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Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Defining the Dark Ages - Part one

In defining the Dark Ages one must start with the period proceeding it to determine the events, wars and characters that led to the Roman withdrawal from Britain and western Europe. In these series of blogs I will briefly look at the history of Britain and to a lesser degree Europe, from the beginning of the fourth century AD to the beginning of the fifth.

Britain and Europe in the fourth Century.

Roman Britain at beginning of fifth century when the provinces had been split into five.
Britain at the beginning of the fourth century was a rich and prosperous one. The Romans had divided the country into two provinces Britannia Prima in the south and Britannia Secunda in the north, each with sub provinces or Caesariensis. These partitions were created by the Emperor Severus to try and limit the power of local generals to raise large armies against Rome. Although a good idea it did not stop further rebellion and in the future Britain was further split into four and then five different provinces, again for the same reason. The actual location though of the fifth provice Valentia is still debatable. Mak Wilson over on his blog Badonicus discusses the problems here. The governor (Consul) of Superior controlled the main bulk of the legionary armies and was based in London. Inferior was headed by a Praetorian rank and controlled smaller armies or frontier troops called Litanei and were based in York.

The local tribes of southern and eastern Britain were mostly of Belgic origin, having fled in various waves before and after defeat to Caesars’ Romans in Gaul in 60BC. The Belgic tribes themselves were Germanic in origin, who had taken on Celtic customs and culture. The interior and western tribes would have been indigenous Britons. But they were all in effect Roman citizens, Romanised Britons, still though with Celtic customs, local tribal leaders and a degree of the old pre Roman culture.

Society had spread out from the confines of the town and cities and the rich and powerful made their homes in their vast country estates, building fine villas. The population at this time must have reached about five million. Rome had brought new machinery and practices that increased the production of arable land, feeding not only the population of Britain but also exporting enough to feed the mouths of a hungry Europe. Cattle and sheep rearing had also benefited from this time of plenty to form much larger herds. The woodlands of Britain had been much cleared and at this time boundaries of hedges and fences had started to enclose rectangular fields and pasture. Towns were civilised places where trade was strong, sanitation sound and an educational system was in place to produce a basis for the continuation of the Roman way.  To some, the early part of the fourth century AD was a golden age of Britain under imperial Roman power.

The situation in Gaul was not quite as good. Gaul like Britain was partitioned into its provinces, Gallica Prima in the south (as it was nearest to Rome) and secunda in the North. Armorica in the north west much later became Brittany. In the west Aquitania, which was further subdivided into three parts. The tribes of Gaul were similar to Britain’s. Gauls were the Celts who were settled in the central regions and to the west in Armorica, the Belgae had settled in north and eastern Gaul , and pushed westwards into parts of Armorica as well. The Aquitanians were entirely different with a variety of tribes hence the three way partitions, but the northern region bordering on the Loire and Armorica was originally Pictish. The Picts were very similar to the Gauls and Belgae. All three appear to have spoken different languages or dialects perhaps. Here is a description of the Gauls given by Ammianus, a fourth Century Roman  Historian.:

Wounded Gallic warrior
“Nearly all the Gauls are of a lofty stature, fair, and of ruddy complexion; terrible from the sternness of their eyes, very quarrelsome, and of great pride and insolence. A whole troop of foreigners would not be able to withstand a single Gaul if he called his wife to his assistance, who is usually very strong, and with blue eyes; especially when, swelling her neck, gnashing her teeth, and brandishing her sallow arms of enormous size, she begins to strike blows mingled with kicks, as if they were so many missiles sent from the string of a catapult.
The voices of the generality are formidable and threatening, whether they are in good humour or angry: they are all exceedingly careful of cleanliness and neatness, nor in all the country, and most especially in Aquitania, could any man or woman, however poor, be seen either dirty or ragged.
The men of every age are equally inclined to war, and the old man and the man in the prime of life answer with equal zeal the call to arms, their bodies being hardened by their cold weather and by constant exercise, so that they are all inclined to despise dangers and terrors. Nor has any one of this nation ever mutilated his thumb from fear of the toils of war, as men have done in Italy, whom in their district are called Murci.
The nation is fond of wine, and of several kinds of liquor which resemble wine. And many individuals of the lower orders, whose senses have become impaired by continual intoxication, which the apophthegm of Cato defined to be a kind of voluntary madness, run about in all directions at random; so that there appears to be some point in that saying which is found in Cicero's oration in defence of Fonteius, "that henceforth the Gauls will drink their wine less strong than formerly," because forsooth they thought there was poison in it.”

We can see from this description that although the Gauls where hot tempered and fearsome warriors they also made sure that cleanliness and neatness where high priorities. Even the poor being made to dress well, suggesting some type of early welfare system where possibly local tribal leaders were responsible for the general well being of the whole tribe. You dont mess with their wives though ;-)

Barbarian raiding from across the Rhine by Frankish tribes had started in the late third century and had attacked the rich villa society of the open Gallic countryside. Many villas were abandoned in Gaul and Armorica and the people returned to towns which were then fortified and walls built to keep out raiders. This led to a movement of the rich nobility of Gaul to southern Britain were they built their new villas in the late third and early fourth Century. The situation in Gaul was brought under control by the efforts of Constantine the Great, Constantine I. He was proclaimed emperor of the Roman Empire in Britain at York in 306 AD soon after his father Constantius had died.  Constantine managed to bring the Rhine frontier under control and then the whole empire eventually, moving its capital to Constantinople. He was also a great supporter of Christianity and helped Christianity gain a foothold of power within the imperial system. Hans Polsander put’s it this way in his work on Constantine:

“By entrusting some government functions to the Christian clergy he actually made the church an agency of the imperial government”

This was an important move. As Christianity became more powerful it also became more involved in the workings of the Empire. Positions of power within government also became positions of power within the church. By the late fourth century and early fifth these positions of power were evident wherein Bishops came from the ruling nobility of the land.

Contantine I
Constantine the Greats legacy was one of stability and growth within his lifetime. When he died in 337 he was still wearing the white robes of a Christian neophyte, showing how far Christianity had come and how powerful its influence had been on those of the Empire. Although later Emperors would try to bring back the pagan ways or adopt alternative Christian creeds, the die was set and Catholic Christianity had a strong enough hold to come out on top by the end of the fourth Century.  Britain however, situated on the edge of the Empire was a breeding ground for alternative teachings such as Pelagianism and the Celtic churches attempts to remain independent from Roman doctrine. In one way this was good as without these dissentions we would probably know very little about subsequent fifth century Britain at all.

After 337 Constantine’s sons started to fight over the rights to the Empire. His son Constantine II took power in the west and started a wholesale genocide of his relatives to secure his position. His brother Constans now stood in his way, ruling in the eastern Empire. They met in battle at Equilea and Constantine was defeated. Constans how ruled both the east and west. He may have visited Britain sometime around 340 probably on a military campaign.(Ammianus).

Around this time the Irish started raiding the eastern coasts of Britain. Some started to settle North Wales and would eventually become a problem to Roman authorities within 20-30 years when Cunedda is brought down from northern Britain to expel them. At some point the Irish Desi tribe of Meath and Munster also started to settle southern and eastern Wales.

By 340 the villa society in Britain had increasingly succumbed to the same problems as those earlier in Gaul. Barbarian raiding by Picts, Franks, Angles, Frisians and other Germanic tribes had started to put pressure on these undefended rich Villa establishments. People started to move back to the cities and towns to better defend against such raids. It was at this time that Emperor Constans must have come to put down the Barbarian raids and re-establish order. 

In the next  part the start of the breakdown of Roman authority in Britain begins.
Copyright 2011. Dane Pestano.


  1. Great concise introduction to the period Dane. Just a couple of comments: not sure of the map of the five provinces you used as the argument that Valentia was where this map shows it is weak. (See blog at my site for moe details). You also didn't comment on some scholars contentions on Cunedda ever really coming south. (Personally, I would go towards him coming south). Was this just purely to keep it short and concise?



  2. Hi Mak,
    Yes, this was the only copyright free map I could find so used it :-). As you say, the location of Valentia is still open to question. Yes trying to keep it concise. The next parts are rather longer.

    The question of Cunedda coming south is a difficult one. Is the story merely pseudo-history? I dont know, the Britons certainly chased most of the Irish out of Northern Wales.

  3. I read a interesting recent (well, relatively recent!) article that touches on Cunedda:

    Harvey, David C., and Rhys Jones, ‘Custom and Habit(us): The Meaning of Traditions and Legends in Early Medieval Western Britain.’, Geografiska Annaler, Series B: Human Geography, 81 (1999), 223-233 .

    A freely available version is here:

    The authors suggest "it would appear likely that the version of history ensconced in the Cunedda legend would have been far more likely to have been accepted by the inhabitants of medieval Gwynedd if it in some way reflected or incorporated generally held beliefs regarding the migration of a group of individuals
    from somewhere in Scotland to north-west Wales .... We should appreciate, therefore, that there may well be some factual basis for the version of history that appears in the Cunedda tale."

    This is not to say that there is wide consensus on this view in the field, but the authors cite the following article (to which I do not have access!) in support of this idea: MILLER, M. (1978): "The foundation legends of Gwynedd in the Latin texts", Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies, 27: 517.

  4. It's interesting that the poem about him only mentions two battles, one in the northwest and one in the northeast of what is now England; no mention of North Wales at all. Also, he's mainly associated with southwest Wales and is remembered at Allt Cunedda in Dyfed. Not that this means he wasn't in North Wales and founded Gwynedd (or had something to do with it).

    Thanks for the clarification Dane.

    Look forward to reading the above, Carl.