The small town of Clackmannan, population 3,348, sits just over on the north side of the river Forth, over the Kincardine Bridge. It is therefore north of the line of the Antonine Wall. In the town square is the stone from which the town draws its name – the stone of mannau. That name itself is confirmation of what the later Roman histories tell us about the tribes of northern Scotland; Cassius Dio, describing the 3rd century campaign of Emperor Severus, talks about just 2 tribes north of the Anntonine Wall – nothing like the 10 Ptolemy told us about – the Caledonians, and Maiatai. The Maiatai were just beyond the wall; the Caledonians, ‘beyond them’. It might be that the shades of the Maiatai are a little grumpy that for some reason it is Caledonia which has become the alternative word for Scotland, rather than Manau. There is no accounting for blind chance.
Last time, we talked about the fact that although officially outside the Roman province of Britannia, commerce and discussion between the peoples of northern Britain and the Roman Province of Britannia were common. The period between Agricola’s campaign to 84 and the end of the 2nd century was an era characterised by some confusion about exactly where the borders of the province should be. Antonine ..hadrian…antoninne Hadrian..ooh, it’s so difficult. It was the Emperor Severus who would resolve that confusion once and for all, and usher in a period of pretty peaceful co-existence for some time.
In 195, the roman governor of Britannia was moved; and this change in leadership seems to have set off another round of violence, and it seems to have been the Maiatai who were the main instigators and culprits. It could have been that the Maiatai saw an opportunity; some uncertainty among the Romans that gave them a chance for a smash and grab raid; or it could have been a change of personnel or policy or cack-handed new boy which caused some specific grudge. Either way, Herodian spoke of the barbarians quote ‘laying waste the countryside…carrying off plunder and wrecking almost everything’. Virius Lupus was sent to quieten things down, which he did with the judicious application of cash, which may of course have been the Maiathai objective right from the start, and they very probably considered the matter to be closed, counted their silver, brought some high status Roman goods, and went back to the land. Unfortunately, they were dealing with an Emperor determined to make a name for himself, and who was pretty hard bitten and experienced.
Emperor Septimus Severus was in his 60’s by the time he arrived in Britain in 208. He was a Libyan, from the magnificent city of Leptis Magna on the African coast, and had been Emperor for the last 15 years; so, he knew what he was about. He’d spent a fair proportion of his life on campaign, was no stranger to violence and a bit of light ravaging on a Sunday afternoon. He suffered from gout or arthritis, and this had heightened the level of grumpiness that could be expected.
When he arrived, the Maiathai were worried enough to send ambassadors to smooth things over and ensure there was no regrettable outburst of violence. They were sent away with a collective flea in their ears which maybe gave them a clue as to what would follow. Severus seems to have been clear about what he was after. Before the war started, he authorised a major upgrade of Hadrian’s wall, so he envisaged no conquests; he wanted to teach the Maiathai and Caledonians a lesson, embed an agreement with them for long term peace, and then leave.
Over the next year, the Maiathai and Caledonians took a very sensible approach to the war; they ran away into the hills and avoided any idea of a pitched conflict along the Calgacus model; because they knew full well that the Calgacus model did not end well for the relatively poorly equipped local. That does not mean by any stretch of the imagination that the Romans had free reign – very much the opposite. But the Maiathai and Caledonians chose the raid and the tactics of Guerilla warfare, much, much more suitable. There are very good points about his tactic, involving the retention of life and limb in the same body, which is a major advantage it has to be said, but there are disadvantages to boot; namely that their farms lay undefended. They were duly burned.
At which point we get a rather fun meeting. The leader of the Maiathai was named as one Argentocoxos, and while the war was in progress he decided it was time for a bit more jaw jaw with Severus. All he was saying was that it was time to give peace a chance. He came with his wife, a Caledonian Princess, maybe to reduce the temperature to emphasise war negotiation as a family occasion. While Argentocoxos tried to find a way to restrain the hand of Roman Retribution, his Princess and Severus’s wife Julia Domna met. If accurately recorded, it was an edgy sort of affair, something like the meeting of Gwendolin and Cecily. The Empress mentioned en passant, that she’d heard that the Maiathai believed in free love, and would have sex with pretty much anyone. The Princess returned implied insult with insult;
We fulfil the demands of nature in a much better way than do you Roman women; for we consort openly with the best men, whereas you let yourself be debauched in secret by the vilest.
Ha! Nice one, up your Julia, burn, Maiathai 1, Roman Empire 0. I imagine the rest of the session was reasonably frosty, but who knows. The blokes were no more successful, and Argentocoxos went away without his peace.
Now, Cassius Dio’s characterisation of the campaign leads to a conclusion that the Maiathai and Caledonians led such a successful campaign that Severus lost 50,000 men and was forced to withdraw to do some wound licking and plan his next campaign; that in 211 he died in Eboracum, or York as she would become known, and his son Caracalla swiftly abandoned the campaign and headed back to Rome to seek his fortune. But Cassius Dio was not a Severus supporter; and his account needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. Actually, Caracalla and Severus seem to have put the land of the Maiathai and Caledonians comprehensively and conclusively to the sword, maybe all the way north to the Moray Firth. But it is also true to say that clearly the tribes led a violent and successful guerrilla campaign that cost the Romans dear, though the death of Severus, and Caracalla’s burning desire to be away to pursue his career ambitions Emperor-wise also served their purpose well.
However you characterise it, the settlement that emerged from the campaign was to prove remarkably successful. We don’t know what it said, but we can see the results, the main one of which was over 150 years of relative peace on the northern frontier.
What helped this was clarity. There was to be no more messing about with the frontiers; the formal limit of Roman Britannia was Hadrian’s Wall and Southwards. North of the wall, relationships would be carried out by spies – not sneaky about, for your eyes only , don’t open the shark gate Blofeld kind of spies, but Exploratores, men sent from the Empire to formally observe the barbarians, to work with them, negotiate with them. For some time after 211, it looks as though Roman outposts were maintained north of the River Tay, and therefore north of the line of the Antonnine wall, probably home to diplomats, traders, slavers and officials. It was a defence in depth system of which the wall was just a part, behind a relationships developed with the inhabitants of Outer Brigantia and Inner Caledonia that worked for both parties.
So what were these societies like in northern Britain during the Roman period? Let us talk, gentle listeners of shoes and ships and sealing wax, of cabbages and kings; or alternatively, let us talk about the societies of northern Britain, and the impact or otherwise that Rome had on them. Were they in fact completely unaffected by the Roman invasion as has been suggested by some historians, and left no legacy – a period we should describe as ‘the Roman Interlude’; or in fact with the Empire have an impact on the way the societies formed and developed?
In the first episode, we talked about the Brochs and Hill forts and the suggestion that such structures indicated the emergence of elites within a previously very flat society. The question is though – what kind of elites? Were these formally structured societies like those we might recognise from medieval times onwards – with kings, nobles, peasants, and with the emergence of central government however rudimentary? Or were they a bit more like gangsters; where within a mass of people some stood out through their own efforts or wealth and their ability therefore to influence more people or gather more clients?
Well of course as we’ve said more than once anything is possible, but it seems most likely that these were societies largely free from complex and formal hierarchies. Again, that’s not to suggest that there were no hierarchies – there almost certainly were. But one handy description or phrase is ‘civil society’, and indeed at this time the Caledonians and Maiathai and tribes of Outer Brigantia probably qualify as fully civil societies. At which point it would probably be sensible to explain myself and defend the definition of the phrase as handy, which at this point you might feel is open to debate.
The idea is that civil societies were self-regulating through informal structures and relationships rather than through 3rd party institutions; the pretty much complete absence of the formal machinery of government. The phrase ‘farmer republics’ has also been used. The kind of society being described is one of isolated farms, connected by cultural ties more than formal relationships such as lordship. Again, that is not to suppose that such a society was without its elites and its hierarchies. The main one would have been defined by a kind of legal status; there would have been freemen, who were a fully paid up member of society, and part if the consensus that would form decisions; But then there would have been a category of semi free. This group may have fallen on hard times at some point, and been forced to set up a history members podcast to make ends meet, or more likely, would to give up some of their rights to free status; to be explicit, and give an example, maybe they lacked the land to be independent and support their own family; and so, in return for support they might commit some of their time and labour to a neighbour. And then finally there would have been the unfree – slaves, with no rights at all. We know that one of the things that the Romans desired from their relationships with barbaricum in northern Britain was access to slaves for the markets of the Empire; and there’s little doubt that they were able to buy slaves from the tribesmen.
Now this does sound rather lovely doesn’t it? Not the slavery bit, obviously, but the idea of as fully civil society, a world away from the world of warlords and great men, imposing their rule on others, demanding tribute and taxes. The very phrase, self-governing Farmer republics raises a vision of a paradise, or an anarcho-syndicalist self governing republic of which Dennis would have been proud, in which free men and women gambolled together amongst the heather. But be careful; there may also have been drawbacks.
Here is another matter for debate. This is the wonder, the joy and the delight of studying a period of history this obscure – there is endless, endless opportunity for furious argument, and precious little way of resolving them definitively.
So in the blue corner, ooh I don’t know, let’s call them the optimists. The self Governing farmer republics they say are broadly speaking non-violent societies. The Brochs and Hill forts are part of the display of the emerging elite, and no more than that. Look around the landscape, and you’ll see widely scattered, isolated farmhouses, with no sign of defensive structures. This is a peaceful society, without the need for nucleated villages and defence against marauders.
In the Red corner, the pessimists paint a radically different picture, and draw on what we know from anthropology to boot. A fully civil society has the advantage of nobody to impose taxation, but the disadvantage is the absence of a 3rd party authority to resolve disputes and enforce the law. The pessimists argue that such societies that depend on a fully consensual legal system are in the end dependent on allowing vengeance as compensation for injury – blood feuds in effect. Pessimists argue that the vast majority of fully civil societies continuously wage total war attacking their enemies to strip from them their cattle and women, destroy their houses, and enslave their men. The evidence presented by isolated undefended farmhouses is open to alternative interpretation; not that there was no war, but that it was impossible to defending such places, and so that the response to violence was flight. They didn’t fight, they ran away to the hills when attacks came, and hid until the attackers had gone. Far from being a paradise they say, fully civil societies lived their lives in a constant state of fear.
Well, I don’t know the answer obviously, though I find myself swayed by the argument that there’s no compelling reason why the communities of Northern Britain should have evolved so radically differently to societies elsewhere.
As we’ve said, we know from grave goods and structures such as the Brochs that there was an elite on some kind. The kind of people that listen routinely to high quality history podcasts – the type of person that stands out from the crowd. Now interestingly, the Romans seemed to have an impact on the way this worked. Like it or loathe it, it seems that access to high quality Roman goods were a sure-fire way either of getting yourself high status, or alternatively a symptom of your existing high status. Which isn’t great, in the sense that it’d be far more heart-warming if it was the local art which defined status, but I guess with a beast like the Roman Empire on your doorstep it’s not surprising. So when the finds of Roman materials are analysed, it paints a fascinating picture. By Roman goods by the way we are talking of jewelry, bronze, glassware, or high quality pottery, or the wine, stuff like this. It seemed to depend where you are.
Closest to the Romans, In Outer Brigantia, the lands between the walls, there’s a wide variety of finds across different settlements. The majority have very few; a few have a very substantial amount, and there’s a sort of middle tier. It speaks of quite a lot of hierarchy and structure. Further away from the Empire in Inner Caledonia the pattern is less complex, there are just the haves and have nots; and if you go further out to Atlantic Scotland there’s no differentiation at all between sites. It raises a fascinating conclusion, that the further away from Empire, the flatter and less structured were the Scottish communities. So you know I said it would be weird to say somewhere was remote in the stone age? Well, now it appears as though there is for the first time somewhere to be far away from, which is a shame.
Think about this a little more, and it has even more consequences. It seems relatively common place to suppose that Roman goods would be easier to get hold of the closer you are – just a matter of logistics. But the fact that the fact is that proximity appears to be affecting the very structure of native society. An example is the appearance in later antiquity of a new dominant burial rite in Outer Brigantia and the Maiathaian homeland, i.e. north of the river Tay; bodies were laid on their backs, in stone lined graves laid East to west with no grave goods. They suggest strongly that Christianity had reached northern Britain through the Empire. Secondly, it suggests equally strongly that places like Outer Brigantia and the Maiathai were enthusiastic Romanisers. We are a world away from the lovely image of the noble and free Celtic society fighting for freedom from the cultural and political domination; we are in a much more believable world where the Outer Brigantian tribes like the Votadini, and up as far as the Maiathai took a look at Roman culture and rather liked the idea.
However, before you cry foul at this desecration of the traditional image, the situation in Inner Caledonia might be rather different. There a new burial tradition similarly emerges – but it is significantly different; here although similar graves appear, they are covered by a burial mound and surrounded by a ditch. This is difficult to interpret. It could be the adoption of Roman culture with a local twist. Equally, it could be a conscious rejection of Roman culture. Or it could simply be that the further away from the Empire you went the weaker it’s influence. There’s an illuminating parallel along the Rhine. There, the Franks were heavily influenced by Roman culture; whereas the more distant Alemanni were affected only lightly.
Now then, in the light of all of this, let’s return to the tradition, in the words of one historian, that the Roman Empire was a pimple, a wart, on the buttock that was Scottish history. In the words of one historian that Scotland emerged from the Roman period, quote, ‘untouched by even the thinnest veneer of Romanisation’. This is where the phrase the Roman Interlude comes from – the idea that the Romans passed across the Scottish sun in the briefest of moments, failing hardly to register. What do we think of that, gentle listeners, does that sound right?
I would suggest that it’s a question of degree. Because in one sense, actually it’s a fair conclusion. The Societies of Northern Britain were not conquered by the Romans; they did not become self-consciously Roman; they did not adopt Roman culture wholesale; they didn’t build ampitheatres and shout Gail Casesar; and if that is the test then fair enough. But it is setting the bar very high. If instead you set the test as whether or not the Roman empire had a significant impact on the societies of Northern Britain, and changed them radically then there’s much more an argument to have.
Both the Romans and the indigenous peoples had an interest in each other. The Romans sought contact and influence to both defend their provinces, but also to gain access to trade – slaves, furs for example. They had powerful weapons – in the very human emotions of snobbery, ambition, desire for the easy life. Because people in societies like the Votadini and the Maiathai wanted access to Roman material and culture; in fact it was often the people of Northern Britain who themselves became the strongest force towards Romanisation of their societies, through their own advocacy. The sort of ‘oh look how advanced we are lying down to eat supper why don’t you do it too’ kind of thing. There are more altruistic reasons too; if I can take you back to the civil society and blood feud thing; history is littered with societies going to Rome to ask for help in resolving or mediating their own internal disputes. It would be rather remarkable if the same thing hadn’t happen in Northern Britain.
So, for many communities in Outer Brigantia and Inner Caledonia, the Roman period introduced enormous change. It is striking that until the crises of the 4th century, after Severus the relationship between northern British communities and Rome was marked by peace, not war. The period saw the development of much more structured and complex societies, introduced new cultural ideas, affected regional identities and religious observances. In this, Northern Britain was following a well-trodden path around the Empire. It’s reasonably clear that this was not a matter of Roman policy; the Romans were making it up as they went along, they were no more in control than anyone else; but the process around frontier land all over the Empire was similar. As you go further out, to Atlantic Scotland, Outer Caledonia if you like, the impact becomes less significant or at least less obvious; but for many, the Roman Interlude was a period where the fight was more for access to Rome than a fight for freedom from it.