"The Romans in Scotland and The Battle of Mons Graupius" by Simon Forder is the sort of book you only come across occasionally. Short of the unearthing of entirely new historical evidence in the future, it provides as near to a truly definitive account of its subject as anyone is ever likely to fit between the covers of a book. The result is a remarkable achievement which brings together an in-depth analysis of the scant historical sources that exist with an equally thorough review of the archaeological evidence of the Romans in Scotland. It is well written and capable of being followed and appreciated by the general reader. It also comes with sufficient in the way of maps and other illustrations to allow the text to be set in its geographical context.
We suspect that there will still be many who find the idea of Romans in Scotland surprising: after all, Hadrian's Wall was the northern limit of their empire, wasn't it? The answer to that is: "only for some of the time". The extent of their campaigns and periods of occupation in what is now Scotland is discussed in detail here. At the heart of the book, however, is a search for evidence relating to the Battle of Mons Graupius. This battle, in AD83, can be seen as the high water mark of the Roman's always rather tentative control of northern Scotland; and as such is a hugely important event in the early history of what later became Scotland.
Or it would be if it had actually taken place. The problem with the Battle of Mons Graupius is that we know about it only from an account written by the Roman historian Tacitus, a man whose writings were driven as much by his political agenda as by a simple desire to record the truth. Over the centuries, doubts about him have been such as to lead some historians to question whether the battle took place at all. Most think it did, but trying to track it down has been like hunting a ghost: with the result that many different theories have emerged about where the battle happened.
We have to admit that we were ready to be skeptical about Simon Forder's approach. But his sheer attention to the detail of the available historical and archaeological resources, combined with his willingness to question assumptions - his own and other people's - won us over. The book concludes with a detailed discussion of the battle itself, and the author's own theory about where it took place. We found this totally compelling. Unless and until someone unearths physical evidence of a large-scale battle between Romans and Caledonian tribesmen at the appropriate date somewhere else in Scotland, then we think Simon Forder's account will remain the best there is.