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Medieval Sourcebook:

Roman Historians on the End of Roman Britain c. 411


[Introduction]

Roman accounts of the end of Roman rule in Britain are sparse.

Procopius. History of the Wars III.ii.31-38. The Roman World in 395 AD and Britain's Location in it

After Theodosius, the Roman Emperor, had departed from the world, having proved himself one of the most just of men and an able warrior, his kingdom was taken over by his two sons, Arcadius, the elder, receiving the Eastern portion, and Honorius, the younger, the Western. But the Roman power had been thus divided as far back as the time of Constantine and his sons ; for he transferred his government to Byzantium, and making the city larger and much more renowned, allowed it to be named after him.

Now the earth is surrounded by a circle of ocean, either entirely or for the most part (for our knowledge is not as yet at all clear in this matter) ; and it is split into two continents by a sort of outflow from the ocean, a flow which enters at the western part and forms this Sea which we know, beginning at Gadira x and extending all the way to the Maeotic Lake. Of these two continents the one to the right, as one sails into the Sea, as far as the Lake, has received the name of Asia, beginning at Gadira and at the southern 3 of the two Pillars of Heracles. Septem is the name given by the natives to the fort at that point, since seven hills appear there ; for " septem" has the force of "seven " in the Latin tongue. And the whole continent opposite this was named Europe. And the strait at that point separates the two continents by about eighty-four stades, but from there on they are kept apart by wide expanses of sea as far as the Hellespont. For at this point they again approach each other at Sestus and Abydus, and once more at Byzantium and Chalcedon as far as the rocks called in ancient times the " Dark Blue Rocks," where even now is the place called Hieron. For at these places the continents are separated from
one another by a distance of only ten stades and even less than that. Now the distance from one of the Pillars of Heracles to the other, if one goes along the shore and does not pass around the Ionian Gulf and the sea called the Euxine but crosses from Chalcedon to Byzantium and from Dryous to the opposite mainland, is a journey of two hundred and eighty-five days for an unencumbered traveller. For as to the land about the Euxine Sea, which extends from Byzantium to the Lake, it would be impossible to tell everything with precision, since the barbarians beyond the Ister River, which they also call the Danube, make the shore of that sea quite impossible for the Romans to traverse—except, indeed, that from Byzantium to the
mouth of the Ister is a journey of twenty-two days, which should be added to the measure of Europe by one making the computation. And on the Asiatic side, that is from Chalcedon to the Phasis River, which, flowing from the country of the Colchians, descends into the Pontus, the journey is accomplished in forty days. So that the whole Roman domain, according to the distance along the sea at least, attains the measure of a three hundred and fortyseven days' journey, if, as has been said, one ferries over the Ionian Gulf, which extends about eight hundred stades from Dryous. For the passage across the gulf amounts to a journey of not less than four days. Such, then, was the size of the Roman empire in the ancient times.

And there fell to him who held the power in the West the most of Libya, extending ninety days' journey—for such is the distance from Gadira to the boundaries of Tripolis in Libya ; and in Europe he received as his portion territory extending seventyfive days' journey—for such is the distance from the northern 1 of the Pillars of Heracles to the Ionian Gulf. And one might add also the distance around the gulf. And the emperor of the East received territory extending one hundred and twenty days' journey, from the boundaries of Cyrene in Libya as far as Epidamnus, which lies on the Ionian Gulf and is called at the present time Dyrrachium, as well as that portion of the country about the Euxine Sea which, as previously stated, is subject to the Romans. Now one day's journey extends two hundred and ten stades, or as far as from Athens to Megara. Thus, then, the Roman emperors divided either continent between them. And among the islands Britain, which is outside the Pillars of Heracles and by far the largest of all islands, was counted, as is natural, with the West ; and inside the Pillars, Ebusa [Ibiza], which lies in the Mediterranean in what we may call the Propontis, just inside the opening where the ocean
enters, about seven days' journey from the opening, and two others near it, Majorica and Minorica, as they are called by the natives, were also assigned to the Western empire. And each of the islands in the Sea itself fell to the share of that one of the two emperors within whose boundaries it happened to lie.

Procopius. History of the Wars III.ii.31-38: The Revolt of Constantinus and the Loss of Britain

And the island of Britain revolted from the Romans [407 AD], and the soldiers there chose as their king Constantinus, a man of no mean station. And he straightway gathered a fleet of ships and a formidable army and invaded both Spain and Gaul with a great force, thinking to enslave these countries. But Honorius was holding ships in readiness and waiting to see what would happen in Libya, in order that, if those sent by Attalus were repulsed, he might himself sail for Libya and keep some portion of his own kingdom, while if matters there should go against him, he might reach Theodosius and remain with him. For Arcadius had already died long before, and his son Theodosius, still a very young child, held the power of the East. But while Honorius was thus anxiously awaiting the outcome of these events and tossed amid the billows of uncertain fortune, it so chanced that some wonderful pieces of good fortune befell him. For God is accustomed to succour those who are neither clever nor able to devise anything of themselves, and to lend them assistance, if they be not wicked, when they are in the last extremity of despair ; such a thing, indeed, befell this emperor. For it was suddenly reported from Libya that the commanders of Attalus had been destroyed, and that a host of ships was at hand from Byzantium with a very great number of soldiers who had come to assist him, though he had not expected them, and that Alaric, having quarrelled with Attalus, had stripped him of the emperor's garb and was now keeping him under guard in the position of a private citizen. And afterwards Alaric died of disease, and the army of the Visigoths under the leadership of Adaulphus proceeded into Gaul, and Constantinus, defeated in battle, died with his sons [411 AD]. However the Romans never succeeded in recovering Britain, but it remained from that time on under tyrants.

Zosimus. New History Book VI.1-11

ALARIC having thus received insult in return for his reasonable demands, hastened towards Rome with all his forces, designing closely to besiege that city. At the same time Jovius, a man of great learning and virtue, came to Honorius as ambassador from Constantine, who had usurped the government of Gallia Celtica, desiring a confirmation of the peace which had formerly been agreed on, and requesting pardon for the death of Verenianus and Didymius, who were relations of the emperor Honorius. He pleaded in excuse, that they were not killed with the concurrence of Constantine. Finding Honorius in great perplexity, he told him that it was convenient to him to make some concessions, since he was so much embarrassed with the affairs of Italy, and that if be would suffer him to go back to Constantine to inform him of the circumstances in which Italy then stood, he would shortly return with all the forces in Celtica, Spain, and Britain, to the relief of Italy and Rome. On these conditions Jovius was permitted to depart.

Since I have not given a relation.of the occurrences in Celtica, it would here be proper to notice what had previously taken place there. When Arcadius was reigning, Honorius being consul the seventh time and Theodosius the second, the troops in Britain revolted and promoted Marcus to the imperial throne, rendering obedience to him as the sovereign in those countries. Some time subsequently, having put him to death for not complying with their inclinations, they set up Gratian, whom they presented with a diadem and a purple robe, and attended him as an emperor. Being disgusted with him likewise, they four months afterwards deposed and murdered him, delivering the empire to Constantine. He having entrusted to Justinian and Nevigastes the command of the Celtic legions, crossed over from Britain. Having arrived at Bononia, which is the nearest to the sea-side, situated in the lower Germany, and continuing there some days, he conciliated the attachment of all the troops between that place  and the Alps, which separate Gaul from Italy, thus appearing now secure in the empire. At the same time Stilico sent Sarus at the head of an army against Constantine. Having encountered with the division commanded by Justinian, he slew that general with the greaterpart of his soldiers. Having acquired great spoils he advanced to besiege Valentia, where he understood that Constantine had placed himself, it being a strong city, well fortified and a secure residence. Nevigastes, the surviving commander, having made overtures of peace to Sarus, was received by him as a friend. But Sarus, although he had both given and received an oath to the contrary, immediately put him to death, without regard to what he had sworn.

Constantine then conferred the command, vacant by the death of Justinian and Nevigastes, on Edobinchus, a Frank by extraction, but a native of Britain, and on Gerontius, a Briton. Sarus, being in dread of the courage and the military experience of these two, raised the siege of Valentia after he had continued in it seven days. The officers of Constantine attacked him so briskly, that he had much difficulty to escape with life, and was under the necessity of giving up all his spoils to the Bacaudae, a tribe of freebooters, to allow him to pass into Italy. When Sarus was thus safely returned to Italy, Constantine, having mustered all his forces, resolved to place a sufficient guard on the Alps in the three passes, which form the passage from Italy into Celtica, commonly termed the Cottian, the Pennine, and the maritime Alps. This was the reason for his taking these precautions. Some years before, Arcadius being in his sixth consulate, and Probus was his colleague, the Vandals, uniting with the Alani and the Suevi, crossed in these places, and plundered the countries beyond the Alps.

Having there occasioned great slaughter they likewise became so formidable even to the armies in Britain, that they were compelled, through fear of their proceeding as far as that country, to choose several usurpers, as Marcus, Gratian, and after them Constantine. A furious engagement ensued between then), in which the Romans gained the victory, and killed most of the barbarians. Yet by not pursuing those who tied, by which means they might have put to death every man, they gave them opportunity to rally, and by collecting an additional number of barbarians, to assume once more a fighting posture. For this cause, Constantine placed guards in these places, that those tribes should not have so free access into Gaul. He likewise secured the Rhine, which had been neglected since the time of the emperor Julian. Having thus arranged affairs throughout all Gaul, he decorated his eldest son, Constans, with the habit of a Caesar, and sent him into Spain. For he wished to obtain the absolute sovereignty of that country, not only through the desire of enlarging his own dominions, but of diminishing the power of the relations of Honorius. He was apprehensive, lest when they had collected together an army of the soldiers who were in that quarter, they might on some occasion cross the Pyrenaean mountains and attack him, while Honorius might send an army from Italy, and by surrounding him on every side, depose him from his throne. Constans therefore went into Spain, having with him Terentius as his general, and Apollinarius as prefect of his court. Having appointed all the officers, both civil and military, he sent his army under their conduct against the relations of the emperor Honorius, who had thrown all Spain into a state of disturbance. These having commenced the first assault against Constans with their Lusitanian soldiers, and finding themselves overpowered, collected an immense number of slaves and peasants, by whose assistance they had nearly reduced him to the most precarious clanger. But even in this emergency their expectations were frustrated, but they with their wives fell into the hands of Constans. This disaster being made known to their brothers, Theodosius and Lagodius, one of them fled into Italy, and the other safely escaped to to the east. After these achievements in Spain, Constans returned to his father, carrying with him Verenianus and Didymius, and leaving there his general Gerontius with the Gallic troops to guard the pass from Celtica into Spain; although the Spanish soldiers desired that charge to be confided to them, as had formerly been the case, and that the safety of their country might not be committed to the care o.f strangers. Verenianus and Didymius, being brought to Constantine, were immediately put to death.

Constans was afterwards a second time sent into Spain, and took with him Justus as his general. Gerontius being dissatisfied at this, and having conciliated the favour of the soldiers in that quarter, incited the barbarians who were in Gallia Celtica to revolt against Constantine. Constantine being unable to withstand these, the greater part of his army being in Spain, the barbarians beyond the Rhine made such unbounded incursions over every province, as to reduce not only the Britons, but some of the Celtic nations also to the necessity of revolting from the empire, and living no longer under the Roman laws but as they themselves pleased. The Britons therefore took up arms, and incurred many dangerous enterprises for their own protection, until they had freed their cities from the barbarians who besieged them. In a  similiar manner, the whole of Armorica, with other provinces of Gaul, delivered themselves by the same means ; expelling the Roman magistrates or officers, and erecting a government, such as they pleased, of their own.

Thus happened this revolt or defection of Britain and the Celtic nations, when Constantine usurped the empire, by whose negligent government the barbarians were emboldened to commit such devastations. In the meantime, Alaric, finding that he could not procure a peace on the conditions which he proposed, nor had received any hostages, once more attacked Rome, and threatened to storm it if the citizens refused to join with him against the emperor Honorius. They deferred their answer to this proposal so long, that he besieged the city, and marching to the port, after a resistance of some days, made himself master of it. Finding that all the stores of the city were there, he threatened to distribute them among his men, unless the Romans should accede to his terms. The whole senate having therefore assembled, and having deliberated on what course to follow, complied with all that Alaric required of them. For it would have been impossible to avoid death, since no provisions could be brought from the port to the relief of the city. Accordingly they received the embassy of Alaric, invited him to their city, and, as he commanded, placed Attalus, the prefect of the city, on an imperial throne, with a purple robe and a crown ; who presently declared Lampadius prefect of the court, and Marcianus of the city, and gave the command to Alaric and Valens, who formerly commanded the Dalmatian legions, distributing the other offices in proper order. He then proceeded towards the palace, attended by an imperial guard; although many ill omens occurred in his way. The following day, entering the senate, he made a speech full of arrogance, in which he told them with great ostentation that he would subdue the whole world to the Romans, and even perform greater things than that. For this the gods perhaps were angry and designed soon afterwards to remove him.

The Romans were therefore filled with joy, having not only acquired other magistrates, well acquainted with the management of affairs, but likewise Tertullus, with whose promotion to the consulship they were exceedingly gratified. None were displeased with these occurrences, which were thought conducive to public advantage, except, only the family of the Anicii; because they alone having got into their hands almost all the money in the city, were grieved at the prosperous state, of affairs. Alaric prudently advised Attalus to send a competent force into Africa and to Carthage, in order to depose Heraclianus from his dignity, lest he, who was attached to Honorius, should obstruct their designs. But Attalus would not listen to his admonitions, being filled with expectations given him by the soothsayers, that he should subdue Carthage and all Africa without fighting, and would not send out Drumas, who, with the barbarians under his command, might easily have turned Heraclianus out of his office. Disregarding the counsels of Alaric, he gave the command of all the troops in Africa to Constantine, yet sent along with him no good soldiers. In the mean time, while the affairs of Africa continued uncertain, he undertook an expedition against the emperor, who was at Ravenna. Upon this, the emperor was so terrified and perplexed, that he sent out ambassadors to propose that the empire should be divided between them. Jovius, whom Attalus had made prefect of the court, replied that Attalus would not leave Honorius so much as the bare title of emperor, nor even an entire body ; for that he intended to send him to reside in an island, and to maim him in some of his limbs. Those arrogant expressions excited a general alarm, and Honorius was prepared to fly. When he had for that purpose collected a considerable number of ships into the port at Ravenna, six regiments of auxiliary soldiers arrived there, which were expected when Stilico was living, but did not come from the east until that period ; amounting in number to six thousand. At their arrival, Honorius, as if awaked from a deep sleep, confided the defence of the walls to those who were come from the east, and resolved to remain at Ravenna, until he should receive better intelligence of the affairs of Africa. He intended, indeed, if Heraclianus obtained the ascendancy, when all was settled and secure in that quarter, to make war with all his forces against Alaric and Attalus. On the contrary, if his adherents in Africa should be defeated, he meant to sail into the east to Theodosius, with the, ships which he had in readiness, and to relinquish the empire of the west.

While such were the intentions of Honorius, Jovius, who as I before mentioned was sent ambassador to Honorius, began to entertain treasonable designs, being corrupted by Honorius through means of other persons. He therefore declared to the senate, that he would no longer act as an ambassador, and used reproachful expressions before them, telling them that since those whom they had sent info Africa had failed of success, they ought to send over Barbarians against Heraclianus. For Constantine being slain, their hopes from that part of the world were become very precarious. Attalus being enraged, and having employed other  persons to superintend the execution of his orders, others were sent into Africa with money, to assist in the present exigencies there. When Alaric understood this, he was displeased at it, and began to despair of the affairs of Attalus, who formed his projects with the most foolish temerity, without either reason or prospect of advantage. Having therefore made these considerations, he resolved to relinquish the siege of Ravenna, although he had before determined to prosecute it until he took the place. To this he had been persuaded by Jovius, who, when he heard that the commander sent in to Africa by Attalus had totally failed in his purpose, applied himself wholly to the affairs of Honorius, and was continually speaking to Alaric to the prejudice of Attalus, with the design of inducing him to believe, that as soon as Attalus should have secured the empire into his own hands, he would concert the death of Alaric, and all his relations. While Alaric continued faithful to the oath which he had given to Attalus, Valens, the commander of the cavalry, was arrested on suspicion of treason. Alaric in the mean time proceeded with his army to all the cities of Aemilia, which had refused to accept Attalus as their sovereign. Some of these he speedily reduced ; but having besieged Bononia, which resisted him many days, without being able to take it, he advanced towards Liguria, to compel that country likewise to acknowledge Attalus as its emperor.

Honorius, having sent letters to the cities of Britain, counselling them to be watchful of their own security, and having rewarded his soldiers with the money sent by Heraclianus, lived with all imaginable ease, since he had acquired the attachment of the soldiers in all places. Heraclianus having guarded all the ports of Africa in the strictest manner, that neither corn nor oil, nor any other provision, should be conveyed to the port of Rome, the city sustained a famine more grievious than the former. The venders of provisions likewise concealed all their goods, in hope of gaining considerable profit, by fixing on their commodities what price they pleased,. By these means the city was reduced to such extremities, that some persons, as if they wished that human flesh might be eaten, cried out in the Hippodrome, "Fix a certain price on human flesh."

 


Sources.

Procopius. History of the Wars III.ii.31-38 and III.ii.31-38. taken from the Loeb edition and translation - Procopius, trans H.B. Dewing, Vol II. HIstory of the Wars, Books III and IV. London: William Heineman, 1916.

Zosimus, New History. London: Green and Chaplin, 1814. Book 6. Online at http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/zosimus06_book6.htm


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