It happened today - February 4, 2016
Or not. Perhaps you do not see why a Roman Emperor keeling over on Feb. 4 back in 211 is very interesting to anyone, let alone of particular interest to Scots of the authentic or “biscuit-tin” variety to which I occasionally belong.
Well, it’s like this. The Scots, you may recall, actually did resist the Romans, with such typically unrelenting bloody-mindedness that the great builders constructed Hadrian’s Wall in order, as George Macdonald Fraser says any Englishman can tell you in five words, “To keep the Scots out.”
Normally if you annoyed the Romans they stomped you flat. Unless you were, say, Arminius and wiped out three legions in the Teutoburger Wald. But when you were the Scots, they just sort of walled you out and mounted guard.
Apparently this rather annoyed Septimius Severus, a very militarily successful emperor after he sort of killed his way to the purple in 193 AD. He walloped Germans, Gauls, and especially the Parthians, capturing various capital cities and expanding the Empire almost to its maximum size under Trajan nearly a century earlier, before coming to Britain, strengthening Hadrian’s Wall, reoccupying the Antonine Wall further north (between the Firth of Forth and the Firth of Clyde, it was built 20 years after Hadrian’s, begun in 142 AD and finished about 12 years later, but of wood and turf not stone, and abandoned in 162 AD because fighting the Scots was a wearying business they never seemed to get tired of.
Anyway, Severus showed up in 208 with a big army, determined to put a stop to all that nonsense… and died. Not of angry armed Scotsman but of illness, at what was then Eboracum but now York. And with his death the empire fell into political turmoil as his son Caracalla had his own brother assassinated, before governing so horribly that he was assassinated six years later, probably at the instigation of his successor Macrinus who lasted a year before being deposed and killed. By that point conquering Scotland kind of got lost in the bottom of the inbox.
Suppose it hadn’t. Suppose Severus hadn’t died when he did. He was not an old man by any means when he died. He was just 66. (You may have swallowed the progressive modern tale that life expectancy was terribly low in the bad old days, also known as virtually all of human existence, but it wasn’t. Infant mortality was high, but if you made it to 20, you had a decent chance of seeing 70.) What if he’d led the legions north, or at least sent them there, with the same energy he’d exhibited in walloping all sorts of other tough adversaries?
Well, maybe he would have failed. Maybe there’d have been a Bannocoburnus battle equivalent to the Teutoburger Forest. Maybe he’d personally have been killed. Or maybe he’d have succeeded, and brought the Scots into Roman Britain for a few centuries. If so it would, I think, have changed the place dramatically and with it the course of world history in which, at least over the last 1,000 years, the UK and its English-speaking offshoots loom so large.
Remember, the Romans were in Britain for nearly 400 years. The distance between Claudius’ conquest of Britain in 43 A.D. (after Julius Caesar’s various raids a century earlier) and the final departure of the legions around 410 was as great as between today and the beheading of Charles I. And it profoundly shaped Britain, mostly for the better.
Mind you, Britain wouldn’t be Britain without its wild Scots strain. The union of the two, though in oddly bad odour today, seems to me to have brought both the English and the Scots to heights neither could have achieved alone, and the Welsh. (I grant that Catholic Ireland’s history as part of the UK, and the antecedents to its incorporation, were much less happy.) And I think it worked partly because of complimentary strengths, including what may overbroadly be called a fusion of northern energy with southern self-control. But possibly the alchemy would have worked 1500 years earlier.
I don’t really have a strong feeling either way. But it does remind us that while history really is composed of “forces” and logical causes, of lasting cultural patterns and influences that assert themselves over centuries, the actions of individuals do matter too. Even when they consist of going “I don’t feel so good” and then perishing.