Can modern conflicts in the Balkans and the Middle East throw light on how Roman Britain ended? Stuart Laycock, an expert on Late Roman belt-fittings and author of a new book on the period, thinks they can.
'In fact, nothing has assisted us more when fighting this mighty nation than their inability to work together with each other. It is only rarely that two or three states unite to repel a common enemy, and in this way, fighting separately, they are all conquered.’ Thus wrote Tacitus of the Roman conquest of Britain in the late 1st century AD. Around half a millennium later, reflecting on the condition of post-Roman Britain, the Christian monk Gildas saw things much the same: ‘For it has always been the way with our nation, as now, to be powerless in repelling foreign enemies, but powerful and bold in making civil war.’ There are clues here in solving an old problem. Roman Britain around AD 360 was a society of millions with a complex, highly developed economy. A hundred years later, that economy seems to have been reduced to subsistence farming, and the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the Romano-British millions faced cultural and political takeover by small groups of Anglo-Saxons who had rowed across the North Sea. How could it happen?
Since 1990, Britain has been involved in two modern events which may bear comparison with the end of Roman Britain: the break-up of Yugoslavia, and the post-invasion chaos in Iraq. I saw some of what happened in Bosnia and Kosovo first-hand as an aid worker. In both Yugoslavia and Iraq, disparate ethnic and cultural groups were held together for a while by an element of compulsion, before the uniting force was suddenly removed, creating a power vacuum, leading to chaos as separate groups fought to re-assert borders and take control of previously shared towns and natural assets. Did something similar happen after AD 410?
The categories we use to make sense of post- Roman Britain may be defective. An example is the term ‘Britons’ to describe the non ‘Anglo-Saxon’ inhabitants of early 5th century Britain. Use of the term – which goes back to Gildas (writing in the late 5th or early 6th century) – implies a unified identity which is almost certainly illusory. Gildas himself attacks five different ‘British’ rulers, and one of their crimes is that of repeatedly fighting other British rulers. It is not a picture of communal harmony. In fact, any sense of an actual British identity at the time of Gildas was probably a new development born of opposition to an emerging Anglo-Saxon identity in Eastern England. There is certainly no particular reason to think that much of a British identity existed in the late 4th century.
When the Romans arrived to stay in AD 43, they entered a land divided into separate tribal territories. Rome did little to encourage the creation of a unified British identity after the Conquest, but instead took steps guaranteed to preserve separate and competing tribal identities. The new civil administration was based on self-administering civitates, formed from the pre-existing tribes. Before the Romans, a person might have been a member of the Dobunni tribe; afterwards, they would have been a member of the civitas of the Dobunni. The Romans themselves often referred to ‘Britons’, but on inscriptions, natives usually give their tribal ‘nationality’ – Dobunnic, or Catuvellaunian, or Durotrigan.
Of course, in the case of Yugoslavia and Iraq, the period of unification prior to fragmentation was far shorter than the period of Roman rule in Britain. But time alone would not have created a British identity if none was actively promoted. In the Balkans, Serbs, Greeks, and Bulgarians retained their identities for centuries under Ottoman Turkish rule, before asserting themselves as imperial power collapsed. Equally, though England and Scotland have been jointly ruled by the same monarchs for over 400 years, and been officially united for over 300 years, each country has retained strong elements of separate identity, and the relationship between the two remains at times uneasy.
In addition, it is unlikely there was always peace between the tribes under Roman rule. Boudica’s Iceni may have been targeting the Catuvellauni as much as the Romans in AD 60/61. And what of the widespread fortification of British towns in the decades before and around the end of the 2nd century – something unparalleled elsewhere in the Roman Empire at the time? Some argue the fortifications were largely for show and to express urban pride. But at Towcester, the fortifications must have done considerable damage to the existing town, probably cutting through at least eight major road frontages. A real military emergency is implied, perhaps connected with two clusters of fires around the town and elsewhere.
Major towns – civitas-capitals and coloniae – would have been prioritised in an emergency, so the evidence from small towns is more revealing. A plot of urban defences reveals a line of fortified sites around much of both the Catuvellaunian and Dobunnic civitates. Do the fires and the defences imply an upsurge of tribal raiding?
Later, in AD 367, at the time of the ‘barbarian conspiracy’ (in which Picts, Scots, Attacotti, and possibly Anglo-Saxons are said to have overrun much of Britain), there are hints – in, for instance, references to desertions from the Roman army in Britain, and to a conspiracy led by one Valentinus – that internal strife contributed to the chaos. Some of this may have been tribal conflict.
Certainly, there may have been a tribal basis to the military stabilisation that followed the crisis. Archaeologists have struggled to find evidence of the restoration of Britain’s defences by Count Theodosius, recorded by the historian Ammianus Marcellinus. They may have been looking in the wrong place. One feature of Late Roman archaeology in Britain is the appearance of a range of buckles and other belt-fittings, in both civilian and some military contexts, within the culturally Romanised parts of Britain.
Belts and buckles were not worn by civilians. Though some Late Roman civilian officials wore military uniform, these do not generally seem to have included belts and buckles. The distribution of such artefacts on the Continent is thick along the empire’s frontiers, but sparse elsewhere, despite the number of civilian officials there. In addition, Late Roman buckles have been found with knives in burials at Lankhills near Roman Dorchester, and in graves on the Continent. Association with weapons would probably be more common but for the decline in the practice of burying grave-goods with the deceased and the poor survival of ironwork in Britain. The most likely explanation for the appearance of buckles and belt-fittings in civilian areas of Britain is that – probably in response to the ‘barbarian conspiracy’ of AD 367 –
significant numbers of Romano-British civilians acquired Roman-style military equipment. Some may have done so on their own initiative. If a fraction of what Ammianus Marcellinus says about AD 367 is true, the Roman army in Britain had shown itself incapable of defending the population – in which case, they may simply have decided to arm themselves. However, the evidence of the belt-fittings themselves implies that much of the re-arming was done officially.
Some Late Roman buckles from Britain feature a plain loop and a triangular plate. They are of a type found in large numbers, all in a very similar style, along the imperial frontier on the Continent. The simplicity and uniformity of these buckles strongly suggests they are the product of a Late Roman state arms-factory (fabrica). Their appearance in British civilian areas – unless the result of looting official stores in AD 367 – could be evidence of Count Theodosius arming local militias. A reference in Gildas to the Romans helping to arm the Britons before they left may be an echo of such an event.
Stylistic evidence further suggests that any such militias were organised along tribal lines. A second style of Late Roman buckle, found both on the Continent and in Britain, features, on the buckle loop, two dolphins holding a globe between their jaws. A few examples almost identical to those from the Continent have been found in Britain, but most British examples of the dolphin type, and derivatives of it, are stylistically distinct, indicating that they were made here. In fact, buckles and belt-fittings from four different tribal areas begin to show different stylistic elements.
Buckles with a human head on the globe, or located centrally on top of the buckle loop, tend to concentrate in and around Icenian territory. Buckles and belt-fittings where perching birds, or a number of other types of protrusion, are the main decorative addition tend to concentrate in and around Corieltauvian territory (with a dribble of belt-fittings down into East Anglia, which echoes the distribution of pre-Roman Corieltauvian coinage in East Anglia). Dolphin buckles and associated belt-fittings, where lines of dots or rings (not dot and ring, which is a much more widespread feature) are the main decorative element, tend to group in and around Catuvellaunian territory. In the west, horse-head buckles (dolphin buckle derivatives) of a type where there is no open space under the horses’ chins (giving the buckles a square appearance), along with buckle-plates and strap-ends where the main decoration consists of complex incised geometric designs featuring cross-hatching, seem mainly linked to the territory of the Dobunnic civitas.
Given that almost identical military equipment could be found across large parts of the Roman Empire, this appearance of stylistically distinct military equipment within different parts of Britain is very striking. It suggests separate supply arrangements at the very least, and quite conceivably separate command. As more examples of buckles and belt-fittings are found, it may become possible to identify specific tribal styles in more tribal areas. Equally, the absence of buckles and belt-fittings from civilian areas in the less Romanised parts of Britannia does not indicate that Britons were not arming themselves on a tribal basis in these areas. Largely un-Romanised Britons would presumably have equipped themselves in a largely un-Romanised way – without Roman-style buckles and beltfittings.
These tribal militias may have been contained within the Roman command structure. A small number of distinctively British buckles and beltfittings have been found on the Continent. Their locations could link them with the expeditions of Magnus Maximus and/or Constantine III, recorded in historical sources.
Inscriptions, often dated to the 4th century AD, record work on Hadrian’s Wall by tribal units from the Durotriges and the Dumnonii. These may have been forced-labour units, though the inscriptions are comparable with those of regular military units stationed on the Wall, so perhaps they represent tribal militias. Gildas, after all, thought Hadrian’s Wall was built by the Romans to be manned by Britons.
Did these tribal militias provide the basis for a new power structure as the occupation ended – something comparable with what appears to be happening in Iraq today?
Hoards, hordes, and hotspots
The high level of precious metal hoarding in late 4th and early 5th century Britain probably indicates extensive social dislocation and violence.
With hoards concentrated in the centre and south of England and showing no coastal bias, on the other hand, it is hard to explain it in terms of Pictish or Anglo-Saxon raids. However, what if tribal conflict was the main source of insecurity? There seems to be some correlation between the distribution of hoards, the distribution of buckles and belt-fittings, and a number of post-Roman linear earthworks.
The evidence points to a number of potential ‘hotspots’ for tribal conflict at the end of the Roman period. Three of the major ones are: 1) The border area between the Iceni on the one hand and the Catuvellauni and Trinovantes on the other (which also saw trouble in AD 60/61 and probably the late 2nd century, and which seems to be roughly marked out by a line of Icenian buckles and belt-fittings).
2) The Upper Thames area, where Catuvellaunian and Dobunnic territory met (which was a heavily fortified area in pre-Roman times, and where, again, the distributions of Dobunnic and Catuvellaunian buckles and belt-fittings meet).
3) The area in the west where the civitas of the Belgae met the civitas of the Dobunni. This latter area is perhaps most interesting of all, in that it features a sequence of burnt villas (where the fires either definitely date from the last few decades of Roman rule) running along a very similar line to that of the Wansdyke, a linear earthwork facing north towards Dobunnic territory. The Wansdyke line, again, seems to be significant in terms of buckle and belt-fitting distribution, with Dobunnic-style buckles and belt-fittings appearing in much larger numbers in the area around and to the north of Wansdyke than south of it.
Gildas suggests that West Britain had fragmented into rival kingdoms by the 6th century, and there is some evidence that the fragments corresponded with the old tribes and civitates. New archaeological evidence now implies similar fragmentation on traditional lines in East Britain.
The Anglo-Saxon takeover can be interpreted as new players taking advantage of local weakness to seize control. Alternatively, the Anglo- Saxon intervention could be seen as an integral part of British tribal conflict. As with the hoards, it has long been a puzzle why some of the earliest Anglo-Saxon settlements should be so far inland, in the area around Dorchester-on-Thames. What if the area was a hotspot for tribal conflict at the end of the Roman period? Would it not then be an ideal place for the Catuvellauni to locate a band of Anglo-Saxon mercenaries?
When the evidence of the earliest Anglo-Saxon settlement is compared with the borders of the Catuvellauni and Trinovantes (united in pre- Roman times and, therefore, quite conceivably in post-Roman times too), there seems a definite correlation. Much of the earliest Anglo-Saxon metalwork is found in Catuvellaunian/Trinovantian territory, most particularly at a number of strategic spots along its borders. Could this represent extensive use of Anglo-Saxon mercenaries by the Catuvellauni to guard their borders?
Perhaps we can go further. However many true Anglo-Saxons settled in England,
many Britons surely remained and became ‘Anglo-Saxon’. Some may even have become ‘Anglo-Saxon’ kings – the West Saxon leader Cerdic (a British name) is the classic likely example. Continuity from British civitas to early Anglo-Saxon kingdom is probable in Kent and possible elsewhere. Was early Wessex the continuation of an Atrebatic political entity? Was Essex ancient Trinovantia? East Anglia the land of the Iceni?
Given the probable widespread persistence of tribal identities, increasing archaeological evidence for Late Roman to Anglo-Saxon continuity, and, above all, the geographical correspondence between Roman civitates and Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, it may be time for a major rethink. We must pose the question: was post-Roman Britain a classic ‘failed state’, fragmenting into ethnic enclaves, falling prey to warlords and mercenaries, sinking into backwardness in a turmoil of killing and border conflict – into a true ‘Dark Age’?