Saturday, 22 January 2011

The Problem of the Picts

Aberlemno standing stoneLast week, I was honored to receive several visits from Taleworlds, a games-related forum hosted by a Turkish software company.

The topic there was "Why did Rome fail to conquer the Picts?" An interesting question, which continued: "Why did they fail while the Scots from Ireland succeeded?" (The questioner reminded us that "the Picts were a loose group of tribes while the Romans were a powerful empire".)

In amongst the robust repartee (which is common on most online forums), there was some inevitable misinformation. For example, in response to the observation that "Erm, Rome did conquer Scotland", referring to the Agricolan campaigns of AD 79-84, came the put-down: "there is debate over the legitimacy of Agricola's claims, though. Some believe it to be propaganda". Some probably do, but not generally those who have studied the subject.

Equally, there were some interesting observations, such as: "the Picts did not have enough trinkets, good land, gold, badassery to be worth it", and "It was too far, too full of smelly, hairy men, too little gold and, in general, they couldn't be bothered". All quite understandable opinions, if based on nothing more than gut reaction.

How Did Rome Conquer?

Along the way, I was struck by the following perceptive contribution:

  An area needs a certain amount of development before it can be forced into an empire. You need towns, significant trade in bulk necessities like grain, etc. If all you've got is a bunch of hundreds of mostly self-sufficient villages and farmsteads, then you can march an army in and march an army out without really making much of an impact. You can burn and loot a bit, but there's not enough agricultural surplus to support a big garrison, and even if you do set up big forts in the valleys controlling the major rivers and fords, no one cares, because they're not dependent on trade anyway.
  The way that places like Scotland and Wales were historically conquered was by settlement -- some other Germanic or Celtic group invaded, settled in the villages, intermarried with the existing tribes, and became the new tribal overlords. If you try that with professional soldiers, they will no longer be professional soldiers. An invading army might be able to change the demography or the language of such areas, but can't make them answer to an imperial or provincial capital.
Interesting ideas, which Roman scholars would do well to take on board. But more relevant, perhaps, to the wider geographical question, Why Did the Romans Fail to Conquer Scotland?, than to the specific query posed by the Taleworlds questioner.

Why Didn't the Romans Conquer the Picts?

The problem with this question is that it lacks historical perspective. Which Romans are we talking about? And did they try to conquer the Picts?

I have mentioned the problem of the Picts before, here, here, and here. But perhaps it's worth repeating the main points, for those readers who are not already sick of them.

Which Romans are we talking about? In the context of the Picts, we have stepped forward into the fourth century AD. Many would agree that, by then, the Roman army had passed its prime. But even if we cling to ideas of Roman invincibility, the army that rode north from York with Constantius Chlorus in AD 305 was a very different creature from the one that had crushed the Caledonian tribes at Mons Graupius in AD 84.

Did they try to conquer the Picts? There is every indication that, by the fourth century, Rome had grown accustomed to a British province that stopped at Hadrian's Wall. Septimius Severus may have dreamed of extending Rome's dominions in Britain in AD 210, but throughout the next hundred years, no other emperor had shared his vision. Constantius Chlorus' expedition bears all the hallmarks of a punitive raid, designed to show the flag to Rome's new, aggressive neighbours. It seems to have worked. A whole generation passed before the next recorded trouble in winter AD 342/3. And almost another before the campaigns of the 360s. And another before the campaign of AD 382. And almost another before that of AD 395.

Sadly, we lack details for any of these events. But it seems clear that these are not the actions of an aggressive empire attempting conquest. Rather, they suggest an exasperated empire slapping down an increasingly irritating neighbour.

Our lack of detailed evidence means that we view the Pictish picture through a glass darkly. But one thing is clear: the Romans did not "fail to conquer the Picts". Rather, they never attempted conquest. And in doing so, they failed to solve the problem of the Picts.


  1. That's quite meta. Uhm. Thanks.

    (and I linked to the blog at least! ;))

  2. Like the web art, Jan. Thanks for stopping by.

  3. What the commenter says sums up the problems the Romans faced in Germany as well. No infrastructure (except some navigable rivers), no surplus agriculture, not towns. Theoretically, Tiberius had conquered Germania in AD 6, but the problem was keeping it (much the same as Agricola in Caledonia). The Romans had to invest in an infrastructure and towns, had to teach the tribes how to change their agricultural ways and produce surplus, had to work with those nobles willing to side with Rome - and there were some. It did work for a time, but then Rome speed up the process under Varus, foisted taxes and Roman law upon the Germans and lost all credit they may have had (after all, the Germans had Gaul as an example of the advantages of Romanization). And they found a leader who knew how to fight the Romans by using their weaknesses. Arminius not only won the battle in the Teutoburg Forest, but he managed to stand up against several attempts to reconquer Germania in the years to follow. The Romans lost too many men in those wars and gained too little, so in the end Tiberius decided the empire would end at the Rhine, not the Elbe.

  4. I'm looking at the myths surrounding Hadrian's Wall on my blog which you might find interesting in relation to the Picts.

    Cheers Paul

  5. There's a good essay about the Picts on Guy Halsall's Historian On The Edge blog.

  6. no.

  7. Failures? None. Nothing but success! :-)

  8. Do you think it coincidental that the modern 'art' of the distillation of spirits was invented in the 'north'?(I seem to recall the Scots claiming bragging rights). Without the benefit of a good 'Scotch' (more probably a Drambuie type elixer would have had more appeal)Roman Military leaders such as Agricola must have been appalled by the thought of spending long periods of time wandering the northernmost regions of the 'Isles'. Much like Afghanistan an invading army would have had a frustrating time running back and forth trying to find a 'determined' foe. More often 'determined' to run away and melt into the landscape - returning only to harass you in the dead of night. After a few frustrating years even the most determined and militaristic minded empires have packed the bags and headed home - returning only for 'punitive' purposes.