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The Attacotti – Britons, Gaels or Picts? – Part One

Magister Peditum page 4 from the Roman Notitia...

One of the Attacotti (Atecotti) Roman unit shield patterns: second row, third from left.

UPDATED 25.12.11

In this Two Part blog I will take a look at a people of Britannia (or Hibernia/Ireland) called the Attacotti who were involved in the so called Barbarian Conspiracy of 364-367 and who, after their defeat or perhaps later, were made Roman military units. Many have discussed this issue, but I hope to add at least a little more to the debate.

It’s said that the Barbarian Conspiracy of 364-367 involved the Picti, Scotti and Attacotti. The latter tribe is hard to identify (not having been mentioned by the 2nd century geographer Ptolemy, although it could have been a later collective name given to some he identified) and they have been placed as far afield as Ireland, the west coast of Scotland and southwest Wales. Wherever they were from, after the Conspiracy, (either after their defeat and capture, or later under treaty), their warriors ended up being made into several Roman military auxilia palatina units … something apparently unique amongst the British tribes (Rance, 2001, p.1).

The Attacotti are, indeed, an enigmatic group. Some place them in the Western Isles or Western Scotland, but there is an argument put forward by Philip Rance (‘Attacotti, Déisi and Magnus Maximus: The Case for Irish Federates in Late Roman Britain’, 2001) that they were actually the Déisi of Demetia (now Dyfed) then known as aichechthúatha (‘client people’) – a general term used for ‘rent-paying’ groups of Irish – so would have been in what is now southwestern Wales. (There are counter arguments to this on linguistic grounds, which I will go into later, although Rance’s argument isn’t just an etymological one). The writer Carla Nayland has wondered about them being a culturally distinct group amongst the Pictish nation: that is the region the Pictish Chronicles called Got and the Irish translation of Historia Brittonum called Cat or Caith (as in Caithness) in northeast Scotland. ( http://www.carlanayland.org/essays/attacotti.htm ). Carly admits it might be clutching at straws to suggest Got or Caith were *cott, but it’s worth a look.

I’ll look at where they might have been from later.

AMMIANUS MARCELLINUS

It’s in Book 27 of his history, the 4th century imperial historian Ammianus Marcellinus tells us:

“It will, however, be in place to say, that at that time the Picts, divided into two tribes, called Dicalydones and Verturiones, as well as [in the same way] the Attacotti, a warlike race of men, and the Scots [Irish or, possibly, Goidelic speaking Britannians], were ranging widely and causing great devastation; while the Gallic regions, wherever anyone could break in by land or by sea, were harassed by the Franks and their neighbours, the Saxons, with cruel robbery, fire, and the murder of all who were taken prisoners.” [brackets are mine]

However, in Book 26 he has said they all were attacking the ‘Britons’. This certainly make it sound that they were not Britons themselves, or certainly not from within the diocese. I’ll look at this in more depth later.

Since the Picti were from the north, and there may have been Scotti there too in the Western Isles, it’s generally argued that the Attacotti must be from the north also. But this doesn’t necessarily follow. In fact, the line “were ranging widely and causing great devastation” may suggest otherwise. Yes, there was definitely trouble in the north but they could have been from the far west, as Rance (and others before him) have suggested (but see below), or, if they were from Ireland, and raided (and settled?) that could be anywhere on the western seaboard, from Lancashire to the Isle of Anglesey in northwest Wales and even down to northern Cornwall. If they were from, and encountered as a federate group, somewhere in Wales, it might be the reason why so many could be captured as it wasn’t so easy for them to escape. But, the question has to be asked, why was there no Scotti Roman unit, or Dicalydones or Verturiones? Didn’t they get caught? There must have been a considerable number of Attacotti to have made a unit or two out of them.

MILITARY UNITS

Notitia Dignitatum  (List of Offices) – is an official list of late Roman administrative and military posts from anywhere around 400 AD.)

It’s not something I do lightly, but I will quote the Wikipedia section on the Attacotti, as I think it’s very well written: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attacotti

The Notitia Dignitatum is a list of offices of the early fifth century Roman Empire, and includes the locations of the offices and the staff (including military units) assigned to them.

The names of several units resembled that of the Attacotti who were mentioned by Ammianus, and in an 1876 publication Otto Seeck assigned the name Atecotti to various spellings (“acecotti”, “atecocti”, “attecotti”, “attcoetti”, “[illegible]ti”, and “arecotti”) in the Notitia Dignitatum, and documented his assignments within the publication. This produced four conjectural occurrences of Atecotti-related units: Atecotti [Illyricum] Atecotti juniores Gallicani Atecotti Honoriani seniores Atecotti Honoriani juniores.

The discovery of a contemporary funerary dedication to a soldier of the “unit of Ate[g,c]utti” in the Roman Diocese of Illyricum supports this reconstruction, as the Notitia Dignitatum places one Atecotti unit in that diocese.

It’s highly probable that all these units weren’t formed at the same time, and the title ‘Honoriani‘ may suggest two of them were created during the reign of the Emperor Honorius (395-423 AD) and named in his honour, whilst the Atecotti of Illyricum and, perhaps, the Atecotti Iuniores Gallicani were, the original units. (Scharf, 1995, 163-5)

A.H.M. Jones (History of the Later Roman Empire, Blackwell, Oxford, 1964 p 682) estimates that there may have been 600 or 700  to a unit but it could have been up to 800, and this is a lot. Not that there has to have been that many Attacotti of course. They could have been the majority and others could indeed have been Scotti and Picti. Two of these units were cavalry. This could mean they were good horsemen, which might give an argument that they weren’t seaborne raiders, but mounted? However, it is also possible they were good on both land and sea.

AUXILIA PALATINA

It could be telling that two of the units were auxilia palatina (the Atecotti Honoriani Seniores and the Atecotti Iuniores Gallicani). These were élite barbarian regiments of the imperial escort armies. This could be the fate of those barbarians who were captured or who made a treaty, and many a Germanic people became them. They were a type of unit the 4th century military writer Vegetius didn’t agree with in his ‘Epitome of military science’. He thought citizen raised armies better trained and more trustworthy.

The fact that the Atecotti Iuniores Gallicani were one of these units may point to these being the first. However, because the Atecotti Honoriani Seniores were also auxilia palatina it could mean they were also one of the first, with the title Honoriani attached later.

One Germanic bunch of warriors, besieged on an island in the Rhine had to decide their own fate:

“In the winter of that year,[298/299] a host of Alamanni infantry was crossing the frozen Rhine. When the ice suddenly broke, they became trapped on an island, whereupon Constantius sent the river fleet to besiege them. To come to terms, they had to hand over a number of warriors as recruits for the Roman army. These were not “captives” (as the panegyric claims), but rather treaty-bound allies, for the troops chose among themselves who had to go. Worsted tribes often picked among themselves the warriors they were required to contribute to the Roman army; it was in Rome’s interest to enroll men who liked to serve, who were least needed at home, and who were therefore least likely to desert. Bound to each other by tribal ties of trust, an Alamannic king and his followers were likely to have stayed together when giving themselves up for service in the Roman army.”  (Raising New Units for the Late Roman Army: “Auxilia Palatina”, Michael P. Speidel, Dumbarton Oaks Papers, Vol. 50 (1996), pp. 165-166)

Could it have been a similar fate of the Attacotti? If so, it could mean that they had to have been from outside the diocese of Britannia and not from somewhere like Demetia, which was within Britannia Prima. Unless they were newly arrived in the region but not yet citizens.

What would be interesting to know is how long the Attacotti as a ‘tribe’ had to supply young men as part of a possible treaty. Did this stop when Roman rule ended? The problem is we can’t be certain when that was, even though 410 is the date usually given. Some young Attacotti might have thought there was a better life for them in the service of the empire. However, most tribal based units would soon become ethnically diverse.

ST. JEROME

We get St. Jerome (c. 347-420), a priest from the borders of Dalmatia and Pannonia who travelled in Gaul between 365-370 AD, mentioning the Attacotti in rather unflattering terms in his Treatise Against Jovinianus

“Why should I speak of other nations when I, a youth, in Gaul beheld the Attacotti, a British tribe, eat human flesh, and when they find herds of swine, cattle, and sheep in the woods, they are accustomed to cut off the buttocks of the shepherds, and the paps of the shepherdesses, and to consider them as the only delicacies of food.”

There have been various theory on whether he meant human flesh or if there was a miss-translation from “humanis” (human flesh) for “inhumanis” (animal flesh). (See the Wikipedia article for more information). However, the Greek historian Strabo (64/63 BC – ca. AD 24) was the first to call the Irish gluttonous, incestuous cannibals. (Celtic Culture: a historic encyclopaedia, Koch, 2005, p.846)

In Jerome’s Letter to Oceanus he complains about the promiscuous Attacotti, Scotti, and the people of Plato’s Republic. Why does he mention the Scotti here? Was it because they were both Goidelic speakers? Or was it because there were, indeed, Scotti in the Attacotti units. Or was it because the Attacotti’s behaviour reminded him of the Scotti? Rance wonders if it was simply for literary effect. Of course, the Attacotti being Goidelic (Gaelic) speakers does not mean they couldn’t be Britannians, as Ken Dark has argued. (Britain and the End of the Roman Empire). However, as Rance also points out, the Romans perceived the Irish (Scotti) as cannibals (true or not) so this could, indeed, be why they’re mentioned together. But if they were, say, a Pictish people, why would they be mentioned here?

(Updated) There is one slightly strange thing; if Jerome experienced this encounter with the Attacotti when he was a ‘youth’ and he was born in c. 347, then he came across them before the Barbarian Conspiracy! Unless he counted being 22 or so as a ‘youth’, or, his birth date is later than thought, in the early or mid 350s?  They could have been formed before the troubles in Britain began (again), or, as Philip Freeman (‘Ireland and the Classical World‘, 2000, p.96) points out, Jerome could have been referring to a raiding group of Attacotti before they’d been made into a military unit. If this is the case then they may indeed have been from Ireland as we know the Scotti raided as far as northern Gaul.

IN FOR ME, IN FOR ME!

The three above classical writers aren’t the only ones to have a go at the Scotti. As Philip Freeman in his excellent book, ‘Ireland and the classical world’ (2001) notes, there were plenty of other writers mentioning them. Pomponius Mela and Solinus commented on the Scotti’s lack of morality and Freeman tells us how Jerome may have been influenced by Caesar’s description of the polygamous Britons (p.100). Prudentius (c.348-405) calls them “the half-wild Scottus, worse than war-hounds”. (Like Britain, Ireland supplied the empire with war or fighting dogs. (Symmachus, c.393). Of course, the irish weren’t the only ones classical writers had it in for. Many a barbarian was written about in unfavourable terms.

BRITONS, GWYDYLS OR FICHTI?

So, were the Attacotti Britons, Gaels(Gwydyl) or ‘Picts’ (Fichti) … or, as Carla Nayland suggests, something unique within the Pictish confederacy, perhaps with Scandinavian influence, hence why they are named separately? St. Jerome calls them Britons, but he may just have known that they originated from Britannia, and that may have meant the island and not the Roman diocese of “The Britains’. We don’t know if he heard them speak, or, even if he had, if he would have understood them.

As I mentioned above, there have been many attempts to identify them by their name with it coming from Goidelic aichechthúatha, or something like the Atta/Ate (S)cotti, or deriving from Alt Clut. (I will look at these in more detail in Part Two). St. Jerome’s text could be used to relate them with the Scotti, but this is not entirely conclusive. However, I would favour the explanation given in ‘The Dialects of Ancient Gaul’ by Xavier Delamarre (p.57), with their name meaning “Very Ancient (ones)”. Intensive prefix *ate + cotto – “old”  from either Early Irish or Brittonic, which were much closer languages at the time. (Thanks to Christopher Gwinn for reminding me of this). The alternative, as mentioned, could be the same intensive prefix *ate, but plus (S)cotti. Meaning a particularly nasty group of Scotti.

Not that this help us locate them! What I think we should be looking at is why there was a concerted (if it was) raiding and if knowing ‘why?’ will help with ‘where?’ … and that’s exactly what I’ll be doing in Part Two.

Thanks for reading and I look forward to your thoughts, comments and correction.

Mak

 
 

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In Search of the ‘Original’ King Arthur – Part Five

The Pennines in northern England

UPDATED 1.6.12

Arthur Penuchel c. 570s (?)

Said to be one of the sons of the northern British ruler Eliffer (of the Pennines/York), along with Gwrgi and Peredur. He, perhaps, shouldn’t be included here because of his mention in the Jesus College MS 20 genealogies is thought by most to be a scribal error for their sister Arddun, who appears in the incomplete Peniarth MS 47. The scribal error is understandable, but the epithet penuchel (‘arrogant’/‘high head’/‘overlord’) is a little harder to understand, unless Arddun herself had it. There was one other ‘penuchel’: Sawyl penuchel (ben uchel), the son of Pabo Post Prydein and a descendent of Coel Hen. To confuse matters even further, this ruler was also called Samuil Penisel (‘low-head’/ ‘humble’).

In yet another MS (Peniarth MS 50) it gives Gwrgi and Peredur a brother called Ceindrech pen asgell (‘Wing-head’) and it can be argued that there may have been a confusion between Ceindrech and Arddun and a corruption of pen asgell. The main problem is it’s hard to trust these genealogies.

August Hunt makes a case for this Arthur in his (little read) ebook ‘The Arthur of History – A Reinterpretation Of The Evidence’ (2011). August also gives a another possible interpretation of the epithet as deriving from VXELLODVNVM, the Roman fort of Stanwix on Hadrian’s Wall. The name of the fort means uxello=‘high + dunum=fort’. (Hunt, 2011, pp.77-78). So, he argues, the epithet penuchel could have meant ‘chief of the high (fort)’. This is not how most interpret it.

The thing against this Arthur existing is he is not mentioned with Gwrgi and Peredur as being involved at the Battle of Armterid in 574. But, if he wasn’t born until 570 he would only have been a child at the time. But that date is a guess anyway and he makes no appearance anywhere else.

If this Arthur did exist, he may not have been an Hiberno-Britannian (as far as we know), but he was northern, and he appeared at the same time as the others … that is, unless, this was just another name for one of the other Arthurs.

Feradach hoa Artúr (c. 697)

This mean ‘Feradach grandson of Artúr’. Of course, it isn’t Feradach who has the name, but his grandfather, and we need to ask who this might be.

Jaski’s paper again:

“At this stage we have to take Adomnán’s law to protect clerics, women and children from warfare into account. Cáin Adomnáin, which was promulgated in Ireland in 697, includes a Feradach hoa Artúr, among the clerical guarantors. That he was from Scotland seems likely, especially since other Scottish clerics, as well as Bruide, king of the Picts, are included in the guarantor list. As his name indicates, he was a grandson or descendant of Artúr, possibly (one of the) the Artúr(s) we have considered above. If so, we may be certain that he was on familiar terms with Adomnán, who thus would have been aware of Artúr’s true descent. But since there are a number of uncertainties, the name of Artúr’s father remains a matter of debate.” (p. 93)

I’ll return to this character later when discussing the Campbell’s and MacArthur’s (spurious to say the least) genealogies as he appears in them and may give a clue as to which Artúr he was the grandson of.

Artharus rig Cruthni (date uncertain)

This is one I only recently discovered through Jaski’s paper, although I should have seen it earlier as he appears in The Expulsion of the Dési.

“It is found in a list of the forshluinte ‘subject peoples’ of Dál Fiachach Suidge, the ruling dynasty of the Dési of Munster, which is appended to the text in Rawlinson B 502. It includes the Bruirige o Bruru mac Artharu rig Cruthni ‘Bruirige from Bruru son of Artharu, king of the Picts’. The independent version in Dublin, Trinity College, MS 1298 (olim H. 2.7) of the fourteenth century has Brurige nó Briunu mac Partharo regis Pictorum. If Artharu refers to the name Arthur, its spelling is distinctively odd. Irish texts normally have Artúir as the genitive. The form Partharo may be related to Partholón (from Latin Bartholomaeus), who appears as the ancestor of the Picts in Lebor Bretnach, the Gaelic translation and redaction of the ‘Nennian’ recension of Historia Brittonum [He also appears in the Book of Invasions]. This is a highly uncertain example, but there is a possibility that the form Artharu was inspired by the northern British name Artúr Irish scholars were familiar with.” (p.102)

Vanora’s Stone. Meigle

T’would indeed be interesting if the Hiberno-Picts (Gwydyl-Fichti) or Picts were using the name also … or a variation of it. Scottish tradition does have Arthur’s supposed wife, Gwenhwyfar (cognate with Irish Findabair), as a Pict (though I doubt she’d be dressed like Keira Knightly was in the last Arthurian movie). She (supposedly) appears in a Pictish stone sculpture in Meigle, North Ayrshire being torn apart by animals on the orders of Arthur because of being accused of infidelity after she’d been abducted by Mordred. Here she’s called Vanora. The stone is thought to actually show Daniel and the Lions from the Bible.

The pre-Galfridian, Early-12th century French Benedictine monk Lambert of St. Omer did write that Arthur’s palace was in Pictland in his Liber Floridus … after having crossed out ‘Britain’ first.  (Liber Floridus, Early-12th century. See http://www.liberfloridus.be/wie_eng.html) His work may have been based on a version of the H.B. that no longer exists. (Dumville, “The Liber Floridus of Lambert of Saint-Omer and the Historia Brittonum,” Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies 26.2 (May 1975): pp.103-122). Why he changed his ethnicity, if he did, we do not know, unless his information said Arthur was from the North and he assumed this to mean Pictland? (Lambert also only calls Arthur a “dux”, “miles,”, “leader” and “soldier”, but not a king).

As I have put forward, those names reused tended to be the names of great men – Caroticus and Constantine to name but two – and these names were obviously passed down through centuries in some cases. It is possible that this is how the name Arthur came to be used, via Vulgate Latin Artūrius, and epigraphic evidence shows that it was a name used throughout the Roman empire, although not in Britain. If this was the reason the Hiberno-British were giving their sons the name, then one of these Artorii before them had greatness, and logic dictates that he was the first one.

Other Arts & Arths

I’m not going to further discuss the other ‘Art‘ and ‘Arth’ based names that are put forward as the historical Arthur because, as far as I can see, Arthur’s name was ‘Arthur’.

For those interested to know what these other British and Irish Arth or Erth based names are, here’s some of them:

Art, Artchorp, Arthrwys, Arthmael/Arthfael, Arthgen, Erthir, Arthfoddw, Arthgal (may derive from Ardgal), Arthlwys, Arthen, Arthnou (from ‘Artognov‘ of the stone from Tintagel)


Thanks for reading,

Mak

 

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