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The Roman departure from Britain was completed by 410. The archaeological records of the final decades of Roman rule in Britain show undeniable signs of decay. Urban and villa life had grown less intense by the fourth quarter of the fourth century, pottery shards are not present in levels dating past 400, and coins minted past 402 are rare. When Constantine III was declared Emperor by his troops in 407 and crossed the Channel with the remaining units of the British garrison, Roman Britain effectively ended. The inhabitants were forced to look to their own defences and government – a fact made clear in a rescript the emperor Flavius Augustus Honorius sent them in 410.

Contents

History

Britain came under increasing pressure from barbarian attack on all sides towards the end of the 4th century, and troops were too few to mount an effective defence. The army rebelled and, after elevating two disappointing usurpers, chose a soldier, Constantine III, to become emperor in 407. He soon crossed to Gaul with an army and was defeated by Honorius; it is unclear how many troops remained or ever returned, or whether a commander-in-chief in Britain was ever reappointed. A Saxon incursion in 408 was apparently repelled by the Britons, and in 409 Zosimus records that the natives expelled the Roman civilian administration (although Zosimus may be referring to the Bacaudic rebellion of the Breton inhabitants of Armorica since he describes how, in the aftermath of the revolt, all of Armorica and the rest of Gaul followed the example of the Brettaniai). A later appeal for help by the British communities was rejected by the Emperor Honorius in 410. This apparent contradiction has been explained by EA Thompson as a peasant revolt against the landowning classes, with the latter group asking for Roman help; an uprising certainly occurred in Gaul at the time. With the higher levels of the military and civil government gone, administration and justice fell to municipal authorities, and small warlords gradually emerged all over Britain, still aspiring to Roman ideals and conventions. Laycock (Britannia the Failed State, 2008) has investigated this process of fragmentation and emphasised elements of continuity from the British tribes in the pre-Roman and Roman periods to the kingdoms that formed in the post-Roman period.

Historiography

The traditional view of historians, informed by the work of Michael Rostovtzeff, was of a widespread economic decline at the beginning of the fifth century. However, consistent archaeological evidence has told another story, and the accepted view is undergoing re-evaluation. The abandonment of some sites is now believed to be later than had formerly been thought. Many buildings changed use but were not destroyed. There were growing barbarian attacks, but these were focused on vulnerable rural settlements rather than towns. Some villas such as Great Casterton in Rutland and Hucclecote in Gloucestershire had new mosaic floors laid around this time, suggesting that economic problems may have been limited and patchy, although many suffered some decay before being abandoned in the fifth century; the story of Saint Patrick indicates that villas were still occupied until at least 430. New buildings were still going up in this period in Verulamium and Cirencester. Some urban centres, for example Canterbury, Cirencester, Wroxeter, Winchester and Gloucester, remained active during the fifth and sixth centuries, surrounded by large farming estates.

Urban life had generally grown less intense by the fourth quarter of the fourth century, and coins minted between 378 and 388 are very rare, indicating a likely combination of economic decline, diminishing numbers of troops, and problems with the payment of soldiers and officials. Coinage circulation increased during the 390s, although it never attained the levels of earlier decades. Copper coins are very rare after 402, although minted silver and gold coins from hoards indicate they were still present in the province even if they were not being spent. By 407 there were no new Roman coins going into circulation, and by 430 it is likely that coinage as a medium of exchange had been abandoned. Pottery mass production probably ended a decade or two previously; the rich continued to use metal and glass vessels, while the poor probably adopted leather or wooden ones.

Geoffrey of Monmouth's version

The remainder of this article covers the story of the Roman departure as told by Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, a possibly dubious and untrustworthy historical document.

Geoffrey of Monmouth writes in his Historia Regum Britanniae that the final call for help from Britain came following the assassination of Gracianus Municeps. As soon as he was killed, forces building in Ireland under the command of Melgan, the king of the Picts, invaded once again, this time bringing Scots, Norwegians, and Danes. Britain, stripped of all able-bodied men and women due to the adventurer Magnus Maximus's campaigns in Germany and Rome (383388), called to Rome for help. Rome responded with a legion of troops who swiftly destroyed the invaders' armies causing them to flee once more.

Once freed of the threat, Rome constructed one last wall between Albany and Deira but they required the Britons to help construct it and maintain it. After the wall was completed, the Romans announced their intent to leave the island once and for all. All the men of Britain were sent to Londinium to be trained in the ways of combat and to receive vast resources for building war machines and fortifications against attacks. Following that, the Roman legions left Britain never to return.

Immediately upon hearing of Rome's departure, the enemy kings attacked for a third time and seized all the land down to the newly-constructed wall, causing the Britons to flee. Cities were sacked and entire villages emptied or murdered. The Britons pleaded for aid from Rome once more, but Rome had abandoned Britain to the ravages of the invaders, so they asked Guithelinus, the Archbishop of London, to seek help from their Breton cousins in Brittany. Guithelinus went to Gaul and begged for help from Aldroenus, king of Brittany, who granted his request and sent his brother Constantine with two thousand soldiers to help save Britain from the invaders. Constantine fought against the invaders and rallied the Britons behind him. After defeating them he was crowned Constantine II of Britain (this same individual is also called Constantine III of Rome).

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Constantine III, the Roman usurper

According to Geoffrey's account, Constantine was murdered by a servant in the employ of Vortigern, who had designs on the throne. In reality, Constantine's troops declared him Western Roman Emperor in 407, and he took his armies to the continent to secure the claim. Britain was left defenseless, and Constantine was eventually killed in battle.

References

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