Builders and Worshippers - A Roman Army Connection?
Having concluded there is a rationale and components for the concept of an Open-Air Mithraeum we have seen that the Pictish Symbol Stones take that concept to reality. The terrestrial part is the Stone itself, with carvings suitably obscured, and the skywards view comprises the Planets, stars and celestial bodies otherwise represented in an indoor Mithraeum. With the Stones as the terrestrial components of these Mithraea we need to determine who created or “built” them. What is meant by built is the erection of the basic Stone or the selection of one suitably in situ, the appropriate orientation of the side to be carved and the creation of the carvings.
Perhaps the builders and worshippers were one and the same people; conversely, maybe the builders of the Stones were different from those who used them. Someone had to cause them to be built; someone had to organise their planning and creation. There are questions of timing – when were they built; and timescale – over what period were they used?
For our purposes, builders are the people who carved and erected the Stones (or took existing standing stones and carved onto them).
A great part of the “intrigue” is why, when these are called Pictish Standing Stones, was there seemingly such a gap between when the Picts were named Picts (late 3rd Century CE) and the first Stones historically being dated as around the 4th / 5th Century CE? Were they created by the Picts or others?
Maybe there was an external trigger– it is a big assumption that Picts created the Pictish Standing Stones. This reinforces the point that it is useful to consider “Pictish” as the era not just the people. Topographically where the existing population lived and where any incomers came to may not be one and the same. The Stones in Moray and Aberdeenshire, for example, tend to be in locations near rivers but closer to their course than their sea outlet. There is no reason to doubt that the existing population lived around all of the fertile valley areas not locations upstream – such as the Spey. This leads to wondering why the Stones were built where they were and, indeed, are; if incomers did build the Stones and if they were part of, for example, the Roman invasion then they probably would not have set up fort or camp in the middle of the existing population and would have set up camps of limited distances apart for ease of travelling. So the locations of the fixed community and that of the incomers – if incomers did create the Stones - may have a shallow correlation.
Christian Influence – as well as Mithraic?
Many texts consider the Stones were built from the 5th / 6th Century CE with relevance into the 9th. The classification into incised and relief tends to have an implied sequence which might suggest different builders. The change in design came about from the arrival of Christianity. Timing wise this might be related to St Columba’s visit to Inverness in the 6th century CE (around 570); but was this the first exposure of the builders to Christianity? Certainly St Ninian is attributed with introducing Christianity to people labelled as the Southern Picts in the early 5th century CE (supposedly about 420). To add to the options, the Irish and Northumbrian forms of Christianity differed so any associated, externally influenced design cues could be different. This timing is after the initial carving period (assuming Class 2 succeeds Class 1) as it is the Christian crosses that have the more advanced artistic style. Perhaps there were other arrival routes with Christianity coming to people in Pictland but not necessarily to the pre-existing Picts. Maybe the people who built the first phase of Pictish Stones were influenced by Christianity and built the second phase with Christian symbols as well as the first phase ones (a compressed time frame). Maybe, if the builders and worshippers were “incomers” the path that took Christianity to them was different than via the Saints.
Arguably the earliest start point is just after Constantine who caused Christianity to become the dominant religion in the Roman Empire – around the mid-4th century CE. In Scotland the Pictish missions of Kentigern, Drostan, Buitte and Columba took place between around 520 to 580 - a long time after Emperor Gratian recognised Christianity as the official religion of the Empire in 380 shortly after which tolerance of non-Christian religions rapidly expired.
Capability & Skills
Someone with visual knowledge of what we now know as the Pictish Symbols and with the ability to carve in stone must have been the builder. “Someone” is meant in the plural and not necessarily in a single time frame – taking the range of styles of Stones (from pre-Christian – or pagan – to Christian) it is clear these Stones were carved over several hundred years (maybe with gaps). By “visual knowledge” it is not necessarily suggested that the builder “knew” what the Symbols meant but knew what to carve. Maybe the builder did know (so could also have been a worshipper) but could have been commissioned by another (arguably one who knew what the Symbols meant). Either way the Stones complete with Symbols had a specific purpose – initially to record the Mysteries of the Mithraic religious belief. Additionally, perhaps to act as a reminder of the design of the indoor Mithraeum? Possibly the Stones were carved by a small number of people with the required skills moving around from site to site – so far there seems little evidence to choose between the carving activities being performed over long, continuous periods or in relatively short bursts.
Here we will refer to the generally used terms for categorising Stones. So who had the carving skills over this time period? For the so-called Class 1 Stones (i.e. those on boulders or undressed stone with incised Symbols) shaping skills were not required only an ability to chisel into the surface of the stone. The so-called Class 2 Stones (i.e. with Christian motifs [especially crosses] and Pictish Symbols) require more advanced skills. The size of the Stones would mean transport from the source of the stone material – close (fortuitously) or distant from a quarry. The Stones are shaped basically as rectangles and the faces are prepared for carving – needing a different range of tools than those used by the chiseller of Class 1 Stones. Then the complex and intricate act of carving in relief – this is much more exacting than for the Class 1 carver involving the removal of a lot more stone so the Symbols stand proud of the surface in relief. A third demand on some carvers is the application of Ogham scripts (maybe at a quite different date) – these are incised rather than relief and are generally on Class 2 Stones which are relief carved. None of the carvings includes true likenesses, for example faces – could this indicate there was neither such a demand from the commissioner of the carving nor a need from what the carving might represent or could it reflect a restriction related to the carvers abilities? Another thought is – could the incisions or the reliefs on the Stones have had infilled painting, like more modern grave stones? If so another material would have been needed, another process and another skill.
Prospectively what is needed in way of carving skills is relatively basic but of good craftsmanship (especially for Class 2 Stones which are more intricate).
What is carved must be quite clear and there probably was some order to the layout. This tends to suggest someone (singular and plural) with existing skills rather than self-taught. At the time the people with such skills were not within Pictland – to date there is no suitable archaeological evidence of similarly carved items – so they must have been incomers. The nearest would have been in the vicinity of Hadrian’s Wall (at the time the Antonine wall was either unmanned or scarcely manned). There is physical evidence that carving skills had been employed there – not least for Mithraea. Perhaps the source of the carvers was the Roman army or its associated trades’ people. Not only would the carvers have had the carving skills they most likely would have seen the Mithraea first hand. Interestingly the carving of altars and monuments that can be seen in museums by Hadrian’s Wall show relief skills but such carving is not on Class 1 but Class 2 Pictish Stones. Arguably the carving skill available from people based by Hadrian’s Wall (where there were at least three Mithraea) exceeded what was needed for Class 1 Stones. However, with the Roman Army presence there until late 4th century maybe early 5th there is a case for carving capability being available for the carving of both pre-Christian and Christian Stones.
To give a balanced view other sources of information and speculation should be considered. For example attempts have been made to determine whether the source of the symbols is Scandinavia (e.g. Lord Southesk in his “Origins of Pictish Symbolism” of 1893) with a possible conclusion that any similarity between symbols may not just be due to transfer from Scandinavia to Scotland but, rather, a common source for both. This prompts consideration of other “common source” prospects for any Mithraic influence. If the builder has seen a Mithraeum then there are some general options – for example on Hadrian’s Wall, London, Germany, Italy etc. This could link in with any similarity of artistic design between Scandinavia and Scotland – maybe a common source is material in, say, Germany and maybe that common material is Mithraic. So the Pictish Stone builders might not have come from the Roman settlements around Hadrian’s Wall at all but other places where there are Mithraea. Or, maybe there is a chain of events – those who built the Hadrian’s Wall Mithraea may have seen other Mithraea; this is not unreasonable as Roman Legions and auxiliaries based in Britannia could well have come from the European mainland.
We need to consider who it was that caused the designs to be created and carved. Probably that can be ascribed to the worshippers, the ones who wanted to keep the religious belief alive and extend its following. But who were they?
As has been said above, the worshippers – the “users” and presumably “owners” of the Mithraea – could have been the builders themselves, at minimum those who commissioned them or both. Use of the word “worshippers” deliberately gives a very wide application of the term – to avoid digression into theology but assuming they were used for some form of worship, teaching or initiation (or all three - or more!) in fact, pursuing the Mysteries of Mithras.
So who were the worshippers and where did they come from? With the “intrigue” of why there is a time gap between the people in North East Scotland being labelled Picts by the Romans and the first Stones appearing it is suggested that the worshippers came from outside the geographic area of Pictland as it existed around the 4th / 5th century CE, maybe earlier. The reason for reference to this time period is purely because it is the popularly held, and much written, view that early Pictish Symbol Stones appeared around then.
Some possibilities about the builders and worshippers are that they
1) came from around Hadrian’s Wall (Roman army or otherwise),
2) were local people in Pictland with a Roman Army genealogy,
3) were local people who had seen Mithraea in Britannia or in Europe or
4) were from Roman establishments that had existed in Pictland.
It should be remembered that the Roman army “pensioned off” its soldiers (probably also auxiliaries). Part of the pensioning off was the opportunity to remain at an outpost which for someone out-posted for a long period might well equate to contentedly remaining in situ. This opens up several prospects for the ethnicity of potential builders and worshippers – they could be from other parts of the Roman Empire (conquered and otherwise) but residing in Britain, “British” people who had become accustomed to the Roman customs and adopting them (including their religions) or merchants and traders maintaining an import base in Britain. Contrary to what in the past has been gleaned at school, the Romans were not necessarily from Rome. In fact the British region was at times administered from other than Rome, for example from Trier in, then, Belgic Gaul.
The Roman regime, in common with the Persian ones in the first half millennium BCE, had a habit of taking people from “pacified” acquisitions, placing them in their armies then dispatching them to other parts of the Empire or potential expanded Empire. So the prospect for people coming from places well remote from Pictland is high – and they could have come with their religious belief or a susceptibility to one that they might be sympathetic towards.
Looking at monuments from around Hadrian’s Wall there are indications of the nationality or homeland of some of the dedicators such as Asturian from North Spain; Tungrian from the Western Ardennes; Pannonians from a territory of the present day western part of Hungary with parts in Austria, Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia, Slovakia and Bosnia & Herzegovina (basically bounded on two sides by the river Danube); Dalmatian from what is now Croatia and parts of Bosnia & Herzegovina; Batavian from The Netherlands; Frisian from coastal parts of The Netherlands, Denmark and Germany; Nervian from inland parts of Belgium; Brixian from Northern Italy and more. So the Roman Army genealogy from this evidence alone is very broad. Valeria Victrix, the Roman XX (20th) Legion had been posted to several parts of what is now Britain, including Hadrian’s Wall. With the boar as their symbol perhaps they left carvings on Stones such as the Boar Stone once at Lochardil, Inverness?
If a form of Mithraism was practiced in Pictland maybe it was not the Roman version practiced in Britain (especially in the vicinity of Hadrian’s Wall) but a version which arrived more directly from, say, the Danube areas implying that this form of Mithraism in Pictland was set up well in advance of the Roman army’s final withdrawal. Either of these versions would suggest that the Pictish Symbol Stones were created earlier than is popularly believed.
The pursuit of Mithraism allegedly went underground with Christianity becoming the Roman state religion. Perhaps it lasted longer in the more distant outposts of the Empire; maybe it extended to North East Scotland during the time of the Empire or shortly afterwards (early 5th Century). Coupling the distance from Rome then the collapse of the Empire plus the prospect of military and associated personnel not returning to their home countries gave both motive and opportunity resulting in parts of Scotland (particularly the North East) providing the geographic location to continue to practice a form of Mithraism. A similar argument could be applied to the earlier following of Christianity in Pictland which was believed to be a non-Christian country until the conversion by specific Saints such as Columba.
What is most unlikely is people from the local Pictland population travelling to other parts of Britannia or the European mainland to meet Mithraists, to see Mithraea, to be “converted” to the religious belief, to feel a need to express the principles in a coded form on their return to Pictland and, in turn, create converts. A principal reason against this prospect is the Romans were basically their enemy so the likelihood of travel into occupied territories then a willingness to share beliefs is very low indeed. This option has, therefore, not been further pursued.
Coding of the Symbols
A great intrigue indeed! Assuming the desire to pursue the Mithras Mystery cult, in potentially unfamiliar territory (although that might be debatable as there is an argument that the builders and users were “accepted” so they may not have been too unfamiliar with the locations where the Stones were built) with a high degree of “secrecy” then someone had to decide on the coding. Familiarity with the symbols and their meaning in a Mithraeum seems a logical start point – this suggests an adept rather than an initiate. Then the jump would need to be made from indoor to outdoor Mithraeum with knowledge of the Constellations and Zodiac and Planets as actually seen rather than relying on the depiction indoors. Those who designed indoor Mithraea must have had much knowledge of the “sky” as well. Maybe any depiction of the sky “as seen” onto an outside Stone would have been fairly straightforward but probably quite unnecessary – why record on a monument what you can see by raising your eyes, unless as a guide. However, in taking the design and meaning of statues, pictures and iconography from the indoor to the outdoor Mithraeum would have required a complex translation so the designs could not readily be decoded but when explained to an initiate would make sense.
Maybe research into the language or languages spoken in Pictland may give an insight into the established population in the Pictish era and into the origins of any incomers.
According to Bede, St Columba, who would have spoken Gaelic, needed an interpreter when meeting Brude (Bridei) in or near Inverness in 565 CE. St Columba may have preached in Latin as opposed to, or as well as, his native Gaelic so this comment from Bede suggests Latin was not understood by Brude reinforcing that a quite different language was spoken in that part of Pictland at the time. Furthermore, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (completed about 731) names Pictish as a language distinct from Welsh and Gaelic. Various historians and others have suggested many sources and influences for the so-called Pictish language including Q-Celtic, P-Celtic, non-Celtic, pre-Celtic, non-Indo-European (such as Altaic, Semitic, Uralic etc.).
There is no doubt that people from West Scotland and Ulster in particular were in contact far long before the Pictish period and the actual constitution of the various tribal confederations was no doubt fluid. Some scholars reckon that Gaelic must have been in use in Pictland before 500 AD. Within a century or so of this date there are grounds for believing that Anglian peoples speaking an early form of what we now know as Scots (like English, a Germanic tongue), were settling in South East Scotland.
It is possible that some of the Roman auxiliary troops, dependent on their country of origin, had spoken a Germanic language in Scotland at an earlier period. Unsure and conflicting hypotheses do not help to identify potential origins of the pre-existing people in the North East of Scotland less still the people who erected the Symbol Stones.
Now if the builders and worshippers using the “Open-Air” Mithraea were indeed either auxiliaries retired from the Roman army or of Danubian origin (where Roman Mithraism was practiced) or both they too would have spoken a language other than Gaelic. Perhaps there is a possibility that these “incomers” spoke a language understood by the so-called indigenous population or both had a common language, say, for the purposes of trade. If so, for example, retired Roman army personnel staying on in Scotland might have been more accepted than we may previously have thought. This is an area of language that needs more investigation.
The conclusion is the demonstration above of a sound argument for a Roman Army Connection for the initial builders of the Symbol Stones and the worshippers of a form of Mithraism.
Our next step is to consider where the Roman Army either had a presence in Pictland or where its personnel (or ex-personnel) might have settled then to narrow down towards a prospective start point for Pictish-Mithraism.
Roman Army presence and influence was in several periods. In AD 80 Agricola, as Governor of Britannia, advanced to the River Tay building Inchtuthil Camp across the Tay in 82 and in 83 engaged with the local population in the battle of Mons Graupius. The Gask Ridge and Glen Blocker establishments were constructed around 86/87 and the Antonine Wall between 142 and 154. Septimius Severus campaigned north of the River Forth between 208 and 210. In 306 Chlorus prosecuted war against the Picts. Their final withdrawal from Britannia was 410.
Within this 330 year timeframe there are a number of enablers and limits to when a form of Mithraism could have been introduced. Enablers include the physical presence within Pictland of Mithraic believers and the opportunity to set up Mithraea. A time of conflict would limit, probably exclude, activity. This would eliminate Agricola’s campaign culminating, for Pictland anyway, in the battle of Mons Graupius. From that period walls with military presence were in use from 142 to 162 – the Antonine Wall – and, more distant, from 122 to 138 then 164 to 401 – Hadrian’s Wall. In addition there were Gask Ridge and Glen Blocker establishments so collectively a controlling presence from 71 to 213. However, the nature of the walls could at times have been to regulate the movement of people, collect taxes etc. It is suggested that in the vicinity of Hadrian’s Wall there were local settlements and seemingly some evidence of Roman personnel in a family life with members of the local population. Key limiters would have been times of military strife.
Prevalent belief at any given time would also have had an enabler / limit effect. Pictish Symbol Stones have not only coded Mithraic Symbols and, to us, clear Christian significance (Crosses, Bible stories etc.) but also objects most likely from other religious beliefs (such as salmon mystically revered as it can live in both fresh and salt water). With Mithraea appearing by Hadrian’s Wall – Rudchester and Carrawburgh supposedly founded in the early 3rd century – this tends to set an opening window for Mithraism extending northwards in Britannia. Emperor Constantine’s favour ceased to be with the Mithraists following the battle at the Milvian Bridge in 312 CE. Initially the toleration of Christian with other beliefs – the edict of Milan in 313 CE – followed by the adoption of Christianity as the state religion – by Theodosius 1 in 391 - would have set progressively stronger closing windows for Roman Mithraism.
Roman withdrawal from Britannia could have given some Army personnel the chance to remain in the country. They could have retained their religious belief with them whilst continuing to settle in their existing location (e.g. Roman Army; more precisely ex-Roman Army) or relocating. Two specific dates would qualify – the withdrawal from Britannia about 400 to final withdrawal in 410 and the withdrawal from Pictland around 212. These would have given two timelines for the pursuit of Pictish-Mithraism. The longer one, timeline 1, stretching from the early 200s and the shorter, timeline 2, from the early 400s.
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As we are considering an ensuing form of Roman Mithraism the 212 date is favourable as it is in the time period of the setting up of Mithraea by Hadrian’s Wall (with a positive assumption about the popularity of the religious belief). Also, pursuing Mithraism seems to have been encouraged by Roman emperors; particularly, in this period, by Commodus (180 to 192), Septimius Severus (193 to 211) and Caracalla (211 to 217).
The post- final withdrawal time is much less favourable as Mithraism was reaching (or had reached) the decline in its favourability – not least affected by competition with Christianity but also its adoption as the state religion.
By identifying the locations of Roman Establishments (various types of forts, camps etc.) around the 212 date we can see who exactly made the Roman Connection to cause the “start point” of Pictish-Mithraism.