Tag Archives: Philip Rance

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

Hoard of Romano-British cut silver, ingots and...

Hoard of hacksilver & ingots


In the second part of this blog we’ll look at why these various Peoples may have raided at the same time, leading Ammianus to called it the Barbarian Conspiracy. If we look at why the Attacotti (and others) raided, we might get some idea of where they could have been from.

It could be, of course, simply down to a weakened defences of Britannia, but Professor Guy Halsall (from his Anderson Lecture, 2011 -), James Fraser (From Caledonia to Pictland) and Fraser Hunter (Beyond the edge of the Empire ) have put forward the varying possibility that these Peoples beyond the Roman frontiers (not only in Britannia but in Europe) were as much intertwined with the Empire as those within it, and may have suffered from its downfall, and changes of policy. They point out that the high quality Roman goods (especially silver in some areas) that some of the Picti, Britons between the Walls and (possibly) the northern Scotti had, may have been bribes as well as the sign of trade with the Empire. (Hunter also notes the material and settlement collapse in the northeast of Scotland during the the Late 3rd and 4th centuries).

These ‘bribes’ and this trading ceased in northern and northeastern Scotland in the Late 3rd century. Was it because Roman policy towards them in particular changed? This, these authors wonder, could be part of the reason (or in some cases maybe the whole reason) why they raided. It was to say “You stop paying us to leave you alone, then we won’t leave you alone!” or “Oh no, our supply of silver has gone, our status has gone done, we need to go and get some more … and show our bravery in our society through our daring fetes at the same time!” Some of it may have been out of desperation as something drastic seems to have happen in these Scottish areas with settlement abandonment as well. But what?


This is most likely the home of at least some of those raiding Scotti, and it is an area where Roman coins have been found, most notably in Ulster. This is the island where many think the Attacotti originated from, via that aichechthúatha argument or a people called the *Ate (S)cotti or the *Atecotte. (Also see WALES).

How about them coming from Éire (Southern Ireland)? It’s possible, but Scotti (or Scoti) was a general name for any group from the island of Hibernia, (or Goidelic speaking people in general?), although it became synonymous with northern Hibernia (Ulster). However, one would think the Attacotti would simply be grouped under Scotti if they were from the island. A counter-argument to this could be that they were only known by their name because they were captured. If another Scotti group had been captured, then, perhaps they too would be known by another specific name, rather than a general one.

It’s not out of the question that they were allies in raiding, and their Scotti ‘friends’ sold them down the river to the Romans … especially if they were seen as lowly aichechthúatha. This wouldn’t be the first time such a thing had happened, and this could also have been the case if they had been part of a Pictish confederacy instead.

However, since those Roman units were named after tribal groups, would they really go for aichechthúatha? If they’d been sold out by fellow Scotti, possibly, and Rance argues that other unit names may have derived from derogatory terms given by tribal overlords. (Rance, 2001, p.251) But there’s still the etymological problem.

It’s also worth considering the Romans in Ireland, which, until very recently was thought out of the question. However, with the discovery of a ‘Roman fort‘  at Drumanagh near Dublin (British Archeology, March, 1996) opinion has change.

One fly in this ointment is the following:

“There is surprisingly little Roman material in Ireland, but what there is has a strange distribution. None has been found in association with native material. Indeed, to a great extent the distributions of stray Roman and native objects are mutually exclusive. In other words, those native Irish possessed of a rich, La Tene-derived, ornament industry seem to have been uninterested in Roman trinkets. Moreover in the South East, in Leinster, which has produced a fair number of Roman objects and even Roman-style burials and cemeteries, native material is surprisingly rare.” (Richard Warner, British Archeology, May, 1996)

However, Roman hordes found in Ireland (north and south) include:

  • 4 silver ingots and 3 pieces of silver plate ( Late 4th C., Balline, Co Limerick, Éire)
  • 1,701 silver Roman coins, a silver bowl, and 6 kg of silver ingots and hacksilver (Ballinrees, County Londonderry, Ulster)

(What a coincidence in those place names! Balline is in central-southern Éire and Ballinrees is near Coleraine at the central north of Ulster).

That’s a lot of silver in the Coleraine Hoard, and it’s specifically this kind of material that is thought could be used for pay-offs, so to speak … if it wasn’t taken during raiding. Webster and Brown (The transformation of the Roman world AD 400-900, p.213) certainly think the Coleraine Hoard was booty. The coins go up to Constantine III (408). If the policy of payment had stopped, then this lot definitely got the later items from raiding, unless Britannia did a one off ‘donation’! The hacksilver makes me wonder about this being part of a ‘bribe’, but I’m no expert. Philip Freeman in, ‘Ireland and the classical world’ (2001) wonders the same. Of course, this is just a single hoard and we’ve no idea what else may have been in the region or for how long.

But, we must keep in mind St Jerome’s grouping of the Attacotti with the Scotti, which could be telling.


First the north. We know there were setters and raiders in this area, from Anglesey to the Llŷn Peninsular. Any settlers would have become citizens by now and this is not what they may have been, having been made into auxilia palatina units (although they would be made citizens as soon as they became soldiers of the Empire!). This doesn’t rule out them being from somewhere else, such as Ireland or Scotland, and being captured here, or even based in the region as federates who then went of the rampage.

The southwest of Wales has the largest concentration of inscribed stones with Irish ogham than anywhere else in the UK. This is the region (now Dyfed, once Demetia) that Philip Rance argues for the Attacotti originating from in his extensive paper, ‘Attacotti, Déisi and Magnus Maximus: The Case for Irish Federates in Late Roman Britain’, (2001). It is traditionally said that its dynasty came via the Déisi from Munster in Ireland after their expulsion. This may be an origin myth but that there were Irish there (or Gaelic speakers and culture), there is no doubt, and many think, including Rance, that they were brought over as federates, just as the Germanic federates came to the east.

Rance’s theory forwards the argument that the Déisi, who were known to be an aichechthúatha (‘client people’) of the more dominant Dál Fiachach Suidge of Ireland, were the Attacotti. His basic argument is based on one others have suggested, and that is that the name Attacotti derives from, not a tribe per se, but a section of Irish, or Cambro-Irish in this case, society called the aichechthúatha – a general term used for ‘rent-paying’ groups. It has been counter-argued that aichechthúatha would not produce Attacotti, but something more like *Acectoti. I’m no philologist, but that sounds right to me. But Rance also argues on the federate grounds and the number of them that may have been there that would account for large Roman units being able to be made from them. There could, indeed, have been a federate group (or groups) here from Hibernia (or northern Britain). An alternative might be that they weren’t known as aichechthúatha, but that another group called something like the *Atecotte. (See below) where in the area.

The reasoning based on the numbers sounds plausible, otherwise we have to account for how so many could have been captured. The answer could be the same as that which happened to the Alammani group mentioned in Part One.

Even if Rance is wrong about them being the Attacotti, his paper is worth a read for the information it contains on the subject. (Available at JSTOR for $12 if you’re not a member: )


Moving to Scotland, in this theory, the name comes from A(l)t C(l)ut (Rock of Clyde); what is now Dumbarton Rock (The Rock of the Britons) in southwest Scotland. However, this is based on Charles Bertram’s 18th century medieval forgery ‘Richard of Cirencester’, and would require the Romans to miss out two Ls in the name.

This was certainly a British speaking region, lying between Hadrian’s and the Antonine Walls. Roman goods have been discovered here, so it is a possibility, under this scenario. They were certainly in a good geographical position to raid, not being too far from Hadrian’s Wall. There are coin hoard concentrations here too (Hunter, 2007, pp34-35) either achieved by raiding or bribery … or both. (If you look on the internet it is amazing to see how much it is almost stated as fact that the Attacotti were from here. It’s a possibility, that’s all).


This Western Isles is the area that would later become the Gael region of Dál Riata (Dalriada). There are many arguments now that their arrival was no invasion but that a similar culture (and probably Goidelic language) had been here a long time and began to spread during the 6th centuries. As Hunter notes, this Atlantic zone of the British Isles didn’t have the same trade (or raiding) as those further north and east. There are no coin hoards here, unlike those found in southern Scotland, but there are Roman finds, which appear to tie in with the Roman withdrawal from the Antonine to Hadrian’s Wall (Hunter, 2007, pp.32-33).

It is interesting to note that before the Late 4th century the Attacotti aren’t mentioned, nor are they mentioned again after the Barbarian Conspiracy, during Flavius Stilicho’s campaign for example. Only the Scotti and Picti are mentioned. It could be argued that this was the Attacotti’s first and last attempt at raiding, hence why there are no hoards found in the region. But, of course, this could go for any region with no or few finds.

This is another area that states as fact that this is where the Attacotti were from. Only another possibility, but if they were Goidelic speaking Britannians they could have been likened to the Scotti (and, indeed, could have had a similar culture), yet known to have been from one of the Britannian Isles, therefore called Britons by St. Jerome.


Looking at the Got/Cot(?)/Cat/Caith of northern Scotland; the argument is, as put forward by the writer Carla Nayland ( ) – which she admits might be clutching at straws – suggests Got or Cat/Caith may have been *cottiGot being part of Atta/Ate Cotti isn’t out of the question, as ‘c’ and ‘g’ could sound alike. (Remember, the name for themselves could have been something like *Attacotos, *Athogotos, *Ardgothos or the like). If it was Pictish we’ll may never know its meaning whoever it sounded. It could even have been Xavier Delamarre’s, *Atecotto, later shorterned and remembered as Got. (This might not work on etymological grounds!).

It would be a very long way for this lot to be raiding, but it’s not out of the question as the Dicalydones and the Verturiones (both most likely confederations) had certainly travelled a long distance … and all three are from the area (north and northeast Scotland) that Hunter identifies as going through some kind of crisis in the 4th century. The region does show signs of contact with the Empire, especially in silver, so Cot could, like the other Pictish areas to their south, have been greatly affected by the Empire’s (possible) change in policy. It may not all have been down to a Roman change in policy, but it could have been a major factor.

One possibility I would forward is that, if these were the Attacotti, it could have been the capture of a great many of their young men that really tipped the balance and led to further decline as the Romans drew their young men away.

Whilst Got/Cat/Caith (supposedly) stretched to the Hebrides in the west, Hunter has shown, as noted above, that the Atlantic side of far northwestern Britain didn’t have as much a contact with Roman culture and doesn’t appear to have been as affected by any Roman policy change. But no one can be sure of the extend of the supposed seven Pictish ‘nations’, and at this time they were most likely far more fragmented. As I mentioned, if the name is Pictish, we may never know its meaning, and if the north’s language and culture had been influenced by Scandinavia it would complicate things even further, but might explain why they would not be lumped in with the Picts. But, again, it could simply be because they had been caught that we know them by a specific, rather than a generalised, name. Ammianus would only have been told these people were called Attacotti; he, most likely, would have had no idea where they were from.

(See: Jonathan Jarret’s blog for some more on the Pictish problem; Guy Halsall’s blog, who warns about the general problem of just who the Romans called Picti; Tim Clarkson’s Senchus blog for all things Pictish and Northern British).


So, am I going to stick my neck out and say where I think they were from? Not on your nelly! A reading of St. Jerome should indicate either Irish or, at least, Goidelic speaking, but he calls them Britons. This was either because they were from the British Isles or it was just because the Roman unit was formed there … unless he’s referring to a group of Attacotti before their Roman military formation, which is possible. If this is the case, then it may point to them coming from a Gaelic (Goidelic) speaking region of Britain and at this point in time that may only be, what is now, southwest or northwest Wales or the Western Isles of Scotland.

There’s as a case for those Gots of Caithness, who, like those Picts to their south, seemed to be going through some kind of crisis. But the etymology might be a problem.

If they were from southwest Wales, as Rance considers, then they may have to have been new arrivals to end up as auxilia palatina, but the derivation of the name doesn’t seem to work … to this laymen at least. However, there’s more argument for this region as to why a great many barbarians might have been captured, never to cause a problem again.

Any of these ‘barbarian’ regions may have had something to lose from not raiding and a lot to gain. Did they do it just to get booty, hostages or slaves, or was it to try and get the Romans to start bribing them again, so they didn’t have to risk their necks on these ever increasing dangerous missions. Was the Coleraine Hoard a long term part of this, so it worked for the Scotti, but was a huge disaster for the Attacotti and a general failure for the Picts? Who knows, but it is food for thought.

The jury will have to remain out a while longer (or forever!) but I hope this has, at least, added to the debate.

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

(For a related blog on the Barbarian Conspiracy, which looks at where the British province of Valentia might have been, click HERE).



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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. ( ). 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 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.


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.


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.


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.



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In Search of the ‘Original’ Arthur – Part Nine

UPDATED 1.6.12


(I was hoping this would be the last blog in this series, so I could end on that auspicious ‘Celtic’ number 9 (3×3), but I’m afraid it’s become even longer!)

There are alternatives, of course, to those regions outlined in the previous blogs. One is put forward as a possibility by Christopher Gidlow in his latest book Revealing King Arthur.  Beside being an excellent rebuttal to the likes of Green, Higham and Dumville, his argument (or one of them, as he forwards several) that there could have been an Arthur based in the north of Britannia is well thought out.  (Of course, he’s not the first to have this theory).

Basing his proposal on evidence given by such credible names as Dark, Wilmott and even Dumville he shows that the north – that is the provinces of Britannia Secunda and possibly Valentia (see THIS blog) – could have survived under Roman military type rule for quite a long time.  Those Roman frontier troops left behind wouldn’t all have decided to take up farming; some would have set up their own petty kingdoms or decided to make a living out of protecting the locals, many of whom had married them.  (This is if the Romans hadn’t left the protection to the locals). This may have amounted to extortion in some cases.

The following quotes are from a paper called ‘The Post-Roman archaeology of Hadrian’s Wall AD 400-1000’ from Durham Archaeology, about the Roman forts of BANNA (Birdoswald – 1), VINDOLANDA (Chesterholm – 2), ARBEIA (South Shields – 3) and VINOVIA (Binchester – 4 -not on the Wall but 30 miles south of it):

“ [...] The south granary was clearly reused, possibly as a hall building, with the hearths at the western end provided for the leading figures in the fort community. If the timber structures were the functional successors of this building, as seems likely, the TPQ for the first is c 388-95. As the Theodosian coin was worn, however, this could be assumed to be later, perhaps c 420. An estimated life of 50 years for each building would bring the close of occupation to c 520.”

A very interesting closing date of occupation.  If the information about the Battle of Camlan is correct, and it happened 21 years after Badon, that could place Arthur’s fall between 511 and  521, depending on whose dating you go with. Could be a complete coincidence of course.

Though Birdoswald and South Shields are the only detailed sequences on the Wall line itself, there is another similar sequence in the Wall hinterland at Binchester (Ferris and Jones 1996, 58). These sequences clearly demonstrate continuity of occupation within at least some Wall forts beyond the conventionally understood end of the Roman period in Britain, and into the fifth century. Further, the character of this occupation clearly changes during the fifth century.

Also at Vindolanda the early Christian tombstone of Brigomaglos dating to c. 500 indicates a late Roman / early post-Roman Christian presence (Jackson 1982, 62), as does other recently discovered artefactual evidence.”

It’s worth reading more about what Tony Wilmott of English Heritage himself has to say.  The following is from an article that appeared on the BritArch website:

Roman commanders Dark Age kings

“[...] It may be that the kind of commander-patronus attested by the large commanders’ houses in the late forts continued to be an important figure as the 5th century went on. These men may have been of sufficient influence to become imperceptibly more like chieftains in control of warbands than Roman commanders. Such an idea would explain the use of the hall as a centre to the settlement. Birdoswald may have become the centre of a small petty kingdom indistinguishable from others with totally different antecedents north of the Wall, or to the west of Britain.”

Birdoswald Roman Fort

Both Christopher Gidlow and, more surprisingly, Francis Prior, have commented that if ever there was a place crying out for an Arthur, it was Birdoswald.

(There could be evidence of many more post-Roman forts on the Wall, many not having their finds published yet, and I’d point anyone wanting to know more to August Hunt’s article on the subject at Robert Vermaat’s Faces of Arthur website. August himself puts forward nearby Etterby (once known as Arthuriburgum) as the site of Arthur’s ‘court)’.

As another proponent for an Hiberno-British or Irish Arthur, Gidlow realises that such positions in the north could have lead to Arthur either rising to a command position or inheriting one.  His ethnic background wouldn’t have mattered a jot, just as those around him could have been descended from any number of ‘nationalities’.   By this point they all would be, essentially, Britons.  Of course, some of these areas would eventually have morphed into kings and kingdoms, as mentioned above.

One does have to wonder how a powerful Hiberno-Briton might have come about here, especially since military service was hereditary; as the same became with later kingdoms in the area.  Historians might be able to leave it floating, but for a story or screenplay you need to have more than that.  If Gaelic blood came from his father, then how would he become part of this military society?  There are only a few possible Hiberno-British units that we know of: those derived from the Attacotti after the so called Barbarian Conspiracy of 369. The Attacotti (Atticoti, Attacoti,Atecotti, Atticotti, Ategutti) are an enigmatic group of Britons (if, indeed they were Britons) as no one can be sure where they were from.  Most place them in the Western Isles, 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 a sept of the Déisi of Demetia and known as the aichechthúatha (‘client people’), so would have been in southwestern Wales. (There are counter arguments to this on linguistic grounds, which I won’t go in to).

(For further thoughts on the Attacotti, see THIS blog).

An earlier idea I had for a screenplay (and one to which I have recently returned) had this Arthur’s father serving with the Atecotti Iuniores Gallicani (or the Honoriani Atecotti seniores) in Gaul.  After the unit is virtually decimated and his father killed, whilst supporting Riothamus, the remnants flee to Amorica. The 15 year old Arthur then ends up in Dumnonia and the story goes on from there. (In case anyone is wondering … no, the Attecotti didn’t have a dragon as a shield pattern).

So how might Arthur as an Hibernian-Briton be on the Wall? Not because of being Hibernian, but because it appears to have been a closed system?  Well, he could have joined as a mercenary or part of a bucellarii, fighting under a commander, if they were short of numbers.  If his father had his own fianna warband (which would make him a ri fianna), they could have given their services to one of these groups on the Wall and, eventually, stayed with them.  Alternatively, Arthur could have been a ri fianna and done this with his own warband.   If his Hiberno blood was from his mother, the answer is simpler, of course.  However, if Eigr was actually his mother’s name, I’ve yet to find an Irish name that could have sounded anything like it.

(For further thoughts on what military position Arthur might have had, see THIS blog).


The above could take us back to the Campbell genealogy one of which shows a descent to Coel Hen, thought by some to have been the last Roman Dux Britanniarum (‘Duke of the [Five] Britains’) who was militarily in-charge of the Wall area and the northern provinces.  However, no other Coeling genealogy shows Arthur as one of the descendants.

Cunedda’s northern battles

But Arthur also is given a connection to the Coelings via Cunedda who (supposedly) married Coel’s daughter Guaul.  This sounds a little bit suspect as the name means ‘Wall’ … although, I believe it can also mean ‘blood‘.  He may, instead, have given his support to Coel and the Wall … if there was, indeed, any connection.  The poem Marwnad Cunedda (‘The Death-son of Cunedda’) attributed to the 6th century bard Taliesin, but probably a later composer, has Cunedda fighting at Caer Weir (2), somewhere in County Durham just south of the Wall, and Caer Lliwelydd/Ligualid (Carlisle), Roman LVGVVALIVM (1): practically on the Wall.  (Interestingly, this poem makes no mention of Gwynedd!).


You get those who, understandably, try to give Arthur a sphere of activity.  Many can’t accept that there would be a Britannia (and beyond) wide ranging ‘commander’ as Gidlow and others have suggested so they look for battles just in the north, or the east and the south … or just in Wales (Blake and Lloyd).

There is another possibility, beside the one that says these proposed wide ranging battles belong to different Arthurs or they were just made up.  That is that these battles belong to different times in his career, fighting alongside different kings.  This would see him, not as a Britannian Magister Militum, as forwarded by Gidlow, but a ‘general for hire’ figure with his own large retinue.  He would be a mercenary in effect, fighting for whichever province or civitas needed him.  As for him only fighting ‘Saxons’ as the Historia Brittonum seems to imply, I tried to show in my ‘Arthurian’ poem that it would only take one mention of them for us to think these are only group(s) he fought. He could have battled against every one of the various ethnic peoples of these islands.

Even if we could identify a region where he was from it may give us no indication as to where he fought his battles or who were his British allies and enemies.  There’s the added problem of not even knowing what his status was: high king? king? prince? chieftain? general? Magister Militum?  Each of these could give us different options. We don’t know the state of Britannia and how fragmented of united it was. Were the Britannia Secunda and Valentia provinces still in existence? If so, were they allies and did they see themselves as part of Britannia still? Were Britannia Prima and the northern provinces (if Valentia was northern) allies? Would they come to one another’s aid? Each answer give potentially different outcomes.

Could an Hiberno-British Arthur have been at the Wall? It appears as good a place as any of the other sites and I can see why many favour it above all others. Its downside (for an Hiberno-British Arthur) is it isn’t in an Hiberno-British region; but the possible reasons for him being there, outlined above, could answer this.

In the next blog I want to briefly look at the Historia Britonnum and the Annales Cambriae and see what light they might shed on an Hiberno-British Arthur.

Thanks for reading,



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