Book Review: Septimius Severus in Scotland: The Northern Campaigns of the First Hammer of the Scots


by Simon Elliott

London: Greenhill Books / Philadelphia: Casemate, 2018. Pp. 206+. Illus., maps, tables, plans, chron., biblio., index. $34.95. ISBN: 1784382043

Rome’s Genocidal Caledonian War

British historian and archaeologist Elliott, who has written extensively on Roman military institutions and campaigns, gives us an analytical look at the Emperor Septimius Severus’s protracted campaign in what is now southern Scotland (AD 208-211), set firmly within the overall history of Roman Britain. Despite its amusing sub-title, there were no “Scots” in what is now Scotland back in the late second century, this is an outstanding work, that demonstrates considerable command of the sources

Elliott opens with a valuable introduction explaining terminology, sources, which are extensive but often opaque, and his methodology. There follow chapters reviewing imperial institutions and political organization, the nature of the Roman armed forces in Septimius’s time, and the history of Roman Britain.

Elliott then gives us a look at Septimius’s early life and his rise to the purple. He follows with a chapter on conditions in Britain that called Septimius there for the last three years of his life. A dangerous attempt at usurpation had emerged from Britain, which, although suppressed, had drawn troops from the island, which had encouraged raids by various “barbarians” from Caledonia, what is now known as Scotland.

Although Elliott unfortunately gives us a just single chapter on the series of campaigns conducted by the emperor and his son and successor Caracalla in Caledonia north of Hadrian’s Wall, with what may have been the largest Roman army ever assembled, it is a good one. He correctly stresses that there was no intention of subjecting the region, but a deliberate policy of essentially genocidal destruction of the Caledonian tribes. Operations were remarkably extensive, apparently reaching well beyond the old Antonine Wall, apparently reaching as far as Moray Firth, where some evidence for marching camps has been found.

Elliot concludes with a look at the longer term consequences of these operations, which led to nearly a century of peace on the Caledonian frontier. Although Elliott’s treatment is at times repetitive, and one could wish for more detail on the actual campaigns, perhaps a brief survey of archaeological remains from the war, Septimius Severus in Scotland is a valuable read for anyone with an interest Roman history.


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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