Friday, April 18, 2014

Chaos Between the Giants: The Possibilities of Roman Cultural Survival in Post-Roman Britain

by Danny Adams

For anyone seeking to sift real historical information out of legends, treading Sub-Roman Britain – the humble and chaotic era between the giants of Roman and Saxon Britain – means crossing dangerous ground. Sometimes people call it (almost in a whisper) the Arthurian Age, a name both inaccurate and appropriate all at once. If there was any period of British history in the last two thousand years that has a solid claim on myth-making alongside history, it is this one.

When I was writing my post-Arthurian novel Lest Camelot Fall (barely post-Arthurian, as Arthur has only been dead for a few hours when it starts), I didn’t just concern myself with researching whether or not Arthur was real. I also wondered if there was a society in late 5th and early 6th century England that was still Romanized. And if so, might it have fought to preserve Roman culture against invaders?

Happily, it’s no longer true that we know next to nothing about the period between the pullout of Roman troops in 410 – if indeed that was when they did pull out, which I’ll discuss more about shortly – and the early 7th century battles that finally established Saxon supremacy. An increasing focus on this period by scholars is turning up both more literary evidence – though this is still scant, and mostly adding to what we know about pre-existing sources rather than new material – as well as an archaeological record unfolding with renewed interest in the first stretch of Britain’s so-called Dark Age. New discoveries are bearing out the truth that this period was “dark” mainly because few to none were seriously trying to shine light on it for so long.

The archaeological record is also turning up more questions than answers – or at least, seriously questioning even our most fundamental assumptions about the Roman Empire’s westernmost territory.

What is becoming evident with digs down to the 4th and 5th century layers in city and country alike is that Britain might not have been as stable in the Empire’s last decades there as previously thought, certainly not as much as Rome’s continental holdings. Instead, evidence is mounting that cities in particular were already in decline by the late 4th century – and that, as Richard Reece argued over thirty years ago, the Roman economic paradigm was already being challenged by a renewed, traditional barter and gift-giving system as early as the 2nd century.

Archaeologists digging in ancient urban remains regularly find layers of black earth indicating urban spaces being used for gardening, for example. In the late 4th century the layout of the fort and colonia at York were altered to bring civilians and the military in closer proximity to one another. Historians and archaeologists have proposed the idea that perhaps the Britons, even the Romanized ones, didn’t take to the cities nearly as well as their neighbors in places like Gaul, but rather preserved a hot streak of country blood in their veins that began reasserting itself as soon as Rome’s hand began to weaken. That’s still up for debate, but if true it puts a very different spin on all aspects of Britain’s falling away from Rome.

Yet nevertheless, evidence is simultaneously accumulating that the Roman cities still in existence today were continuously occupied to some extent for centuries after the legions left. Even the now-abandoned Viroconium, in Shrewsbury, provides ample evidence for rebuilding between 530 and 570, a total of thirty-three new buildings “skillfully constructed to Roman measurements” according to Roger White and Philip Barker in Wroxeter: Life & Death of a Roman City. Viroconium may have survived all the way to the early 8th century.

This brings us to the famous year: 410, when thus-far accepted history tells us that Roman troops were pulled out of Britain. In fact it isn’t so simple – and may not even be true at all. Stilicho, the Vandal right arm of the seventeen-year-old emperor Honorius and the last man who had any real success at keeping the Western Empire together, withdrew troops from Britain in 402 to help fight threats from King (and former Roman officer and governor) Alaric’s Visigoths, among others. Five years later the usurper Constantine III declared himself emperor from Britain, and he took troops with him – perhaps most or all of the remaining legions – to Gaul to press his claim. He was recognized as co-emperor by the otherwise occupied Honorius, though in 411 Constantine ultimately abdicated after a failed march on Italy, and was executed. By all accounts, however, Constantine’s time in Britain did not make his local subjects happy, and they were likely just as happy to see him go – along with the bureaucracy that never sat well to begin with in a land so far from the empire’s heart.

The year 410 as the withdrawal date comes from the famous Rescript of Honorius, where the besieged emperor – this was the year that Rome was sacked for the first time in eight centuries, by Alaric’s Visigoths – sent out word that essentially told his subjects you’ll have to fend for yourselves. One of the places on the Rescript’s list is “Brettia”, which has traditionally been interpreted as Britain. But more recently scholars have been questioning this assumption, pointing out that the list primarily consists of locations in Italy, and so Bruttium could fit the bill just as well. If that is the case, then Rome may have considered Britain to still be Roman for long after Alaric had his way with the city.

More importantly, though, did the Britons?

Soldiers and bureaucracy do not a culture entire make, nor coins and luxury goods. Roman coins and other items of a higher order like mosaic tiles and Falernian wine may have become unobtainable, but trade, so vital to the preservation of civilization, continued. There is, of course, the ubiquitous survival of Roman city and other geographical names down to our own time. The Venerable Bede, writing in the early 8th century, documented that the language of “the Latins” still existed in Britain. An intriguing recently-discovered Welsh commemorative stone gives a Latin name with the message that the honoree was given the Roman title of prefect in 537 – the supposed year of Arthur’s fateful Battle of Camlann. Norman Davies’ The Isles – A History details evidence of thriving trade in the Sub-Roman period, particularly back and forth across St. George’s Channel and the Irish Sea. Roman historian Martin Henig, a strong advocate of Roman cultural survival in Sub-Roman Britain, has pointed out 5th, 6th, and even 7th century mixtures of cultures that include jewelry with elements of Celtic, Roman, and Saxon motifs blended together, and in places an unbroken survival of Christianity that blended the Celtic with the Roman, such as Latin records, inscriptions, and graves with Celtic names. This continuity primarily can be found in Ireland, but it managed to hold on in other places like Wales – where lived the famous author-cleric and would-be prophet Gildas.

Born in 500 – the possible date of Arthur’s battle at Mount Badon – along the Clyde River in what is now Scotland, Gildas is best known as the author of On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain, our only substantial history of the 5th and 6th century there. Gildas wasn’t particularly interested in being a historian. He wanted to be a prophet, scourging his fellow Britons for their sins, especially sexual ones. His On the Ruin wasn’t meant to be a chronicle but a lashing out at those sins by using historical figures and events as moral examples – good or evil ones. When Gildas lamented the destruction of the twenty-eight Roman-British cities, he was less upset by their physical obliteration or decay as he was the wrecking of them as Christian centers. Every person and story in his work was a religious lesson wrapped up into pessimistic pages.

He would have been a contemporary of Arthur – and Welsh legend says Gildas’ warrior brothers were among Arthur’s enemies – but he never actually mentions Arthur outright. Who he does talk about, though, are two renowned figures of the time: Vortigern, the king who supposedly invited the Saxons to be British mercenaries (a very Roman thing to do), and a warrior-leader with an unmistakably Roman name, Ambrosius Aurelianus.

Ambrosius, still a Welsh hero to this day, was a British native of Roman ancestry credited with winning a great late 5th century battle against the Saxons – perhaps the first great one – along with several smaller ones while leading the “citizens”, the Britons. He grew so powerful that even Vortigern feared him.

Gildas particularly liked Ambrosius. Living in an age where he called British kings tyrants, Gildas described the leader “a gentleman who, perhaps alone of the Romans, had survived the shock of this notable storm”. Ambrosius was almost certainly a Christian – it’s likely Gildas wouldn’t have talked about him so much otherwise, certainly not in glowing terms – and it didn’t hurt that he was a unifying leader against the Saxons, who Gildas considered to be heathens and a punishment from God for British sins.

According to the 9th century The History of the Britons, an Ambrosius (the name Aurelianus does not appear there) was the son of a Roman consul, and to him Vortigern turned over a fortress (possibly Amesbury, though that tradition is shaky) “with all of the kingdoms of the western part of Britain”, ultimately making Ambrosius "king among all the kings of the British nation".

Ambrosius’ ultimate fate is murky. Gildas tells us that Ambrosius’ family had “worn the purple”. While that could indicate that he was a member of the imperial family or a Senatorial family, which wore purple bands, or that they had been tribunes who wore a similar purple band meaning a heritage of military leadership, it could also be a Christian reference to martyrdom.

For Arthurphiles, Ambrosius, this Roman, is the first and earliest candidate for a historical King Arthur. He was said to have worn a bear skin cloak in the fashion of Britons wearing animal skins, and bear in Welsh was Arth. Gildas names him as the leader of an apparently coordinated campaign that dealt the Saxons their greatest defeat, Mount Badon, which chronicles from The History of the Britons onward attributed to Arthur. More to the point, the first great defender of Britons was considered one of “their own” by Britons and those who revered Rome, a blending of the cultures personified.

But whatever happened to Ambrosius, the Britons apparently never had another leader like him – unless there was an Arthur – and they never did as well as they had under him. The Saxons began advancing on British territory again by the 550s, little more than a dozen years after Arthur’s death. It got well underway in 556 with the British loss at the Battle of Beran Byrig at or near the 6th century hill fort of Barbury Castle, and reached a peak with another major loss at the Battle of Chester in the early 7th century. There would be further battles afterwards, but from 615 or so onward the Britons were in retreat everywhere.

So considering this, maybe “How much of Roman culture survived?” is ultimately the wrong question to be asking if we want to get to know the spirit of that time. By the point when the Battle of Chester was fought and lost, Arthur was already being turned into a legend in Wales, along with everything he represented – a golden age where the native Britons, even among Romans, could feel ascendant, or at least secure. The farther they were pushed back into the western hills the more they needed this remembrance of a kind of golden age.

So in the end, it may finally be that while the Britons were learning Latin, creating semi-Roman art, burying their dead under Christian graves, and revering a Roman warrior hero – or turning Arthur into one - it wasn’t Roman culture they were trying to preserve at all. This was a time when security was at a premium and their ageless traditional ways were inexorably being destroyed. It may simply be that while Rome was a hazy memory in Britain by the 7th century, it still invoked a longed-for time of security, prosperity, and peace.

Further References and Reading

The Arthurian Centre in Slaughterbridge, Cornwall, UK:
Martin Henig, “Roman Britons After 410”, Archaeology magazine, December 2002
Peter Korrel, An Arthurian Triangle, E.J. Brill (1984)
Frank D. Reno, The Historic King Arthur, McFarland & Company (1996)
Amélie A. Walker, “King Arthur was Real?”, Archaeology magazine online archive (1998):


Learn more about author Danny Adams


Lest Camelot Fall

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  1. I entered a review of Danny Adam's book yesterday on Amazon. He does an excellent job using fiction as a vehicle for expressing the points made above. The also does a fine job dealing with the topic of Roman influence and its decline in this well considered post.
    I found Lest Camelot Fall to be one of the most enlightening pieces of fiction I have read. I also found it inspirational. And the bonus is, it's a terrific tale.

  2. A cracking article - detailed and well argued.
    Many aspects of Roman life and social organisation persisted almost unconsciously and especially in the territories Romanised for centuries.

    History is taught in periods, for ease, but we forget that life slides and slips over the generations and through formal 'periods'. My grandfather was born in the 19th century, thus a Victorian, and fought in the First World War, but my son is an expert on the cutting edge of the next phase of the IT revolution in the 21st century.

  3. Linda and Alison: Thank you both - I'm glad you enjoyed the article! (Especially since I'm not used to writing non-fiction! Only this time one was more enjoyable than all the essays I wrote in college. :) )


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