed in Lower Britain ... the Twentieth, called both Valeria and Victrix, in Upper Britain.”
Dio Cassius ‘Romaika’ Book LV Chapter 23
Provinces with more than one legion were governed by a man of consular rank, and each legion had its own dedicated commander. In provinces with just one legion, the legion's commander and the governor were the same man. An inscription from Bordeaux notes that both Eboracum (York) and Lindum (Lincoln) were in Britannia Inferior (Lower Britain) – which name, by the way, simply means that it is furthest from Rome of the two Britannias. The inscription, which is dated 237, also says that both Lindum and Eboracum were coloniae (singular: colonia) – the highest status of Roman town. Originally, coloniae, i.e. ‘colonies’, were towns set up in conquered territory for retired legionaries – Lindum and the other two coloniae in Britain, Camulodunum (Colchester) and Glevum (Gloucester), had started that way – but by this time the title had become honorific. It is generally supposed that Eboracum, that is to say the town which had developed alongside the legionary fortress of Eboracum, was elevated to the status of colonia, by Caracalla, at the time of the division of Britannia. The date of the division cannot be pinpointed. Inscriptions might indicate that, the future emperor, Gordian I (emperor for less than a month, in 238) was serving as governor of Britannia Inferior by 216.* The rank of Gaius Julius Marcus, shown by inscriptions from the northern frontier region to have been governor in 213, is not clear, and, though he could conceivably be the last consular governor of an undivided province, he can often be found listed as the first known governor of Britannia Inferior.
Despite the serious reservations concerning Herodian's reliability, it is, perhaps, somewhat unsatisfactory to quickly dismiss his claim that Severus divided Roman Britain in 197 as simply a mistake. In a paper entitled ‘The Division of Britain’ (Journal of Roman Studies 57, 1967), J.C. Mann and M.G. Jarrett argued that Severus did indeed divide Britain in 197 – but it was Britannia Inferior that was the consular province. This means that, in the west, the border would have been to the south of Chester, to include XX Valeria Victrix in Britannia Inferior. Such a division would, however, have given Inferior not only two legions, but also all of the auxiliary units employed on the northern frontier. Caracalla, therefore, unsettled by the support which Geta had received, redrew the boundary between the two Britannias, to more equally balance their forces. There is, though, no evidence to add weight to this neat notion – but Caracalla did redraw the border between the two Pannonias to create two two-legion provinces out of a three-legion province and a one-legion province – and it is usually assumed that Britannia was a single province until Caracalla's reign.
Caracalla came to a suitable end – quite literally caught with his pants down – he was stabbed whilst relieving himself, on 8th April 217.
Third-Century Crisis    
Dio Cassius ‘Romaika’ by Earnest Cary
‘Historia Augusta’ by Anthony R. Birley
Herodian ‘History of the Empire after Marcus’ by Edward C. Echols
A cavalry squadron (Ala=wing) of Vettones (an Iberian people).
Greek: παροíκῳ. It seems an eminently reasonable suggestion (made by Emil Hübner) that this should be emended to παρθικῷ, which would make Severus busy with “the Parthian war” rather than “the neighbouring war”.
Dumyat, a hill topped by a fort, to the north-east of Stirling, is thought to derive from Dun Maeat (fortress of the Maeatae). Myot Hill, north-west of Falkirk, may also preserve the name of the Maeatae.
Although the balance of evidence tends to suggest that the Antonine Wall was abandoned by the mid-160s (see: At the Empire's Edge), there is sufficient evidence to allow C.J. Mann, in a paper called ‘The history of the Antonine Wall – a reappraisal’ (Proc. Soc. Antiq. Scot. 118, 1988), to propose that it was reoccupied from c.184 until c.195, at which time Clodius Albinus needed to muster British forces for his campaign in Gaul (see: Beginning of the End?).
The official in charge of a province's finances.
Septimius Severus hailed from Lepcis Magna, now in Libya.
The Vangiones were from the neighbourhood of the modern city of Worms, on the west bank of the Rhine.
Strabo, writing round about the year 23: “if one reckons as most people do, eight stadia [or stades] to the [Roman] mile ...” (‘Geography’ Book VII Chapter 7). Dio apparently (there are a couple of clues in his writing) reckons 7½ stades to the Roman mile. A Roman mile (i.e. mille passus – literally ‘a thousand paces’), at about 1,620 yards, is a little shorter than the standard mile of today (1,760 yards).
“... a very witty remark is reported to have been made by the wife of Argentocoxus, a Caledonian, to Julia Augusta. When the empress was jesting with her, after the treaty, about the free intercourse of her sex with men in Britain, she replied: “We fulfil the demands of nature in a much better way than do you Roman women; for we consort openly with the best men, whereas you let yourselves be debauched in secret by the vilest.” Such was the retort of the British woman.”
Dio Cassius (Xiphilinus) ‘Romaika’ Epitome of Book LXXVI Chapter 16
A unique coin or medallion of Carracalla, from 209, depicts a boat-bridge. Rare coinage of Severus, from 208, depicts a permanent bridge. The whereabouts of these bridges has been the subject of much inconclusive theorizing.
Geta's murder has been convincingly dated to 26th December 211 by Timothy Barnes, in ‘Tertullian: a historical and literary study’ (1971). According to Dio Cassius, Geta was stabbed, by centurions acting on Caracalla's orders, in his mother's arms.
More than half of the eighty skeletons found during excavations at a Roman cemetery in York, in 2004 and 2005, proved to be of decapitated males, who had died in the prime-of-life. Examination of the bones suggested that the men were executed – in one case it had required thirteen strikes to remove the head. One early theory (featured in a BBC 2 documentary, broadcast in April 2006), based on pottery evidence suggesting an early-3rd century date, was that the men were victims of Caracalla's purge. It soon became apparent, however, that the remains covered a much broader timescale – from the early-2nd century to the late-3rd century. The current ‘flavour of the month’ theory (the subject of a Channel 4 documentary, broadcast in June 2010) is that the site was a gladiator's graveyard. One individual seems to have met his end as the result of being bitten by a large carnivore – lion, tiger or bear – which, it seems reasonable to suppose, could only have happened in the arena. It is virtually certain that there was an amphitheatre at York, but it has yet to be found.
There are three inscriptions, from what is now northern England, which are thought to have carried the name of Gordian. In two of them, one from Ribchester (not precisely dated, but Caracallan) and one from High Rochester (dated 216), the name has apparently been erased. In the other, from Chester-le-Street (dated 216), the name is only partly legible. It is virtually certain that Gordian's consulship was after 216, so, assuming the identification is correct, it must have been Britannia Inferior, and not an undivided province, that he governed.
Certainly an exaggeration – presumably a literary flourish to communicate ‘a very large number’.
Dio says Severus' urn was “purple stone”. Herodian says Alabaster. In ‘Septimius Severus: the African Emperor’, Anthony R. Birley hazards that it was: “Probably Derbyshire Blue John, often various shades of purple.” However, Aelius Spartianus (‘Historia Augusta’ Severus Chapter 24) calls it “a golden urn”, to which Birley comments: “trying to be different”.
Coins commemorating ‘Victories in Britain’ were still being issued in 211. There are lingering suspicions that another, conclusive, campaign was fought in that year – a campaign which is not represented in the, very sketchy, literary record. For instance, in ‘Britannia: a history of Roman Britain’ (Third Edition, 1987), S.S. Frere suggests that:
“... Dio's hostility has suppressed a further campaign in 211 which brought the war to a conclusion. Certainly the picture of expensive failure painted by the historians is belied by the subsequent history of the frontier.”
Whilst S. Ireland, in ‘Roman Britain: a Sourcebook’ (Third Edition, 2008), asks:
“Did the literary sources suppress mention of a whole campaign, or do the coins pass off as victory what was in fact withdrawal?”
Also, a very fragmentary inscription from Carpow might tend to suggest that building there was still underway after Geta's murder, which, if that were so, would suggest that the Romans did not abandon their new conquests quite as hastily as the literary sources indicate.
The archaeological evidence indicates that outpost-forts at Netherby, Bewcastle, Risingham and High Rochester were garrisoned.
The murder of Geta may have caused unease amongst the troops in Britain. In a number of dedications from the northern frontier area, datable to 213, various units express devotion to Caracalla. One from Vindolanda, for example, (as restored) reads:
“For the Emperor Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Pius Felix Augustus, Parthicus Maximus, Britannicus Maximus, Pontifex Maximus, holding tribunician power for the sixteenth time, hailed Imperator twice, consul four times, Father of his Country, proconsul, out of their common loyalty and devotion, [under the care of Gaius Julius Marcus, propraetorian legate of the Emperor,] the Fourth Cohort of Gauls, commanded by ... set this up.”
Presumably the governor, Gaius Julius Marcus, had ordered this conspicuous display of loyalty. It seems, though, that Marcus subsequently fell foul of Caracalla, since his name would appear to have been deliberately erased from most of his inscriptions – actually, there is no trace of the governors name in the example above, but inscriptions from elsewhere make it clear that it was, indeed, Marcus.