Friday, June 29, 2018

"Hand of God" discovered near Hadrian's Wall.

Despite coming up during the World Cup this is nothing to do with Argentina's football team. It is a relic of what was probably both the largest military campaign, and the worst massacre, in the history of the British Isles.

Between 208 AD and 2010 AD the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus personally led about 50,000 troops into Scotland on a punitive mission, claiming that Scottish tribes had reneged on a peace agreement. Roman historians recorded that there had been a big increase in Caledonian raids into the Roman province of Britain: the Scottish side of the story might have portrayed a different tale but has not come down to us. This is an example of history being written by the victors (or at least, the survivors.)

The contemporary Roman historian Cassius Dio puts into the mouth of the Roman Emperor a speech to his troops which is tantamount to ordering genocide. Parts of this speech appears to have been lifted from Homer's account of the fall of Troy which was about as far in the past in Cassius Dio's time as he is looking back from ours. However, given the ancient Roman propensity for extreme violence towards peoples they considered rebels or traitors, it may not be far from the truth of the orders he gave. According to Cassius Dio, the Emperor instructed his troops to leave nobody alive, not even the children in their mother's wombs, and that "The whole people must be wiped out of existence."

No credible figures are available for the number of casualties on either side, but given that the death tolls which we do have for other campaigns in which Roman armies were given those kind of orders were sometimes measured in the hundreds of thousands, as in the destruction of Carthage, Julius Caesar's massacre of the Rhineland Tribes, and in putting down the first and second Jewish revolts, it is entirely possible that the death toll may have been even worse than in William the Conqueror's harrowing of the north.

A bronze hand, representing the hand of the god Jupiter Dolichenus, which was recently discovered near Hadrian's Wall was probably ritually buried by one of the Roman commanders who took part in Septimius's invasion of Scotland in thanksgiving for victory, or for the survival of himself and his unit.

This relic of one of the largest and bloodiest campaigns in Roman History is now on display at the Museum on the site of the former Virolanda fort on  Hadrian's Wall near Hexham.

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