The Establishment of Constantinian ‘Christendom’ in Europe & Decline of the Roman Empire in Britain, c. AD 210-410:

The Growth of Christianity under Persecution, c. 180-260:

Italy, Dalmacia, Pannonia & The Eastern Roman Empire, showing the ‘barbarian’ threat, in the third & fourth centuries.

The Roman Empire bequeathed by Marcus Aurelius in AD 180 was recognisably the same state as that created by Augustus in the previous century. After two more centuries, however, it had been transformed by the triumph of barbarism and Christianity. The key changes had been the extension of Roman citizenship to all inhabitants of the Empire in 212 and the entry of Christians into the highest ranks of the ruling classes – including, after the conversion of the Emperor Constantine, traditionally dated to 312, the Imperial throne itself. Between those two dates, however, the experience of Christians throughout the empire was one of almost perpetual persecution. In AD 250 the most violent persecution the church had faced was instigated by the Emperor Decius (249-51). Imperial edicts commanded all citizens of the Empire to sacrifice to the traditional Roman gods. Those who did so were given certificates, known as libelli, as evidence that they had obeyed the order. Those who refused and were unwilling to obtain false libelli from sympathetic or corrupt officials were executed. Many Christians complied to save their lives, and others were able to acquire false certificates, but an unknown number were imprisoned or executed, among them the bishops of Rome, Antioch and Jerusalem. Within two years, Decius was killed in battle by the Goths and although his successor, Emperor Gallus (251-53) continued the persecution, it was not as widespread as under Decius. A few years later, persecution was renewed with a fresh ferocity, towards the end of the reign of the Emperor Valerian (253-260). On this occasion the church leaders were given an order to worship the old gods, under the threat of exile and imprisonment. They were forbidden to hold church meetings and members of their congregations were prevented from visiting Christian cemeteries on pain of death. A further edict then prescribed death for church leaders and the confiscation of property, slavery and even death for other Christians who would not desert the faith. Again, only war with foreign invaders, this time the Persians, put an end to the ordeal.

By the middle of the third century, the Romans in Britain had new enemies to contend with: raiding from Europe gathered momentum, and people of Germanic stock – later named Anglo-Saxons – may have been allowed to settle, especially in the east of Britain; it has been argued by some that they may have been granted land in exchange for their labour in building town walls. By the latter part of the third century, however, the east coast was witnessing new fortifications in the form of the ‘castle-like’ forts of the ‘Saxon Shore’, stretching from the Wash to Southampton Water. There is little indication as to how such forts were manned, but their military personnel may have been few, defending their forts with pieces of heavy artillery mounted on bastions. These large forts may also have offered shelter to elements of the civilian population. Such forts, however, must have operated less like police stations and more like defended strong points. Their chief characteristics, apart from the bastions, were the height and thickness of the walls and the small number of access-points.  

The Western Roman Empire, c. 180-395.

The ‘End of Roman Britain’ is a concept that has been much misunderstood in the past; we now see a Roman disengagement from Britain as a gradual process rather than as an event, and we appreciate better the degree to which many Britons regarded Roman culture as their own, and as something to be defended. The third and fourth centuries do not represent a period of uniform decline; indeed, although it cannot be denied that generally three periods were more fraught – militarily, politically and economically – some parts clearly prospered, at least in the first part of the third century. In general, Britain appears to have been less accutely troubled by ‘barbarian’ incursions than other parts of the empire. Militarily, the northern frontier appears, as a result of the campaigns of Septimus Severus, to have been relatively free of disturbance until the later years of the century when the threats from the Picts from beyond Hadrian’s Wall, and the Scots, from Ireland, are first mentioned in the classical sources. The Picts – their Roman nick-name meaning ‘painted’ or ‘tattooed’ people – were the same people as the Iron Age groups previously known to the Romans as ‘Caledones’ (Caledonians); their principal homelands were in the Moray Firth and Strathmore. The most celebrated of their artefacts were the decorated with symbols and the years of the Picts re-emergence saw the reconstruction of the Roman forts along Hadrian’s Wall, although the wall itself as a linear feature appears to have had a diminishing role in a developing strategy of defence in depth.

The Period of Invasion & Anarchy, c. 260-290:

On the continental borders of the empire – especially those with Germanic peoples – the pressure from barbarians for admittance, not just as mercenaries but as permanent settlers grew ever more intense. The vast extent of the frontiers could not be policed effectively and the trickle of immigrant communities could not be completely staunched. Raids en masse were almost as hard to cope with for the over-stretched imperial authorities. Those of the mid-third century, which devastated so much of Gaul and penetrated Italy, coincided with internal political crisis and almost dissolved the empire.  In 260 Valerian was captured and humiliated by the Persians. His son, Gallienus, was confronted by a near-fatal combination: mutinous armies and invading barbarians. ‘Thirty tyrants’ – in reality, eighteen contenders for the purple – competed to usurp his throne.  Empire-wide authority was effectively unenforceable, and the state seemed about to dissolve into defensible regional networks of self-help. The most promising of these was the ’Gallic empire’ which lasted for nearly twenty years after the election after the election of the general Posthumus on the Rhine frontier in 259 in a typical proclamation of the time, following a dispute over booty. He defeated Frankish and Alemannic raiders in Gaul and called himself ’the saviour of the provinces’ (see the map below). He was killed in a mutiny in 268, and his territories were reconquered from his successors by Aurelian in the 270s. Yet his experiment seemed to offer a glimpse of a workable future: the adherence of neighbouring provinces briefly pre-figured future administrative divisions; and his capital at Augusta Teverorum (Trier) became one of the centres of autonomous government under the devolved system established by Diocletian.

The anarchy and invasions of the third quarter of the third century were checked by the energy and generalship of Aurelian (270-75), but the next six emperors all ruled briefly and died violently. Not until the fourth quarter, however, did the struggle to exclude mass migrations of barbarians become hopeless. The Visigoths were the first people to be admitted en bloc. In about 275, when the Romans abandoned trans-Danubian Dacia, the Visigoths were settled in the vacated territory. Britain did not escape the political and economic problems that divided the empire in this period: the virtual collapse of the coinage and the miltary and political anarchy both manifested themselves in Britain. On two occasions, Britain became ‘separated’ from the empire – in the ‘Independent Empire of the Gauls’ (259-73), and again in the ‘British’ rebellion, which was headed by Carausius and Allectus (286-96). Carausias, then the Admiral of the Roman fleet, landed in northern Britain in AD 267, marching to York, where he had himself declared Emperor. He ruled his ’empire’ in Britain for seven years, before being assassinated by his minister, Allectus, in 274. The assassin ruled for two more years until he was then killed in battle against the forces of Constantius Chlorus, who then succeeded as emperor and ruled from York for a further ten years. With him began one of the most violent, socially and culturally disruptive periods in Christian history, beginning in a maelstrom of persecution and slaughter exceeding the brutal destruction of the Druids by Suetonius Paulinus and the atrocities in the wake of Boudicca’s rebellion in AD 60 to 62. Prior to the ascent of Constantius to the throne of the Roman Empire, tragic storm-clouds had gathered over Rome, where revolution and assassination had been disposing of one emperor after another and there was a confusing medley of predatory Roman military figures who raised armies and layed claim to the imperial throne.

Britain & the Diocletian Persecutions, c. 290-310.

In the pre-Christian era, as Caer Efroc, York had been one of the Druidic centres, continuing so until King Lucius nominated London, York and Caerleon on Usk as the three great archbishoprics of Britain. Before Constantius Chlorus defeated Allectus at York in 296 AD he had already become the recognised emperor of Britain, Spain and Gaul. By that time the boundaries of Gaul extended far into the European continent, incorporating the modern-day territories of Belgium, Holland and part of Germany. Tréves (Trier) had long been the capital of Belgic Gaul. The Constantinian narrative therefore begins with the proclamation of Constantius at York as Emperor of Rome. He was the first Emperor to be recognised as such by the whole populace of the fourfold domain. Only he and his son, Constantine the Great, were able to acquire imperial sway over this vast territory. Six years before he became Emperor, he had renewed and enlarged the Archbishopric of York in AD 290 at the request of his British-born Christian wife. After that York became an outstanding royal and religious city in Britain. Besides the debilitating effects of the civil war in the empire, Britain also experienced the effects of the major administrative changes brought in by Diocletian from 294; the province, which had already been split into two by Severus – Britannia Superior (south) and Britannia Inferior (north) – was divided into four. Diocletian, proclaimed emperor at Nicomedia in 284, was able to exploit reactions against instability. During the first ten years of his reign he devised a new system for governing the Empire as the union of four effectively autonomous imperial territories. In theory, the four emperors formed a college under Diocletian’s presidency, but in practice each ruled his own territory. In the west, Maximium’s title of Augustus gave him direct rule over Italy and Spain; his subordinate ’Caesar’, Constantius Chlorus, ruled Britain and Gaul. He was represented in London by a new officer, a vicarius. Further, military and administrative authority were separated for the first time, as Diocletian tried to secure his own position by fragmenting the power bases of potential rivals.

Diocletian was pre-eminent in the rest of the Empire, and his ’Caesar’, Galerius, shunted between marchland-areas of special responsibility in Illycum and on the Persian frontier. Their capitals were close to theatres of frontier warfare but consciously rivalled Rome. By the force of Diocletian’s personality and of their common interest in preventing rebellion, the four emperors remained loyal colleagues. As a result of his reforms, a few decades of relative peace had followed the advent of Diocletian to the imperial throne. But once the frontiers had been secured, he turned his attention to potential threats within the empire and in 303, he began the most severe persecution of the Christians to date. In many ways, this was surprising, since by this time the ‘new’ faith had reached the immediate imperial family and household. Many of his slaves and servants were, as well as his wife and daughter, were believers, together with many others in high places around him who were either Christians themselves or favourably disposed to the faith. On Diocletian’s orders began what is often described as the worst persecution of Christians ever. In his Edict, he ordered churches to be pulled down, the sacred scriptures to be gathered together and burnt, along with other Christian literature on which they could lay their hands. Libraries, schools of learning and the private homes of Christians were all destroyed. Those Christians who were not killed in cold blood were imprisoned from where they were often ‘throw to the lions’ in the Colisseum. None were spared, regardless of age or sex: even babes were cruelly killed in their parents’ arms.

Diocletian’s action may have been intended to gain more enthusiastic support from the army, which tended to be strongly anti-Christian, especially since many of the churches were against military service by their members. The Roman emperor struck with sudden apalling savagery at the Christians. He blamed them for the series of disasters over the years that had decimated the Roman arms to such an extent that they were no longer able to defend their own frontiers successfully. His action may have been intended to gain more enthusiastic support from the army, which tended to be strongly anti-Christian, especially since many of the churches were against military service by their members. Rome was beginning its long decline, and Diocletian sought to avert imperial disaster by exterminating the Christians, their churches and other possessions. The bestial cruelty lasted for fifteen years.  Diocletian issued four edicts against Christianity which were enforced with varying degrees of severity. The orders of 303 ordered the destruction of all church buildings, the confiscation of Christian books, the dismissal of Christians from government and army, and the imprisonment of the clergy. A further edict in 304, ordered all Christians to offer sacrifices to the pagan gods. In Asia Minor an entire town and its inhanitants, who were predominantly Christian, were destroyed. In Rome church property was confiscated and many Christians were martyred. Christians in Palestine, Syria and Egypt suffered particular violence.

The clear-storey windows of a basilica are plainly visible in this picture of the fourth-century cathedral of Aquileia in Veneto, Italy.

The persecution flamed across Europe for several years before it struck the shores of Britain with full force. There, the Romans were frustrated by the zeal of the martyrs. The infuriated Diocletian was aided by Maximian, who is recorded by the Roman historians as being even more brutal. His atrocities are claimed to be beyond description. He caused his finest Legions, exclusively composed of Gauls, to be butchered to the last man because they were Christian. He was blind with maniacal hate. The Roman Emperor poured a huge army into Britain, while Maximian carried on his destructive course on the continent. The British kingdoms were more united as they responded to the battle call of Constantius. Within a year, they had terminated the Diocletian persecution in Britain, inflicting a series of defeats on the Roman Army, driving it back to the continent. But before the British Army secured its overall victory, the Romans had inflicted great destruction, levelling churches, universities and libraries, and sacking towns. The slaughter was terrific, totalling a list of British martyrs that far exceeded the loss of British martyrs in all the persecutions of the previous century, going back to St Alban. According to Gildas, the martyrs included several leading prelates; the bishops of Llandaff, Chester, York, London, Penrhyn (Glasgow), Carlisle, in addition to ten thousand communicants of different grades in society.  It has been too easily assumed however that, following the Diocletian destruction, everything in fourth-century Britain manifested decline: although the walling of towns had undoubtedly imposed crippling financial burdens on civitas administrators, thus reducing their ability to engage in general refurbishment programmes, many towns at least offered safety, and some positively flourished – for example, Cirencester. The continued success of such towns is to be explained by the fact that in some areas, at least, agriculture remained vibrant. For some villas, the first half of the fourth century represented a heyday, with large estates centred on sites such as Chedworth, Turkdean, Woodchester (all in Gloucestershire), Bignor (Sussex) and Lullingstone.  

Constantinian Conquest & Consolidation, c. 310-360:

At the height of the most severe of the persecutions directed against the Christians in 305, Diocletian and Maximian were were able to take the unprecedented step of ’retiring’ from imperial office; for Diocletian this meant becoming a gentleman-farmer on his estate  on the coast of Dalmatia. Behind them, they left a trail of destruction across Europe, so that the outcome of their retirement was not entirely peaceful. Diocletian had continued and accelerated the tradition of ’slicing’ provinces into ever-smaller units: there were perhaps about fifty at the start of his reign and he seems roughly to have doubled their number. This made taxation, administration and jurisdiction more thorough but multiplied bureaucracy – especially when a layer of supervision was added to the provincial structure in the form of thirteen ‘dioceses’, groups of governorships overseen by imperial ‘vicars’. Perhaps the most far-reaching aspect of his reform was in personnel: the traditional senatorial élite was passed over in favour of a new ‘aristocracy of service’, intended to be directly dependent on imperial patronage. Diocletian had succeeded in settling the administrative pattern of a divided Empire for its final centuries.

During the process of the rehabilitation of the British churches undertaken by Constantius and his Christian wife, the chief ruler of the western Empire died at York in AD 306. Immediately, his son Constantine declared himself Emperor of the Roman Empire, taking command of the armies of Britain and Gaul. He demanded recognition from Galerius, the pre-eminent Emperor in the East, who granted him only junior status. Soon Maxentius, son of Constantius’ predecessor in the West, murdered the senior Western emperor and usurped his position. Constantine massed a powerful army in Britain and sailed to Gaul (modern-day Germany), from where he marched upon Rome. His rival, Maxentius, foolishly sallied forth to meet him and the two armies clashed on the banks of the Tiber where Constantine won an overwhelming victory at the famous battle of Milvian Bridge in 312. In this way Constantine, later called the Great, became the sole emperor in the West. After a further tussle with Licinius, successor to Galerius in the East, Constantine emerged as the supreme overlord of the Roman Empire. Two years later, he called the first Christian church council since the one reported in the Acts of the Apostles. This took place in Arles in AD 314. The map below of Constantine the Great’s empire shows how, as its capital, Rome was not in a good position from which to dispatch troops to the distant frontiers threatened by the barbarians. To face their growing pressure and that of the Persians and the Parthians from the east, the Emperor Constantine (AD 306 – AD 337) removed the Imperial capital from Rome to Byzantium, which was renamed Constantinople. Between 324 and ‘37, Constantine formalised the division of the Empire into eastern and western halves by founding a ‘second Rome’ at Constantinople, where he resided, and devolving western government to his sons.

It had been an old Greek city which was easy to fortify and much of its trade centred on its fine harbour, the Golden Horn. Through centuries of disturbance, its emperors had succeeded in holding together the eastern half of the Empire, but Constantinople was too distant from the western provinces, which were falling before the savage attacks of the barbarians, for them to be controlled from the new capital. Although Constantine briefly reintroduced a unified control over the whole empire, fragmentation of imperial rule dominated the politics of the fourth century, against a background of increasing pressure on the frontiers. From his time onward, not only was the seat of the emperor transferred to the east, but the centre of gravity of the empire as a whole began to shift in the same direction. The last great imperial monument of Rome – the basilica of Maximian in the Forum – dates from just before his time; the Arch of Constantine, though impressive, is a second-rate construction, employing a lot of recycled reliefs.

The Roman Empire under Constantine, 324-37.

Eventually, the Emperor Constantine decided to tolerate a religion that could not be overthrown. This decision was reached after a victory at the battle of Milvian Bridge, which he had fought ’under the sign of the Cross’. It was useful for him to be able to bind together an organisation which comprised so many different sorts of people. He strengthened his empire by recognising the bond which united its citizens. Thus, the persecution came to an end, and some years later Christianity was recognised by the emperors as the official religion of the Empire. The chief bishops of the early Christian Church resided at Rome, Alexandria, Constantinople, Antioch and Jerusalem. Nicaea is noted as being the scene of a very important meeting of bishops in AD 325. They condemned the teaching of Arius, who had converted some of the German tribes, but who denied that Christ was fully God. Although Constantine did not establish Christianity as the religion of the empire, his patronage ensured its irreversable ascent.

Constantine also continued the the diocesan structure, splitting Moesia into two: Dacia, on the northern bank of the Danube, and Macedonia. In effect, by the 330s, Constantine’s system resembled that  devised by Diocletian, with one ’Caesar’ ruling the ’Prefecture’ of Gaul, another Italy and two others commanding on the eastern fronts. The third great council of the Church was held at Byzantium in AD 337. Although the Bishop of Rome was present, it is interesting to note that it was the Bishop of Constantinople who presided. For twenty years Constantine laboured to extend the system of ‘constitutional Christianity’. For him, the Christian Faith stemmed not from Rome, but from Jerusalem. For this reason, he set up his government in Constantinople and there transferred the Imperial throne. The Roman Emperor, as head of the state religion, had always been responsible for maintaining good relations between the people and their gods. Constantine naturally saw himself in a similar role as Christian Emperor. Strife in the Church, such as the Donatist and Arian controversies, was likely to bring down the wrath of the Christian God on himself and the people entrusted to his care. It is difficult to understand why the church readily accepted, indeed asked for, the intervention of the Emperor in affairs so clearly outside his expert knowledge. The only Christian precedent for the role of a Christian emperor was that of the Old Testament kings of Israel, who had a great deal to do with maintaining peace and purity of religion in their kingdoms.

In the Byzantine East, once the doctrine that the Emperor was above the church had been established, it was never effectively challenged. Constantine’s handling of the Arian controversy was astute and the Council of Nicaea, where the controversy should have ended, was his great triumph. Constantine died in 337, tolerant towards Arian sympathisers. He thus failed to achieve his goal of unity in the church. Against this must be balanced his successes. He had begun to Christianise the Empire, and his founding of Constantinople shifted the focus of the Empire eastward, contributing both to the decline of the West and the independence of the Western church. The effect of Nicaea and its Creed far outlived his own failure to solve the Arian controversy. Finally, he established, permanently in the East and for a time in the West, his own answer to Bishop Donatus’ question,

What has the Emperor to do with the church?

The three sons of Constantine, Constantine II, Constantius and Constans, divided up the Empire on his death in 337, though the matter was not finally settled until all rivals were eliminated several months later. Constantine’s sons preserved his Christian principles as founders of the Byzantine Empire: Constantius received the East and therefore backed the reaction against Nicaea, which was still strong there. The other two brothers, in the pro-Nicene West, soon fell out and in the war which resulted Constantine II was killed in 340. Ten years later, Constans was murdered by a usurper, Magnentius, who was in turn defeated two years after that, by Constantius (353). The sons of Constantine were bolder than their father in the attack on paganism. Constantine had had to proceed slowly since most of his subjects were still pagan, especially in the Army, and in the nobility, from whom he drew his officials. His ‘Edict’ of Milan (313) proclaimed toleration for both Christian and pagan subjects. He had closed a few temples that were particularly offensive to Christians, such as those dedicated to ritual prostitution, and also banned private sacrifices and divining and later public sacrifices as well. His sons were able to proceed more vigorously. A law of 341 suppressed pagan cults and in 356 Constantius closed the temples and prohibited sacrifice on pain of death. The law seems not to have been rigorously enforced, however, since priesthoods and rituals continued at Rome and elsewhere. In 357, on a visit to Rome, Constantius removed from the Senate House the altar of Victory on which incense had been offered since the time of the Emperor Augustus. 

The Empire was now united under Constantius, who was increasingly inclined towards Arianism. His efforts to unite the church under an anti-Nicene banner are seen in a series of councils held in various parts of the Empire from 354 to 360. Through these he finally succeeded in forcing an anti-Nicene creed on reluctant bishops, and secured the condemnation of Athanasius, leader of the Nicene party. The climax of imperial intervention came at Milan in 355, if Athanasius’ own account is to be believed. Certain bishops were summoned before Constantius at his palace and ordered to condemn Athanasius. When they dared to appeal to the church canons (laws), the Emperor replied: Whatever I will, shall be regarded as a canon … Either obey or go into exile. Athanasius eventally chose the latter, but at first neither he nor the pro-Nicene bishops at first questioned the Emperor’s authority, despite the fact that Christianity, though the favoured religion, was not yet the official religion of the Empire. They held that he was simply wrong, deceived by his advisers. By 358, however, Athanasius’ views had changed:

When did a judgement of the church receive its validity from the Emperor? … There have been many councils held until the present and many judgements passed by the church; but the church leaders never sought the consent of the Emperor for them nor did the Emperor busy himself with the affairs of the church …

Even Ossius of Córdoba, who had helped shape Constantine’s policy towards the church, now quoted the words of Jesus against imperial interference:

Do not intrude yourself into church matters, nor give commands to us concerning them … God has put into your hands the kingdom; to us he has entrusted the affairs of his church … It is written,

“Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.”

Constantius was, however, acting in the spirit of Constantine to bring about unity in the Empire. He believed that the church was on his side since he had the support of a large number of Eastern bishops, where Christianity was stronger. But his reign does show how truth and liberty may suffer when unity is made the ultimate goal.   

Security, Independence & Toleration, c. 360-410:

Britain had become embroiled in the rivalry between Constantine’s sons in the 340s, and again in the rebellions of Magmentius in the early 350s and of Magnus Maximus in the 380s. Both the Roman authorities and the Romano-British felt a continuing  need to maintain Britain’s place in the empire; this was probably due to the fact that its island status gave it relative security as a source of supplies and raw materials for the armies trying to defend provinces on the Continent. This was dramatically demonstrated by the decision of Julian (in 359), following a disaster on the Rhine, to send six hundred transport ships to Britain to requisition supplies with which to effect recovery. While there is certainly evidence of the faith in Britain – for example in the fine mosaics and wall-paintings from the villas at Hinton St Mary (Dorset) and Lullingstone (Kent) – its spread is poorly understood because of the paucity of written evidence and the often contradictory nature of the surviving structural and artefactual evidence.

Europa and the bull: A floor mosaic laid c. 350, from Lullingstone villa in Kent, depicts the myth of Europa’s abduction by Zeus disguised as a bull. The early fourth century was a ‘golden age’ for British villas but almost all had been abandoned by the end of the century.

Recently, late buildings of of a basilican type have been recognised at forts, such as Vindolanda and Birdoswold, and are thought by some to have been churches. While some ‘Christian objects’ are very mundane in character, others suggest considerable wealth, such as the collection of ‘plate’ found at Water Newton, and now in the British Museum. At the same time, however, the continuing strength of pagan cults suggests that Christianity may not immediately have appealed to the wealthier administrative classes. This is demonstrated by the extensive temple complex of the god Nodens at Lydney in Gloucestershire, none of which was constructed before the 360s. By then, those classes, especially in the north, were concerned with the new threat from the Picts:

But in Britain in the tenth consulship of Constantius (AD 360) … raids of the savage tribes of the Scots and the Picts, who had broken the negotiated peace, were laying waste the border regions, so that fear seized the provincials.

Ammianus Marcellinus, History (mid-380s).

As can be seen on the map above, the Picts dominated Britain north of the Forth-Clyde Isthmus, both during the late Roman period and into the ‘Dark Ages’. However, the distribution of the most distinctive Pictish monuments, such as square barrow cemeteries, symbol stones and power centres – usually forts on steep craggy hills or coastal promontories, show that their heartlands were east of the Highlands.

In 361, Julian, a nephew of Constantine who had escaped the blood-bath that had followed his uncle’s death, became emperor. He revealed that he had been a secret pagan for some years, following his unhappy childhood spent at the Christian court of Constantius. In his education, he had felt closest to Plato and the other great philosophers of ancient Greece. He therefore attempted to convert the empire to a syncretic religion, akin to that of the younger Constantine, that he called ‘Hellenism’, based on the worship of Plato’s ‘Supreme Being’ and his chief representative, the life-giving Sun. Julian paid tribute to the Christian church by incorporating some of what he regarded as the more successful features of Christianity into his ‘Hellenism’. He tried to set up a hierarchy, like that of the Church, with metropolitans of provinces set over the local priesthoods and answerable to the emperor as Pontifex Maximus.

Julian was most concerned that the ‘Hellenists’ should be equal in holiness and charity with the ‘Galileans’, as he called the Christians, and that the lives of his priests should be worthy of their high calling. Although Julian restored pagan worship all over the empire, taking away the special privileges enjoyed by Christian clergy, there was no return to persecution by the state. In fact, toleration was decreed for all religions. Pagans were particularly favoured in the civil service, and imperial justice was not even-handed when settling the violent disputes that arose in some cities over the religious changes. But Julian raised the strongest protest by prohibiting Christians from teaching literature in the schools. He knew that the Christian aristocracy would continue to send their children to ordinary public schools, even if their teachers were pagan; they would thus be exposed to pagan propaganda. On hearing that Julian had ordered him into exile, Athanasius told his weeping congregation:

Be of good courage; it is but a cloud which will quickly pass away.

He was right, for the zeal had soon gone out of Julian’s ‘Hellenism’. Its failure was apparent even before his death in 363.The emperors who followed were Christians. Both Jovian and his son, Valentinian I (364-75). Following a bloody battle between supporters of two rival candidates to be bishop of Rome in the reign of Valentinian, which left one hundred and thirty-seven dead in a Roman basilica, Ammianus (a pagan historian) concluded that the Roman bishopric had become a prize worth fighting for, and went on to describe the opulence of the clergy in the city, …

enriched by offerings from women, riding in carriages, dressing splendidly, and feasting luxuriously, so that their entertainments surpass even royal banquets.

Not all lived luxuriously, however, and many, like bishops Ambrose and Augustine, lived frugal, even austere lives, and recommended their congregations to follow their example. Ammianus praised Valentinian because …

he kept a middle course between the different sects of religion; and never troubled anyone, nor issued any orders in favour of one kind of worship or another …

Valens (364-78), the younger brother of Valentinian, who had been chosen by him to rule in the East, was less tolerant. He did not attack paganism, but did proceed against the Nicene party, and exiled some of the bishops. Valens was killed at the battle of Adrianople in 378, however, and subsequent emperors, both East and West, were more orthodox in doctrine.

In the meantime, Britannia with its great city of Londinium – Caer Lludd – had become a diocese of four or five provinces, incorporated into a prefecture of the Gauls along with Gaul and Hispania, which was run from Trier in the Rhineland and provided an arena for ambitious generals. Unlike the Gallo-Romans, its notables tended to shun the imperial service, and many had adhered to the Christian heresy of Pelagius, a British cleric who stressed the idea of grace and whose creed seems to have become the ideology of those discontented with imperial administration. The cycle of terminal crises hit Britain in 367, when a turning-point came with the widespread attack in by most of the enemies of Roman Britain, known as the conspiracy of the Barbarians; it was probably a climax rather than a sudden event. The barbarian forces attacked from the Highlands, Ireland and Gaul. Britain was overrun by Picts and Scots, serfs and slaves rebelled, and an entire province seceded from the Empire. General Theodosius had to fight his way across the island to restore order. The two principal commanders of Britain’s defences were the Duke of Britain and the Count of the Saxon Shore. The former was captured and the latter was killed. But by 370 Count Theodosius had restored order. He rebuilt the damaged portions of Hadrian’s Wall, withdrew the outlying garrisons and relied on treaty relationships with neighbouring tribes to provide a buffer zone to the north of the province. Considerable damage had been done, although much of it was quickly repaired, and measures were taken to prevent a considerable recurrence: a new system of watchtowers were was put in place on the coast of the north-east and western coasts, with some new forts being built at Cardiff, Caergybi and Lancaster. Theodosius undertook a major programme of reconstruction which seems to have opened up a new period of unprecedented prosperity for the British aristocracy and merchant classes.

Richborough Fort, Kent:
The walls of the Saxon Shore fort in, one of the several built by the Romans on Britain’s south and east coasts in response to raids by Germanic pirates.

Gratian (378-83) who had succeeded his father Valentinian in the West, also became ruler of the East on the death of Valens. Wisely recognising that he could not govern the whole empire alone, however, he chose the experienced soldier, Theodosius, to rule the East. Gratian was a Christian, well-educated and cultured and an accomplished sportsman. The reigns of Gratian and Theodosius I (379-95) finally determined the fate of paganism. Both were in the orthodox tradition of Valentinian and Valens, but the imperial policy of outlawing heresy and paganism during these years was largely the work of the great bishop Ambrose who was elected to the see of Milan in 374 at the young age of thirty-four. He held the position for twenty-three years and became influential in imperial matters because Milan, rather than Rome, was the Emperor’s western residence at the time. The Western Emperors Gratian and Valentinian II (383-92), also came under Ambrose’s direct influence, as did Theodosius when in the West. Under Ambrose’s influence, Gracian began to suppress both pagans and heretics. He confiscated the revenues of the Vestal Virgins and other Roman priesthoods and refused the title of Pontifex Maximus (High Priest), which previous Christian emperors had taken. He was unsuited for government, however, both by temperament and training, and his inability to win the loyalty of the armies resulted in his death during the rebellion led by the Iberian-Celtic officer, Magnus Maximus, in 383. By this time, many in the legions were thoroughly disenchanted by the constant shifts in Rome’s religious policy, and they reacted when another wave of troubles were precipitated by the Emperor Gratian’s onslaught on paganism. The classical cults provoked yet another army coup in Britain, and in 383 Magnus Maximus was ‘raised up’ by Theodosius and the army of the West and, though Christian himself, struck back for the Empire aginst its Emperor.

Illustration from a 14th-century Welsh manuscript thought to intend to depict Magnus Maximus. Llanbedlig Hours.

Maximus (c. 335–28 August 388) became known in the early Welsh narratives as Macsen Wledig (‘Wledig’ = ‘Prince’, ‘ruler’ or ‘emperor’) [ˈmaksɛn ˈwlɛdɪɡ]; he was Roman emperor in the western portion of the Empire from 383 to 388 after he invaded Gaul and usurped the throne from emperor Gratian in 383, through agreement with Roman emperor Theodosius I. Maximus was born c. 335 in Galicia, in Northern ‘Hispania’, on the estates of Count Theodosius (the Elder), to whom he claimed to be related. Maximus was, in fact, the son of the general Flavius Julius Eucherius. According to Hewin’s Royal Saints of Britain, he was a ‘Roman-Spaniard’ related both to Theodosius and the family of Constantine the Great, and of royal British descent on his mother’s side. Near contemporaries described him as being offended when lesser men were promoted to high positions.

Since he came from Celtic Galicia, it is possible that that he spoke a kindred language to that of the Britons that they could understand, which would explain his popularity among the British legions. He was made emperor in Britannia and Gaul while Gratian’s brother Valentinian II retained Italy, Pannonia, Hispania, and Africa. Maximus was a distinguished general; he had probably been a junior officer in Britain in 368, during the quelling of the Great Conspiracy with Theodosius, with whom he had also served in Africa in 373. Assigned to Britain in 380, he defeated an incursion by the Picts and Scots in 381. In 387, however, Maximus’s imperial ambitions led him to invade Italy, resulting in his defeat by Theodosius I at, or after the Battle of Poetovio in 388. In the view of some historians, his death marked the end of direct imperial presence in Northern Gaul and Britain. For the purpose of legend, at least, this man had the makings of a hero of the Britons. He was certainly to be a hero to the Bretons in later years, since one of the legends suggests that he began a colony of Britons there, which later became Brittany or ‘Llydaw’ in Welsh (see the appendix below).

Solidus of Magnus Maximus, The ‘Emperor in the West’, ‘Macsen Wledig’ in early Welsh legend.

In 381 and 385, Theodosius prohibited sacrifices for divination, which seems to have stopped all sacrifice. Petitions to destroy individual temples, or convert them into Christian churches, were received, and many were destroyed. Theodosius ordered all the temples of Alexandria to be demolished following pagan-Christian unrest. Finally, in 391, he prohibited all sacrifices and closed all temples. The next year private pagan worship was forbidden too. Paganism had one last chance in the West during the brief reign of the usurper Eugenius. His chief supporters were zealous pagans who restored the ancient worship in Rome, but the final triumph of Theodosius in 394 put an end to his uprising. Nevertheless, the laws against paganism were not rigidly enforced, and pagan worship continued openly in some places for several generations and in secret for much longer. Across much of the empire the countryside remained pagan for several centuries and pagan believers still managed to attain high positions in the empire, while it lasted.

Theodosius had also begun to act against heretics early on in his reign. In 380 he ordered all his subjects to subscribe to the faith brought to Rome by Peter, and in the following year he summoned the Council of Constantinople which drew up a fresh definition of the faith based on the Nicene model. But Arianism was no longer a significant movement within the empire, although it still held sway among the Gothic tribes, still largely beyond its frontiers. The most significant among these were the Visigoths. After border trouble in the 320s, those in Dacia had been granted federate (allied) status, but by the late 360s relations had greatly deteriorated. Even so, long experience of the Romans as neighbourshad profoundly influenced Visigothic culture. They had been converted to Christianity, although to Arianism. In 376, a Hun invasion obliged the Dacian Visigoths to beg the Romans for refuge, and an allowed 200,000 were allowed over the Danube. But they were then left to starve, provoking a terrible revenge which culminated in the Visigoths’ victory over the Romans at Adrianople in 378, thereby destroying the Roman reputation for invincibility. They forced the emperor to grant them lands in Thrace, but were soon dissatisfied with these barren lands and, under their leader Alaric, ravaged Greece and invaded Italy, eventually capturing Rome in AD 410.

Although Constantine had been the first Christian emperor, Christianity was not definitively established as the official religion of the western Roman empire until 395 AD. In that year, the rise of the Church from persecution to predominance was completed when the Emperor Theodosius proclaimed Christianity the official religion of the empire and reduced pagan traditions to the underprivileged status formerly imposed on Christians. The imperial élite was becoming more diversified: Christian bishops became servants of the state; the old ruling class was displaced by a new meritocracy; barbarian technicians were increasingly appointed to military commands, and the senatorial aistocracy began, especially in Italy, Gaul and Asia Minor, to withdraw from civic life and political responsibility, retiring to the management of their estates. After Theodosius’ death in 395, the Empire was divided between his sons Honorius (west) and Arcadius (east), so that the Roman territories were never again ruled by a single emperor. One emperor ruled the eastern half from Constantinople, the other ruling the western half from Ravenna. In the city of Constantinople, the Greek language and culture had never been forgotten.The emperor there gave up Roman ways for Greek ways, and behaved like an eastern potentate. The Christian religion thrived there, and beautiful churches were built, where the people worshipped in Greek. Differences arose between the Greek Christians in the east, who looked to the Bishop of Constantinople, and the Roman Christians in the west, who followed the Bishop of Rome.

The carvings on this fourth-century sarcophagus portray biblical incidents including Peter hearing the cock crow and Jesus’ arrest in the garden.

Henceforth, however, the empire could not guarantee to manage the barbarian war-bands whom it was forced to admit in increasing numbers. In Roman relations with other barbarian groups too, there were periods of tense collaboration; but from 395 to 418 the Visigoths undertook a destructive migration across the empire, terrorising the areas they traversed. Yet the Visigoths and other Germanic peoples did not come simply to destroy; they wished to share in the wealth and security of Rome. As the Roman armies came increasingly to depend on Germanic recruits and commanders, the difference between Roman and non-Roman diminished, especially in the west. In the decades which followed, the western provinces fell progressively under German control, but this did not denote a sudden ‘Fall of the Roman Empire’. The end of the empire was no sudden event. The power of the emperors gradually declined, for they could not for ever stand the strain of providing men and money for the great armies defending the long frontiers from the attacks of the barbarian tribes, chiefly the the Germanic tribes; Vandals, Franks, Saxons, Lombards, living on the shores of the Baltic, and the Goths who had wandered south to the shores of the Black Sea. For a time the the Romans had welcomed German barbarians into their armies. These mercenaries had become skilled in Roman methods of fighting and influenced by Roman ways of life. From central Asia the Huns, fiercest and most destructive of all the barbarian tribes, moved westwards in search of fresh pastures for their cattle. Terrified by the pressure from the Huns, the Germans plunged into the Roman Empire, with the Visigoths being just the first to enter.

Perhaps the most damaging development was a loosening of the communications system and the command hierarchy that had been so characteristic of the Romanised province of Britain; as a result, many sites – forts and towns, especially, may have become isolated strong points, in which local militias, perhaps made up in part of the remnants of the Roman Army, defended and supported their homes and families. Recent archaeological work at Birdoswold and other forts on Hadrian’s Wall, has lent some support to this notion; to some degree, this changing picture may  account for the new style of building in forts, which saw the so-called ‘chalet-barracks’ replace the orderly structures characteristic of the early Roman period, possibly as part of fortified Romano-British villages. The somewhat confused source material relating to the later fourth and early fifth centuries (Zosimus, for example), has been taken to indicate that, while Rome tried to keep the British within the empire, the British themselves wanted their independence, and that there were pro- and anti-Rome parties in Britain. Such evidence needs to be treated with caution, however, as it is evidently the case that elements within the field armies were being sent to Britain towards the end of the fourth century. It is not clear what they were trying to achieve, however. Barbarian raids continued but despite rebellions by the Roman commanders of Britain and the withdrawal of troops from the garrison no large scale campaigns were needed against the Picts, Scots and Saxons until those launched by Stilicho in 396 to 398. Until the final Roman withdrawal, a major responsibility for defence appears to have rested with the mobile field army of infantry and cavalry commanded by the Count of the Britains (Comes Britanniarum). In AD 409, Britain finally broke free from the Roman Empire. For nearly the following entire four hundred years it fought for its life.

How Roman & how Christian were the Britons by 410?

Inside Britain, however, it is now thought that that different approaches were emerging regarding the most efficacious means of achieving what was evidently a common goal – that of retaining a Romanised culture in the face of the new invasive cultures that threatened it. Some, probably the remnants of the civitas leaderships, wanted to work for an institutional re-engagement with Rome – an aim that was maintained into the mid-fifth century. Others, on the other hand, local warlords like ‘King’ Vortigern or the mythical Artorius, were more realistic and independently-minded, preferring to take their salvation into their own hands. It has been suggested that such leaders may have been influenced by the the contemporary Christian heresy of Pelagianism, which originated in Britain. Pelagius is the only Romano-British scholar we know by name, we might call him the first British nonconformist, who established the ‘heresy’ in the fourth century. But there seems no reason to doubt that many of the better-off had begun to think of themselves as Roman by that time. By the fourth century, villas in Britain , especially those in the southwest, had reached high standards of comfort. The many clustered around Bath may refelect the attractions of that city and it seems to have been a good idea to live near a town, but outside it. Of course, many villas were simply working farms which depended on urban markets, but even the luxurious country houses.

Hinton St Mary Mosaic | Archaeology Travel
The Hinton St Mary Mosaic.

At Bignor in West Sussex the sequence of building follows a pattern seen elsewhere – a timber building of not very elaborate design was constructed in the second century, then succeeded by a plain rectangular stone building which was gradually enlarged during the third century, and then replaced by a much larger and grander country house in the fourth century. Some of the mosaics in these late villas suggest well-educated owners, well versed in the classics. At Bignor there is one of Venus with cupids dressed as gladiators, which has been described as ‘probably technically the best mosaic in Britain’, and there are others which show episodes in the life of Ganymede. At Woodchester in Gloucestershire there is a mosaic with a wonderful frieze of animals – including a leopard, a lion, and a tigress, though the elephant has been largely destroyed. This, like several other examples, relates to the story of Orpheus, whose cult seems to be celebrated in a number of mosaics. There is also a magnificent early Christian mosaic at Hinton St Mary in Dorset. It is this sort of milieu which produced Pelagius, whose ‘heresy’ required two visits from St Germanus in the fifth century to combat. But in other mosaics and other forms of art, a native reluctance (or simply a lack of skill) for naturalistic expression can be seen through ostensibly classical forms. Some of the sculpted stone heads of gods look more like the grim stylised heads of Celtic cults.

The Mildenhall treasure:
A fourth-century silver dish from the treasure hoard found at Mildenhall, Suffolk. The treasure was buried for safe keeping but its owners were never able to recover it – a sign of insecure times.

From some points of view, Romanitas descended like a blanket over Britain for four centuries, and from archaeological evidence alone one might be justified in imagining there was a huge invasion followed by a folk migration. Yet we know that there was no mass immigration and that much of the native population survived. On the one hand the Roman conquest is a model for the successful integration of a new way of life through effective government supported by a well-organised army. It shows how a minority can dramatically affect the majority, even down to the language spoken, in some levels of society, and the shape of cooking pots. On the other hand, at the end of the four centuries, much of Roman culture seems to have simply melted away with remarkable speed and completeness. From other points of view therefore, nothing was left but a taste for Mediterranean wine, which many prehistoric chiefs had already acquired anyway, while ways of organising society, economy and art in the post-Roman centuries seem to have been remarkably similar to those existing in the pre-Roman period, to the extent that it can be difficult to distinguish between the two on excavated sites. So, was the Conquest really as complete as the Roman historians would have us believe and as certain great works might make it look?

Fourth-century Roman silverware found at Traprain Law, a fort near Edinburgh in Scotland which had been within the Roman sphere of influence, and for a time also within the province.

Here, we need to revisit the reasons for the Roman ‘invasion’. The main stimulus appears to be both economic and political. There was a need to protect Gaul from a potentially hostile Britain, or from tribal raiding parties and ‘pirates’. Added to this, the legions needed to be kept occupied in the days when the Empire was still expanding across the continent. Thirdly, the island’s grain and mineral supplies were attractive, especially for maintaining the army. But the political ambitions of generals and the need for emperors to continue to acquire foreign conquests to bolster their position at home, was perhaps the most crucial factor. As we have seen, the history of the initial conquest and the subsequent subjugation of the province were bound up with the favours and fortunes of successive Roman leaders. It was important for Claudius to appear to be leading the army across the channel, the Thames and into Colchester, thus consolidating his position by conquering a land beyond the end of the known world. The Romans did not conquer Britain out of zeal to civilise barbarians, but for their own purposes, which were the result of policies with far wider implications across their extensive Empire.

The stretch of road known as Wade’s Causeway on Wheeldale Moor, North Yorkshire.

The implantation of so large an army, originally entirely foreign, was bound to have a dramatic impact on the local population, the remains of which are still visible on the landscapes and townscapes throughout the island. There are the roads, miles upon Roman miles of them, some buried under modern roads that follow the same direct routes and contours; others only visible from the air, where they can be seen cutting straight across fields, or preserved as boundaries and trackways. Some of these, as Matthew Paris’ map of pre-Roman roads reveals (see my previous article on the Roman Conquest), had already been there for Julius Caesar’s legions to follow northwards as far as St Albans, and were long-established Iron Age trading routes, reaching as far as modern-day Shropshire (including metalled sections) and Norfolk. Some original stretches of Roman road are still visible today, such as Wade’s Causeway on Wheeldale Moor in North Yorkshire (pictured above). The gravelled surface has long since gone, but the stone foundation slabs are still there.

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A stretch of Hadrian’s Wall, one of the most dramatic monuments of Roman Britain.

Yet within the Empire, as for many centuries after its end, water transport was far more useful for trading purposes. Even for moving stock a metalled road was probably not that useful, especially if it was in regular use by the legions and mounted messengers. Both prehistoric and medieval routes were tracks, some – like the drovers’ roads of Wales, quite wide and robust – rather than metalled roads. Roman roads were vital for marching soldiers and high-class horseback traffic, but they would not have been much help to farmers. Wade’s Causeway is so-called because it was used effectively by General Wade’s British redcoats marching against the 1745 Scottish Jacobite Rising. Forts could be of many sizes, but most were of one shape, rectangular. Early forts, like the reconstructed Lunt Fort near Coventry, originally built after Boudicca’s revolt in the AD 60’s, were built of earth and timber. In Carlisle, a sequence of later fort structures has been found from around AD 78, apparently built to bolster Agricola’s Caledonian campaigns. In the second century, the stone forts built along Hadrian’s Wall, have yielded much information, of course, as referred to in the previous article in this series, but Hadrian may also have had something to do with a quite different project, which, although apparently civilian, had a certain military ‘flavour’ to it.

Reconstruction of the tower at Stonea in the Cambridgeshire Fens, based partly upon a surviving tower at Anguillara, near Rome.

This was the construction of a new town in east, at Stonea, near March in present-day fenlands of Cambridgeshire. Earthworks of very many Roman villages existed in this area, until they fell victim to ploughing. The Romans carried out massive drainage operations and the Car Dyke, which they constructed, was once thought to have been a canal, but now looks like a series of discontinuous ditches, useful for drainage but not for transport. The site at Stonea may have been planned as the administrative centre of imperial estates in this newly occupied region, and it may have been another of Hadrian’s ‘bright ideas’, as it was founded during his reign, in the early second century. The most dramatic archaeological find was the massive foundations of a great stone tower. A reconstruction of this, based on a surviving tower in Anguillara in Italy, north of Rome, is shown in the picture above. A tower such as this, arising out of the flat fenland must have dominated the landscape, much as Ely Cathedral has since. After about eighty years, at the end of the second or beginning of the third century, the whole place was abandoned, ad stores were dumped in the ditches, leaving nearly complete pots and glass vessels to be excavated, as shown below, suggesting that the inhabitants were quite prosperous.

A Collection of nearly complete pots from Stonea.

Other towns were founded from the start as native centres, partly to replace the old hillforts and to encourage the cultivation of Roman virtues. At Silchester, referred to in my previous article, the whole circuit of the wall survives, because it has never since been built over. It sits in an enclave of Hampshire, where the county boundary takes a loop into Berkshire, perhaps preserving the limit of the territory of the Roman town. The basilica, shown below, was probably something like a town hall and law court, although, like many other terms used in relation to Roman Britain, the meaning of the word in this context is not entirely clear. The basilica was built in the early second century, when the local civic authorities constructed a magnificent building to replace an earlier timber structure. The marble they used for the columns came not only from Purbeck but also from the Mediterranean. Yet before the middle of the third century, this imposing structure had been converted into a row of workshops for ironworking.

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The basilica at Silchester viewed from the north. The north range with traces of an early apse can be seen at the bottom of the photo. The pitted floor of the basilca is caused by metalworking activity and Victorian excavation.

Silchester (above) could hardly have been further away from a dangerous frontier, so if it looked at best run down during the last two centuries of Roman rule, what state were the other towns in? Some, like Stonea, had failed altogether, of course. At Wroxeter (below), the sequence of decline seems to be that the large basilica at one side of the baths was demolished early in the fourth century, except for the dramatic bit of wall known as ‘The Old Work’. A series of small wooden buildings was built, and then swept away before the whole area was covered with fine rubble consisting of the ground-up remains of buildings, and whoever the builders were, they could mobilise a significant amount of labour to match their grandiose ideas. A large and imposing timber house was constructed, with two storeys and classical porticoes. Clearly, there was still some idea of maintaining a Roman lifestyle, but we do not know whether the porticoed house was the focus of a small, settled nucleus within the old walls, like a chief’s palace or fort, or whether we should think of it in terms of similar late occupation over other parts of the town.

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There is therefore a question-mark over the end of Roman towns. Some evidence points to early abandonment and to the fact that urbanism did not develop a solid base among the native population, whilst at Wroxeter we have a suggestion that life in that town may have gone on far longer than might have been expected. On the Continent, the picture is sometimes clearer than in Britain, since in some places more substantial remains have been preserved. But even then, the story is not always straightforward. For example, Trier, on the Rhine frontier of the Empire, by a crossing of the Moselle and was an imperial capital in the fourth century. Constantine the Great was responsible for some of the buildings which can be seen today. The survival of masonry from the Roman period is considerable: parts of the city walls were incorporated into the medieval circuit, the piers of the bridge are Roman, there are parts of two bath complexes, one so large you can get lost in the maze of drains which are high enough for people to be able to walk along them upright, and almost the whole of the north gate, preserved by its conversion into a medieval church (pictured below). There is also an amphitheatre, and a large building called the basilica, and part of the Cathedral is Roman in origin, incorporating part of an enormous church built by Constantine. At first look, there is a clear continuity from Roman to medieval. But if we look at the modern street plan, which partly preserves the medieval pattern, we see a network of lanes which bear no relationship to the underlying Roman grid. Much of the city must have collapsed in ruin for such completely different street alignments to emerge.

The ‘Porta Nigra’ at Trier, on the banks of the Moselle in western Germany. The Roman gate was preserved by its conversion into a medieval church.

From the early fifth century, when the Roman army exited Britain, hillfort sites such as South Cadbury in Somerset, Glastonbury Tor and Tintagel, an early cliff-top castle which had clearly been exploited as a defensive site before the fifth century. They also became safe havens for craftsmen, like the metalworkers of Glastonbury Tor. It was probably in such places that the La Téne art styles revived and where such things as the bronze enamelled escutcheons of hanging bowls were made, or the penannular brooches, named from their broken ring-shape. The masterpieces of metalwork and manuscript illumination which were to be made in early Christian Britain emerged from this tradition, which had somehow reappeared after four centuries of Roman rule. The towns, villas, mosaics, and statues tell us about the emperors, the army, and the native aristocracy, and by the fourth century it is probably fair to see the upper classes as ‘Roman’ in lifestyle, aspiration, and attitude. It is always much more difficult to find out about the mass of the population. But the evidence shows that even the ‘peasants’ were to some extent Romanised. They used wheel-thrown pottery in quantities, and left it lying about their houses and even in the fields. They seem to have used money, since small change is found on quite ordinary settlement sites. Graffiti scratched on odd bits of writing tablets also show that quite ordinary people had at least a little Latin. After a few generations, peasant houses became rectangular instead of round and eventually timber farmhouses were replaced in stone.

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Glastonbury Tor, which a site for metalworking in Late Roman times.

The internal peace of Britain, until barbarian raids became too serious, should have meant that fewer people and animals were killed in fighting, and that fewer buildings and crops were burnt by internal raiding. As a result, the population and living standards must have risen. Yet there was no major technological change and farming methods had changed little from pre-Roman times. A large proportion of crops would have gone in tax, which would have depressed any general rise in prosperity. In some regions, there was extraordinarily little visible change, and even the round huts continued in use well into the post-Roman period, especially in the remoter upland parts of the island. The lives of the inhabitants of these places would not have changed simply because they had officially become part of the Roman Empire. Nor would they have changed again when that ceased to be the case. It is probably the fact that the peasantry did not undergo a complete and permanent change in their lifestyle that explains why Britain, perhaps surprisingly, reverted to a prehistoric way of life within a generation or two of the severance of central control, when Rome could no longer protect itself, never mind its offshore islands.   

In the west of Britain it is possible to argue for a view of Roman Britain as a transient, passing phase, which left people much the same afterwards as they were before. It is also clear that there were people there in the post-Roman centuries, people who were descended from the previous inhabitants with a few traces of Romanitas grafted onto their prehistoric lifestyle. In the east of Britain, it has been thought that there was a much more dramatic change, and an extinction of much that had gone before, with the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons. In the final analysis of the end of Roman Britain, the effect of the ’barbarian’ incursions was to disturb the Romanised ruling classes beyond the point of recovery; it was, in other words, a lack of ability rather than a lack of will that determined the end of Britannia – a gradual and uneven process, however, in which, once again, the British ‘became different without knowing it’ as they had done four centuries earlier.

A contemporary cartoon, showing the popular view that the Britons suddenly became Romans after a good wash, shave and brush-up!

Appendix – Legends of the Fall of Rome:

In their introduction to their (1974) translation of The Mabinogion, the Medieval Welsh tales, Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones wrote about the shorter piece The Dream of Macsen Wledig, a legendary version of Maximus’s career, confirming the details above, adding that after Gratian’s assassination and the flight of Valentinian, Maximus became the ‘master of Italy’, but was himself put to death by Theodosius at Aquiela in 388. The importance of the story is that it shows a strong and nostalgic interest in the old Roman grandeur, and the (exaggerated) contribution to it of British soldiers. According to G Jones and T Jones, although flawed in construction,

‘Macsen’ is a joy, with its firm outlines, good proportions and delicate yet glowing workmanship.  

Prys Morgan (1986) compared the legends to other myths of origin or emergence. For the Welsh, the departure of the Roman legions symbolised the end of Roman rule in Britain and the beginning of a separate existence for the British or Welsh in the islands. In the Welsh legends of Macsen, he was connected with ‘Cambria’ through his wife Elen, supposedly from Segontium or Caernarfon, after whom stretches of straight road were called Elen’s Causeways (‘Sarn Elen’), and from whom were descended not only Vortigern but also many of the early princes and rulers of Wales. The legendary ‘Elen’ was also mixed up with ‘Helena’, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, because the myths of origin were not only Romano-British in character, but also strongly Christian. He comments further about the Medieval mythology:

The retreating, ever more constricted, Welsh people were sustained by telling themselves that they were the primary people of the British isles, their power had been diminished by foul, not fair, means, that the origin of their government and ruling families was Roman and Imperial, … and that they had been Christians for centuries, Perhaps since the visit of Joseph of Arimathea to Britain, and that they were utterly different from pagan Anglo-Saxons with their recent veneer of Christianity.

In the early twelfth century, Geoffrey of Monmouth, the Breton who bridged the gap between Norman and Welsh civilisation, gave a new lease of life to the myths and legends described, adding to them many historical legends of the kings of Britain. According to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s fictional Historia Regum Britanniae (c. 1136), the basis for many English and Welsh legends, Maximianus, as he calls him, was a Roman senator, a nephew of Coel Hen through Coel’s brother Ioelinus, and king of the Britons following the death of Octavius (Eudaf Hen). Geoffrey writes that this came about because Octavius wanted to wed his daughter to just such a powerful half-Roman-half-Briton and to give the kingship of Britain, as a dowry, to that husband, so he sent a message to Rome offering his daughter to Maximian. Although the Mabinogion tale The Dream of Macsen Wledig is written in later manuscripts than Geoffrey’s version, the two accounts are so different that scholars agree the Dream cannot be based purely on Geoffrey’s version. The Dream’s account also seems to accord better with details in the Triads, so it perhaps reflects an earlier tradition.

Macsen Wledig, the Emperor of Rome, dreams one night of a lovely maiden in a wonderful, far-off land. Awakening, he sends his men all over the earth in search of her. With much difficulty they find her in a rich castle in Wales, daughter of a chieftain based at Segontium (Carenarfon), and they lead the Emperor to her. Everything he finds is exactly as in his dream. The maiden, whose name is Elen, accepts and loves him. Macsen gives her father sovereignty over the island of Britain and orders three castles built for his bride:

The maiden he had seen in his sleep he saw sitting in the chair of red gold. “Empress of Rome,” said he, “all hail!” And the emperor threw his arms around her neck. And that night he slept with her.

And on the morrow the maiden asked for her maiden fee, because she had been found a maid; and he asked her to name her maiden fee. And she named for her father the Island of Britain from the North Sea to the Irish Sea, and the three adjacent islands, to be held under the empress of Rome, and that three chief strongholds be made for her in the three chief places she might choose in the Island of Britain. And then she chose that the most exalted stronghold should be made for her in Arfon, and soil from Rome was brought there so that it might be healthier for the emperor to sleep and sit and move about. Later, the other two strongholds were made for her, none other than Caer Llion (Caerleon) and Caer Fyrddin (‘Maridunum’, modern Carmarthen).

In Macsen’s seven-year absence, a new emperor seizes power and warns him not to return. With the help of men from Britain led by Elen’s brother Conanus (Welsh: Cynan Meriadoc, Breton: Conan Meriadeg), Macsen marches across Gaul and Italy and recaptures Rome. In gratitude to his British allies, Macsen rewards them with a portion of Gaul that becomes known as Brittany, or Llydaw in Welsh, the Britons whom Cynan settled there became known as ‘Brytanieid’. This supplied the myth for the origin of the Breton language.

According to the historian, Gwyn A Williams, what is remarkable about the legend of Macsen Wledig is that he was to become absolutely central to the Welsh historical tradition after they entered the annals hundreds of years later. Gildas, writing in the sixth century, dated the fall of Roman Britain from ‘the withdrawal of the legions’ by Maximus. Welsh tradition was to assert that he had done something wonderful for the Welsh people. He certainly took soldiers from Caernarfon with him, and he was said to have transferred government to British notables. The origin-legends of the dynasty of Gwynedd in the north-west had Maximus transfer their legendary founder Cunedda from Scotland to Anglesey and the dynasty was to be central to the history of the Welsh; the Welsh princes derived from them. The early poetry and traditions of the Welsh are steeped in the heroic legends of North Britain and suffused with memories of Maximus. Nearly every dynasty which was to claw its way to power in Wales took pains to construct its genealogy with links to Maximus. Gwyn Williams concluded:      

In a very real sense, Wales can be said to begin with the British hero Maximus. Wales is born in AD 383 with Macsen Wledig.

However, this is a Wales of the mind, created much later. There was almost certainly a strong oral tradition, but the Macsen of history was manufactured in the ninth century, by royal genealogists of the second dynasty of Gwynedd which had just come to power. To those ninth-century minds, what had become their country, Wales, began with Macsen the British Roman Emperor. It had taken five hundred years for that Wales to appear on the ground. It emerged then out of the ruins of the independent British state which Romano-Britons created and of whose creation Macsen Wledig had been a herald.

The Welsh, like most of the peoples and nations of Western Europe, struggled painfully to birth as bastard children of the late Roman Empire.    


Catherine Hills (1986), Blood of the British: From Ice Age to Norman Conquest. London: Guild Publishing.

David Shotter, et. al. (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

András Bereznay, Jeremy Black, et. al. (2002), The Times History of Europe. London: Times Books.

Tim Dowley, et. al. (1977), The History of Christianity. Berkhamsted: Lion Publishing.

George F. Jowett (1961), The Drama of the Lost Disciples. London: Covenant Publishing.

Prys Morgan (1986), ‘Keeping the Legends Alive’, in Tony Curtis (ed.), Wales: The Imagined Nation. Bridgend: Poetry Wales Press.

Gwyn A. Williams (1985), When Was Wales? A History of the Welsh. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Gwyn Jones & Thomas Jones (1974), The Mabinogion. London: Dent (Everyman’s Diary).

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