"The Eagle and the Bear: A New History of Roman Scotland" by John Reid is an outstanding book that should be read by anyone with an interest in the complex story of Roman incursions into the country we now call Scotland. Superbly researched, accessibly written and thoughtfully and convincingly argued, this book presents a chronological history of the Romans in Scotland that draws together evidence from written and archaeological sources, as well as the work of antiquarians, historians, archaeologists, story-tellers and others over the past three hundred years: people who have, as the author says in his conclusion, "spun their own versions from the thin yarn available".
I have to admit that, despite considerable interest in the subject, I'd never really appreciate the ebb and flow of opinion amongst those studying it in more detail. As the heart of this book is an account of a deep intellectual divide. This has lain between those who, one the one hand and over the years, have seen the role of the Romans in Scotland as driven by the need to deal with difficult and dangerous foes who sometimes (and eventually) got the better of them; and, on the other hand, those who considered the native Caledonians and later the Picts to be unworthy opponents for the might and civilising influence of a Roman empire which, in effect, didn't conquer the whole country only because it couldn't be bothered to. This latter view particularly took hold when Britain had a great empire of its own and the establishment tended to view sympathetically others who had exerted similarly extensive control in the past.
As an example, there have been widely differing interpretations of what happened to cause the Ninth Legion to disappear from history. Was it recalled from Britain and sent to its destruction in the middle east? Or did it bite off more than it could chew somewhere in Caledonia? John Reid presents the evidence for both viewpoints - which in places he shows to be shockingly thin (again on both sides) - and argues that this ill-fated legion met its end in what is now Scotland. It's not really a spoiler to say that John Reid is quite firmly in the camp of those who believe the Romans were seriously tested time and again along their northern border in Britain, and responded with ruthless ferocity time and again. He presents compelling evidence to support this view. He also calls on common sense. The Romans devoted huge resources to their activities in northern Britain for over three centuries and, for parts of that time, at least one in eight Roman soldiers from across the entire empire was serving here. Surely the Romans wouldn't have deployed that much resource here for so long unless they really needed to?
There is a sense in which "The Eagle and the Bear: A New History of Roman Scotland" by John Reid isn't just the story of the Romans in Scotland. It is also the story of the story: an account of how views and interpretations have changed over time. This makes it doubly fascinating. As I suggested in my opening paragraph, this book is essential reading for those with any interest in Scotland's early history.