Does the Fierce Reputation of The Picts Reflect Reality?
It’s not that the Picts, a group of British Isle inhabitants, were that different from native Britons around the fourth century, a historian suggests in a new book. It’s just that Julius Caesar didn’t conquer them.
The often mischaracterized, always mysterious people could serve as a historical laboratory to explore how the island’s culture might have developed without Roman intervention.
Although the Picts’ legacy stretches back centuries before that first encounter with Rome, the group entered the historical record as Roman forces began to push their empire’s frontiers into northern England.
By the fourth century AD, Romans typically referred to the fierce warriors who lived north of Hadrian’s Wall—Rome’s nearly 80-mile long defensive line in England—as the Picts.
Part of Hadrian's Wall running downhill from the northeast corner of Housestead’s Roman Fort. ( Public Domain )
“The big myth is that the Picts were somehow different from the native Britons, the people that Julius Caesar met when he came over to England,” says Benjamin Hudson, professor of history and medieval studies at Penn State and author of The Picts (Wiley Blackwell 2014).
“They weren’t different—they were merely Britons that the Romans didn’t conquer.
One of the many neglected aspects of Pictish society is what it can tell the historian—one of the questions we have about what happened after the Roman occupation of southern Britain is why the Britons reverted so quickly to the type of organization they had prior to the Romans.
If you look at the Picts you find that the identity and the organization of the Picts is similar to southern Britain after the Romans left, but Roman writers weren’t interested in that part of history.”
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Warriors or Victims?
Throughout history, the Picts have often suffered from the biases of the times, which led to the overgeneralization of their society. Roman historians portrayed the Picts as warriors and savages.
Hand-colored version of Theodor de Bry’s engraving of a Pict woman (a member of an ancient Celtic people from Scotland). De Bry’s engraving, “The True Picture of a Women Picte,” 1588 ( Public Domain )
The name Pict is a pejorative from a Latin term for picture. The Picts used body art, something that horrified and intimidated the invading Romans. More recent historians may have created an image of the Picts as helpless victims of progress and warfare.
The truth, according to Hudson, is probably much more nuanced.
As much as they are known for their body art, the Picts are also known for the variety and quantity of sculpture and artwork that they left, a proficiency that defies their early reputation as uncivilized warriors.
“They have almost as many monuments as does the area south of Hadrian’s Wall,” Hudson says. “Some of these are miniature on the Stonehenge model, standing stones. Some of them are in burial mounds made in concentric circles.”
Serpent Stone, Pictish monument engraved with symbolism Aberlemno, Scotland ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
That is only one of the mysteries of Pict sculpture, however. The monuments are adorned with symbols that have yet to be translated.
“Despite claims to the contrary, nobody has yet come up with a translation of the Pictish symbols that satisfies everybody else,” Hudson says. “Are we looking at pictographs or are we looking at something from more of a Scandinavian context?”
The Scots, who eventually invaded the territory controlled by the Picts in the mid-ninth century AD, eventually absorbed the people into their own culture.
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Detail from a frieze in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Queen Street, Edinburgh. ( rampantscotland.com)
“The Picts didn’t go out with so much of a bang as they went out with a whimper,” Hudson says. “When the Scots King Kenneth McAlpin moved his troops from western Scotland to eastern Scotland, we find that he amalgamated the Pictish people he found there and suddenly they took on the name of their conquerors. For a time, they were called the Picts, and then Scot-Picts and then, eventually, just Scots.”
Source: Penn State University