Part 3: Cutting ties with Rome
The British and Armoricans
were finally and irrevocably convinced that they had to look after
themselves, so in a move that seems to have reverberated throughout the
Gallic prefecture, they rebelled and expelled imperial authority: in other
words they kicked out Constantine's administration, breaking
ties with Rome that were never renewed. Zosimus paints a clear description
of the scene:
The Britons took up arms and, fighting for themselves,
freed the cities from the barbarian pressure; and all of Armorica and other
provinces of Gaul, in imitation of the Britons, freed themselves in the same
manner, expelling the Roman officials and setting up their own
administration, as well as they could .
Those officials who had roots in
Britain and perhaps more loyalty to the island than to Rome probably turned
coat and joined whatever new administration was taking over. While this is
as good a point as any to mark the end of Roman Britain, there is no reason
to think that anyone at the time believed it to be so.
On the Continent, Gaul descended into chaos in which Romans fought Romans
and barbarians, Constantine and
Gerontius were defeated in turn, only to be replaced by another usurpation
on the Rhine, and Rome was sacked by the Visigoths in 410.
Britain the situation was different. Despite the attack of 408, there were
certainly no invading hordes, just the threat of further damaging coastal
raids and trouble from beyond the Wall. Militarily, whatever troop
withdrawals had been made by Constantine, it is difficult to imagine that he
had dismantled the entire military apparatus.
At least the skeleton of a
command structure must have been maintained, but it may be the case that, between the
revolt of Gerontius and the expulsion of Roman authority from Britain (both
events in 409), large
bodies of troops left Britain.
Whether this was in response to orders or by
the troops' own volition to seek their fortunes on the Continent is unknown
of course. Many of the troops who were up to this point still in Britain may
have felt their sympathies lay more with Gerontius in Spain than with
Constantine at Arles, while barbarian allies probably felt loyalty to no one
unless they paid well.
Once Gerontius revolted, payments to the troops would
have been severely disrupted, so it seems likely that units began to fall
apart, the troops drifting off or disbanding themselves when it was evident
that they were no longer going to be paid. While this is theoretical, the
same situation is historically recorded in a description of the situation in the Noricum in the 470s. There were still many
regular units stationed at various cities in that province, but when their
pay ceased to arrive they were disbanded, and the frontier was abandoned
with them . One
last unit dispatched a deputation to Italy to collect what was due, but when
this failed to return, this unit also disbanded itself.
So, while we are hampered by an almost total lack of direct information
on the situation in Britain after 409, it seems likely that many units left Britain between 406-409 and
the expulsion of Roman authority must have included military as well as
civilian figures, especially as the army was central to Roman authority in
The new reality in Britain
What we are left with after the expulsion is what must have been a
new British-led administration which controlled whatever organised armed
units remained (regular as well as the many laeti units which
archaeology proves existed at this time).
The Notitia Dignitatum, or Register of Dignitaries, which is dated
to AD 420/425 by many and contains the army establishment in about 395, with
amendments, contains army units which may well have existed only
on paper by that point, but its Roman authors may have had no reason to
delete the section for Britain. The island had been lost and regained many
times before, and they quite probably expected the same to happen again,
once the situation in Gaul and Spain was sorted out.
The fact that the
situation on the Continent was never again to be sorted out would only have
dawned on them slowly, over a matter of years.
So the retention of the Notitia Dignitatum lists probably argues that it
was thought the Roman military structure in Britain would continue, and it
may well be that the Britons thought the same thing. Certainly it may be
assumed that, until the expulsion of Constantine's men (many who would have
been Continental nobles who held political roles of varying degrees of
responsibility in Britain), it may reasonably be assumed that at least a
core of officers and men remained at their posts on the island. The army had
been so central to Roman administration that it is difficult to see what the
expulsion could mean if it did not involve the holders of military as well
as civil office.
From hereon internal records
from Britain almost entirely cease to exist (or at least survive down to the present day) and
mentions from the Continent became more and more sparse as government there
fragmented under the weight of barbarian takeovers.
Analogies can be drawn, however, based upon events that happened later
during the collapse of Roman administration in Western Europe. This, in
conjunction with the few scraps of evidence remaining, allows some kind of picture
to be put together.
An artist's interpretation of how Roman Londinium may have
appeared in its later days, with the laeti settlements
outside the walls not shown