The Romanization of Britain Under the Roman Empire

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So far we have considered the province of Britain as it was while it still remained in real fact a province. Let us now turn to the sequel and ask how it fits in with its antecedents. The Romanization, we find, held its own for a while. The sense of belonging to the Empire had not quite died out even in sixth-century Britain. Roman names continued to be used, not exclusively but freely enough, by Britons. Roman 'culture words' seem to occur in the later British language, and some at least of these may be traceable to the Roman occupation of the island. Roman military terms appear, if scantily. Roman inscriptions are occasionally set up. The Romanization of Britain was plainly no mere interlude, which passed without leaving a mark behind.[1] But it was crossed by two hostile forges, a Celtic revival and an English invasion.

[Footnote 1: Much of the ornamentation used by post-Roman Celtic art comes from Roman sources, in particular the interlaced or plaitwork, which has been well studied by Mr. Romilly Allen. But how far it was borrowed from Romano-British originals and how far from similar Roman-provincial work on the Continent, is not very clear. (See p. 36.)]

The Celtic revival was due to many influences. We may find one cause for it in the Celtic environment of the province. After 407 the Romanized area was cut off from Rome. Its nearest neighbours were now the less-Romanized Britons of districts like Cornwall and the foreign Celts of Ireland and the north. These were weighty influences in favour of a Celtic revival. And they were all the more potent because, in or even before the period under discussion, the opening of the fifth century, a Celtic migration seems to have set in from the Irish coasts. The details of this migration are unknown, and the few traces which survive of it are faint and not altogether intelligible. The principal movement was that of the Scotti from North Ireland into Caledonia, with the result that, once settled there, or perhaps rather in the course of settling there, they went on to pillage Roman Britain. There were also movements in the south, but apparently on a smaller scale and a more peaceful plan.[1] At a date given commonly as A.D. 265-70--though there does not seem to be any very good reason for it--the Dessi or Déisi were expelled from Meath and a part of them settled in the south-west of Wales, in the land then called Demetia. This was a region which was both thinly inhabited and imperfectly Romanized. In it fugitives from Ireland might easily find room. The settlement may have been formed, as Professor Bury suggests, with the consent of the Imperial Government and under conditions of service. But we are entirely ignorant whether these exiles from Ireland numbered tens or scores or hundreds, and this uncertainty renders speculation dangerous. If the newcomers were few and their new homes were in the remote west beyond Carmarthen (Maridunum), formal consent would hardly have been required. Other Irish immigrants probably followed. Their settlements were apparently confined to Cornwall and the south-west coast of Wales, and their influence may easily be overrated. Some, indeed, came as enemies, though perhaps rather as enemies to the Roman than to the Celtic elements in the province. Such must have been Niall of the Nine Hostages, who was killed--according to the traditional chronology--about A.D. 405 on the British coast and perhaps in the Channel itself.

[Footnote 1: Professor Rhys, Cambrian Archaeol. Assoc. Kerry Meeting, 1891, and Celtic Britain (ed. 3, 1904, p. 247), is inclined to minimize the invasions of southern Britain (Cornwall and Wales). Professor Bury (Life of St. Patrick, p. 288) tends to emphasize them; see also Zimmer, Nennius Vindicatus, pp. 84 foll., and Kuno Meyer, Cymmrodorion Transactions, 1895-6, pp. 55 foll. The decision of the question seems to depend upon whether we should regard the Goidelic elements visible in western Britain as due in part to an original Goidelic population or ascribe them wholly to Irish immigrants. At present philologists do not seem able to speak with certainty on this point. But the evidence for some amount of invasion seems adequate.]

All this must have contributed to the reintroduction of Celtic national feeling and culture. A Celtic immigrant, it may be, was the man who set up the Ogam pillar at Silchester (Fig. 21), which was discovered in the excavations of 1893.[1] The circumstances of the discovery show that this pillar belongs to the very latest period in the history of Calleva. Its inscription is Goidelic: that is, it does not belong to the ordinary Callevan population, which was presumably Brythonic. It may be best explained as the work of some western Celt who reached Silchester before its British citizens abandoned it in despair. We do not know the date of that event, though we may conjecturally put it before, and perhaps a good many years before, A.D. 500. In any case, an Ogam monument had been set up before it occurred, and the presence of such an object would seem to prove that Celtic things had made their way even into this eastern Romanized town.

[Footnote 1: Archaeologia, liv. 233, 441; Rhys and Brynmor Jones, Welsh People, pp. 45, 65; Victoria Hist. of Hampshire, i. 279; English Hist. Review, xix. 628. Whether the man who wrote was Irish or British depends on the answer to the question set forth in the preceding note. Unfortunately, we do not know when the Ogam script came first into use. Professor Rhys tells me that the Silchester example may quite conceivably belong to the fifth century.]


But a more powerful aid to the revival may be found in another fact--that is the destruction of the Romanized part of Britain by the invading Saxons. War, and especially defensive war against invaders, must always weaken the higher forms of any country's civilization. Here the agony was long, and the assailants cruel and powerful, and the country itself was somewhat weak. Its wealth was easily exhausted. Its towns were small. Its fortresses were not impregnable. Its leaders were divided and disloyal. Moreover, the assault fell on the very parts of Britain which were the seats of Roman culture. Even in the early years of the fourth century it had been found necessary to defend the coasts of East Anglia, Kent, and Sussex, some of the most thickly populated and highly civilized parts of Britain, against the pirates by a series of forts which extended from the Wash to Spithead, and were known as the forts of the Saxon Shore. Fifty or seventy years later the raiders, whether English seamen or Picts and Scots from Caledonia and Ireland, devastated the coasts of the province and perhaps reached even the midlands.[1] When, seventy years later still, the English came, no longer to plunder but to settle, they occupied first the Romanized area of the island. As the Romano-Britons retired from the south and east, as Silchester was evacuated in despair[2] and Bath and Wroxeter were stormed and left desolate, the very centres of Romanized life were extinguished. Not a single one remained an inhabited town. Destruction fell even on Canterbury, where the legends tell of intercourse between Briton or Saxon, and on London, where ecclesiastical writers fondly place fifth- and sixth-century bishops. Both sites lay empty and untenanted for many years. Only in the far west, at Exeter or at Caerwent, does our evidence allow us to guess at a continuing Romano-British life.

[Footnote 1: About A.D. 405 Patrick was carried off from Bannavem Taberniae. If this represents the Romano-British village on Watling Street called Bannaventa, near Daventry in Northants (Victoria Hist.

  1. 186), the raids must have covered all the midlands: see _Engl. Hist. Review_, 1895, p. 711; Zimmer, Realenc. für protestantische Theol. x. (1901), Art. 'Keltische Kirche'; Bury, Life of St. Patrick, p. 322. There are, however, too many uncertainties surrounding this question to let us derive much help from it.]

[Footnote 2: Engl. Hist. Review, xix. 625; Fox, Victoria Hist. of Hampshire, i. 371-2.]

The same destruction came also on the population. During the long series of disasters, many of the Romanized inhabitants of the lowland regions must have perished. Many must have fallen into slavery, and may have been sold into foreign lands. The remnant, such as it was, doubtless retired to the west. But, in doing so, it exchanged the region of walled cities and civilized houses, of city life and Roman culture, for a Celtic land. No doubt it attempted to keep up its Roman fashions. The writers may well be correct who speak of two conflicting parties, Roman and Celtic, among the Britons of the sixth century. But the Celtic element triumphed. Gildas, about A.D. 540, describes a Britain confined to the west of our island, which is very largely Celtic and not Roman.[1] Had the English invaded the island from the Atlantic, we might have seen a different spectacle. The Celtic element would have perished utterly: the Roman would have survived. As it was, the attack fell on the east and south of the island--that is, on the lowlands of Britain. Safe in its western hills, the Celtic revival had full course.

[Footnote 1: How much of Britain was still British when Gildas wrote, he does not tell us. But he mentions only the extreme west (Damnonii, Demetae); his general atmosphere is Celtic, and his rhetoric contains no references to a flourishing civilization. We may conclude that the Romanized part of Britain had been lost by his time, or that, if some part was still held by the British, long war had destroyed its civilization. Unfortunately we cannot trust the traditional English chronology of the period. As to the date of Gildas, cf. W.H. Stevenson, Academy, October 26, 1895, &c.; I see no reason to put either Gildas or any part of the Epistula later than about 540.]

It is this Celtic revival which can best explain the history of Britannia minor, Brittany across the seas in the western extremity of Gaul. How far this region had been Romanized during the first four centuries seems uncertain. Towns were scarce in it, and country-houses, though not altogether infrequent or insignificant, were unevenly distributed. At some period not precisely known, perhaps in the first half or the middle of the third century, it was in open rebellion, and the commander of the Sixth Legion (at York), one Artorius Justus, was sent with a part of the British garrison to reduce it to obedience.[1] It may therefore have been, as Mommsen suggests, one of the least Romanized corners of Gaul, and in it the native idiom may have retained unusual vitality. Yet that native speech was not strong enough to live on permanently. The Celtic which is spoken to-day in Brittany is not a Gaulish but a British Celtic; it is the result of British influences. Brittany would have sooner or later become assimilated to the general Romano-Gaulish civilization, had not its Celtic elements won fresh strength from immigrant Britons. This immigration is usually described as an influx of refugees fleeing from Britain before the English advance. That, no doubt, was one side of it. But the principal immigrants, so far as we know their names, came from Devon and Cornwall,[2] and some certainly did not come as fugitives. The King Riotamus who (as Jordanes tells us) brought 12,000 Britons in A.D. 470 to aid the Roman cause in Gaul, was plainly not seeking shelter from the English.[3] We must connect him, and indeed the whole fifth-century movement of Britons into Gaul, with the Celtic revival and with the same causes that produced for instance, the Scotic invasion of Caledonia.

[Footnote 1: C. iii. 1919=Dessau 2770. The inscription must be later than (about) A.D. 200, and it somewhat resembles another inscription (C.

  1. 3228) of the reign of Gallienus, which mentions _milites vexill. leg. Germanicar. et Britannicin. cum auxiliis earum_. Presumably it is either earlier than the Gallic Empire of 258-73, or falls between that and the revolt of Carausius in 287. The notion of O. Fiebiger (_De classium Italicarum historia_, in Leipziger Studien, xv. 304) that it belongs to the Aremoric revolts of the fifth century is, I think, wrong. Such an expedition from Britain at such a date is incredible.]

[Footnote 2: The attempt to find eastern British names in Brittany seems a failure. M. de la Borderie, for instance, thinks that Corisopitum (or whatever the exact form of the name is) was colonized from Corstopitum (Corbridge on the Tyne, near Hadrian's Wall). But the latter, always to some extent a military site, can hardly have sent out ordinary émigrés, while the former has hardly an historical existence at all, and may be an ancient error for civitas Coriosolitum (C. xiii (I), i.

  1. 491).]

[Footnote 3: Freeman (Western Europe in the Fifth Century, p. 164) suggests that a migration of Britons into Gaul had been in progress, perhaps since the days of Magnus Maximus, and that by 470 there was a regular British state on the Loire, from which Riotamus led his 12,000 men. Hodgkin (Cornwall and Brittany, Penryn, 1911) suggests that the soldiers of Maximus settled on the Loire about 388, and that Riotamus was one of their descendants. He quotes Gildas as saying that the British troops of Maximus went abroad with him and never returned. That, however, is an entirely different thing from saying that they settled in a definite part of Gaul. For this latter statement I can find no evidence, and the Celtic revival in our island seems to provide a better setting for the whole incident of Riotamus.

If Professor Bury is right (Life of Patrick, p. 354), Riotamus had a predecessor in Dathi, who is said to have gone from Ireland to Gaul about A.D. 428 to help the Romans and Aetius. Zimmer (Nennius Vind.,

  1. 85) rejects the tale. But it fits in well with the Celtic revival.]

This destruction of Romano-British life produced a curious result which would be difficult to explain if we could not assign it to this cause. There is a marked and unmistakable gap between the Romano-British and the Later Celtic periods. However numerous may be the Latin personal names and 'culture words' in Welsh, it is beyond question that the tradition of Roman days was lost in Britain during the fifth or early sixth century. That is seen plainly in the scanty literature of the age. Gildas wrote about A.D. 540, three generations after the Saxon settlements had begun. He was a priest, well educated, and well acquainted with Latin, which he once calls nostra lingua. He was also not unfriendly to the Roman party among the Britons, and not unaware of the relation of Britain to the Empire.[1] Yet he knew substantially nothing of the history of Britain as a Roman province. He drew from some source now lost to us--possibly an ecclesiastical or semi-ecclesiastical writer--some details of the persecution of Diocletian and of the career of Magnus Maximus.[2] For the rest, his ideas of Roman history may be judged by his statement that the two Walls which defended the north of the province--the Walls of Hadrian and Pius--were built somewhere between A.D. 388 and 440. He had some tradition of the coming of the English about 450, and of the reason why they came. But his knowledge of anything previous to that event was plainly most imperfect.

[Footnote 1: Mommsen, Preface to Gildas (Mon. Germ. Hist.), pp. 9-10. Gildas is, however, rather more Celtic in tone than Mommsen seems to allow. Such a phrase as ita ut non Britannia sed Romania censeretur implies a consciousness of contrast between Briton and Roman. Freeman (Western Europe, p. 155) puts the case too strongly the other way.]

[Footnote 2: Magnus Maximus, as the opponent of Theodosius, seems to have been damned by the Church writers. Compare the phrases of Orosius,

  1. 35 (Theodosius) _posuit in Deo spem suam seseque adversus Maximum tyrannum sola fide maior proripuit_ and ineffabili iudicio Dei and Theodosius victoriam Deo procurante suscipit.]

The Historia Brittonum, compiled a century or two later, preserves even less memory of things Roman. There is some hint of a vetus traditio seniorum. But the narrative which professes to be based on it bears little relation to the actual facts; the growth of legend is perceptible, and even those details that are borrowed from literary sources like Gildas, Jerome, Prosper, betray great ignorance on the part of the borrower.[1] On the other hand, the native Celtic instinct is more definitely alive and comes into sharper contrast with the idea of Rome. Throughout, no detail occurs which enlarges our knowledge of Roman or of early post-Roman Britain. The same features recur in later writers who might be or have been supposed to have had access to British sources. Geoffrey of Monmouth--to take only the most famous--asserts that he used a Breton book which told him all manner of facts otherwise unknown. The statement is by no means improbable. But, for all that, the pages of Geoffrey contain no new fact about the first five centuries which is also true.[2] From first to last, the Celtic tradition preserves no real remnant of recollections dating from the Romano-British age. Those who might have handed down such memories had either perished in wars with the English or sunk back into the native environment of the west.[3]

[Footnote 1: The story of Vortigern and Hengist now first occurs and is obvious tradition or legend. A prince with a Celtic name may have ruled Kent in 450. There were, indeed, plenty of rulers with barbaric names in the fourth and fifth centuries of the Empire. But the tale cannot be called certain history.]

[Footnote 2: Thus, he refers to Silchester, and so good a judge as Stubbs once suggested that for this he had some authority now lost to us. Yet the mere fact that Geoffrey knows only the English name Silchester disproves this idea. Had he used a genuinely ancient authority, he would have (as elsewhere) employed the Roman name. Another explanation may be given. Geoffrey wrote in an antiquarian age, when the ruins of Roman towns were being noted. Both he and Henry of Huntingdon seem to have heard of the Silchester ruins, and both accordingly inserted the place into their pages.]

[Footnote 3: The English mediaeval chronicles have sometimes been supposed to preserve facts otherwise forgotten about Roman times. So far as I can judge, this is not the case, even with Henry of Huntingdon. Henry, in the later editions of his work, borrowed a few facts from Geoffrey of Monmouth, which are wanting in his first edition (see the All Souls MS.; the truth is obscured in the Rolls Series text). He also preserves one local tradition from Colchester: otherwise he contains nothing which need puzzle any inquirer. Giraldus Cambrensis, when at Rome, saw some manuscript which contained a list of the five provinces of fourth-century Britain--otherwise unknown throughout the Middle Ages (Archaeol. Oxoniensis, 1894, p. 224).]

But we are moving in a dim land of doubts and shadows. He who wanders here, wanders at his peril, for certainties are few, and that which at one moment seems a fact, is only too likely, as the quest advances, to prove a phantom. It is, too, a borderland, and its explorers need to know something of the regions on both sides of the frontier. I make no claim to that double knowledge. I have merely tried, using such evidence as I can, to sketch the character of one region, that of the Romano-British civilization.

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