Thursday, October 31, 2019

Oct 31, 305 - Picts Trick Romans on Samhain

Constantius Chlorus, Augustus of the western Roman Empire alongside Galerius in the east, faced a humiliating defeat at the hands of Pictish Celts while campaigning north of Hadrian's Wall, largely ending the Constantine line.

The Roman forces had advanced past the Firth of Forth, razing villages and sending refugees ever deeper into lands where the harvest was already beginning to wane. As the native population became more desperate, the Romans grew better stocked by ransacking the provisions that fleeing Picts had left behind. One band of warriors determined the best way to end the Roman advance would be assassination: this unstoppable army would be tossed into chaos and at best hurry to retreat to winter quarters.

The warriors chose to strike during the festival of Samhain. While Roman eyes were dazzled by the bonfires lit to keep wicked spirits at bay, a small group of Pict soldiers adopted the ancient practice of guising: wearing a masked costume to approach a neighbor's house. Under the half-moon, they roamed wearing cow heads and hides amid a small herd of stray cattle, which was eagerly snatched up by Roman scouts. Once inside the Roman camp, the band evaded sentries long enough to make it to the luxurious tents of the augustus and his generals. There they shrieked and attacked, slaying all they could reach before Roman swords cut them down.

While tactically questionable, the attack did have profound strategic value. The son of Constantius by his first wife, Constantinus, was among the dead. His father, himself ill, announced the retreat to Eboracum (today's York) to mourn. It was a bitter turn of irony as Constantinus had joined the campaign to escape the courts of Rome where he feared other contenders might be planning to eliminate him. By January, the brokenhearted father also passed, leaving behind two younger sons from his second wife who would join ranks with their uncle Maxentius on his rise to sole domination of the Roman Empire. Maxentius devoted himself to public works projects, emphasizing acceptance in polytheism of numerous gods of northern Europe and west Asia while remaining critical of the monotheistic Christians (although not as fervent in persecution as his predecessor Diocletian).

The ongoing Roman turmoil was far from the Picts in the north, who found a degree of peace from Roman incursion as the German tribes grew and began to ransack the Mediterranean. The Germanic Anglo-Saxons soon moved into the isles in conquest of the Britons, but the Picts were able to hold them off at the Battle of Dun Nechtain in 685. Nothing, however, could stop the onslaught by Norse vikings, which changed the face of Britain forever, much as the Romans had done before. However, just as with the Romans, the native populations stayed on even as the conquerors themselves declined.

Descendants of the Picts live on in communities all over the world, still celebrating Samhain alongside many neighbors who have their own observances of the days growing shorter. Many of the customs among the bonfires connect to good luck or making mischief. Spooky-faced lanterns are made by carving out turnips or gourds. Players compete in being the first to bite an apple from a tub of water or a scone suspended by a string. More serious observers meet with the presiding druids in the sacred groves for a night of divination while the veil to the spirit world is at its thinnest.

Most popular of all customs is guising, in which children in costumes go house-to-house asking for sweets or coins. Upon answering the door, the children cry the traditional, "Hullo, Constantine!" The people of the house then assure them they are not Romans and give out the goodies.


In reality, Constantius's campaign was largely ineffectual. He died afterward, endorsing Constantine as his successor. Rome soon broke into civil war with Maxentius, whom Constantine defeated at the Battle of Milvian Bridge. Constantine pushed the Edict of Milan, legalizing Christianity, which would become the state religion in 391 under the Theodosius I. Samhain and similar holidays would be replaced with All Hallows' Eve, although many of the practices continue much the same as they have for thousands of years.

Site Meter