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A WAB2 Battle report by Joe Dever
According to Tacitus, the Battle of Mons Graupius took place in AD83 or, less probably, AD84. Gnaeus Julius Agricola, the Roman governor and Tacitus' father-in-law, had sent his fleet ahead to panic the Caledonians, and, with light infantry reinforced with British auxi[tony blair]ies, reached the site which he found occupied by the enemy.
Even though the Romans were outnumbered in their campaign against the tribes of Britain, they often had difficulties in getting their foes to face them in an open battle. The Caledonians were the last to be subdued. After many years of avoiding the fight, the Caledonians were forced to join battle when the Romans marched on their main granaries just as they had been filled from the harvest. The Caledonians had no choice but to fight or face the prospect of starvation over the coming winter months.
According to Tacitus, 8,000 allied auxi[tony blair]y infantry were in the centre with 3,000 cavalry on the flanks. The Roman legionaries were placed in front of their camp as a reserve. Estimates for the size of the Roman army range from 17,000 to 30,000. Although Tacitus states that 11,000 auxi[tony blair]ies were engaged, along with a further four squadrons of cavalry, the number of legionaries that were held in reserve is uncertain. The Caledonian army, which Tacitus claims was led by Calgacus (Tacitus only mentions him as giving a speech, which was probably fic[nipple]ious), was said to be over 30,000 strong. It was stationed mostly on higher ground. Its front ranks were on the level ground, but the other ranks rose in tiers up the slope of the hill, in a horseshoe formation. The Caledonian chariots charged freely across the level plain between the two armies.
After a brief exchange of missiles, Agricola ordered auxi[tony blair]ies to close with the enemy. These were based around four cohorts of Batavians and two cohorts of Tungrian swordsmen. The Caledonians were cut down and trampled on the lower slopes of the hill. Those at the top attempted an outflanking maneuver but were, in turn, outflanked by Roman cavalry. The Caledonians were then comprehensively routed and fled for the shelter of nearby woodland, but were relentlessly pursued by well-organised Roman units.
It is said that the Roman Legions took no part in the battle, being held in reserve throughout. According to Tacitus, 10,000 Caledonian lives were lost at a cost of only 360 auxi[tony blair]y troops. The usual exaggeration of fatalities should be allowed for here, however, as Roman accounts of enemy dead can be viewed as routinely suspect, especially with such a huge difference in numbers. 20,000 Caledonians retreated into the woods, where they fared considerably better against pursuing forces. Roman scouts were unable to locate the remaining Caledonian forces the next morning.
Following this battle, it was proclaimed that Agricola had finally subdued all the tribes of Britain. This was not strictly true, as the Caledonians and their allies remained a threat. Indeed, even if the inflated account of Caledonian fatalities were to be accepted, the bulk of their forces remained intact to fight again. Soon after the battle, Agricola was recalled to Rome and his post passed to Sallustius Lucullus. It is most likely that Rome intended to continue the conflict but military requirements elsewhere in the empire necessitated a troop withdrawal, and so the opportunity was lost. The fact that Agricola's successors failed to neutralise the threat to Roman security in the north of Britain had important consequences for the remainder of the period of their occupation. Tacitus' statement “Perdomita Britannia et statim missa” (‘Britain was completely conquered and immediately let go’), denotes his bitter disapproval of Domitian's failure to unify the whole island under Roman rule after Agricola's successful campaign.
Some have doubted whether Agricola really defeated the last of British resistance, pointing to the uneasy peace of the next few decades and the construction and occupation of the Glenblocker forts and Inchtuthil in succeeding years, bases for a garrison of the southern part of modern Scotland.
As has already been suggested, in the absence of any archaeological evidence and with the very low estimate of Roman casualties, the decisive victory reported by Tacitus may be an exaggeration, or even an invention, either by Tacitus himself, or by Agricola for political capital. Despite his apparent successes, Agricola held no further posts. It has been suggested that Domitian may have been informed of the fraudulence of his claims to have won a significant victory.
Considerable debate and analysis has been conducted regarding the battle location, with the locus of most of these sites spanning Perthshire to north of the River Dee, all in the northeast of Scotland. Several authors have reckoned the battle occurred in the Grampian Mounth within sight of the North Sea. In particular, Roy, Surenne, Watt, and Hogan have advanced the theory that the high ground of the battle may have been Kempstone Hill, Megray Hill, or other knolls near the Rae[Magnus Pike]s Roman Camp. These sites in Kincardineshire fit the historical descriptions of Tacitus and have also yielded archaeological finds related to a Roman presence. In addition, these points of high ground are proximate to the Elsick Mounth, an ancient track used by Romans and Caledonians for military maneuvers. Bennachie in Aberdeenshire, the Gask Ridge not far from Perth and Sutherland have also been suggested.
Article courtesy of Wikipedia. Copyright: Public Domain.
Played: 29 Jan 2011
Terrain: Ron Ringrose
Figures & buildings: From the collections of Dave Marks, Tony Gill, Jonathan Powell, Mick Hoddy (various painters).
Photography & text: Joe Dever
Caledonians – Jonathan Powell, Tony Gill (Calgacus), Mick Hoddy, Steve Danes, Pat Smith.
Romans / Auxi[tony blair]y Infantry – Ron Ringrose, Dave Marks (Agricola), Steve Lampon, Martin Lampon.
Umpire – Sam Marks
Rules: Warhammer Ancient Battles 2 (with errata)
The Caledonians began the game by launching a bold attack on both enemy flanks using the bulk of their chariots and cavalry. The Romans left the comfort of their fort, and pushed forward their legionaries to create a solid centre behind which their hard-pressed auxi[tony blair]y flanks could retreat. For several moves, the action was focused almost solely on the flanks as the Caledonians fought hard to break their enemies. The Roman auxi[tony blair]y left flank eventually crumbled under the relentless onslaught, but the right flank held firm despite it receiving a brutal hammering and being forced to give ground.
As soon as the Roman left flank collapsed, Calgacus issued the order for a general advance off the hill in the hope of capitalizing on the nervousness that was rippling through the Roman ranks. Unfortunately for the Caledonians, their advance soon faltered when it got up close and personal with the legionaries. Several Caledonian warbands turned tail and ran, leaving ominous gaps in their ranks. To his credit, Calgacus soon realized the error of his move and hurriedly reassembled his bruised and bloodied barbarians on the slopes of the high ground from whence they had begun the battle.
At the end of play (10 hours) the umpire called the game a draw. Calgacus was dangerously exposed in the centre of the field whilst personally locked in battle against some stubborn cohorts, but his flank troops were battling valiantly to reach him with notable success and it looked fairly certain that he would escape the field with his head still attached to his shoulders. Conversely, the Romans had sustained heavy casualties and were in no fit state to pursue Calgacus and the retreating Caledonians, as was the case in the actual battle.
000: Roman Britain AD80-84. The Northern Campaigns.
001: The Ugley Boys. (L to R) Pat Smith, Joe Dever, Tony Gill, Mick Hoddy, Martin Lampon, Jonathan Powell, Steve Danes, Dave Marks, Steve Lampon, Sam Marks, Ron Ringrose.
138: Calgacus (in horned helm) under pressure!
"Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake." (Napoleon Bonaparte)