Apocalypse then circa 410: the end of Roman Britain

Around the year 410 the Romans left Britain, and society collapsed in a way unmatched in our history, says Simon Young, who gives his take here on the end of imperial occupation

Hadrian's Wall photographed at Hotbank Crags and looking towards Crag Lough in Northumberland National Park. (Photo by Roger Coulam/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the March 2010 issue of BBC History Magazine

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If you want to get a sense of the grandeur of Roman Britain, an excellent place to start is Portchester Castle on the edge of Portsmouth harbour. The Romans built a fort here in the third century AD, probably to guard Britain’s shores from Saxon pirates. And this fort survived the collapse of Roman Britain.

It survived the Saxons – who by this time were not just raiding but invading Britain, and camped out in its grounds for a while. And then, as so often happens with Roman edifices, the fort just kept on surviving. The Normans built a tame little keep in the corner of the Roman behemoth: the relative size of the two marking the 11th century’s reduced ambitions. Henry V inspected his fleet here before setting off for the glories of Agincourt in 1415.

This strategic Roman heirloom was held by Parliament in the Civil War. In the 19th century, French and Dutch prisoners were herded into a makeshift prison inside the Roman walls: the same Roman walls that were incorporated into Britain’s coastal defences in the Second World War. Today, locals play cricket in the huge bounds of Portus Adurni, as it was known in the Roman itineraries: ‘the Fort at the Heights’.

What a history! It is the kind of thing that Kipling would have loved – the ten ages of England, with the Roman big brother looming behind every scene, an architectural Puck complaining about the men with pointy hats or the speed of the Spanish Armada. But actually Portchester is just an accidental survivor of a 400-year experiment gone wrong: Roman rule in Britain.

The Celts, the Vikings, the Angles, the Saxons and the Normans all came to Britain, conquered and left their DNA in our cultural bloodstream. The Romans, however, came, saw, hung about a bit and then disappeared like smoke up the chimney.

The Romans came, saw, hung about a bit and disappeared like smoke up a chimney

This is not to say that Romanitas is irrelevant to Britain as recent misguided attempts to trim the poor Romans from British A-level syllabuses might suggest. Rather it is a reminder that though Britain borrowed from and was inspired by Rome, these borrowings and inspirations were not handed down by the Romans themselves, as was the case in France or Italy or Spain.

What Britain has of Rome was exported later by medieval primers, renaissance textbooks and the public-school system. And Portchester and other similar ruins remain ghosts in British history – luxuriating in the dirt of a country that rejected them.

So why were the Romans in Britain a failure in comparison with Romans in other regions or, indeed, later invaders of the island? The usual answer is that Roman civilisation never took root in Britain, and there is some truth in that. The Romans theoretically ruled as far as Hadrian’s Wall and held the tribes of the Scottish lowlands in submission. But actually vast tracts of ‘Roman’ Britain – Cornwall, the Pennines and parts of Wales – were virtually no go areas where the only territory under Roman rule were the roads. Then, even in the most Romanised parts of Britain, the southern counties, the would-be citizens were a bit of a disappointment to their Roman governors: few bothering to learn Latin.

Indeed, Britons had a poor reputation everywhere. Their tall Celtic physique was not popular; one noted Roman scholar suggests that it was employed as a kind of colour bar by the usually tolerant Romans. If you look at the (short) list of famous Romano- Britons, we have a couple of usurpers, Boudicca, a bad poet and a noted heretic. It’s not much to recommend 400 years to posterity.

And the Romans, for their part, could never get over the suspicion that the Britons were barbarians trussed up in togas. A bare-breasted, tattooed Britannia – a ‘biker Britannia’ as she has been fondly called – was the personification of Britain. One fourth-century Roman writer goes so far as to say that being good and being a Briton was a contradiction in terms.

Tribal backwardness

But this provincial backwardness, this tribal bumptiousness is not enough to explain the sheer irrelevance of Roman Britain to British history. There were other parts of the empire where Roman rule was tenuous but where bits of it muddled on through to be taken up gratefully by later centuries: for example, as its name suggests, Romania.

But in Britain this never happened. And it isn’t because of the poor quality of Roman life in the centuries of Roman rule, but rather because of the way that Roman rule ended.

We all ‘know’, of course, that the legions left Britain and that this took place c410. But even this is almost certainly wrong. In fact, the end of Roman Britain is caught up in a sticky web of events so complex that it is doubtful that even a well-informed contemporary would have had a proper grip of what was happening.

A summary, free of all but essential details, might go as follows. In 407 the Rhine, the heavily-defended frontier between the empire and the free German tribes, froze, and thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands of Germanic warriors were able to bypass the guarded bridges and race into the west of the empire.

At this date or a little after and for unknown reasons, the Roman legions in Britain revolted and departed for the continent under a pretender, Constantine III, ‘to restore order’. They left the island largely undefended.

Constantine III had to fight the barbarians and the legitimate emperor, Honorius, but then, in what seems like an act of spite to those who prefer their history simple, Constantine’s lieutenant, Gerontius, slipped across the border into Spain and declared himself emperor and thus mortal enemy of both Constantine and Honorius.

There were now three Roman armies and a dozen Germanic tribes slugging it out for possession of western Europe. By 410 Honorius had managed to put down the usurpers, but the empire was tottering and Rome itself was sacked.

At about this time, it seems likely that Honorius decided to renounce his imperial claims on Britain, one of the most difficult to defend parts of the empire, and throw it to the barbarian wolves. Yet the legions did not leave Britain – they had already done that under Constantine; rather, they were not sent back.

It is worth reflecting for a moment on just how naked Rome left the Romano-British c410. Under imperial rule, no civilian was allowed to carry arms, unless for hunting. So a memorable scene from the Roman novel, the Satyricon, has one character have an illegally-owned sword – he is about to go and kill his gay lover – confiscated by a legionary.

This rule made a good deal of sense when the legions could defend you and your family. But if there were no legions around, as happened in Britain, then it meant that a population without experience in war had to climb up a very steep learning curve in violence.

And the Britons had a good few barbarian enemies. Three stand out. On the continent there were ‘the Saxons’, a portmanteau word for all the Germanic invaders who settled Britain – we today call them the Anglo-Saxons and they are, of course, the first English. In the north there were the Picts who passed over Hadrian’s Wall or around it in their boats. And in the west the Irish, who seized parts of the south west, Wales and possibly Lancashire.

Now consider what was at stake. Roman Britain had had an efficient standing army – perhaps 40,000 men under arms. It had been governed by a unitary state with bureaucracy – as we have seen it was policed so well that civilians did not carry weapons. It had had an extraordinary ‘proto-modern economy’ (as it has been called) with factories, workshops, mills and mines – Roman slag piles in the Weald were so extensive that they were mined at the end of the Middle Ages.

Multi-ethnic Britain

It had had an infrastructure of roads and piped water and even heating that trumps that found in some parts of southern Europe today. And it had been multi-ethnic – we are not just speaking here about Gauls and Italians in Londinium, but Syrians on Tyneside and Arabians near Carlisle.

It is interesting to speculate about which period of later British history best matches this description. In terms of the standing army, one can perhaps make a case for the 12th century – though who knows who would have won if the Angevins had had to face the Romans in the field. In terms of infrastructure, the Romans would have run the 18th century close. In terms of a multi-ethnic state we would have to wait for the height of the British empire in the 19th century.

Cities emptied when the food stopped getting through. It was a meltdown

What should be clear from this is that Roman Britain was, like ours, a complex society and complex societies are more resistant to change than tribal or feudal equivalents. But when change burns out of control they prove more combustible: a complete meltdown is possible in a way that a ‘primitive’ society could never experience. And this is what happened to Roman Britain after 410, a meltdown.

The instability brought about by invaders and the difficulty of contact with the continent, as well perhaps as movements for independence within Britannia, had a devastating effect on the most Roman parts of the island. Long-distance trade broke down. Factories and cities emptied when food stopped getting through. Areas that had relied on pottery from these factories suddenly had to do without this most basic of all commodities.

Without an economy, taxes could not be collected for a central authority. Money no longer circulated – it was not trusted. And then as the state vanished, repairs ceased to be made on roads, defensive structures and aqueducts.

A Romano-Briton coming of age in 400 may have lived in a city as a silversmith, an oculist or donkey veterinarian (to name three random jobs from the many found in Roman Britain) and would have hoped to send his children to school. He could have travelled across the country to have dream therapy at the Temple of Dreams at Lydney Park. He could have ordered luxury goods from the other side of the empire as we know Romano-Britons did: Mediterranean olives, sexy leather braziers or Nile cat fish.

That same Romano Britain might have sent invitations for a birthday party or a letter instructing an associate to sell a slave. Both such epistulae survive from Roman Britain, the second including the phrase “turn that girl into cash”. He will have gossiped about celebrities: one Romano-British piece of graffiti claims that a gladiator and an actress are having an affair. He lived, in other words, in a society that, though different from our own, is far easier for us to understand than Britain in the seventh or the 12th or for that matter the 15th century.

Then… bang! Fast forward through Constantine, Honorius, independence, the Irish, the Picts and the Saxons. By 420, now aged 40, our Romano-Briton would no longer live in a city. He would no longer buy things with money but barter, and the things that he would barter for would be locally produced. He would not have eaten off pottery but wood or stone. Long-distance transport would have been out of the question – he would not have travelled.

A shock to the system

He would have obeyed not an imperial or even a national government but the strongest man who dwelt in the plain or hills to which he had evacuated himself and his family. Writing was rapidly becoming useless and it was unlikely that his children would have any schooling. And the security that the Roman state had offered was now, like the Roman state itself, a thing of the past, so he would have had to learn to protect himself. He would no longer be an oculist or a vet or a silversmith because there would be no call for specialists. He would do a bit of everything – fighting, farming, patching and improvising…

And so the 10 or 20 per cent of the population in the south that Rome had pulled up to a Roman level of living – the true Romano-British – fell back into the tribal, rural past or became slaves of foreign raiders.

No other moment in British history comes close to this kind of trauma. Indeed, it is a struggle to find anything like it in European history – for the bump from the ancient world to the medieval one went far more smoothly elsewhere.

The archaeological record in Britain gives a sense of unmitigated disaster – the kind of thing that archaeologists in AD 3000 may find if they have to dig through the remains of a nuclear war. The late fourth century had not been a particularly rich time in the empire, but things were still being built and defences repaired. London’s first cathedral arguably dates back to this period. However, as soon as we go past the magic date of c410 it is difficult to find traces of anything.

Indeed, if you take a section of British dirt at a Roman site for the four Roman centuries you will discover coins and fragments of pottery sticking out of the compacted soil. Then you will find nothing. It is as if someone turned the electricity, the gas and the water off all at the same time. In fact, for many years the only evidence that archaeologists were able to unearth to suggest any kind of civic building work in the fifth century was a single drainpipe that was laid at St Albans. Today archaeologists are more sensitive to the remains of the survivors and sometimes find structures in wood – jerry-built successors to Roman works.

We do not really know what happened in the wreck of Britannia, as, for a century, almost no written records survives. This lack of records is a reminder that writing was becoming less common and is itself a product of the instability of those times.

One Anglo-Saxon poet compares a Romano-British complex to a 'city of giants'

True, rumours reach us about those years. We hear of Arthur, Vortigern, not to mention partitions, victories and defeats but these have been passed through the sausage machine of Celtic myth and appear almost half a millennium later. They may or may not be true; certainly they cannot be trusted. It is as if an audience has been watching with interest a play called ‘the History of Britain’ that continues through a power cut – and all that reaches the audience for this scene are the occasional sounds of scuffles and exclamations from the blackened stage. There is no century in Britain that has a better claim to being a Dark Age.

What is even more striking though is the way that when this power cut ends a century, or two centuries later, and written sources begin to appear once again, there is no trace of Roman Britain. In the east of the island the Anglo-Saxons have established their kingdoms and have taken nothing from the Roman past and pitifully little from the Romano-Celts. The fact we mostly speak English – a Germanic language today instead of modern Celtic (ie Welsh) or modern Latin (a British Romance language) – is proof enough of this.

Riding the storm

In the west, meanwhile, there are various Celtic successor states but these too have left Rome far behind them. No surprise there. The west had, after all, always been the least Romanised part of Britannia and it was the very fact that they had primitive tribal societies instead of sophisticated urban ones that allowed the Celtic kingdoms to come through the storm in one piece. They were better able to fight off the barbarians. Indeed, the only Roman thing that survived there was Christianity – that had been the official religion of the later empire – and, closely connected to Christianity, Latin writing.

But these are titbits, ghettoised in the Celtic fringes. All that remains of Roman Britain are the great construction works of the empire that inspire a sense of awe in those who come after: one Anglo-Saxon poet compares the wreck of a Romano- British complex, perhaps Portchester, to a “city of giants” – as if only a non-human agency could have created something so extraordinary. Modern Britain finds its roots in the Anglo-Saxon fiefdoms of those years: religion, common law, the English language. It also owes much to its pre-Roman Celtic past, which reasserted itself in the west of the island when Rome disappeared: our Celtic languages, our attitude to continental Europe, the relationship between centre and periphery in British history. But to Roman Britain modern Britain owes almost nothing.

It is true that some of our oldest cities may have been positioned by the Romans, London among them. It is unquestionably true that some hulks like Portchester still survive for tourists to crawl over on the weekend. It is also true that some of our roads run down the straight courses of imperial highways. But if we are looking for important traces of Roman Britain in the make up of the UK, we look in vain.

Perhaps Rome’s only significant gift is a lesson: the fragility of complex societies. Certainly if you want to know what would happen to Britain in 2010 if the petrol suddenly stopped getting through, you could do a lot worse than go to a Roman villa in the home counties and dig down to the level c410 when the coins and pottery run out.

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Simon Young is a historian specialising in late Roman and early medieval British history. His latest book, Celtic Revolution, was published by Gibson Square in 2009. He is also the author of AD 500: A Journey Through the Dark Isles of Britain and Ireland (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2006).