The might Roman Empire, a powerful, unstoppable force that swept across southern Europe and beyond, between 27 BC and 476 AD. They brought culture, civilization, trade, and – if you got in their way – war. The Pax Romana effectively meant, ‘accept our peace on our terms, or else’. The Romans introduced written history for the first time in many of the conquered lands. And they named things.
History is written by the victors
There is a well-known saying; ‘history is written by the winners’ And until 476 AD the Romans were most definitely winning.
It is vital to remember that there is not one single big book of history, with one single account of everything that ever happened. People have agendas. They embellish the truth and gloss over facts. History, then, is open to a certain amount of interpretation.
Romans in Britannia
History books have long taught us that when the Romans arrived in Britannia they stormed across the channel and thumped the tribes into submission. What has become apparent, through archaeology and further research, is that although battles took place, many of the tribes had been trading with Europe and the Romans for some decades. It was a far more peaceable process than we have been led to believe.
Kingdoms in Britannia
Britain at the time was split into many small ‘kingdoms’, who alternated between fiercely fighting each other and forming uneasy alliances. What Roman rule did do was to subdue some of these through diplomacy, bribery, and threats.
Roman bases near Newcastle
As they moved ever northwards, the Romans established bases, both temporary and permanent. Troops were often recruited from other conquered areas, so many of the soldiers would have been used to a Mediterranean climate. The cold, wet, and windy weather of the north would not have suited them one bit. To illustrate this, consider the letter written on a wax tablet (discovered by archaeologists digging close by Hadrian’s Wall) by a young soldier writing home to his mother, asking her to send woolly socks and some warm underpants!
So here they were, in a strange land, fighting to further the Empire. But what was it? What was the Roman name for Scotland?
What’s in a name?
The Romans loved naming things. This has caused much confusion for us in modern times (research Pagan, or even Celt for further proof!).
Britannia tribal mentality
The tribal mentality of the peoples in Britannia at the time meant that few would view the country as a whole, so would most likely not have a name for it.
What was the Antonine Wall for?
Also, the Romans changed the boundaries, setting the northern limit of the Empire firstly at Hadrian’s Wall in 122 AD, which stretched 73 miles between the river Tyne and the Solway Firth. Later, in 142 AD, they pushed north, establishing the Antonine wall between the Firth of Forth and the Firth of Clyde, before abandoning this 8 years later and retreating back to the earlier boundary.
What is Caledonia?
In their writings, the area north of this boundary is referred to as Caledonia. This, however, includes land that is now in England, so it is not strictly ‘Scotland’, which did not exist as a nation at this time. In naming it, the Roman historians and generals would have picked something that appealed to them. Their writings thrilled the civilized Roman citizens back home, so the accounts of fearsome, savage tribesmen and women with painted bodies and spiked hair (though partly accurate) were often ‘tweaked’ to make for a better read.
One of the dominant tribes in the region were the Caledones, thought to mean ‘hard footed’, possibly referring to their endurance or even the rocky land in which they dwelt. So, Caledonia became the accepted name for what is now Scotland.
Where does the word Scotland come from?
Incidentally, the Romans also at times referred to Britannia as Caledonia or Albion, which comes from the Scottish Gaelic Alba. The name ‘Scotland’ eventually came from the Scoti tribe, courtesy of the Romans who used it as an insulting term for Gaelic raiders from Ireland. It was even referred to as Pictland, named for another prominent tribe. But Caledonia remains as a preferred title in poetry and romantic verse.
Lastly, the Romans summed up their feelings towards the Britons in the name they chose; Brittunculi, meaning ‘horrid little Brits’