What did the Romans (n)ever do for us?

Published in Features, Issue 2(March/April 2012), Pre-history / Archaeology, Pre-Norman History, Volume 20

What did the Romans (n)ever do for us 1Irish archaeologists are currently engaged in major new investigations into the remains of ancient Ireland and its connections with the Roman world (NUI Galway, ‘Ireland and the Roman World’; Discovery Programme, ‘Late Iron Age and Roman Ireland’; University College Dublin, ‘Iron Age Ireland: Finding an Invisible People’). These projects will provide a new framework for understanding early Irish history. Ancient Greek geographers depicted the Irish as a savage population living in miserable surroundings and as a result many historians maintain that Ireland was ‘too poor’ to warrant conquest by Rome, but this may not have been the case.

Roman map images of Ireland

A second-century Greek geographer named Claudius Ptolemy used Roman military charts to construct an outline map of the British Isles, including Ireland. Ancient tribal locations are revealed when Ptolemy’s plans are orientated over a modern map. Ancient Emain Macha (Navan) appears marked as a ‘regia’ or ‘royal centre’ and Ulster tribes such as the ‘Voluntii’ (Ulaid) are correctly positioned behind their border earthwork defences, now known as the Dorsey and Black Pig’s Dyke. According to Ptolemy, the western isles of Scotland—Arran (Epidion), Islay (Aibuda), Jura (Aibuda Orien) and Mull (Malaius)—were considered Irish territory (see maps overleaf). This same ancient association is mentioned in the Ulster Cycle and attested by political developments in late antiquity, including the formation of the sea-linked kingdom of Dál Riata.The situation in southern Ireland was more complex and several communities listed by Ptolemy share names with British tribes.


Agricola and Tacitus (fifth and sixth from left) as depicted in a detail of William Brassey Hole’s 1898 Processional Frieze. (Scottish National Portrait Gallery)

Agricola and Tacitus (fifth and sixth from left) as depicted in a detail of William Brassey Hole’s 1898 Processional Frieze. (Scottish National Portrait Gallery)

These include the Gangani from northern Wales, near Anglesey, and the Brigantes from a powerful Celtic kingdom in central Britain. Ptolemy positions these Irish Brigantes opposite their British counterparts, suggesting a strong kinship connection. Romano-British artefacts have been found at the promontory fort of Drumanagh, north of Dublin. The graves of British Brigantes, including their distinctive weaponry, have also been unearthed at nearby Lambay Island. Julius Caesar mentions a similar situation where Celtic tribes from Gaul occupied lands on either side of the English Channel. Caesar suggested that these cross-channel tribal alliances hampered Roman efforts to subjugate Gaul and used this claim to legitimise his incursions into southern Britain in 55 and 54 BC. Transmarine tribal links between Britain and Ireland may have been just as troublesome a century later when Rome considered invading Hibernia.

Why invade Ireland?

One of the problems the Romans experienced in securing western Britain was that its sea frontier included hundreds of miles of rugged coastline stretching from Cornwall to the Scottish Borders. As long as Ireland remained unconquered, renegades from Britain would always find a safe haven a short sea journey away. As Tacitus (Agricola, 24) explains:
‘More of Britain would be prosperous if Roman forces were everywhere and freedom was taken out of view’.
Another argument used by Romans in favour of annexing Ireland was to strengthen the connections between the Celtic territories that bordered the Atlantic Ocean. The Irish Sea was recognised as an important thoroughfare for the movement of people and goods and, as Tacitus (Agricola, 24) elaborates,
‘Ireland is positioned between Britain and Spain and is easily accessible from the seas around Gaul. It would unite the strongest parts of our Empire with great mutual advantage.’
The conquest of Ireland would therefore create greater prosperity and security for the empire.

Agricola’s planned invasion

In AD 81, after an impressive four-year campaign to conquer and secure central Britain, the Roman general Gnaeus Julius Agricola gathered an invasion force on the Clyde–Forth line. He stood on the shores of western Scotland with an exiled Irish chieftain by his side and gazed across the narrow North Channel to the Antrim hills. He then prepared his army, including the fabled Ninth Legion, for a western crossing.From their positions near the Firth of Clyde, the Romans knew that the islands surrounding this coast were Irish territory, so Agricola’s next step was to secure the channel that separates Scotland from Ireland. He brought the Roman fleet to Galloway to act as transport for a seaborne operation and launched his assault. As Tacitus (Agricola, 24) reports:
‘Agricola crossed over in the leading ship to conquer peoples who were up to that time unknown to us and he subdued them in a series of successful actions’.
The reference to unknown ‘peoples’ would indicate a sustained campaign, so Agricola must have attacked the outlying territories of Arran or the Mull of Kintyre. Clearly this event was well known in Rome, as the satirist Juvenal (Satire, 2.159–63) commented: ‘arma quidem ultra litora Iuvernae promovimus et modo captas Orcadas’ (‘indeed we have now promoted our arms beyond the shorelines of Ireland and in that manner captured the Orkneys’). Ahead of their planned campaign, there is evidence that the Roman military collected information by questioning traders and dispatching scout ships to explore crossings near the Scottish coastline. One of the operatives involved in these missions was a Greek named Demetrius, who is attested in two separate ancient records. Bronze tablets discovered at the Roman headquarters in York record a dedication made by Demetrius to the maritime gods Oceanus and Tethys. Further evidence comes from a Greek writer named Plutarch, who encountered a man also named Demetrius at Delphi. This man was returning from active service to his home at Tarsus. As Plutarch (On the failure of oracles, 18) reports:
‘Demetrius said there are many isolated islands lying near Britain that are remote and have few, or no, inhabitants. Some of these islands are named after divinities or heroes. On the Emperor’s order he made a voyage for enquiry and observation to the nearest of these islands.’
The Roman invasion plans also involved detailed information provided by an exiled Irish chieftain. Tacitus (Agricola, 24) writes:
‘Agricola received a prince of these people who had been forced out by an internal dispute. The general retained him with the appearance of an alliance for the occasion when he could be used.’
Agricola probably planned to install this Irish chief at Emain Macha, the nearest regia. Tacitus concludes his description of military operations in AD 81 with the comment, ‘Agricola posted troops on that part of Britain which faces Ireland, in hope of [an assault?], rather than fear of an attack’. This was confirmed by the discovery in the 1980s of large legionary encampments at Girvan Mains on the coast overlooking the navigational landmark of Ailsa Craig. The site would have accommodated 5,000 troops, including auxiliary support, a sufficient force to conquer Ireland. Marching forts have been found in Galloway at Gatehouse of Fleet, Newton Stewart and Glenluce, along a Roman road that leads to the shores of Loch Ryan. This is a natural harbour sheltered by the Stranraer hills that lies only sixteen miles from the Antrim coast. Here the Roman fleet would have assembled to make the final preparations for invasion.

Invasion postponed indefinitely

During that winter, the clans of northern Caledonia staged an uprising that threatened the Clyde–Forth frontier. Agricola suspended his Irish campaign to deal with this new threat and the Roman military began a war of attrition. It took two years to defeat the Highlanders in the decisive battle of Mons Graupius. By this time Agricola had exceeded his term of office and was recalled to Rome by the Emperor Domitian. Domitian needed troops for his German wars and veteran units were withdrawn from Britain to serve on other frontiers. As Rome’s Continental conflicts escalated, the invasion of Ireland was suspended indefinitely.

Commerce, not conquest

Comments by a first-century Greek geographer named Strabo might explain why the Roman Empire made no further attempt to conquer Ireland. The Romans imposed high customs taxes on trade goods crossing their imperial frontiers and Strabo argued that the British Isles were more profitable to the Empire as free-trading partners than as subject territories. He wrote:
‘There is no advantage to be gained by taking and garrisoning Britain. More revenue is derived from duty on their commerce than tribute could bring in; especially when we deduct the expense involved in maintaining an army to guard the island and collect taxes. The un-profitability involved in occupying the islands near Britain would be even greater’ (Strabo, Geography, 2.5.8).
These comments do not imply that Ireland was impoverished. The Irish were culturally very similar to the Celtic tribes of mainland Britain and Tacitus (Agricola, 24) writes of them:
‘In soil and climate, in the disposition and habits of its population, Ireland differs little from Britain. The routes of approach and the harbours are known to us through trade and merchants.’
Other Latin writers stress the pastoral prosperity of the ancient Irish. Writing around AD 43, Pomponius Mela (Geography, 3.53) reports:
‘Ireland is so luxuriant with grass—abundant and sweet—that the livestock fill themselves in a fraction of a day’.
The classical name Iuverna (Hibernia) is probably derived from the Celtic Iweriu, meaning the ‘fat’ or ‘fertile’ land.The Irish epic Táin Bó Cuailnge, one of the oldest oral traditions in western Europe, confirms this view of an Irish population dependent on cattle for their wealth. The Táin tells how Queen Maeve of Connacht goes to war to obtain the coveted stud bull of Ulster. Cattle were an important commodity in the ancient world and leather was a priority resource. It has been calculated that every campaigning Roman soldier required the equivalent of five cattle hides to provide his tent materials and provision sacks. Leather was also used for Roman sandals, belts, straps, water-skins and harnesses for animals. Evidence from the German frontier reveals that in some places the Roman military gathered tribal taxes in ox hides rather than cash payments. Juvenal (Satire, 14.203–4) confirms that merchants made ‘no distinction between hides and unguents: the smell of profit is good whatever it comes from’. Celtic Britain exported grain, cattle, animal hides, gold, silver, iron, slaves and hunting dogs to the Roman provinces. Sources from late antiquity, such as St Patrick’s Confession, confirm that ancient Ireland exported similar trade goods. In return, Celtic Britain received Roman wine and decorative craft goods, including bracelets, necklaces, glassware, amber and ivory. Roman artefacts found in Ireland include similar decorative items, supporting the view that a prosperous Hibernia engaged in commerce was a better economic prospect for the Romans than an island to be conquered, garrisoned and taxed.Over time, Britain was pacified by Roman occupation and subsequent governors seemed to show little interest in Hibernia, provided the Irish posed no threat. Yet, until the end of his days, the aging General Agricola never forgot his triumphs in Britain and the lost opportunity to bring Ireland into the Empire. His son-in-law Tacitus remarked, ‘I have often heard him say that Hibernia could be taken and held by a single legion and a small number of auxiliaries’. The Roman Ireland that Agricola would have created by his imperial conquest remains a fascinating possibility.  HI
Raoul McLaughlin is a tutor in ancient history at Queen’s University, Belfast.

Further reading:

C. Adams, ‘Hibernia Romana’, History Ireland 4 (2) (1996), 21–5.P. Freeman, Ireland and the Classical world (Austin, 2000).R. McLaughlin, Ancient Ireland and the Roman world: commerce and conflict in the first century AD (forthcoming).


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