Monday, August 23, 2021

Pax Romana

I suppose I had long assumed that the Roman legions departed Britain in the fifth century in much the same way that western armies have now abandoned Afghanistan — packing up quietly in the night and making for the exits with barely a 'seeya, wouldn't wanna be ya', in effect leaving the locals to get on with the Dark Ages.

Truth is, it was a more complex and drawn-out process. 

It all began with what we now tend to refer to as a humanitarian crisis. Various Germanic tribal types had been living fairly peacefully at the edges of empire yet suddenly found themselves ruthlessly attacked in the rear by rampaging horse-borne Huns. The Romans kindly allowed the Goths safe passage over the border into full citizenship-land, and were very soon rueing that decision. 

The endemic insecurity provided by all these poorly-assimilated barbarians in the west led to some chopping and changing of the executive arm and its associated administrative hub, which shifted from Trier to Milan and back, with the imperial mint eventually settling in Ravenna, notably distant from our island. 

Britania had benefitted from close ties to the elite in Trier, then part of Gaul. As political and economic power was shunted further away, the province suffered. When London stopped minting coins in the late fourth century, the quantity of currency in circulation dropped off and one can assume the legionaries were not getting paid quite so formally or with the same regularity. 

The coins that do turn up in the archaeological record from after the start of the fifth century tend to have been clipped, presumably in order to recycle the edges into additional currency, such that the money ancient Brits had for their housekeeping was steadily shrinking in size. 

Industry was simultaneously collapsing with basic manufactured items like decent pottery and iron nails starting to vanish. 

This week, various high-minded Tory types with direct personal experience of the war in Afghanistan have been remonstrating about our apparently sudden withdrawal over there, making comparisons with the relative patience involved in other 'missions', such as Korea*. 

But on the Korean peninsula the Americans have been providing the same service that the Roman legions had in ancient Britain — peacekeeping — pretty much the opposite of what they have been up to much of the time in Afghanistan. And one must not forget that in the case of imperial subjects like us Brits, it was the local not the Italian taxpayers paying for all this pax, and as part of the deal they could not carry their own weapons.

The Roman armies began to depart Britain in chunks, not so much because they were ordered to, but because they kept rebelling against the big boss and marching off with their own alternative candidate, never to properly return. 

And that brought an all too obvious end to the Roman end of the bargain; peace. 

So then the civilians in turn revolted, declaring their distaste for central government in ways we are currently very familiar with, expelling Roman magistrates and setting up a plethora of their own alternative, rather localised systems — 'self-governing administrative units' familiar from shows like The Walking Dead, many fronted by despots. 'The King of the North' back then was one Coelius, 'Old King Cole' of the rhyme. 

Eventually, a final belated appeal was made to the emperor Honorius, who told the Brits to ede faecam, and thus ended the Roman era in Britain. 

I realise now that I am probably drawn to the parts of history where nobody can really say definitively what was going on. We can only really surmise how total the failure of civil society ultimately became at that time. It seems fairly certain that the clippety-clop of three of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse could be heard around the land, with a fourth, Conquest, very much on his way in the form of pagan Saxons. 

The idea of hiring a splinter group of these, famously led by a pair known to the legend as Henghist and Horsa, in order to help repel the raiders from overseas and up north, turned out not to be a particularly good one — though the Brits had some military success at the close of the century (i.e. Mons Badonica, 490), which eventually coagulated into the myth of King Arthur and Camelot. Some more on that another day, when I review The Green Knight. 

The Saxons took longer than the Taliban to complete their political ascendancy, roughly one hundred years, and tended at first to adhere to the old British tribal boundaries. At London they set up shop outside the city walls in the area now known as Aldwych, content to leave the native administrative and mercantile structures intact inside. 

These were epochs of quite startling changes of climate. The lucky Italians had timed their arrival to coincide with a period where the weather was warmer than at any time in subsequent history. At the moment of their departure conditions were markedly colder and wetter, and by the late sixth century sunlight was said to be at a premium, so the 'Dark Ages’ may have deserved their name in this respect at least. Alfred the Great is said to have invented a kind of clock that permitted him to predict when the sun would be veiled by fog. **

Unpredictable harvests were indeed bad, but it may have been a pandemic that finally settled matters in favour of the newcomers, as they appear to have been less susceptible than the natives to the great outbreak of Bubonic plague that reached Britain from the eastern Mediterranean in the mid-sixth century: the so-called Plague of Justinian. 

*In the 80s, given the number of US bases we then had, there was a tendency to refer to the UK as a 'floating aircraft carrier', yet surely all aircraft carriers float, and maybe islands don't?

** The climate improved markedly during the boom years of the eleventh and twelfth centuries only to tank again in time for the omni-shit fourteenth. 

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