Picts and Spooks

I’m quite a fan of the UK television drama “Spooks” about the British secret service MI5 whose function is to protect Britain from internal and external threats. In some episodes previously-loyal MI5 operatives turn rogue and start working for the enemy (usually the Russian secret service). This type of double-agent storyline has a curiously similar parallel from early Scottish history, from the final years of Roman rule in Britain.

In the 4th century Rome had long since given up any hope of conquering Scotland, a country whose landscape and people provided serious obstacles to ambitious Roman generals and their armies. The imperial frontier lay instead along Hadrian’s Wall whose forts were supported by others in the hinterland behind. Beyond the wall, in what is now the Anglo-Scottish border region, only four outpost forts remained in use. This area was effectively a buffer zone between Hadrian’s Wall and the long-disused Antonine Wall further north. Its inhabitants were tribes of native Britons ruled by their own kings under the watchful eye of the outpost forts. These kings were probably paid by Rome to serve as a first line of defence in the event of enemy raids from the far north where, in the wild highlands beyond the decaying turf ramparts of the Antonine Wall, lurked the Picts – a confederacy of warlike tribes who posed the greatest threat to Roman Britain.

The Romans were not, however, content to merely wait for a Pictish attack and react to it when it happened. They needed advance warning so that they could muster their troops in the right places or send out a squadron of warships to ambush a pirate raid. To this end they relied on a “secret service” called the arcani or areani whose role was described thus by the contemporary historian Ammianus Marcellinus: ‘Their function was to circulate over a wide area and report to our generals any threatening movements among the neighbouring tribes.’ This is clearly a job description for secret agents operating undercover behind enemy lines and would not look out of place today in an MI5 mission statement. Little wonder, then, that some modern historians refer to the arcani/areani as the Roman CIA.

So, why the uncertainty over the name? The problem arises from two possible readings of the only surviving text of Ammianus, a somewhat corrupt and incomplete copy written in the 9th century. Editors of this text are unsure as to whether arcani or areani is the original form as used by the author. Some prefer to read the word as arcani with its connotations of secrecy as represented in modern English by the term arcane; others suggest areani as the correct reading, translating it as a Latin word meaning “men of the sheepfolds” which might fit the image of covert military agents disguised as shepherds or farmers. Unless by some miraculous chance another manuscript of Ammianus appears, or a relevant inscription is unearthed at a Roman fort, we will never be certain which spelling is correct.

Unfortunately for this shadowy organisation its sole mention in the contemporary literary record is a negative one. Its agents, Ammianus tells us, were in league with the Picts and passed on vital information about the disposition of Roman troops on the northern frontier. Armed with this knowledge the Picts got together with other fierce peoples – including the Scots and Saxons – to plan a wave of simultaneous attacks on Roman Britain. The result was the infamous Barbarian Conspiracy of AD 367 which took the imperial forces completely by surprise and plunged the Romanised south of the island into turmoil.

To deal with the crisis Rome sent the renowned general Count Theodosius to Britain at the head of an elite force. He soon restored order and, after expelling the barbarian marauders, swiftly identified the traitors among the secret service. According to Ammianus these double-agents ‘were clearly convicted of having been bribed by gifts or promises of large rewards to pass to the barbarians regular information about what we were doing.’ Surprisingly, given the depth of their treachery, they received a fairly light punishment: Theodosius merely kicked them out of their jobs. What happened to these “Roman Spooks” afterwards is unknown but I imagine them turning up eventually in the Highlands to sup a few drams of Speyside malt with their old Pictish buddies.


Ammianus Marcellinus, The Later Roman Empire, AD 354-378. Translation by Walter Hamilton (Harmondsworth, 1986), Book 28:3 (at pages 357-8 in this edition)


6 comments on “Picts and Spooks

  1. Michelle says:

    I think men among the sheepfolds makes more sense. Perhaps meaning mean hidden among the sheepfolds, like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. 🙂

    Interesting though that the Gododdin, Strathclyde and maybe Rheged were among the Britons who were probably paid to guard the Roman boarder.

    I always have to wonder how the Saxons got involved in this particular raid.

  2. Badon Hill is in Mexico says:

    I do believe Britain was attacked from many sides simultaneously rather than a huge confederacy of Barbarians,sort of bad timing for Rome i guess.

    The usual idea is the Areani were established by the Emperor Constans and some have suggested possibly after his somewhat mysterious visit to our shores in 343.If the Areani were `border spies` as such my own theory has always been they were Irish federates rather than any imperial elite troop.Most of Rome`s stationary army were the Limitanei,who were more of a Holding troop rather than an all conquering field force and that is what we would expect of troops holding the wall.Having federate troops as `buffers` to the wall certainly would fit in of the tactics of Fourth Century Rome.

  3. Tim says:

    Interesting theory about the areani/arcani being Irish federates. I’ve seen the federates idea before but without an ethnic origin specified. Their role would then presumably be scouting rather than spying, a bit like the *exploratores* of the outpost forts (e.g. Netherby, north of Carlisle) or – to suggest a more modern analogy – the rangers of the Anglo-French wars in 18th century America.

  4. Tim says:

    I like Michelle’s idea about “wolves in sheep’s clothing” as the possible intended meaning of *areani*. That kind of tongue-in-cheek image would sit quite well with Roman military slang terms such as *Picti* (Picts, i.e. Painted People).

    The Votadini/Gododdin are usually thought of as being on the Roman payroll, though whether the hoard of silver unearthed at the Traprain Law hillfort represents payment rather than loot is still unclear.

  5. Badon Hill is in Mexico says:

    Well Ireland as you probably well know has far greater links with Caledonia that go much further back than Dal Riada.What is of interest is the various migrations? or settlement of Irish colonies on the west coasts of most of Brittania.Political exiles? or Federates happy to settle on Roman soil in exchange for Millitary service?

    The word Votadini crops up far too often when talking of late Antiquity especially when mentioned in the same context as Cunedda.Whilst Nennius credited Cunedda as coming from Manau Goddodin and driving the Irish from North Wales it may be that Cunedda himself was Irish or at least his ancestry was? Of course people have pointed to his grandfather Padarn Beisrudd as Cunedda having possibly a Roman prefect in his family.This is absoloute nonsense as if Cunedda were a `Briton` so to speak he would have served elsewhere than his home country and most `Praefectori` were appointed from officials from the Eastern provinces.The whole story of Cunedda/Votadini/and Irish Invasion of Gwynedd is another story for another day though.
    Were Votadini and Goddodin the same? I tend to believe not.

    Anyway another idea behind the Areani is they were Germanic federates,perhaps Alemanni? We do know that many did serve in the Roman army at this time.

  6. Tim says:

    There seems to be no doubt about Votadini and Gododdin being the same. At least, I don’t recall seeing any doubts in the literature. The linguistic process Votadini->Guotodin->Gododdin (with an Irish variant Fothudan) was supported by Kenneth Jackson and other eminent philologists in the last century and seems to be holding up today.

    As for Cunedda and Padarn etc, I agree that their alleged Roman connections look very tenuous. The idea of Cunedda being a real person has far fewer adherents now than a generation ago. He looks more and more like a mythological figure created by Welsh genealogists around c.800.

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