This is the story of late antique Britain. How in the 3rd to 5th centuries, Britain went through two waves of economic dislocation and transformation, that changed the face of British society.
‘Classical’ Roman Britain in the 2nd Century
The ‘classical’ Roman economy in Britain was dominated by the rather remarkable number of soldiers stationed in this remote corner of the great Empire – 40,000 fighting men, in the great legionary fortresses at Caerleon and York. It meant an economy of the size not be seen again for 1,500 years or more. But it was a curious overlay on native British society – hardly touching them. Foreign troops, foreign supply agents, foreign cities, coloniae, established by army veterans. And of course foreign tax collectors. In this world there were big, ‘public’ cities where bureaucracy happened, where traders worked, where old soldiers lived. The main Coloniae were Colchester in the east, London, Lincoln and York.
But some regional organisation was needed – to adminster the empire, to collect tax in kind. And so were established the regions – the civitas, and each civitas had a capital; places by Gloucester and Wroxeter in the west, Chester in the North east, Leicester in the midlands and so on. Small towns were non existent or irrelevant. (map from Wikipedia).
Change – the 3rd century
Then in the third century, the Empire faced a series of challenges and external pressures, and suddenly Britannia looked liked either a relatively peaceful place, or a rather unimportant place depending on your viewpoint. And so soldiers left Britannia to do other things – and behind it, the economy collapsed. Or rather it changed. Local industries grew up to replace the old import driven approach; a low value, money based economy. Actually now Britannia’s peoples were fully integrated into the economy – producing and consuming, adopting Roman lifestyles – without the sun. Massive villas grew up, owned by locals. Small towns appeared. The economy was smaller – but much wider.
Calamity – the 4th century
But between 290 and 360 this new economy and society was shattered by a series of hammer blows and barbarian raids. And by 410, the money economy had gone, the Roman soldiers had gone. The villas were abandoned, for the most part towns deserted. The British struggled to remodel their lives as best they could. In some places, such as Cadbury, the old Iron hillforts were re-occupied. In others, and local strongman, or Tyranni, established petty kingdoms – like at Wroxeter. And in other places for a while they held on to the old ways for as long as they could – like Birdoswald on Hadrian’s Wall. But the old prosperity, social hierarchies and comforts were gone.
This time, the job is to set ourselves up for the Adventus Saxonum, the coming of the Saxons, and the Anglo Saxon settlements. In just one episode we are going to look at How Britain fared between the 3rd and 5th centuries – a rate of progress I warn you not to expect for ever, if my experience of the History of England is anything to go by.
It’s probably best to start right back at the beginning, with the Rome of the second century, albeit remarkably briefly. I should say in all honesty that I owe an unusually large debt to Robin Fleming, who’s book ‘Britain after Rome’ is quite excellent, and on which I have drawn heavily.
The province of Britannia lay at the furthest western edge of the empire, but despite that was considered rich by Tacitus, writing in the 1st century, and there were goods from Britain that the Empire valued. At the top of this lay Tin, mined in Cornwall in the far South West, relatively rare elsewhere in the empire, and of course essential for making Bronze. But there were other minerals – gold and in Wales, lead in Wales and the Peak district and Pennines in the north of England, salt at Droitwich in western England, coal in the east midlands and Iron from the Weald in south East England. Large parts of England were capable of mass arable farming. But despite all this, it’s doubtful if Britannia made much of a profit for Rome in the long run; the kind of farming the relatively cold and wet climate of Britain could support didn’t really produce the olive and wine the empire demanded. For over a century it was probably a drain on imperial resources.
One very broad way of dividing Britain is to crudely draw a line from the East coast north of the River Humber down to the south coast by the eastern edge of Devon. On the Eastern side of the line is what might be broadly lowland England, on the western side of the line lies Cornwall and Devon, North West England, Scotland and Wales – upland Britain. It’s pretty crude I grant you, but in Roman Britain the two developed differently, and in the history of the migrations, the same would be true.
Within the upland zone, the Roman military dominated. Britannia to a degree was frontier land; during the second century, the army stationed there numbered 40,000 based in Caerleon in South Wales and York in the north. This is a massive number – 1/8th of the Roman army at the time. As I’ll explain, this had an enormous impact on the economy of Roman Britain. Lowland Britain developed rather differently, though still affected by the size of the military presence. Three colonial towns were established by the settlement of retired soldiers at Colchester in the East, Gloucester in the south west and in Lincoln in the North East. London and York got added later, and London in particular came the centre of trade and easily the largest city at 50,000 inhabitants at the peak, and the only city with the wealth and magnificence to compare with other cities of the western Empire. Essentially lowland Britain was more densely settled, the centre of much administration though of course by no means all.
Britain was a relatively late entrant to the Empire, and in a sense the empire remained strangely separate from its native population, sort of super imposed on the local society, a society of conquest. Take the army for example; its size pulled in massive resources – food, drink, leather, metals. And so unsurprisingly the major bases were surrounded by a cloud of suppliers; but just while the army was pulled mainly from outside Britain, mainly from Gaul, so also most of the suppliers were too. The contribution of the locals tended to be restricted to providing labourers, slaves and prostitutes. There’s little evidence that the money economy spread to the rural population, despite the systems of taxation, which was often based on converting the local produce into bullion via the towns and trade. Similarly, the resources and minerals were farmed out to imperial monopolies – and so most of the profits and output went straight back to the imperial government. And unlike most other regions of the Empire, Britain contributed none of the leading officials of the roman state in Britain. The Romans seemed to have scant respect for the British. The rural farmsteads that survive are firmly un-Roman; so it’s almost as though these two communities lived side by side. Not quite, but hopefully you get the picture.
None the less, the existence of this massive army and all the associated administration and support services, all the materiel the army needed to operate, created an economy in Britain larger than it was to have for 1,500 years. Vast quantities of good made their way to Britain – huge quantities of amphorae filled with olive oil from Spain, or pottery from Gaul or wine from Palestine.
Some of this came to Britain by sea, but the vast majority came at Imperial expense – essentially, when the military supplies were loaded, enterprising merchants used up any spare space with luxury goods to sell to the Roman administrators and soldiers, with the cost silently absorbed into the cost of military supply. And as the trade flowed, Britannia classical style towns grew and flourished.
Then the third century happened. The beginning of the century saw the last of the sustained campaigns in Britannia. Elsewhere in the Empire trouble flared – along the Rhine, the Danube and the Persian frontiers. And soldiers began to leave to help with those threats, until the army in Britain was reduced to half its original strength. In the 230’s to 250’s barbarian raids in Gaul and northern Italy disrupted the trade between provinces. Coastal piracy appeared, and expensive forts, the so called ‘saxon shore’ forts, had to be built.
Under all these pressures, the classical economy fell to pieces. By the end of the third century the big public cities, the Coloniae and capitals of the regional administrative zones called the Civitas, underwent dramatic change. Some of this looked like economic collapse – in London, York and Colchester the numbers of inhabitants shrank dramatically, the public spaces like the forum, public baths, theatres were deserted. The massive diversity of York, with people from France, Sardinia, Greece, North Africa all disappeared.
In line with these changes, the economy shrank dramatically and catastrophically, with enormous dislocation. But the economy didn’t die; although on a much smaller scale, it changed. Everything became much more local. Eating habits changed – beer replaced wine, butter and lard replaced Olive oil, candles and braziers replaced oil lamps. Continental pottery almost completely disappeared from Britain, but in its place over the course of the 3rd century a local, British industry grew up to replace it. The style changed – all those amphorae used to move goods around the empire disappear. And in the process, the economy spreads, deepens and begins to interconnect much more closely into the daily lives of the British people. As industry and supply becomes much more dependent on the local population, evidence does now appear of the use of money throughout the rural population. The new local pottery industry, with lower value, simpler, unpretentious products began to serve this wider market. By the start of the 4th century, with the collapse of the old classical economy Britain ironically becomes much more Romanised. Much more of the economy moved from the centre, the big imperial public towns managing military supply and trade, to the periphery, the British, rural areas now producing food and pottery, and metal ware and so on. A mass market economy began to appear, creating small surpluses fed by demand from a much wider group of people.
This showed itself in a number of ways. In the big public cities like Colchester, London, you might think that the abandonment of the public spaces meant the collapse of the city into ruin and decay, the end of a civilisation, like Charlton Heston kneeling before the statue of Liberty on the beach. But in fact not – chaos was not the result – there was still plenty of new building in the cities. But whereas once the buildings had been packed tight with traders and shops, now they had become rather elegant. Large, spacious villas with big gardens and impressive rooms now took up the space left by the forum,= and other public spaces and the shops of the old traders. What in fact had happened was that the big cities had become the place where imperial administrators and tax collectors lived and worked; cities for the affluent bureaucrat.
In the countryside, new villas were being built, or existing ones expanded or improved, the vast majority in lowland Britain close to those big public cities. They were owned by a new local, British elite. The villas are often massive, elaborate structures, with big audience halls designed to greet dependants and tenants in the grandest possible way; entertainment rooms for important guests and allies, with luxurious mosaics, created on classical and pagan themes, designed to impress visitors with their wealth, erudition and sophistication; big gardens and parks.
What was happening here is that a new Romano British elite and oligarchy was emerging, cashing in on the new style economy. The new villas show plenty of evidence of a new social stratification going on as this British elite emerged, with large rural villas, or these new impressive villas in the old public towns where once public spaces used to be. So the big cities didn’t die – but they were no longer driving the economy.
As the economy broadened, small towns grew in importance. These had been insignificant in the classical economy, but now they grew or new ones appeared, driven organically by the needs of the economy, embedded in the local agriculture, trade and manufacturing. They are modestly Roman, if there is such a thing as a scale of romanity, with a kind of mix of classical and local architectural styles, with local temples and religious sites. There might be a Roman presence; but it would have been limited to the housing of a few local officials, or a state granary, or a collection point for tax in-kind. They look medieval in character – strips of land, with a frontage onto the street, a workshop and cobbled yard behind, and a long tenement behind with room to grow food. The small town played a vital part in the 4th century economy, turning agricultural produce into taxes and manufactured goods, and distributing products to native peasants and farmers, newly seduced by the rather hybrid British version of Roman culture.
Meanwhile, investment in the countryside drove improved agricultural production and manufacturing, and often helped crop yields to improve. Heavier ploughs and imported ploughing animals were brought in to cultivate more difficult but still productive soils. Smaller farmers were also part of these changes, were able to run a small surplus to buy themselves a share in the Roman way of life, eating food that was very much part of Roman culture rather than British at the time – archaeological remains show these small farmers eating Coriander, apples, and using new styles of butchery used on the continent.
So all of this meant that between 290 and 360, Britain had achieved a new equilibrium, and actually hit the high point of Romano British culture. The economy was smaller than before, but it was more inclusive, more widely based on mass production, a network of local markets and a low value currency. It had spread Roman culture far more deeply in British society than before – from a new Romano British elite, to small towns and peasant farmsteads.
Now, if you were of an argumentative disposition, you might poke me firmly in the chest and point out that all of this construct is built on the most confusing array of archaeological evidence. And you would be right to so poke, but I would respond by pointing out that this experience was not unique to Britain; all over the empire, localised roman societies were developing as the Empire changed. This was even true of Italy itself – Ostia, the great port of Rome, had changed from economic powerhouse, to a city populated by large, pleasant estates – just as had happened to London.
So far so good then; the shattering of the classical economy had been non optimal, granted, but we were back in a good place, or relatively good. Archaeological evidence from burial sites forms a very large part of the evidence during our period of study, so you might be much diverted by the study of the cemetery at a place called Poundbury in Dorset on the south coast. The cemetery used to serve the Roman town of Dorchester. The excavations revealed a population from the 4th century, so it tells us something of what life was like, at least to some degree.
You might be unsurprised to learn that people were shorter – men almost all between 5 foot 4 and 5 foot 8, women between 5 foot 2 and 5 foot 4. Some hair survived, and suggested that men wore their hair long at the neck, and dressed in oil. Women wore hair coiled or braided in buns. The site showed evidence of the social hierarchy – one group of graves stood apart and was composed of people taller and more robust, with indications of obesity, and with bones that showed less sign of wear than normal.
Which is nice for this lot, because elsewhere in the cemetery, the indications are that this new economic equilibrium thing is good, great, but it didn’t mean an easy life. The skeletons there display evidence of lives of hard, physical work; adults probably lived with nagging arthritis and aching joints. The state of women’s legs suggests they spent long hours squatting, probably grinding corn. Children died in great numbers at Poundbury, and the community that buried them had many people in their twenties, fewer people in their 30’s and still fewer in their 40’s. By and large their short lives were the result of a poor diet over many years.
So life wasn’t easy, but between 290 and 360, Britain enjoyed a period of relative prosperity. And the mantle of Rome sat much more lightly on Britain’s shoulders than it did on those of Gaul for example.
This seemingly robust economy was to collapse in just 50 years.
It wasn’t one thing alone that caused the fall. The first sign, a cloud no bigger than a man’s hand were a few raids from north of the wall, painted people rather than White Walkers in this case, and the Scotti from Ireland raiding across the Irish sea, which led to a flurry of military activity in the 330s. Slowly the trouble intensified – Emperor Constans was forced to lead an expedition to Britannia in 343. Defences were strengthened, and this had to include forts on the English east and South coasts and the north-west coast of Gaul, the so called Saxon shore, to defend against sea-borne Germanic and Frankish raiders.
And then in 367 we have the thrilling sounding Barbarian Conspiracy. A concatenation of invasions by different tribes – Picts, Scots, Saxons, overwhelmed the defences at Hadrian’s Wall and the coast in a year-long chaos that looked suspiciously well co-ordinated; hence the use of the word conspiracy. It has to be said that pretty much everything connected with the word Conspiracy is normally a hoax or an exaggeration. The bloke who tells us about all this was at the time in Antioch, which could not be described as being at the heartland of the English countryside. Given that he was also politically connected to the Roman general – Theodosius – who eventually supressed the violence, there was probably a bit of bigging up going on. But none the less, the Barbarian Conspiracy was part of a pattern of rising pressure on Britannia and the Empire.
In 383 Magnus Maximus took the Roman troops in Britannia to find himself a better life in the Imperial palace. In fact he found himself the proud possessor of a public execution, but it was not until the 390’s that Imperial Rome re-appeared in Britain after his departure. And from there the end was in sight for the Roman legions, Coins stopped being minted in Britain in 387, and the last major influx of imported coin ended in 400. This absence of coins unsurprisingly resulted in a revolt by the remaining army. Out of this chaos came another pretender, Constantine III, who took most of the remaining troops out of Britain, including anyone who happened to be manning the walls on the Saxon shore, only to also find himself in turn a public execution, in 411. As night follows day, 410 saw a devastating Saxon raid as they walked past the deserted defences.
All of this meant 3 pressures on the Romano British Economy. The dislocation of civil war and rebellion. The devastation of barbarian raids. And the diversion of the wealth of the economy into defences.
The result was a slide into the Dark Ages; or, sorry, into the Early Medieval age, which left its mark on the archaeological record. The great villas of the new 3rd century elite begin to fail, although the smaller estates probably went first. For a while there are some that profit from the failure, snapping up land and buildings at bargain basement prices, and no doubt for a while they felt jolly smug – but that wouldn’t last for long. Renovation stops almost everywhere. Grand rooms are converted into practical rooms for agriculture, something your upwardly mobile Romano British Aristocrat would have shuddered at the very thought of. The pottery industry went into steep decline, and by 400 had essentially vanished – leaving the population recycling old stuff, or making it by hand. Iron Nails become impossible to find, the Iron industry went the way of the pottery industry.
Inevitably, all of this hit the towns. The suburbs went first; public works stopped, public maintenance was not far behind. Public sewers clogged and were not cleared, water supplies failed. And at some point in the early 5th century, Urban life in Britain, the gift of the Romans, simply came to an end. Glorious York is a good example; in the 5th century remains of the city the fossils of beetles that inhabited high grass and reed-beds blanket the city – because York had reverted to marshland.
In Canterbury in this period we see one of the stranger burials. It is of a woman and a man seated, buried with great care in a pit lined with sand. The woman held one child on her lap, another lay at her feet. Two dogs were laid across the father. The significance of the burial is twofold, quite apart from that continual frustration of archaeology –that looks interesting, if only I knew the story behind that one. Firstly, the burial was inside the walls of Canterbury, which in normal times was completely taboo. And secondly, the child’s head had been crushed, so there was violence around there somewhere. It was probably the violence of disorder, social collapse and cultural breakdown rather than invaders, but it was violence none the less. So by 420’s, Britain’s villas had been abandoned, its towns pretty much empty, organised industries dead, Roman soldiers and administration gone. Within a couple of generations a prosperous thriving economy had turned to mush.
The history of the 5th century is one of vague signs in the sand, conflicting evidence on the hills, scraps of written evidence which have been poured over for centuries to extract every iota of meaning. If these ages aren’t Dark, from every respect, then really none are. How quickly, and how hard did the British economy turn to mush? What happened to civil and political authority and governance while this happened? Where are we with Christianity? And crucially where were the Angles, Saxons and Jutes – and the Franks and the Frisians while we are at it.
The written evidence is sparse and difficult to read. At some point Gildas’s story comes into play – that Britain splits up into waring petty tyrannies, the Saxons are invited, and war, fire and brimstone is released on the heads of the Britons. But Gildas gives absolutely no chronology, was writing in 543 a hundred years later, so it’s really not easy to know when all of that was supposed to happen.
There are some other written sources. One is the Life of St Patrick. St Patrick was probably a child in the early 5th century; his life doesn’t tell us a lot about Britain but it does tell us something. He was captured by Irish pirates and taken as a slave to Ireland – so there’s a thing then, in itself evidence of the chaos and violence of the period. His father was a landowner called Calpurnius, who’s grandfather was a priest called Potitus, and lived in a place called Bannaven Taburniae. All Latin names. Patrick was undergoing a Roman education at the time – the same kind of education Gildas went through. So look, these are straws in the wind – but together point to the survival in some ways of a Romano British way of life.
Then there’s the visit of a chap called Germanus to Britain. Germanus was a new kind of policeman, the policeman of a religion unusually interested in wiping out the competitors. I speak of course of Christianity, which by now had been for over 50 years the official religion of the Empire. The extent that Christianity had taken over religion in Britain is again somewhat at dispute, but it was a least widespread, and probably dominant; but there is evidence of pagan temple building that continued well into the 5th century, so it is not yet exclusive.
Anyway, Germanus came to snuff out the heresy of a Brit, called Pelagius, who had taught in Rome in the very early 5th century. Germanus came to preach against Pelagianism in 429. Apparently, he met a number of high status individuals, which suggests there is still some sort of hierarchy going on, it’s not all mush; he baptised British soldiers, which suggests there were still paganism openly around, and also that there are British soldiers. Though given that Germanus, a priest and presumably lover of peace love and the blessing of small children actually leads them into battle at one point, they are clearly a little short of Generals.
So all of this suggests that there’s some survival of organised society, and probably some kind of civil authority. Also, someone somewhere wrote that letter before 454 to Flavius Aetius, probably around 430. You remember the one, rather pitiful:
The Barbarians push us back to the sea, the sea pushes us back to the barbarians; between these two kind of deaths we are either drowned or slaughtered’
It suggests an official letter of some kind, written by someone with general authority.
So, while the archaeological record tells us that the British economy descends into chaos, that the towns and villas are deserted and fall into ruin, it is, is it not, entirely unsurprising that this all takes some time. Some kind of pan Romano British authority hangs around for a while, sticking their collective fingers into the dykes. Hierarchies and some kind of Romano British society survive, some landowners cling on; the market for surplus goods, staggers on for a decade or so for those larger landowners’ farms to serve. But at best it’s a story of decay and progress mush-wards, as it were, in the direction of a state of mush.
Money is also important, because money is a sign of an economy that produced surpluses, that people bought and consumed, and it’s a sign of civil authority. Here the news is less good. As we’ve seen, Britain stops minting coins, and relies on imports. Then there’s a period of coin clipping – i.e. where you clip off as much of the coin as possible to generate some bullion. But after 407 or 8, even this disappears and we are in an essentially coinless economy; what survived and circulated may have been used more as bullion than something with an agreed face value. Often they are used hung on a chain and used as nice looking pendant
The archaeological evidence paints a really rather heart rending story. It paints a story of a life among the ruins, of people slowly forced to abandon their way of life and find a new way. Of communities broken up, of new communities being set up; of some groups that cling to the past as long as they can, seeking to preserve the last shred of the life they knew.
One route was to re-inhabit the old hill forts of Iron Age Britain, which famously happens at Cadbury in Somerset. British folk with Roman materials arrived on the site bringing with them what they could. They robbed stone from local buildings where possible, they looted what objects they could find, because new pots, nails, metal work, were no longer available. I have always been something of a clumsy oaf pottery wise, and generally get an earful on the regular occasions I drop a mug. Dropping a wheel produced pot in the 5th century was an event of some significance, a tragic event and occasion for general mourning. The community grew as people gave up trying to hold onto their old life and came into the hillfort as refugees. The stratified society of the 4th century disappears – once you’ve been forced to abandon your grand villa and hit the road into Cadbury, you don’t keep your status for long. But there’s some kind of organisation in Cadbury, and presumably some kind of leadership; defences are organised and improved for example. There’s even the odd bit of evidence of objects from Byzantium, brought all the way through the Mediterranean and the Atlantic coast, which is really rather remarkable; they probably came seeking the commodity known as the British Metal – Tin. But generally for most people most of the time, it’s mainly a matter of survival. And as they struggled, there wasn’t much room for social elites.
Elsewhere, people tried harder to keep the Roman world going. At Birdoswald, a fort on Hadrian’s Wall the garrison is kept going. Of course now they had no pay, but they probably kept a version of the institutions of local Roman government going, the soldiers policed the local community and fought for them if needed. They had to rebuild and remodel the fort – big communal granaries for storing grain brought from miles away were no longer needed, they needed living quarters, work spaces; some of these are quite grand halls – but built in wood. There’s a quote from the 6th century historian Procopius about Gaul which probably reflects what was going on at Birdoswald:
Roman soldiers stationed on the frontiers of Gaul to serve as guards…handed down to their offspring all the customs of their fathers…even today they are clearly recognised as belonging to the legions to which they were assigned in ancient times, and they carry their own standards when they enter battle…and they preserve the dress of the Romans in every particular, even down to their shoes
It’s all really rather poignant. Birdoswald struggled on for a further 100 years or so, before at last they gave up the struggle.
In other areas, a local strong man might appear. An example is the Roman town of Wroxeter in Shropshire in Western England. There, someone seems to have taken over, build a ruddy great timber hall in the middle of it, and kept a much reduced community going for a while. Folk like this feel like the starting of Gildas’ Tyranni, the petty kings and chieftans of an atomised Britain.
The long and short is that things limped on for a while. Central civil authority probably survived for a bit, but much of Romano British administration probably quickly went to the local civitae, the local regions, before disappearing completely. The changes affected different regions at different rates and in different ways, and folk reacted differently.
But none the less the trend was all the same – a life among the ruins, a heart rending struggle to retain some semblance of the old world and set up a new one.
It all of this there’s not much evidence of the kind of violence that Gildas seems to suggest. It’s not a story of fire and destruction wrought by painted picts or rabid Scotti, and it’s not a story of waves of Germanic invaders wreaking hideous ruin and combustion. But at some point, those Germanic invaders will come into the picture – the Adventus saxonum, the coming of the Saxons. But what form it takes is questionable, and even controversial.