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Britannia – the failed state – Part 3: THE TRULY DARK AGES – Roman Britain in the second to fourth centuries

It seems to me that, whilst many view the Anglo-Saxon age as ‘dark’, the age that is perhaps darkest is the middle period of the Roman occupation of Britain. Roman historical sources are silent for most of the second and third centuries. We hear from Tacitus about the ultimately pointless victory at Mons Graupius in 83 and the retreat to the Tyne-Solway line by the beginning of the second century and Hadrian’s Wall in 117, the shortest line from sea to sea. In the reigns of Domitian and Trajan we have the Stanegate forts, presumably some response to a military threat – from the Brigantes? There was no causeway across most mile forts on Hadrian’s Wall, just 14 crossing points, all carefuly administered.

Did Brigantian resentment of having their territory cut in two lead to the building of the Antonine? By 158 the Antonine Wall was abandoned and Hadrian’s Wall recommissioned.

Pausanias records that Antoninus Pius (Emperor 138 to 161) had to deprive the Brigantes of part of their territory because they had launched an attack on the ‘Genounian District’. Some have suggested that Pausanias has confused the Brigantes with the Brigantii and their neighbours the Genauni in Rhaetia. But there is no other indication of any trouble there. Laycock considers the possibility of a confusion of sounds; the Votadoini eventually became the Gododdin and between Latin and British there is the possible confusion of G, W and V. That might leave us with ‘Venounian’. The next bit worries me more: the connection with High Cross (Venonis).

The underlying suggestion – never really stated in full – is that the Brigantes broke over the Peak District, attacked Venonis and then went about setting fire to towns such as Towcester. [It seems as likely to me that, after the Civil War off 69 and submission to Rome in 71, some part of the Brigantes territory continued to have a name in some way connected with Venutis and that it may have been this area that the Brigantes attempted to reclaim.]

The appearance of fortifications around many towns in eastern, southern and central England during the late second and early third centuries requires another explanation. In some, such as Towcester, the new fortifications did extensive damage. There are interesting clusters in North Buckinghamshire, Northamptonshire and Essex. The implications is that Catuvellaunian territory was under threat from different directions – from the Iceni and the Dobunni.

Third century sources are even thinner than second century ones – until the Carausius / Allectus revolts (which are underplayed in the book). The strategic road linking Lincoln and Leicester was possibly the Brigantian border. There is evidence in the area that some towns were arranging their own defences – against fellow British tribes. The contention is supported by military brooch types. Laycock raises the possibility that Rome may have effectively surrendered to the Brigantes – such accommodations were not unkown. The gateways of Hadrian’s Wall were either narrowed or blocked in this period. In the east, Caister and Brancaster become the first elements of the ‘Saxon Shore Forts’ despite there being no question of a Saxon threat at the time.

The massive period with no sources comes to an abrupt end in the period 367 – 369. In the meantime we have had the Allectus regime, the campaign against the Dicaledones, Constantine’s death in York in 306 and the fall of the gallic-British Empire. By 360 Picts and Scots were plundering close to Hadrian’s Wall. Then Picts, Vecturiones and Scotti and Atacotti from Ireland attacked in what seemed like a timed and coordinated fashion with the Saxons attacking at the same time from the other direction.

However, archaeologists have struggled to find evidence of widespread raids. one might be tempted to ask, ‘Did anything happen at all?’ but the historian, Ammianus, is generally reliable. And there are developments; the bastion was added to London Wall sometime between 341 and 375 and there were similar defence improvements in the Northwest (Ravenglass, Maryport and Bowness). Meanwhile the tribes of south, central and eastern Britain were rearmed. One clue are the ‘two dolphin’ miltary belt buckles which were common in mainland Europe pre-350. They turn up at Larkhills, Winchester in the graves of (presumably) foreign soldiers over 350 to 370. Then from 370, they start turning up all over Britain – a small percentage imported, but most simply local copies.

There is also written evidence of tribal involvement in official Roman defensive structures of the late fourth century. The Notitia Dignitatum identifies a unit drawn from the Cornovii whilst Hadrian’s Wall records work from the Dumnonii, the Durotriges and the Catuvellauni. Are these forced labour or tribal militia units serving on the Wall?

Occupied rooms in villas appears to have peaked between 300 and 350 with a marked decline by 375. There is a similar pattern for pottery whilst towns indicate decline before the ‘Dark Earth’ deposits period. But there is no evidence of settlement from any of the conspirator groups: Scots, Picts and Saxons were not raiding inland on a regular basis.


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