Lands of the Novantae – Agricola’s Fifth Season (81AD)

During Agricola’s process of reinforcing Roman control in Scotland, he recognized the strategic necessity of extending his reach to Galloway, home to the Novantae. This region, identified with the place name ‘Rerigonion’ (now thought to be near modern-day Loch Ryan) by Ptolemy, had been overlooked in previous campaigns. Tacitus records that in the fifth year, Agricola ventured into uncharted territories, subduing unknown peoples and positioning his forces towards Ireland, indicating more of hopeful preparation than immediate threat (Tacitus, Agricola, 24.1).

This account, however, has been a source of much confusion, partly due to the challenging nature of Tacitus’ writing style and also because of the physical condition of the manuscript, the Agricola. The primary source for this work is the 9th-century Codex Aesinas, which underwent repair in the 15th century, leading to some textual uncertainties. One such passage, interpreted as Agricola crossing into trackless wastes, has sparked debates among scholars. This interpretation aligns with the theory of an initial reconnaissance into the Galloway Peninsula.

Tacitus also notes Agricola’s interaction with an exiled Irish prince, reflecting a common Roman practice of engaging with displaced local leaders. Such alliances could provide valuable insights and leverage in Roman military and political strategies.

During this period, news of Emperor Titus’ death arrived, likely when Agricola was stationed in Carlisle. The presence of Agricola’s troops, including the ala Sebosiana, in various winter quarters is evidenced by archaeological finds, such as a writing tablet addressed to a member of Agricola’s guard.

The accession of the new emperor, Domitian, brought a renewed focus on military achievement, which he lacked compared to his predecessors. Domitian’s ambition for military glory suggested a departure from Titus’ more restrained approach in Britain, as he sought to make his mark with victories along the Rhine and Danube, and potentially in Britain as well. Tacitus implies that it was Domitian’s desire for personal glory, rather than a genuine concern for Roman prestige, that drove this shift in strategy.