Vindolanda (G-B) : Roman ‘hand of god’ discovered near Hadrian’s Wall sheds light on biggest combat operation ever in UK

Made of 2.3 kilos of solid bronze, sculpture going on permanent display at Vindolanda Museum

David Keys

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Hand cleaned back 0The bronze hand of the Roman god, Jupiter Dolichenus, buried 1800 years ago as a thanksgiving for Roman victory after one of the bloodiest wars ever to take place on British soil ( Photos Vindolanda Trust )

Archaeologists have discovered an ancient Roman “hand of god” – but the story it tells is tragically anything but heavenly.

The hand – unearthed near Hadrian’s Wall and made of 2.3 kilos of solid bronze – was almost certainly a gift to a military deity for giving the Romans victory in the largest military combat operation ever carried out in Britain, before or since.

The operation – a relatively little-known Roman invasion of Scotland in 209-210 AD – was also probably one of the bloodiest events in British history.

It involved a 50,000 strong Roman invasion force, elements of which penetrated as far north as Aberdeenshire. It’s likely that thousands of tribespeople in what is now Scotland (mainly from the Caledonian and Maeatae tribal confederations) were killed.

The Romans claimed that the native chieftains had reneged on a peace agreement – and were therefore rebels, not just ordinary enemies. It is likely that the sacred bronze hand was ritually buried by one of the Roman commanders who had taken part in the conflict.

Rome’s indignation (feigned or real), over the natives reneging on the peace agreement, was particularly acute because the 50,000 strong invasion had been led by none other than the reigning emperor himself – an ex-general called Septimius Severus. His personal political credibility was therefore very much at stake. The war, associated with the newly discovered bronze “hand of god”, was therefore a particularly bitter one.

To evoke the anger apparently felt by the Romans, a famous Roman writer of the time, Cassius Dio, when writing his account of the conflict, put a particularly bloodcurdling speech (borrowed from the Iliad – the epic ancient Greek tale of the Trojan War, traditionally ascribed to Homer) into the mouth of the Emperor.

In Dio’s account, the borrowed speech instructs the Roman army to annihilate the Scottish tribes. “We are not going to leave a single one of them alive, down to the babies in their mothers’ wombs – not even they must live. The whole people must be wiped out of existence, with none to shed a tear for them, leaving no trace.”

Although the Emperor almost certainly never made such a speech, it was nevertheless a literary device used by Dio to describe the vengeful fury that he arguably believed or knew that the Emperor felt towards the ‘rebellious’ Caledonian and Maeatae tribes.

This anger would have been particularly substantial because Roman casualties had been extremely high.

Certainly the parallels for extreme Roman violence towards perceived rebels (for example the mass executions of Spartacus’ rebel slaves in 71 BC and of Jewish rebels in 70 AD) would suggest that the bloodcurdling flavour of Dio’s description of the emperor’s purported speech to his troops may not have been too far off the mark.

The bronze hand, which had been deposited in a ritually significant boggy area of land adjacent to a Roman fort at Vindolanda on Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland shortly after the end of the conflict, was associated with a Roman god of Middle Eastern origin called Jupiter Dolichenus (originally a local Syrian version of the Roman king of the gods, Jupiter).

This specific version of Jupiter was particularly beloved by the Roman military. His bronze hand was often mounted on the top of a poll – and used to bless or sanctify his followers during religious rituals inside his temples.

It had been deposited in a small bog almost certainly as part of a religious ritual to mark the completion of a temple dedicated to the god just 15m away.

The cult must have been particularly important to the regiment based at Vindolanda or its commander – because the temple was very unusually built inside the fort. It is the only example of such a phenomenon known from anywhere in the Roman empire.

The regiment based there was a Gaulish (French) originating unit of auxiliary infantry and cavalry – known as the fourth cohort of Gauls. 

Its commanding officer, a wealthy upper-class Roman called Sulpicius Pudens (potentially the one in post when the temple was constructed and the bronze hand deposited) appears to have been a particularly devoted follower of the cult. He personally funded one of the two main altars inside the Vindolanda Fort temple and another altar (probably also associated with Jupiter Dolichenus) at a nearby sulphur spring.

The unique decision (possibly by Sulpicius Pudens himself) to build the temple inside the fort and the associated ritual deposition of the god’s bronze hand – both immediately following the end of the largest military combat operation ever to take place in Britain – was almost certainly not a coincidence.

Hand cleaned front 0It is likely that the hand was ritually buried by one of the Roman commanders who took part in the conflict (Vindolanda Trust)

As probable thanksgivings for survival and victory, they represent additional evidence of the epic and almost certainly particularly brutal nature of the military campaign.

Roman military operations varied considerably in terms of their treatment of rebel and other populations.

Occasionally, they were particularly brutal and more rarely downright genocidal. The most lethal campaigns in Roman history included the siege and complete destruction of Carthage (146 BC) in which 200,000 people died, the mass crucifixion of 6,000 captured slaves at the end of Spartacus’ war (71 BC), Julius Caesar ‘s massacre of the Rhineland tribes (55 BC) in which up to 400,000 were killed, the Jewish revolt of 70 AD in which hundreds of thousands died (including thousands of prisoners who were crucified) and the second Jewish revolt of 132-135 AD in which up to 600,000 died.

The campaign in Scotland was unusually massive, emperor-led and probably very aggressive and brutal – but no credible figures on casualties on either side have survived and may indeed never even have been aggregated and recorded.

Certainly, just prior to the main huge invasion, the Romans switched tactics from paying diplomatic bribes and sweeteners to Scotland’s tribes to carrying out overt military actions. Some of the diplomatic bribes – hoards of Roman silver coins – are on show at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

8 s severusA coin discovered at Vindolanda. It features a portrait of the Roman emperor SeptimiusSeverus – the man who ordered and led the invasion (Vindolanda Trust)

Archaeological evidence (the locations of diplomatic gifts of silver coinage pre-and post invasion) also suggests that the war permanently altered the geopolitical tribal balance – so it is therefore likely that specific tribal groups were at least politically (and possibly physically) neutralised from the regions geopolitical equations.

It was almost certainly one of the most brutal military campaigns ever fought on British soil. It’s likely that future archaeological investigations over the coming years will reveal the full horror of this long-forgotten conflict,” said archaeologist and historian Dr Simon Elliott, author of a new book on the war, Septimius Severus in Scotland: the Northern Campaigns of the First Hammer of the Scots.

Fascinatingly and ironically, it is likely that the Roman invasion of Scotland which was meant to solve military and political problems (and partially succeeded in doing so for several decades) destabilised and destroyed the Scottish geopolitical status quo and ultimately helped lead to the rise of the Picts who in the end constituted a much greater threat to Roman Britain and ultimately helped destroy it. Although the invasion and its consequences occurred more than 1500 years ago, they demonstrate how military actions that may appear logical at the time often end up having longer term implications that the politicians (in this case a Roman emperor) had not envisaged or prepared for.

In this case, Septimius Severus died before the conflict had been fully resolved – and his sons, who succeeded him, had absolutely no interest in Britain and quickly returned to the fraught political rather than military fray in Rome (the elder son murdering his younger brother just 11 months after their father’s death).

The discovery of Jupiter Dolichenus’ bronze hand, deposited as a thanksgiving offering, demonstrates just how serious the conflict was and how relieved the Roman soldiers were that it had ended,” says Dr Andrew Birley, director of the Vindolanda excavations.

It is further evidence illustrating how deeply religious they were and how seriously they took their relationship with their god,” he says.