Romans on the Tay

Eighteen hundred years ago the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus would have been a magnificent and terrifying sight as he sailed down on the River Tay.

Born in Libya, in North Africa, he found Scotland cold and wet, as did his troops who moaned about the weather, particularly “the water”. In 208 Severus travelled to Britain, with an army of over 35,000 troops, with the intention of conquering Caledonia, which is roughly modern Scotland.  In Tayside he built and garrisoned forts along the east coast, such as Carpow. He was supported and supplied by the Classis Britannica. The Roman equivalent of our Royal Navy, the fleet controlled the coast from the English Channel, functioning as a military transport as well as general supply and for patrolling and policing the North Sea. In addition, it performed civilian roles in administration, engineering and construction.  The main fighting platform of the Classis Britannica was the liburnian bireme, which could hold a crew of a hundred. 

These fighting ships, together with merchant ships, would travel in convoys for protection, just as in World Wars I & II. The merchant ships could include the Corbita, which were huge but slow, and usually had a gallery and a figure of a swan on their stern and an interrupted rail to make loading easier. More than fifty five metres long, they were able to carry 2,000 tons of wheat or 400 passengers in cramped conditions.  Read more about the Roman navy here. The crews comprised legionaries and auxiliaries and naval milites. Naval personnel were paid as auxiliaries and had to serve a minimum of 28 years. They were organised in the same way as the military on land. The fleet was essentially coastal and ventured out only during the day, returning to shore at night where the crews shared camps with the regular army.

In Severus’s campaign the huge fort at Carpow was built on the southern bank of the Tay 1 km east of the fork with the River Earn and was thus linked to the North Sea.  The fort covered 11 ha (roughly 20 football fields).  In Roman times Carpow was named Horrea Classis – Naval Storethe linkup between the legion Legio VI Victrix on land to provide them with food and supplies. The entrance might have looked like this reconstruction at South Shields.

Dundee Museums have a silver coin, a denarius with Caracalla on his horse, issued during his joint reign with his father Severus, A.D. 198-209, which was found at Carpow and ties nicely with the date. Museum number 1970-329-2. Carpow had a Principia (HQ), a Praetorium (officers’ quarters and parade ground), a granary, and most importantly for the officers who hated the (cold) water, a bath house with (hot) water. It could house a garrison of 3,000 troops, indicating that the Sixth Legion planned on staying for some time. 

Just as the Ministry Of Defence puts its logo on its equipment today, so Legion Legio VI Victrix stamped its logo on its roof tiles. Dundee Museums have one where you can just make out …VI Vict… of Legio VI Victrix. A garrison soldier’s daily food ration would consist of a kilogramme of bread, a kilogramme of meat, a litre of wine and quarter litre of olive oil. So, not even including military stores like arrows, armour, hobnail boots and thousands of carpenters’ iron nails, 3,000 soldiers in Carpow would work their way through 3 tonnes each of bread and meat, 3,000 litres of wine and 750 litres of olive oil in a day. Or 21 tonnes each of bread and meat, 21,000 litres of wine and 2,250 litres of olive oil in a week. That meant a lot of shipping would be making its way up the Tay with full stackable pottery jars called amphorae, the original recyclable universal containers, and then returning with them empty.

The Roman historian Cassius Dio’s account of the invasion (written, of course, originally in Latin) told of the brilliant guerrilla warfare carried out against the Roman army by the tribes, including the Caledonii. The tactics of avoiding direct warfare with the brutal killing machine of the Roman army and using their knowledge of the terrain were wise. “Severus, accordingly, desiring to subjugate the whole of it, invaded Caledonia. But as he advanced through the country he experienced countless hardships in cutting down the forests… and bridging the rivers; but he fought no battle and beheld no enemy in battle array. The enemy purposely put sheep and cattle in front of the soldiers for them to seize, in order that they might be lured on still further until they were worn out; for in fact the water caused great suffering to the Romans, and when they became scattered, they would be attacked. Then, unable to walk, they would be slain by their own men, in order to avoid capture … But Severus did not desist until he approached the extremity of the island. … Having thus been conveyed through practically the whole of the hostile country (for he actually was conveyed in a covered litter most of the way, on account of his infirmity), he returned to the friendly portion…”


Severus’s campaign was cut short when he fell ill. He withdrew to ‘the friendly portion’ at Eboracum (York) and died there in 211. Although his son Caracalla continued campaigning the following year, he soon settled for peace. The Romans never campaigned deep into Caledonia or sailed up the Tay again.  On his death, Severus was succeeded by his sons, Caracalla and Geta.

Did you know?

The Carpow Logboat, which was used on the River Tay over 1,000 years before Emperor Severus built his great fort nearby, can be seen in Perth Museum and Art Gallery.

Romans on the Tay