When Ian Kinloch tapped his metal detector over a field just south-east of Gilmerton House, he discovered an unexpected trove of artifacts from Scotland’s ancient entanglements with the Roman empire. He uncovered four Roman trumpet brooches, shards of Roman glass, and a small copper stud. One of the brooches was made of silver, a rarity that showed the importance of Kinloch’s find.
Most assume Hadrian’s Wall marks the northernmost reach of the legionaries who enforced Rome’s power in Britain 1,800 years ago. Rome tried and failed to subdue the Caledonian tribe of present-day Scotland, making it the only unconquered tribe on the island. The Romans, well-armed and disciplined, dominated in any pitched battle with the tribal warriors of Britannia. In the year 84, the even, intractable formations of Roman legionnaires confronted 30,0000 Caledonian warriors in Scotland’s Grampian Mountains, according to Tacitus, a Roman historian. The Romans were outnumbered two-to-one, and their enemies occupied higher ground. Before risking Roman lives, the general Julius Agricola sent auxiliary troops of Germanic soldiers ahead. They easily defeated the Caledonians, trampling them underfoot as the Romans looked on like the audience to a gladiatorial spectacle.
But the Caledonians adapted their strategy, turning to guerilla tactics and depending on the cover of the forests. Rome could not stave off their violent, quick attacks. Hadrian ruled Rome from 117 to 138, presiding over the empire in a period when conquered peoples from Judea to Britannia were testing the limits of his empire’s power. To stave off the Caledonians, he ordered his soldiers to build a stone wall reaching from sea to sea at the northern border of Britannia. The wall protected Britannia, kept barbarians at bay, and offered a convenient place to garner taxes off of anyone who needed to cross between Britannia and Caledonia. Hadrian’s Wall loomed over 12 feet high; its gleaming white plaster covered its massive stones, while defensive ditches on either side discouraged anyone from attempting to scale its sheer walls. Legionnaires occupied a string of forts dotting its entire length. The wall loomed over Britannia, pronouncing Rome’s power until the empire crumbled three centuries later.
But as the pile of artifacts at Gilmerton House shows so vividly, the Romans did not give up on conquering Caledonia. Antoninus Pius, emperor from 138 to 161, ordered his legionnaires to abandon the safety of Hadrian’s Wall and subdue Caledonia. Just north of present-day Edinburgh, the Romans built a new wall, all of earth and clay, from coast to coast. Soldiers piled the earthen mound until it stood nearly 10 feet high and dug 16-foot deep ditches on either side.
Under the protection of the Antonine Wall, Roman forts and settlements sprung up in southern Scotland. And just next to Gilmerton House, some high-ranking Roman official pitched his tent and left behind a handful of precious whispers from the past.