Septimius Severus in Scotland: The Northern Campaigns of the First Hammer of the Scots, by Simon Elliott (2018), Greenhill Books, Barnsley
This book is chiefly of value for the improved account of the campaigns of Septimius Severus in Scotland which Simon Elliott is able to provide by drawing on recent archaeological evidence and his own knowledge of Roman warfare. However, he doesn’t get there until Chapter 7. The rest of the book is filled out with a description of the Roman military machine at the time of Septimius Severus, an account of the earlier life of the Emperor, and details of his aggrandisement of York as an Imperial Capital in advance of the campaigns.
The justification Elliott provides for the anachronistic use of the term ‘Scots’ in the title is half-hearted and unconvincing, leading to the suspicion that it may have been imposed on him by his publisher. In the text, he identifies the tribes which the Severan campaigns were intended to subdue as the Maeatae and the Caledonians.
Simon Elliott is of the ‘It’s Grim Up North’ school of British historians. Northern Britain is described as ‘that dimmest of Roman Border territories’ and ‘a Conradian heart of darkness’. It is even suggested that the blame for the failure of Rome to incorporate Northern Britain into the Empire can be laid at the door of the natives themselves, as they simply lacked ‘an elite sophisticated enough’ to buy into Rome’s imperial project.
Elliott argues, with some evidence, that the campaign of genocide which Septimius Severus sought to unleash in Scotland was sufficiently thorough to remove the threat of attack from the North for 80 years. However, one is left wondering how consistent that idea is with the fact that, following his death, the northern border of the Empire reverted to the line of Hadrian’s Wall. Adam Ardrey, in his book Finding Arthur (2013), suggests that Caracalla deliberately frustrated his ailing father’s genocidal intentions with the aim of concluding a speedy peace with the Maeatae and Caledonians on his death.