Unique among the territories of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, Britain succeeded in holding back and even reversing the tide of Germanic conquest for nearly two centuries. This was an age of heroes… It was the Age of Arthur!
This is the first part in a multi-part examination of Britain, in the 5th though the mid-6th Century A.D. It is a fascinating period, with the Classical Age of Greece and Rome giving way to the Germanic “Dark Ages”. The heroes of this struggle, and the “barbarian” warlords who opposed them, are the subject of this discussion.
If he indeed existed (and it is the opinion of this author that he did) Arthur was a warlord who successfully led the British resistance to the Saxon threat. He lived in the late 5th century, and ruled Britain into the early 6th century. Using historical analysis of the disparate chronicles, poems, legends, archeological evidence, and applying deductive logic backed by a lifetime of military study and practice I will attempt to develop a working theory of who Arthur was and the events of his life.
This was in the sunset of Roman culture in Britain; itself once the jewel in the crown of the Roman Empire. Arthur was the champion who kept the flame of civilization alive as the rest of Western Europe sunk into the Dark Ages.
But before we can discuss Arthur, it is important to understand the world in which he lived.
THE END OF ROMAN RULE IN BRITAIN
In the first decade of the 5th century, Roman Britain (Britannia) was abandoned by the empire. While some among the Romans and the Britons may have considered the island to be a part of the Empire until the Germanic generalissimo Odoacer forced the last Western Emperor, Romulus Augustus, to abdicate in 476; for all practical purposes Britannia became an independent Romano-British state after 410 A.D.
British Canterbury (Durovernum Cantiacorum) in the Roman EraBritain was prosperous, mostly Christian, and (outside of the tribal hill country) a thoroughly Romanized province. The Romano-Celtic inhabitants of the cities and towns spoke Latin as a first language. Throughout the province they were governed by elected magistrates, drawn (as elsewhere in the Roman world) from the aristocratic curiales class. In the southern part of the island the countryside was dotted with prosperous villas, inhabited by this same Romano-British aristocracy and their retainers. Britannia was financially net contributor to the Empire, not a drain upon its resources, except in one respect: the military.
The Late Roman Empire experienced a drastic military manpower shortage, due to a variety of causes. Trained troops capable of relocation to trouble spots (as opposed to the numerous garrison troops of the frontier fortresses) were relatively few and worn down (to use a modern term) by a very high “mission tempo”.
In the first decade of the 5th century the mobile forces (the comitatensis) stationed in Britain were needed elsewhere, to save the “motherland” province of the empire, Italy, from foreign invasion.
CRISES IN THE WESTERN EMPIRE
The Western Roman Empire found itself caught in a death-spiral of cause-and-effect that began in 401 AD, and would continue for the next 75 years; slowly strangling the life out it.
This destructive loop of events began with the Visigoths, under their leader Alaric, invading Italy for the first time in 401. Indirectly, one could trace this even further back to the victory of the Goths over the Romans at Adrianople; which victory had guaranteed a large, independent, and potentially threatening Gothic force in the Balkans for a generation.
The Visigoths rampaged through the Balkans periodically in the decades after Adrianople; plaguing the Eastern Roman government. A temporary accommodation with the Visigoths was reached in 397, whereby they were settled in Illyria, and their new leader, Alaric, given the title Magister Militum (“Master of the Soldiers”). This was a common Roman practice: to co-opt potential or former foes as foederati, giving their leaders titles, honors, and commands in the Roman military structure.
Alaric’s sudden and rapid incursion into Italy in 401 caught the Western Roman authorities surprisingly unprepared,the Goths very nearly capturing the young Emperor Honorius in Milan.
In response, Stilicho, the Magister Militum of the Western Empire (and the real power behind the imperial Western throne), who was away at the time campaigning along the Danube, hastened back to Italy to deal with the threat. To raise sufficient forces Stilicho was forced to strip troops from the local garrisons, weakening the forces defending the Pannonian frontier. Alaric was defeated at the battles of Pollentia and Verona, and driven back into Illyria.
But stripping troops from Pannonia to rescue Italy was not without its own risks: another, hitherto undetected barbarian army appeared from beyond the frontier. This was led by a warlord named Radagaisus. These pillaged their way through southeastern Noricum and western Pannonia; the very places Stilicho had denuded of troops to deal with Alaric. Crossing the Alps, they entered Italy early in 406. Their numbers were too strong for Stilicho to face in battle with the forces at his disposal.
To repel the invasion, Stilicho was forced to spend the next six months gathering troops from Gaul and the Rhine frontier. A legion (likely the remnants of the old Legio II Augusta) and some number of auxilia regiments were even pulled from far off Britain. By August 406, Radagaisus was blockaded and defeated at Florence with these reinforcements. His force was largely captured or dispersed, with 12,000 of the best taking service in Stilicho’s army. Other survivors escaped to join Alaric’s army in the nearby Balkans.
Radagaisus’ sudden and unexpected appearance was not a lone event. His invasion was but the gust front of a coming storm. The Germanic nations were on the move: this was the beginning of the Völkerwanderung period, the “wandering of the peoples”. It was the harbinger of the coming Dark Ages.
Just over four months after Radagaisus’ defeat, the storm reached the Rhine frontier.
The border garrisons were too weakened to stop the penetration; the comitatensis of Gaul that normally backed up the Rhine frontier was away with Stilicho in Italy. Gaul was nearly defenseless. For the next two years, the province was mercilessly ravaged by this barbarian horde.
The Roman system of defense was a single garment, of whole cloth. As one thread after another was pulled out, the whole became unraveled.
The policies of Honorius (really Stilicho) had resulted in disaster. As so often happened in Roman history when the central authority appeared too weak or foolish to deal with a crises, ambitious generals took advantage of the situation to declare themselves candidate for “the purple”. Revolts soon broke out in Gaul; and in Britannia the mobile field army mutinied against its commander (whose title was Comes Britanniarum, the “Count of Britain”) and chose a soldier named Constantine as their leader. He proclaimed himself Western Roman Emperor, Constantine III. Taking the bulk of the field army of Britain with him, he crossed the Channel in 407 AD.
Stilicho was neither weak nor foolish. The military establishment he inherited and served in was merely stretched too thin. The real problem was that there were just not enough troops in any one province’s comitatensis to deal with the massive invasions that, like hammer blows, now fell one after-the-other upon the West. Only by stripping away from their home provinces all of the available comitatensis troops in the West, and concentrating then into one “super-army”; could Stilicho create a mobile “fire brigade” of sufficient size to be capable of putting out each crises in turn. In essence, he was forced to “rob Peter to pay Paul”.
Stilicho, the Roman-Vandal general who ruled the Western Roman Empire at the turn of the 5th century, was a commander of great ability. But his denuding of the provincial field armies in order to strengthen the defense of Italy led to the total collapse of the Gallic and Pannonian frontiers; and the subsequent loss of much of the Western Empire after his murder.
Stilicho wagered that he could put out the fire in Italy before another broke out elsewhere. It was a gamble, and like all good generals, he was willing to play the odds. But moving this fire brigade from one theater to another took time. And time was in very short supply.
Before he could deal with the unraveling situation in Gaul, Stilicho needed to ensure that Italy’s eastern flank would be secure in his absence. That meant negotiating with Alaric, who watched events unfolding from neighboring Illyria. After some wrangling, Stilicho agreed to acknowledge the Visigoth king as Magister Militum in Illyricum; and to pay over to the Goth a large stipend. This negotiation caused outrage in Rome, and Stilicho (himself of Vandal birth) was accused of plotting treachery. In August of 408 Stilicho was executed by the Emperor he had served so well.
Stilicho’s death triggered a general slaughter of the defenseless families of German soldiers in the Roman army (presumably while their men were away in distant army camps). Romanized Germans made up a sizable portion of all Roman field armies (unlike the limitanei, the border garrisons, which tended to be “Romans” serving generationally in their forefather’s regiments). This outrage against their families led to a general mutiny among the troops Stilicho had brought to defend Italy, the main strike force of the Western Empire.
Alaric lost little time in taking advantage of the chaos, and invaded Italy a second time. In August of 410, two years after the execution of Stilicho, Alaric and the Visigoths sacked the city of Rome.
The Germanic nations that had crossed the Rhine in 406 were never expelled; and were soon followed by Franks, Burgundians, and Alamanni. These settled in the Gallic territories west of the Rhine. The original invaders moved on into Spain, and in the case of the Vandals eventually into North Africa. The Visigoths, after sacking Rome, transited first to southern Gaul and then into Spain as well.
For the next 70 years, German settlements and zones of authority laid in a patchwork quilt across the Western Empire. Weak and often corrupt Roman administration remained in the areas between these barbarian occupation zones; sometimes serving the ends of the government in Ravenna (now the capital of the Western Empire), sometimes their own ends. In other places, the provincial nobles set up their own pseudo-governments; carrying on the fight against the barbarians or rebelling against the central government as they saw fit.
The Western Empire was slowly disintegrating.
Deprived of tax revenue, not to mention the recruiting grounds for native soldiers these lost territories had provided (and in the case of North Africa, its main grain source), the Western Empire died a slow death.
“THE MATTER OF BRITAIN”
Constantine III departed Britain in 407, at the start of the crises; taking with him all or most of the comitatensis troops that had been the core of Britannia’s defense. His bid for “the purple” ultimately failed and in a few years he was dead. His main achievement was to leave Britain vulnerable.
With the shepherds gone, the sheep seemed ripe for the shearing. The wolves very quickly closed in.
That is not to say that Britain was without its defenders. The fortress garrisons along the coasts and in the north remained: these troops were settled on plots of land around their garrisons, in lieu of pay from the central government. But these were distinctly second-rate troops, capable of holding the walls of their own forts but little else.
Hadrian’s Wall had deteriorated badly during the 4th century, and was no longer a continuous defensive line warding the Roman south from a “barbarian” north.
By the late 4th and early 5th centuries Hadrian’s Wall had ceased to be a clearly defined frontier. It was now a ramshackle structure between forts which were more like armed and densely populated villages. The Wall itself, its turrets and mile-castles have been abandoned, and the forts were inhabited by the families of second-grade, and probably hereditary, frontier auxiliaries. (David Nicolle, Ph.D., “Arthur and the Anglo-Saxon Wars”)
Romano-British garrison manning fort on Hadrian’s Wall (artwork by Popius)
Even had the Imperial government in Ravenna ordered their withdrawal across the Channel, the garrisons would likely have mutinied rather than obeyed. Something like this happened 50 years earlier, in Gaul, when the Augustus Constantius II ordered the mobile field army of the province to the east to fight the Persians. The soldiers responded by throwing off their allegiance to Constantius and proclaiming his cousin, Julian, Emperor!
While the field army and a few of the willing garrisons had withdrawn across the channel, never to return, the remaining forces stayed in place; accepting the authority of the new British leadership.
In the first two decades after the Roman withdrawal, the political situation is murky. The question that looms is who or what was the new British authority?
Perhaps some of the senior Roman officers remaining in Britain converted their position to noble status in the post-Roman hierarchy. In the north, where many of the later Celtic tribal kings traced their lineage to one Coel Hen (the “Old King Cole” of rhyme), it hasbeen suggested that he was the last official Dux Britanniarum (commander of the Wall and other northern garrisons). As such, he had command of a wide swath of territory, and influence on both sides of the Wall; and was well placed to dominate affairs in northern Britain in the years immediately after the Roman departure. He may have been the main leader in Britain during the first decade post-Rome; though how much (if any) influence he had south of his headquarters at Eburacum (York) is unknown.
The sources indicate that a “Council of Britain”, likely composed of representatives of the various tribes, the cities (civitates), and military commanders (like Coel) attempted to organize a common defense. In this they had their work cut out for them, as Britain reeled under ceaseless and destructive raids from all sides.
From the north, the Pictish tribes took to the sea in curraghs: small, light-weight hide covered boats; circumventing the buffer zone of Roman-friendly tribes north of Hadrian’s Wall and the Wall garrisons themselves; and raided rich British lands to the south.
In the West, Irish pirates and raiders pillaged and took slaves back to Hibernia. Some intrepid chieftains even seized portions of south and north Wales, founding temporary Irish settlements. And in the far north, Irishmen from Ulster landed in Dal Riada and founded an Irish kingdom there. These Irish raiders had been known by the Romans (and presumably by their successors, the Romano-Britons) as “Scotti”; and it was these Irish tribes of Ulster who eventually spread throughout Pictish Alba, giving the land a new name: Scotland.
In the southeast, where Britain came closest to the continent, pirates from north Germany and Scandinavia had been raiding Britain since the 3rd century. These were collectively called “Saxons” by the Romans and Romano-British. Of all the dangerous foes who threatened Britain, the Saxons were the fiercest and the most dangerous.
The Councilors of Britain begged Rome to return and take up the defense of the island. But the best that they could get was authority from the Emperor Honorius to see to their own defense. While no military aid could be lent, spiritual aid from the Catholic authorities in Gaul was available. In 429 the Church dispatched Germanus, Bishop of Auxerre, to Britain to battle heresy. This was the Pelagian heresy, and its doctrine of self-reliance was gathering strength in a land left to its own devices in a time of troubles. Germanus successfully reasserted Catholic authority. He stayed long enough to also lead the Britains to victory over a Pictish (and Scotti?) raiders in north Wales.
Germanus’ arrival in Britain coincided with the early years of a British leader who was to dominate the narrative for the first half of 5th century Britain; and who would unleash forces that changed the history of the Island forever.
He was called Vortigern.
Vortigern came to power in the 420s, as the recognized war leader of the Britons. His origins are unknown, his very name is in doubt, with some historians theorizing that the name “Vortigern” was in fact a title, meaning “High King”. (One theory is that his real name might have been Vitalinus.) Geoffrey of Monmouth, in his largely fanciful Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain), states that Vortigern was the successor to Constans, the son of the late usurping emperor Constantine III; who he used and later treacherously caused to be killed during his rise to power.
Vortigern is associated with Powys, where later generations account him the founder of the first dynasty, the Gwerthrynion (Gwerthigern/Guorthigern being an alternative Brythonic version of his name). The Kingdom of Powys was founded around this time, a union of the Cornovii and the Ordovices tribes of the west. Now in east-central Wales, in pre-Saxon days it straddled the Severn and stretched into the Midlands. The Cornovii tribal capital at Viroconium (Wroxeter), on the Severn River, was also the fourth largest city in Britannia. During this time, Viroconium prospered and underwent a rebuilding period. It was clearly the seat of a prosperous and powerful prince.
We don’t know where Vortigern fit in the Cornovii tribal hierarchy. But as the progenitor of the future kings of Powys, it is not unlikely that he was either the tribal king or a prince of the ancient Cornovii ruling family. As with other tribal chiefs in Roman Britain, this meant Vortigern and likely his ancestors for three centuries had been Roman citizens and members of the curiale class. It is in this role that he likely rose to power as a member of the Council of Britain that took over the province’s administration in the post-Roman era.
Gildas the Monk, the only near-contemporary chronicler of the period (his De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, “On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain” was written sometime between 530 and 560 AD) addresses Vortigern as the “proud usurper” (superbo tyranno); though later sources call him “king”. It is therefore likely that at least some in Britain considered Vortigern’s assumption of authority as illegitimate, that he perhaps seized power unlawfully from the Council; perhaps even assuming the name of king; a distinctly “un-Roman” title.
Tradition puts him at odds with Germanus, one author suggesting he was a heretical Pelagian. Perhaps he rode the rising wave of Pelagian heresy to power. But if Germanus’ victory over barbarian raiders took place in North Wales, it would have served Vortigern and Powys well; removing a threat so close to its borders. This would argue for an alliance between the two, and it may have been Vortigern, not Germanus, who was the actual military leader of the operation.
Interestingly, sometime in approximately this period the Votadini hero, Cunedda, led a migration of a part of the Votadini people of the Pictish border region to north Wales, founding the Kingdom of Gwynedd. Could this move be somehow related to the events of 429?
NEXT: THE SAXON ADVENT