Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Gildas and the Romans

"The Island was still Roman in name, but not by law and custom. Rather, it cast forth a sprig of its own bitter planting, and sent Maximus to Gaul with a great retinue of hangers-on and even the imperial insignia, which he was never fit to bear: he had no legal claim to the title, but was raised to it like a tyrant by rebellious soldiery....

After that Britain was despoiled of her whole army, her military resources, her governors, brutal as they were, and her sturdy youth, who had followed in the tyrants footsteps, never to return home. Quite ignorant of the ways of war, she groaned aghast for many years, trodden under foot first by two exceedingly savage overseas nations, the Scots from the north-west and the Picts from the north." - Gildas - De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, cc.13-14.

The Ending of Roman Britain
As every schoolboy knows, the Romans arrived in Britain in 43 AD and left around 410 AD. In between was peace, civilisation, happy days; before and after the Britons were simple savages experiencing bad times; with famine but without an economy. But of course, the transition from Britannia to England was far from straightforward.

The year 383 marks a significant step toward the end of Roman rule in Britain. In this year Roman troops were withdrawn from northern and western regions of Britain for the last time. The ending of Roman Britain was not a singular datable event. Three dates are given for the terminus: 407 AD when Constantine III left Britain; 409 AD the year the Romano-Britons expelled Roman magistrates from their cities; and 410 AD, the date of the Rescript of Honorius, when the Emperor sent letters to the cities of Britain, telling them to take up arms and defend themselves.

Following the ejection of the Roman administration from Britain in 409 AD a historical vacuum ensued, a period without reliable contemporary insular sources. This Dark Age has been termed “Sub-Roman Britain” based on the inferior pottery of the 5th and 6th centuries, or more acceptably “Post-Roman Britain” in mainly non-archaeological contexts. The duration of this period is generally said to span from the end of Roman Imperial rule in Britain, the early 5th century to the arrival of Saint Augustine in 597 AD.

This historical vacuum, spanning almost two hundred years, the transition from Roman Britain to the Anglo Saxon era, is of immense importance to Arthurian scholars. Conveniently, the period has been termed the “Arthurian Age” to the disdain of academics. But the term has fired the public imagination and continues to be used by popular authors in the title of their books.

Our one substantial, and near-contemporary, source for this period is Gildas, who authored De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain), writing in the mid 6th century so we are told. Much has been written by modern historians concerning when and where Gildas wrote. Yet, one thing is certain, as a key historian of the “Arthurian Age,” Gildas would have been a contemporary of King Arthur but he fails to mentions him entirely. The early 9th century text the Historia Brittonum names Arthur as the victor at the Battle of Badon; Gildas assigns the victory to Ambrosius Aurelianus; is this the historical Arthur?

Hadrian's Wall (Oliver Benn/Getty Images)
The Chronology of Gildas
According to Gildas the end of Roman Britain and the coming of the Saxons was divine retribution for the sins of the Britons (cc.13-21):

Britain is denuded of her garrison who went with Maximus never to return leaving Britain at the mercy of the Scots and the Picts.
The Britons appeals to Rome for help. A legion is immediately despatched and drives the raiders back beyond the borders. A turf wall is constructed across the island from sea to sea.
As soon as the legion returned home the barbarian raids re-commenced.
A further appeal went out to Rome who again drive the raiders beyond the sea from which they came to plunder year after year.
This time the Romans left the country saying they could not be bothered with such laborious expeditions telling the Britons to arm themselves and look to their own defences. They built a wall in a straight line from sea to sea and erected towers on the south coast, where they moor their ships.
The Romans then left the island never to return.
No sooner had they gone than the raids by the Picts and Scots started again. The Britons left their cities and abandoned the Wall. The enemy pursued them and butchered the Britons like sheep, who turned their arms on each other in domestic feuds so that the whole island was destitute of provisions.

The Britons appeal to Rome for the third time: "To Aetius, now consul for the third time: the groans of the Britons..............The barbarians drive us to the sea; the sea throws us back on the barbarians: thus two modes of death await us, we are either slain or drowned." But no help came.
The Britons suffering the effects of severe famine, hid out in the mountains, caves and woods, but rallied and took the fight to the Barbarians and overthrew the enemy who for a while was checked.
For it has always been a custom with our nation, it is at present, to be impotent in repelling foreign foes, but bold and invincible in raising civil war. The Picts returned to their winter quarter but before long would return to plunder and for the first time seated themselves at the extremity of the island. Then luxury befell the island.

The Saxon Shore (Wikipedia Commons)
Gildas does not claim to write a history and provides no dates. However, we can provide a rough chronology as we know when Maximus departed Britain (383) and Aetius, thrice consul (446) but he does muddle the building of the Walls. The northern (Antonine) wall was constructed with turf and stone c.140's running for 39 miles across the central belt of modern Scotland from north of the Clyde to the Firth of Forth, whereas construction of Hadrian's Wall, stretching for 75 miles from the Solway Firth to the mouth of the River Tyne in the east, began in 122 AD. He appears to misplace the erection of the towers on the south coast; does he mean the nine Saxon Shore forts listed in the Notitia Dignitatum (Brancaster, Norfolk to Portchester, Hampshire) established by the late 3rd century, or the five coastal watchtowers (Huntcliff to Scarborough) erected on the North Yorkshire coast linked to restoration of the Wall in the 4th century following the Barbarian Conspiracy?

Rome and the Barbarians
The 4th century Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus records that Nectaridus, the Count of the Saxon Shore, was killed during the so-called Barbarian Conspiracy of 367 AD, when Picts, Attacotti, Scotti and Saxons attacked Britain simultaneously. Fullofaudes, Dux Britanniarum, commander of the armies of the north, was also captured. Order was finally restored when Count Theodosius came in Britain in 369 AD, in all likelihood accompanied by a young Hispanic officer named Magnus Maximus.

The Notitia also included a list of forts on the northern coast of Gaul as part of the Saxon Shore system. However, when the list was compiled for the Western Empire, around 420 AD, Britain had already  been abandoned by the Roman Legions. Debate continues as to the meaning of the name of this maritime defence system; were the forts occupied by Saxon foederati or constructed to protect against Saxon pirates raiding along the Channel? The Notitia suggests the first instance is likely to be correct, using the term Saxon as a generic term for Barbarian soldier. At one shore fort (Branodunum) for example , we find a Dalmatian cavalry unit was stationed. However, the original garrison may have been the First cohort from Aquitania whose homeland bordered the province of Gallia Lugdunensis which may explain the Roman name said to derive from the local Celtic language meaning "fort of the raven". Epigraphic evidence suggests earlier they formed the original garrison of the Carrawburgh fort on Hadrian's Wall before transferring to Brough on Noe, then Bakewell prior to Brancaster.

The Roman policy of employing Barbarians on frontier zones may have provided the principle mechanism for the immigration of many Barbarian peoples into Britain. Eight cohorts of Batavian cavalry are known to have been in the Roman invasion force of 43 AD. Dio Cassius records groups of Germanic Marcomanni being resettled in Britain by Marcus Aurelius in the late second century and Zosimus tells us of many Burgundian and Vandal captives being sent across to Britain in the 3rd century.

By this time regular contingents of Barbarian peoples were being used in Britain as numeri or cunei, bearing the names of their tribes of origin with large numbers stationed in the north and east of England. Epigraphic evidence attests a cohort of Batavians at Carrawburgh during the 3rd and 4th centuries in addition to Tungrians stationed at Castlesteads and Birrens, and the Cuneus Frisiorum at Housesteads. Crocus, King of the Alemanni, employed as a general in Roman service and almost certainly the leader of a large force of Germanic foederati settled in the Vale of York, is recorded as being instrumental in the proclamation of Constantine I as Emperor at York in 306 AD. These are just some of the better known examples, there are many more.

How many of these Barbarians employed in the Roman army remained in Britain after the garrison was repeatedly stripped of its troops to support the ambitions of successive usurpations is impossible to say. However, it is difficult not to speculate on the potential impact that Barbarisation of the Roman Army may have had on the make up of the British population.

The Departure of the Romans
Maximus became a distinguished general under Count Theodosius and in 380 AD was assigned to Britain, defeating an incursion of the Picts and Scots in 381 AD. He is fondly remembered in Welsh tradition as Macsen Wledig of the Mabinogion. In 383 AD Maximus was proclaimed Emperor by his troops. He left for Gaul and is often accused of stripping the British garrison of its troops in pursuit of his imperial ambitions. The year 383 marks the end of Roman rule in northern and western Britain.

The actions of Maximus are repeated a quarter of a century later when in 407 AD Constantine III was acclaimed Emperor in Britain, likely a response to events in mainland Europe when a collective force of Barbarians, comprising Vandals, Burgundians, Alans and Sueves, breached one of the Empire's most secure limines by crossing the Rhine on 31 December in 406 AD to invade Gaul. The Byzantine historian Zozimus (Nova History, Book 6.5.3), drawing on Olympiodurus' largely lost fifth century history, records:

The barbarians above the Rhine, assaulting everything at their pleasure, reduced the inhabitants of Britain and some of the Celtic peoples to defecting from Roman rule and living their own lives disassociated from Roman law. The Britons, therefore, taking up arms and fighting on their own behalf, freed the towns from the barbarians who were pressing upon them: and the whole of Armorica and other provinces of Gaul, imitating the Britons, freed themselves in the same way, expelling the Roman officials and establishing a sovereign constitution on their own authority.”

Zosimus' account has been the subject of considerable debate. Not least the date of the Rhine crossing has been argued was the last day of 405 AD and as such the catalyst for a succession of three short-lived British usurpations commencing with Marcus and then Gratian. Both were relatively quick in passing but the third promotion of the British garrison, Constantine III, was more successful, yet he is totally ignored by Gildas. Constantine III crossed into Gaul, in all likelihood taking with him the last of the regular Roman troops in Britain, in direct response to the Barbarian horde ravaging through Gaul after crossing the Rhine. His regime disintegrated following a series of military reverses in 409 AD, followed by the British ejection of Roman administration in 410 AD.

Zosimus (6.10.2) records that the legitimate Emperor Honorius sent letters to the cities of Britain, advising them to look to their own defences. This is usually, erroneously referred to as signifying “The Roman Departure from Britain” but as we have seen above, the bulk of the Romans had already departed the island long before. The Honorian Rescript was in all probability official acknowledgement that Britain was now lost to Imperial rule. Constantine III's days came to an end when his last troops guarding the Rhine abandoned him; he was taken prisoner and beheaded on the way to Ravenna in 411 AD.

In Geoffrey of Monmouth's legendary history, Historia Regum Britanniae and the Welsh Brut, the third Constantine appears to have been conflated with Custennin Gorneu (Constantine of Cornwall), who Geoffrey names as the successor to Arthur as King of Britain. The only contemporary account we have of Constantine of Cornwall is from the Epistle (cc.27-33) of Gildas' De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae in which he rebukes five British kings charging him as the "tyrannical whelp of the unclean lioness of Damnonia" accussing him of disguising himself in abbot's robes and attacking two "royal youths" praying before a church altar.

The appeal to Aetius, the one datable event in Gildas, suggests the Post-Roman governance in Britain still thought a return to Imperial administration was a possibility as late as 446 AD, but it was not to be and Britain moved from Antiquity into the Medieval period on her own in the face of the Barbarians.

> Gildas and the Saxons

Copyright © 2014 Edward Watson

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