The Romans “make a wasteland and call it peace.” This was the perspective of the Caledonians and their chieftain Calgacus. The Caledonians were the last unconquered British tribe, and after evading and avoiding war for many years, the Romans forced them into battle by seizing their granaries after harvest. Faced with starvation, they prepared to fight for their freedom in what is called the Battle of Mons Graupius (northern Scotland, AD 83).
A century and a half before this, the orator Marcus Tullius Cicero – in a letter to his brother who was governing a wealthy Greek province in Asia Minor where provincials were complaining – articulated the other side of the argument: that with strong government and taxation, people could prosper and be safer if they’d just accept Roman rule. People needed to face facts, “Let Asia think on this… Were she not under our government, there’s no calamity of foreign war and civil strife that she’d escape. And since there’s no way to provide government without taxes, Asia should be happy to purchase perpetual peace at the price of a few of her products.”
Who was right; Calgacus or Cicero? Perhaps both. But that meant a wasteland came first:
(Calgacus to his men) “”Men of the North!”
Calgacus was shouting at the top of his lungs, trying to he heard over the chanting of war bands, the braying of copper horns, and the clattering of chariots in the valley below. In front of him were thirty thousand jostling, disorderly men, more than anyone had ever seen in these northern wilds. He raised his arms for quiet but got none.
“Men! Listen to me!” For a moment, the din got even louder as men started chanting Calgacus’s name, but then it dipped slightly, in respect for the great warrior, the ﬁercest of the dozens of Caledonian chieftains.
“Men of the North! This is the dawn of freedom for Britain! We’re going to ﬁght, all of us in it together. It’s a day for heroes—and even if you’re a coward, ﬁghting’s going to be the safest thing now!” For a moment, the pale sun broke through the leaden northern sky, and cheering interrupted Calgacus again. He threw back his head and roared deﬁance.
“Listen to me! We live at the end of the world. We’re the last free men on earth. There’s no one else behind us—there’s nothing there except rocks and waves, and even those are full of Romans. There’s no escaping them. They’ve robbed the world, and now that they’ve stolen everything on land, they’re even looting the sea. If they think you’ve got money, they attack you out of greed; if they think you’ve got nothing, they attack you out of arrogance. They’ve robbed the whole of the East and the whole of the West, but they’re still not satisﬁed. They’re the only people on earth who want to rob rich and poor alike. They call stealing, killing, and rape by the lying name of government! They make a wasteland and call it peace!”
A groundswell of hoarse shouting, stamping feet, and swords clashing on shields swallowed the rest of Calgacus’s words. Without anyone giving orders, the war bands started moving forward. Some were in groups of a hundred or more behind a chief while other men charged forward on their own, dancing with excitement.
Calgacus pulled on a chain-mail shirt and ran after his men. The battle was on…
Half a mile away, the Romans were waiting. For six summers, their general Agricola had been looking for a ﬁght, pushing farther and farther north, burning the Britons’ homes and crops to goad them into taking a stand. And now, in AD 83, as autumn closed in, he had ﬁnally got what he wanted: a battle. His men were outnumbered, far from their forts, and at the limits of their supply lines, but it was a battle all the same. He was delighted
Just as Agricola had expected, the fight did not take long. The Caledonians surged into the valley, running as close to the Romans as they dared before throwing their spears and scrambling back to safety. Agricola’s men were falling here and there, wounded in their unarmored thighs or sometimes killed outright, but the general waited. Only when he judged that enough of the enemy had crowded into the valley to make maneuver difficult did he order the auxiliaries torward.
Some of the Caledonians turned and ran right away. Others stood, trying to ﬁnd room to swing their two-handed broadswords in huge arcs that smashed through armor, flesh, and bone, chopping men in two. But the auxiliaries steadily came on, rank upon rank in heavy metal armor, pushing in too near for the scattered highlanders to use their unwieldy weapons. Intimately close, Romans smashed iron-rimmed shields into noses and teeth, drove their short swords through ribs and throats, and trampled their victims in the wet grass. Eruptions of blood clotted thickly on their chain mail and visors, but they kept moving, leaving those in the rear to ﬁnish off the dazed and injured
Exhausted, soaked now in sweat as much as blood, they slowed and then stopped. ln twos and threes, Caledonian swordsmen turned and stood their ground among boulders and trees. For minutes that felt as long as hours, they shouted abuse at the Romans and threw stones and any remaining spears; then, as their line grew ﬁrmer, the bravest edged closer to the invaders. More and more ﬁghters came running back down the slopes, emboldened, and spilled around the Romans’ flanks.
The auxiliaries’ advance ground to a halt. As they felt the tide turning, Caledonian cavalry on mud-spattered ponies came pushing behind the Romans, spearing them in their legs and hemming them in so tightly that they could not ﬁghtback.
Across the valley. Agricola still had not moved, but now he gave a signal. and a trumpet blew a new command. His auxiliary cavalry jingled and clattered forward. Neatly. as if on a parade ground, their deep column unfolded into a wide line. The trumpet blew again, and the men lowered their spears. A third time it blew, and the riders kicked their horses into a gallop. Gripping the horses’ bellies with their knees (this was ﬁve centuries before the coming of stirrups), they leaned into the wind, blood pounding and the thunder of hooves ﬁlling their world as they shrieked out their rage.
Here and there knots of Caledonians turned to fight as Roman riders fell on them from behind. There was frantic stabbing, spear against spear, as the Romans rushed past. In a few places, horses crashed straight into each other, spilling riders and steeds to the ground in screaming tumbles of broken legs and backs. But for the most part, the northerners fled, unreasoning panic blacking out every thought but escape. And as the men around them melted away, the fury drained out of those few who had kept their ground. Throwing down their weapons, they run too.
An army becomes a mob in moments. There were still enough Caledonians to smother the Romans, but with all order gone, hope departed too. Through gorse and stream, across the slopes of the Graupian Mountain, Roman riders speared everything that moved and trampled anything that did not.
When trees provided cover, Caledonians would cluster in their shadow, hoping to wait out the Roman storm, but the Roman riders, methodical in the midst of chaos, dismounted, flushed the enemy back into the open, and then resumed the chase.
The Romans kept killing till night fell. By their best guess, they butchered about 10,000 Caledonians. Calgacus was probably among them, since his name never crops up in our sources again. Agricola, by contrasts, had not a scratch on him. Just 360 Roman auxiliaries had died, and not even one legionary.
In the darkness, the historian Tacitus tells us, “the Britons scattered, men and women wailing together, carrying off their wounded or calling to survivors. Some fled their homes, and in a frenzy, even set ﬁre to them. Others chose hiding places, only to abandon them straightaway. At one moment they started forming plans, only to stop and break up their conference.
Sometimes the sight of their loved ones broke their hearts; more often it goaded them to fury. We found clear signs that some of them had even laid hands on their wives and children in pity—of a kind.”
By the time the sun came up, Tacitus continues, “an awful silence had settled everywhere. The hills were deserted, houses were smoking in the distance, and our scouts met no one.” Calgacus had been right: Rome had made a wasteland and called it peace.”
War! What Is It Good For? Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots (p27-32)