For every human story that is told there are at least three versions: two or more that are told from potentially opposing viewpoints, and the untouched truth of what really happened. Such is the case with all of human history – both that which has been amply documented and that which has yet to be told.
Historical Fact vs. Historical Fiction
In history, the truth is often elusive. Historical accounts are given in accordance with the views and ambitions of the scribes and their compatriots. While the fact that something happened may be well beyond dispute, the manner in which it happened may be open to debate by all who did not witness the actual event. Recorded history is replete with both intentional and inadvertent inaccuracies, embellishments, and fabrications. Historians may hesitate to acknowledge such an inherently human blemish upon their field of study, but it most certainly exists.
Historical Fiction, on the other hand, recognizes and seizes upon the malleability of documented history to bring it to life, and to convey the drama and the impact of historical events in ways that documented figures, facts, and dates can not. Historical fiction is free to accentuate the drama, explore the possibilities, paint interpretations, and convey the author’s notions of the human side of history.
Pictish and Roman History
The story of the Picts of ancient northern Britain is among the most open to imaginative interpretation.
The Picts were autonomous, reclusive, and uncommunicative. They desired little contact with the world outside their realm, and they were disinclined to document their existence for posterity. Absent the invasion of the Roman Empire into their lands, the Picts would likely have remained a scattering of small, independent, and loosely affiliated tribes.
Rome’s disruption of Pictish society, however, reshaped the Picts much as it reshaped the rest of the known world – at the moment, and for all time.
The Romans reached the shores of Britannia in the first century AD with the goal of extending their domain to include all of Britannia and Hibernia (Britain and Ireland). For the most part, the Romans had little difficulty subduing the southern Britannic tribes. The only notable resistance they encountered was an uprising led by the fierce and vengeful Iceni Queen Boudiccea in 60 AD. Boudiccea refused to relinquish her dead husband’s crown to the Roman emperor, and her defiance incurred speedy Roman wrath. Boudiccea and her two teenaged daughters paid dearly for her stubborn impudence, and the Romans summarily crushed the Boudiccean rebellion.
In 78 AD, after eighteen years of relative calm, the emperor Vespasian sent Gnaeus Julius Agricola to Britannia to once and for all extend Roman rule to the farthest reaches of Britannia and Hibernia. Agricola spent two years reestablishing control over Wales and the island of Mona, and in an uneventful ‘invasion’ to subdue Ireland. Agricola accomplished little in his Irish campaign, and then he turned his attention to the north. He sent the Ninth and Twentieth Legions against the reclusive and mysterious Picts, leading the Twentieth himself.
Agricola’s son-in-law, Tacitus, recorded the only contemporary account of Agricola’s “complete and decisive victory” over the Pictish tribes, concluded in a massive battle at a fabled – and yet to be located – place called “Mons Graupius.” Tacitus recorded the details of the battle and its casualties. According to Tacitus, twenty thousand Romans faced thirty thousand Picts. Despite the disproportion of force, Tacitus tells us that three hundred sixty Romans were killed, while ten thousand Picts – a third of the Pictish army – were destroyed. Their numbers brought to even, the Picts inexplicably fled the scene in despair and disappeared into the Highland mists, destroying their women, their children, and their homes in their hurried retreat.
Fact of Fiction?
I wonder about the veracity of Tacitus's account. I wonder at his tale of a Pictish army, composed of men and women alike, that fought fiercely and with tactical guile, but then inexplicably destroyed its women and children as it fled an even field. I wonder how the “decimated” Picts were able to subsequently sustain a prolonged and effective resistance against the Romans from their burned-out camps and villages. I wonder at the absence of archeological evidence of so monumental a battle as “Mons Graupius” was supposed to have been. I’ve wondered since the seventh grade why the map of the Roman Empire at its zenith didn’t include either Scotland or Ireland. It seemed clear to me even then that the Romans should have assimilated both – and would have, if they could have.
I have also wondered what sort of people were able to repel so formidable a power in so limited an area, for so long a time. I’ve imagined their courage and determination, their fierceness and wit, and the strength of those who must have insisted upon leading the Picts to their victory over conquest. What an intriguing group of people, and what a spectacular time and place that must have been! The monumental actions of a mysterious people about whom too little has been learned or written carved a border that has stood unchanged for almost two thousand years, while the island it bisects has been repeatedly reshaped and redefined. That drama was well worth writing about.
In The Pict, a novel set in that dramatic time, a man named Calach is the capable and charismatic military leader of a loose and newly-formed confederation of fiercely independent Pictish tribes. He leads those tribes in their resistance against Roman domination, and in their struggle to preserve the freedom and seclusion they’ve long cherished. The Pict is an imaginative and detailed account of what may have been, and of the indomitable spirit that may have brought it to pass.