Is it better to speak of ‘fall’ or ‘transformation’ when discussing the shift from Roman to Anglo-Saxon Britain?

The date usually given as the final end of the Roman Empire in Britain is 410, as this is the date when Rome became incapable of sending troops to Britain for defence against Pictish attacks.[1] Examining history of this time period can be a daunting endeavour. There is little written record between approximately 400 and 600; knowledge from that time must be based almost entirely on archaeological evidence.[2] This essay examines whether the Roman Empire experience a massive collapse and was replaced by Anglo-Saxon culture, or whether Roman Culture gradually shifted to something which eventually came to be Anglo-Saxon. The word ‘fall’ in the essay title implies that the people of Romano-Britain became less prosperous, and aspects of Romano-British defined as Roman vanished. Transformation, on the other hand, implies that Roman culture gradually morphed into something recognisably Anglo-Saxon. By examining post-Roman economics, architecture, language and religion, this essay seeks to establish that both are true. Although the Roman Empire fell in Britain, it was still present in a diluted form before being subsumed into Anglo-Saxon culture. It is not appropriate to describe the shift from Roman to Anglo-Saxon Britain as either a fall or a transformation, but rather first a fall and then a transformation.

 

Perhaps the most convincing evidence of a Roman fall in Britain is the disappearance of a Roman material economy. Dated Roman coinage has been found all over Britain, but almost no coins have been discovered dated after around 400.[3] Though this isn’t evidence that people stopped using Roman coins after 400 (as old-coins are still useable), there had been times prior to the fifth century when no new coinage had arrived from Rome. During these occasions, Roman-Britons had minted their own coins. This did not happed after 410, indicating a fall of Roman economics.[4]  Despite this, there is evidence that Roman economics survived in a diluted form after 410. Rare post-410 Roman coins have been discovered in areas in which Roman settlements had previously existed, such as the farmstead Bradley Hill.[5]  In areas which developed after the withdrawal of the Romans however, no coins have been found. The Cornish fortress of Tintagel was an important economic and political hub in the fifth and sixth centuries and no coins from the period have been found there.[6] This implies that Roman civilisation underwent a fall as the use of coinage broke down so quickly after the exit of the Romans from Britain. It also indicates a transformation however, as Roman coinage still existed, but was used to a lesser degree. It demonstrates that Roman culture existed in a weakened form, still present, but unable to project itself into the rest of Britain.

 

In addition to coins, pottery was a staple of the Roman economy. After 410 in Britain, quality pottery which was ubiquitous during the Roman occupation, completely disappeared.[7] After the departure of Romans, British pottery production declined. There was none of the Roman quality of pots; pots found from this period are fragile, undecorated and handmade.[8] The decline in pottery is further evidence of sharp economic decline (and therefore a fall of the Romans) in Britain after the exit of the Romans in 410 as it shows Roman-Britons lived a poorer quality of life.

 

Evidence of a fallen Rome in Britain can be found in the architectural styles of the time. Architectural evidence suggests that Roman culture and tastes still existed in Britain following the exit of the Romans, but in not so grand a style. Wroxter was a Roman town which had been fallen from classical glory by 350, ending its stint gorgeous example of Roman architectural achievement and falling into use as a dilapidated shanty-town.[9] Archaeological evidence suggests that the shanty-town was later cleared and replaced with Roman-style structure. This featured a large, porticoed, stepped structure, possibly a temple of some kind or a public building.[10] Unlike the previous Roman structures however, it had been made with wood instead of stone.[11] The fact that Post-Roman Britain (at least in this specific area) clearly demonstrates Roman influence but that the structure could only be made from timber instead of Roman stone is evidence there was not an (immediately) transformation to Anglo-Saxon culture, but that a diluted Roman culture persisted.

 

There is evidence to suggest that the Roman Empire did not collapse so much as crumble away, and that this process began long before 410. It continued until the last remnants of Roman culture were totally dominated by Anglo-Saxon culture. Richard Reece argues that the decline of Roman Britain actually came much earlier, in the third century when towns, a staple of Roman political and social life, began to decrease in popularity.[12] Reece bases this on the fact that archaeological evidence suggests that, as with Wroxeter, towns fell into a state of abandonment and disrepair in the late third century.[13] Reece implies that the transformation away from Roman life happened much earlier than the established date of approximately 410. Guy Halsall counters this well, noting that by being Roman did not necessarily conform to a specific set of values throughout it’s entirety, though there is a difference between declining economic conditions and shifting cultural values.[14] The move away from towns and dilapidation of buildings however implies that an an economic recession was already beginning which culminated in the aforementioned drying up of currency and the destruction of the pottery industry, thus demonstrating the slow fall of the Roman Empire.

 

Anthropologists consider that language and culture are inextricably woven together.[15]  Therefore, one of the best ways to examine the shift from Roman to Anglo-Saxon Britain is through language. Arguments for a fallen Roman Empire, rather than an immediate transformation, are evident in the structure of even modern English. The Old English of the Anglo-Saxons (as with modern English) contains almost no loanwords from the Romano-British language, Brittonic.[16] This suggests that the Romano-British adopted Anglo-Saxon culture, and that Roman influence was not strong enough to project itself back onto the Anglo-Saxon culture, in this case language. Were Roman culture stronger in Britain, it is likely that the English language would have a flavour more similar to romance languages, such as French and Spanish. French and Spain These were regions also conquered by Germanic tribes, but their languages have a far greater Latinate influence, suggesting the Roman influence did not fall as greatly in these areas as it did in Britain.[17] There was some linguistic mixing however in the form of names. For a time, some people adopted both Germanic and Roman names. For example, in the sixth century there was a duke by the Anglo-Saxon name of Gundulf, who had a brother named Nicetius.[18] Though there is a suggestion that the name Gundulf was adopted upon entering the service of an Anglo-Saxon king, it nonetheless demonstrates a time of mixed naming practices. These practises are an example that there was a diluted Roman culture with enough presence in Britain to be gradually transformed to Anglo-Saxon culture. Unable to offer substantial resistance to Anglo-Saxon influences, a weakened Roman culture was gradually pushed out by Anglo-Saxon culture.

 

Analysis of religion is fairly anomalous in the context of this essay. Religious beliefs cannot fall, but one form of religious practice can be substituted for another. Therefore, religion is an example of an area where Post-Roman Britain experienced a transformation rather than a fall. Archaeological by researchers such as Charles Thomas has suggested that by the late 4th century, Britain was heavily Christianised.[19] This is reinforced by the fact that after 312, Roman Emperors were Christian and showed favouritism towards other Christians.[20] Though sources such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle point to a Christian Anglo-Saxon world (and it is indeed likely that some aspect of Christianity left by the Romans remained in Britain), most Anglo-Saxons in Britain were pagan, as is documented by seventh century missions to Britain.[21] This demonstrates that religion is another aspect of Roman culture which was transformed by the arrival of the Saxons. Christianity was reintroduced by arrival of St. Augustine in 759. This gives a rare example of Roman culture being preserved outside of Britain and being reintroduced to the Anglo-Saxons later.[22]  An area which can only be said to be a transformation is with regards to burial practice. There were two distinct burial practices amongst Anglo-Saxons. Sometimes, Saxons were cremated before their ashes were placed in urns which were buried in large cemeteries.[23] Although early Christian belief did not allow cremation, Rome was not fully Christian by 400, and cremation was fairly common practice, indicating neither a fall nor a particular transformation taking place. [24]   The second kind of funeral involved burial with grave-goods. Men were traditionally buried with weapons and women were buried with jewellery.[25] Burials with grave goods were seen as pagan practices, however. Though it has been argued that early Christian burials sometimes contained grave goods, some of the goods found in Anglo-Saxon burial contained depictions of Norse gods.[26] This demonstrates that the Christianity of Roman Britain transformed to pagan Anglo-Saxon religious practices.  Although it would be incorrect to describe changing religious practices as a fall, there was a definite transformation of religious practices with the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons in England.

 

Though the Anglo-Saxons were faced with a diluted Roman culture upon their arrival in Britain, they did not arrive until long after the fall of the Roman Empire. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states that the Saxons came to Britain in 449. [27]  This was more than a generation after the Romans had left Britain, suggesting that the transformation to Anglo-Saxon Britain occurred after the Roman Empire had fallen. It is important to remember however that The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was composed betwen 880 and the mid 12th century and so must be accepted cautiously.[28] Even once the Saxons arrived in Britain, it was in small settlements.  An early Anglo-Saxon “kingdom” was around the size of a modern county. These kingdoms were further divided into administrative areas called regionnes which were around a quarter the size of the Isle of Wight.[29]  The fragmented nature of Anglo-Saxon occupation of Britain suggests that influence they may have held was minimal and only focused in the eastern parts of the country. This is supported by tales of the semi-legendary battle of Badon-Hill, in which Roman-Britons fought Anglo-Saxons in around the year 500.[30] Roman-Britons were in great enough numbers to fight Saxon invaders, this is evidence that there was still a Roman identity in Britain. The fall of the Roman-Britons to Saxons despite Romans repelling the Saxons for centuries previous is evidence that the Roman influence in Britain was diluted and weak throughout and after the fifth century. The Post-Roman arrival of Anglo-Saxons and fragmented nature of their initial settlement is evidence that there was a transformation from Post-Roman Britain to Anglo-Saxon Britain after a Roman fall.

 

The arrival of the Anglo-Saxons is too far removed from the fall of the Roman Empire in Britain for this to be described as a transformation. The drastic change in the lifestyles and wellbeing of British, with evidence of weakened, lingering British culture is enough to describe the end of the Roman Empire as a fall. The fall of Roman Britain is additionally evident in declining economic prosperity in economics and styles of architecture. Architecture, as well as changes in nominative language indicate that there existed for some time after, a diluted Roman-ness to Britain which eventually transformed into Anglo-Saxon England. The British Roman Empire fell in 410 but it did not fall to the Anglo-Saxons.

 

 

[1] Frere, S.S. (1987), Britannia: A History of Roman Britain (3rd, revised ed.), London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, p. 355. All dates are in the Common Era.

[2] Wickham, C. (2009), The Inheritance of Rome: A History of Europe from 400 to 1000. London: Allen Lane, p. 156

[3] Ward-Perkins, B. (2005), The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilisation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 112

[4] Halsall, G. (2013), Worlds of Arthur. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p.175

[5] Ibid), p. 112

[6] Ibid, p. 112

[7] Ward-Perkins, p. 106

[8] Halsall (2013), p. 175

[9] Wood, M. (2005) In Search of the Dark Ages. St. Ives: Random House, p. 47

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Reece, R. (1980) ‘Town and Country: The End of Roman Britain’, World Archaeology, 12(1), pp. 77–92 p. 77

[13] Ibid, p. 78

[14] Halsall (2013) p. 89

[15] Davis, W. (2007) Dreams from endangered cultures. Available at: https://www.ted.com/talks/wade_davis_on_endangered_cultures (Accessed: 24 October 2015).

[16] Wickam, p. 157

[17] Wickham, p. xvi-xvii

[18] Halsall, G. (2007), Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 469

[19] Halsall (2013), p. 123

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid, p. 279

[22] Ibid, p. 20

[23] Ibid, p. 26.

[24] Wickam, p. 52 and Shelton, J.-A. (1998) As The Romans Did: A Sourcebook in Roman Social History. 2nd edn. New York: Oxford University Press, USA, p. 94

[25] Halsall (2007), 384

[26] Halsall (2013) 32

[27] Ibid, p. 69

[28] Ibid, p. 69

[29] Wickam, p. 156

[30] Wood, p. 51

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