Roman Britain
The End of Roman Britain
On 19th January 379, Gratian appointed Theodosius, an ex military commander from Spain, co-Augustus, and gave him charge of the eastern Empire. Gratian and his young half-brother, Valentinian II,* ruled in the West.
“... he [Gratian] would have been fitted with all good qualities, if he had attended to comprehending the science of ruling the state, from which he was almost a stranger not only by inclination but also by practice. For he aroused the hatred of the troops against himself when he neglected the army and preferred to the venerable Roman soldier a few from the Alans whom he had arrogated to himself by an immense payment of gold, and with the retinue of barbarians he had almost even begun to have friendship ...”
Anonymous ‘Epitome de Caesaribus’ Chapter 47 (c.395)
“This produced among his soldiers a violent hatred against him, which being gradually inflamed and augmented incited in them a disposition for innovation, and most particularly in that part of them which was in Britain, since they were the most resolute and vindictive. In this spirit they were encouraged by Maximus, a Spaniard, who had been the fellow-soldier of Emperor Theodosius in Britain.* He was offended that Theodosius should be thought worthy of being made emperor, while he himself had no honourable employment. He therefore cherished the animosity of the soldiers towards the emperor. They were thus easily induced to revolt and to declare Maximus emperor.”
Zosimus ‘New History’ Book IV Chapter 35 (c.500)
A gold solidus (4.57 g) of Magnus Maximus, probably minted in London.
Magnus Maximus was proclaimed emperor in 383. It is not known what command he held in Britain – perhaps, in view of a comment in the anonymous ‘Gallic Chronicle of 452’ (named after the year of its final entry) that Maximus “subdued invading Picts and Scots”, he was dux Britanniarum, based in the North.* At any rate, Maximus promptly took an army across the Channel into Gaul.
“As the Emperor Gratian was at this period occupied with a war against the Alamanni, Maximus quitted Britain, with the design of usurping the imperial power. Valentinian was then residing in Italy, but as he was a minor, the affairs of state were transacted by Probus, a praetorian prefect, who had formerly been consul.”
Sozomen ‘Ecclesiastical History’ Book VII Chapter 13 (c.446)
Gratian's forces soon defected to Maximus, and he was forced to flee. Maximus despatched Andragathius, his magister equitum (commander of horse), in pursuit. Gratian was caught, at Lyon, and executed on 25th August 383 – he was twenty-four years old. Rather than risk a war, Theodosius came to terms with Maximus. Maximus was in effect accepted as Gratian's successor, ruling Britain, Gaul and Spain, whilst Valentinian held Italy.
“... when a number of bishops from various parts had assembled to the Emperor Maximus, a man of fierce character, and at that time elated with the victory he had won in the civil wars, and when the disgraceful flattery of all around the emperor was generally remarked, while the priestly dignity had, with degenerate submissiveness, taken a second place to the royal retinue, in Martin alone, apostolic authority continued to assert itself. For even if he had to make suit to the sovereign for some things, he commanded rather than entreated him; and although often invited, he kept away from his entertainments, saying that he could not take a place at the table of one who, out of two emperors, had deprived one of his kingdom, and the other of his life. At last, when Maximus maintained that he had not of his own accord assumed the sovereignty, but that he had simply defended by arms the necessary requirements of the empire, regard to which had been imposed upon him by the soldiers, according to the Divine appointment, and that the favour of God did not seem wanting to him who, by an event seemingly so incredible, had secured the victory, adding to that the statement that none of his adversaries had been slain except in the open field of battle ...”
Sulpicius Severus ‘Vita Martini’ (Life of St Martin) Chapter 20 (c.395)
“...Maximus, who deemed his appointments inferior to his merits, being only governor of the countries formerly under Gratian, projected how to depose the young Valentinian from the empire ...”
Zosimus ‘New History’ Book IV Chapter 42
In 387, Maximus:
“... raised a large army of Britons, neighbouring Gauls, Celts, and other nations, and marched into Italy.”
Sozomen ‘Ecclesiastical History’ Book VII Chapter 13
Valentinian fled east, to Theodosius.
“Theodosius therefore put his trust in God and hurled himself against the usurper Maximus with no advantage but that of faith, for he was inferior in every point of military equipment. Maximus at that time had established himself at Aquileia [in north-eastern Italy], to be a spectator of his own victory. Andragathius, his count, who was in charge of the general direction of the war, greatly strengthened all the approaches through the Alps and along the rivers, placing there large bodies of soldiers and employing skilful strategy that counted for even more than strength of numbers. But by the inscrutable judgment of God he abandoned of his own accord the very passes that he had closed up, intending to catch the enemy off their guard and destroy them by a naval expedition. Thus Theodosius crossed the undefended Alps without being noticed, much less opposed, by anyone, and arrived unexpectedly before Aquileia. His mighty enemy Maximus, a stern ruler who exacted taxes even from the savage German tribes by the mere terror of his name, was surrounded, captured, and put to death without recourse to treachery and without a contest. Valentinian, after receiving the imperium, attempted to gain control over Italy. On learning of the death of Maximus, Count Andragathius threw himself headlong from his ship into the sea and was drowned. Thus under God's guidance Theodosius gained a bloodless victory... After the destruction of Maximus and of his son Victor, whom Maximus had left among the Gauls as their emperor, Valentinian the Younger, now restored to his realm, passed over into Gaul.”
Orosius ‘Historiarum Adversus Paganos Libri Septem’ Book VII Chapter 35 (c.417)
Maximus was executed on 28th July 388 (probably, some sources say a month later).
“He [Maximus] withdrew from Britain with all his military force, slew Gratian, the king of the Romans, and obtained the sovereignty of all Europe. Unwilling to send back his warlike companions to their wives, children, and possessions in Britain, he conferred upon them numerous districts from the lake on the summit of Mons Jovis, to the city called Cant Guic, and to the western Tumulus, that is, to Cruc Occident. These are the Armoric Britons, and they remain there to the present day.”
Historia Brittonum’ § 27 (c.829)
Although it contains much obviously fabulous material, the ‘Historia Brittonum’ cannot be completely dismissed. There may be some substance in the idea that the activities of Magnus Maximus initiated large-scale British settlement in what, as a result, came to be called Brittany (and hence, Breton is a Brythonic language) – it is embedded in Welsh and Breton tradition, but there is no corroborative evidence. At this point in the history of Britain, the threshold of the so-called Dark Ages, fact and legend become almost seamlessly entwined. In Welsh tradition, Magnus Maximus is Macsen Wledig. He features in royal genealogies, and a tale, ‘The Dream of Macsen Wledig’, in ‘The Mabinogion’.
“At length also, as thickets of tyrants [i.e. usurpers] were growing up and bursting forth soon into an immense forest, the island retained the Roman name, but not the morals and law; nay rather, casting forth a shoot of its own planting, it sends out Maximus to the Gauls, accompanied by a great crowd of followers, with an emperor's ensigns in addition, which he never worthily bore nor legitimately, but as one elected after the manner of a tyrant and amid a turbulent soldiery. This man, through cunning art rather than by valour, first attaches to his guilty rule certain neighbouring countries or provinces against the Roman power, by nets of perjury and falsehood. He then extends one wing to Spain, the other to Italy, fixing the throne of his iniquitous empire at Trier [in modern Germany], and raged with such madness against his lords that he drove two legitimate emperors, the one from Rome, the other from a most pious life. Though fortified by hazardous deeds of so dangerous a character, it was not long ere he lost his accursed head at Aquileia: he who had in a way cut off the crowned heads of the empire of the whole world.”
Gildas ‘De Excidio Britanniae’ Chapter 13
That, somewhat vitriolic, summary of Magnus Maximus' imperial career comes from ‘De Excidio Britanniae’ (On the Ruin of Britain), written c.545(?), by the British cleric Gildas. His purpose was not to write an accurate work of history. He is sketchy on detail, chronology is almost absent, and it is difficult to reconcile his story with other sources, but Gildas provides the earliest narrative of the demise of Roman Britain. He continues:
“After this, Britain is robbed of all her armed soldiery, of her military supplies, of her rulers, cruel though they were, and of her vigorous youth who followed the footsteps of the above-mentioned tyrant [i.e. Maximus] and never returned. Completely ignorant of the practice of war, she is, for the first time, open to be trampled upon by two foreign tribes of extreme cruelty, the Scots from the north-west, the Picts from the north; and for many years continues stunned and groaning.
Owing to the inroads of these tribes and the consequent dreadful prostration, Britain sends an embassy with letters to Rome, entreating in tearful appeals an armed force to avenge her, and vowing submission on her part to the Roman power, uninterrupted and with all strength of heart, if the enemy were driven away. A legion is forthwith prepared, with no remembrance of past evil, and fully equipped. Having crossed over the sea in ships to Britain, it came into close engagement with the oppressive enemies; it killed a great number of them and drove all over the borders, and freed the humiliated inhabitants from so fierce a violence and threatening bondage. The inhabitants were commanded to build a wall across the island ...
The legion returned home in great triumph and joy when their old enemies, like rapacious wolves, fierce with excessive hunger, jump with greedy maw into the fold, because there was no shepherd in sight. They rush across the boundaries, carried over by wings of oars, by arms of rowers, and by sails with fair wind. They slay everything, and whatever they meet with they cut it down like a ripe crop, trample under foot and walk through.”
Gildas ‘De Excidio Britanniae’ Chapters 14–16
Meanwhile, on 15th May 392, Valentinian II was found dead:
“... so the story goes, he was treacherously strangled to death at Vienne [in south-eastern Gaul] by his count Arbogast. Valentinian was hanged by a rope so that it might appear he had taken his own life. Soon after the death of the Augustus Valentinian, Arbogast ventured to set up the usurper Eugenius, choosing him as a figurehead on whom to bestow the imperial title, but intending to manage the government himself.”
Orosius ‘Historiarum Adversus Paganos Libri Septem’ Book VII Chapter 35
On 6th September 394, Theodosius defeated Eugenius at the river Frigidus, in north-eastern Italy. Eugenius was executed and Arbogast committed suicide. On 17th January 395, Theodosius died at Milan. He was succeeded in the East by his elder son (seventeen or eighteen) Arcadius, and in the West by his ten-year-old son Honorius.*
In 399, the poet Claudian (Claudius Claudianus) wrote:
“Rome [i.e. the personification of the city] lays aside her veil of cloud and towers above the youthful warrior, then thus begins.
“Examples near at hand testify to the extent of my power now thou [Honorius] art emperor. The Saxon is conquered and the seas safe; the Picts have been defeated and Britain is secure.” ”
Claudian ‘In Eutropium’ (Against Eutropius) Book I
In fact, it was Honorius' guardian, the magister militum (Master of Soldiers) Stilicho, who wielded power. In 400, Claudian published a work commemorating the first consulship of Stilicho:
“Next spake Britain clothed in the skin of some Caledonian beast, her cheeks tattooed, and an azure cloak, rivalling the swell of Ocean, sweeping to her feet: “Stilicho gave aid to me also when at the mercy of neighbouring tribes, what time the Scots roused all Hibernia [Ireland] against me and the sea foamed to the beat of hostile oars. Thanks to his care I had no need to fear the Scottish arms or tremble at the Pict, or keep watch along all my coasts for the Saxon who would come whatever wind might blow.” ”
Claudian ‘De Consulatu Stilichonis’ (On the Consulship of Stilicho) Book II
It seems, then, that, probably in 398, Stilicho sent troops to Britain. It is unlikely that Stilicho himself made the journey – surely Claudian would have made it clear if he had. Possibly the expedition Claudian is alluding to can be equated with Gildas' story of a second Roman military intervention in Britain:
“Again suppliant messengers are sent with rent clothes, as is said, and heads covered with dust. Crouching like timid fowls under the trusty wings of the parent birds, they ask help of the Romans, lest the country in its wretchedness be completely swept away, and the name of Romans, which to their ears was the echo of a mere word, should even grow vile as a thing gnawed at, in the reproach of alien nations. They, moved, as far as was possible for human nature, by the tale of such a tragedy, make speed, like the flight of eagles, unexpected in quick movements of cavalry on land and of sailors by sea; before long they plunge their terrible swords in the necks of the enemies; the massacre they inflict is to be compared to the fall of leaves at the fixed time, just like a mountain torrent, swollen by numerous streams after storms, sweeps over its bed in its noisy course; with furrowed back and fierce look, its waters, as the saying goes, surging up to the clouds (by which our eyes, though often refreshed by the movements of the eyelids, are obscured by the quick meeting of lines in its broken eddies), foams surprisingly, and with one rush overcomes obstacles set in its way. Then did the illustrious helpers quickly put to flight the hordes of the enemy beyond the sea, if indeed escape was at all possible for them: for it was beyond the seas that they, with no one to resist, heaped up the plunder greedily acquired by them year by year.
The Romans, therefore, declare to our country that they could not be troubled too frequently by arduous expeditions of that kind, nor could the marks of Roman power, that is an army of such size and character, be harassed by land and sea on account of un-warlike, roving, thieving fellows. They urge the Britons, rather, to accustom themselves to arms, and fight bravely, so as to save with all their might their land, property, wives, children, and, what is greater than these, their liberty and life: they should not, they urge, in any way hold forth their hands armourless to be bound by nations in no way stronger than themselves, unless they became' effeminate through indolence and listlessness; but have them provided with bucklers, swords and spears, and ready for striking. Because they were also of opinion that it would bring a considerable advantage to the people they were leaving, they construct a wall, different from the other ... they give bold counsel to the people in their fear, and leave behind them patterns for the manufacture of arms. On the sea coast also, towards the south, where their ships were wont to anchor, because from that quarter also wild barbarian hordes were feared, they place towers at stated intervals, affording a prospect of the sea.* They then bid them farewell, as men who never intended to return.”
Gildas ‘De Excidio Britanniae’ Chapters 17 & 18
In 402, Stilicho defeated (though not decisively) Alaric, king of the Visigoths, at Pollentia (modern Pollenzo, in north-west Italy). Claudian celebrated the event in a poem. It seems that Stilicho had withdrawn a legion from Britain to take part in his campaign:
“... the legion that had been left to guard Britain, the legion that kept the fierce Scots in check, whose men had scanned the strange devices tattooed on dying Picts.”
Claudian ‘De Bello Gothico’ (On the Gothic War)
Constantine III (as he is usually called) was proclaimed emperor by the British garrison in 407. He was actually their third choice, the first two proving to be unsuitable.
“... Arcadius being in his sixth consulate, and Probus was his colleague [i.e. in 406], the Vandals, uniting with the Alans and the Suebi, crossed in these places [Alpine passes], and plundered the countries beyond the Alps. Having there occasioned great slaughter they likewise became so formidable even to the armies in Britain, that they were compelled, through fear of their proceeding as far as that country, to choose several usurpers, that is Marcus, Gratian, and after them Constantine.”
Zosimus ‘New History’ Book VI Chapter 3
“When Arcadius was still reigning, Honorius being consul the seventh time and Theodosius the second [i.e. in 407], the troops in Britain revolted and promoted Marcus to the imperial throne, rendering obedience to him as sovereign there. Some time subsequently, having put him to death for not complying with their inclinations, they set up Gratian, whom they presented with a diadem and a purple robe, and attended him as an emperor. Being disgusted with him likewise, they four months afterwards deposed and murdered him, delivering the empire to Constantine.”
Zosimus ‘New History’ Book VI Chapter 2
“... two years before the taking of Rome [i.e. in 408], the nations that had been stirred up by Stilicho, as I have said, that is, the Alans, Suebi, Vandals as well as many others with them, overwhelmed the Franks, crossed the Rhine, invaded Gaul, and advanced in their onward rush as far as the Pyrenees. Checked for the time being by this barrier, they poured back over the neighbouring provinces. While they were roaming wildly through Gaul, Gratian, a townsman of Britain, was set up in that island as a usurper. He was later slain and in his place Constantine, a man from the lowest ranks of the soldiery, was chosen simply from confidence inspired by his name and without any other qualifications to recommend him. As soon as he had seized the imperial dignity, he crossed over into Gaul ...”
Orosius ‘Historiarum Adversus Paganos Libri Septem’ Book VII Chapter 40
A gold solidus (4.37 g) of Constantine III, minted at Lugdunum (Lyon) in 407–8.
The dating evidence is a somewhat contradictory, but it seems likely that, though Marcus and Gratian were chosen in 406, by the time Constantine was elected it was 407. Gildas must have known something of these events and their consequences from his sources (Orosius, for instance), but he makes no mention of them. At any rate:
“Having arrived at Bononia [Boulogne], which is the nearest to the sea-side, situated in the lower Germany, and continuing there some days, he [Constantine] conciliated the attachment of all the troops between that place and the Alps, which separate Gaul from Italy, thus appearing now secure in the empire.”
Zosimus ‘New History’ Book VI Chapter 2
Stilicho sent an army, commanded by the Gothic chieftain Sarus, against Constantine. Sarus enjoyed initial success, killing both of Constantine's generals. To replace them, Constantine appointed Edobichus, a Frank, and Gerontius, a Briton. The new commanders forced Sarus to flee back to Italy. Constantine established himself at Arelate (now Arles) in the south of Gaul. Fearing a two-pronged attack – from Italy and, by Honorius' relatives, from Spain – Constantine despatched his son Constans, whom he had made Caesar,* and Gerontius to secure Spain. On 22nd August 408, Stilicho was executed.
“Stilicho, the general of the troops of Honorius, was suspected of having conspired to proclaim his son Eucherius emperor of the East *... a report having been spread that he had conspired against the emperor, and had formed a scheme, in conjunction with those in power, to raise his son to the throne, the troops rose up in sedition, and slew the praetorian prefect of Italy and of Gaul, the military commanders, and the chief officers of the court. Stilicho himself was slain by the soldiers at Ravenna. He had attained almost absolute power; and all men, so to speak, whether Romans or barbarians, were under his control. Thus perished Stilicho, on a suspicion of having conspired against the emperors. Eucherius, his son, was also slain.”
Sozomen ‘Ecclesiastical History’ Book IX Chapter 4
Meanwhile, having accomplished his mission, leaving Gerontius in Spain, Constans returned to his father with two captive relatives of Honorius: Verenianus and Didymus. Constantine promptly had the pair put to death.
“... [in 409] the rebel Constantine sent some eunuchs to Honorius, to intreat pardon from him for having accepted of the empire. When the emperor heard this petition, perceiving that it was not easy for him to prepare for other wars, since Alaric and his barbarians were so near; and considering the safety of his relations who were in the hands of the rebel, whose names were Verenianus and Didymus; he not only granted his request, but likewise sent him an imperial robe. But his care for his relations was in vain, they having been put to death before this embassy. Having done this, he sent home the eunuchs.”
Zosimus ‘New History’ Book V Chapter 43
“... Alaric, having received insult in return for his reasonable demands, hastened towards Rome with all his forces, designing closely to besiege that city. At the same time Jovius, a man of great learning and virtue, came to Honorius as ambassador from Constantine, who had usurped power among the Celts, desiring a confirmation of the peace which had formerly been agreed on, and requesting pardon for the death of Verenianus and Didymus, who were relations of the emperor Honorius. He pleaded in excuse, that they were not killed with the concurrence of Constantine. Finding Honorius in great perplexity, he told him that he would be well advised to make some concessions, since he was so much embroiled with the affairs of Italy, and that if he would suffer him to go back to Constantine to inform him of the circumstances in which Italy then stood, he would shortly return with all the forces in Celtica, Spain, and Britain, to the relief of Italy and Rome. On these conditions Jovius was permitted to depart.”
Zosimus ‘New History’ Book VI Chapter 1
Constantine's luck, however, was about to run out. He promoted Constans to Augustus and sent him back to Spain, accompanied by a general called Justus. Constans found that the Vandals, Suebi, and Alans had been allowed into Spain by the soldiers he had left guarding the Pyrenean passes, and that Gerontius, apparently angered at the prospect of being superseded by Justus, had fomented a rebellion and declared one Maximus emperor. At this juncture:
“... the barbarians beyond the Rhine made such unbounded incursions over every province, as to reduce not only the inhabitants of Britain, but some of the Celtic nations also to the necessity of revolting from the empire, and living no longer under the Roman laws but as they themselves pleased. The Britons therefore took up arms, and incurred many dangerous enterprises for their own protection, until they had freed their cities from the barbarians who besieged them. In a similar manner, the whole of Armorica, with other provinces of Gaul, delivered themselves by the same means; expelling the Roman magistrates or officers, and erecting a government, such as they pleased, of their own.
Thus happened this revolt or defection of Britain and the Celtic nations, when Constantine usurped the empire, by whose negligent government the barbarians were emboldened to commit such devastations.”
Zosimus ‘New History’ Book VI Chapters 5 & 6
It was perhaps early in 410 (the chronology is not at all clear) by the time that Constantine crossed the Alps into Italy – Sozomen says his intention was, in fact, to take Italy for himself – but he was obliged to withdraw back to Arles when Honorius' magister equitum, Allobich, was put to death:
“... being suspected of conspiring to place the entire Western government under the domination of Constantine ...”
Sozomen ‘Ecclesiastical History’ Book IX Chapter 12
Constans, having suffered a defeat in Spain, also had to retreat to Arles. An entry in the ‘Gallic Chronicle of 452’, placed in the sixteenth year of Honorius, i.e. 410, notes that:
“The Britains [the British provinces] were devastated by an incursion of the Saxons.” *
Alaric had installed, late in 409, his own puppet emperor, Attalus, in Rome (Honorius' court was in Ravenna). In 410, Alaric:
“... proceeded with his army to all the cities of Aemilia, which had refused to accept Attalus as their sovereign. Some of these he speedily reduced; but having besieged Bononia [Bologna], which resisted him many days, without being able to take it, he advanced towards Liguria, to compel that country likewise to acknowledge Attalus as its emperor. Honorius, having sent letters to the cities in Britain, counselling them to be watchful of their own security, and having rewarded his soldiers with the money sent by Heraclian, lived with all imaginable ease, since he had acquired the attachment of the soldiers in all places.”
Zosimus ‘New History’ Book VI Chapter 10
The letters sent to British cities are known as the ‘Rescript of Honorius’ – the assumption being that the emperor was responding to a plea for help. The ‘Rescript’, which, in effect, tells the Britons that they are on their own, is traditionally seen as marking the end of Roman Britain.*
In the summer of 410, Attalus was removed from office by Alaric. Shortly after, Alaric's Visigoths sacked Rome – entering the city on 24th August 410.
“In the one thousand one hundred and sixty-fifth year of the City [i.e. in 410], the emperor Honorius, seeing that nothing could be done against the barbarians when so many usurpers were opposed to him, ordered that the usurpers themselves should first be destroyed. Count Constantius was entrusted with the command of this campaign. The state then finally realized what benefit it derived from having a Roman general at last and what ruinous oppression it had been enduring for years from its subjection to barbarian counts.”
Orosius ‘Historiarum Adversus Paganos Libri Septem’ Book VII Chapter 42
Meanwhile, Gerontius had invaded Gaul. Constantine sent Constans to Vienne, where, in 411, he was killed by Gerontius. Gerontius then besieged Constantine and his younger son, Julian, at Arles. At this point, Count Constantius arrived on the scene. Most of Gerontius' army deserted to Constantius and Gerontius fled back to Spain. His troops turned on him:
“The house where he seeks refuge is set on fire, but he offers a brave resistance to the mutineers, together with one of his servants, an Alan by birth. At last, he slays the Alan and then his wife, at their earnest request, and then stabs himself.”
Olympiodorus of Thebes ‘Histories’ (probably 440s), fragment preserved in Photius' ‘Bibliotheca’
Count Constantius took up the siege of Arles. Constantine had sent for reinforcements but they were defeated:
“Constantine takes refuge in a church and is ordained priest, having been solemnly promised that his life should be spared. The city gates are thrown open to the besiegers, and Constantine and his son taken to Honorius. But the emperor, bearing a grudge against them for the murder of his cousins by Constantine, orders them to be put to death in violation of his oath, thirty miles from Ravenna.”
Olympiodorus of Thebes ‘Histories’, fragment preserved in Photius' ‘Bibliotheca’
“Maximus, stripped of the purple and abandoned by the troops of Gaul, which were transferred to Africa and then recalled to Italy, is now a needy exile living among the barbarians in Spain.”
Orosius ‘Historiarum Adversus Paganos Libri Septem’ Book VII Chapter 42
“... Constantine, defeated in battle, died with his sons. However the Romans never succeeded in recovering Britain, but it remained from that time on under tyrants.”
Procopius of Caesarea ‘History of the Wars’ Book III Chapter 2 (c.550)
Having failed to mention Constantine et al, Gildas continues his story:
“As they [the Romans] were returning home, the terrible hordes of Scots and Picts eagerly come forth out of the coracles in which they sailed across the sea-valley, as on Ocean's deep, just as, when the sun is high and the heat increasing, dark swarms of worms emerge from the narrow crevices of their holes. Differing partly in their habits, yet alike in one and the same thirst for bloodshed – in a preference also for covering their villainous faces with hair rather than their nakedness of body with decent clothing – these nations, on learning the departure of our helpers and their refusal to return, became more audacious than ever, and seized the whole northern part of the land as far as the wall, to the exclusion of the inhabitants. To oppose their attacks, there was stationed on the height of the stronghold, an army, slow to fight, unwieldy for flight, incompetent by reason of its cowardice of heart, which languished day and night in its foolish watch. In the meantime the barbed weapons of the naked enemies are not idle: by them the wretched citizens are dragged from the walls and dashed to the ground. This punishment of untimely death was an advantage, forsooth, to them that were cut off by such an end, in so far as it saved them, by its suddenness, from the wretched torments which threatened their brethren and relatives. Why should I tell more? They abandon their cities and lofty wall: there ensues a repetition of flight on the part of the citizens; again there are scatterings with less hope than ever, pursuit again by the enemy, and again still more cruel massacres. As lambs by butchers, so the unhappy citizens are torn in pieces by the enemy, insomuch that their life might be compared to that of wild animals. For they even began to restrain one another by the thieving of the small means of sustenance for scanty living, to tide over a short time, which the wretched citizens possessed. Calamities from without were aggravated by tumults at home, because the whole country by pillagings, so frequent of this kind, was being stripped of every kind of food supply, with the exception of the relief that came from their skill in hunting.”
Gildas ‘De Excidio Britanniae’ Chapter 19
an archaeological postscript
‘The Romans Leaving Britain’
by Sir John Everett Millais (1829–1896)
“It used to be thought, years ago, that Roman Britain ‘ended’ in AD 410. The impression was that, one day, the Roman army marched out in orderly fashion under their standards, and on the next, the barbarian Saxons sailed in and consigned everywhere to the Dark Ages.
More recently, archaeologists have taken a different line, arguing that Roman Britain hardly ended at all. Using evidence mainly from single sites like Wroxeter, they claim that some aspects of Roman culture – such as town life, bureaucracy and the use of Latin – continued, at least in the west, as late as the 7th century. Although some scholars have pointed to signs of early decline, the dominant view has been that of survival.
New research, however, throws that consensus into doubt. Taking the excavated evidence as a whole, it now seems that Roman culture was disintegrating in Britain from the early-200s and had almost completely gone by the end of the 4th century.
This gradual but inexorable collapse affected towns, villas and villages. Nothing was exempt. The imperial project, the bringing of civilised life to barbarian lands, started with enthusiasm but ended – and ended early – amid piles of refuse and squalor, with abandoned farms and villages, country houses turned into barns and workshops, and towns heavily fortified by an embattled class of state officials desperate to cling on to power.”
So says Neil Faulkner, in an article featured in ‘British Archaeology’ (Issue 55, October 2000). Dr Faulkner analysed archaeological data from seventeen urban sites across England:
“... ranging from Wroxeter to Canterbury and from Exeter to Lincoln. A clear pattern emerged. Most civic buildings were erected in about AD75–150, most private town-houses in about AD150–225, and urban occupation (measured by rooms in use) reached peak levels in the early-3rd century.
Civic construction work then collapsed as resources were diverted into building town walls in the mid-to-late-3rd century. There was a partial recovery in the early-4th – the so-called ‘Constantian renaissance’ – but it was a temporary blip, and, from around AD325, Romano-British towns faced terminal decline. Few new buildings were erected, many old ones were abandoned, and by about AD400 there was little left in most places but a wasteland of ruins and rubbish.
... What the archaeology as a whole shows is near-total collapse of the Roman settlement pattern – not just the disappearance of towns, but of villas too, and indeed many native villages and farmsteads.
Two further recent surveys add weight to this view – one by Jack Newman of 78 villas randomly selected from published reports, another by Katie Meheux from the Institute of Archaeology (UCL) of 162 possible villa sites in the Severn Valley/Welsh Marches region...
One favoured explanation for urban decline is that the Romano-British gentry ‘retreated to the countryside’ to escape the burdens of public service in towns, and there, from the late-3rd century onwards, invested heavily in the embellishment of their country seats. Because of this, Guy de la Bédoyère has described the 4th century as Roman Britain's ‘golden age’ (BA July 1999).*
In fact, the boom in the villa economy seems to have ended early in that century. Newman's survey showed that between AD300 (the peak) and AD350 the amount of new building-work undertaken on villas fell by almost two thirds. Both his survey and that of Meheux revealed that a majority of villas had been abandoned by about AD375 and virtually all by about AD400.
The odd exception – like Whitley Grange in Shropshire – cannot alter the general picture. Much more typical were sites like Gorhambury in Hertfordshire, where the grand house was a ruin and had been incorporated into the farmyard by the mid-4th century, and Thurnham in Kent, where one of the central rooms was being used as an iron smithy at an even earlier date.
Native villages and farmsteads fared somewhat better, but many were still deserted or contracted sharply in the 4th century. Katie Meheux surveyed 317 native rural sites in the Severn Valley/Welsh Marches region and discovered a fall of 27 per cent in the number occupied between AD100–150 and AD350–400. My own more modest survey of 177 rural sites excavated in 1969–96 (as listed in the Roman archaeology journal Britannia) showed a fall of 35 per cent for the same period.
... Taken as a whole, the evidence implies not a 4th century ‘golden age’, but after about AD325 at any rate, an agricultural slump, a decaying class of gentry and an increasingly hard-pressed peasantry. There was, it seems, decline in both town and country – Roman Britain was in crisis long before AD 410.
... When the last Roman soldiers left the island or melted back into the countryside in the early-5th century, Britain's fragile Romanitas had already rotted away to almost nothing.
The succeeding Dark Ages are ‘dark’ for archaeologists precisely because virtually none of the rich material culture of Roman Britain survived.
Almost the whole edifice of Romanization vanished in a generation or two – the forts, towns and villas, the mosaics, frescoes and hypocausts, the stone-quarries, potteries and markets. Late Roman Britain had been part of a world system in crisis, and because it was a distant, under-developed region, it was one of the first to fall.”
Neil Faulkner published ‘The Decline and Fall of Roman Britain’ in 2000. Also published in 2000 was ‘Britain and the End of the Roman Empire’ by Ken Dark. In a letter to ‘British Archaeology’ (Issue 56, December 2000), Dr Dark takes Dr Faulkner to task over his article:
“... his interpretation of the end of Roman Britain presented here is seriously flawed...
Archaeologists arguing for a longer survival of Romano-British culture do not usually rely solely on the evidence of single sites, nor suggest that late-4th century towns remained unchanged from their earlier form. Faulkner's view of late-4th century towns as rubbish tips surrounded by walls is novel, but most aspects of his picture resemble those envisaged by other scholars. Proponents of what he calls the ‘long chronology’ agree that towns had changed, but were – as he admits – ‘still towns’.
Like Faulkner, those favouring a ‘long chronology’ argue that administration and defence were priorities. Unlike him, they envisage larger urban populations, for example interpreting ‘dark earth’ deposits common on 4th century sites as evidence of intensive low-status occupation, with an elite still living in (albeit far fewer) ‘Roman’ town houses. All we see is a change in the nature of towns, not urban decline.
... Nor do other scholars claim that villas survived in their 4th century form after the early-5th century. So-called ‘squatter occupation’ (and other indications) suggest 5th century occupation at some villa sites but most were disused in or by the early 5th century, even according to the ‘long chronology’. For Faulkner to cite the interesting work by Meheux and Newman is questionable, because their results could equally well be encompassed within a ‘long chronology’.”
In conclusion, Dr Dark avers that:
“... Faulkner's view [is] untenable, and a ‘long chronology’ for the end of Roman Britain remains the best interpretation of the evidence as a whole.”
The ‘long chronology’ vs ‘short chronology’ debate continues.
Dark Ages    
Claudian by Maurice Platnauer
‘Historia Brittonum’ by J.A. Giles
Photius ‘Bibliotheca’ by J.H. Freese
Zosimus ‘New History’ anonymous translation
Gildas ‘De Excidio Britanniae’ by Hugh Williams
Procopius ‘History of the Wars’ by H.B. Dewing
‘Epitome de Caesaribus’ by Thomas M. Banchich
Ammianus Marcellinus ‘Res Gestae’ by John C. Rolfe
Sulpicius Severus ‘Vita Martini’ by Alexander Roberts
Sozomen ‘Ecclesiastical History’ by Chester D. Hartranft
Orosius ‘Historiarum Adversus Paganos Libri Septem’ by Irving Woodworth Raymond
The coin's reverse depicts two emperors holding the globe, with the winged figure of Victory behind, beneath which is the mintmark AVGOB. The OB element is an abbreviation of obryzatus (meaning ‘pure gold’). AVG probably indicates that the coin was minted in London, since, as testified by Ammianus Marcellinus, London was officially known as Augusta (AVGVSTA) in the later-4th century:
“... the old town of Lundinium, which later times called Augusta.”
‘Res Gestae’ Book XXVII Chapter 8
“... Augusta, which was earlier called Lundinium ...”
‘Res Gestae’ Book XXVIII Chapter 3
The modern name, London, is derived (via, the Anglo-Saxon, Lundenwic) from Londinium (spelled Lundinium by Ammianus), not Augusta, so this new designation plainly didn't supplant the original name.
As a result of the, so-called, Barbarian Conspiracy of 367, the father of Emperor Theodosius, also called Theodosius, had been sent to Britain in command of an army. It seems, then, that Zosimus is confusing the two Theodosius', and Maximus served with the emperor's father rather than the emperor. On the other hand, it is possible that both Maximus and the future emperor were officers under the elder Theodosius on that campaign.
See: The Roman Army in Britain, Part II.
St Martin, bishop of Tours, d.397.
Macsen, also spelled Maxen, seems to be the result of scribal error, being derived from the Latin name Maxentius, rather than Maximus. Wledig, also spelled Guletic, would seem to be related to the Welsh ‘gwlad’ (land), and is, apparently, the title of a military leader.
Gildas is clearly confused about the origins of the two great frontier walls the Romans built across Britain, now known as the Antonine Wall and Hadrian's Wall. At this time of course, Hadrian's Wall, on the Tyne-Solway line, delineated the northern frontier of Roman Britain.
See: At the Empire's Edge for the construction of the Walls, and
The Wall of Severus for the subsequent confusion about when they were built and who was responsible.
Theodosius (who was remembered as Theodosius the Great) had already elevated his sons to the rank of Augustus: Arcadius in 383, and Honorius in 393.
Stilicho had a Vandal father and a Roman mother. He was married to Serena, Theodosius' niece and adopted daughter.
The, much vilified, eunuch Eutropius. He became the power behind Arcadius' throne, but was executed in 399.
Perhaps another case of Gildas being confused? The sentence beginning “On the sea coast also” sounds like a reference to the, so-called, Saxon Shore Forts, built in the late-3rd century.
Arcadius died on 1st May 408. He was succeeded by, his seven-year-old son, Theodosius II, who had held the rank of Augustus since 402.
Arcadius having died on 1st May 408, to be succeeded by, seven-year-old, Theodosius II.
Honorius' man Count Heraclian held Africa. He cut off food supplies to Rome, causing a famine.
The reliability of the date indicated by the ‘Chronicle’ has been much discussed. Some writers prefer a date of 408, putting the “incursion of the Saxons” before the Britons broke away from Roman rule.
It has been argued that Zosimus' reference to “the cities in Britain”, coming as it does during a description of events in northern Italy, is the result of scribal error – that Bruttium (now Calabria, southern Italy) is meant. However, Bruttium would seem to be no more relevant to the events Zosimus is describing than Britain is. Most writers seem to accept that it was, indeed, “the cities in Britain” that Honorius addressed. Michael Jones, in ‘The End of Roman Britain’ (1996) writes:
“My personal belief is that in keeping with Zosimus's often topsy-turvy chronology, the passage may precede in time the rebellion in Britain, and reflects an attempt by Britons to gain help from Honorius to end the barbarian threat. Failing to receive anything but letters, the Britons acted in their own defense and then expelled the Roman government. A second question is whose governors – the usurper Constantine's or all the Roman administration legitimate or otherwise? I believe the latter to be the case.”
Chapter 7 footnote
According to a fragment of Olympiodorus of Thebes preserved by Photius, Maximus was Gerontius' son.
Paulus Orosius wrote his ‘Historiarum Adversus Paganos Libri Septem’ (Seven Books of History Against the Pagans), at the request of St Augustine of Hippo, in about 417.
Sozomen (Salamanes Hermeias Sozomenos) was practising law in Constantinople when he wrote (in Greek) his ‘Ecclesiastical History’. The ‘History’, which is the sequel to another work that has not survived, is in nine books. It begins in 323, and ends, apparently unfinished, in 425. It must have been written before 450 (when its dedicatee, Theodosius II, emperor of the East, died), and internal evidence suggests a date c.446.
“... Constans, who, shameful to say, had been transformed from a monk into a Caesar.”
Orosius ‘Historiarum Adversus Paganos Libri Septem’ Book VII Chapter 40
Valentinian II had been only four-years-old when acclaimed Augustus following the death of their father, Valentinian I, on 17th November 375.
Olympiodorus' no longer extant work is the source behind both Zosimus' and Sozomen's accounts of this period.
See: Zosimus.
The coin's reverse depicts the emperor holding a standard in his right hand and ‘Victory on globe’ in his left, his left foot is resting on a captive. To the right of this image is inscribed AAAVGGGG – an acknowledgement that there are four Augusti, i.e. Constantine III, Honorius, Arcadius and Theodosius II. The coin would have been struck before news of Arcadius' death, on 1st May 408, reached Gaul.
Guy de la Bédoyère also published his book ‘The Golden Age of Roman Britain’ in 1999.
Actually, at this point, the ‘Historia Brittonum’ calls him Maximianus. The ‘Historia’ gives a confused list of emperors who spent some of their reign in Britain. Maximus is duplicated – he appears as Maximus, at number six on the list, and again, as Maximianus, at number seven.