Septimius Severus deals with the insurrection of British Tribes (RIB 1234)

Typology (Honorific / Funerary / etc.): 
Building dedication.
Original Location/Place: 
Habitancum, Britannia (Risingham, Northumberland).
Actual Location (Collection/Museum): 
Great North Museum, Hancock, Hadrian’s Wall gallery. NEWMA: 1845.4.
205 CE to 208 CE
Physical Characteristics: 
The text is situated within a circle defined by a carved wreath, with figures of Mars and Victory standing on either side. The top part of the stone has been broken off and the sandstone has weathered badly.
Buff sandstone.

Width: 1.803m
Height: 1.245m
Depth: 0.1778 m

Width: 1.803 m
Height: c. 1.3462 m
Depth: 0.1778 m
CIL VII, 1003
This inscription was set up between 205-208 CE in order to commemorate the rebuilding of part of an outpost fort at Habitancum. The fort may previously have been abandoned during raids by the Caledonians following Septimius Severus’s defeat of Clodius Albinus, the governor of Britain, in 197 CE, during the civil war that emerged following the death of Commodus. The rebuilding work most likely took place in advance of Severus’s expedition to Britain, which began in 208 CE, and which was intended to re-conquer the areas seized by the Caledonians and even to advance the British frontier further north.
The inscription is dedicated to Septimius Severus and Caracalla – here recorded by the official name given to him by his father, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Pius, demonstrating their claim of Antonine descent – as joint emperors (Imperatoribus Caesaribus). Geta is also named in the dedication, but only as ‘most noble Caesar’ (Publio Septimio Getae nobilissimo Caesari), the most senior position awarded to him by his father, although this was later erased from the stone following his damnatio memoriae in 211 CE. Following the attestations of imperial titulature, the inscription records that the “First Cohort of Vangiones” (cohors I Vangionum), which included some cavalry (equitata) as well as foot soldiers, had restored the gate and walls from the ground up (portam cum muris… a solo restituit). The restoration work was needed because the gate and walls had “fallen in through age” (vetustate di/lapsis), and had been ordered by the governor Alfenus Senecio, and overseen by the procurator Oclatinius Adventus and his tribune, Aemilius Salvianus. Situated along the main Roman road that ran north along the eastern spine of Britain towards the new frontier created by the Antonine Wall, the fort was probably constructed at some point during the reign of Antoninus Pius (138-161 CE), in conjunction with his establishment of the wall, but became an outpost once the wall was abandoned in the early 160s CE. The claim in the inscription that the gates and walls had “collapsed through age” is a creative one; it is entirely possible that the fort had also been abandoned at the same time as the Wall and that the failure to maintain it had led to its destruction. However, it is also possible that the damage to the fort’s gate and walls occurred later on in 196-197, when the former governor of the Brittania - Clodius Albinus - withdrew large numbers of troops from the province to support his attempt to win the principate in the civil war that followed Commodus’s death. Having removed so many soldiers – Anthony Birley proposes that approximately 40,000 men accompanied Albinus to Lugdunum, where the decisive battle was fought – it is not surprising that the ‘barbarian’ tribes from north of the border, in Caledonia, had begun to invade (Birley, Septimius Severus, p. 124). It appears that the Caledonians perhaps intended to join the Maetae, whose territory was based north of the Antonine Wall, and it is possible that the Brigantes tribe in the Pennines had also rebelled against the weakened garrison left in the province, but it is hard to estimate the full scale of the damage that was caused, particularly as there had been some disturbance in the region approximately fifteen years earlier, when a Roman governor was killed during a barbarian invasion in 182-183 CE (Birley, Septimius Severus, p. 171). There are some signs from the archaeological remains of the Antonine Wall, however, to indicate that in places the northern tribes succeeded in tearing down whole sections of the wall, which were later rebuilt, and so the destruction of the fort’s gate in a similar outbreak of violence is far from impossible (Richmond, “The Roman Frontier Land”, p. 10). Whatever the specificities of the unrest, it is clear that there was trouble at the northern boundary of the empire, and that a series of different battles had been fought in the two decades immediately preceding the construction of this inscription. Feels like Game of thrones…
The possible damage to the fort’s gates may also explain the decorative features of the slab on which the dedication is inscribed. The text is found within a carved relief of victory wreath, with the standing figures of Mars – the god of war – and a Victory flanking it. This was characteristic military iconography, which aimed at emphasising the visual presence of Roman dominance alongside the claims made in the text. Although described in the inscription as rebuilding work to do with vetustas (“age”) of the gates, the addition of the victory symbols should perhaps be understood rather more literally than simply representing the Roman army again garrisoned within the fort. If the northern tribes were responsible for the destruction of the gates, then the inclusion of images that were so irrevocably connected with Rome’s presentation of her own military success was a deliberate communication of her renewed dominance in the region. This is particularly clear if we consider Septimius Severus’s actions in 208 CE, the latest suggested date for the inscription’s composition; following years of building works to rebuild and reinforce both the Antonine and Hadrian’s walls and forts, the emperor ordered punitive campaigns “which appear to have rivalled those of Agricola in force and penetration,” and which clearly aimed at putting the revolt of the northern tribes to an end once and for all (Richmond, “The Roman Frontier Land,” p. 11). The entire imperial household decamped to Britannia in 208 CE, including Caracalla and Geta and their mother, Julia Domna, the “mother of the camps” (mater castrorum), where they remained until Severus’s death at Ebaracum (modern York) in 211 CE. The speed with which the emperor arrived, and the vast retinue of soldiers and administrative officials that accompanied him, appears to have shocked the northern tribes who, according to Herodian, immediately sent peace envoys and embassies to the imperial court in an attempt to delay the planned campaigns (Herodian, History of the Empire from the Death of Marcus, III.14.3; Cassius Dio, Roman History, 76.13.4). These were unsuccessful, and a series of brutal campaigns did indeed follow, resulting in the strengthening of the northern frontier and its fortifications. As in Africa and the East, Septimius Severus “showed himself to be a propagator imperii,” an ‘enlarger of empire’ – Scotland may have remained unconquered, but Rome’s territorial hold of Britain was not diminished (Birley, Septimius Severus, p. 182).

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