The Barbarian Conspiracy

(Picts, Scotti-Irish, and Teutons) in Britain 367

Picts, Saxons, Scots Irish and Attecotti combined to raid Britain in the “Barbarian Conspiracy” of 365 to 368. Attecotti were especially savage and dreaded raiders and mercenaries, who St. Jerome wrote in 393 he had seen in his youth (probably in Gaul 365-370) indulging in canibalis “prefering the haunch of the shepherd to his sheep”, and who emigrated from Northern Ireland to Caithness, Man and the Hebrides. Sufficient Attecotti were captured by the Romans for 4 auxilia palatina to be recruited from them in the reign of Honorius (392 – 423). Insufficient is known to justify a separate list for Attecotti. They are not heard of after 406. Pictish raids on Roman Britain often outflanked Hadrian’s Wall by sea and the power of the Pictish fleet is mentioned with awe in the Irish annals of Tigernach. Whether their vessels were leather-covered curraghs like those of the Scots-Irish, or plank built, is disputed.

Scant historical accounts suggest that by the 360s military trouble had been building in Britain for some time, and the geography of the island means that this was most likely to have come either from invasion threats/raiding along the coast (with Ireland the most likely candidate) or along the northern frontier, with the Picts and possibly the Scotti or Attacotti mentioned as the enemies.

The Picti appear to have been the successors to the Caledonii and the Maeatae of the earlier period. The term ‘Picti’ became the name for a Roman perception of the situation around the frontier: that by the late third century, there was a marked difference between the British inside the province (exposed to Roman goods and Roman laws) and the British outside, the Picti, who were, from the name given to them, stereotyped as being in some way ‘painted’. Late Antiquity favours these new group names for the emerging enemies, which for the most part consist of a number of tribes. In most cases, they do not appear to represent any recognition of an early state, just a vaguely similar kind of enemy: thus Franci attack in Lower Germany across the frontier and often close to water, the Saxones are the German pirates who live beyond the Franci, Alamanni are a problem of Upper Germany and appear to be associated with the hill country on the east of the Rhine, while the Picti are the British tribes north of the border. In the case of the Picts we lack the necessary detail, but the better source situation on the Rhine clearly demonstrates that within these large ‘nationes’, several kingdoms and chains of command could exist side by side; they were thus at best acting as opportunistic short-lived federations, not as large early states.

The other tribes usually associated with trouble in Britain, the Scotti and Attacotti are in origin firmly locatable in Ireland. Since the nineteenth century there have been researchers suggesting that increasingly the Scotti may have represented Irish settlers in western Scotland. Archaeological and historical research in the last twenty years has now changed this picture markedly. It stresses that there is little or no break in the archaeological culture in the west of Scotland during the Iron Age, as would be expected from a wave of newcomers settling in the area. On the other hand, the foundation myths of the Dalriada or Gaels, as presented by Gildas, Bede and numerous other sources, have been shown to owe much more to the political realities of the sixth and seventh centuries, than to authentically transmitted oral history (Fraser 2009, 144–149). We are thus even in the last decades of Rome’s rule in Britain unable to pinpoint the exact location of Rome’s enemies.

By 367, whatever threat had been building up along the British frontier erupted into open warfare. According to Ammianus Marcellinus (27.8.1–2), who is once again the main source for events, the Emperor Valentinian heard on his way from Amiens to Trier about a Barbarian Conspiracy that had left Britain helpless. Two of the military commanders, Nectaridus, the comes of an unspecified coastal tract (which may well be the same as the Saxon Shore discussed above, although this is just one possibility), and a dux Fullofaudes, had been killed or caught in an ambush (and thus presumably also killed, but not taken prisoners as the translation sometimes appears). We have too little understanding of the military structure of Britain at the time to make a well-informed guess as to what or whom Fullofaudes was commanding, but the term in general signifies one of the highest ranking officers in the provincial armies.

For a province to lose two such high-ranking officers at the same time, suggests a serious incursion or even multiple incursions.

Valentinian’s response was to send in quick succession a series of senior officers from the court to assess and remedy the situation. The first, Severus, was Comes Domesticorum, a position that amongst others entailed command of the Imperial bodyguards. But he must have been recalled quite quickly only to be replaced by the higher-ranking magister equitum Jovinus, whose post involved command of all the cavalry in the central field army. Jovinus may have spent the summer in Britain. Ammianus mentions that both men were trying to find an army to deal with the situation, which suggests that we are dealing here with more than a set of quick raids.

Before the end of the campaigning season (so presumably by the end of August) Jovinus was replaced with the lower ranking, but better equipped dux Theodosius, a comes rei militaris, sometimes also referred to as Theodosius the Elder. His role in the pacification of Britain is given an unusually large amount of space by Ammianus Marcellinus, and most scholars agree that this was because Theodosius’ son eventually became the Emperor Theodosius the Great (379/395) and, perhaps more importantly, was the reigning Emperor at the time Ammianus was writing: thus by praising the father he may have intended to compliment the son.

In addition to the account in the Histories, there are also brief mentions of Theodosius’ campaign in the later historians Jerome, Jordanes (probably copying Jerome) and Zosimus, as well as numerous very florid mentions in the Panegyrics to his Imperial son Theodosius, and his grandson the Emperor Honorius. The latter reference suggests that the campaigns might have reached as far as Ireland, the Orkneys and even Thule, and that they involved warfare on land and sea. It is very tempting to reduce these very poetic contributions to flattery or necessary stylistic metaphors. On the other hand, they provide one of the few geographical clues as to the location of the trouble, while Ammianus appears to restrict himself to the less than helpful ‘north of London’, a geographical pointer that tells us more about the unfamiliarity of the historian with the geography in Britain than about any real location. We are thus once again left without a map to assess the scale of the problem or a means to evaluate the tactics employed by the general. It is, however, striking that the literature of the time suddenly abounds with references to the Orcadas (Orkney Islands), to the extent as we have already seen, that the contemporary historians credit Claudius with receiving the surrender of the king of the Orkneys.

Ammianus’ account (27.8.3–9 and 28.3.1–2) covered the latter part of 367 and 368 with Theodosius crossing from Boulogne to Richborough, bringing with him four units from the field army: the Batavi, Heruli, Jovii and Victores. The army progressed towards London. Here Theodosius split it into detachments and pursued and captured the raiders and their booty.

For the next part of his campaign Theodosius needed more troops and thus offered deserters immunity and recalled soldiers on leave. At the same time, he requested a new vicarius for the diocesis (a vicarius would have been the predominantly civilian governor for the island as a whole, but it is not said what happened to the old one) and a new dux (Dulcitius), presumably as replacement for Fullofaudes.

Having raised a sufficiently strong force, Theodosius set out from London. His next actions are described in the generic phrases that are frequently used for the topos of general relief operations: ‘he brought great assistance to the defeated and confused Britons’, he ‘chose locations for ambushes’, ‘he did not ask anything of the soldiers that he was not willing to do himself ’ and thus ‘routed and put to flight’ the enemy, ‘he restored cities and forts that had suffered damage’. This suggests a successful campaign, but the phrases are commonplace and it is impossible to find out what happened in detail.

In addition to pacifying the enemy, Theodosius also had to deal with an incipient usurpation, which had been started by an exile called Valentinus. The language at this point is extremely partisan, as is to be expected from an account that attempts to portray Theodosius in the best possible light. Valentinus was apparently hatching a nefarious plot and hated Theodosius, who was the only one who could deal with him, which is why Valentinus was defeated and handed over to dux Dulcitius for execution.

Theodosius was now able to prove his excellent character and military ability by forbidding any further investigations into the supporters of this usurpation. In this he behaves in the exact opposite manner to Paulus Catena earlier; and while Theodosius by behaving this way conforms to the ideal of a perfect Emperor (another topos), that was not his position and it is debatable whether this would not have exceeded his competences, had it really happened this way.

Ammianus’ account closes with a review of Theodosius’ long-term achievements: cities restored, forts garrisoned, frontiers protected with watch posts and defence works, and the restored province was now renamed in honour of the Emperor and his family (and clearly not after the usurper mentioned earlier): Valentia. He also did away with the ‘areani’, a group of people whose task it had been to ‘range backwards and forwards over wide areas and to report to our generals threatening behaviour among the neighbouring people’. Apparently in connection with the conspiracy these ‘spies’, appear to have turned double agents and handed vital information over to the enemy. Theodosius’ command came to an end about a year after he had taken office and he was recalled to the Imperial court, where he succeeded Jovinus as magister equitum.

The trouble with Ammianus’ account is not only its general vagueness, but also the fact that the original manuscript has numerous problems, with gaps and unintelligible text. As Ammianus also tends to refer back to his accounts of earlier events, we are in some cases, such as with the areani, left with problems of understanding what was really going on. Thus modern researchers commonly assume that the areani operated north of Hadrian’s Wall, where a number of the outpost forts are known to have held scouting units, with one called castra exploratorum (the Fort of the Scouts). But this would not provide information on the situation of the Scotti and Attacotti, who most academics think of as settling in Ireland at the time. Are we seeing in fact a seaborne force or an early loose network of undercover agents? The suggestions are numerous, but without Ammianus’ description of what happened under Constans, we are unlikely to move beyond pure surmise.

The episode of Theodosius’ campaign against the usurper might actually also hide a story behind the story. The account, as it stands, allows Theodosius to claim all the credit for the pacification of the province. However, modern specialists in late Roman politics have noted some time ago, that third and fourth century usurpations are not only fuelled by the need of the usurper to become the Emperor of the Roman Empire, but appear sometimes to have arisen in response to a local crisis in the province and the unwillingness or (increasingly) the inability of the Emperor to respond to this problem. The latter was possibly a contributing factor in the creation of the Gallic Empire, and very likely in the later British usurpations (such as Carausius but also Constantine III), as well as a number of usurpations in the Balkans and the East (e.g. Odenathus). Amongst the many possible readings of this passage of Ammianus’, it cannot be ruled out that Valentinus’ usurpation was a local response within Britain to the Barbarian Conspiracy and the rather convoluted sequence of fact-finding missions and possibly undermanned response teams. However, as we only have the pro-Theodosian accounts, our hypothesis has to remain exactly that for the moment.

A further problem is the scale of the operations. Ammianus’ account is willing to credit Theodosius with wide-ranging reforms and rebuilding; and in the past numerous burnt layers and refurbishment phases, including a whole phase on Hadrian’s Wall, have been claimed to show the results of this campaign. A better understanding of the pottery sequence, as well as further excavation, now leaves us with very little evidence for any of this rebuilding and construction. Even the Yorkshire coast towers, long associated with this campaign, are now seen to be about 15 years later and more likely to be associated with Magnus Maximus.

This leaves the fourth century historian with the question: how much of the historical account can be trusted? Is the account, as presented, as exaggerated as the Panegyrics, or are archaeologists just looking in the wrong place? Evidence for warfare itself can be hard to identify in the archaeological record and the Barbarian Conspiracy is no exception. In fact, because of the vagueness of the account, we cannot even be sure which parts of the province were affected. Hadrian’s Wall appears to show remarkably little damage at the period in question; so did the Picts circumnavigate the Wall, only to strike at the softer, richer targets further south? If so, it would be good to have a better understanding of the coastal defences around Britain at the time, but while we have a series of forts that could have served as such, there are still long stretches of open coast, plus, especially on the coast of North Yorkshire and County Durham, too much erosion to get a reliable picture of the system, if coastal defence at the time was indeed designed as a single system. Are we correct in reading comes tractus maritimae as a synonym for the Saxon Shore command, or should we reconsider an old suggestion that this was more likely to refer to another coastal command in the West (after all it was the Scotti who were involved in the conspiracy)? Any position chosen is likely to have serious effects on the resulting view of the province in the later fourth century, but as so often before, the amount of evidence allows for multiple valid scenarios, but not for a definitive decision as to which one is right.

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