The purpose of this paper was primarily to promote the idea of a Roman naval presence in Shetland, specifically in a harbour sufficiently noteworthy to merit the attention of Tacitus, to identify the Thule of Pytheas as the Thule of Tacitus, i.e. Shetland, accessible because of its reasonable proximity to Caledonia, and to explain how Caledonia fits into the context of the late first century poetic tradition. These objectives can only be attained by a re-appraisal of the relevant literary sources, the Greek and Roman geographers for locating and identifying Thule, and the late Silver Age poets (all part and parcel of the same social and literary establishment) for alluding to the role of Agricola and his predecessors as Vespasian's agents. As for Tacitus, we should not accuse him of conciseness or obscurity because we cannot find the answer ourselves. Whatever charges may be brought against him should be based on distortion of historical truth. Although not everyone may agree with the points raised here, any evaluation must take into account what others have written upon the same topic. My intention was to question the validity of some dubious textual readings, to generate further enquiry, to stimulate more intensive investigation into Flavian military policy and to give the inhabitants of Shetland an opportunity to claim that ultima Thule did on one occasion at least come within the ambit of Rome.
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PART ONE: Shetland: The Classical Geographical Context
Copyright © 2002 by Stan Wolfson. All rights reserved.