What the Romans Found: The Picts

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One of the chief threats to Roman occupation of Britannia was the continued presence of the Picts, an ancient people who lived in what is now Scotland and who raided across Hadrian’s Wall for almost the entire Roman period. The word Pict comes from the Latin picti, or “painted people,” probably from the fact that the Picts liked to paint and/or tattoo their bodies.

The Picts assembled themselves into two kingdoms north of the Firth of Forth. (These two kingdoms would eventually become one, long after the Romans left.) They slowed the Roman advance considerably, the Romans having reached the Tyne/Solway perimeter in 78 and having won a tremendous battle in 84 in the heart of “Pictland.” But manpower was lacking in the Roman reinforcement division, and the Picts (called Caledonians by Roman historians) drove the Romans back to the Tyne/Solway perimeter, where Hadrian had his wall built beginning in 122. The Antonine Wall, several miles north, stretching between the Clyde and the Forth, was built some 20 years later. Both walls, it was freely admitted, were needed to keep the marauding Picts out of Roman territory.

That the Picts could co-exist within Britannia as a trading partner of Rome was never an option for Roman commanders, especially since the Picts kept raiding Roman settlements. In fact, toward the beginning of the third century A.D. a people called the Maeatae joined the Caledonians and crossed Hadrian’s Wall. It goes without saying that they had bypassed the Antonine Wall, which remained out of commission until about 212.

The struggles continued throughout the occupation, with varied results. The main motivation for Pictish raids, other than enforcing continued independence, seems to have been riches and wealth, which the Romans had in abundance. The Picts were a warrior society, as were their Celtic predecessors. The tribes had their chieftains; unlike the ancient Celts, however, the Picts chose to unite in the face of the Roman presence. Unlike other warrior tribes, the Picts followed the practice of mother-son succession. In other words, the son of the king was not usually the next king. (This made succession a bit more difficult, but they managed.)

They spoke a common language (common only to themselves, that is), which was based on an old Celtic language. They built large, beautiful towers and fashioned exquisite jewelry. They wanted only to be left alone. The Romans would not comply.