What Made the Anglo-Saxons Capable of Conquering the Britons?

authun

Ad Honorem
Aug 2011
5,219
This is what Zosimus wrote: "The barbarians above the Rhine, assaulting everything at their pleasure, reduced both the inhabitants of Britain and some of the Celtic people ( the population of Celtica, the north-western part of Gaul) to defecting from Roman rule and living their own lives disassociated from the Roman law.
The use of barbarians to bolster the numbers of the roman military and in particular, allowing them into the officer class was one of the causes of dissention in the roman army. It started early on and they became increasingly reliant on them.


276 - 279 Probus defeats alemannic insurection around the Rhine and along with their leader Igillus "sent [them] to Britain, where they settled, and were subsequently very serviceable to the emperor when any insurrection broke out."
(Zosiumus)

306, Crocus, who is described as "Alamannorum rege," plays a key role in the accession of Constantine at York.
(Aurelius Victor)

372 Valentinian sends the Alamannic Fraomarius of the Bucinobantes (an alamannic canton), along with other Alamannic troops commanded by Bitheridius and Hortarius, to Britain.
(Ammianus Marcellinus)

The Bucinobantes were an alemannic canton around Mainz. They were troublesome from early on and sending them to Britain was one way of dealing with them. Around 260, they were raiding freely in Roman Gaul:



Many hoards of stolen goods have been found, one of the most spectacular in Neupotz, found in an oxbow lake of the Rhein.

 
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Peter Graham

Ad Honorem
Jan 2014
2,694
Westmorland
This is what Zosimus wrote: "The barbarians above the Rhine, assaulting everything at their pleasure, reduced both the inhabitants of Britain and some of the Celtic people ( the population of Celtica, the north-western part of Gaul) to defecting from Roman rule and living their own lives disassociated from the Roman law. The Britons, therefore, taking up arms and fighting on their own behalf, freed the "poleis" from the barbarians who were pressing upon them …..".
It's intriguing, isn't it? I often wonder what Zosimus meant by Roman rule? From 407 to 411, Britain was under the control of Constantine III, a usurper raised by the army in Britain. Almost immediately, he headed off to Gaul. It's tempting to think that he was raised as a local response by factions in the Gallic Praefecture who were concerned about the barbarians who were massing on the Rhine (or who had already crossed it, depending on the dating sequence you plump for) and the inability or unwillingness of Honorius to do anything about it. Although Constantine scored some initial successes in Gaul, his focus appeared to be on snatching imperial power rather than chasing the barbarians back into Germania. As of 409/410, the only rule that Britain could have thrown off was that of Constantine, who, as a usurper, may well not have been regarded as a legitmate source of 'Roman rule' by the likes of Zosimus.

Should we therefore regard the Honorian rescript (assuming it relates to Britain at all) as a response to an attempt by the British provinces to basically change sides from Constantine back to the legitimate emperor?

Whether or not the rescript relates to Britain, it is clear that no help was forthcoming. Yet here we have a further conundrum. If the Britons had been denuded of Roman troops and were unable to operate militarily without federate allies and if Woolf is right to regard the early fifth-century threat as more than a couple of boatloads of pirates, how was it that the Britons were able to stuff the barbarians sufficiently comprehensively that the northern Gauls were inspired to follow their example? And if this is what happened, how could it be that just one generation later, Britain apparently had to rely on foreign federates to defend itself?

Our next conundrum is that if Zosimus is right, the civitas system was still functioning effectively in Britain. 'Poleis' is the Greek word for 'cities' and, in this context, means basically 'city states'. In terms of Roman political administration, that meant the civitates, each one of which was governed from a town or city by Late Antiquity's equivalent of the County Council. Yet it is clear from archaeology that the urban centres of Britain were already in steep decline by the start of the fifth century. So who was was actually in control and where were they operating from? Does Constantius' reference to some local bigwig suggest a survival of the Roman system, but with power now centred on the rural estates of the men who had abandoned their town houses? That would certainly tally with Patrick's remarks about his father and grandfather, but we know the villa system was in crisis too.

It's all very confusing...
 
Nov 2008
1,437
England
As of 409/410, the only rule that Britain could have thrown off was that of Constantine, who, as a usurper, may well not have been regarded as a legitmate source of 'Roman rule' by the likes of Zosimus.

Should we therefore regard the Honorian rescript (assuming it relates to Britain at all) as a response to an attempt by the British provinces to basically change sides from Constantine back to the legitimate emperor?
You have made some perceptive points here, and from what I have read your views are in accord with current academic thinking. It is noticable though that all of Constantine`s coins found in Britain at this time are pre 407. This information you may also find of interest. From the period under discussion, proportionally Britain has the highest number of hoards than every other province in the Roman Empire. 58% of all silver coin hoards from the period AD 300 to 500 are found here and 62% of all precious metal hoards from the early 5th century are also found here. A strong case for evidence of times of stress.
 

Peter Graham

Ad Honorem
Jan 2014
2,694
Westmorland
. 58% of all silver coin hoards from the period AD 300 to 500 are found here and 62% of all precious metal hoards from the early 5th century are also found here. A strong case for evidence of times of stress.
I think you are right about the stress. I'll need to check it, but I seem to recall that the distribution of those coin hoards is slanted towards the villa zone of the south and east. So too are the finds of late fourth century Roman military metalwork (principally belt sets) which are associated with Roman office. It's hard to escape the conclusion that the lowlands and uplands of Britannia were on different courses by the turn of the fifth century.

Stress might well also account for the raising of three usurpers over the course of about a year (Constantine III being the last one - the other two got bumped off very quickly by the army). The raising of three usurpers in quick succession certainly has a whiff of panic about it, doesn't it? But I suppose we may need to allow for the fact that notwithstanding a political and presumably also an economic crisis at this time, some form of civilian and/or military administration survived in lowland Britain which was effective enough both to expel Constantine's bureaucracy and see off the barbarian threat. Yet what form could that have taken? It's maddening....
 

authun

Ad Honorem
Aug 2011
5,219
But I suppose we may need to allow for the fact that notwithstanding a political and presumably also an economic crisis at this time, some form of civilian and/or military administration survived in lowland Britain which was effective enough both to expel Constantine's bureaucracy and see off the barbarian threat. Yet what form could that have taken? It's maddening....

Cameron's proposed etymology for Tealby in Lincs, where stress indicators include things like grouping and fortification of villas (Formation of the Anglo Saxon Kingdom of Lindsey, ASSAH 10, K Leahy), is that the name is derived from the Taifali. Despite the name being similar to the Ostfali and the Westfali, the Taifali are associated with cavalry units who fight with the Goths in roman service. They may be of samartian origin. The Taifals, to use the anglicised name, were eventually settled in Gaul. The proposed etymology would be in keeping with the use of non roman military units during the roman civil strife and to shore up crumbling defences. Ironically, it was the use of groups associated with the goths that the roman aristocracy in the military objected to and which contributed to their troubles. Although the article below includes much opinion, it does nonetheless serve as an introduction. The wiki link above gives more information on the Taifali.

Tealby, the Taifali and the end of Roman Lincolnshire
 
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Peter Graham

Ad Honorem
Jan 2014
2,694
Westmorland

Peter Graham

Ad Honorem
Jan 2014
2,694
Westmorland
The proposed etymology would be in keeping with the use of non roman military units during the roman civil strife and to shore up crumbling defences.
Possibly, but I suppose that depends on whether we are arguing for the former or the latter explanation as set out in Green's article.

In the latter case, the Notitia Dignitatum only provides a terminus ante quem for when a unit was in garrison. The Equites Taifali could have been raised and posted as part of the earlier reforms which saw various cunei and numeri replace or augment the old style equitates and cohortes. They could be even earlier. In that context, that the Taifali were apparently old style equitates might be significant. However, given that such units could retain their unique name and probably also unique aspects of their equipment long after any ethnic distinctiveness had faded away, I suppose it's possible that the name endured and that Tealby is an eastern equivalent of somewhere like Birdoswald. That said, I don't know of any other places in Britain which take their modern name from the name of the Roman military detachment stationed there. York was sometimes called Sextus instead of Eboracum because of the longetivity of the posting of the Sixth Legion there, but that name didn't endure. Although I might be plain wrong, I don't know of any others.

For me, if the name does derive from Taifali, it seems more likely that the Taifali were part of a post-Roman migration from Gaul or wherever. Whether that makes them federates or something else is hard to tell, notwithstanding that Green's own views on the socio-political situation in post-Roman Lincolnshire (which was the subject of her PhD thesis and which was later turned into an article for the journal CMCS and then a book) are pretty clear as per my posts passim.
 
Last edited:
Dec 2009
969
UK
I am curious what allowed the Anglo-Saxons to have an edge over the native Britons. My understanding is that they were much smaller in number, and yet their language and culture largely survived both ruling over another ethnicity and the Norman conquest.
Briton had been cowed somewhat by living under Roman rule.

The whole of South Briton was under Roman sway meaning some of the most influential tribes like the Iceni were no longer.
Romano Briton did not have the tribes of Celts who were warriors ready to take on invaders.

Additionally, there was forces north of the Roman wall but in what's a good note of information for this thread ........ the Saxons defeated the Picts.

Saxons at this time were closer to Vikings than their English descendants, they were raiders and warlike, they had issue of survival back in Germania, their lands had been flooded increasing conflict with their neighbors and they also fought as mercenaries for the Romans on occasion, this coupled with what was an aggressive tribal climate in the Germanic Forests competing with Alemmani, Franks etc basically gave the Saxons an edge over the Britons.

If they hadn't beaten the Picts who were still a free and fierce Northern tribe then there could be some discussion, but the fact they beat the Picts for me rests any "Would of, could of, should of" of what the Brits would of been capable of vs the Saxons even without Roman rule.

To sum up I'm not sure Saxons could of invaded if the Iceni and the established Southern tribes were actually up and in place due to fiercer immediate resistance but overall ........ the Saxons were too much for the Britons at this time.
 
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