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Britannia – the failed state – Part 4: Ethnic conflict, financial meltdown and the last years of Roman Britain

Ethnic conflict, financial meltdown and the last years of Roman Britain

Sometime around 370 there was a marked change in Roman Britain’s economic indicators. This is most obvious in what had been one of the most prosperous areas: the region immediately to the south of Cirencester. There was a sudden rush of coin hoarding in a line between the Avon and Southampton with the additional complication that coins may have become worthless. Furthermore, a line of villas in the area show signs of burning at some point between 335 and 380.

The two acclaimed mosaic schools at Cirencester and Dorchester did not flourish after 370 and there are extensive signs of ‘squatter occupation’ – or, more likely, refugee encampments. The coin deposit rate is such that it can only mean a large-scale displacement of people.

The New Forest’s pottery industry had been huge in the first half of the fourth century. By the second half it was in decline and somewhere between 370 and 400 it ceased production altogether.

Wansdyke, a hugely impressive defensive structure still visible today, almost matches the line of the villa fires. South of it, hillforts were reoccupied but there was pottery from the Mediterranean. In contrast, north of the dyke, grass-tempered pottery predominates.

Wansdyke – There is little discussion about whether the two main sections are the same structure.
© Simon J Kyte

If Wansdyke (literally, Woden’s dyke – the name giving away the fact that it is pre-Saxon) was the Dobunnic / Durotrigan border as Dark suggests, then it takes no account of the border of the Belgae civitas. Is this then the re-emergence of an ethnic conflict after 300 years with some artificial and externally-imposed boundary? It may be that in the western half of the civitas the Dobunni were trying to reassert themselves. As the Durotriges moved north to stop them the conflict may well have sucked in the Atrebates as well.

At Cunetio (Mildenhall, more or less part of Marlborough these days) massive defences were constructed even though the settlement itself had no obvious economic importance. This may have been because it was the first town over the border and had to be well fortified against the Dobunni. But even Silchester shows signs of fortifying itself against potential Dobunnic attack. A Dobunnic / Atrebatic confrontation may have been a trigger for a yet wider conflict.

In the east of the country the last decades of the fourth century may have seen a new defensive structure, Fleamdyke (the first phase has been radiocarbon dated to between 330 and 510). A series of hoards has been found broadly along the old Catuvellauni-Trinovantes / Iceni border – including the famous hoards of Thetford and Hoxne. In north / west Kent and Surrey the old dispute between the Cantiaci, the Atrebates and the Catuvellauni may have reignited. The imposed shift of border in the Fens may also have become a focal point of dispute once again.

Perhaps around 400 the economic downturn appears to have become a full-scale financial collapse. The appearance of coin clipping is perhaps an early sign since it demonstrates that Roman authority had completely broken down. Clipping coins was an offence and yet it was clearly going on everywhere. But a second stage here suggests that the survival of large numbers of clipped coins implies that either people could not recover metals they had buried (because they were either dead or fled) or that metals simply lost any intrinsic worth – or, of course, both!

So, the scale of financial dislocation was evidently massive. All currencies with an assigned value but no intrinsic worth are potentially liable to collapse. However, usually when this happens some ‘hard’ currency retains worth. When all currencies (even precious metals) become worthless you have ‘extreme financial dislocation’ with dire societal implications.

And we can take a good guess at when this might have happened. Coins of the short reign of Eugenius (392 – 394) reached most parts of Britain whereas coins of Constantine III (407-411) have only ever been found in Suffolk and Middlesex. Therefore, the interruption of coinage flow must have happened sometime in Constantine’s reign – or so Laycock says. Does it not actually suggest that financial market implosion had already taken place by 407 – i.e. clearly before the Roman decision to abandon Britain?

Around 410 there was a mass extinction of pottery manufacturers. By 400 very few areas still had local pottery production – Devon may be an exception. Black burnished ware from Poole, for example, was exported as far as Hadrian’s Wall. Suddenly, it became restricted entirely to Durotrigan territory. The pottery industry is one we know a fair amount about but it may be indicative of what happened to lots of sectors around the time. It was not simply about access to export markets but also about supply lines for raw and component materials.

The ‘dark earth’ deposits at Canterbury, Winchester, London, Lincoln, Gloucester and elsewhere were once thought to be evidence of vegetable planting but it is more likely that they represent a large number of collapsed wattle and daub structures. Furthermore, it is obvious that these were only temporary builds without sill walls. Eventually, the refugees living in these urban areas went back to the countryside. The last remaining logic for staying in the cities was defensive rather than economic.

One might expect agriculture to have continued largely unaffected. But that is not the case suggesting that there might even have been large scale famine. For example, in the Upper Thames Valley there are signs of extensive damage to agriculture and the abandonment of terraces.

One objection to the civil war scenario is a lack of human body evidence. However, when corpses are left unburied on the surface, remains tend not to survive. And there are examples of bodies. For example, some lay unburied in a ditch in Cirencester.

Returning to my own thoughts, what is extraordinary is that the old idea that, at some point around 411, the Romans just decided to ‘up sticks’ because they had issues elsewhere is really being challenged. What we have here is a 40+ year recession. And that’s the economic context in which British leaders invite Saxons, Anglians and Jutes to help defend their borders. That will be for Part 5 but for now it is worth assessing what the Romans got themselves into. In the North, various Brigantian groups never gave up and may eventually have won the day. We would never have heard about it as the media was controlled by a ruling elite with a different agenda. In the Southeast corner, supposedly far away from the ‘military zone’ we have client kingdoms who undertake massive human rights atrocities, old ethnic hatreds that are content to simmer in imposed civitas boundaries until authority is over, an economic collapse possibly without parallel until the Black Death and, with no focus in the book, fragmentation even within the Roman authority power structures. Britain = failed state. Next: the beginnings of Anglo-Saxon England!


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