Roman Britons after 410
Bear pit to zoo
Editor Simon Denison
Roman Britons after 410
The ‘end of Roman Britain’ is a myth. Roman culture survived right through the Anglo-Saxon period. Martin Henig explains
The 'story' of Roman Britain, as told to generations of schoolchildren, is a very simple one - AD 43, the Roman legions march in; AD 410, they march out again. Barbarity beforehand, barbarity afterwards, civilisation in between.
In an earlier issue of this magazine (BA, September 1998) I suggested that the Roman 'conquest' of AD 43 was not all that it seemed to be, and that Britain's southern rulers - if not those in the north - were Romanised before the invasion, welcomed the invasion, and profited from it afterwards. It was not a case of 'barbarity beforehand'.
Some archaeologists are now beginning to see that it was not 'barbarity afterwards' either. The Roman cultural legacy survived far more profoundly, more extensively and for much longer in Britain than is usually realised.
The ending of Roman Britain is traditionally ascribed to AD 410 - when, as 'everyone knows', Rome withdrew her legions - but the real point at which Britain ceased to be a province of the empire is much harder to pin down. There were in fact four provinces in Late Roman Britain and the Roman army was no longer organised as legions. The 'army' that left Britain under the command of the pretender Constantine III, probably some time between 402 and 411, in an attempt to seize the empire, was in fact a dangerous gaggle of Constantine's henchmen which the ruling classes of Britain were surely glad to be rid of.
At this time the city of Rome was menaced (and eventually sacked) by the Goths, so the forces of Emperor Honorius could do nothing about Constantine's insurrection and were in no position to stabilise the situation in Britain. The famous date of 410 is provided by the text of an imperial edict of Honorius recorded by the late 5th century Greek writer Zosimus, which orders a number of places to defend themselves. One of these is 'Brettia', generally taken to be Britain, but as the other places in the list are towns in Italy, it seems much more likely that the name is a textual error which should be emended to Bruttium, a town in southern Italy.
That said, it is clear that some time in the 5th century the Britons broke away at last from Roman central authority. Zosimus declares that the Britons were at his time living under the rule of local kings.
But this breaking away did not mean that Britain had ceased to be culturally Roman. What had ended was an official connection of salaried officials and troops appointed from the centre, and with them the regular issues of coinage. As a general rule, no new coins were imported. This had serious consequences in that it was no longer easy to pay for buildings in stone, mosaics and luxury services. The lack of coins also means that it is hard to date 5th and 6th century activities in what used to be called the 'Dark Ages'.
But it is clear from documentary sources that such material considerations were not central to the way many Britons thought and behaved, or defined their identity. For example, St Patrick, writing in the 5th century, never mentions the lack of coinage. There were clearly other ways to continue economic life. The primary, defining features of Roman culture were not, after all, money but the Latin language coupled with Christianity; and it is clear from the work of the medieval Latinist David Howlett and others, using the evidence of both documents and inscriptions, that the élite preserved the language in a remarkably pure form (BA, April 1998).
A witness to surviving material culture is to be seen in an account of the visit of St Germanus of Auxerre to the shrine of Alban in 429 which found the magistrates and citizens splendidly apparelled. Later hints of Roman magnificence are apparent from documentary sources of Aurelius Ambrosianus, the southern British chieftain often equated with King Arthur, who claimed imperial ancestry around AD 500 - as did, later, the ruling house of Gwynedd in North Wales.
Purity of Latin had its origin in the fact that the language was kept for best. It is clear, from their texts, that Patrick and the 6th century writer Gildas lived in societies where Celtic had been spoken for centuries alongside Latin. I believe that Aurelius, victor of the battle of Mons Badonicus - in which the British are supposed to have defeated the Anglo-Saxons - was probably known in Celtic as Artos (ie, Arthur), 'the Bear', because he wore a bearskin as a general's cloak. Late Roman soldiers often wore animal skins, and this kind of designation is what the Roman military would have called a signum, a nickname.
Moreover, this bilingual society is well known in Devon and Cornwall, Wales and South-West Scotland from monumental inscriptions which are either bilingual or in Latin but contain Celtic names. The convoluted syntax and erudite play with letters and words in these inscriptions argues the continuity of Roman educational methods in places like Llantwit Major in the Vale of Glamorgan.
The other obvious feature of continuity was Christianity. This oriental cult had taken the empire by storm, though it may not have ousted paganism from conservative Britain until the end of the 4th or the 5th century. Cow bones from very late Roman layers at the temple in Bath, for example, show that worshippers were still sacrificing to the goddess Sulis after coins had ceased circulating; while the very late Roman treasure fom Thetford in Norfolk was dedicated to the classical god Faunus.
Nevertheless, from the 5th century onwards, Christianity was in the ascendant. We have 5th century Christian cemeteries, such as the one at Dorchester in Dorset, and a mass of early post-Roman inscriptions with Christian symbols (whereas no inscriptions that were definitely pagan). Gildas writes in the 6th century that paganism had been eradicated. One reason for the success of Christianity may have been that it provided the reassurance of continuing order in a world where secular authority was becoming weak.
East and west
The survival of Roman culture in western Britain, and of the Celtic church, is well known (BA, March 1998). Here was not only a society which spoke Latin and was Christian but where rulers - like the kings who ruled from Tintagel, Dinas Powys and South Cadbury - drank wine from Mediterranean pottery, paid for, no doubt, by valuable exports such as tin.
Eastern Britain is less often considered as part of this world because the conventional wisdom is that it fell to the Anglo-Saxons. The creation of this myth can be laid in part at the doors of Gildas (the Briton) and Bede (the Anglo-Saxon). Both were Christians and took their lead from the Old Testament.
For Gildas, God chastised his people, the Britons, for sexual backsliding. For Bede, the English were the new Israelites coming in to the Promised Land. As in all stories, there are elements of truth in this traditional tale. But there is plenty of evidence that Anglo-Saxon Britain consisted of mixed populations, with settlers from across the North Sea mixed with people who had always been here.
This is apparent from what little we know of dynastic origins. We know from Wessex king-lists, for example, that the 'West Saxons' of the Middle Thames - known for most of the Saxon period as the Gewissae - were founded by a man with the Celtic name Cerdic (ie, Caradoc). It is not surprising that metalwork associated with them has a mixed character incorporating late Roman, Celtic and Germanic styles.
In fact the Roman art historian coming upon early Anglo-Saxon art will be struck by a great deal of admixture beginning with the animal ornament on bracelets (including gold examples in the Hoxne treasure, from Suffolk), on rings (like silver examples from Amesbury, Wiltshire) and on brooches (such as the silver brooch from Sarre, Kent) all of which date from the late 4th to the late 5th century.
Equally intriguing is the recent discovery of pewter pendants inset with glass found with very late Roman material - mainly from Ickham in Kent - which seem to prefigure later jewelled Kentish disk brooches and pendants.
The prize exhibits for the continuity of insular Romano-British art in southern Britain during the 6th and 7th centuries are the hanging bowls, with openwork escutcheons sometimes in Roman style with supporting dolphins, but generally with enamelled escutcheons ornamented in Celtic style. Similar influences are to be seen on a mount on a bag from a woman's grave excavated at Swallowcliffe Down, Wiltshire, where Celtic and Germanic ornament are used together. We are only now beginning to see how much survived of Roman and Celtic culture in the early medieval period.
The evidence that the Christian church continued to thrive in eastern Britain is, again, far stronger than many historians have grown accustomed to believe. It includes the construction and continuity of church buildings such as St Paul in the Bail, Lincoln (perhaps 5th or 6th century), St Martin's, Canterbury - and most exciting of all, the evident continuity of St Albans with its martyr cult, as seems to be shown by the recent excavations there directed by Martin and Birthe Biddle.
In addition there are the remains of the dead. The big 5th and 6th century Christian cemetery at Queenford Farm, outside Dorchester in Oxfordshire, only begins in the 5th century. From the near vicinity, there is a small beaker in Romano-British style from a grave at Little Wittenham, embellished with scenes depicting episodes in the life of Christ. Another Christian cemetery has been partly explored at Highdown,Worthing (Sussex), where grave goods including a glass vessel with Christian inscription may likewise have been buried in the 5th or 6th century.
If there was some continuity in population and religion, why, then, does Bede tell us that St Augustine had to reimport Roman culture to Britain in the late 6th century, and especially Christianity? As so often, the reason for Augustine's mission was political. Contemporary records make it clear that Pope Gregory I was not really worried about paganism; he was far more concerned about a flourishing Celtic church which appeared to take little heed of Rome - even if this liberty mainly manifested itself in a heretical tonsure and a wrong date for Easter!
Christians in Kent
No doubt Augustine did expect he would meet barbarians; but in the event he encountered well-educated ecclesiastics. The questions that Augustine reports they fired back at the Pope concerned erudite matters to do with ritual purity, evidently important still to British Christians - and emphatically not the kind of questions one would expect from a group of heathens. Apart from anything else, Bede makes it clear that Bertha, the queen of Kent, already had her own Christian church to worship in. She did not need Augustine to provide her with one.
The so-called 'darkness' of the period between 400 and 600 in southern and eastern Britain is the result partly of archaeological neglect, partly of a long tradition of scholarship looking only for Germanic elements in the culture of the period. This is now changing. Metalwork, for example, is at long last being studied by scholars such as Ellen Swift and Helen Geake who appreciate the styles of the late Roman period as well as Germanic ornament.
The physical origins of populations will also become clearer as further work is carried out on burials. It is not satisfactory to describe, for example, the warrior buried at Lowbury Hill in Oxfordshire as an Anglo-Saxon - as many have - simply because he possessed a shield and a spear. His iron spear was enamelled, most unusually, in a Celtic style, and he was buried with a hanging bowl also in Celtic style. It looks rather as if he wanted to make it clear that he was British.
The evidence for houses and town survival also needs to be looked at again. One problem is that apart from continued reuse of Roman structures, new building was of wood. Archaeological evidence for such buildings - typically the blackish stain left by decomposed sleeper beams laid directly on the soil - is extremely fragile and hard to detect, and unfortunately most Roman sites have not been excavated with the meticulous care that will yield results.
At Wroxeter, the abandoned Roman city in Shropshire, large Roman-style halls in timber have been excavated dating to the post-Roman period. It seems quite possible that there were buildings like this in Verulamium/St Albans, London, Silchester, Dorchester in Oxfordshire, and elsewhere. Scholars often repeat, glibly, the old view that towns were abandoned in this period. The very fact that most of them survived to the present day makes this inherently implausible.
The problems in finding and evaluating such evidence is immense, however, for urban populations had shrunk; and in what part of a large town should one look for continuity? And have those parts been already denuded of their late levels by insensitive excavation or by later buildings? Even so, outside in the countryside, again and again, the datable pollen evidence suggests that the fields were still ploughed in the 5th and 6th centuries.
There is a tendency nowadays to want our history to be violent, presumably to accord with the pessimism and horrors of our news broadcasts. However, what is remarkable is the way in which Britons interacted with Irishmen from the 5th century, and both eventually converted Anglo-Saxon society, largely through the medium of Latin. The 7th and 8th centuries can still be regarded as culturally late Roman - seen, for example, in the Roman achitecture of churches such as All Saints, Brixworth in Northamptonshire, or in dress ornaments exhibiting Roman styles. And it was in these centuries that the art and culture of Britain came to impress itself even on the Continent.
And when the crisis really did come, with the advent of the Vikings a couple of hundred years later, awareness of the Roman past was never stronger. Towns of the Age of Alfred (9th century) like Oxford and Wareham in Dorset had regular grids of streets, reminiscent of Roman towns although not of direct Roman origin; works of art like the Alfred Jewel portray classical concepts; but above all it was Latin and the translation of Latin into a new vernacular - such as Alfred's translation of Boethius into English - that preserved the true spirit of the past.
Alfred the consul
King Alfred was a descendant of Cerdic; and Alfred's Welsh bishop, Asser, educated at St Davids, was clearly a master of Celtic and Welsh as well as of English. Both these great personalities, I imagine, would have thought of themselves as Romans (Alfred had been made a consul by the Pope) and also as Britons - and, no doubt, as Englishmen too.
It is remarkable to note that Alfred's realm corresponded in large part with that of the pre-Roman, and pro-Roman, kings of the Atrebates - and also with the southern part of the late Roman province of Britannia Prima. The links may be tenuous, but I cannot resist seeing a grand cultural continuity that joins Cerdic and Alfred to the ancient British kings of central-southern Britain such as Verica and Togidubnus.
Martin Henig lectures in Roman art and culture at the University of Oxford. His book, 'The Heirs of King Verica', was published this year by Tempus at £17.99 (ISBN 0-7524-1960-9)
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005