Who was Calgacus?

In contrast to the well-documented Roman governor Agricola, little is known about his Caledonian opponent. To resist the Roman incursion, the Caledonian tribes, engulfing the lowland groups, reportedly formed a coalition, amassing a force of about 30,000. They were led by Calgacus, described as ‘exceptionally brave and noble’ (Tacitus, Agricola 29.4).

Meanwhile, among the many leaders, one superior to the rest in valour and in birth, Calgacus by name, is said to have thus harangued the multitude gathered around him and clamouring for battle

Gaius Cornelius Tacitus – The Agricola XXIX

The name Calgacus, possibly meaning ‘swordsman’ akin to the Irish ‘calgach,’ might have been more of a title than a personal name. Some scholars even speculate that Calgacus was a fictional character created by Tacitus; however, it’s logical to assume the Caledonians had a real leader.

Ptolemy’s writings suggest the Caledonians were one among several groups in northern Scotland, hinting that various tribes might have united under a single military commander, similar to how Gallic tribes united under Vercingetorix against Caesar in 52 BC. In later years, northern peoples formed larger groups like the Maeatae and Caledones (Cassius Dio 76.12), a pattern seen in other regions bordering the Roman Empire.

Tacitus, adhering to the oratorical traditions of his time, attributes a lengthy speech to Calgacus, dramatizing his address to his warriors before battle (Tacitus, Agricola 30–32). This practice of inventing speeches was common among classical authors. While Tacitus, as Agricola’s biographer, aimed to provide factual content, his role as a literary figure, influenced by Cicero and Sallust, required crafting a narrative. This literary style was also emulated by Pliny the Younger in his ‘Panegyricus’ to Emperor Trajan. Thus, it’s conceivable that Roman educators used Calgacus’ speech as a recitation exercise for students.

“You have not tasted servitude. There is no land beyond us and even the sea is no safe refuge when we are threatened by the Roman fleet….We are the last people on earth, and the last to be free: our very remoteness in a land known only to rumour has protected us up till this day. Today the furthest bounds of Britain lie open—and everything unknown is given an inflated worth. But now there is no people beyond us, nothing but tides and rocks and, more deadly than these, the Romans. It is no use trying to escape their arrogance by submission or good behaviour. They have pillaged the world: when the land has nothing left for men who ravage everything, they scour the sea. If an enemy is rich, they are greedy, if he is poor, they crave glory. Neither East nor West can sate their appetite. They are the only people on earth to covet wealth and poverty with equal craving. They plunder, they butcher, they ravish, and call it by the lying name of ’empire’. They make a desert and call it ‘peace'” (XXX).

Gaius Cornelius Tacitus – The Agricola XXX

The speech, while not an accurate reflection of Caledonian strategy, offers insight into Roman perceptions of ‘barbarian’ bravado and possibly Tacitus’ own views on the Roman Army’s conduct. These perspectives, presented through the lens of a contemporary Roman, reveal more about Roman attitudes than Caledonian strategy or tactics.