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Roman Britain



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.
Lupus apparently had insufficient troops to counter the incursions he found himself

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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
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
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...

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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

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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
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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
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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.
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
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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

captive. The legend arcing around

spectators. At this juncture, while all were proceeding in

silence and in order, Antoninus reined in his horse and
(Victories in Britain).
C[onsulto], i.e. by decree
drew his sword, as if he were going to strike his father in
of the senate, below.
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

The peace did not last long. The Maeatae rebelled in 210, and Severus ordered their
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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
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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 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
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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
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... 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
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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
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
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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.
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

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