Rome and the North Britons

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Rome and the North Britons

Reconstruction of the Antonine Wall at Callendar Park, reproduced courtesy of Falkirk Museum and M. J. Moore DA FSA Scot

Consolidation of the Frontier

If the imperial authorities hoped that the Antonine Wall
would bring a period of stability to Roman Britain, their optimism was dashed
when trouble broke out among the northern tribes in 154 or 155. Which tribes
were involved is a matter of debate, as is the question of how much disruption
was caused. It is possible, for instance, that the unrest was confined to
communities living north of Hadrian’s Wall, or that these were joined by
neighbours in Dumfriesshire, or even that the main troublemakers lay further
north in Caledonia. Whatever the location of the uprising it was put down by
Julius Verus, governor of Britain, and special coins were minted to celebrate
the restoration of order. In the next few years, however, a decision was taken
to abandon the Antonine frontier and withdraw to Hadrian’s Wall. The presence
of troublesome natives in the region between the two walls may have influenced
the decision, but other factors, such as the strain on military resources,
could have played a bigger role. When the withdrawal commenced in 158, it
evacuated the Antonine line but stopped short of abandoning the region between
the two walls. Some of the intervallate forts were even refurbished at this
time. Buildings destroyed by fire at Birrens, known as Blatobulgium (‘The Flour
Sack’) because of the distinctive shape of the nearby Burnswark Hill, were once
thought to have succumbed to the native uprising of AD 154/5, but were more
likely to have been demolished by the fort garrison during a makeover.

Before 160 the Antonine Wall was recommissioned and its
soldiers came back to the forts, if only for a brief time. Their return to the
Forth–Clyde isthmus was temporary and did not outlast the end of the decade.
Trouble flared again in the early 160s, soon after the accession of Marcus
Aurelius as emperor. A Roman general with the portentous name Calpurnius
Agricola was ordered to quell it. The contemporary sources do not identify the
culprits, who were either rebellious Britons on the northern frontier or
Caledonian raiders from the lands beyond. Whoever these troublemakers were they
were defeated and a semblance of stability returned. Roman sources describe
another outbreak of hostilities in 169 when unidentified Britons caused trouble
somewhere in the North. A war was seemingly averted by nipping the unrest in
the bud, but, by 170, the Antonine Wall was again evacuated when Marcus
Aurelius needed reinforcements for a campaign on the Danube. This time the
troop withdrawals were intended to be permanent and many forts sustained
deliberate demolition of buildings and defences. The turf frontier was
abandoned, the Stirlingshire forts were left empty and the imperial boundary
shrank back to Hadrian’s Wall. Some forts in the intervallate region remained
in use, but these were engulfed in 181, during the reign of the emperor
Commodus, when the Caledonii swept down from their Highland fastnesses to
plunder the wealth of the Roman province. A high-ranking general marched out to
meet the marauders, but he and his troops were slain. The ensuing wave of
destruction left several forts along Hadrian’s Wall in ruins and spelled
disaster for vulnerable outposts such as Newstead. Commodus, son and successor
of Marcus Aurelius, dismissed the hapless governor of Britain and appointed a
more effective replacement. The new governor, Ulpius Marcellus, defeated the
Caledonii and restored control before following up his victory by making
changes to troop dispositions in the interval-late region. Some forts were
rebuilt and regarrisoned, but others, including Newstead, were condemned to
dereliction. By the end of the second century, only a handful of outposts north
of Hadrian’s Wall remained in use, their soldiers providing a token military
presence in a region now regarded as a buffer-zone between the imperial
province of Britannia and the badlands of Caledonia. The outposts lay in the
south of the intervallate region, in lands nominally given over to native rule
but under the watchful eye of Rome. Beyond them, in a broad band of territory
encompassing Clydesdale and Lothian, the North Britons retained a measure of
independence under the authority of their own leaders. It is likely that this
arrangement was monitored by the Roman army during ceremonial events and tribal
assemblies at specific sites called loci. The Latin word locus simply means
‘place’, but in the context of barbarian tribes bound in clientship to Rome
these ‘places’ may have held administrative and diplomatic significance. Each
of the four major groupings of North Britons had one or more loci within its
territory, some being centred on sacred stones of immense antiquity which had
long been used for ceremonial purposes. A public gathering at a locus would
have given Rome an opportunity to remind the natives of their obligations to
her Empire. How much autonomy was actually delegated to the intervallate
Britons is unclear, but the surviving outpost forts were doubtless a constant
reminder of imperial authority. At Birrens the Roman garrison used a native
hillfort at nearby Burnswark for target practice by bombarding its decaying
ramparts with catapults, an exercise which may have served the dual purpose of
providing in-house artillery training as well as discouraging dissent among the
North Britons. The latter thus approached the third century sandwiched between
two implacably hostile forces: the Empire to the south and Caledonia to the
north. Treaties forged in the aftermath of troop withdrawals from the Antonine
Wall created an uneasy peace between the protagonists, but neither side, still
less the Britons caught in the middle, expected it to last. It was little more
than a temporary respite, a breathing-space, before a new round of raiding and
retribution began.

Native communities in the land between the two Roman walls
dwelt in the shadow of a conquering power. Their fellow-Britons living south of
Hadrian’s Wall in what is now northern England were subjects of the Empire and,
by the third century, had grudgingly or willingly accepted the situation.
Earlier revolts by the Brigantes had been brutally crushed and were never to be
repeated. Acceptance of subjugation was an easier option, even if it meant a
loss of pride and a tax obligation to the imperial treasury. North of the
Hadrianic frontier the Britons of the intervallate region remained nominally
independent while acknowledging some measure of Roman authority. Unlike their
Brigantian neighbours they continued to be ruled by their own leaders but these
had presumably forged long-term treaties with Rome.

South of Hadrian’s Wall, the Brigantes and other conquered
Britons experienced the full impact of the Roman occupation. The native upper
classes, comprising the major landowning families, had watched their privileged
status slip away after the conquest. Their lifestyles had collapsed as soon as
Rome dismantled the old economic networks. Tithes of agricultural produce
formerly rendered to local headmen were now collected by imperial
tax-gatherers, while a strict prohibition of civilian military activity brought
an end to tit-for-tat raids by predatory bands of Britons upon their
neighbours. The resulting net loss of plunder severed the native upper class
from its traditional methods of amassing surplus wealth through the acquisition
of cattle and slaves. In such circumstances the neutered elites of Brigantia
had little choice but to accept new roles delegated to them by the imperial
administration. Some were probably allowed to retain a measure of authority in
local contexts, as leaders nominated by Rome to oversee districts where their
ancestors had once held substantial power. Such folk would have become more or
less Romanised, maintaining their elevated status by exploiting opportunities
for social advancement in the northern military zone. Some, no doubt, were allowed
to remain on their ancestral estates and would have continued to receive tithes
from tenant farmers.

A wholly new type of civilian settlement, the vicus,
appeared in the wake of conquest. The typical vicus was a small village
established outside the main gate of a Roman fort and along the primary access
road. It tended to attract entrepreneurs seeking business opportunities at
places where large numbers of military folk had disposable incomes. By
definition, the vicus owed its existence to the presence of the fort and was
wholly dependent on the patronage of soldiers. Its inhabitants, known as
vicani, were generally a mixed bag of individuals drawn from local native
communities and from places further afield. Some manufactured clothes, shoes or
craft goods in small workshops, while others established taverns and hotels.
Female vicani included wives and girlfriends of the garrison, their residence
outside the fort initially being a requirement of the Army’s prohibition on
married soldiers until Septimius Severus changed the law. In reality, even
before the Severan reform, the authorities routinely turned a blind eye to
liaisons between soldiers and native women, many of whom bore sons who
eventually succeeded their fathers in the garrison.

North of Hadrian’s Wall, the much briefer occupation of
Roman forts made the vici a fleeting addition to the landscape. Even when the
Antonine Wall provided a temporary screen against Caledonian incursions, the
intervallate region was not a place where civilians could put down roots
outside a fort. Thus, while some vici south of Hadrian’s Wall thrived for two
hundred years or more, in the lands further north a long period of habitation
for vicani was out of the question. No fort north of today’s Anglo-Scottish
border was permanently garrisoned after the end of the second century, a
statistic which helps to explain why archaeologists have identified so few vici
in Scotland. One of the few examples unearthed by excavation is a large village
clustering outside the east gate of the fort at Inveresk near Musselburgh in
East Lothian. Another has been discovered at Carriden, known to the Romans as
Veluniate, a fort perched on the eastern extremity of the Antonine Wall
overlooking the Forth estuary. The vicani at Carriden were a community of
sufficient stability and cohesion to be granted a measure of self-government by
the military authorities. However, neither of these settlements endured for
long. They were wholly dependent on their forts and disappeared when these were

Caledonii and Maeatae

Beyond the Antonine Wall lay the enemies of Rome: the
Caledonii and their neighbours. During the northern campaigns of the second
century, the Empire’s relationship with these barbarians was characterised by
raid and counter-raid across the borderlands around the Firth of Forth. This
region became a volatile conflict zone while Roman troops still garrisoned the
Antonine forts, and likewise in the years following its final abandonment in
the 160s. Hostilities continued until Rome forged treaties with the main
barbarian groups at the end of the century, probably by paying them to stop
raiding. At that time the Caledonii were still the main threat, but another
people, the Maeatae, were recognised as an equally belligerent foe. Roman writers
located the Maeatae immediately north of the Antonine Wall in what are now
Stirlingshire and Clackmannanshire. They may have been a fusion of smaller
groups on the model of the Caledonian ‘confederacy’ further north. Some
historians wonder if these political fusions may have occurred because an
aggressive foreign power held sway south of the Forth–Clyde isthmus. They see
Rome’s occupation of the southern part of Britain as a catalyst for political
developments in the North. In this scenario the creation of large tribal
confederacies is viewed as a logical progression arising from the proximity of
large numbers of Roman troops. An alternative theory sees amalgamation as an
outcome of conflict between neighbouring communities, rather than as a
voluntary or co-operative response to the threat of Roman invasion. Indeed,
Rome might even have been responsible for creating tensions by favouring some
native groups while neglecting others. Thus, it is possible that the pro-Roman
queen Cartimandua might not have been a ‘pan-Brigantian’ sovereign after all,
but merely a local ruler who exploited imperial patronage to impose her will on
other Pennine peoples. By applying this model further north, we might envisage
the Caledonii not so much joining with their neighbours as subjugating them by
force. Such a process may have placed the Caledonian leadership at the head of
a large, powerful amalgamation of tribes in a region centred on the valley of
the River Tay. If this is what happened, then the Maeatae may have similarly
seized the initiative among their own weaker neighbours.

High on a shoulder of the Ochil Hills, commanding a wide
vista across Stirlingshire and the Firth of Forth, stood the great oppidum or
tribal centre of the ancestors of the Maeatae. This stronghold may already have
been abandoned when the Maeatae themselves first came to Rome’s attention, but
it remained an imposing feature in the landscape. Its ancient name is
unrecorded, but the hill on which it stands is known today as Dumyat, a name
deriving from Gaelic Dun Myat (‘The Fort of the Maeatae’). Five miles
south-east, and a little to the south of the modern town of Clackmannan, stood
an unshaped boulder venerated in pre-Christian times as a sacred stone. In the
medieval period this monument became known as King Robert’s Stone after its
role in a folktale about Robert the Bruce, but its original name was Clach
Manonn (‘The Stone of Manau’). The stone’s proximity to the heartlands of the
Maeatae suggests its adoption by their forefathers as a venue for sacred rites
and public ceremonies. It now sits on top of a pillar beside the old tolbooth
in Clackmannan and has given its name to the town.

The Maeatae make their first appearance in the historical
record around the year 200. At that time, according to the Roman writer Cassius
Dio, they overturned a treaty with Rome and mustered their forces for war. They
chose the right moment, for substantial numbers of Roman troops had recently
been withdrawn from Britain by Clodius Albinus, an ambitious governor who hoped
to set himself up as emperor. Seeking to exploit the situation, the Maeatae
crossed the abandoned Antonine Wall to rampage southward, wreaking havoc
wherever they went. To make matters worse, the Caledonii were preparing to
break their own treaty with the Empire by joining the assault. In a desperate
bid to avert a major crisis the newly appointed governor of Roman Britain,
Virius Lupus, tried to placate the Maeatae with a substantial payment. The
offer was accepted: the raiders went home and released a small number of Roman
prisoners. But peace did not last and a new spate of raiding began. This time,
no bribe was forthcoming from the imperial treasury. What the barbarians
received instead was a full-scale assault. In 208, the warlike emperor Septimius
Severus arrived in Britain to deal personally with the situation on the
northern frontier. With him came his sons, Geta and Caracalla, two young men
rescued from the sleaze of Rome by a father who regarded the Forth borderlands
as a somewhat more wholesome environment. Assembling a large army, Severus
marched north to hammer the Maeatae into submission and to discourage the
Caledonii from joining them. His strategy seemed to work: he received pledges
of peace from the barbarians and returned to his base at York. In 210, however,
the Maeatae again reverted to their old ways. They may have heard a rumour that
Severus was sick and unable to leave his bed. He was indeed too ill to command
a new campaign, but, despite his infirmity, he had no intention of letting the
enemy run amok. Leadership of the counter-attack was delegated to Caracalla who
unleashed upon the Maeatae a harsh retribution. He arrived in Stirlingshire
with a clear instruction from his father to slaughter the natives and to leave
none alive. Until this point, the Caledonii had merely observed from the
sidelines, but new tales of Roman savagery towards their neighbours brought
them swiftly into the fray. They had another incentive to confront the invader,
for Severus intended to build a massive fortress at Carpow at the mouth of the
River Earn on the southern edge of their heartlands. The new base was designed
to accommodate an entire legion and, when completed, would have posed a major
threat to native ambitions. A prolonged and bitter conflict seemed unavoidable
until fate intervened to remove Severus from the equation. In February 211, at
his military headquarters in York, he finally succumbed to illness. Caracalla
became emperor, but no longer shared his father’s enthusiasm for the northern
campaign. He saw little gain in resuming it: the fighting was hard, the
short-term rewards were meagre and the prospect of a lasting solution looked
increasingly remote. Moreover, the drain on military resources was becoming
acute and difficult to justify at a time when other parts of the Empire
demanded urgent attention. Foremost among Caracalla’s anxieties was a bitter
rivalry with his younger brother, Geta, whose growing influence at the imperial
court was an irritation. Caracalla therefore called a halt to the war, made
peace with the Maeatae and Caledonii and relinquished any serious claim on
their lands. He returned to Rome to assert his authority and, within a few
months, masterminded his brother’s assassination. Meanwhile, in northern
Britain, the forward bases occupied during the Severan campaign were evacuated.
Construction at Carpow was halted and the soldiers withdrew. A token military
presence lingered at Cramond on the Forth until it, too, was abandoned in the
220s. The imperial frontier again retreated to Hadrian’s Wall, leaving only
four outpost forts in the lands beyond: Risingham and High Rochester in the
east; Bewcastle and Netherby in the west. With this retreat the Roman adventure
in the Highlands finally came to an end.

The Emperor, his sons and the military leadership wintered in York. Sadly for them however the terms which had so satisfied the Romans in AD 209 were not so agreeable to at least the Maeatae as in AD 210 they revolted again. The Caledonians predictably joined in, and Severus decided to go north again to settle matters once and for all. On this occasion he’d obviously had enough of the troublesome Britons, giving his famous order to kill all the natives his troops came across.

This second campaign re-enacted the AD 209 campaign exactly, though this time solely under Caracalla as Severus was too ill. It was even more brutal than the first as afterwards there was peace along the northern border for four generations afterwards, the longest in pre-modern times. Archaeological data is now emerging to show this was because of a major depopulation event, indicating something close to a genocide was committed by the Romans in the central and upper Midland Valley.


Some Roman writers poured scorn on Caracalla’s readiness to
let the barbarians off the hook, but his treaties held firm and ultimately
proved the doubters wrong. The third century passed in relative peace. No new
outbreaks of trouble on the northern frontier are known from the surviving
literary sources. Only in the century’s last decade did the situation once
again grow volatile. In 297, the poet Eumenius referred to a people called
Picti (‘Picts’), whom he named alongside the Irish as enemies of the Britons.
He did not say where they came from, but they plainly lived outside the Empire.
Their location was made clearer by an anonymous writer of the early fourth
century who referred to ‘the woods and marshes of the Caledones and other
Picts’. This clearly identifies the Caledonii of earlier times as a component
of the Picti. It also shows that Perthshire, the ancient Caledonian heartland,
must have lain within Pictish territory. Later in the fourth century, the
historian and ex-soldier Ammianus Marcellinus regarded the Picts as a fusion of
two distinct peoples, the Verturiones and Dicalydones. The latter name relates
in some way to Caledonii and indicates that this ancient grouping still
functioned as a political force three hundred years after the Agricolan
invasion. The Verturiones are previously unknown, but their name connects them
to Fortriu, an area of importance during the second half of the first
millennium AD. In the nineteenth century, the Scottish antiquary William Forbes
Skene equated Fortriu with the later earldom of Strathearn and Menteith. This
identification remained largely unchallenged until 2006, when its weakness was
highlighted in a groundbreaking paper. Fortriu is now regarded as a more
northerly territory centred on Moray. In another recent development, some
historians have adopted the adjective ‘Verturian’ when referring to the land
and people of this region.

Picti means ‘Painted People’ or ‘People of the Designs’.
When and why this name originated are questions to which several plausible
answers can be offered. So far, no consensus has yet been achieved. The name
may be derived from, or related to, a collective term used by the Picts of
themselves, but it is equally possible that no such term existed until the
Romans began to distinguish the peoples of northern Britain from one another.
Sadly, the Pictish language vanished after c.900 and, as no Pictish writings
have survived, there is now little hope of ascertaining whether or not a native
precursor of Latin Picti ever existed. Historians are left instead to muse on
the nature and purpose of the ‘designs’ that gave rise to the name. Did the
Picts tattoo their skin, or did they merely daub their bodies with warpaint?
Tattooing was regarded as archaic and primitive by the Romanised Britons living
south of Hadrian’s Wall, but it possibly lingered as a custom further north. If
so, its continuing use far beyond the frontier might explain why the poet
Claudian, writing in the late fourth and early fifth centuries, referred to
Roman soldiers observing the decorative body-art of slain Pictish warriors.

Whatever the origin of their name, the Picts posed a major
threat to Roman Britain throughout the fourth century. They were a numerous
people whose lands encompassed a broad swath of territory stretching from the
Western Isles to Fife and from Shetland to the Ochil Hills. Within this large
area many communities shared cultural traits we now regard as essentially
‘Pictish’. They shared a common language similar to, and no doubt once
indistinguishable from, the language of the Britons. On a political level,
however, the Picts were not a single entity but a patchwork of separate groups,
each of which was probably ruled as a small kingdom. In early times, when they
first came to Rome’s attention, their most frequent foes were likely to have
been fellow-Picts rather than people living south of the Forth–Clyde isthmus.
Much of the slave-raiding and cattle-reiving undertaken by Picts in Roman times
was surely conducted within their own homelands. Ambitious leaders would have had
little incentive to act in unison against an external power unless persuaded or
coerced to do so. Thus, although the notion of pan-Pictish unity might have
simplified matters for Roman chroniclers, we should not feel tempted to run too
far with it. Temporary pooling of military forces in response to Roman
aggression perhaps occurred from time to time, but the Picts were not a
homogeneous group. Their default political framework was rooted in local
allegiances rather than in abstract concepts of nationhood. Although this
pattern began to change in the sixth century, with the emergence of one or more
Pictish overkingships, the marauding bands of ‘Painted People’ who troubled
Roman Britain in 297 were almost certainly not acting in unison.

What distinguished the Picts from other indigenous peoples
of the British Isles? The simplest answer to this question is that Pictish
culture must have been unique, distinctive and recognisable to outsiders. It
was sufficiently distinct for Roman writers to differentiate the Picts from the
Britons and the Irish. All three were part of a Celtic cultural zone, but,
despite this shared heritage, they each exhibited certain traits that set them
apart from one another. One important difference was language: the Picts and
Britons spoke variants of a Brittonic language of the ‘P-Celtic’ group, while
the Irish used Goidelic or Gaelic speech which modern linguists define as
‘Q-Celtic’. The Pictish and British varieties of Brittonic represented separate
dialects which, although mutually intelligible, may have sounded quite distinct
when spoken. The date at which the two diverged is unknown but their separation
perhaps began in Roman times, when the influence of Latin south of Hadrian’s
Wall might have made northern dialects seem barbarous and different. By 297,
when the Picts emerged into recorded history, it is possible that their speech
already sounded sufficiently different to set them apart.

In ethnic terms the Picts of the third and fourth centuries
were simply the most northerly of the Britons. There is no doubt that they were
a ‘Celtic’ people. Like their southern cousins they had been exposed to
Celticisation during the first millennium BC when cultural influences from
Continental Europe spread throughout the British Isles. Unsurprisingly, the
Pictish landscape contains a number of ‘Celtic’ features, the most visible
being hilltop fortresses defended by concentric walls of unmortared stone laced
with timber. Certain other structures are not found elsewhere in the Celtic
world, or are encountered only rarely, and seem to be indigenous to the Pictish
zone. Of these, the best-known are the brochs, the enigmatic towers found all
over the Pictish area, with a major concentration north and west of the Great
Glen. Isolated examples in southward districts such as Lothian suggest that the
design was not confined to what is usually regarded as the main Pictish zone.
As previously noted, archaeological study has dated their main occupation phase
to the period 500 BC to AD 100 which means that they had probably fallen out of
use when Roman writers first mentioned the Picts. The northern concentration of
brochs has led to their builders being seen as ‘proto-Pictish’ ancestors of the
later raiding bands. A simpler explanation is that the brochs were built by
‘Britons’ whose descendants in the early centuries AD remained largely
untouched by Romanisation.

The Picti were none other than the Caledonii, Verturiones
and other indigenous peoples previously recorded as separate entities but now
appearing under a new collective name. Aside from this ‘rebranding’ of Rome’s
old enemies, the situation on the northern frontier remained largely unchanged
for much of the fourth century, except perhaps for an increasing number of
barbarian raids. Whether these incursions became as serious as those of the
Severan era in the early 200s is unknown, but they caused sufficient anxiety to
provoke a Roman response. In 305, the respected general Constantius Chlorus
marched from his base at York to deal with the Picts. He presumably defeated
them. Likewise, his son Constantine, whom the frontier army proclaimed emperor
in 306, took a break from civil war in Europe to wage a Pictish war in 312.
Hostilities with the Picts continued up to the middle years of the fourth
century when the emperor Constans, son of Constantine, came to Britain to
oversee the imperial response.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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