Nipissing University

History 2425 -- Medieval England

The Roman Withdrawal

Steve Muhlberger
We have a shelf-full of books on Roman Britain in the NU collection.   One that may give you a notion of the scale of Roman civilization in Britannia is by Frere and St. Joseph, Roman Britain from the Air.    On the specific question of what happened to Roman Britain, there is Esmonde Clary's The Ending of Roman Britain.
In A.D. 400, the southern, more fertile part of Britain was securely part of the Christian Roman Empire as the province (or rather diocese) of Britannia.

In A.D. 600, most of Britain was ruled by peoples from modern day North Germany and Denmark, who spoke Germanic languages and were almost entirely pagan. The Britons who had inhabited south Britain before the Romans and thrived under Roman rule had lost control of most of their ancestral homeland; they ruled only on the western fringe.

How did the change take place? Was Romano-British society destroyed? Or were there important elements of continuity was there between Roman Britain and Early Medieval England?

During the two centuries in which the great change took place we have almost no sources that tell us how it happened.  We have archaeological remains, but no documents that allow us to date them and help us interpret their significance. The gap has been filled in legend by the figure of King Arthur. In fact there is almost no evidence that a man named Arthur even lived in this period, and next to none that he was a key person. The familiar stories about him come from the 12th century.

The fact that the legends of a great king has been placed in this unknown period is indicative of how little is known and can be known about it. Nevertheless we must try to understand this era

Though Julius Caesar claimed to have landed in Britain twice about 55 and 54 B.C., the history of Roman Britain really begins about a century later when  the emperor Claudius ordered the conquest of the country.

The victory was relatively easy, and the Romans set out to build a provincial society in their own image, as they had done in many other places. The Roman method of ruling their empire was to co-opt native ruling classes in the provinces into the Roman system. This meant convincing the established aristocracy to adopt Roman culture and to participate in the machinery of government. Roman government was based on the idea that cities were the center of political and cultural life, and that those who ruled in the cities would rule in the countryside around them. In some provinces like Britain, there were no cities, and so the Romans had to teach rural aristocrats that city life was desirable.

The Britons, like the Gauls and others, took to urbanization and its attendant pleasures in a big way. Britain in Roman times was divided into districts that roughly corresponded to the independent tribal states of old. Each one had a Roman style city as its capital and metropolis. During the prosperous 2nd century, the cities of Roman Britain flourished. They seem to have been bigger than the towns of medieval England, even late medieval England, and their facilities were impressive.

The richest members of the upper class built magnificent villas in the country. The country as a whole seems to have done well. The use of money was commonplace, and commercial links with the rest of the Empire can be seen in the archeological remains.

The Romanization of Britain does not mean that everybody in the country considered themselves to be Romans. Classical urban culture was the culture of a small minority in every province. Ten percent of the people, at the most, lived in towns and cities where they came into contact with the Latin language and Roman culture and learning. Even most of these city people were very poor. Latin was not the language of the countryside in Britain, any more than it was in Gaul or most of Spain.

Rather, we must visualize British society then as being much like the society of British India in the late 19th century. Foreign soldiers and administrators came from other parts of the empire to rule the country. The native upper classes imitated and then adopted many elements of the culture of the sahibs.  Whether the majority considered themselves Roman or not is a good question.

Keeping a secure hold on Britain involved a substantial investment in military power. The empire kept a major garrison in Britain, perhaps as many as 50,000 soldiers. This was an immense force by later standards: No English king before 1500 could have supported a permanent force of even 5,000. The impressive Roman walls fortifications works and the force that manned them were subsidized by the imperial government.

Events in the fifth century led to the removal of the imperial umbrella over Roman Britain. Before we get into that subject, however, I want to say a few words about the state of Britain in the fourth century A.D.

Despite at least one serious incursion by so-called barbarians during that century, Roman Britain appears to have been a very prosperous place.  The prosperity may have stemmed from the barbarian threat to the Rhine frontier. The large armies there seem to have been fed by British provisions, which made British agriculture quite profitable. Furthermore, Britain provided at least one prominent intellectual to the empire at large. In earlier centuries we here nothing of any cultural contribution from Britain. But about 380, a would-be lawyer named Pelagius went to Rome, where he ended up as a Christian monk and intellectual. His views on religion were very influential for a few years, until Augustine and some other African bishops got Pelagius condemned as a heretic. Pelagius' particular contribution as a leading theologian shows the sophistication of British society (at least in its upper ranks), and is a reminder that Britain, like the rest of the Roman empire, was officially Christian.

It is now time to look at the fall of the Roman imperial system in the west and how it affected Britain. Without going into too much detail, we can say that the constant Roman problem was balancing the need for border defense with political stability.   Because the big armies were on the frontier, revolts against the imperial court usually started on the borders.  This was particularly likely to happen if the generals thought the court was ignoring their own stretch of frontier. But setting up a rival emperor meant civil war, which usually opened up the provinces to barbarian raids or even invasions.

Britain had an important role in this political situation. Britain was a distant province with a big army, and a likely source of trouble. In 383, for instance, a general named Magnus Maximus was declared emperor by the British army and crossed to Gaul. He fought several wars with his former masters before being defeated. The loss of the troops Maximus took with him may have permanently weakened the British garrison. But the island remained part of the empire, ruled by an emperor based in Italy, until the next big blow-up.

The crisis that separated Britain from the empire had nothing much to do with Britain itself. On the last day of the year 406, an army of Vandals, Alans, and Sueves crossed the Rhine river and started making trouble in Gaul. The British commanders, apparently disgusted by the incompetence of the Italian court headed by the emperor Honorius, took matters into their own hands. They elected an emperor of their own, named Constantine who took the army to Gaul to fight the barbarians.

Eventually it became clear that Constantine was a loser, and the British provinces abandoned their allegiance to him and set messengers to Honorius protesting their loyalty to him. Honorius told the Britons that he had his hands full -- which he did -- and told them that they would have to look after their own defense. The Britons were left to their own devices. This may have been a temporary expedient, but this decision was never reversed.

The empire was now weak enough that it was turning over large parts of its western territories,  officially or unofficially, to barbarian allies, who slowly formed independent kingdoms. In this situation, a restoration of Roman authority in Britain, in anything more than name, was out of the question. Indeed, the majority of publicly minded Romans simply forgot about Britain entirely.

Does this mean that Roman Britain simply collapsed? Nothing of the sort. The Britons had been told to defend themselves, and they did. An independent Britain maintained its independence for a long time. If you include the last part of Wales to fall to the English, it lasted until 1282. In the next lecture we will investigate the fascinating and unique phenomenon of an abandoned Roman province defending itself against foreign intruders. 

Copyright (C) 1998, Steven Muhlberger.