After the empire: the fall of Roman Britain

The end of Roman Britain in AD 409 is one of the landmark moments in British history. But for those who lived in the province, did it spell a mere bump in the road – or a disastrous descent into chaos? Historian Will Bowden investigates

A statue of the Roman emperor Augustus in Augsburg, Germany

It was the same rainy island off the north-west corner of continental Europe. But in many ways it was utterly different. In the fourth century AD, visitors to Britain from as far afield as north Africa could have reasonably expected to be able to converse with the locals in a common language, and spend the coins they had in their pockets. By the early fifth century, however, Roman life was apparently over. Towns had vanished, not to be revived for several centuries, while the everyday use of coins was abandoned, and dress, diets and buildings changed beyond all recognition.

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What caused Britain to fall out of the orbit of the empire and lose the trappings of the Roman world so quickly? And what were the effects of these changes on the people of Britain? For the sixth-century British writer Gildas, the end of Roman Britain was sudden, dramatic and apocalyptic. He recounts the Britons pleading for help from the Roman commander in Gaul. “The barbarians drive us to the sea, the sea drives us to the barbarians,” they apparently wailed. “Between these two means of death, we are either killed or drowned.”

The traditional story of this period, based on fragmentary literary sources like Gildas, describes a province rocked by frequent political and military disturbance from the third century onwards. Trouble-makers and would-be usurpers of the imperial throne triggered unrest from as early as the 260s. St Jerome, writing around AD 415, famously notes that Britain was “a land fertile in tyrants”, most of whom rose from the ranks of the army stationed within the country.

For the sixth-century British writer Gildas, the end of Roman Britain was sudden, dramatic and apocalyptic

The actions of such ‘tyrants’ certainly played a part in depleting the British garrison, which towards the end of the fourth century numbered between 12,000 and 30,000 men. In AD 367, a rebellion of the troops on Hadrian’s Wall was accompanied by raids from Scotland and Ireland, and from across the North Sea, in the so-called ‘barbarian conspiracy’. Later, in 383, Magnus Maximus, a commander in Britain, was proclaimed emperor by his troops and reportedly took most of them to Gaul to fight the unpopular reigning emperor. It is unlikely that these soldiers ever returned.

Matters, it appears, took a turn for the worse on New Year’s Eve 405, when large numbers of barbarians crossed the frozen Rhine into the empire. This seems to have precipitated a crisis in Britain, where three would-be emperors were proclaimed in rapid succession, in opposition to Honorius, the incumbent western emperor. The first two, Marcus and Gratian, did not last long enough to trouble the coin minters, but Constantine III survived to take the remaining troops with him to Gaul in 407 to combat the incursion and consolidate his power.

The pagan writer Zosimus tells us that in 409 the pressure of barbarian invaders obliged the British “to throw off Roman rule and live independently, no longer subject to Roman laws”. There has been considerable dispute about what he meant by this but, all the same, 409 is now generally regarded as the end of Roman rule in Britain. (Until recently, of course, most school history books had given the landmark date as 410, when the emperor Honorius famously told Britain to “look to its own defences”. But this is now normally seen as the result of a mistake by Zosimus, who was probably referring to Bruttium in southern Italy.)

Hadrian's Wall
In AD 367, a rebellion of troops on Hadrian’s Wall was accompanied by raids from Scotland, Ireland and across the North Sea. (Image by RM/Getty Images)

An empire in retreat

Whatever the true date of the fall of Roman Britain, the idea that ‘the Romans left’ is now hardwired into the public consciousness. It’s regarded as a landmark moment in British history. But what did this ‘leaving’ mean? After all, it’s worth remembering that the soldiers who quit Britain to fight elsewhere comprised a mere fraction of the overall population. Those they left behind (numbering around 3–4 million people) had been part of the Roman world for 350 years, and would have felt every bit as ‘Roman’ as the soldiers setting sail for the continent.

The idea of a sudden, dramatic break between the pre and post-Roman eras has perhaps been reinforced by the archaeological evidence, which paints a picture of towns vanishing and coins and pottery disappearing. However, we need to apply a good level of caution to the evidence. First, we have to recognise that the things we think of as representative of ‘Roman Britain’ – such as mosaics and villas – were only present in significant quantities in about a third of mainland Britain, concentrated in the south and east.

Secondly, we are talking about the disappearance of a particular range of material, the importance of which may be overstated because of its archaeological visibility. Roman coins and pottery receive an enormous amount of attention because they constitute the main tools that Roman archaeologists use to date their sites. Their disappearance in the early fifth century is a significant problem for us, but it may have had less of an impact on people at the time.

The Roman empire minted coins primarily to pay the army and to provide a means by which people could pay tax. Their use in a wider market economy was an accidental byproduct of this and, in Britain at least, was short-lived.

The supply of bronze coins to Britain slowed down after 395 and ceased altogether after 402 – as was the case across the western empire. There is some debate as to how long coins remained in circulation, but the fact that there was no real attempt to produce local coins to replace the Roman supply suggests that there was little demand.

The end of the manufacture of fine pottery appears, on the face of it, to have been equally dramatic. Major pottery industries in places such as the Nene Valley (Cambridgeshire) and Oxfordshire ceased production in the early fifth century, possibly as a result of a collapse of distribution systems. However, pottery drinking vessels may well have been quickly replaced by ones fashioned from metal, wood and leather. And the presence of walnut wood cups in the Sutton Hoo ship burial (dating to c620) suggests that pottery’s demise may partially have been the result of a change in taste rather than economic decline.

If coinage and tableware disappeared rather suddenly, the same cannot be said for the towns of Roman Britain, which had already changed dramatically. These have been described as “a failed experiment”, one that was already largely over by AD 350. The end of Roman Britain may have hastened the collapse of urban life, but it only exacerbated a process that had begun decades before.

Most towns, including London, went into decline long before the end of Roman Britain

Towns were the means by which the Roman administration collected tax, but the social customs that shaped large population centres in the Mediterranean – where local grandees competed for status and public office through the construction of public buildings – never really took off in Britain.

In most Roman towns in Britain – even the provincial capital, London – the forum (main building of administration) had fallen into disuse as early as the third century. By the fourth century, a number of forums, such as the one at Silchester, had been put to an entirely different use: hosting small-scale industries.

However, we should be wary of judging these urban centres by the standards of what we believe Roman towns should have looked like. It’s clear that many remained active centres into the later fourth century. These were often defended by grand wall circuits and boasted luxurious townhouses – examples of which have been excavated at Dorchester and St Albans.

Despite the picture of political turbulence described by the literary sources, it is clear that some residents of Roman Britain were thriving in the fourth century. The most impressive villas in Britain all belong to this later period, as do the most spectacular figurative mosaics. None of these villas outlasted the early years of the fifth century as grand houses, but there’s evidence for continuing occupation at a number of them, suggested by the presence of cemeteries in and around some of the buildings.

Unearthed treasures

Britain’s late Roman wealth is also demonstrated in the spectacular stockpiles of coins, plate and jewellery dating from the late fourth and early fifth centuries. In 1992, a Suffolk metal detectorist, searching for a farmer’s lost hammer, found what turned out to be the Hoxne hoard. This incredible discovery comprised 15,234 gold, silver and bronze coins and around 200 other precious metal items; the 5.3kg of gold unearthed from the Sussex soil would have been enough to pay the annual tax bill of a major town. (The farmer’s hammer, incidentally, was also recovered and now sits in the British Museum along with the hoard.)

But, as remarkable as it undoubtedly was, the Hoxne hoard was far from unique. In fact, Britain has yielded more caches of precious metal from AD 300–500 than the rest of the Roman empire combined. The question, of course, is why? Hoards often indicate periods of unrest, when people felt compelled to bury their wealth for safe keeping – and there was certainly no shortage of that in early fifth-century Britain. But the same could be said for the entire western empire. Perhaps this anomaly was the product of particular concentrations of wealth in Roman Britain, or maybe there was some unknown factor preventing Britons from recovering their buried possessions as the Roman administration disintegrated.

Some of these owners of grand villas and beautiful silver plate would have been Christians, adherents of a faith that had taken root in Britain by the fourth century, at least among the upper classes. Bishops from York, London and possibly Lincoln attended the Council of Arles, which was the first representative meeting of Christian bishops in the western Roman empire, held in southern Gaul in 314. Christian symbols appear in remarkable murals at Lullingstone in Kent, as well as on personal ornaments, precious metal found in hoards, and a series of lead tanks possibly used for baptism. The Christian practice of covering heads may even explain the decline in finds of hairpins in late fourth-century Britain.

There are no confirmed late Roman churches in Britain, although reasonable arguments can be made for the presence of them at sites such as Lincoln and Vindolanda. In any case, Roman Christianity in all but the very west of Britain proved to be short-lived.

The fourth-century Mildenhall Great Dish
The fourth-century Mildenhall Great Dish. Britain has yielded more caches of precious metal from AD 300–500 than the rest of the empire combined. (Image by Alamy)

Hated by God and men

Other aspects of Roman Britain survived best in the west of the former province, too. Finds at places like Tintagel in Cornwall reveal a population importing wine, olive oil and fine pottery from the eastern Mediterranean during the fifth and sixth centuries. Curiously, these finds tend to turn up in areas that had previously shown relatively little interest in Roman life – which suggests that the conspicuous adoption of ‘Roman’ habits may have been regarded as a way of creating an identity distinct from the newcomers to the east.

It seems that the natives adopted Germanic dress and buildings rapidly. Evolution – not armageddon

According to some contemporary sources, these newcomers – referred to as Angli and Saxones – played a key role in this episode in British history. In this version of events, “impious Saxons, a race hated by both God and men” (as Gildas describes them) were initially employed to defend against other barbarians before turning against their paymasters and seizing territory. They were then reinforced by others from across the North Sea, a process that seems to have accelerated in the 440s.

On one level, this scenario is plausible. Barbarian troops had been part of the Roman army for centuries and were a mainstay of most late Roman forces. Their presence in Britain would have been entirely expected. It’s unlikely, however, that groups numbering in the thousands could have overwhelmed a population of a few million. The Anglo-Saxon ‘colonisation’ of eastern Britain doubtless involved blood and violence, but the widespread appearance of Germanic styles of dress, burial and building suggests that many natives adopted such things rapidly, perhaps viewing them as a new way of participating in a changing and fragmented cultural and political landscape. Evolution, then, not armageddon.

This last point can, I think, help us understand life on the ground at the start of the fifth century. Participation in the Roman world had offered Britons a wide range of ways in which they could express ideas about who they were – from hairstyles and diet to holding political office. This, however, was a constantly changing process, as it had been for the past 350 years of Roman rule. And so, while the new circumstances of the fifth century presented challenges, they may have also brought opportunities.

At the same time, many of the things that we prize most about Roman Britain simply appear to have become irrelevant. After all, we too live in a society where coins could soon be a thing of the past. And if that poses problems for future archaeologists, then so be it.

Will Bowden is associate professor in Roman archaeology at the University of Nottingham

LISTEN AGAIN: Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Roman Britain on BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time.

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This article was first published in the Christmas 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine