Groans of the Britons: Wikis


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The Groans of the Britons (Latin: gemitus Britannorum[1]) is the name of the final appeal made on behalf of the post-Roman Romano-British governing class of Britain for assistance against foreign invasion. It describes a people in extreme danger and was an attempt to persuade the late Western Roman Empire to send troops across the English Channel to help defend its former subjects from the Saxons. The collapsing Roman Empire had few military resources to spare during the period referred to as the Decline of the Roman Empire and the record is ambiguous on what the response to the appeal was, if any.


The message

Dated by its text to the period between 446, when Aetius was consul for the third time, and 454, when he was consul for the fourth time,[2] the message is recorded by Gildas in his De Excidio Britanniae, written in the second quarter of the sixth century, and much later repeated by Bede, as being a last-ditch plea for assistance to Aëtius, military leader of the Western Roman Empire, who spent most of the 440s fighting insurgents in Gaul and Hispania; Leslie Alcock has raised a tentative possibility of the 'Agitius' to whom the gemitus is directed actually being Aegidius;[3] aside from Miller,[4] who leaves the possibility open, this has not been pursued. The usurper Constantine III had taken the last Roman troops from Britain in 407, and the civilian administration had been expelled by the natives a little later, leaving the inhabitants to fend for themselves during increasingly fraught times.

The plea as recorded by Gildas in De Excidio 1.20 reads:

To Agitius, thrice consul, the groans of the Britons... the barbarians drive us to the sea, the sea drives us to the barbarians, between these two means of death we are either killed or drowned.

Problems of interpretation

Barbarians refers to the Saxon settlers who had been living alongside the Britons since the 430s. Their attacks continued and no military assistance was ever sent. The second visit in around 446–7 by Germanus, a former Roman general who had become Bishop of Auxerre, recorded in Constantius' Vita,[5] could have reflected Aetius' response.

The reference to Aetius' third consulship (446) is useful in dating the increasing strife in Britain during this period. That Gildas' mention of the appeal is a minor part of a much larger religious polemic however, means that the image described may be more hyperbolic than realistic, especially as his sources were probably derived from oral tradition. The traditional picture of Romano-British society in post-Roman Britain as being besieged and chaotic is also being increasingly challenged by archaeological evidence. The viewpoint of Gildas is coloured by his classicizing rather than monastic education, based at some remove on the Roman education of a rhetor,[6] a source of his elaborated and difficult Latin.

Traditionally, the barbarian Saxons were settlers, invited by Vortigern to aid him in battling the Picts, but by 442 the Britons had lost control of their guests and Romano-British society was finally breaking down. Germanus had led the Britons to a great victory ten or fifteen years earlier and it may have been that he was sent by Aëtius in lieu of troops, to provide military and spiritual guidance to the Britons on how to defend and govern themselves.

The Anglo-Saxon settlement continued for many years, with perhaps a short interruption after the Battle of Mount Badon in the late 5th century, and eventually Celtic culture was almost entirely replaced in southern and eastern Great Britain.

See also


  1. ^ In full Agitio ter consuli gemitus Britannorum
  2. ^ In Michael Lapidge and David Dumville, eds. Gildas: New Approaches (Studies in Celtic History 5) 1984.
  3. ^ Alcock, Arthur's Britain, 1971:107: "Agitius is most reasonably identified with Aegidius... but Aegidius was never a consul." Alcock 1971 was critically reviewed by K.H. Jackson in Antiquity 47 (1973), noted by Thomas D. O'Sullivan, The De Excidio of Gildas :169 and notes.
  4. ^ Miller, "Bede's use of Gildas," EHR 90 (1975:247).
  5. ^ E.A. Thompson, ed. The De Excidio of Gildas
  6. ^ Michael Lapidge, "Gildas' education and the Latin culture of sub-Roman Britain', in Lapidge and Dumville 1984.


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