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7. The End of Roman Britain

By the year 400 Britain had been part of the Roman empire for over 350 years. The people of Britain now thought of themselves as Romans and had done so for many generations.
A Roman family group. Illustration by Sarah Hall, Roman Britain
In the 3rd century (after about the year 250) hostile forces from outside the empire had begun to threaten many of its provinces, including Britain The Romans thought of these enemies as uncivilised barbarians. New forts were built on the coast to keep them out.
Portchester Castle - a 'Saxon Shore fort'. The Roman walls and bastions, built about 290, can be clearly seen while in the foreground are the remains of a medieval castle. Photo Patrick Ottaway with the kind permission of English Heritage.
In the 3rd and 4th centuries the Roman empire was weakened by disputes between rival army commanders competing to be emperor. Strong emperors like Constantine 'the Great' and Theodosius 'the Great' were able to prevent the empire from falling apart, but by about the year 400 the barbarians could no longer be resisted.
Modern bust of the Emperor Theodosius at his home town of Coca, Spain. Photo Patrick Ottaway
In the early 5th century the Roman empire lost control of Britain. Its people had to defend themselves as best they could against the Anglo-Saxons who came across the North Sea and colonised eastern England.
Illustration of an Anglo-Saxon warrior by Sarah Hall, Roman Britain

Late Roman Britain: a Province under Threat

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In the 3rd and 4th centuries Britain got caught up in the civil wars between rival emperors. In the late 3rd century a commander of the Channel fleet named Carausius claimed to be emperor, although he only ruled Britain and a bit of northern Gaul.
Coin of the rebel emperor, Carausius, who ruled Britain 287-293. Photo: Simon I Hill, York Archaeological Trust
In the 3rd century new forts were built along the south and east coasts of England because of the threat of barbarian raiders who, it was feared, might attack Britain from the sea.
The walls of the 'Saxon Shore fort' at Burgh Castle (Norfolk), built in the late 3rd century. Photo Patrick Ottaway
We know about a savage barbarian attack on Britain in the year 367 because it was written about by the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus. He reported that a Roman commander in Britain had been killed and another had been surrounded by the enemy!
Piece of late Roman red-painted pottery (Crambeck ware) showing a soldier with a sword in his right hand, an unidentified object in his left, and a large knife at his waist. Found in York. York Archaeological Trust
In the year 383 a Roman general in Britain named Magnus Maximus successfully defeated an invasion by the Picts who lived in Scotland, but he then weakened the defences of Britain by setting off for Gaul with his troops to try to become emperor.
Gold coin of the late Roman rebel emperor, Magnus Maximus (383-8).
Did you know? The term 'barbarian' comes from a Greek word. The Greeks thought that Greek was the only civilised language and that everyone else just said 'bar bar bar'!
Detail of a cavalryman's tombstone at Ribchester (Lancashire) showing a dying barbarian. Photo Simon I. Hill, Ribchester Museum Trust

Carausius: a Rebel Emperor

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Carausius was a commander of the British fleet in the late 3rd century. He was successful in capturing raiders and pirates, but started to keep their loot for himself instead of handing it in. He was found out and threatened with execution by the emperor. To avoid execution Carausius rebelled in the year 287 and created his own breakaway empire which included Britain and northern Gaul.
Coin of the rebel emperor, Carausius, who ruled Britain 287-293. Photo: Simon I Hill, York Archaeological Trust
Carausius launched a campaign to convince the British that he was the rightful emperor by using coins which show him as a typical Roman. The Romans despised Carausius and one writer dismissed him as a 'man of low birth'.
Roman milestone found 1.5km south of Carlisle. It was originally set up during the reign of the rebel emperor, Carausius (white lettering), and then turned upside down after his defeat and given a new inscription in the reign of Constantine the Great (306-37). Photo Simon I. Hill, Tullie House Museum, Carlisle
Carausius was murdered by his finance minister Allectus in the year 293. Allectus himself was defeated in the year 296 by the rightful emperor Constantius I.
Bronze coin of the Emperor Constantius I (305-6). The wording on the reverse reads GEN POP ROM, short for Genio Populusque Romanum, which means 'to the spirit of the Roman people'. The spirit, or genius, is shown holding a patera (vessel with a handle) and cornucopia (horn of plenty). The mint mark PLG means the coin was minted at Lyon (Lugdunum), in Gaul. York Archaeological Trust
In the year 306 Constantius I became the second Roman emperor to die in York. Constantius was succeeded by his son Constantine who we know as Constantine 'the Great'. He was proclaimed emperor in York by his father's troops.
Bronze coin of the Emperor Constantine I when he was heir to the throne (Caesar) in 306-7. On the reverse is a dedication to the 'spirit of the Roman people' (genio populi Romani) The mint mark is PLN = London. Yorkshire Museum, York

The Saxon Shore Forts

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The new forts built on the south and east coasts of England in the 3rd century are often referred to by archaeologists as the 'Saxon Shore Forts' because it is recorded that they were under the command of a Roman officer called the 'Count of the Saxon Shore'. He was supposed to prevent fierce Saxon raiders from attacking Britain.
Map of south-eastern England showing the 'Saxon Shore forts' which were built on the coast in the 3rd century. Roman Britain
At Burgh Castle in Norfolk there are towers which project from the line of the fort wall. Roman soldiers defending the fort could stop their enemies climbing up the walls or even digging underneath them if they stood on the top of the towers and shot arrows along the line of the walls.
The walls of the 'Saxon Shore fort' at Burgh Castle (Norfolk), built in the late 3rd century. Photo Patrick Ottaway
At Richborough in Kent you can still see the great thick, high walls which would have faced barbarian raiders trying to attack Roman Britain in the late 3rd and 4th centuries.
The late 3rd century defensive wall of Richborough Roman fort (Kent). Photo Simon I. Hill with the kind permission of English Heritage.
At Portchester Castle you can see that a Saxon Shore Fort had very thick and high stone walls as well as projecting towers called 'bastions'. The fort was so well-defended that inside the Roman walls at Portchester there is a medieval castle built about 700 years after the end of Roman Britain!
Bastion projecting from the wall of the Roman 'Saxon Shore fort' at Portchester Castle (Hampshire). Photo Patrick Ottaway

The Late Roman Army

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The army led by the Emperor Constantine was very different from the army which the Emperor Claudius had sent to conquer Britain over 250 years earlier. The main task of Constantine's army was to defend the empire not to conquer new territory.
A 4th century Roman soldier preparing a beacon for use at a Roman signal station on the Yorkshire coast. Drawing by Simon Chew, York Archaeological Trust
When the Romans invaded Britain in the year 43 they brought 40,000 men. 300 years later in the middle of the 4th century there were probably far fewer Roman soldiers in Britain. They had been ordered to fight in wars elsewhere in the empire.
Piece of late Roman red-painted pottery (Crambeck ware) showing a soldier with a sword in his right hand, an unidentified object in his left, and a large knife at his waist. Found in York. York Archaeological Trust
By the 4th century the auxiliary units had been stationed in their British forts for a very long time. The unit names still referred to parts of the empire where the soldiers had once been recruited many years before, but they were now recruited in Britain itself.
Reconstruction illustration of the west gate at the Roman fort at Birdoswald on Hadrian's Wall. Illustration by John Vallender, Cumbria County Council
In the 1st century the Roman army had fought battles in open country and were usually victorious, but in the 4th century Roman soldiers had to defend themselves behind their fort walls. This is why late Roman forts have strong stone walls and projecting towers known as 'bastions'.
Portchester Castle - a 'Saxon Shore fort'. The Roman walls and bastions, built about 290, can be clearly seen while in the foreground are the remains of a medieval castle. Photo Patrick Ottaway with the kind permission of English Heritage.
Many of the best soldiers in the late Roman army were barbarians recruited outside the empire. The father of Flavius Stilicho, who became the army chief of the Emperor Theodosius the Great, was a soldier from a German tribe known as the Vandals. Stilicho himself may have been the last general to defend Roman Britain against its enemies.
The Roman general Flavius Stilicho (died 409). Illustration by Sarah Hall, Roman Britain

The Barbarians

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The people the Romans called barbarians who threatened late Roman Britain came from several parts of northern Europe. Some of them wanted to raid Britain because they hoped to grab gold and silver from rich villa owners. Others wanted to settle here on good farming land.
  • The Saxons came from the north German coastal area, now known as Lower Saxony.
  • The Angles came from Angeln, an area in the Jutland peninsular now shared by Germany and Denmark.
  • The Picts lived in what is now Scotland. The word Picts comes from a Latin word meaning ' the painted people'. This must mean they had tattoos!
  • Just to confuse you the Scots, in Latin Scotti, were an Irish tribe in late Roman times. After the end of the Roman period the Scots settled in Scotland and gave the country its name.
Map showing the homelands of the barbarian peoples attacking Britain in the late Roman period. Roman Britain

Romans on the Yorkshire Coast

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After the barbarians attacked Britain in the year 367 the Romans probably realised how weak their coastal defences were on the Yorkshire coast. As a result they built a series of watch towers, often known as signal stations.
Map of the late Roman signal stations on the Yorkshire coast and other Roman sites and roads in the region. York Archaeological Trust
The Yorkshire signal stations were all built on high headlands overlooking beaches where an enemy might draw up his boats.
The site of the late Roman signal station at Scarborough, North Yorkshire, seen from the air. The traces of the ditch and central tower can be seen on the very edge of the cliff above the sea. Photo Patrick Ottaway
The signal stations had a massive central tower, probably about 20m high which stood in the middle of a courtyard. The courtyard was surrounded by a wall which had small towers at the corners. The whole site was then enclosed by a ditch.
Reconstruction of the late Roman signal station at Filey (North Yorkshire). Drawing by Simon Chew and Peter Marshall, York Archaeological Trust
The soldiers in the signal stations were supposed to warn local people of approaching enemies and summon the troops from forts inland. Sometimes they may have used lighted beacons on the tops of the towers to send a warning of danger.
Artist's impression of the late Roman signal station at Filey by night. Illustration by Simon Chew, York Archaeological Trust

The Last Years of Roman Britain

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Until about the time the Emperor Theodosius the Great died in the year 395 Britain was still a wealthy Roman province in spite of the barbarian raids. After 395 the Romans found it more and more difficult to defend Britain against barbarian attacks.
Modern bust of the Emperor Theodosius at his home town of Coca, Spain. Photo Patrick Ottaway
At the end of the 4th century the townspeople of Roman Britain could no longer make a living and had to go and work in the countryside leaving the town buildings to fall down.
An impression of Roman York in about the year 400 viewed from the south-west. The fortress is at the top on the far side of the River Ouse and the town (colonia) is on the near side of the river. Illustration by Patrick Ottaway
Rich people who were frightened of barbarian raids buried their treasure in the ground for safe-keeping.
Gold bracelets from the late Roman hoard of treasure from Hoxne (Norfolk). Licensed by the Trustees of the British Museum, The British Museum
After about the year 402 Roman coinage stopped coming to Britain. The soldiers were no longer paid and the Romans stopped collecting taxes. By about the year 410 Britain had ceased to be a part of the Roman empire!
Gold coin (solidus) of the Emperor Valentinian II (375-392). On the reverse are the emperors of the eastern and western empires holding a globe with a winged goddess of victory behind them. Yorkshire Museum, York
In 410 the Roman empire suffered a great disaster when a barbarian army of Goths broke into Rome itself. The Roman emperor, Honorius, living in Arles in the south of Gaul was too frightened about what was going to happen to him to worry about Britain.
A half dome in the Roman baths at Arles, France. Photo Patrick Ottaway
In the 5th century the people of Britain still saw themselves as Romans, but they could not defend themselves against the invading Anglo-Saxons. The towns and villas were now almost completely deserted.
Artist's reconstruction of Rockbourne Roman villa (Hampshire) falling down in the 5th century. Illustration by Michael Codd, Hampshire County Council Museum Service

The Death of a Roman Town

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By about the year 410 the population of a Roman town like York was very small. Many buildings and streets had been abandoned and soil had built up over the ruins. The traditional pleasures of town life at the baths, theatre and amphitheatre were long forgotten.
An impression of Roman York in about the year 400 viewed from the south-west. The fortress is at the top on the far side of the River Ouse and the town (colonia) is on the near side of the river. Illustration by Patrick Ottaway
In York the great Roman fortress was no longer manned by soldiers, but ordinary people may have lived here protected by its walls.
The 'Multangular Tower' at the west corner of the Roman fortress at York. The smaller stones in the lower half are Roman work and the larger stones above are medieval. Photo Lesley Collett
A stone building near the bridge over the river had been demolished and layers of earth and refuse had begun to build up over the remains.
Late Roman (4th century) dark coloured layers inside a Roman building in York (Wellington Row site). York Archaeological Trust.
A building which was probably a town bath house was abandoned. The picture shows one of its massive stone walls.
Stone wall of a large building in the Roman town at York. Note the arched opening made of tiles (blocked in late Roman times). York Archaeological Trust

Late Roman Treasure

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In Roman times there were no proper banks and wealthy people had to guard their valuable things carefully. One way of preventing barbarian raiders from grabbing valuables was to bury them in the ground. Fortunately for archaeologists they were not always recovered by their owners, perhaps because they had been killed in a raid!
Gold coin (solidus) of the Emperor Valentinian II (375-392). On the reverse are the emperors of the eastern and western empires holding a globe with a winged goddess of victory behind them. Yorkshire Museum, York
At a place called Hoxne in Norfolk a very large hoard of treasure was found which was buried some time after the year 407. This was at the very end of the Roman period in Britain when hostile raiders were threatening the area from all sides. The hoard included over 14,000 coins, a fantastic number. Most of them were silver, but over 500 were gold! The hoard also contained some stunning pieces of gold jewellery.
Gold bracelets from the late Roman hoard of treasure from Hoxne (Norfolk). Licensed by the Trustees of the British Museum, The British Museum
Perhaps the most beautiful object in the Hoxne hoard was a silver model of a panther.
Silver model of a tigress from the late Roman hoard of treasure from Hoxne (Norfolk). Licensed by the Trustees of the British Museum, The British Museum
This is the model of a late Roman empress in gilded silver which was used as a pepper pot. Notice her elaborate hair style and rich jewellery.
Model bust (about 10cm high) in gilded silver of a late Roman empress in the form of a pepper pot. Found in the late Roman hoard of treasure from Hoxne (Norfolk). Licensed by the Trustees of the British Museum, The British Museum

Roman Britons and Anglo-Saxons

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The first Anglo-Saxon settlers came to Britain from the countries which are now Denmark and north Germany in about the year 400. At first the Anglo-Saxons and Romans lived together peacefully.
Two 4th century Roman crossbow brooches from Winchester. Winchester Museums
In the first half of the 5th century the numbers of Anglo-Saxon settlers increased rapidly and by the year 500, much of south and east of England was ruled by Anglo-Saxon kings. British people may have survived by adopting the customs and culture of their new rulers.
Reconstructed Anglo-Saxon house at West Stow Anglo-Saxon village (Suffolk). Photo Patrick Ottaway with kind permission Suffolk County Council
Archaeologists can recognise areas settled by the Anglo-Saxons from their cemeteries because they buried their dead in a different way from the Romans. In the 5th century the Anglo-Saxons were often cremated and their ashes were buried in a pottery urn.
An Anglo-Saxon cremation urn. York Archaeological Trust
Although the Anglo-Saxons conquered much of England, Roman culture, along with Christianity and the Latin language, survived in the west of Britain, especially in Wales and Cornwall. In these areas you can see tombstones put up 100 or more years after the end of Roman Britain which still have Latin inscriptions on them.
6th - 8th century gravestone with Latin inscription from Rialton (Cornwall). The inscription reads: BO[N]EMIMORI TRIBUNI which may mean 'dedicated to Tribunus of good memory'. Photo R.A. Hall
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