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. (
). 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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.