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Marcus Cocceius Firmus - A SALTY TALE

Every so often, in the course of our research, a chance find can lead to the realisation of a significant discovery. This is one such occasion.

Alan Braby brings us the fascinating, salty tale of a Roman in Scotland who offers us an intriguing and important insight into our area of interest.

Marcus Cocceius Firmus, was a Roman centurion of the 2nd Legion Augusta, a name that would have been assigned to obscurity if he hadn't dedicated a series of altars at the fort of Auchendavy on the Antonine Wall, where he was based, sometime in the 2nd century AD. 

In doing so, in a way he could never have imagined, he would give us the first documentary evidence of salt production in Scotland.

His Altars were rediscovered in 1771, and were dedicated to a plethora of Roman and native gods. From an absolutely fantastic trail of detective work by the late Eric Birely, published in 1936, based on the altars and other surveying dedications from him, we can reconstruct his life.

He was, it would seem, born in the Danube province of the empire, he joined the Equites Singulares, the cavalry of the emperors guard, basically on a par with the Pretorian Guard, after serving with them he was promoted to a centurion of the 2nd Augusta Legion. After his service in the legion he retired and returned home, to what is modern Romania, as evidenced  by another discovery of an altar he set up there!

But what’s all this got to do with Salt? 

Well, it would seem that, while stationed on the Antonine wall, he owned a slave, who, what ever her crime was, was sentenced to work in a salt works for the duration of her sentence. From the salt works she was captured by a raiding tribe and then sold on!

Cocceius Firmus was eventually able to buy her back, and because the salt works were 'state owned ' he was able to claim compensation from the state for this expense.

It is truly remarkable that all the legal documents relating to this still survive!

As for the location of this 'state owned' salt works; Eric Birely, based on the documentary evidence of it, suggests  it was north of the Antonine Wall where  Cocceius Firmus based, and in all probability somewhere along the north coast of the Firth of Forth

Alas, as yet, there is no archaeological evidence for its precise location. Apart from putative iron age evidence of Briquetage (pots for making salt in) from North Berwick Law in East Lothian, this is the first definitive evidence of the Scottish salt industry.

For more on the salt industry in Scotland, visit the 1722 Waggonway Heritage Centre in Cockenzie.

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