A Roman reference to Pictish tattoos

Stilicho

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.

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Bits & pieces

Hadrian's Wall

Hadrian’s Wall (see fourth item below). Photo © B Keeling.


Just a random selection of interesting items….

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‘Cult and Kingship – Understanding the Early Pictish Royal Centre at Rhynie’ was the title of a paper presented by Dr Gordon Noble of Aberdeen University to the Royal Scone Conference. A video of this and other presentations can now be viewed at the blog of archaeologist Doug Rocks-Macqueen.

Scone with its ‘Stone of Destiny’ is famous as the place where medieval Scottish kings were crowned. The conference Royal Scone: A Scottish Medieval Royal Centre in Europe, held in Perth in November 2014, sought to better understand this important site by placing it in a wider North European context. Scholars from Scotland and beyond came together to discuss themes such as royal inauguration, state-formation and the archaeology of assembly places.

This is the kind of event I’m always sorry to miss 😦

Link Papers from the Royal Scone Conference, 2014.

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Here’s something else I’d like to see, if I can get to it between now and May…

Roman Empire: Power And People, McManus Art Gallery and Museum, Dundee. 24 January to 10 May, 2015. Mon-Sat: 10am-5pm; Sunday: 12.30-4.30pm.

This exhibition of sculpture, jewellery and other items from the British Museum is a showcase of the wealth of the Roman Empire. Material from outlying territories such as Scotland is also included.

Below are links to two media reports on the exhibition, followed by a link to the McManus itself.

Report from Herald Scotland website

Report from BBC News: Tayside & Central Scotland

McManus Art Gallery & Museum

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James Drummond was a renowned Scottish artist and antiquarian of the Victorian era. His illustrations of historic sites and old monuments include a number of images relating to the time-period covered at this blog.

A selection of Drummond’s work can now be seen at the Canmore database after being digitised by trainees on the RCAHMS Skills for the Future scheme. I spotted a couple of images with early medieval connections: the Cat Stane (although Drummond didn’t show the Early Christian inscription) and the Loth Stane (where the legendary King Loth of Lothian is supposedly buried). There are also some nice pictures of standing-stones from various parts of Scotland.

Link Highlights from the James Drummond Collection at RCAHMS

Link ‘Fine lines: Edinburgh-born James Drummond’s art digitised’ (BBC News)

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‘Wall of Eternity’ is the new name for Hadrian’s Wall in promotional literature to Chinese tourists.

The name emerged as the top choice during a poll in China which asked people to suggest suitable names in Mandarin for 101 tourist sites in Britain. A sign featuring the new name has already been produced for the Roman fort at Housesteads.

I quite like one of the alternative suggestions – ‘Great Wall of Britain’ – but I have to admit ‘Wall of Eternity’ does sound more evocative.

Link ‘Hadrian’s Wall given new Chinese name as part of tourism campaign’ (article in the Newcastle Chronicle)

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Last but not least, a new location for a popular blog…

Historical novelist Nicola Griffith has recently moved her excellent Gemaecca site to WordPress where it can now be found at gemaecce.com (note the different spelling). Fellow-bloggers will need to amend their links accordingly, to keep track of Nicola’s research on St Hild of Whitby and seventh-century Britain.

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A Pictish hoard from Aberdeenshire

Later this month, a new exhibition will be unveiled at the University of Aberdeen. Among the displays will be a number of items from one of Scotland’s most significant archaeological discoveries of recent times: a hoard of Roman and Pictish silver objects.

The hoard was found in March 2013 in a field at Ley Farm near Fordyce in Aberdeenshire. It was discovered by metal detectorist Alistair McPherson who was searching the area with a team of archaeologists from the National Museums of Scotland and Aberdeen University’s ‘Northern Picts’ project. Comprising more than 100 items – including coins, brooches and bracelets – the hoard is currently being examined by specialists at NMS. Many of the items are broken or folded, suggesting that the silver was earmarked for recycling into new objects or for distribution via trading networks. Moulds for metalworking have been found at the important Pictish settlement of Rhynie, about 20 miles to the south, and may give an indication of how the silver from the hoard would have been used if it had been melted down rather than buried.

Gaulcross Pictish hoard

The discovery was made near the site of two stone circles formerly known as North Gaulcross and South Gaulcross. Little trace of these monuments survives today but the northern circle yielded a hoard of Pictish silver nearly 200 years ago. This treasure, often described as the ‘Gaulcross Hoard’, was unearthed in the 1830s during agricultural improvement work. Unfortunately, only three objects – a pin, a chain and a bracelet – were preserved for future generations by being presented to the museum at Banff. The rest were lost or destroyed.

Gaulcross Pictish hoard

Silver chain and pin from the 19th century Gaulcross Hoard (illustration in John Stuart’s Sculptured Stones of Scotland)

A selection of items from the new Gaulcross hoard will be displayed in the King’s Museum at Aberdeen University as part of the exhibition Crafting Kingdoms: the Rise of the Northern Picts which runs from 20 January to 31 May 2015.

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Notes & links

Webpage for the exhibition Crafting Kingdoms: the Rise of the Northern Picts

The older hoard discovered in the nineteenth century was described by RBK Stevenson & J Emery, `The Gaulcross hoard of Pictish silver’ Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, vol. 97 (1966), 206-11. [full text available online, as are many other old articles from PSAS]

Site record for Gaulcross at the RCAHMS Canmore database.

Three reports on the new Gaulcross hoard from the University of Aberdeen, the Megalithic Portal and BBC News.

Hoards are quite a hot topic on this blog at the moment. Last autumn I wrote about the discovery of a hoard of Viking treasure in South West Scotland.

Rhynie also got mentioned here last year, in a couple of blogposts, one of which looked at a famous Pictish monument known as the Craw Stane.

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Antonine Wall website

Antonine Wall Rough Castle

The Antonine Wall at Rough Castle near Bonnybridge (© B Keeling)


A new website for the Antonine Wall was launched last month, giving this famous Roman monument some well-deserved publicity by promoting it as a major heritage attraction. With fewer surviving traces than Hadrian’s Wall – most of which was constructed in stone – the turf-built Antonine frontier is a less visible feature of the landscape. In some places the remains of its ancient, grass-covered earthworks blend with the surrounding terrain. Nevertheless, it has much to offer the visitor, as the new website makes clear.

I recommend having a look around the website, which is nicely designed and easy to navigate. It’s worth bookmarking for content updates and for news of heritage events. In one section the site is described as ‘a host of resources and information for anyone planning a trip to the Antonine Wall or researching its history’. I’d say this is a pretty accurate description.

Highlights include ‘Top Ten Things To Do’ which is a good summary of the best-preserved locations, such as the still-impressive ramparts at Rough Castle and the bath-house at Bearsden. For anyone planning a visit there’s an interactive map with all the main locations marked. Another section lays out the historical background with pages on ‘The Romans in Scotland’, ‘Living on the Wall’ and other key topics.

Here’s the link…

The Antonine Wall: Frontiers of the Roman Empire

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The Imaginary Hadrian’s Wall

Hadrian's Wall
One aspect of the current debate on Scottish independence is the depiction of Hadrian’s Wall as a symbolic boundary between England and Scotland. Newspaper journalists and other media folk, especially those based in London, seem to like the idea of an Anglo-Scottish border defined by a massive stone rampart. The fact that the Wall has never marked the actual Border is evidently less important than its value as a symbolic frontier between North and South, between ‘Us and Them’. This is nothing new, of course. Back in the sixth century, a writer called Gildas used the Wall for a similar rhetorical purpose. Gildas presented it as a barrier between the Romanised Britons and the barbarous Picts whom he regarded as pagan savages lurking in the untamed, unchristianised northern lands. As far as he was concerned, Hadrian’s Wall was designed to keep the Picts at a safe distance. Not strictly correct, but it made a good tale for his readers. In common with some present-day journalists, Gildas didn’t really know much about the history of the Wall, but its solid permanence helped him to make a point about the difference between Us and Them.

Hadrian's Wall
In a recent article at the Almost Archaeology blog, Adrián Maldonado looks at the various ways in which Hadrian’s Wall has been perceived since Roman times. He considers the monument’s use as a symbol – not only in modern political writing but also in fictional narratives such as movies. Along the way he examines how people living north of the Wall have often been portrayed according to a stereotype – the ‘blue-painted ginger maniac’ – which is still a familiar caricature. Variations on the theme turn up in movies such as Braveheart, King Arthur and Centurion (see image below).

Centurion movie

Adrián’s article is well worth reading – a fine blend of ancient history, modern politics and movie criticism. Take a look and share it around.

Adrián Maldonado: The Imaginary Hadrian’s Wall: Archaeology and the Matter of Britain

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Big Roman Week

Antoninus Pius

Antoninus Pius


Antoninus Pius, the Roman emperor who commissioned the Antonine Wall, was born on 19 September in AD 86. His birthday is marked in the Falkirk district by an annual event celebrating the local Roman heritage, which includes a section of the Wall. This year the ‘Big Roman Week’ takes place from 14-22 September. It offers a good mix of interesting activities and is well worth a visit.

In fact, the whole thing sounds great and I really wish I could turn up for a day or two. It’s such a brilliant way of enabling people to engage with their area’s ancient history. The event is co-ordinated by The Friends of Kinneil, a local heritage group involved with the Kinneil estate at Bo’ness on the southern shore of the Firth of Forth.

Here’s a link to the list of events in Big Roman Week

and a link to The Friends of Kinneil

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I’ve not blogged much about the Antonine Wall but I’ve written about it in my book on the Picts and visited its surviving remains in the Rough Castle area. A few years ago I discussed the origins of the name Kinneil, a place mentioned by the Venerable Bede in AD 731.

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The Last Of The Free

The Highlands
With next year’s referendum fast approaching, the question of whether Scotland should regain her independence is being hotly debated. It’s a serious issue for everyone involved and emotions are running high on both sides. The entire process is something I’ll be observing from a distance, as I’m not a resident of Scotland (nor, indeed, am I of Scottish descent). We who dwell south of the Tweed, and especially those of us with no ancestral connections north of it, are mere bystanders. This is how it should be. Whatever the outcome, the referendum is a matter for the people of Scotland to decide among themselves.

I am, however, interested in Scottish history, both the old and the new. Recently, I was reminded that the fundamental issue at the heart of the independence debate has a very long history indeed. The notion that the far northern parts of Britain should be free to govern their own affairs goes back much further than the arguments around the Act of Union in 1707, back even further than the Declaration of Arbroath and the wars of Wallace and Bruce. It finds echoes deep in the ancient past, in a time when the term Scotland had yet to come into being. It even pre-dates the Pictish period of c.300-900 AD.

The reminder came as I was leafing through my own historical study of the Picts in advance of its re-issue this month in a slightly smaller format. In the book’s second chapter (‘Caledonia and Rome’) I deal with campaigns waged by the Roman governor Agricola against the Caledonian tribes of the Highlands in the late first century AD. The Caledonians were one of the ancestral groups of the Picts, whose own descendants are a major component in today’s multi-faceted Scottish nation.

Agricola’s campaigns were well-documented by Tacitus, his son-in-law, who has given us a unique contemporary record of ancient Scottish history. Tacitus was a great admirer of Agricola and portrayed him in a glowing light – as a talented general respected by junior officers and held in high regard by ordinary soldiers. Looking past the dutiful tribute of a writer whose wife was Agricola’s daughter, we have no reason to doubt that Tacitus paints a fairly accurate portrait of the most dangerous individual ever unleashed by Rome upon the peoples of Northern Britain.

In this blogpost I want to focus on Agricola’s final campaign, which probably commenced in AD 83. Leading an army of 25,000 men, he marched north from what is now England to launch a massive assault on the untamed tribes of Caledonia – a wild region of hills and glens beyond the reach of Roman civilisation. In earlier campaigning seasons he had conquered all the lands up to the River Forth, crushing the native tribes and stamping out any pockets of resistance, but the people whom he encountered across the Firth of Tay were not so easily cowed. He soon learned that these highlanders were masters of guerilla warfare, adept at using hit-and-run tactics to disrupt his advance. At night, they pounced on the Roman camps while the soldiers slept, wreaking havoc among the tents before vanishing into dark forests. By day, they shadowed the marching columns and – to Agricola’s profound annoyance – refused to be drawn into a pitched battle. Tacitus noted that the Caledonians had a close relationship with their landscape, which became their ally against the invaders. Agricola expressed his own frustration with the constant guerilla attacks by describing the Caledonians as ‘just so many spiritless cowards’. In reality, he knew that these lightly-armed warriors were as brave as any adversary he had ever met. He also knew that what they were doing, in military terms, was exploiting the tactical advantages of their homeland’s rugged terrain. Their strategy was so successful that Agricola’s own officers urged him to abandon the campaign, but he was determined to continue the long northward march.

Eventually, as summer faded towards autumn, the Caledonians decided to make a stand by meeting the enemy in a head-on clash. Gathering their scattered forces together in one place, they massed on the slopes of a prominent hill known to the Romans as Mons Graupius. With their families hidden away in places of safety, the native warriors waited for Agricola to arrive. According to Tacitus, they were commanded by a great chieftain called Calgacus, whose name means ‘The Swordsman’. They knew what was at stake: their land, their independence, their right to govern their own affairs. But they also knew what was coming to meet them: a large Roman army, spearheaded by three war-hardened legions and commanded by a seemingly invincible general.

What the Caledonian warriors needed in that crucial moment was something to rouse their hopes, something to put iron in their veins and fire in their hearts. They needed encouragement, and leadership, and strong words spoken from the soul. And so they turned to Calgacus, who responded by urging them to put aside their fear. He pointed out that no invader had ever conquered them, and that even their isolation on the edge of the world was a protection.

Below is a shortened version of his speech, with its main points retained. The ancient Caledonians spoke a Celtic language, the ancestral tongue of Pictish and Welsh, but theirs was a pre-literate culture that bequeathed no documents to posterity. Everything we know about this proud people comes from Roman texts written in Latin. But what follows is essentially what Calgacus is supposed to have said to his warriors, as Tacitus reported it:

‘When I consider the motives we have for fighting, and the critical position we are in, I have a strong feeling that the united front you are showing today will mean the dawn of liberty for the whole of Britain. You have mustered to a man, and all of you are free.

‘We, the choicest flower of Britain’s manhood, were hidden away in her most secret places. Out of sight of subject shores, we kept even our eyes free from the defilement of tyranny. We, the most distant dwellers upon the earth, the last of the free, have been shielded until today by our very remoteness and by the obscurity in which it has shrouded our name. Now, the furthest bounds of Britain lie open to our enemies. And what men know nothing about they always assume to be a valuable prize.

‘But there are no more nations beyond us: nothing is there except waves and rocks. And – more deadly than these – the Romans, for they have an arrogance which no submission or good behaviour can escape. Pillagers of the world, they have exhausted the land by indiscriminate plunder, and now they ransack the sea. To robbery, butchery and rapine they give the false name ‘government’. They create a desolation and call it Peace.

‘Our courage, too, and our warlike spirit are against us: masters do not like such qualities in their subjects. Even our remoteness and isolation, while they give us protection, are bound to make the Romans wonder what mischief we are up to. Therefore, since you cannot hope for mercy, take courage – before it is too late – to fight for what you hold most dear, whether it be life or honour. And let us then show, at the very first clash of arms, what manner of men Caledonia has kept in reserve!

‘All that can spur men on to victory is on our side. The enemy have no wives to fire their courage, no parents ready to taunt them if they run away. Look at them – a scanty band, scared and bewildered, staring blankly at the unfamiliar sky, sea and forests around them. And beyond this army that you see, there is nothing to be frightened of – only forts without garrisons, colonies of old men, and sick towns distracted between rebel subjects and tyrant masters.

‘Which will you choose – to follow your leader into battle, or to submit to taxation, forced labour in the mines, and all the other tribulations of slavery? Whether you are to endure these for ever, or take quick vengeance, this day must decide.

‘On, then, into action! And, as you go, think of those who have gone before you and of those who shall come after.’

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Whether or not these stirring words really were spoken by a Caledonian chieftain called Calgacus, or merely invented by Tacitus to give his readers a romanticised image of the ‘heroic barbarian’, is a question I don’t intend to go into in this blogpost. My distillation of the speech is presented here simply for what it says about the idea of ‘Scottish’ independence as perceived by people who lived nearly 2000 years ago. It has no particular relevance to modern political issues. Nonetheless, for me at least, it is one small piece in the jigsaw that forms a wider historical background to the current debate.

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Epilogue

Tacitus tells us that Agricola gave a similarly rousing speech to his own troops, telling them that the Caledonians were not so much massing for a pitched battle as milling around in desperation ‘because they are cornered’. With both armies fired up by their respective commanders, the ensuing battle was fiercely contested. It went on for many hours, raging back and forth on the open ground in the shadow of Mons Graupius. By nightfall, the last of the savage fighting was over, and victory went to the Romans. According to Tacitus, the Caledonians lost 10,000 men, a third of their army.

But the Romans were unable to consolidate their victory. Agricola recognised that the Highlands were too vast, too inhospitable, to be effectively controlled by forts and roads. And besides, autumn was fast approaching and the grim Caledonian winter would follow. So he turned around and led his army southward, back to the safety of areas already under Roman rule. Soon after, the emperor recalled him to Rome, and he was never seen in Britain again.

Despite its awesome military power, and despite a few more attempts, the Roman army never conquered Caledonia. Unlike their neighbours in the southern parts of Britain, the people of the Highlands steadfastly kept their independence, from Agricola’s time right through to the fall of the Western Empire in the fifth century. Largely untouched by Roman influences, they retained their ancient culture and continued to look after their own affairs. They were truly, as Calgacus had told them, the Last of the Free.

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My condensed version of Calgacus’ speech is from the Penguin Classics translation (by H. Mattingley) of the writings of Tacitus, published in 1948 and revised (by S. Handford) in 1970.

I discuss Agricola’s northern campaigns under the sub-heading ‘Agricola and the Highlands’ in Chapter Two of my book The Picts (published by Birlinn in 2010 and re-issued in 2013). There I note that the location of Mons Graupius – the site of one of the most famous battles in Scottish history – remains elusive.

picts

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