The Attacotti are mentioned in a small number of sources as a tribe who attacked Late Roman Britain in the second half of the fourth century. Who were they, and where did they come from?
The major source for the Attacotti’s existence is the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus, who wrote a history of Rome in the late fourth century. In Book 27 of his history, he writes:
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 the Attacotti, a warlike race of men, and the Scots, 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.--Ammianus Marcellinus
“At that time” refers to 364 AD, so his account is roughly contemporary with the events described.
St Jerome was a Christian priest who lived between about 350 and about 420 AD, and who travelled to Gaul some time around 365–370 AD. In one of his writings, he mentions the Attacotti as a British tribe and describes them as cannibals:
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.--Quoted in the Wikipedia entry
The Wikipedia entry says the Latin is capable of a less dramatic interpretation, if the word “humanis” (human flesh) is a mistake for “inhumanis” (animal flesh”, in which case the Attacotti’s dietary preferences would be “haunches of fatted animals” and “sow belly or cow’s udder”. I’m not qualified to comment on the Latin, but I have to say I find this a much more plausible scenario. Cow udder is a traditional dish, along with things like pig’s head brawn, tripe and chitterlings. Animal haunches – otherwise known as hams – need no comment.
The Notitia Dignitatum (List of Offices) is an official list of late Roman administrative and military posts from about 400 AD. Some of the military units listed have names that could be variant spellings of Attacotti:
Section VII:--English translation, omitting the lists of units, Latin text, including the lists of units
Atecotti Honoriani iuniores
In the Gauls with the illustrious master of horse in Gauls:
Atecotti Honoriani seniores
Atecotti iuniores Gallicani.
If these refer to the same tribe as the Attacotti of Ammianus Marcellinus and St Jerome, this suggests that the Late Roman Army had recruited some troops from the rebellious British tribe and sent them off to serve elsewhere in the Empire. Whether the service was voluntary (for the promise of pay and the chance to see the world), or compulsory as part of the price of defeat, or a bit of both, is open to question.
Where were the Attacotti from?
St Jerome, a contemporary who could have met some of the Atecotti soldiers stationed in Gaul, is clear that they were a British tribe. Ammianus, also contemporary, considers them to be distinct from both the Picts and the Scots (Irish). Since they attacked Roman Britain and since Ammianus brackets them with other tribes from outside the Empire, it’s a reasonable inference that they did not live within the Roman province of Britannia.
I can think of two plausible locations for the Attacotti:
- One of the tribes living in what is now southern Scotland/north-east England, north of Hadrian’s Wall but outside the area associated with the Picts
- A tribe living in the area associated with the Picts, but sufficiently culturally distinct to be considered a separate group by Roman observers.
Southern Scotland/north-east England
Ptolemy’s Geography, compiled in the second century AD, lists four tribes living in what is now southern Scotland/north-east England, roughly in the area north of Hadrian’s Wall and south of the Forth–Clyde line. This area was outside the Roman province in 360. In later sources the Picts are usually associated with the area north of the Forth–Clyde line. I suspect that the term “Picts” was applied rather vaguely, and perhaps meant different things at different times to different people, but if Ammianus applied the same regional association the tribes of southern Scotland would not have counted as Picts. The tribes listed by Ptolemy are:
The Novantae dwell on the side toward the north below the peninsula of this name--Ptolemy, Geography, Book 2
Below are the Selgovae
From these toward the east, but more northerly, are the Damnoni
Further south are the Otalini
None of these names looks obviously related to “Attacotti”, but the name “Picts” doesn’t appear in Ptolemy’s Geography either. It is entirely possible that one (or more) of the tribes acquired a new name between the second century and the fourth, or that “Attacotti” was invented as a new umbrella term to group them together. This possible location, combined with St Jerome’s lurid description, may underlie the legend that a race of cannibals once lived in the region of Glasgow.
Culturally distinct group among the “Picts”
Since St Jerome says the Attacotti were a British tribe, I’ll take that as an indication that they came from mainland Britain, not Ireland, and consider where they might be found amongst the “Picts”, but the same line of argument could be applied equally well to an Irish tribe.
“The Picts” was clearly a sort of umbrella term for a multiplicity of different tribes. Ammianus Marcellinus recognises two subdivisions, and there may well have been many more. The Pictish origin legend refers to seven regions, and Ptolemy’s Geography lists many tribes in what is now Scotland north of the Forth and Clyde. I touched on the likelihood of multiple regional groupings among the “Picts” in my earlier post about the name, and Jonathan Jarrett has discussed the issue in more detail. Similarly, Ptolemy reports a large number of separate tribes in Ireland. One would not necessarily expect Latin writers based in the Mediterranean lands to be experts in the detailed nomenclature or comparative anthropology of hostile “barbarian” tribes from beyond the fringes of the known world. The terms “Picts” and “Scots” may have been rather vague catch-all labels, perhaps (probably?) no more precise than modern labels like “Asian”.
If the Atecotti army units in the Notitia Dignitatum were indeed recruited from the Attacotti tribe, there is the possibility that they, or records about their recruitment, were the source of Ammianus’ and St Jerome’s information about the Attacotti. In which case, “Attacotti” may have been their own name for themselves. Presumably the Roman army bureaucracy would have wanted to know what to call the new recruits, and the simplest way to find out would have been to ask them. If the Attacotti thought of themselves as a distinct tribe, and either didn’t accept or had never heard of the Roman label of Pict, they would naturally give their tribal name and the scribe would naturally write it down as best he could.
A related possibility is that the Attacotti were somehow sufficiently distinct from the Roman idea of a “Pict” for Roman observers to conclude that they must be a separate tribe. This could have been due to a difference in any cultural marker - customs, religion, language, appearance, etc. For example, if the Romans assumed all “Picts” were “painted people”, maybe the Attacotti didn’t use body paint or tattoos? Material culture certainly varied widely across the territory associated with the “Picts” (see Jonathan Jarrett’s article for some examples). I’ll focus on one: the brochs.
Brochs are impressive and sophisticated drystone towers, found only in what is now Scotland. Many have a double-skinned wall with a passageway and steps in the space between the inner and outer walls, and appear to have been two- or three-storey buildings. The double-skinned wall would act as a barrier to stop rain seeping in to the dwelling areas, and would also have helped circulate heat through the structure (see explanation and a reconstruction drawing here). If the cattle lived on the ground floor in the winter they would have contributed to the central heating – you get a lot of heat off a cow – without too much in the way of smells or mess in the dwelling area. As usual, there’s a debate about the purpose of brochs – defensive castle, farmhouse or stately home? – and there’s no reason why they couldn’t have fulfilled more than one role at different times and places.
Not only are brochs confined to what is now Scotland, they are concentrated in defined areas, mainly Caithness (the north-east corner of the mainland), the Northern Isles (Orkney and Shetland), and the Western Isles (see distribution map on the Wikipedia page). This restricted distribution is consistent with (though does not prove) the possibility that brochs were mainly built and used by one or a few tribes.
As an interesting straw in the wind, it’s worth noting that Norse place names in Scotland are also heavily concentrated in the Northern and Western Isles and to a lesser extent in Caithness (Graham-Campbell and Batey 1998). I should stress that I am not suggesting a direct association between Norse place names and brochs. For a start, they are separated by a thousand years or so, as brochs are mostly considered to have been built in the century or so either side of 0 AD, and Norse place names are mostly considered to date from around the ninth to twelfth centuries. However, the one thing that never changes about history is geography, as the saying goes. The Northern Isles and Caithness are the areas most obviously open to seaborne contact with Norway. Maybe there was cultural contact between these regions long before the historical Norse (Viking, if you prefer) settlements in Scotland, leading to the development of a distinctive cultural identity among the people living in the Northern and Western Isles and Caithness, expressed in the building of brochs (and possibly also in other ways that haven’t left evidence).
The Pictish origin legend says that their land was divided between the seven sons of Cruithne. In the Pictish Chronicle their names are given as:
Fib, Fidach, Floclaid, Fortrenn, Got, Ce, Circinn--Pictish Chronicle
In the Irish translation of Historia Brittonum their names are given as:
Moirfeisear do Cruithne claind--Historia Brittonum, Irish
Roindsed Albain a seacht raind
Cait, Ce, Cireach cetach cland,
Fib, Fidach, Fotla, Foirtreand.
“Got” or “Cait” is the origin of the modern name Caithness. Clutching at straws, how about a connection between “Cait” and the “-cott-” element in Attacotti? This is no more than dictionary fishing on my part, and I am not qualified to say whether there is any possible basis for a connection on linguistic grounds, so it may well just be a superficial resemblance. But possibly an interesting one.
How about the broch-builders or their successors, living in what is now Caithness and the Northern and/or Western Isles, as a candidate for a culturally distinct tribe who in the 360s AD were called the Attacotti by Ammianus Marcellinus and St Jerome?
If other aspects of their culture were as distinctive as their architecture, such a tribe may well have seemed sufficiently culturally distinct from the other tribes the Romans called “Picts” to warrant a separate name.
Contact with Norway across the North Sea may have stimulated the development of a distinctive culture in Caithness and the Northern and/or Western Isles, as happened with the Norse (Viking) influence in similar areas in later centuries.
An echo of the name Attacotti may – and I stress ‘may’ – possibly be traceable in the name of Caithness.
Needless to say, other interpretations are possible.
Ammianus Marcellinus, available online
Graham-Campbell J, Batey CE. Vikings in Scotland: an archaeological survey. Edinburgh University Press, 1998, ISBN 978-0748606412. Searchable at Google Books.
Historia Brittonum, Irish, available online
Notitia Dignitatum, available online, English translation, omitting the lists of units, Latin text, including the lists of units
Pictish Chronicle, available online
Ptolemy, Geography, Book 2, available online
Location map showing Shetland and Orkney (The Northern isles) in relation to Scotland and Norway