Roman Defence in Depth Against the Pictish Threat

Rome’s strategy in dealing with the Pictish threat after c.340 was essentially defensive and reactive. Retaliatory strikes deep into the Highlands were no longer part of the plan. Instead, the prime objective was maintenance of a static frontier supplemented by covert military operations between the two walls and in the wild lands further north. In an effort to maintain the integrity of Hadrian’s Wall the Romans were helped by Britons living in the lands beyond. The native population of this region between the Hadrianic line and the disused Antonine ramparts became a first line of defence. Such an arrangement suited the economic constraints and political uncertainties facing Rome at that time. It allowed a dwindling number of imperial troops to be redeployed elsewhere. At the hub of the new defensive network lay Hadrian’s Wall with its forts and crossing-points. Behind the great barrier stretched an infrastructure of roads, forts and watchtowers providing both an early warning system and a capability for rapid response. In theory at least, this strategy of ‘defence in depth’ shielded the people of Britannia from hostile attacks by Picts, Saxons, Irish and other predators. North of Hadrian’s Wall the four outpost forts garrisoned in the third century were still occupied at the dawn of the fourth. Although situated outside the Empire’s boundary, none of the quartet lay more than twenty miles from the Wall. Their garrisons supervised the natives of the intervallate zone, a population whose status vis-à-vis the imperial authorities after 300 remains a matter of debate. In this region four large amalgamations of Britons already existed in the second century: the previously mentioned Damnonii, Votadini, Selgovae and Novantae. Whether these groups owed their origin to Rome’s onslaught in the first century or were formed in spite of it we are unable to say. By c.300, they may have been in existence for two hundred years or more, but how much longer they endured is unknown. Ptolemy’s map shows their positions relative to one another and identifies their chief centres of power. Although the map shows a snapshot of political geography as perceived by Roman geographers in the second century, the distribution of peoples in the intervallate region may have remained largely unchanged two hundred years later.

On Ptolemy’s map we see the Novantae inhabiting the northern shorelands of the Solway Firth, in territory corresponding to present-day Dumfriesshire and Galloway. Although their lands were vulnerable to raids from Ireland and the Hebridean seaways, their main centres of power were sited on the western coast, in the vicinity of Loch Ryan and modern Stranraer. Here, the long peninsula of the Rhinns of Galloway, marked on the map as Novantarum Chersonesus, protrudes into the Irish Sea. The key settlements were Rerigonium (possibly Innermessan) and Loucopibia (possibly Gatehouse of Fleet). Directly north, in what is now the county of Ayrshire, lay territory associated with either the Novantae or with a people called Damnonii (or Dumnonii). Damnonian lands included the lower valley and estuary of the River Clyde, together with parts of what later became the medieval earldom of Lennox. An important centre of power in this area was the imposing mass of Dumbarton Rock, a volcanic ‘plug’ jutting into the Firth of Clyde and dominating the surrounding area. Traces of elite occupation on the summit indicate that it was used by high-status Britons as far back as pre-Roman times. Later, when local native leaders were apparently co-operating with Rome, the great Rock may have guarded imperial interests in the north-western seaways. Through the Damnonian heartlands ran the western extremity of the Antonine Wall, its turf ramparts and abandoned forts already falling into dereliction by c.300. Further east, in Stirlingshire and Lothian, the redundant barrier meandered through the northern borderlands of the Votadini, another of the four intervallate groupings. Votadinian territory extended south of the Firth of Forth to the River Tweed and perhaps even as far as Hadrian’s Wall. Its hub was evidently the Castle Rock at Edinburgh, but other hilltop strongholds, such as a probable oppidum on Traprain Law, were also used in Roman times. The northern borderlands of the Votadini faced the Maeatae of Stirlingshire and the Picts of Fife. On the south-western flank lay the Selgovae (‘Hunters’), another large amalgamation of peoples. Selgovan territory included the central and upper vales of Tweed together with vast tracts of uncharted forest. Unlike their neighbours, the Selgovan elites of the third and fourth centuries were closely supervised by Rome. Within their territory lay the last of the outpost forts: Bewcastle and Netherby in the valleys north of Carlisle, and Risingham on the strategic Dere Street highway.

The nature of the relationship between the Empire and the intervallate Britons in Late Roman times is difficult to ascertain. It may have been sustained by regular payments from the imperial coffers to purchase the continuing goodwill of the four groups described above. One theory imagines their kings and chiefs as foederati, ‘federates’, of Rome, their domains constituting a buffer-zone between Hadrian’s Wall and the northern barbarians. If these Britons did indeed serve as allies of Rome, they would have been expected to bear the brunt of raids on the imperial frontier. Thus, while nominally independent, they may have pledged to protect Roman interests against the Pictish menace. Nevertheless, to all but the most trusting Roman officials, the intervallate Britons would have represented a potential threat. Keeping an eye on them was arguably the main function of the exploratores, ‘scouts’, a class of troops whom we can envisage patrolling beyond the outpost forts. These men were perhaps similar to the colonial rangers of eighteenth-century North America, using local knowledge to gather intelligence and launching punitive raids on troublemakers. The outpost fort at Netherby became so closely associated with these ‘special forces’ that it was known along the frontier as Castra Exploratorum (‘Fort of the Scouts’). Operating alongside the exploratores were the shadowy areani or arcani, members of a secret service responsible for covert operations, whose agents spied on the Picts and other barbarians. Historians sometimes regard them as a kind of ‘Roman CIA’ and the analogy may be broadly accurate.

Little is known of the kings and chieftains who ruled the intervallate Britons during the fourth century. Some appear to be named in genealogical texts preserved in medieval Wales but possibly drawing data from much older northern sources. The Welsh genealogies or ‘pedigrees’ show the lineages of a number of North British kings who lived in the sixth and seventh centuries. Each pedigree uses a sequence of patronyms (‘X son of Y son of Z’) to extend a royal ancestry back to the Late Roman period and, in some cases, to an even more remote time. Any hope of gleaning genuine fourth-century history is hindered by the stark fact that the texts containing the pedigrees were written no earlier than the ninth century. Most survive only in manuscripts of the twelfth century or later and none can be shown to be original creations by North Britons rather than by Welshmen. The pedigrees cannot therefore be regarded as storehouses of reliable information, especially for any period before the time of the historical North British kings. As repositories of genealogical data relating to the fourth century their value is even more limited. They require very careful handling if they are to be used at all.

Several pedigrees include figures whose chronological contexts seem to coincide with the final phase of Roman rule in Britain. Cinhil and Cluim, for instance, are two individuals listed as ancestors of a ninth-century king who ruled on the Clyde. We cannot be certain that these two are anything more than fictitious ‘ghosts’ inserted into the pedigree to give it a longer and more impressive lineage. If they existed, they probably belong to the second half of the fourth century and may have been members of the Damnonian elite. Another example is Padarn, apparently a Votadinian, to whom the genealogists gave the epithet or nickname Pesrut (‘Red Tunic’). Alongside Cinhil and Cluim, Padarn Pesrut is often regarded as a Briton of the intervallate zone in Late Roman times. It has been suggested that all three sprang from Romanised or pro-Roman families, their names being seen as medieval Welsh renderings of Quintilius, Clemens and Paternus. Upon this a more or less plausible scenario of loyal native foederati defending the Empire’s northern frontier has been constructed, with Padarn’s red tunic being interpreted as a Roman military garment, a gift from an imperial official to a trusted ally. Such theories are imaginative but need not be taken seriously. Regardless of whether or not the later Welsh names derive from Latin-sounding originals, we have no reason to believe that such naming was exclusive to the imperial authorities or to foederati in their service. Many non-Romans, friends and foes of the Empire alike, arguably bestowed Roman-sounding names on their children if it pleased them to do so. A young North Briton bearing a name such as Quintilius or Clemens was just as likely to develop anti-Roman sentiments as a compatriot who bore a non-Latin name. Nor is there anything uniquely Roman about the colour of Padarn’s tunic, which could have been obtained from any competent tailor whose skills included the extraction of red dye from plants such as madder. There were no doubt many red tunics among Rome’s friends in the lands north of Hadrian’s Wall, but probably just as many blue or green ones. Indeed, it is easy to imagine the nickname Pesrut being bestowed on any Pictish warrior in the hostile country beyond the Firth of Forth who chose to wear a bright red garment on military expeditions.

The Crisis of 367

The effectiveness of security arrangements on the northern frontier was put to the test in the second half of the fourth century when barbarian attacks increased. As well as the ever-hostile Picts the imperial garrison also endured raids by Gaelic-speaking groups in the western seaways – the Irish and the ‘Scots’. At this time the name Scotti seems to have been borne by, or bestowed upon, any marauding band from Ireland or Argyll. Indeed, it is likely that Roman observers regarded all the Gaels as one people. Like the Picts, these raiders from the West had taunted Rome since the time of Agricola. Three more groups now joined them: the Franks, whose descendants in the following century would leave their mark on Roman Gaul by turning it into France; the Saxons, who were soon to play a similarly important role in Britain; and a mysterious people called Attacotti who were perhaps of Irish or Hebridean origin. Eventually, the leaders of these hostile nations devised a barbarica conspiratio, a ‘barbarian conspiracy’, to co-ordinate their attacks on Roman Britain. Their plans came to fruition after crucial information was provided by traitors on the Roman side: corrupt officials, army deserters and rogue agents among the arcani. In 367, a huge barbarian assault was unleashed, its impact sweeping away the imperial defences. Seaborne raids from east and west drove far inland into the rich countryside of southern Britain, bringing death and destruction to the bewildered citizens. Towns were ransacked and villas were looted. Down from the north came the Picts, some to overwhelm the garrisons of Hadrian’s Wall while others swarmed along the eastern coast in flotillas of boats. The outpost forts north of the Wall were either bypassed or overwhelmed. In a battle between the frontier army and Pictish marauders, Fullofaudes, the senior Roman general in Britain, was taken prisoner. Leaderless and demoralised, the entire imperial garrison was thrown into chaos. Some soldiers cast off their uniforms and deserted their posts, while others roamed the land in lawless gangs. Fearing the total loss of Britain, the emperor Valentinian despatched a strike force of elite regiments led by the renowned Count Theodosius. Two years of hard fighting eventually led to the expulsion of the barbarians and, after Theodosius issued an amnesty for deserters, stability was gradually restored. The soldiers returned to their forts and Hadrian’s Wall was reinstated as the boundary of the Empire. In the wake of the crisis, however, the outposts beyond the Wall were finally abandoned. Theodosius redeployed what remained of their garrisons, disbanded the treacherous arcani and withdrew all Roman forces behind the Tyne–Solway line.

After the disaster of 367, the Britons beyond Hadrian’s Wall were effectively cut off from their countrymen south of it. Both groups had suffered grievously during the barbarian onslaught, but there is no record of Theodosius driving Pictish raiders from the lands of the Damnonii or Votadini. The natives of the intervallate zone were presumably left to fend for themselves. One medieval Welsh legend tells of a Votadinian prince or chieftain called Cunedda who led a warband to North Wales to expel a colony of Irish pirates from Gwynedd. Cunedda’s position in the genealogies makes him a figure of the late fourth to mid-fifth century and this chronology has led some historians to see him as a Roman federate transferred from Lothian during the Theodosian reorganisation. Much detailed speculation about Rome’s relationship with the Votadini has been woven around this scenario, but the data is too fragile to support it. A more sceptical, more objective view sees the story of Cunedda as a later Welsh attempt to create a fictional link between the kings of Gwynedd and their fellow-Britons of the North.

Among the repercussions of the barbarian conspiracy the most ominous development, at least for the native population of Roman Britain, was the recruitment of Germanic foederati to guard the southern towns. These were mostly Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Frisians from the North Sea coastlands of what are now Denmark and Germany. In northern Britain there were fewer towns and villas than in the south, but one area where Romanisation had taken root was the fertile Vale of York. There are archaeological hints that German warriors were settled in this district in the late fourth century, either by Theodosius after 367 or by the imperial usurper Magnus Maximus in 383. Serving Rome as mercenaries, the Germans initially performed a useful gatekeeping role against seaborne attacks by Pictish and Saxon pirates. Like all hirelings their services were not given freely, but were bought with regular gifts of cash from the imperial treasury. Any disruption to these payments was likely to turn friendship and service to ill-feeling and hostility.

In the 370s, the lands south of Hadrian’s Wall returned to a position of watchfulness. The northern frontier remained on a high state of alert, as did the lines of forts and signal-towers along the western and eastern coasts. North of the Wall the independent Britons, almost certainly without Roman help, repelled marauding bands of Picts and regained control of their own borders. But the barbarians were not so easily cowed and their raids continued to gnaw Britannia from all sides. With the situation deteriorating once more, the conspirators of 367 may have watched in gleeful disbelief as parts of the imperial garrison began to leave the island in the period after 380. The first big troop-withdrawal came in 383 when Magnus Maximus, a high-ranking officer in Britain, resolved to make himself emperor. Ironically, he had previously inflicted heavy defeats on the Picts and Scots, but now he poured his energies into his personal ambitions. Supported and encouraged by other officers, he led a substantial army across the sea to Gaul, thereby depleting Britain of forces essential for her protection. The barbarians are likely to have taken full advantage of his departure, but this time there was no Theodosius to confront them. Troubles elsewhere in the Empire made it impossible to send reinforcements to Britain. Another famous general, the half-Vandal Flavius Stilicho, is depicted in a contemporary Latin poem leading an expedition against the Picts at the end of the fourth century. It seems, however, that this campaign existed only in the imagination of the poet Claudian who used it as a literary device to illustrate the far-reaching extent of Stilicho’s fame. In reality, the Empire lacked the will to rescue Britain from the brink of catastrophe. To compound the situation, the Roman authorities now faced a peril much closer to home.

On the last night of the year 405, the imperial frontier in Germany was overwhelmed by a host of Vandals, Alans and other barbarians who crossed the Rhine to begin the dismemberment of Roman Gaul. In Britain the garrison reacted by rallying around Constantine, an ambitious officer with an auspicious name, and proclaimed him emperor. Leading a large force, Constantine sailed over to Gaul to assert his claim against forces loyal to the legitimate emperor Honorius. The loyalists were victorious and the usurper was executed. By 410, his henchmen in Britain were rooted out, but they bequeathed a desperate situation. With the depleted imperial troops struggling to stand firm against barbarian raids, the native elites of the southern towns seized control of the imperial administration. Taking the initiative, these Romanised Britons restored a semblance of order before appealing to the emperor for aid. But Honorius was grappling with the problems of a disintegrating Empire and had no help to offer to beleaguered subjects in a faraway land. Instead, he sent a letter urging the anxious Britons to organise their own defence. This had profound consequences for the remaining Roman troops, all of whom relied on wages issued by the imperial treasury. Their pay had probably been arriving erratically for some time, but now it ceased altogether. Without it the soldiers had no incentive or obligation to defend the Empire. On the northern frontier, groups of disillusioned men gradually abandoned their forts, taking their families with them and vanishing into the countryside. In the lands to the south, the last vestiges of imperial bureaucracy were swept away as power was seized by native leaders. By c.420, the Roman occupation of Britain was over.