What the Romans didn’t do for us: the stuff of legends and the Supreme Court ruling

Hadrian. By FollowingHadrian – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40010294

I can’t praise the Amnesty International Bookshop in Marchmont enough. The high incidence of academics and students in the area – you practically can’t spit in the street without hitting a Regius or an Emeritus – means it is stocked to the gunnels with fantastic reading, all at charity shop prices.

To give a recent example, I picked up The Battle That Stopped Rome, by Peter S Wells (Norton paperback, 2004). I’ve always been interested in the Romans, and a bit of history was included in my Latin Higher. I mean, you know, the basics: Virgil, Homer, the Republic, Caesar, the Empire, decline and fall. The acqueduct. Plus, of course, the Scottish perspective, which I’ll come back to.

The subject of the Wells book is a little-known battle in 9 AD in which three legions were slaughtered by German tribesmen. That in itself is pretty remarkable – about 20,000 heavily armoured legionaries being taken out by an opposing army they thought of as not much above farmers with pitchforks – but what the book argues is that, essentially, the battle’s outcome forced the Romans to rethink their imperial ambitions and instead double down on their current borders. This, bear in mind, from a Rome then at the height of its imperial powers, with Augustus in charge.

More than that, though, Wells argues that these immediate consequences redrew the modern world too. Latin stopped at the Rhine, creating a linguistic and cultural fault line that remains to this day – all these ‘Romance’ languages to the west and south; Germanic and Scandinavian tongues to the east and north. Ironically, the emergence of heavily fortified military bases to defend the Rhine boundary contributed to the local economy to the extent that cities like Cologne can trace their origins to that trade.

The battle itself, and its equally bloody aftermath, is graphically described. The Romans had ignored how their repeated invasions had forced the once-widespread German tribes to arm and organise themselves. This meant they hadn’t anticipated their coming together under a single leader, Arminius. He had served as an auxiliary in the Roman army, and used that knowledge of his now-enemy’s tactics and deployments well. More, he brandished the weapon native armies have used before and since against more heavily armoured invading opponents: the landscape.

Here, as elsewhere, it was a case of waiting until the Romans were deep into a narrow defile

Battle site, near Kalkriese, Teutoborg Forest, Germany. By Corradox – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7106542

between a hill and marshy ground to attack; unable to deploy properly or use their artillery, the Empire’s troops were at their most vulnerable. If things hadn’t turned out well, of course, the Germans would have used the landscape in the other classic way indigenous warriors do: they would’ve melted into the trees and hills around them, near-impossible to pursue.

As I say, the Germans were not the only ones to use their geography against powerful invaders. Think of just about everyone who’s tried to invade Afghanistan in the last two hundred years or so. Or, closer to [my] home, the way Wallace waited till half the English army was over Stirling Bridge before launching his assault from higher ground. Bruce’s hit and run tactics with small forces (after learning his lesson at the (pitched) Battle of Methven) and then his engineering a pitched battle that he could win, by trapping the far superior numbers of the English army in a loop of the Bannock burn.

Anyway, so much for military history, which I’m not particularly a buff, or indeed a fan, of. What interested me first in the Wells book was the thesis that a little known battle two millenia ago could influence geopolitics today. What also interested me as I read on was the death and subsequent life of the German leader, Arminius.

Unsurprisingly, the Roman writers who chronicled the battle, including Tacitus and Cassius Dio, saw Arminius as a turncoat who took the Roman denarius when it suited him and then managed to sufficiently marshal a bunch of barbarians so that they defeated his former masters. It was all the Roman commander’s fault. However, roll forward a few hundred years and it was a different story.

The Germans, in the nineteenth century, were looking for a hero of their own, and Arminius

Arminius statue. Told you it was big. By Daniel Schwen – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2703717

fitted the bill. Starting in 1841, finally being dedicated in 1875, just 4 years after German unification, they built a HUMUNGOUS, fuck-off statue of him in bronze near the battle site. At 87 feet tall, standing on an 88 foot pedestal, it is admittedly smaller than the statue of Liberty. But then Liberty ain’t on top of a 1300 foot hill.

You can see where this goes, can’t you? Brave Arminius, wiping out the invaders (he apparently points his 23-foot sword west towards Gaul, or France, depending which era you’re in). Unifier of the Germans, who were always at their best combining against a common enemy. Which was all fine until German nationalism became a bit … problematic for a while.

The other fascination for me with the Romans comes from the complicated relationship Scotland has with them.

Hadrian’s Wall. By Jamesflomonosoff at English Wikipedia; cropped by Beyond My Ken (talk) 08:49, 4 May 2010 (UTC) – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10238451

For a start, there’s Hadrian’s Wall, a big fuck-off wall, more or less on the current Anglo-Scottish border, built to keep those wild Caledonians out. It’s a great myth to have, although a) they did actually occupy southern Scotland for some time in the second century, building Antonine’s Wall on the line of the Forth and Clyde rivers, and b) the only documented battle, Mons Graupius, was an outstanding Roman victory. At least according to Tacitus. Even if he gives the Scottish leader, Calgacus, the best line: ‘they [the Romans] make a desert, and call it peace.’

Ah but, I hear some of you say, what about the Ninth Legion? Didn’t they march north from Eboracum (York) to put down the rebellious Scots, only to vanish into the misty north, never to be heard of again?

Well, yes and, quite possibly, no. Like many Scots kids of a certain age, I devoured The Eagle of the Ninth, a children’s novel by Rosemary Sutcliff which popularised the theory that IX Hispana had met a sticky end somewhere north of Bathgate. Interestingly, the idea that the Ninth’s disappearance from Roman military records was linked to defeat by the Caledonii and other tribes was first proposed by the 19th-century German historian Theodor Mommsen, the very same guy behind the popularisation of the Arminius story in that period.

Unfortunately for Scots myth-making, modern research suggests that the Ninth was still around in AD 120, long after it left Britain, and was wiped out in later conflicts elsewhere. Although academics, as academics do, continue to debate the point.

However, there is another parallel between the Arminius story and Scotland’s own hero construction. Although there was interest in Calgacus as one of our plucky-leaders-that-fought-against-the invaders, in 1869, around the same time that the Arminius statue was being completed, the Wallace monument was opened to the public near Stirling. Built on the Abbey Craig, a humungous bit of volcanic rock that Wallace is said to have launched his assault against the English army from at Stirling Bridge, the monument comprises a 220-foot sandstone tower. It has a 246 step spiral staircase which I’ve edged up at least twice, with viewing at the top and, on the way, various artefacts displayed such as Wallace’s 5 foot 4 inch sword.

You get where this is going, right? The nineteenth century had a lot of nationalistic myth-making going on. The Scots – who, ironically, were front and centre when it came to expanding the British Empire, modelled in so many ways on the Roman one – created their own nationalistic myth, built around Wallace and Bruce (he has his own statue at Bannockburn). Although Calgacus also got a mention, the English invaded us on a more consistent and recent basis than the Romans, so perhaps it’s not surprising our fourteenth century heroes got the statues.

How does all that tie into the present day? Well, on a world scale, you don’t have to look far. The Russians invade Ukraine, claiming they’re protecting their own, Russian-speaking, minorities in doing so. The Ukrainians are everyone else’s plucky nation defending themselves against a much bigger invading army.

Meanwhile, in Scotland, a recent Supreme Court judgement tells us what any constitutional lawyer with half a brain could have worked out – that it’s incompetent for the Scottish Parliament to hold a referendum to decide if we Scots want to secede from the United Kingdom. Half a brain, because if there’s one rule baked into our arcane, unwritten constitution on these islands, it’s the supremacy of Westminster.

The truth is that Westminster could repeal the Scotland Act at a stroke and restore direct rule, so the general legal principles would always indicate that London has to consent to a referendum on constitutional matters north of Hadrian’s Wall. That’s what happened in 2014. However, it’s also not so hard to see why some of the Caledonii might feel this smacks of colonialism. Others accuse the SNP of preaching some sort of exclusionary nationalism, comparing it to the other examples of populist nationalism such as the toxic brand promoted by Putin (see also Erdogan, Trump wanting to ‘make America great again,’ Bolsonaro, etc. etc).

Such comparisons make modern day Scots pretty uncomfortable. In general somewhere to the left of Genghis Khan, they (in general) want to be seen as a welcoming, inclusive people. They take pride in the fact that Scotland voted 2/3 against Brexit, for example – one of the key reasons some people feel another referendum is due. We like to think that our nationalism is a benign form, the same way that there are more or less benign forms of other -isms like capitalism, communism, religious fundamentalism. Ok, so maybe not so much religious fundamentalism.

Is this what the Romans did for us? Or is the fact they built a big fuck-off Wall to keep us out just another historical happenstance co-opted into our national myth, just as the Germans did with Arminius when threatened with French invasion? I’m beinning to wonder if the solution to the governance of these islands is a form of another -ism, federalism, with power and decision-making shared out equally between Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England (or the English regions if they prefer). That would let us rejoin the EU of course.

Be that as it may, the English have their own national myths, one of which is Westminster being the Mother of Parliaments that brought democracy to all the parts of the world that used to be coloured red on the map. So the prospect of federalism happening is about as real as you going into a pub near Ibrox singing ‘Danny Boy’ and coming out again with a new set of friends instead of a busted nose.

You know that thing about a rock and a hard place? That’s where Scotland is right now. Even if you’re from a former British colony and see the irony of part of your former imperialist rulers crying about colonialism, wish us luck. We’ll need it, whatever happens next.

I’ll leave you with John Prine, and RB Morris’s wise words about empires.


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