Roman Britain had its fair share of imperial visits during its 350+ year existence. Without taking into account the numerous usurpers that the island spawned (or helped to) – Clodius Albinus, Carausius, Allectus, Constantine I, Valentinus, Magnus Maximus and Flavius Victor, Marcus, Gratianus, Constantine III and Constans II, several legitimate emperors did pay a visit to Britain.
Claudius travelled to the island in the aftermath of the conquest he had initiated in AD43; Hadrian arrived on the island in 122 during his tour of the empire, when he initiated the building of the wall that bears his name; Septimius Severus campaigned against the Caledonians in 208-211, accompanied by his sons, Caracalla and Geta, who succeeded him when he died at York; Constantius I also campaigned in Britain, first against the usurper Allectus in his role of Caesar in 296 and then against the Picts in 305/306. He too was ‘succeeded’ by his son after dying at York, but the elevation of Constantine I was not exactly official. And even when Constantine visited Britain again in 307, it would appear that he had yet to receive any definitive recognition of what was still technically a usurped title.
Other emperors are known to have visited the island before their imperial elevation – serving as legate of Legio II Augusta, Vespasian took part in the invasion of Britain in 43, while the future Theodosius I accompanied his father to Britain to campaign against the so-called ‘Great Conspiracy’ in 368-369 (they also defeated the aforementioned usurper Valentinus). It could be that some other future emperors visited Britain in the years before they came to power as members of military or political entourages.
However, the last known visit to Britain by a legitimate serving Roman emperor (**there is a significant caveat to this declaration that will be addressed below**) took place nearly 70 years before the supposed end of Roman Britain in 411. The visitor in question was the youngest son of Constantine I, Constans (337-350).
We are somewhat fortunate to have three separate sources who mention this visit to Britain in 343 – Firmicus Maternus, Libanius and Ammianus Marcellinus. Unfortunately, the nature of these sources in either their genre or the condition in which they have survived greatly hinders our knowledge of why Constans travelled to Britain and what he did during his visit.
Julius Firmicus Maternus’ De errore profanarum religionum would seem to potentially be the most trustworthy due to its writing in around 346, only three years removed from Constans’ expedition. However, showing all the zeal of a recent convert, Maternus had gone from the author of a treatise in astrology – Matheseos libri octo (‘Eight books of astrology’) – in c.334-337 to a vicious anti-pagan, Christian apologist in little more than a decade. Indeed, such was this transformation that some historians of the 19th century could not reconcile that the author of Matheseos libri octo and De errore profanarum religionum were the same person. This means that rather than being any sort of historical work, De errore profanarum religionum is a scornful critique of pagan practice, which in its treatment of the Christian Constans is eager to present him in the best light possible. This makes Maternus’ mention of Constans’ British campaign exaggerated and lacking any real detail.
The Antiochene pagan scholar, Libanius, may have written hundreds of rhetorical exercises, speeches and letters, but it is his 64 Orationes that are of interest here, specifically Or. LIX, which focuses on the careers and achievements of Constantius II and Constans (Dodgeon in Lieu and Montserrat (1996) 164-205). While not strictly a panegyricist, there is perhaps just enough praise from Libanius to provide some doubt over the exact extent of Constans’ achievement. Furthermore, Libanius’ record of Constans’ British campaign contains far less detail than we would like.
The genre issues of Maternus and Libanius would seem to pale into insignificance when we have some record of Constans’ British campaign from Ammianus Marcellinus, the pre-eminent Roman historian of the fourth century. However, unfortunately, Ammianus’ extended record of Constans’ dealings with Britain are contained within the books of his work that are now missing. And when, on two occasions, Ammianus mentions the British campaign of Constans in his books that do survive, he is true to his classicising style in being uselessly brief, summing up the crossing of the English Channel in less than perfect sailing conditions as something “Constans once did (as I have told)” (Ammianus XX.1.1) and explaining how “I have thought it superfluous to unfold again what has once been set forth, just as Homer’s Ulysses among the Phaeacians shrinks from repeating the details of his adventures because of the excessive difficulty of the task.” (Ammianus XXVII.8.4)
One other source of information for the British campaign of Constans is the Codex Theodosianus. This is not because of the content of any of the laws Constans passed, but the date and location of where they were issued. This can give us useful information about where Constans was at certain times, which as will be seen can give a layout of the chronological duration of the British campaign, or at least Constans’ presence on the island.
We know from CTh IX.7.3 that Constans was present at Milan on 4 December 342, which is where it might be thought he planned to spend the winter of 342/343. However, not even 8 weeks later, Constans issued CTh XI.16.5 (cf. CJ III.26.6) on 25 January 343 from Bononia, modern Boulogne-sur-Mer in northern France, marking his presence on the English Channel.
It is not clear if Constans’ presence at Bononia on 25 January 343 was on the outward or homeward journey. The contents of that law would not seem to help any with the exact imperial circumstances of its issue beyond the place and date. From Firmicus Maternus, De errore profanarum religionum 28.6, Libanius, Or. LIX.137-140 and Ammianus XX.1.1, we can merely ascertain that Constans crossed the Channel in winter, a considerable feat in itself, but nothing more in terms of date.
Constans was definitely back on the Continent by 30 June 343 to issue CTh XII.1.36 from Trier – so whether the law from Bononia was on the outward or homeward journey, this was not an extensive years-long campaign such as that of Septimius Severus. But is it to be measured in months or merely weeks?
With the lack of definitive information from the sources, we must look at other avenues for inferences on how long Constans might have been in Britain. One such avenue is travel times in the ancient world. An immense amount of work has gone into calculating travel times across the Roman Empire in the ORBIS project at Stanford (it is well worth a look – https://orbis.stanford.edu/). This can give some idea as to whether Constans’ presence at Bononia could be part of the homeward voyage or not.
It suggests that in the height of winter, with cost being no option to the emperor and all the military channels open to him, it would take at least 19 days to travel the 1,000+ km from Milan to Bononia (a horse relay would be much quicker, but Constans will have needed protection and an army for his crossing to Britain). The crossing of the Channel and then moving to the British provincial capital at London would have taken another 3 days. This would suggest that the very earliest Constans could have made it to London from Milan would be around Christmas Day 342 if he left straight after the publishing of CTh IX.7.3 at Milan on 4 December 342 (a supposition for which we have no evidence).
The lack of information about what Constans did in Britain does not help matters with regards to even a vague chronology. The seeming rapidity of the ‘quelling’ of any disturbance could suggest that it had abated even before he arrived, reducing his British ‘campaign’ to little more than a flying visit, with Constans visiting some troops, distributing some financial largesse and then returning to Gaul. Even if it said that Constans did not arrive in Britain until the New Year of 343, such a flying visit would make it possible that his presence in Bononia on 25 January 343 was after his British trip.
Possible but perhaps not altogether likely. Such a chronology would require not only a flying visit to Britain but also a lightning organisation and advance through Gaul that an imperial retinue and army was probably not capable of or at least willing to undertake, particularly in winter.
And if Constans’ British campaign was more than a flying visit, the possible timeline becomes even tighter. Any journey to a trouble spot outside of the south-east would add many more days to the chronology – for example, the journey to Hadrian’s Wall would be at least 9 days in one direction, with the return journey to Bononia taking at least 12 days.
|Milan to Bononia||19|
|Bononia to London||3|
|London to Hadrian’s Wall||9|
|Hadrian’s Wall to London||9|
|London to Bononia||3|
Therefore, a departure from Milan on or just after the 4 December 342 on a journey to Hadrian’s Wall and then back to Bononia will have taken a bare minimum of 43 days’ travel, could have seen Constans arriving back in Bononia in mid-January. And Maternus does intimate that the arrival of the emperor in Britain was “unexpected”, which could hint at his speed of arrival, rather than just the sheer novelty of an imperial presence in Britain (the island likely had not seen an emperor in 35 years, although other areas of the empire will have had much longer periods without an imperial visit).
However, this not only requires the most organised and rapid advance by Constans and his retinue, but also no actual campaigning by the emperor while he was in Britain. Again, while this seems chronologically possible, it appears realistically unlikely. The likelihood remains that Constans issued CTh XI.16.5 at Bononia before he crossed to Britain.
There is another source of corroboration for Constans’ involvement with Bononia – a medallion. Recorded in the Roman Imperial Coinage as RIC VIII, Rome 338, this is the only known example of this commemorative bronze medallion.
While its minting in Rome does not provide solid evidence of Constans’ presence in Bononia, the reverse legend – BONONIA OCEANEN – can only mean the city now called Boulogne-sur-Mer. This is because of the three other towns called ‘Bononia’ in Roman territory – Bologna in Italy, Banoštor in Serbia and Vidin in Bulgaria, none of these are near the sea.
It is clearly Constans on the obverse – the legend reads CONSTANS P F AVG – and while he was in northern Gaul on several other occasions, there is no other record of him being in Bononia. Therefore, it is logical to connect the issue of this medallion with Constans’ involvement with Bononia (if not strictly his presence given its minting in Rome), an event we have corroboration for in the form of CTh XI.16.5.
The reverse image presents Constans in full military regalia, standing in a rowed galley (three rowers are below Constans), holding a spear and shield. On the prow of the galley is a Victory holding a wreath and a palm, while behind the emperor are standards, all symbols of military triumph.
Could the tower perhaps be a lighthouse? Possibly the one of the lighthouses of Dubris (Dover) or more likely the lighthouse of Bononia known as the Tour d’Ordre, built in c.39 on the order of Caligula (Suetonius, Gaius 46)? The latter lighthouse stood for nearly 1700 years before falling into the sea in 1644 due to coastal erosion.
While it could depict a victory that was thought inevitable but yet to come, given its minting in Rome, it would seem much more likely that is a commemorative medallion of an event that had actually happened – Constans had travelled to Britain from Bononia, won some sort of victory there and then returned to Bononia having ‘conquered’ not just whatever trouble brought him to Britain in the first place but also the wintery seas with his safe crossings to and from the island.
The source material can provide a decent chronology of Constans’ British campaign taking place between 4 December 342 and 30 June 343, and even some inferences of an even tighter time frame; however, they are not altogether clear on what exactly was the purpose of Constans’ winter dash north through Gaul and across the Channel to Britain. The risky winter crossing would seem to indicate that it is was thought that an imperial presence was required in Britain, and therefore that there was a significant problem that needed to be addressed.
However, neither Maternus nor Libanius mention a military campaign in Britain, which would suggest that if there was one, it was not of any great consequence. Libanius further postulates that if there was some kind of rebellion in Britain that spurred Constans into making the cold journey north through Gaul and braving the winter seas, it had either been dealt with before his arrival or quickly faded away when word of his surprise winter arrival spread, something which Maternus suggests – “the Briton has quailed before the unexpected visage of the Emperor” (De errore profanum religionum 28.6).
That Constans travelled with only 100 men rather than a full legion or army would seem to suggest that there was little real campaigning to do. However, it was a long-established Roman anti-rebellion policy to race any soldiers to the flashpoint as quickly as possible, regardless of how few they were – following the military maxim reputedly coined a millennium later by the famed Turko-Mongol conqueror, Timur the Great: Better to be on hand with 10 men, than absent with 10,000. But then if there had been a military victory or even just the suppression of a rebellion by Constans’ mere presence, it would be expected that Maternus and particularly Libanius would have made much, much more of it. And if Constans had signally failed to deal with any rebellion, it would be expected that other sources would have made something of it and there would have been more evidence of Britain potentially removing itself from central governmental control again.
Conversely, rather than a local rebellion, Ammianus Marcellinus seems to mention trouble from the Picts, Attacotti and Scots in connection with Constans’ crossing, but he is the only source to do so and despite his strong reputation as an historian, he was writing nearly 50 years after the event and may be influenced by future trouble with the Picts and Scots. Indeed, Ammianus is not completely clear if the British tribal trouble is in connection with the reign of Constans or that of Julian (Ammianus XXVII.8.4).
One thing that Ammianus is more clear about is that he felt that Constans’ crossing to Britain in winter was worthy of note, presenting it as a seasonal feat that even his great hero Julian was unwilling to undertake. As already mentioned, Ammianus likely went into more detail on Constans’ crossing and time in Britain in his books that are now missing.
Libanius and Maternus were also keen to play up the winter crossing of the Channel, not only due to the lack of a military victory to focus on but also because it was a feat worth highlighting. This focus may also be seen in the imperial propaganda of Constans’ own regime, specifically on the BONONIA OCEANEN medallion. As mentioned above, Constans appears every bit the military conqueror on this issue – regalia, standards, spear, shield, Victory. He also appears to be about to throw his spear at a figure swimming in the sea. While this could be connected to the military victory he claimed to have won, it is perhaps more likely that it is connected to his ability/willingness to cross to Britain in the dead of winter – a triumph over the Ocean itself, with this swimmer perhaps being the personification of the Ocean or the Channel. Maternus certainly incorporated such imagery into his recounting of the campaign: “you have trodden upon the swollen and raging waters of the Ocean. The wave of a sea already become almost unknown to us has trembled beneath your oars” (Firmicus Maternus, De errore profanum religionum 28.6). The BONONIA OCEANEN medallion could therefore be part of an imperial attempt to control the narrative of Constans’ British campaign in the same way that it clearly is in the pages of Maternus and even Libanius? Playing up his ‘victory’ even if there was not actually any fighting to take place after his arrival.
Indeed, Libanius intimates that the entire episode was something of a publicity stunt; Constans travelling to ‘deepest, darkest’ Britain just to say he had been there, following in the footsteps his illustrious father and grandfather, and undertaking a dangerous journey in the process. It would be entirely proper for Constans to want to show his face in Britain, distribute his largesse both in person and in the form of coins to the people and soldiery of the island. Britain was not initially part of Constans’ realm. Upon the division of the empire amongst the sons of Constantine in 337, Britain had been allocated to the eldest brother, Constantine II, only for control of the island (as well as the other western provinces) to pass to Constans after the death of Constantine II in 340 during an attempt to impose his political and military superiority on Constans.
It could be that Constans’ British visit was in part to present the Britons with their new ruler. He may not be recorded visiting other regions added to his realm through the death of Constantine II, such as Spain, but then the Iberian Peninsula had not seen any active rebellion or barbarian trouble within living memory at that point. Britain had hosted usurpation in the form of Carausius and Allectus, and Constans’ father and grandfather had campaigned in northern Britain a generation previously. Furthermore, this Constantinian connection to Britain may also have encouraged Constans to cross the Channel, although it does not explain why he would take the risk of a winter crossing – perhaps Constans merely found himself with some ‘free’ time and in the process became the last legitimate serving Roman emperor to visit Britain…
Well, actually, not quite… I mentioned above a caveat to the declaration of Constans’ campaign in 343 as being “the last visit to Britain by a legitimate Roman emperor”: there are in fact several things to bring up about that declaration regarding the also aforementioned usurpers and the reputed ‘end of Roman Britain’ date given, but those are for another time. For the purposes here, the caveat involves the necessity of highlighting the military nature of Constans’ visit in 343: he was possibly the last legitimate Roman emperor to campaign in Britain (and as seen, he might not even have done that).
This is because in 1400, some 1057 years after Constans returned to Gaul from Britain, another Roman emperor arrived on the island: Manuel II Palaiologos.
He is often recalled as the only ‘Byzantine emperor’ to visit Britain, but without getting into any deep discussions over the ‘Romanity’ of his title or empire, there is a continuity of imperial tradition that traces back from his Palaiologan dynasty through the successor state of the Empire of Nicaea to the main trunk of Constantinopolitan emperors from the Komnene, Macedonian, Isaurian, Heraclian, Justinianic and Theodosian dynasties to that of the Constantinians in the fourth century.
Rather than looking to reclaim Britain as a Roman province, Manuel II had come to England seeking aid from Henry IV against the Ottoman Turks of Sultan Bayezid I who at that very moment blockading Constantinople. He also visited the courts of Charles VI of France, Sigismund the Holy Roman Emperor, Margaret I of Denmark and Martin of Aragon.
“You [Constans] have overthrown your enemies, enlarged the Empire, and, to add greater lustre to your exploits, altering and scorning the fixed order of the seasons you have done in the winter what was never done before or will be again: you have trodden upon the swollen and raging waters of the Ocean. The wave of a sea already become almost unknown to us has trembled beneath your oars, and the Briton has quailed before the unexpected visage of the Emperor.”
Firmicus Maternus, De errore profanum religionum 28.6
137. It is not right to pass over in silence his voyage to the island of Britain, because many are ignorant about the island.138. There is a consideration that provides those who have seen it as witnesses, namely that it is a greater danger to launch a merchant ship upon that sea than to fight a naval battle elsewhere. Such fresh squalls arch the waves up to heaven, and violent winds take them up and carry them out to the boundless ocean. But the greatest danger is that, whenever the helmsman matches his skill against all the other elements, the sea suddenly sinks away beneath him, and for a time the vessel hangs in mid air above the waves and is seen to rest on uncovered sand. And if the sea sends back the current quickly, it picks up the boat once more and those on board must endure the remaining hazards. But if there is a delay in returning to the sea, the ship gradually sinks as the sand fails to support the weight upon it. 139. The emperor considered none of these risks, or rather, despite being well aware of everything, he did not hesitate. The more he knew of the much vaunted danger, the more he hastened to put to sea. And what is even more remarkable, he did not sit and wait upon the beach until when the fair weather came the ocean would calm the storm, but immediately just as things were, with the winter at its height and everything roused by the season to a peak of fury—clouds, icy chills and surf—without giving prior word to the cities there and without announcing the launch in advance, not wishing to be admired for his purpose before achieving his objective, he embarked a hundred men, so it is reported. He loosed the mooring cables and began cutting through the ocean, and all immediately changed to calm. The ocean flattened its wave and made itself smooth for the emperor’s passage, and that usual ebbing of the sea then confuted its law and held on to the land. 140. It did not happen then that while his passage to the island went so calmly, the return voyage turned out differently, but the second went better than the first in keeping with the proverb, so that there can be no dispute that this youthful undertaking was not without the blessing of God. 141. If therefore after the island had rebelled, its inhabitants were holding an uprising, and the empire was being plundered, the news had arrived, and he had been seized with rage on hearing it and had thrown the die for the voyage, to report his act of daring would not have been to the credit of his resolve, but the crisis deriving from the rebels would have taken away the greater part of the glory.
Libanius, Or. LIX
“But in Britain in the tenth consulship of Constantius and the third of Julian raids of the savage tribes of the Scots and the Picts, who had broken the peace that had been agreed upon, were laying waste the regions near the frontiers, so that fear seized the provincials, wearied as they were by a mass of past calamities. And Julian, who was passing the winter in Paris and was distracted amid many cares, was afraid to go to the aid of those across the sea, as Constans once did (as I have told).”
Ammianus Marcellinus XX.1.1
4. And, since in giving an account of the history of the emperor Constans I described the ebb and flow of the ocean and the situation of Britain, as well as my powers permitted, I have thought it superfluous to unfold again what has once been set forth, just as Homer’s Ulysses among the Phaeacians shrinks from repeating the details of his adventures because of the excessive difficulty of the task. 5. It will, however, be in place to say, that at that time the Picts, divided into two tribes, called Dicalydones and Verturiones, as well as the Attacotti, a warlike race of men, and the Scots, were ranging widely and causing great devastation; while the Gallic regions, wherever anyone could break in by land or by sea, were harassed by the Franks and their neighbours, the Saxons, with cruel robbery, fire, and the murder of all who were taken prisoners.
Ammianus Marcellinus XXVII.8.4
Imp. Constantius [Constans] a. ad Italicum.
Privatas res nostras ab universis muneribus sordidis placet esse immunes neque earum conductores nec colonos ad sordida vel extraordinaria munera vel superindictiones aliquas conveniri. Et cetera.
Dat. VIII kal. feb. Bononiae Placido et Romulo conss. (343 ian. 25).
Idem [Impp. Constantius et Constans] aa. ad Titianum.
Universi omnino ex comitibus vel ex praesidibus, qui suffragio perceperint dignitates, civilibus oneribus muneribusque teneantur adstricti; plebeiam quoque sustineant capitationem, ne commoda publica cum umbratili suffragiorum pactione lacerentur. Eos tamen a praedictis oneribus excipi oportebit, qui vel in administratione vel in legationibus publicis versati sunt, ita ut, si quis contra interdictum legis nostrae precationem obtulerit, eius patrimonium fisci nostri viribus protinus vindicetur.
Dat. prid. kal. iul. Treviris Placido et Romulo conss. (343 iun. 30)
Crawford, P. Constantius II: Usurpers, Eunuchs and the Antichrist. Barnsley (2015)
Dodgeon, M.H. ‘The Sons of Constantine: Libanius Or. LIX,’ in Lieu, S.N.C. and Montserrat, D. From Constantine to Julian: Pagan and Byzantine Views, A Source History. London (1996) 164-205
While the focus of the Third Century Crisis that engulfed the Roman Empire falls upon the frequent military usurpations, large-scale secessions and devastating foreign invasions cross the length of the frontiers, much less attention is paid to imperial waters.
Perhaps the most prominent nautical event given consideration by the sources is in the English Channel, where the raids of Saxons, Franks and probably Frisians raided the British and Gallic coastlines. This was less to do with any real interest in reporting piracy and more to do with the imperial response to these raids providing the backdrop for the usurpation of Carausius in 286, which established the decade-long Imperium Britanniarum.
There are important issues somewhat overlooked in the retelling of these piratical raids – despite the British focus of much of the story of Carausius and his secessionist empire, it is likely northern Gaul that felt the majority of these raids. And furthermore, evidenced by Carausius himself having likely been a river pilot before joining the Roman army, the rivers of north-western Gaul may have seen as much of this Germanic piracy as the English Channel.
However, the most surprising thing overlooked about Germanic piracy in the second half of the third century is that it was not confined to the North Sea, English Channel and riverine waterways of northern Gaul. In perhaps stretching to Nantes (ND, Occ. 37-38), the Gallic side of that great system of forts, the ‘Saxon Shore’, may show that the Bay of Biscay and the Loire valley were not beyond the reach of pirate raids in the fourth century.
This alone is a potentially interesting development, but sources for the third century record these Germanic pirates reaching far beyond even the Atlantic coast of western Gaul. From the latter part of the reign of Gallienus (253-260) through to that of Probus (276-282), it is recorded that Germanic pirates were operating in the Mediterranean and even the Black Sea!
It is worth noting that none of the sources to record these Mediterranean pirate raids are without avenues for criticism, detracting from the extent of this reputed Germanic piracy. The very genre of the Panegyrici Latini – praise speeches –attracts doubt over of the size of the reputed piratical threat overcome by the subject of the speeches or emperors like Probus they might like to be compared with. Care must be taken in cutting through their inherent bias to extract factual information from their inferences, allusions and silences. Historian and politician, Sextus Aurelius Victor, writing nearly a century later, got his meagre information from a hypothesized source, known as the ‘Kaisergeschichte’ – ‘History of the Emperors’, itself compiled in c.337 and riddled with errors (Bird (1984)).
Sharing the ‘Kaisergeschichte’ as a source is the Scriptores Historiae Augustae, a collection of biographies of Roman emperors and usurpers from 117 to 284. Opinions on it range from “a wretched piece of literature” (Laistner (1966), 180) and propaganda masquerading as imperial biography to a parody of late fourth century biographical and historiographical work (Rohrbacher (2016), 170-172).
Further removed again is Orosius; a priest, historian, theologian and student of Augustine of Hippo, who was writing in the first decades of the fifth century. His possible Spanish origin might give him access to knowledge of the German actions in the Iberian Peninsula, but while he is well-thought of as a methodologist, Orosius was still likely at the mercy of poor sources for these pirate raids.
Latest of all, Zosimus was writing at perhaps 250 years after the piratical events he was recording. Also, while praised for being stylistically “concise, clear and pure, and not devoid of charm” (Photius, Bib. 98), he can be uncritical and even inattentive when it comes to his sources (Dexippus and Eunapius for the second half of the third century), recording wildly different ‘opinions’ about the same subject. Similar to the others, he does not go into much depth pre-Diocletian.
The sheer number of sources from a period of over two centuries (c.297-510) might seem to lend credence to the story of these Frankish pirates, but as seen with the ‘Kaisergeschichte’, several of these sources may be getting their information from the same place. What seems like a ubiquitous, all-pervading story may actually have been a single story repeated by several others.
Chronologically, the earliest surviving source to record these raids is the panegyric to Constantius Chlorus in the Panegyrici Latini. He refers to the “incredible audacity and undeserved good fortune of a few Frankish captives in the time of the deified Probus” (Pan. Lat. VIII.18.3).
With captured ships, the anonymous orator has these Franks plundering “their way the Black Sea right to Greece and Asia” (Pan. Lat. VIII.18.3). Zosimus I.71.2 also suggest that the Franks “having collected a great number of ships, disturbed all Greece.” This seems like a rather spectacular campaign for a group of Franks to have accomplished, suggesting that they had not only managed to make it from the shores of the North Sea to the Mediterranean, but also raided to some of the most easternmost regions of the Roman Empire. Pan. Lat. VIII does record these Frankish pirates as being escaped captives of Probus, and enforced service in the Roman army could explain their presence in the eastern Mediterranean.
However, it is much more likely that the anonymous orator of Pan. Lat. VIII is lumping together various instances of Germanic piracy across the Mediterranean and Black Sea under the mistaken name of ‘Franks’ rather than ‘Germans.’ The Black Sea, Aegean and even the eastern Mediterranean is known to have faced Germanic pirate raids in the mid-third century.
Germanic Goths were settled around the northern coast of the Black Sea by the turn of the third century. At the same time as major Gothic land forces were crossing the Danube to ransack the Balkans, from bases like Olbia, the Dneister river and the Crimea, Goths recorded launching seaborne raids against Roman territory, alongside various other peoples such as the Germanic Heruli, Gepids and Vandals (as well as some other tribes like the Peucini and Borani).
In the 250s, they struck at cities the length of the southern Black Sea coast, from Pityus in Abkhazia through the Bosphorus into the Propontis. In the 260s, while the numbers of men and ships involved is greatly exaggerated – SHA Claudius 8.1-2 records 2,000 ships and 320,000 men! – they broke into the Aegean, ranging as far as Crete, Rhodes and Cyprus and sacking major cities like Athens, Corinth, Sparta, Ephesus and more (the sack of Ephesus in 268 saw considerable damage done to the Temple of Artemis, on the Seven Wonders of the World).
These raids continued on into the 270s with the Caucasus and Asia Minor facing considerable hardship, before the intervention of the emperor Tacitus in 276. By the time of Probus’ reign, the Historia Augusta would have it that the piratical culprits were Gepids, Greuthungi Goths and Vandals, who took advantage of Probus’ distraction with other enemies to strike across “the entire world on foot or in ships and did no little damage to the glory of Rome” (SHA Probus 18.2).
But despite this extensive Germanic piracy in the third century eastern Mediterranean, none of it seems to have been carried out by the Franks. So, if the pirates in the eastern Mediterranean were Germanic but not Frankish, did the Franks actually carry out any of the piracy attributed to them by Pan. Lat. VIII?
There are other sources that suggestion that a group of Franks caused considerable trouble for significant sections of the western Mediterranean. The first question about such Frankish piracy is how did they find themselves in the Mediterranean, such a considerable distance from their Lower Rhine home? We could again mention enforced service in the Roman army taking them to all corners of the empire, while the long sea voyage around the Atlantic coast of western Europe is not completely out of the question; however, the answer would appear to stem from the sorry state that the Roman Empire found itself in in the mid-third century.
With Gallienus distracted by Alemanni attacks on the Upper Rhine and Danube and the revolt of Ingenuus, governor of Pannonia, the Lower Rhine had been left under-defended. This in turn allowed a large contingent of Franks to strike across the Rhine into Gaul.
So sluggish was the imperial response that these Franks drove as far south as the Pyrenees and forced their way into the Iberian Peninsula. Orosius VII.22.7 (cf. Aurelius Victor, de Caes. 33.3) suggests that these “remote Germans stripped Spain and took possession of it”, but while there are likely to have been other towns and cities to face Frankish attack, the focus of the sources falls on the provincial capital of Hispania Tarraconensis, the port city of Tarraco (modern Tarragona).
Aurelius Victor, de Caes. 33.3 claims that the city was “almost destroyed,” while Orosius VII.22.7-8 spoke of Tarraco bearing the scars of its Frankish occupation in his time 150 years later. That said, excavations have shown that destruction was limited to the harbour area and outside the walls (Macías in Ribera (2000) 259-271). This could suggest that either once the port was ceased, the city capitulated without much of a fight or the Franks actually failed to take the main part of the city beyond the harbour (Wiseman (1956), 71-72).
A good number of these Franks did not immediately seek to return to their Rhineland homes, establishing themselves somewhere on the Mediterranean coast, possibly at Tarraco, for over a decade. But how were these Franks to support themselves? It could well be that in capturing Tarraco harbour (and perhaps other ports), they ‘conveniently acquired’ (Aurelius Victor, de Caes. 33.3) a fleet of ships. This could therefore have seen the reputed foundation of a Frankish pirate base which lasted from c.260 to 272.
While they may not have been roaming the Aegean and Black Seas, these Frankish pirates, from their Tarraco base, raided widely across the western Mediterranean. Probably their most high profile named success came on Sicily, where they sacked the island’s provincial capital, Syracuse, which was “once renowned for its naval victories” (Pan. Lat. VIII.18.3; cf. Zosimus I.71.2).
It must be imagined that these Franks built up to an attack on such a major settlement, testing or scouting the defences of Sicily before attempting something so audacious an assault. But then these Franks had already proved themselves immensely audacious in their trek across Gaul, the Pyrenees and northern Spain to Tarraco, before they took to the waters of the western Mediterranean.
And Sicily was not their only target mentioned in the sources. It has been suggested that “one group, the Bavares, even raided Mauretania” (Bird (1984), 137 n.5), citing inscriptions featuring Mauretanian commanders, Quintus Gargilius Martialis (possibly a Latin writer on horticultural subjects who died at Auzia – ILS 2767, CIL VIII.9047) and Marcus Cornelius Octavianus (formerly prefect of the classis Misenensis before being appointed equestrian governor (praeses) of Mauretania Caesarensis, and then dux per Africam Numidiam Mauretaniamque by Gallienus – ILS 9006; de Blois (2019) n.341).
However, rather than a Germanic tribe with a name akin to the later Bavarians, these Bavares are instead a Berber tribe which had been giving Roman North Africa considerable trouble throughout the mid-third century; hence the elevation of Octavianus to super-dux of basically all of what would become the Maghreb.
That said, while these ‘Bavares’ might not have had anything to do with the Franks operating in the western Mediterranean, the anonymous orator of Pan. Lat. VIII, Aurelius Victor and Zosimus claim that the Frankish pirates did harass parts of Africa.
Aurelius Victor, de Caes. 33.3 merely states that they “penetrated as far as Africa,” while Pan. Lat. VIII.18.3 has them causing significant damage to the Libyan shore before being driven off. Zosimus I.71.2 gives slightly more depth, suggesting that the Franks looked to build on their captures of Tarraco and Syracuse by striking at the rich lands of Africa Provinces, and possibly even the city of Carthage.
Attacking a city of such size could suggest that the Franks had been able to add to their numbers, attracting or press-ganging locals in Spain and the regions their ships raided. Certainly, any thought of success against Carthage would have required a sizeable force. So large in fact that it may be more likely that it was an opportunistic rather than a planned attack, with raids on Africa Province provoking such a limited Roman response that the Franks thought to take a chance on the provincial capital.
The largest Roman military presence in western North Africa was Legio III Augusta. After being disbanded by Gordian III in 238 for its defeat of the Gordiani revolt, it had been reformed in 252 by Valerian and taken a leading role in the decade-long cowing of the Berber confederation of the Quinquegentiani – ‘Five Peoples’.
Despite this solid recent track record, it is unlikely that III Augusta was involved in defending Carthage from the opportunistic Franks. Zosimus I.71.2 places this supposed Frankish raid during the reign of Probus (276-282), but even up to two decades after the dissolving of the Quinquegentiani coalition, the Berber tribes remained a persistent problem. Because of that, the African legionary base was much further into the interior than the coastal Carthage; 500 km distant in fact at Lambaesis.
This would suggest that the only potential III Augusta presence in or around Carthage would have been a detachment of the main legion. These Carthaginian defenders may instead have been a regular garrison unit or an irregular militia raised in the face of the pirates. Given the maritime basis of these Frankish raids, it would not be beyond the realms of possibility that it was a Roman fleet based at Carthage that intercepted these Franks.
Whomever marched out from Carthage, there were successful as Zosimus I.71.2 records that the Franks being repulsed from Africa “by a body of men from Carthage.” Although, this Roman success was not some monumental victory that broke the back of the Frankish pirates as Zosimus also states that the Franks “returned home without any great loss” (Zosimus I.71.2). Perhaps the mere presence of the Carthaginian garrison in the field and possibly its ships in coastal waters was enough to send the Franks back to their ships.
As Africa, Sicily, major cities like Tarraco, Syracuse and possibly Carthage were within their reach, other provinces and settlements must also have faced the threat of these Franks. It could well be imagined that other major islands like Sardinia and Corsica were attacked, along with the coastal regions of Spain, southern Gaul and Italy. Orosius VII.22.7 certainly suggests that they ranged far and wide, with “various provinces” and “great cities” bearing the scars “of their misfortunes.”
Pan. Lat. VIII.18.3 records that the Franks, “after travelling on an immense journey, entered the Ocean where it broaches the lands, and thus showed by the outcome of their boldness that nothing is closed to a pirate’s desperation where a path lies open to navigation.” Unfortunately, the anonymous author does not give a clear indication of where this is supposed to be – is this another claim that the Franks broke into the Black Sea or a suggestion that they broke through the Pillars of Hercules to harass the Atlantic coast of Africa and Hispania? Or a more general claim that none of the waters around the empire or even the entire world (if there was a difference in his mind…) were safe from their decade-long piratical rampage?
While it is clear that this Frankish presence in the western Mediterranean ended at some point prior to Pan. Lat. VIII’s recording of it in c.297, it is not completely clear from the source material exactly when and how it came to an end. Aurelius Victor’s summing up of Frankish pirate activities is mentioned alongside events of Gallienus’ reign, but then it is such a summing up that any real sense of chronology and timeframe is lost. He also does not name any specific defeat of these pirates. Similarly, Orosius gives little impression of how or when this Frankish raiding came to an end.
Pan. Lat. VIII.18.3 might be speaking about events surrounding Constantius I Chlorus’ success in recovering Britain for the empire and against the Franks in northern Gaul in the 290s, but in recalling previous Frankish trouble it does link this bout of piracy to the reign of Probus. However, it too gives no mention of how/when these pirates were defeated.
The Historia Augusta also speaks of Germanic piracy taking place under and defeated by Probus, hinting that the imperial anti-piracy campaign took time – “He crushed them… at diverse times and by various victories” (SHA Probus 18.3); but then its usefulness here is hindered by its failure to identify the Franks as one of the piratical culprits. Zosimus also places these Frankish raids during the reign of Probus and would seem to go further in stating that it was their repulse by the men of Carthage that caused them to return home.
However, a potential issue for the Historia Augusta and Zosimus is that while both hint at their pirates returning ‘home’ after checks dealt to them be the forces of Probus, neither give clarity on where their ‘home’ was at this point – Tarraco or their German homeland?
SHA Probus 18.3 saying that “only a few returned to their homes, enjoying glory because they had made their escape from the hands of Probus” after several defeats seems like a decisive ousting from their Mediterranean base, so their ‘homes’ appear more likely beyond the Rhine or Danube.
Zosimus’ “yet they returned home without any great loss” after their check by the men of Carthage seems like it could mean either Tarraco or Germania. It also suggests that the Franks had not been on the receiving end of a decisive defeat; almost as if they had chosen to go ‘home’ rather than being forced there. Although it should be asked why would they abandon what had surely been a lucrative position raiding the western Mediterranean if not for a growing imperial opposition.
When it comes to this period of Frankish piracy, there are some issues with their recording – clear identification of the culprits, lumping together several Germanic pirate campaigns, misidentifying similarly named but racially distinct tribes and extracting a clear-cut layout of events and their time period. But even if Mediterranean Frankish piracy was centred on Tarraco and caution is taken over its true extent, limiting the scope of their action to ‘just’ the western Mediterranean does not detract from their achievement. After all, it was 1,000 miles from their Lower Rhine homes to the Spanish coast through hostile Roman territory.
These Frankish adventurers were able to take advantage of the distraction of the Roman central government with the crumbling of the Rhine and Danube frontiers, Persian invasions, the secessionist states of Gaul and Palmyra and frequent usurpations to maraud freely across Gaul into Spain. And then take advantage of the limited Roman military presence to establish and maintain a Mediterranean naval base that allowed for over a decade of maritime raiding, posing a significant threat to islands, maritime regions of major provinces and several significant settlements.
Small wonder that various sources of the next two centuries were keen to record their escapades and that their “glory” was celebrated when they returned home (SHA Probus 18.3).
“Indeed, it recalled to mind that incredible audacity and undeserved good fortune of a few Frankish captives in the time of the deified Probus, who, seizing some ships, plundered their way from the Black Sea right to Greece and Asia and, driven not without causing damage from very many parts of the Libyan shore, finally took Syracuse itself, once renowned for its naval victories, and, after travelling on an immense journey, entered the Ocean where it broaches the lands, and thus showed by the outcome of their boldness that nothing is closed to a pirate’s desperation where a path lies open to navigation.”
Pan. Lat. VIII.18.3
“while tribes of Franks pillaged Gaul and occupied Spain, where they ravaged and almost destroyed the town of Tarraconensis, and some, after conveniently acquiring ships, penetrated as far as Africa.”
Aurelius Victor, de Caes. 33.3
“But when he had likewise brought over many from other tribes, that is, Gepedes, Greuthungi and Vandals, they all broke faith, and when Probus was busied with wars against the pretenders they roved over well nigh the entire world on foot or in ships and did no little damage to the glory of Rome. (3) He crushed them, however, at diverse times and by various victories, and only a few returned to their homes, enjoying glory because they had made their escape from the hands of Probus.”
SHA Probus 18.2-3
“The remote Germans stripped Spain and took possession of it… Throughout the various provinces, there exist today poor and insignificant settlements situated in the ruins of great cities which still bear evidences of their names and tokens of their misfortunes. Our own city Tarraco in Spain is one of these, and we can point to it to console ourselves over our recent misery”
“But the Franks having applied to the emperor, and having a country given to them, a part of them afterwards revolted, and having collected a great number of ships, disturbed all Greece; from whence they proceeded into Sicily, to Syracuse, which they attacked, and killed many people there. At length they arrived in Africa, whence though they were repulsed by a body of men from Carthage, yet they returned home without any great loss. This circumstance likewise happened during the reign of Probus.”
Aurelius Victor, de Caesaribus (Bird, H.W. translation, Translated Texts for Historians 1994)
Panegyrici Latini (Mynors, R.A.B., Nixon, C.E.V. and Rodgers, B.S. translation, 1994)
Photius, Bibliotheca (Freese, J.H. translation, 1920)
Scriptores Historiae Augustae (Magie, D. translation, Loeb Classical Library, 1921-32)
Zosimus, New History (Ridley, R.T. translation, 1982)
Barnes, T.D. The Sources of the Historia Augusta. Collection Latomus 155. Brusslles (1978)
Bird, H.W. Sextus Aurelius Victor: A Historiographical Study. Liverpool (1984)
Burgess, R.W. ‘On the Date of the Kaisergeschichte,’ Classical Philology 90 (1995) 111-128
De Blois, L. Image and Reality of Roman Imperial Power in the Third Century AD: The Impact of War. Abingdon (2019)
Goffart, W. ‘Zosimus, The First Historian of Rome’s Fall,’ AHR 76 (1971), 412-441
Laistner, M.W.L. The Greater Roman Historians. Berkeley (1966)
Macías, J.M. ‘Tarraco en la Antigüedad Tardía: un proceso simultáneo de trans-formación urbana e ideológica’, in Ribera, A. (ed.) Los orígenes del cristianismo en Valencia y su entorno. Valencia (2000) 259-271
Rohrbacher, D. The Play of Allusion in the Historia Augusta. Wisconsin (2016)
Wiseman, F.J. Roman Spain. London (1956)
The ‘end of Roman Britain’ raises many of the same type of question as the ‘fall of the Roman Empire’. It must have ended in some manner and at some point, but without some titanic fight for survival on the battlefield recorded by the written sources, it leaves many looking for that endpoint, even if it means having to somewhat manufacture one. “Over the centuries, myth, pseudo-history, and educated guesswork have rushed in to fill the void[; however,] the increased focus on the period has cast a doubt on almost every important assumption that has been made about early Britain” (Mummey (2002), 65)
In the case of the ‘end of Roman Britain’, even though there is by no means a clear cut, single moment in time, that ‘endpoint’ was assumed to be the so-called ‘Rescript of Honorius’ of 411 when that emperor reputedly told the British cities to look after their own defence. The central government telling the locals to look after themselves seems rather definitive in the case of an endpoint of Roman Britain. Certainly, at the time in 411, Honorius was in no position to provide aid to the Britons, holed up in Ravenna in the face of the Goths of Alaric.
However, there are significant issues with this ‘rescript’. There is no contemporary mention of it – the sixth century eastern Roman writer Zosimus is the first to record it and when he does bring it up, he does so at a seemingly random moment in the middle of a discussion on events in Italy. This has led to some suggestion that there has been some textual errors rendering as ‘Britain’ would should have been ‘Bruttium’ (Halsall, (2007) 217-218). Such a correction is in itself speculative and there is some corroboration of British pleas for help from the central government in the pages of Gildas, as we shall see below.
In searching for some definitive end to Roman Britain, there is perhaps one inescapable truth – Roman control of Britain had been crumbling for years before Honorius’ so-called abandonment in 411. Decades of Pictish, Irish and Germanic raiding and revolt had sucked resources away from Britain, as British usurpers felt the need to press their imperial claims on the Continent, taking much of the British legionary garrison with them, never to return in full strength.
Local British malcontent with the central Roman government was not something new, having been a major issue during the third century, with the island supporting the breakaway Gallic Empire, rebellion against the emperor Probus and the independence of Carausius and Allectus. Britain also played host to the usurpations of Constantine I, Magnus Maximus, Marcus, Gratian and Constantine III, gave some support to Magnentius and may have spawned the shadowy characters of ‘Carausius II’ and ‘Censeris/Genseris’ in the mid-350s.
Such is the number of British usurpations and the failures of the central government to provide any aid to the island that it is unclear if it was Britain that left the empire or the empire that left Britain. (Jones (1998) vs Mommsen (1885)).
Furthermore, it is now less clear to what extent Britain exited the Roman Empire in the first half of the fifth century. The ‘Rescript of Honorius’ and the expulsion of Roman magistrates around a year earlier seems clear, but this expulsion may be specifically related to officials of Constantine III rather than an ejection of Roman officials and infrastructures in general.
Any kind of British independence, either foisted upon or won by its civitates, does not necessarily mean that the Britain of the first half of the fifth century (and indeed beyond) is to be considered as being outside the Roman world, at least until Gildas’ age of ‘tyrannical kings’ (Gildas, De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae 27.1).
Indeed, the continued connection between Britain and the central Roman government or at the very least the recognition by the former that the latter may be able or willing to provide military or financial assistance is demonstrated by an incident that took place in the late 440s or early 450s – the so-called gemitus Britannorum or ‘Groans of the Britons.’
At least 35 years after the supposed end of the Roman occupation in 411, a member of the Roman hierarchy received a letter from Britain: its contents were a description of the sorry state parts of the island had declined to and an appeal for assistance against various Pictish and Irish raiders. The message is recorded by the British monk Gildas in his De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, written in the second quarter of the sixth century (repeated by Bede, Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum 25).
There are some considerable issues with Gildas as a source. His De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae is much less a realistic, historical piece and more a hyperbolic, religious polemic, looking to demonstrate the depths of chaos to which the impious British had sunk, a picture of destruction not borne out by the archaeological evidence. But what appears to be a last-ditch plea for assistance would suggest that something was happening in ‘Sub-Roman’ Britain.
Agitio ter consuli, gemitus britannorum. […] Repellunt barbari ad mare, repellit mare ad barbaros; inter haec duo genera funerum aut iugulamur aut mergimur.
Gildas, De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae 20.1
‘To Agitius, thrice consul: the groans of the Britons. […] The barbarians drive us to the sea, the sea drives us to the barbarians; between these two means of death, we are either killed or drowned.’
J. A. Giles (1848) revision of T. Habington (1638)
‘To Aetius, thrice consul: the groans of the British… The barbarians push us back to the sea, the sea pushes us back to the barbarians; between these two kinds of death, we are either drowned or slaughtered’.
M. Winterbottom (1978)
Who was ‘Agitio’?
The most pressing issue for placing this ‘groan’ in a chronological setting is to identify the ‘Agitio’ to whom it is addressed. First instincts might be to suggest that this name looks Germanic in origin, similar to names like Arbitio, who was seen in Roman service under Constantius II, Julian and Valens. Certainly, there would have been more than enough room to suggest that the Britons could have been appealing to a German commander within the fracturing Roman military hierarchy in the mid-fifth century.
That said, positions such as the consulship were usually withheld from men of non-Roman origins. There were, of course, exceptions – the aforementioned Arbitio was consul in 355, Nevitta in 362, Dagalaifus in 366, Bauto in 385, Fravitta in 401, Plintha in 419, Ardabur in 427, Aspar and Areobindus in 434. There may be others obscured by their taking of thoroughly Roman names, but it appears that while non-Roman consuls became accepted, they were not necessarily the norm or even a completely regular occurrence. It must also be pointed out that for all of these non-Romans to serve as consul, none have the name ‘Agitio’ or even anything really close to it.
This ‘Agitio’ is therefore either an otherwise unknown Romano-German commander or there is some kind of spelling issue. As the letter is addressed to the individual in question, it would make sense for his name to be in the dative case. This then would suggest that the recipient of the letter was not ‘Agitio’ but ‘Agitius’.
While changing the recipient from an unknown German name to a Latin one appears to be a great help, unfortunately, ‘Agitius’ is similarly unknown as a Latin name… This leaves us with the likelihood of a spelling error somewhat obscuring the recipient of the ‘groans of the Britons.’
We can, however, use logic to narrow down the options. While relying on Gildas does raise some questions – he was writing nearly a century later, plus how would he know the contents of an appeal to the imperial court in Italy? Had he seen a copy of the actual appeal? – he clearly felt that this appeal was worthy of note, which may elevate its importance and the stature of the individual the Britons appealed to. And as they were looking for military help, it would seem logical that the Britons would appeal to a military commander and the most high-ranking military individuals in the west would be the magistri or the emperor himself.
Two of the most prominent military commanders of the mid-fifth century were comes et magister utriusque militiae, Flavius Aetius, and magister militum per Galliae, Aegidius (Alcock (1971), 107). Either would be a viable military commander of whom to request help: both had been active in Gaul, defending imperial territory from foreign invaders and internal rebels. Aetius would have the edge on Aegidius in terms of resources at hand and reputation (particularly as the ‘defeater’ of Attila the Hun) being the foremost western general of the time. That said, Aegidius would have the edge in terms of geographical proximity, being stationed in northern Gaul.
The identifying of ‘Agitius’ as Aetius is bolstered not only by the pre-eminence of Aetius in the mid-fifth century, but by a specific phrase recorded of this letter by Gildas – ter consuli, ‘thrice consul’. Aegidius does not appear on the consular lists for the central Roman government. It is possible that he set up his own consulship when he was essentially leading a separatist state in his northern Gallic enclave. If he did, it would be in the Britons’ interests to address Aegidius in any consular terms he may have taken for himself when they were seeking his help. However, rather than postulate a Gallic consulship we have no evidence for, it would be prudent to look to men who we have records of having been consul three times in this era.
Multiple consulships for civilians were rare during the fifth century, with only three non-imperial men achieving this – Flavius Constantius (414, 417 and 420), Petronius Maximus (433 and 443) and Flavius Aetius (432, 437 and 446), the first two of whom were elevated to emperor in 421 and 455 respectively.
Constantius III seems a little too far removed from the period seemingly dealt with in the ‘groans’. He would also only have been a ter consuli for mere months, reducing the likelihood of him being the recipient, even before the total disconnect between his name and ‘Agitius’.
Indeed, of all the emperors to reign in the west during the middle period of the fifth century – Valentinian III (425-455; ter consuli from 430-435), Petronius Maximus (455), Avitus (455-456), Majorian (457-461), Libius Severus (461-465) – only Avitus has a name that could conceivably be corrupted to ‘Agitius.’
The man to essentially succeed Aetius as the power behind the throne, the Suevo-Goth Ricimer, also does not have a name that could be mistaken or butchered to appear as ‘Agitio’. A similar period in the east is covered by the reigns of the emperors Theodosius II (408-450), Marcian (450-457) and Leo I (457-474) – only Theodosius and Leo were ter consuli, the former from 409-412 and the latter 466-471. None of them could be conceivably butchered to appear as ‘Agitius’.
Indeed, on the surface, Avitus might seem like a rather attractive candidate. He was a well-connected Gallic senator, having friends in both the Western Roman and Gothic courts, and likely served as both Gallic magister militum and then Gallic praetorian prefect in the late 430s. In these roles, he also had some experience in dealing with barbarian raiders, thwarting Huns near Clermont and Goths at Narbonne. After a period of retirement, he was recalled to serve as magister militum praesentalis under Petronius Maximus in 455, and then during a diplomatic mission, he was proclaimed emperor on 9 July 455 by Theoderic II. For the purposes of the recipient of the ‘groans’, Avitus also served as consul in 456.
As seen with both Aetius and Aegidius, any British appeal to Avitus need not have come during his imperial reign, merely a time where he was in a prominent position. For Avitus, this would have to correspond to either the period 437-440 when he was Gallic magister militum and then Gallic praetorian prefect or to 455-457 when he was first magister militum praesentalis and then emperor. Throughout the 440s, he was in retirement on his private estate near Clermont, before playing some diplomatic role in the events surrounding the building of Aetius’ army to confront the Gallic invasion of Attila the Hun.
All of this would seem to make him a viable candidate to be ‘Agitius’. However, Avitus is only recorded as being consul once. The vagaries of Roman dating and some retained support after his deposition by Ricimer and Majorian could have seen him viewed as having ruled for three years (taking in parts of 455, 456 and 457), but there is no suggestion that he was consul for 457, and given that he died in that year, there is no opportunity for him to have been consul again.
Much like with Aegidius, it would appear that while he seems to have been in a position to receive the ‘gemitus Britannorum’, Avitus’ lack of consulships makes him unlikely to be the recipient.
It might be supposed that if these gemitus Britannorum recorded by Gildas were directed to Aetius and that the island had been facing a prolonged period of disturbance, the Britons may have already appealed to the Gallic magister militum (Agrippinus, 452-458, Avitus in the late 430s or even Aetius himself in the early 430s) and either received negative or no responses. The Britons might even have been encouraged to appeal directly to the top of the imperial military hierarchy.
The recognition of ‘Agitius’ as Aetius rather than Aegidius or Avitus has repercussions for the dating of this ‘groan’, particularly due to the ter consuli phrase. This is because it is known that Aetius held the consulship for the third time in 446 alongside Quintus Aurelius Symmachus (probably a grandson of the famous orator of same name), presenting an earliest point for this ‘groan’. It is well worth noting that in his use of Gildas’ recording of the gemitus britannorum, Bede, Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum I.13 specifically names not only Aetius but also his consular colleague of 446, Symmachus, and seems to connect the letter to this year.
It is sometimes stated that the latest this British plea could have been sent is 454 for Aetius held his fourth consulship in that year and would therefore not be referred to as ter consuli; however, the ‘Flavius Aetius’ to be consul in 454 is likely not the western magister militum, but an eastern comes domesticorum of the same name (Bagnall, Cameron, Schwartz and Worp (1989), 443).
The real reason for 454 being the latest for the gemitus Britannorum is that Aetius was assassinated by Valentinian III on 21 September 454 (Priscus fr.69). The time lag for news of Aetius’ death to reach Britain could push this groan back a few months, possibly into early 455, but not by much.
Had the gemitus Britannorum been addressed to Aegidius, this would have likely pushed the chronology of this event back a decade or so to c.458-465 as Aegidius was not magister militum per Gallias until 458 and then served as something of a quasi-ruler of a Roman enclave centred on Soissons from c.461 until his death in c.464/465.
There has been some attempt to narrow down this 446-455 period for the sending of the plea to Aetius. It could be that Aetius was present in Armorica in c.447-448 fighting the latest revolt of the Bagaudae, with his presence and that of his army attracting a letter sent directly to him (Mummey (2002), 74). However, it is unclear if Aetius was actually present in Armorica on this occasion. He might have campaigned there a decade earlier in 436 with his fellow general Littorius against the Bagaudae of Tibatto, with subsequent disorder perhaps leading to the settling of a group of Alans in northern Gaul to keep an eye on the Armorican Bagaudae (Chron. Gall. sa. 440, 442, 443). It may be this arrangement that saw to the attaching of Aetius’ name to the anti-Bagaudae campaign of 447-448 (Chron. Gall. sa. 448), which seems to have taken place under the Alans of Goar, seemingly ordered to intervene by Aetius rather than led by him in person.
Who were these ‘groaning Britons’?
Another question to ask is ‘who exactly are these Britons appealing to Rome?’ ‘Sub-Roman’ Britain would become a maelstrom of local magnates, invading/raiding barbarian tribes, and gradually the home to Celtic/German petty kings, but was this the case in the first half of the fifth century?
The picture painted by Zosimus in the first years of the decade are far less bleak than that of the gemitus britannorum letter (Mummey (2002), 72). Of course, Zosimus is not without his problems as a source, being detached from the period both chronologically and geographically, before any of his possible agenda is taken into account.
But even with decades of disruption and usurpation eating away at Romanised infrastructure, 350+ years of Roman rule still left Britain a highly-developed society and even without the legions and a sizeable chunk of the Roman administration, any subsequent decay will not have happened overnight.
But with the legions and imperial magistracies seemingly removed, who then was running Britain? It is difficult to completely rule out the continued existence of Roman governors, local commanders or other provincial hierarchies (Snyder (1998) 21), but the ‘Rescript of Honorius’ (if it is about Britain…) sees the emperor place the onus for the defence of Britain on the civitates, likely to be seen as the body of Roman citizens running the cities and towns of Britain (That Honorius does not follow the protocol of addressing his letter to a local governor or high-raking official may be telling of their lack of presence in Britain). This has given rise to calling c.409-455 the ‘British civitates’ period.
But for all the confidence that Zosimus ascribes to this civitates rule, the next forty years saw it faced with increasing ‘post-Roman’ hardship – there is a decline in stone buildings and mosaic production; a contraction of the British pottery industry to a local rather than province-wide trading concern and a significant economic decline, with gold and silver removed by departing legions, exiles and raiding barbarians. If they had not been cut definitively in 409-411, the fragmentation of Roman Gaul will have prevented any still existing conduits of precious metals and payments reaching Britain. Such a combination of stresses will have encouraged the decline of cities and civitates and the rise of powerful individuals.
That this letter was sent at all is surely evidence of the failure of the British civitates to secure peace and prosperity. It may be evidence of a significant divide in mid-fifth century British society – those with local interests vs those of imperial interests. Any such divide could see the letter to ‘Agitius’ presented as “the activity of a pro-imperial party” (Mummey (2002), 73).
Subsequent developments could provide further ammunition for the idea of a divide in the British leadership. By the mid/late 460s, it appears that a certain Riothamus, a Romano-Briton, was leading a British army in northern Gaul in support of the remaining imperial forces there against the advances of the Goths of Euric. Riothamus shared a correspondence with Sidonius Apollinaris and his activities may be mentioned by the likes of Jordanes and Gregory of Tours (There have even been attempts to connect Riothamus to King Arthur).
Was the army of Riothamus made up of British exiles, ejected from the island to take up residence in Armorica, which would become ‘Brittany’? Were they driven out of Britain by another ‘anti-imperial’ or even a ‘pro-Saxon’ faction? Could Riothamus, or men like him, setting himself up as something of a petty king have been part of the reason for the ‘inviting’ of the Saxon ‘foederati’?
It must be said that these ‘exiles’ in Brittany need not be evidence of division; rather of the increasing desperation with Riothamus looking to take refuge within ‘imperial’ territory in the face of the continued erosion of Romanised Britain. Regardless of its circumstances, Riothamus and his men could have taken significant resources, expertise and manpower with them to Armorica, further depleting the British economy.
Whoever this ‘Agitius’ was, when this plea was made to him and who by, it is clear that neither the Roman forces in Gaul or Italy were in any position to render assistance to the Britons against the Pictish, Irish and Germanic raiders – “But they got no help in return.” (Gildas, De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae 20.1).
What had been Roman Britain was left to fall further into the maelstrom, with power increasingly divesting upon regional strongmen – the ‘petty tyrants’ of Gildas’ day in the mid-sixth century.
Gildas himself and other medieval sources would have it that this failure of Roman imperial forces to render assistance to Britain led the locals – a pseudo-historical Vortigern? – to ‘invite’ the Saxons to the island as foederati to defend against the Irish, Picts and some of those burgeoning petty kings/tyrants (might Riothamus have been one of them, defeated and exiled as a result?).
The actual dating of the start of a Saxon foederati presence in Britain is still contentious, with literature showing some Germanic presence in Britain as early as the third century, while archaeology is increasingly presenting a growing Germanic presence before the so-called Roman withdrawal.
The presence of Germans in Britain before the 440s does not necessarily change the picture dramatically, even if there are some notions to suggest that if the Saxons were good foederati allies, could they have fought with the Britons against the Irish and Picts? The more likely scenario is that either these Saxons were invaders from the very start or they were foederati who the Britons failed to pay or give a vested interest in protecting British territory (such as through the hospitalitas system used by the empire). This in turn may have led to their rebellion and eventual conquest of much of what had been Roman Britain.
Unfortunately, there is not enough surviving material about the period to provide any kind of definitive identification of the barbarians attacking Britain – could Gildas be using a metaphor of barbarian attack to mean the Justinianic Plague? – or the circumstances in which they appeared. However, the ‘groans of the Britons’ seem to provide confirmation that something was happening to Britain in the 440s-450s; something which meant that at least part of the British civitates who may have so confidently enforced their independence, quasi- or full, from the Roman Empire in the first decades of the fifth century were now looking to Rome for aid. And when that aid did not come, a large section of what had been Roman Britain was taken over by local and foreign petty tyrants, with some of the Romano-British population migrating (or exiled) to the Continent.
Alcock, L. Arthur’s Britain: History And Archaeology A.D. 367-634. London (1971)
Bagnall, R.S., Cameron, Al., Schwartz, S.R. and Worp, K.A. Consuls of the Later Roman Empire. Oxford (1989)
Gerrard, J. The Ruin of Roman Britain An Archaeological Perspective. Cambridge (2013)
Halsall, G. Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568 Cambridge (2007)
Jones, M.E. and Casey, P.J. ‘The Date of the Letter of the Britons to Aetius,’ Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies 37 (1990) 281-290
Mattingly, D. An Imperial Possession: Britain in the Roman Empire. London (2006)
Miller, M. ‘Bede’s Use of Gildas,’ EHR 90 (1975) 241-261
Mummey, K. ‘The Groans of the Britons: Toward the British Civitates Period, Circa 406-455CE,’ Ex Post Factum 11 (2002) 65-78
O’Sullivan, T.D. The Excidio of Gildas: its Authenticity and Date. Leiden (1978)
Snyder, C.A. An Age of Tyrants: Britain and the Britons A.D. 400–600. University Park, PA (1998)
Speed, G. Towns in the Dark?: Urban Transformations from Late Roman Britain to Anglo-Saxon England. Oxford (2014)
In a previous blog entry, we looked at the story of Oroetes, the rebellious Lydian satrap of the Persian Empire in the 520s BC. In the course of the story of the satrap’s dealings with Polycrates of Samos, mention was made of a certain “Democedes, son of Calliphon, a man of Croton and the most skilful physician of his time,” (Herodotus III.125.1) whose reputation saw Croton considered the home of many a great physician (Herodotus III.131.2-3).
This mention might seem fleeting, perhaps merely deployed by Herodotus to demonstrate the influence of Polycrates in being able to bring such highly skilled individuals to his court. However, showing his abilities as a story-teller, Herodotus weaves the stories of Polycrates, Oroetes and Democedes into something of an over-arching narrative involving the initial contacts between the Persians and Greeks.
Democedes was born in the Greek colonial city of Croton in what would be considered the ‘ball of the Italian foot’ (Herodotus III.131.1). Having come into conflict with his father, Democedes left his home city and travelled to the Greek island of Aegina, where he quickly established an increasingly formidable reputation as a physician, despite not having access to many of the ‘cutting edge’ medical equipment of the age.
Herodotus III.131.2 highlights the growth in Democedes’ reputation as a doctor through how his fee increased over the space of just a few years. By the time of his second year in Aegina, he was being paid a talent by the Aeginetan government; the following year, the Athenians were giving him 100 pounds of silver, before in his fourth year away from Croton, Polycrates of Samos employed his medical services for two talents. Such was his reputation that Democedes not only commanded a huge fee to travel to the court of Polycrates, he also joined the inner circle and retinue of the tyrant.
Due to this lofty position, he found himself as part of Polycrates’ entourage for the tyrant’s ill-advised and ill-prophesised journey to Magnesia to meet the Lydian satrap, Oroetes. After seeing to the murder and crucifixion of Polycrates, Oroetes allowed all of the Samians in the tyrant’s entourage to return to Samos. However, those non-Samians were taken as prisoners and made slaves of the Persian state: this included Democedes of Croton.
Following the subsequent revolt and then assassination of Oroetes by Bagaeus on the order of Darius I, along with the other slaves and confiscated wealth of Polycrates, Democedes was shipped off to the Persian capital at Susa as spoils of the successful removals of the troublesome tyrant and satrap.
The now enslaved physician arrived in the dungeon of Susa to find the Persian king virtually crippled from a hunting accident. Leaping down from his horse, Darius landed badly to break or dislocate his ankle. The Egyptian doctors Darius had surrounded himself with only seemed to exacerbate the pain the king felt – “wrenching and forcing the foot made the evil continually greater” (Herodotus III.129.2.). Darius had faced a full week of sleepless nights before being informed by a member of his court of the presence of a skilled physician in the ranks of the slaves who had just arrived from Sardis.
Desperate for any remedy, the king had Democedes brought into his presence. His enslavement and the journey from Sardis to Susa had not been kind to the Croton doctor as he cut something of a wretched figure as he shambled into the Persian court “dragging fetters after him and clothed in rags” (Herodotus III.129.3).
Darius proceeded to enquire of this chained slave as to his medical proficiency, only for Democedes to deny his expertise because he felt that doing so would mean he would never be allowed to return home (Herodotus III.130.1). Unfortunately for Democedes, it seems that lying was not one of his more prominent skills, as Darius thought that Democedes was indeed hiding his abilities from him. The Persian king therefore ordered the doctor to be tortured in order to get to the truth.
Faced with this threat, Democedes admitted to having an understanding of medicine, although not a complete one, gaining his knowledge from a friend of another physician rather than through an education (Herodotus III.130.2). This still somewhat modest admittance saw Darius charge Democedes with fixing his injured foot, or to at least relieve him of the on-going pain, which was now such that the king may have felt that he would never regain full use of his foot.
The Croton doctor therefore set about applying his Greek techniques and medicines, which were less violent than the “wrenching and forcing” of the Egyptians. These drugs relieved enough of the pain for Darius to get some sleep. This in turn, along with perhaps some medically-induced reduction of swelling, may have aided the king’s recovery, for not long later, he was “perfectly well” (Herodotus III.130.3).
Such a miraculous healing saw Darius reward Democedes greatly, presenting the physician with two sets of golden fetters. A generous gift in terms of material value, but at the same time these may have presented a not-so-subtle message – Democedes was still the prisoner of the Persian king. Perhaps emboldened by the lack of subtlety in this gift, Democedes asked Darius “whether it was by design that he had given to him a double share of his suffering, because he had made him well” (Herodotus III.130.4). Rather than be annoyed by this bold retort, Darius was pleased by it and decided to further reward his new court physician.
The king sent Democedes to meet his numerous wives, who when informed by the harem eunuchs that this was the doctor who had given the King of Kings his life back, the royal wives showered him with gold. Each dipped a cup into a chest of gold coins, presenting the contents to Democedes. Such was the amount he received that it was said that his servant, a certain Skiton, who followed behind him and was allowed to keep any coins that Democedes dropped from his new-found fortune, himself became a rich man (Herodotus III.130.4-5).
Democedes also set about making himself popular with other members of the Persian court. He intervened with Darius regarding the king’s determination to have the Egyptian doctors impaled for their failure in healing him (Herodotus III.131.2). Might it be that Democedes recognised that the “wrenching and forcing” that the Egyptians had undertaken might actually have relocated the ankle joint, so that their only issue was being unable to provide Darius with any pain relief? Democedes also pointed out a certain Eleian prophet who had gone unnoticed amongst the Greek slaves brought to Susa, via Sardis, from Samos.
Such was the favour that Democedes enjoyed at the Persian court that he found himself living in a large house in Susa and becoming a frequent table-companion of Darius (the king surely wanted his new doctor on hand should he require medical attention). It would seem that the doctor of Croton had everything… except his freedom to return home… (Herodotus III.132.1).
As well as Darius, the Egyptian doctors and the unnamed Eleian prophet, Democedes also earned the good graces of Atossa, primary wife of Darius and daughter of Cyrus the Great (she had also been sister-wife of Cambyses II).
The Persian queen sought out Democedes’ skills when she found a lump on her breast. This could be a case of mastitis brought on potentially by Atossa’s breastfeeding (might she have had a wet nurse?) of the future Persian king, Xerxes, who was born in c.518BC (although the date of this interaction is not definitively known). It could have been something more insidious, but the fact that Democedes was able to treat Atossa successfully (Herodotus III.134.1) might suggest that it was not.
In return for his help, Democedes extracted a promise from Atossa, the nature of which he did not immediately reveal, aside from assuring the queen that it would not be “shameful” (Herodotus III.133.2)… unless some level of manipulation of the Persian King of Kings is to be considered ‘shameful’.
After her recovery, Democedes cashed in on the promise by asking Atossa to goad Darius into some great military undertaking, appealing to his want for glory, conquest and security at home.
“O king, though thou hast such great power, thou dost sit still, and dost not win in addition any nation or power for the Persians:  and yet it is reasonable that a man who is both young and master of much wealth should be seen to perform some great deed, in order that the Persians may know surely that he is a man by whom they are ruled. It is expedient indeed in two ways that thou shouldest do so, both in order that the Persians may know that their ruler is a man, and in order that they may be worn down by war and not have leisure to plot against thee.  For now thou mightest display some great deed, while thou art still young; seeing that as the body grows the spirit grows old also with it, and is blunted for every kind of action.”
Darius responded to this plea for glory by telling Atossa that he already had such a glorious campaign in the works – he was going to have a bridge of boats built across the Bosphorus, march into Europe and strike at the Scythians beyond the Danube (Herodotus III.134.1), an expedition that Darius did undertake with limited success in c.513BC.
This was not enough for Atossa. The queen pleaded with Darius to look for a more glorious conquest than the Scythians (even though her father, Cyrus the Great, had died fighting some of their number in Transoxiana). Why not invade Greece to furnish her with Spartan, Argive, Athenian and Corinthian attendants? She then suggests that the King of Kings already has a certain someone at his disposal who would provide extremely useful information about Greece – a certain Democedes of Croton.
Rather than jump at the opportunity for a fully-fledged invasion of Greece, Darius decided to send a reconnaissance mission with Democedes in order to find out useful information about the Greek world. He was also wary of the Crotonian doctor for when he summoned his 15 Persian spies, Darius warned them to keep an eye on Democedes – “take care not to let Demokedes escape from them, but bring him back at all costs” (Herodotus III.135.1).
The King then had Democedes come before him, asking the physician to guide his Persians across Greece and then return. Darius even tried to sweeten the deal by allowing Democedes to take many of the riches he had attained in Susa back home with him to give to his family. His reward for doing so and then returning east would be even greater riches than he had already attained and a royal contribution to the gifts to be given to Democedes’ family (Herodotus III.135.2)
While Herodotus felt that Darius was being earnest in his promises to Democedes, the physician thought that the Persian king was testing him in some way. He therefore decided to leave a lot of his belongings in Susa so that he would have them when he returned. He would only accept the merchant ship as a gift for his brothers from Darius. Perhaps in leaving his riches behind, Democedes thought that Darius would trust him more and/or not feel like the physician had robbed him should he not return east.
From Susa, Democedes and his escort/spies travelled to Phoenicia. At Sidon, they took up three ships – two triremes and a cargo ship filled “with all manner of goods” (Herodotus III.136.1) – and headed for Greece. Unfortunately, because Herodotus was either focused solely on telling the story of Democedes or was himself suffering from a lack of information, the journey of this small Persian fleet is recorded in only one brief but intriguing sentence: “touching at various places they saw the coast regions of it and wrote down a description, until at last, when they had seen the greater number of the famous places, they came to Taras in Italy” (Herodotus III.136.1).
It would be interesting to know where these Persian escorts/spies might have seen in Greece. What were to be considered the “famous places” in Greece in the late sixth century BC? Of the ‘Seven Wonders of the World’ in Greek territory, only the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus had been built by this point, but there were plenty of other things to see in Greece that might intrigue the Persian king, such as populations and trade to dominate and tax.
It might be thought that a group of inquisitive rather than acquisitive Persians would have raised suspicions amongst the various Greek populations they were bound to have come into contact with, even with a Crotonian Greek guiding them.
It may even be that it was this suspicion that Democedes hoped to take advantage of when he led the Persian ships to Megale Hellas – the part of southern Italy heavily colonised by Greeks, which just so happened to be where the city of Croton was situated…
Arriving in Taras/Tarentum, Democedes made some sort of appeal to Aristophilides, king of the Tarentines. Exactly how he managed this under the no doubt watchful eyes of his Persian companions is not recorded. Perhaps the physician was merely as blunt as accusing the Persians of being spies when they were in the presence of Aristophilides. Whatever the circumstances, the Tarentine ruler ordered the seizure and immobilising of the Persian vessels and the imprisonment of its crew on charges of spying (Herodotus III.136.2).
This imprisonment did not last long and when the Persians found themselves free and back about their ships, they discovered that Democedes had used their period of capture as an opportunity to escape back to Croton. Likely remembering the orders of Darius and possibly a little angry themselves, rather than return east, the Persian spies set sail for Croton, determined to recapture their ‘tour guide’.
Arriving in Croton, the Persians found Democedes in the marketplace and set about recapturing him, only for several Crotonians to come to his rescue. However, recognising that not all of the locals had stepped in, the Persian envoys/spies doubled down on the notion that it was fear of the Persian king that prevented all of Croton from protecting Democedes.
“Men of Croton, take care what ye are about: ye are rescuing a man who was a slave of king Darius and who ran away from him.  How, think you, will king Darius be content to receive such an insult; and how shall this which ye do be well for you, if ye take him away from us? Against what city, think you, shall we make expedition sooner than against this, and what city before this shall we endeavour to reduce to slavery?”
This threat did not dissuade the Crotonians from their protection of Democedes – had many Crotonians even heard of the Persian Empire, let alone realise that southern Italy was out of Darius’ reach? – and the intercession of Aristophilides in Tarentum seems to have deprived the Persians of their ship full of valuables with which they might have been able to bribe the Crotonians into handing over Democedes.
With their gambit having failed, the Persian spies had little recourse but to return home to Persia without visiting any more of Hellas. Before they departed, Democedes undertook one final gambit which may have saved the lives of himself and the departing envoys. He told them to inform Darius that he had become betrothed to the daughter of Milo of Croton, a famed six-time Olympic wrestling champion, who was held in high regard at the Persian court. Such a marriage to a favourite athlete of his might had satiated some of Darius’ anger.
However, the Persian spies were greatly hindered in bringing this message to Darius by the weather, which saw them shipwrecked and then enslaved in Apulia. There, they may well have remained had it not been for the interjection of another Tarentine, an exile by the name of Gillos. He freed the Persians and conveyed them back to the Persian court.
This is where Herodotus’ story of Democedes ends, as he does not return to him after his narrative switches to Gillos and his attempts to be restored to Tarentum with help from Knidos and through the patronage of Darius in return for facilitating the return of the Persian spies, an attempt that failed.
Herodotus does sum up this section of his history involving Polycrates of Samos, Oroetes, satrap of Lydia, Democedes of Croton and then Gillos of Taras as something of a connected story of how the Persians first came to be involved in Greece (Herodotus III.138.4), an involvement soon to expand to expeditions against specific Greek cities by the circumstances of the Ionian Revolt, leading first to the Battle of Marathon in 490BC and then the epic Persian invasion of Greece in 480-479BC.
However, while Democedes returning home to Croton cost him the vast fortune he had accrued in Susa, suggesting that it introduced the Persians to Greece and therefore bred thoughts of conquest seems more than a little reaching, even aetiological. Regardless of the words Democedes of Croton put in the mouth of Queen Atossa in order to facilitate his return home, the Persians were already almost certain to make some attempt at the conquest of Greece, having already planned and then executed a strike into Thrace and north to the Danube.