The Picts: Rome’s Worst Enemy
The Picts—indigenous warriors of the Western world who brought the fight to Rome’s border.
No part of the ancient world is shrouded in mystery like that of the British Isles. Nestled at the furthest stretch of the old world, for thousands of years before the rise of the Roman Empire, sophisticated and cultured peoples called these isles their home. For centuries, prior to the arrival of the Roman Empire, cartographers, merchants, and geographers who visited what is now Britain spoke of the ancient Isles with reverence and wonder.
There were said to be mysterious inhabitants of the Isles, a native group who eventually played a dominant role in the demise of the Roman province of Britannia.
This is the story of the Picts, warriors who grudgingly fought against the Empire for three centuries.
But just who were the Picts? And why do some scholars consider them Rome’s worst enemy?
Before Julias Caesar became the ruler of the Roman Republic, he led the first incursions into what is now Southern Britain in 55 and 54 BCE. By 43 CE, Rome had established a province they named Britannia.
Throughout the ninety years that Rome was developing its settlement on the British Isles, enormous numbers of native peoples fled to the Northern and Western portions of the island, where they could live in peace, free from the treachery of Roman rule. Though some stayed in their homelands and succumbed to the Roman way of life.
Little is known about the native peoples who lived on the British Isles before the Roman invasion. Though, historians have some insight into their lives thanks to the texts of the renowned Greek geographer and scholar Claudius Ptolemy.
Ptolemy wrote his famous work, Geographia, in 150 CE, an atlas that mapped the known world. Modern academics confirm that Ptolemy’s map was based on source material that predated the Roman infiltration of the British Isles as he used the Celtic names for physical landmarks. In his writings, Ptolemy called the British Isles “the islands of ‘Pretannaki.’
According to the Medieval Welsh texts, written by the last of the P-Celtic speakers or Britons, the indigenous people during Pre-Roman times were known as the Pretani. So it seems Ptolemy wrote ‘Pretannaki’ as a Greek rendition of the original Celtic word ‘Pretani.’ These Pretani or Pretannaki would later be referred to by the Romans as the Picts.
There is little to no written history of the Picts, let alone their origins, and as with all mysterious cultures, unusual theories arose about their enigmatic beginnings. Venerable Bede, an Anglican scholar, described one theory in the eighth century.
He claimed the Picts originated farther east and came on boats from Scythia, an ancient territory near the Pontic Steppe in what is now eastern Europe. Others have suggested the Picts were Celtic migrants who moved from Gaul during the late Iron Age. But researchers in the past few decades have indicated that the Picts and their predecessors, the Caledonii or Pretani, have lived in northern Scotland for thousands of years.
Archaeologists working at well-known Pictish-era cemeteries, including Balintore in Easter Ross and Lundin Links in Fife, were able to gain insight into the genetic history of the Picts. Bioarchaeolgoists working out of the Universities of Aberdeen and John Moores in Liverpool were able to prove the gene pool was native to the British Isles. According to results from the genetic sequencing, the Pictish genome could be traced back to the earliest parts of the Iron Age and possibly even the Bronze Era. With this evidence, academics can then surmise the tales of migrations from the Aegean Sea or Scythia were nothing more than myths created by Medieval writers.
Some scholars have even gone as far as to say that the Picts are what’s left of the megalithic builders of the Neolithic Age. The Picts are considered the descendants of the groups who constructed sites such as the Ness of Brodgar and the Standing Stones of Stenness in Orkney.
A small piece of evidence to support this claim can be found in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation. The writer claims that the Picts spoke a language distinct from that of the P-Celtic-speaking Britons. While most of his work is generally meant to be taken with a pinch of salt, it could further indicate that multiple groups made up the population of the British Isles, each likely with their own origin story.
Nonetheless, with the rise of the Roman province, the individual tribes of what would become Pictland were forced to unify themselves in order to deal with the threats posed by the south.
When Rome infiltrated the Isles, many of the Pretani peoples living in the south migrated to the northern and western regions. When they arrived, they integrated with the tribes already residing in these areas, who had well-established communities made of extended families.
During the early years of the Roman province, the most dominant of these clans in the north were the Lugi, Caerini, Smertae, Decante, Venicones, Carnonacae, Selgovae, Votadini, and the most famous of all, the Caledonii.
Of these clans, the Caledonii tribe was the greatest threat to Britannia. The Caledonii managed to unify many of the other tribes into a confederacy in preparation to push back the soon-to-be-advancing Roman forces.
By 78 CE, Rome had essentially subjugated the entire southern population of the Isles. With Britannia’s governor, Gnaeus Julius Agricola leading the movement, Roman soldiers made their way north toward the unruly tribes led by the Caledonii. However, the Romans couldn’t manipulate the tribes as they did in the south, so a full-scale invasion would be necessary to bring the northern territory under their dominion.
This conflict would culminate with the battle of Mons Graupius in 83 CE. According to the writings of Agricola’s stepson, Tacitus, the Roman army crushed the resistance led by the Caledonians.
Unfortunately for the Romans, they failed to hold onto the northern territories, a situation that ultimately led to the construction of Hadrian’s Wall in 122 CE. The enormous structure stretched for over seventy miles, separating the Roman province from the northern lands, which would soon become known as Pictland.
Two decades later, a second wall was built. Antonine’s Wall sat one hundred miles further north than Hadrian’s, as it aimed to further extend the Roman territory in the north. It would be the righteous and hardened warriors who lived beyond this wall that would soon come to be known as the Picti to Latin writers across their vast Empire.
The first mention of a group known as the ‘Picti’ was recorded two centuries after the battle of Mons Graupius. A Roman-era writer, Eumenius, referred to savage tribes and half-naked barbarians known as Picts who lived beyond the northernmost of Britannia’s boundaries in 297 CE.
Scholars have long speculated upon the original meaning of this name. Some historians believe the name ‘picti’ means ‘painted ones’ in Latin, as the indigenous tribes are said to have covered themselves in blue tattoos. Others surmise it was related to a native word, ‘Pecht,’ used by the tribes of Scotland to refer to their ancestors.
No matter where the name came from, it was given to all people living above the northern wall by the Romans for a very specific reason. The Romans required a scapegoat to explain why they struggled so extensively to hold on to the province of Britannia.
So Latin scholars would go on to formulate what some have called the ‘barbarian conspiracy.’ Writers of the time characterized the tribes that lay beyond the Roman territory as uncivilized, illiterate, and promiscuous heathens and used the general term Pict to refer to any ‘barbarian’ that lived beyond the Roman boundaries of Britannia.
Yet, it’s become increasingly apparent in recent years that the native peoples were anything but barbaric. The Picts lived in close-knit tribal communities, had a profound understanding of astrology, were master artisans, and lived generally peaceful lives.
Historians have surmised that the word ‘Pict,’ which was used frequently by various scholars from the fourth to tenth centuries, was nothing more than a Latinized name for the indigenous peoples of Pretani. Although some scholars suggest that the name ‘Pict’ was solely reserved for the native people of Britannia who had moved north of the great walls and took no part in Roman customs.
In contrast, the name Briton refers to any tribe that had been Romanised. But nonetheless, both the Picts and the Romanised Britons should be considered descendants of the Pretani.
The people who would eventually be known as the Picts posed a severe threat to the stabilization of Rome’s province of Britannia from its earliest formation. However, after the building of Antonine’s Wall in the second century, warring between these tribes and the Romans intensified.
From the fourth century onwards, the Picts began raiding the boundaries of Britannia on a regular basis. By this era, the Picts knew not to face the Romans head-on and employed guerrilla warfare to hold back the Roman army.
At the same time, political upheaval at the center of Rome’s Empire left distant territories such as Britannia vulnerable. This allowed the Picts to gain the upper hand in their war against the Romans to the south.
The Picts teamed up with the Irish Scoti on various occasions during this era of instability. At one point, the groups established temporary control over the entire province of Britannia. To achieve such a task, the warriors would have needed an extensive level of knowledge of Rome’s defences and strongholds; this event in itself assures historians that the Picts were more than naked barbarians.
While Pictish warfare generally came in the form of raids, a few writers refer to extended conflicts such as Stilichos Pictish War. This was an encounter between the Pictish Confederation and the Western Roman Empire in approximately 398 CE. Not much is known about the war, yet extensive damage to Hadrian’s wall is recorded. According to a Latin poet, Claudian, Britannia was secured by the Romans, yet just over a decade later, the province ceased to exist as we know it.
While the Roman writers would never admit it, the constant raids brought forth by the Picts on the province’s northern frontier played a huge part in the weakening of Rome’s grasp in the west. No doubt, this played a significant role in Rome’s decision to retreat from Britannia in 410 CE. The general consensus among academics and historians is that the Picts were undoubtedly Rome’s greatest enemy in the west.