This site is for students in my class A Brief History of Roman Britain. Links to articles, interesting websites and other blogs will be posted here. This site will also provide a forum for class members to interact outside of the classroom and share information they have found with the rest of the class.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Late Roman and Sub-Roman Britain

In this post, I am going to provide some additional information about third and fourth century Roman Britain and period following the departure of the last Roman legionaries, referred to by historians and archaeologists as Sub-Roman Britain. Some of this post is from my own writing on this topic, and some will be quoted from other sources with links to the original source for further reading.

The basic nature of the Roman Empire underwent fundamental changes in response to the military and economic crisis of the third century. While Britain was spared most of the depredations of the barbarian invasions and constant warfare the provinces on the Continent were subject to, the subsequent reorganization of the provincial government and the tax system did impact Britain significantly and permanently. Beginning with Septimus Severus, the Roman army had begun to receive ever-increasing rates of pay, while the emperors continuously debased Roman coinage in order to pay their armies. This lead to a runaway inflation, the psychological effect of which is believed to have caused more harm through the loss of faith in the government than it did in terms of loss of buying power. One indirect but important effect was “a reduction in the real value of cash taxes collected through the civitates.” Although taxes continued to be levied, the problems due to inflation led eventually to taxation in kind (annonae), which led to a decrease in the importance of the civitas capitals in their role as tax-collectors and money-changers. These revisions would have a significant impact on Britain.

The military reorganization of Britain was also begun by Septimus Severus. During the civil war that accompanied his ascension to the purple, one of his rivals for the throne was the governor of Britain, Decimus Clodius Albinus. In 197 while the Severus and Albinus fought in Gaul, the northern defenses were overrun by the Caledonians and the Maetae as far as York, while the Brigantes revolted as well in Wales. The northern defenses were so badly damaged that later generations believed Severus responsible for the original construction of the wall, so extensive were the repairs made during his reign. More importantly, he divided the province in two, a move designed to reduce the number of legions available to future usurpers. Caracalla went on to bestow universal citizenship to the empire, albeit to increase his tax base , and furthered the process of Romanization in the province.

Sometime in the early third century, Saxon pirates from Frisia began raiding the southern coast: the classis Britannica, or channel fleet, based out Richborough and then Dover , seems to have been ineffective at stopping the raids. The Romans responded by gradually building a series of forts along channel, which became known as the Saxon Shore. Based on an inscription found at Regulbium in Kent, the fort there was likely constructed in the 220’s. Around 287 Carausius, commander of the Saxon Shore, (who may or not have been involved in a conspiracy and a kickback scheme with these very same Saxon pirates), rebelled against Maximian upon learning of his impending
liquidation and formed his own empire in Britain and along the Gallic coast until his assassination in 293. His coins, minted from good silver demonstrate both the prosperity of the province, and with such inscriptions as ‘Carausius and his Brethren’ ‘The Peace of the Three Emperors’ his desire for official recognition and restored relations with Maximiam and Diocletian.

After the province was finally restored to official Roman rule by the caesari Constantius in 296, it was further reorganized by Diocletian , who sub-divided the province into four diocese: Britannia Prima (Cirenchester), Britannia Secunda (York), Maxima Caesariensis (London), and Flavia Caesariensis (Lincoln). Diocletian also separated civil and military authority in his governmental reforms; the diocese were civil units run by governors known as praesides, who had civil but no military authority and were under the civil command of officials known as vicars (vicarius), while the army was under the
command of separate officials known as duces (or duke) as well as officials known as comes (or count). Under the reign of Diocletian the civil service was greatly expanded. This was part of an overall scheme by Diocletian to re-enfranchise the elite, who had during the Principate controlled the municipalities, but in the Dominate were invited to join the newly expanded imperial bureaucracy. This “transferred (elite) competition to a plane above that of the individual city and gave those participating more extensive opportunities for progress and prestige than those available in the municipalities.” Along with this, the legal burden upon public officials of financing urban projects and their accountability for tax shortfalls made civic duty unpalatable all over the Empire; many aristocrats retreated to their rural quarters, and the number of villas increased at the expense of the Public Towns in Britain . Hence the new system removed the motivational factors which had caused the provincial cites to flourish in the Principate and laid the seeds for their decline in the Late Empire. Diocletian hence saved the Roman Empire from a downward spiral of warfare and invasion which, if allowed to continue, would have spelled an early end for the Roman Empire. Moreover, in his method of doing so Diocletian laid the foundations for medieval European institution of manorialism, while postponing the fall of the Roman Empire (in the West) for another two centuries.

Roman authority in Britain collapsed in the early fifth century as a result of the incursions of barbarian invaders in the western empire. Britain itself was subject to several invasions, rebellions and usurpations of Roman authority in the fourth and early fifth century, the last one resulting in the end of Roman power in Britain. The problems of the fourth century began in 343, when several outposts along the northern frontier were attacked and the Emperor Constans responded personally, even crossing the channel in the wintertime of that year to head off a possible invasion of Picts (Caledonians and other northern tribes) and Scots, and to reorganize the frontier scouts. Constans built the fort at Pevensey along the south-eastern coast, in addition to those already extant along the Saxon Shore, and the office of the Count of the Saxon Shore is believed to have been instituted by this time, if not earlier. Historical accounts describe an assault across the northern frontier in 367 that ravaged the province until Count Theodosius quelled it in 369, although archaeological evidence for these attacks ranges from slight to none at all.

A fifth province Valentia, was created nonetheless after this invasion, likely carved out of Britannia Secunda, whose capital lie at Eboracum. The Wall was attacked again in 382, and was repelled by Dux Britanniarium Magnus Maximus. His men then elected him emperor; he crossed over to Gaul with an army, where he overthrew the emperor Gratian and ruled the western provinces until 388. The removal of Legio XX from Chester had laid the western section of the province vulnerable to attacks from Irish tribes, who began arriving shortly thereafter. In 396-8, Honorius’ regent Stillicho responded to sea borne assaults along the Saxon Shore, restoring some semblance of security by 399, but in 401 he removed even more of Britain’s depleted garrison for a war against Alaric.

The last payment of coins arrived in 402. Four years later, the unpaid British garrison rebelled, worried, according to the historian Zosimus that the barbarians pillaging Gaul would cross the channel and invade Britain. The soldiers chose three leaders in short succession. The first, Marcus (who may have been Count of Britain) was assassinated almost immediately; the second, Gratian, was a municeps tyrannus, an urban aristocrat; he too, was assassinated. The third, one Constantine, was a soldier with a lucky name: the original Constantine was only successful usurper of all the British generals who had attempted to seize the purple, and exactly 100 years after the fact to boot. In 407 Constantine preemptively struck across the channel to head off the barbarian invasion from Gaul, and most importantly with him went the last of the Roman troops left in Britain. By 409, Honorius acknowledged Constantine’s success in Gaul and Spain and “sent Constantine the imperial apparel;” ultimately Constantine was betrayed by both his British magister militum who rebelled in Spain and the barbarians whom he had settled in Gaul, and he was captured and executed by Honorius in 411 . Meanwhile a barbarian
invasion of Britain apparently was repelled by the natives in 408, since there was no longer any Roman troops left there, excepting the possibility of small bodies of regular troops garrisoned in the walled towns. In 410 Honorius “wrote letters to the cities in Britain bidding them to take precautions on their own behalf.” This letter has been interpreted as either recognizing the fact that Britain was now free of imperial obligations and protection, or, since it was technically illegal for citizens to bear arms, Honorius may have merely been authorizing ex post facto the breach of the lex Julia de vi publica which had been committed in 408. Whatever the intent of Honorius or the rebels in Britain, “probably all parties would have been surprised to learn that the revolt permanently severed Britain from the rest of the empire.”

There are few historical accounts that refer to Britain after this time, but from these, particularly the ‘Life of St. Germanus’ and the ‘Life of St. Patrick,’ indicates that a continuation of some form of Romanitas continued through the first few decades of the fifth century, as each refers to Roman officials and organizations surviving as late as 430. Thereafter the sources become increasingly obscure in regard to actual events in Britain, and historical interpretations become increasingly difficult to test against any real evidence. While historians most no longer subscribe to a single massive Saxon invasion which swept violently away the vestiges of civilized life, the essential fact is that Saxons had no use for towns, and did not develop the institution in those areas they settled until later medieval times. It is the overall consensus that the eastern lowlands, those parts of Britain first invaded by the Romans and earliest regions to be Romanized, came under the pale of the Anglo-Saxons by AD 500, and that by 600 most of Britain had succumbed, except for the north-west, Wales and parts of the Pennines, and the Dumnonian peninsula.


Christopher Snyder

"Sub-Roman Britain" is a label applied by specialists to Britannia in the fifth and sixth centuries AD. Geographically, Britannia is that territory south of the Forth-Clyde line that was part of the Roman Empire from AD 43 to 410. Gaining their independence from Rome, the sub-Roman Britons created a culture that was a unique hybrid of Roman, native "Celtic," and Christian elements. These first two centuries of the Early Middle Ages also gave birth to medieval kingdoms that would become England, Scotland, and Wales. Vibrant yet enigmatic, the sub-Roman period came to an end with the expansion of the Anglo-Saxons westward in the late sixth century and the establishment of a Roman ecclesiastical mission in Kent in 597.

This period has become more popularly known as the Age of Arthur. Both King Arthur and Merlin are associated with these two centuries, Arthur as a warleader battling the Saxon invaders and Merlin as a British bard with prophetic gifts. Modern quests for the historical Arthur (e.g. Alcock 1971; Morris 1973; Ashe 1985) and Merlin (Tolstoy 1985) have increased popular interest in the period, but have convinced few historians (Dumville 1977; Snyder 1998; Higham 2002). Indeed, the limitations of both the historical and archaeological evidence have made it difficult to discuss any person, place, or event in sub-Roman Britain with confidence, leaving us with cautious and colorless models that admittedly lack the appeal of Arthurian romance (Thomas 1981, 245-53). Historians, it has recently been declared, can as yet say little of value about King Arthur (Charles-Edwards 1991).

Historians can, however, say much of value about the fifth and sixth centuries, the period in which either Arthur or his legend was born. To do this we should eventually discard the label "sub-Roman," first used by archaeologists to describe fifth-century pottery that had "degenerated" from Roman forms. To say that sub-Roman Britain was simply "Roman Britain in decay" is to overlook both its achievements (monasticism, penitentials) and the continuity with its Roman (Latin education, Mediterranean trade) and Celtic (La Tène jewelry, the bardic tradition) past. Accessing the culture of the sub-Roman Britons, however, means dealing with three often difficult types of evidence: literary, epigraphic, and archaeological.

Read the rest of Chris Snyder's article, where he discusses written sources, inscriptions and archaeological sources, here.

More on Sub-Roman Britain

Perhaps the most ambitious attempt to demonstrate continuity between Roman and medieval institutions was the 1989 Cambridge doctoral thesis of Kenneth Dark, which was eventually published in 1994 . The basic thesis is that Roman Britain did not end in the fifth century, but rather in the seventh. While noting that major Roman towns are “big places” while “most excavations are small,” and hence not very representative for any kind meaningful statistical analysis, he makes a case for the pervasiveness of ‘dark earth’ at many sites as representative of an occupation level during the very time that the general consensus has been one of urban decline and abandonment. Microscopic soil analysis of the ‘dark earth’ layer suggests to Dark the remains of wattle and daub, domestic and industrial debris, rather than desertion of the site. To clarify, he points out that while many forts were abandoned, there is no layer of ‘dark earth’ present at these clearly deserted sites. Meanwhile ‘dark earth’ is a major component of strata in London dated to as early as the late second century. Why would the Romans designate an abandoned city as the capital of a Roman province (and later capital of a diocese) or build extensive walls around “a deserted and derelict town?”

After this, Dark describes the “four general stages” in the development of Roman towns in the first millennium AD:

Stage 1: The Classical city (defined as “an expression of Mediterranean classical urbanism,” replete with fora/basilica, baths, classical temples Roman-style urban government, market functions and “dependance on an agricultural hinterland.”

Stage 2: The Late Antique town (defined as having a larger and lower status population, walls, military presence, suburbs, and both temples and churches, with an economy less dependent of markets and more on industrial functions.

Stage 3: The Polyfocal Administrative Center (defined as consisting only of elite residences and religious buildings, lacking any productive role or significant center of population.)

Stage 4: The Medieval Town (defined as ranging in size “from a large population concentration with mercantile and administrative functions to a small agricultural village… distinguished by succeeding a stage 3 site but lacking the characteristics of stage 1.”)

Through these stages, Dark asserts, the foci of medieval towns arise, and is the means which enabled the “survival of important locations from Antiquity to the Middle Ages, alongside the survival of the urban community overall.” However, the examples he uses to provide as proof of this continuity are often the same ones that others had also identified as possible sites of urban continuity, but who cautiously declare that there is not enough evidence yet to generalize a regional continuity. At any rate, Dark makes the most of a tremendous range of historical and archaeological and theoretical evidence from Britain and other parts of the Empire to make his case. He identifies a potential connection between the re-occupation of hill-fort sites and a possible continuity of LPRIA dynasties with sub-Roman kings; and in addition to this, because the Romans had utilized tribal boundaries in their establishment of the civitates, Dark contends that
the western civitates essentially survive through the sub-Roman period. Vestiges of Romanitas are much less than those in Gaul but are still present. Some of this is based on manuscript production, where Latin continues on as the language of scholarship, along with his theory that fourth century Roman coins continued to circulate in sub-Roman Britain throughout the fifth century, based on the fact that similar obsolete coins are believed to have been in circulation in the Balkans. The hill-forts are maintained to have relocated the economic and defensive function of near-by and now defunct small-towns. Dark also makes a case for continuity with the Roman past via claims of long-range contact between Constantinople and the western British sub-Roman kingdoms based on the discovery of Byzantine pottery sherds and references to Britain by the Byzantine historian Procopius. It is a period of transition, with elements of the medieval combined with urbane traditions that connect the sub-Roman to the Roman past:

“A sixth century British king might be educated in the Late Antique fashion, read sophisticated Latin texts, converse (presumably in Latin) with merchants from Constantinople, and participate in Christian life; but these were also leaders of warriors, riding out from their hill-forts against their neighboring rulers.”
Dark then connects sub-Roman Britain to the origins of Wales as well as Cornwall between 600-800, and concludes with

"...the same view as historian James Campbell, that the final conquest of Llewellyn, prince of Gwynedd, by Edward I in 1282 marked the end of 900 year struggle between the Anglo-Saxons and the “last piece of the Roman Empire in the West which was still in the hands of the race which had inhabited it before the Romans came.”

Kenneth Dark's book derived from his doctoral thesis is Civitas to Kingdom: British Political Continuity 300-800 (Studies in the Early History of Britain).

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