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.

Monday, 17 January 2011

The Eagle Draws Nearer

Eagle movie posterThey're ramping up the publicity for the movie version of Rosemary Sutcliff's Eagle of the Ninth (which I blogged about here and here).

The movie will be released as "The Eagle", apparently to avoid confusion over the fate of Eagles I-VIII.

Last week, the Film Stage web site pointed to the featurette on Yahoo! Movies, claiming that The Eagle is "a movie I'm fairly certain I had never heard of until ten minutes ago". Shame on you, Film Stage! Some of us have been following the slowly unfolding saga since 2003.

The stand-out quote for this old emperor was Director Kevin Macdonald's claim, in the context of "Roman Britain, Celtic Britain", that "no-one knows what people who lived then were like". So it seems that the archaeologists may as well just pack their bags and forget it.

But he is right when he says that "it's a great, great story, and there aren't many great stories in the world which just take hold of your throat and lead you the entire way, and I think this is one of those great stories."

True. But is it going to be one of those great movies?

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

ExplorersHappy New Year!

Late last year, I noticed that the Palestine Exploration Fund had put up a lot of photographs onto Flickr. Apparently, they have a collection of 40,000 images dating from 1850 right up to the present day; their Flickr photo-stream comprises 162 items, mostly from the 19th century.

One photograph (reproduced here) caught my eye. It shows "a group of explorers", the members of the Jerusalem Survey Team, relaxing on the evening of 15 August 1867. But this is truly a league of extraordinary gentlemen.

Introducing the Gentlemen

The fine figure in the centre, looking uncannily like Michael Palin from the Ripping Yarns television series, is the Reverend Dr Joseph Barclay (1831-1881), who became the Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem in 1879, two years before his untimely death. He had come to Jerusalem in 1861 as head of the London Society Mission, but resigned in 1870 in disgust at the organisation's poor standards of management. In 1867, when this photograph was taken, he was presumably still an enthusiastic representative of the Mission.

Seated on the right is Corporal H. Henry Phillips of the Royal Engineers, who is credited as the photographer. The Ordnance Survey of Jerusalem, which began in 1864 with the stated aim of improving the poor sanitation and water supply in the city, was carried out by volunteers from the Royal Engineers. It was in direct connection with this that the Palestine Exploration Fund was set up in 1865. Corporal Phillips recurs as Sergeant Phillips during the surveys of the 1870s.

The reclining figure in the foreground is Mr F. A. Eaton, M.A. (1836-1913), later Sir Fred Eaton, joint author of The Royal Academy and Its Members, 1768-1830 and sometime Secretary to the Royal Society.

Duffer Warren

Most interesting of all, though, is the figure seated at the left. This is Lieutenant Charles Warren R.E., later General Sir Charles Warren (1840-1927). After working for the Palestine Exploration Fund (1867-70), surveying and excavating in Jerusalem, he returned to Britain to further his career. In 1882, he was sent to Sinai to discover the fate of the Palmer expedition, and in 1886 became Chief Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, during the time of the Jack the Ripper murders. In late 1899, aged almost 60, he took command in the Boer War, during which he bungled the relief of Ladysmith and was responsible for the massacre at Spion Kop. His incompetence was rewarded with promotion to Colonel-Commandant of the Royal Engineers.

What amazing stories are concealed in the peace and tranquility of this photograph.

The photo can be found at: