Theodosius in Britain – Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 25 Part 5

The country the Pilgrim Fathers left for America from in 1620 was England.   Britain was purely a geographical expression, and not a particularly widely used one.  The United Kingdom of Great Britain came into existence in 1707 when the two states officially united.  Americans have continued to call the result  England to this day.

But the Americans aren’t the only people who are taking their time getting used to the idea of the UK – those of us who live in it didn’t immediately get our brains around it either. Not even historians.  England was still being used as synonym for Britain in a Shortened History of England by G.M.Trevelyan which I have on my shelves.  It was written in the 1920s, but the reprint I have is from 1965.  In the World Cup series of the following year England supporters wave a sea of Union Jacks in the footage of the final match.  It didn’t occur to anyone that it wasn’t appropriate to use the flag of the United Kingdom for a team that was only representing England.  I asked my Twitter friends when England supporters got around to using the right flag.

https://twitter.com/#!/simonbayley and https://twitter.com/#!/ncbdoyle were kind enough to reply, both saying that it wasn’t until 1996 that the St George’s flag became universal.  Well, they got there in the end.

Britain was an Eighteenth century creation, formed as Gibbon puts it by a free and equal union between England and Scotland. The union was a success from the start and has continued to work well.  There was nothing particularly inevitable about this success.  You only need to look at Ireland to see that nations don’t always stick together once they have come together.   But it is pretty clear that Gibbon, who had some  close Scottish friends, had very warm feelings towards the Scots.  He is very generous in the amount of coverage he gives Scotland in his history.

Which means he has to cope with a Roman reference to the Scots being cannibals.  The story was told that the tribesmen of Caledonia, as the Romans called Scotland, would seek out particularly tasty victims from no other motive than a taste for human flesh.  They would ignore sheep and select the shepherd instead.  This obviously was something that needed to be handled with a bit of delicacy – he hardly wanted ancient second hand slurs to sour relationships.  Gibbon does this with skill by expressing a little skepticism about the accuracy – though no more than he usually extends to his sources.  He then comments that this was actually a hopeful sign.  If there were cannibals near the site of modern day Glasgow 800 years ago, then maybe the cannibals in New Zealand would one day produce a world class philosopher like David Hume.  A potential insult deftly becomes a compliment.

(Incidentally whether cannibalism ever was practiced in New Zealand is itself controversial.  I remember reading an article about it in the New Scientist  in the seventies where an anthropologist expressed doubts whether a cannibals had ever actually existed on the island.  A person claiming to be a New Zealand cannibal wrote in the next week saying that he didn’t believe in anthropologists.  I am not sure if the issue has even been settled.)

The origin of the inhabitants of the new state of Britain could be traced back to three threads.  There were the Saxons, or Anglo Saxons, from the north of Germany.  The story I was taught at school about three different tribes existing called the Angles, Saxons and Jutes is no longer believed – they were a single group with several names.  The Picts and the Scots lived in what is now Scotland but may have originated in Ireland.  And the native Britons were there all along. Gibbon is very careful about what he says about the origins of these three. He dismisses out of hand romantic notions that the tribes of Scotland originated in Egypt or that the Welsh are the descendants of survivors from Ancient Troy.  Instead he proposes the more prosaic idea that the island of Britain was originally colonised by people from the nearest point on the continent – which was what the Romans believed and is a fairly obvious theory.  He doesn’t speculate much about how the details worked out as he has no information to draw on.  The only thing he does concede, is that it was not  unlikely that the Scots originated in Ireland even though there is only the one solitary reference to support this.  It comes from the work of the Venerable Bede writing in England in the Eighth century, so a long time from the event.  He also accepts that the Scots had wiped out the Picts, a rather inescapable conclusion given that the Scots still existed, and Gibbon was friends with some of them, and the Picts were no longer around.  He leaves the origin of the Picts open.

Where the inhabitants of Britain originally came from is an interesting subject for those of us who live here, and I imagine for speakers of English elsewhere in the world.  With the advent of genetic science it ought now to be possible to say with a lot more confidence exactly where the population of this country originates.  Unfortunately, science being what it is, it is taking a while for a consensus to emerge.   It certainly looks like one formerly popular idea, that the Saxons invaded and totally eliminated the local British population of England is definitely not true.  It is now looking like the Saxon invasion made only a very small contribution towards Britain’s gene pool.   One interpretation of the data is that the Saxons, or some very similar Germanic peoples, were already here even before the Romans arrived.  Even though I’m a scientist myself I really can’t understand this area well enough to hazard an opinion on who is on the right track here. We’ll have to wait for the experts to thrash it out.  But it could well be that as little as 10% of the modern British gene pool was contributed by Saxons arriving in the fifth century.  Culturally however, the Saxon way of doing things was the one that won out.  It is their language, modified over the centuries, that we still speak.

The Roman province of Britain did not comprise the whole of the island.  The northern border was famously marked by a wall built by the emperor Hadrian.  The inhabitants of Caledonia were left alone more because of their poverty than their ferocity.  The emperors were hard headed in their calculations, and a region that did not pay its way was not worth adding to the empire.  The barren mountains of Scotland produced little wealth and so could not even cover the costs of occupation.  This meant that the border needed to be permanently guarded and if that guard was ever relaxed an attack was inevitable.  Roman Britain had had three hundred years of peace in which to build up a tempting level of portable wealth, which the poor but warlike men outside would find irresistable.

And it wasn’t only the Picts and the Scots who had their eyes on the rich pickings.  The Saxons were becoming more and more effective and courageous, crossing the perilous North Sea in small open boats to see what they could pick up in the way of items combining high value and easy portability.  The coasts of Britain and northern Gaul were open targets until the Romans built a chain of forts and established a fleet.

The Saxons were no match for the trained and well equipped defenders in a straight fight, but could overwhelm a small local area if they were in luck. Gibbon retells a story of a particular raid where a Roman commander captured a large party of them, but was so short of manpower that he had to resort to subterfuge to handle them until he could get help from further inland.  He offered them a safe passage home, but then ambushed them when their guards were down.  Even using trickery his soldiers were in severe trouble when the Saxons realised what was going on.  The day was only saved when mounted reinforcements arrived.

This is a good illustration of what Edward Luttwak means by his proposal that the Romans used a strategy of defence in depth.  The idea is that rather than invest heavily in static defences on the border, the objective of the frontier troops was to slow down and mark the entrance of invaders and send back enough intelligence for them to be intercepted deeper in the empire with an appropriate mix of troops.  It all sort of makes sense, but it has to be said that the account does sound a bit more like an ad hoc response to a particular situation than the operation of a well thought out strategy.

Whatever  the Romans’ defensive thinking was by this time, it is certain that they knew a lot about their German enemies just over the border.  In the reign of Claudius some three hundred years before Tacitus, the great Roman historian, had written a detailed account of the tribes of Germany.  The Saxons had not even been mentioned at that time.  They hadn’t figured much if at all in any of the previous battles between the Empire and the Germans.

But in the Fourth Century they seem suddenly to come to prominence as if from nowhere.   They seem to have been a highly disruptive new factor in the equation of the threats to the Western front of the empire.  Where did they come from?   The likelihood is that they drew in people from other tribes to create a new identity, an identity which has persisted to this day.  In fact there are two successors to the Saxons.  There are still Saxons living in the region called Lower Saxony in modern day Germany.  (The other area called Saxony picked its name during the Middle Ages and doesn’t have much to do with our Saxons.)

It is also common to refer to Britain and its former colonies with high settler levels as the Anglo Saxon countries.  People even identify a specific type of capitalism that is supposed to be characteristic of these countries, with a particularly liberal approach to free markets and light touch regulations.  The Romans would probably agree.  The Saxons certainly had a very light touch approach to Roman regulations and devoted much of their energies to getting round them in order to acquire the Romans’ property.  The use of naval power to get hold of other people’s wealth has been a recurring leitmotiv in Anglo Saxon history until fairly recently.  This hasn’t always made the Saxons popular, and the abuse starts in this era with the Romans accusing the Saxons of routinely sacrificing 10% of their captives to the gods.  This was probably unfair but it isn’t hard to see why the Romans weren’t seeing the Saxons in a good light.

But normally, neither the Picts, Scots nor Saxons should have presented any more than a nuisance to the province of Britain.  The Roman army was more than a match for tribesmen in open battle.  The Roman navy should have been easily able to deal with the tiny boats that the Saxons used.

But nonetheless, the province was in fact overrun.  The reason was simple.  Somebody, probably a high ranking eunuch in the court and possibly not even actually on the island, pinched the gold earmarked to pay the soldiers.  They deserted in great numbers – without the means of buying food they may have had little choice – and started raiding the country they were supposed to be defending.  The Picts and the Scots were not slow to spot an opportunity, and the Saxons likewise can’t have believed their luck.  The undefended island was now beset by four different varieties of bandit roaming at will along the efficient Roman roads.

As recently as the reign of Julian, supplies from Britain were shipped down the Rhine to support a war torn region of the continent.  Now civil government had broken down and chaos ensued.  It was remarkable how quickly it happened.

Valentinian arranged what amounted to a reconquest.   He sent an able general called Theodosius with four legions to restore Roman control.  The task force comprised 4 units: the Batavians, the Heruli, the Jovians and the Victors.  The force set sail from Boulogne and landed at Sandwich.  Sandwich is at the Eastern end of Kent, a peninsula pushing out into the North Sea.  From there to London would be about 70 miles if Theodosius took the most direct route parallel with the southern shore of the Thames estuary.  He was obliged to fight his way through barbarians even here, but prevailed.  He arrived at London to find it besieged.  He relieved the garrison and established a base.  It was  long hard fight to restore order.  He issued an amnesty to the deserters and rebuilt fortifications.  There were no large scale battles – he was dealing with province wide raiding rather than a full scale invasion.  It was basically an extended policing operation.

Theodosius in Britain restored the province to Rome and his actions gave Roman rule in Britain at least a further 25 years.  It is likely that he didn’t in fact restore full control over the whole province, though it may have been somewhat academic exactly where the border lay.  He did create a new province, in name at least, called Valentinia in honour of the emperor in the North West.  The name has failed to survive and it may never have had any existence except on the parchments of the administrators.  The actual establishment of authority over this area was left as unfinished business for now, and was probably never finished.

A strong Roman province of Britain with an effective fleet might have helped enormously in the defence of the Rhine frontier in years to come.  If anyone could have established it it was Theodosius.  But he was needed elsewhere and thanks to the personal ambitions of his successor the resources of Britain were not destined to help in stemming the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.

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