Britannia during the twilight of Rome in the West

The final days of the Roman Empire in Britannia, modern day Great Britain, were played out sometime in the early fifth century. The exact date is disputed in academic circles, but let’s go with the commonly accepted date of AD 410. The farewell was a seismic event for the people of the province. It is hard today for us to truly imagine the terrifying impact it must have had on those living in such uncertain times.

Since the original conquest by Rome in AD 43, many of the native people had become increasingly Romanized. This was especially so in the more populated urban areas and in the south-east. London for example was a wealthy trading port, a cosmopolitan place of many thousands of people from all over the Roman Empire with impressive civic buildings and public amenities.

That is not to say the original language and culture of pre-Roman Britain disappeared, traditional Round Houses were still being constructed in the countryside during the Roman period, and the Britons still spoke their native tongue. The use of Latin however, especially ‘Dog Latin,’ was widespread and a necessity for commerce and trade. Money talks, and in those days it spoke Latin. Britons became Romano-Britons.

Coins had also been used in pre-Roman Britain, particularly in the south east corner of the country which was closest to the influence of Roman Gaul. There is speculation in some academic circles that the northern Gaulish tribes spoke a Germanic language, not Gaulish (one of the Celtic tongues) as was spoken further south. It is further ventured that the inhabitants of what is now south-east England spoke the same Germanic tongue and were closely related to their cousins across the water. Tribal names with a presence in both locations would strongly suggest a link, the Belgae being but one example.

The ruling native elites in the south were thoroughly Romanized, and many were living a Roman lifestyle before the mid first century AD. This would not be unusual given the cultural links projected above and the exposure to the pleasures and comforts Rome could provide. They enjoyed the fruits of the Empire, including its civilization, technologies and remarkable innovations. Sadly, this was very much a slave owning society though, and there were sharp divides in terms of social status between various sections of the population, as there still are in the modern world.

The beginning of the end

For centuries Roman Britain prospered, despite economic wobbles and civil war in the late third century, the exact time when the great coastal forts known as the ‘Saxon Shore Forts’, such as those at Pevensey and Portchester, were constructed. There is some dispute as to whether these impressive and imposing edifices were built as fortified distribution and trading centres, or as purely defensive structures. Most likely the truth is somewhere in the middle, with usage changing as threats ebbed and flowed. I would highly recommend anybody to visit Portchester Roman Fort, the best preserved of them all. It is more than likely the forts would also provide secure bases for what was left of the Roman navy, the Classis Britannica, operating against pirates and raiders. At the time, the North Sea was described as being ‘infested by Franks and Saxons’.

Catastrophic change began to occur from around AD 350, as the barbarian incursions in mainland Europe cut off trade with Britain, and internal strife within the empire weakened its defenses. The everyday imports and luxury goods stopped coming, exports withered and local mass production ceased as demand went into free-fall. An economy that had been so vibrant prior to AD 350 gradually imploded and collapsed. This in turn killed off most of the cities, as the reason for their very existence disappeared. They were abandoned, especially those in the east of the country which face Europe and were more vulnerable to attack by raiders from the continent. They were left to gradual ruinous decay as people retreated to the countryside. There were of course exceptions, Carlisle for example was continuously populated and even in the 7th century, had a fully functioning Roman water supply and strong, intact defensive walls.

The rot really began to set in with the elevation of Flavius Magnus Magnentius to the Purple in AD 351. The army had grown dissatisfied with the emperor Constans and in a coup d'état, replaced him with Magnentius. Constans was slain shortly after his replacement by a troop of light cavalry near the Pyrenees. Being a Roman emperor could be a very brutal and short-lived experience, particularly during the latter days of the empire in the West when the ancient glory of empire was in steep decline.

An access gate on Hadrian's Wall

Magnentius denuded Britannia of much of its military force in order to fight his cause in Europe, and cement his position as emperor. He personally led his troops at the Battle of Mursa Major in AD 351 but was defeated. Over the next couple of years he rallied his forces, and made a final stand at the Battle of Mons Seleucus in AD 353. He once again suffered a defeat. Knowing the game was up and his cause lost, he committed suicide by falling on his sword. Interestingly, Magnentius is said to have had a British father and a Frankish mother, which certainly rooted him to Britannia.

In AD 367 the army posted along Hadrian’s Wall rebelled and allowed the Picts to flow south into Britannia. Simultaneously, Attacotti, the Scotti from Hibernia, and the Saxons from Germania, landed in coordinated and pre-arranged waves on the island's mid-western and south-eastern borders respectively. It was a barbarian conspiracy to seek wealth and plunder in the province.

These invaders roamed the countryside in various war bands, killing, raping and pillaging settlements and villa estates. It was a truly desperate time for Britannia. Nectaridus, the Count of the Saxon Shore, was killed and the Dux Britanniarum, Fullofaudes, was according to the records either besieged or captured.  Deserting soldiers and escaped slaves roamed the countryside unchallenged by authority and turned to robbery in order to survive. The province was in chaos as the barbarian hordes sought personal enrichment, and the remaining loyal army units were holed-up in the towns of the south east.

Rome’s response to this appalling situation was initially weak and confused until in AD 368, Count Theodosius arrived in Britannia from Gaul with a strong army in order to drive out the invaders, and put the province firmly under the control of Rome once again. Army deserters were offered an amnesty and that aided his cause greatly and allowed him to once again seize control of Hadrian’s Wall. By the end of AD 368 Theodosius had utterly defeated the invaders and had driven them out. Rome then extracted its revenge. Mutineers were executed and a new administration ruthlessly installed. The barbarian invasion had further weakened the economy of Britannia and had sown the seeds of a total collapse later.

An empire in chaos

Terrible damage, some would say terminal damage, was again done to the province in AD 383, when an ambitious and distinguished general by the name of Magnus Maximus attempted to usurp the Purple from the Emperor Theodosius I, and seize the imperial throne. He once again took an army from Britain, denuding its military presence, and crossed the channel into Gaul. He was defeated in his self-serving endeavour by the emperor and executed. The Roman emperor then sent a force to Britain with a remit to root out the supporters of the usurper Magnus Maximus. 

Civil war was not what the Empire needed in the late fourth century, as it was being pressured by various barbarian on its borders, and neither did the vulnerable province of Britannia. It could ill afford to have an army squandered on the battlefield for the sake of one man’s lofty pretensions to the Purple. This was a time when the province was once again being probed and attacked by Scots, Picts and Saxons. It was a timely warning of things to come. 

Around 396 there were increasing barbarian incursions into Britain, and an expedition — possibly led by Stilicho — brought naval action against the raiders. It seems peace was restored by 399, although it is likely that no further garrisoning was ordered; and indeed by 401 more troops were withdrawn to assist in the war against Alaric I.

The collapse of the economy also witnessed the beginning of the end for the great rural villa estates. Academia is not agreed upon exactly what caused their collapse, there are various opinions, apart from the obvious and sweeping state of the economy and barbarian raids, and they certainly did not disappear overnight. Some struggled on into the fifth century but most had long gone by then. It may well have been that a villa estate required a small army of slaves and servants to keep it running, and these may have gradually disappeared. As Roman administration began to falter and shudder to a halt in the late fourth century, taxes went uncollected and the army went unpaid. The collapsing economy meant that markets for surpluses disappeared and the province swung back to self-sufficiency.

The large villa buildings required constant maintenance, just as large properties do today, and such work is expensive. With much reduced incomes and a lack of skilled craftsmen to undertake the work, the structures began to crumble. Even in fairly recent times, some aristocrats who could no longer support their money-pit country piles demolished them, or simply moved out and left them to rot. This quite possibly also happened to many of the grand Roman villas, which simply become unsustainable liabilities.

It is almost impossible for us to fully grasp all this today from our comfortable existence in the modern world.  We simply have no concept of such awful shattering change and the effects emanating from it. Imagine the population of modern London suddenly abandoning the city, leaving it to rot, and heading for the countryside as society all around you falls apart and law and order collapse; when all that you knew has gone forever. The wars, recessions and depressions we have experienced over the past one hundred years are nothing, compared to what happened in Britain during the twilight of Roman rule in the British Isles.

Flickering of the light

The economy of Roman Britain did revive to a degree after AD 383, but production and trade was undertaken in small towns at a much more local level. This town life in turn mostly came to an end as the pressure from the Picts of the north, the Gaels from Ireland and Saxons from the mainland stretched the province to breaking point. By the beginning of the fifth century, even the small towns were failing and being left behind. Britain from that point had mostly ceased to be urban. The light of civilization that had flickered in the towns died, and along with it died the knowledge to build in stone, make roads and to manufacture concrete. Literacy also died, only being preserved in the Christian areas of the Roman-British west of Britannia, where urban life was able to cling on the longest. 

By 407 there were no new Roman coins going into circulation, and by 430 it is likely that coinage as a medium of exchange had been abandoned. Pottery mass production probably ended a decade or two previously; the rich continued to use metal and glass vessels, while the poor probably adopted leather or wooden ones.

In its death throes, the Empire saw three usurpers attempt to claim the imperial throne in AD 406, all with support from Britannia. In AD 407 more troops were withdrawn from Britannia to try and prop up Rome in Europe, it left the province ill defended and terribly vulnerable to barbarian incursions. Sure enough, the attacks came and the province incurred great damage. Sick of it all, the Romano-Britons threw out the representatives of the latest usurper to the purple, Constantine III, and set about organizing their own defence. 

They managed to send the barbarians packing, but by now the writing was on the wall for anybody with eyes to see. A Saxon incursion in 408 was apparently repelled by the Britons. Despite that success, Roman Britain was dying and would soon begin to pass into the twilight of history.

By AD 450 the Saxon settlement was in full swing as more migrants arrived from the continent, and the old province of Britannia begun to buckle and fragment. The Saxons did not arrive as one massive invasion as is often supposed, rather the settlement began as a trickle and gathered exponential momentum in the sixth century. Indeed, Saxons may well have been settled in what is now East Anglia and south-east England prior to the official end of Roman Britain, employed as mercenaries in the Roman military machine.

The new arrivals rebelled, plunging the country into a series of wars that eventually led to the Saxon occupation of Lowland Britain by 600. Around this time many Britons fled to Brittany (hence its name), Galicia and probably Ireland.

During the middle of the fifth century, there was still Romano-British government of sorts in various parts of the province, and from this era springs the legend of King Arthur and his Knights. Life went on in the protected fort-based settlements along Hadrian’s Wall itself, such as Vindolanda in Northumberland, but to all intents and purposes this was year zero, a new beginning to a much more dangerous, less civilized and far more turbulent age of darkness. The Battle of Deorham in 577 signified the death rattle of Roman Britain. After the battle, the significant cities of Bath, Cirencester and Gloucester fell, and the Saxons reached the western sea.

The majority of the Roman military units appear to have been removed from the province in the early years of the fifth century, to defend Rome and the crumbling western empire - albeit the seat of what constituted Roman power was now situated in the more defensible city of Ravenna in northern Italy. Those experiencing events unfold in Britannia must have been full of dread and foreboding for the future, a future that looked bleak. They would have witnessed the weak flame of Romano-British civilization, and observed the final dying of the light, as it was violently snuffed out by the approaching storm of a new Germanic epoch.

Last desperate pleas 

AD 410: the Empire is in turmoil; attacked from all sides, both internally and externally. Faced with invasion by a coalition of Picts and Saxons, the Roman citizens of Britain appeal to the Roman Emperor for help; but Honorius is in no position to aid them. Rome has just been sacked, the Goths are ravaging Italy and the western half of his empire, where Britain lies, has been supporting a pretender. Honorius drafts them a reply telling them that they must 'look to their own defenses'. With these words, Rome's official ties with Britain are lost.

In around AD 450 a last desperate plea for help - known to history as the 'Growns of the Britons' is sent to Agitius, generally identified as Aetius, military leader of the Western Roman Empire, who spent most of the 440s fighting insurgents in Gaul and Hispania. 

The text of the plea in Latin is: 

Agitio ter consuli, gemitus britannorum. [...] Repellunt barbari ad mare, repellit mare ad barbaros; inter haec duo genera funerum aut iugulamur aut mergimur.

The text in English is: 

To Agitius, thrice consul: the groans of the Britons. [...] The barbarians drive us to the sea, the sea drives us to the barbarians; between these two means of death, we are either killed or drowned. 

The Romans, however, could not assist them, and the Britons were left to their own devices. After nearly four hundred years, Britannia never left the Empire, the Empire left Britannia.

The dawn of a new age

The incoming Saxon settlers did not massacre the local population of Romano-Britons en masse, they simply became the dominant culture after centuries of warfare, and the subjugated local population adopted their language and customs as time went by. There is also some suggestion in the latest socio-archaeological research, that the Saxons were able to reproduce successfully at a far greater rate than the native population. This has yet to be proven but the genetics are pointing in that direction.

The Angles, Jutes and Saxons arrive in Britain

In the fifth century there was a more egalitarian society as the new settlers established themselves, for a while at least, but this of course changed. People farmed the land that had once formed part of the old Roman villa estates, whose wealthy Romano-British owners had long since packed up and disappeared, and provided for their families as best they could. Many hordes of valuables were also buried in the ground during this period. Some have been discovered, many more remain where they have been interred for centuries, waiting to be found.

As the country moved into the sixth century we see a distinct change in society happening. Some of the migrant families became very successful and powerful; they obtained more land and began to exert real influence over their neighbours. They acquired military muscle and this in turn lead to them demanding tribute from their weaker neighbours, and acknowledgement of their more elevated social position. As with all communities from then until now, power over others was exerted by fear and intimidation at the point of a sword, aided and abetted by religion entwined within the apparatus of the state.

The Battle of Badon, the last hurrah of the Romano-Britons

For those who may not know, the Battle of Badon was a major event in what is now England. The actual date of this battle is disputed, but we will pick one of the options, 520 AD. The Romano-British commander, Ambrosius Aurelianus, decimated a combined army of Saxons and Jutes from Sussex and Kent, which effectively ended their westward expansion into Dorset and Wiltshire for at least fifty years. 

What was really interesting about this battle, is that the Romano-British forces still contained Sarmatian Cataphracts (Equites Cataphractarii). These heavy cavalry were the tanks of their day. Both they and their horses were covered in scale armour. They were expensive to maintain, as you can imagine. The Sarmatian Cataphracts first appeared in Britain in the 2nd century AD. The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius sent a large contingent of 5,500 to the province. They must have been an awe inspiring sight. They remained in Britain right up until the end of the Roman period in around 410 AD.

Although still called Sarmatian, by the 5th century AD they would have been made up from Romano-Britons, descendants of the original 2nd century Sarmatians. Whilst the serving Cataphracts may have been withdrawn to the continent as the Empire began to fall apart, the veterans would have remained in Britain, and would have trained their sons to defend their lands.

That being so, in 520 AD, a fully trained force of these heavy cavalry would still have been available to Ambrosius Aurelianus, albeit in much reduced numbers to their heyday. Roman Britain did not actually disappear in 410 AD, that is a fallacy. It lasted for much longer in the West of Britain, well into the 7th century. Even in the late 11th century, at the time of the Norman invasion of 1066, Cornwall was seen as a very distinct entity, speaking its own Celtic language, a tongue that is closely related to Welsh. That language died out in its spoken form in the 19th century, but is today being revived. Cornish speakers continue to grow year on year as Cornish national pride rises.

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