A Roman reference to Pictish tattoos


Flavius Stilicho, with his wife and son, portrayed on an ivory carving of c.395 AD, now in Monza Cathedral, Italy. (photograph from L’art Byzantin, 1932)

At the end of the fourth century AD, the western half of the Roman Empire was in serious decline. Barbarian invasions by Vandals, Goths and other Germanic peoples were a constant drain on imperial resources. Internal revolts likewise removed any hope of stability or recovery. The emperor Honorius, whose reign spanned the years 384 to 423, was barely able to cling onto power. He relied heavily on the support of his father-in-law and former guardian, Flavius Stilicho, a highly respected general who was himself of Vandal ancestry.

A prominent figure at the imperial court was the poet Claudian (Claudius Claudianus) who was close to both Honorius and Stilicho. He composed panegyric poetry in praise of both men, boosting their reputations while denigrating those of their political opponents. In modern parlance we would probably call him a spin doctor. In one poem, composed in May or June of 402, Claudian refers to a great gathering of Roman troops by Stilicho, who was preparing for a battle against Gothic invaders in Italy. Among the assembled forces was a unit that had seen service in Britain:

‘there came the legion, shield of the frontier Britons,
check of the grim Scot,
whose men had watched the life leave the tattoos on the dying Pict.’

Contemporary sources imply that there were many clashes between Romans and Picts, from the late third century to the beginning of the fifth. Several legions were part of the permanent garrison of Britain during this period and would have seen action on the northern frontier. Also, other legions came and went, usually to bolster the garrison in times of crisis or to participate in one-off campaigns. The identity of the legion mentioned by Claudian is therefore unknown.

But what makes these lines of verse especially fascinating is the reference to Pictish tattoos.

The precise meaning of the name ‘Picts’ (Latin: Picti) is uncertain. It seems to be connected with pictures of some kind and is usually translated by modern historians as ‘The Painted Ones’. The likeliest explanation is that it refers to a particular custom practiced by certain groups of people in northern Britain. Tattooing is probably the custom in question.

Pricking an inked design on the skin, as opposed to daubing or painting, had evidently been common practice in pre-Roman Britain, before the stamp of Mediterranean culture made it unfashionable. It may have been maintained thereafter among native communities living outside the Empire, in the untamed northern lands beyond the Forth-Clyde isthmus. Further south, in the Romanised part of Britain, tattoos probably came to be regarded as old-fashioned and uncouth, a form of body ornamentation favoured by hairy savages who lurked beyond the reach of civilisation.

Pictish warrior

A Pictish warrior, from Cassell’s Illustrated History of England.

At some point, probably in the third century, soldiers in the frontier forts along Hadrian’s Wall coined the term Picti. This may have originated as a derogatory term for any group of suspicious-looking natives prowling on the far side of the Wall, whether they had tattoos or not. The name caught on, finding its way from army slang into highbrow literature. It eventually narrowed to describe the inhabitants of what are now northern and eastern Scotland. By c.600 AD, and for reasons unknown, these people were using Picti as a collective name for themselves. Despite its origins in the vocabulary of their ancient enemies, they presumably regarded it as a convenient label in their quest to establish a new ‘national’ identity. Whether any seventh-century Picts still tattooed their bodies is, however, a matter of debate. I’m inclined to think some of them probably did.

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Notes and references

Here is the original Latin text from Claudian’s poem:

venit et extremis legio praetenta Britannis,
quae Scotto dat frena truci ferroque notatas
perlegit exanimes Picto moriente figuras

*ferroque notatas….figuras —> literally ‘iron-marked figures’

In another poem, Claudian seems to credit Stilicho with a victory over the Picts. There is no mention of such a campaign in other sources, so it might be an example of political ‘spin’. It is unlikely that Stilicho ever visited Britain. He was mainly concerned with Italy and the eastern Mediterranean.

I discussed Stilicho’s alleged Pictish campaign in an article published 20 years ago:
Tim Clarkson, ‘Stilicho, Claudian and the Picts’ Pictish Arts Society Journal, 6 (Autumn 1994), 27-30

My views were largely based on an earlier study:
Molly Miller, ‘Stilicho’s Pictish War’ Britannia, 6 (1975), 141-5
(Miller is probably better known to readers of this blog for her articles on the North British kingdoms of the sixth century)

The Scots mentioned by Claudian were as likely to have hailed from Ireland as from the ancestral Scottish homelands in Argyll. The Latin word Scotti seems to have been another ethnic term from the repertoire of Roman army slang. It was probably applied to any group of raiders who spoke Gaelic. I touched on this topic in an older blogpost on Scottish origins.

For a detailed analysis of Claudian’s poetry, see Alan Cameron’s Claudian: Poetry and Propaganda at the Court of Honorius (Oxford, 1970).

Chapter 3 of my book The Picts: a History includes a short discussion of Pictish tattooing. There I note that the seventh-century writer Isidore of Seville specifically states that the Picts were so named because they used needles to imprint designs on their skin.

* * * * * * *

13 comments on “A Roman reference to Pictish tattoos

  1. I had forgotten about the Picts and their tattoos. Intriguing possibility of how their name was bestowed.

    • Tim says:

      Yes, and the wider subject of tattooing in early medieval Britain is pretty interesting. I’ve only skimmed the surface in this blogpost. A lot more could be said.

  2. Interesting that the historical Patrick, writing roughly contemprary (and despite being a Romano- Briton, didn’t learn Latin until later in life) calls them Picts too. For someone who seems to have grown up in an area close enough to have experienced/witnessed Pictish activity, he has no love lost for them at all. His use of the term suggests that there was no other one more suitable for their designation among Insular Britons, at least.

    • Also, elsewhere, Claudian seems to specifically associate Scotti with ‘all hivernia’/Ireland…

    • Tim says:

      Thanks for these comments, Terry. I also tend to see Patrick as a northerner, maybe from somewhere not far from the Clyde. In any case, as you suggest, his understanding of what ‘Pict’ meant to a fifth-century Briton must have been shaped by his own geographical background. So, if he hailed from some southern area like Wales or the Cotswolds, his definition of Pictishness was probably a bit hazy. But if his origins lay in the North, he presumably had a more precise notion of what differentiated a Pict from a northern Briton. I expect Coroticus used a similar set of ethnic/cultural definitions, or the Letter’s reference to Picts would have lost its impact. I do however wonder if he and his men actually used the term ‘Picts’ in face-to-face dealings with their slave-trading associates. Perhaps not, if it still carried negative Roman-era connotations.

  3. It is of course possible that the Romans would refer to tattoos as pictures, but using paint was not uncommon among Celtic tribes, especially when at war. The ‘iron marked’ refrence makes me think of brandishing rather than of tattooing. I’m not sure why the name Picti is supposed to be ‘shrouded in mystery:’ as any Latin reader knows it literally means ‘painted ones’.

    • Tim says:

      Thank you for spotting the ambiguity. I have now edited the post to remove it.

      Most of the English translations I’ve seen do interpret ‘iron marked’ as tattooing, but I suppose other interpretations are possible and should be kept in mind. Some of the Classical references to Celtic war-paint don’t make clear whether pricking or merely daubing the skin is meant.

  4. Why do we assume that the name ‘Picti’ was bestowed upon the Picts by the Romans? If we accept that the Picts did decorate their bodies (by whatever means) presumably that was important to them, and so they might well have called themselves the Painted people and the Romans just picked up on that.

    • Tim says:

      This may well be true, Chris. I toyed with the possibility in my book, wondering if the Picts’ own name for themselves in pre-Roman times sounded (to Roman ears) like the Latin word Picti and essentially meant the same thing.

  5. henrywgc says:

    ‘…ferroque notatas perlegit exanimes Picto moriente figuras’ suggests branding rather than tattoooing?

    • Tim says:

      Certainly a possible alternative, Henry. I imagine precedents/examples might be found in ancient history, or in modern anthropological studies.

  6. Jock Grant says:

    Or as Commentāriī dē Bellō Gallicō would have it , “… designs carved into their faces by iron…”

    • Tim says:

      Thanks for mentioning this, Jock. It conjures an image of facial scarring, a well-attested practice in some parts of the world even in recent times.

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