Romans AS Context

Romans   Roman_soldiers_with_aquilifer_signifer_centurio_70_aC

The Anglo-Saxon Context

Hlafdige Arastorm aka Tchipakkan mka Virginia Fair Richards-Taylor ©2015

To understand the Anglo-Saxons we need to understand the people with whom they interacted, what came before and after. This series of workshops looks at the surrounding cultures through the lens of their interaction with the Anglo-Saxons. This workshop focuses on the effects the Roman Empire had on the Anglo-Saxons. The Roman Empire continued in the East for centuries after Romulus Augustus gave up on it. The city of Rome still existed, and was important to Christian Anglo-Saxons, and the areas where Roman Provinces had been carried selected traditions forward. Certainly the Holy Roman Empire, although not the continuation it would like to have been, certainly drew on Roman traditions, and the Anglo-Saxons had to work with them.

The Romans came to Britain in 43 ce. The Emperor Claudius invaded with the excuse of having been invited to help one of the Atrebates to win back his crown from his enemy and, with one client kingdom, they continued beating the others, tribe by tribe and created the province of Britannia. Some tribes were willing to accept Roman rule, others fought back for longer. Boudica of the Icini famously led a revolt in 60, and by 84 Rome was at the maximum territory, although they soon pulled back to the more defensible Antonine Wall.

A bumper sticker reads “Rome didn’t become great by having meetings, it became great by killing anyone who opposed them.” Not quite so, the chances are good opposition weakened when being a part of Rome meant that in exchange for your taxes, you got a higher standard of living, cities with public baths, theaters, good roads to facilitate trade, a chance to export local goods and import both luxury and daily goods from the rest of the Empire. Taxes are inevitable, but peace and prosperity in exchange are not entirely objectionable. Of course, loss of theirr own land, and subversion of their culture meant that many resisted the new rulers.

The Romans never managed to push far into what is now the highlands of Scotland; in the second century two walls: Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine wall were built to guard that frontier against the Caledonions. The Picts continued to be a force on into the Anglo-Saxon Period. Neither did they manage to subdue Ireland- who kept up raiding across the Irish Sea (confusing for us, they were the Scots). Germanic raiders from the Oceanus Germanicus (Northern Sea) necessitated forts and a special command to protect towns on the east coast, and to create a post called “Count of the Saxon Shore”. The province was divided into upper and Lower Britannia under Severus, and into four under Diocletian, and later five. There was enough ongoing resistance to Roman rule to require significant presence of Legions to prevent further uprisings. This experience apparently was good training because Vespasian (69), Pertinax (193), and Gordian I (238), and Constantine (306) who led British legions all later became Roman Emperors.

The presence of the legions in turn required means to provide for them; imports and industries arose, and farms producing provisions that didn’t ship well. Foederati were given land when they were mustered out, and joined the local population as small farmers. Although there were gold, tin, copper and lead mines, oysters, salt, and coins, Britannia was not a source of wealth for the Empire, but rather a consumer, and when the legions left, most of this stopped as well.

The Celtic Tribes in Britannia, especially in the rural areas, never internalized Roman ways. Whereas other Provinces, as Roman bureaucracy failed, and Barbarians migrated in, for example the Visigothic in Spain, they kept the organization, and simply changed who was getting the taxes that were collected (at least until the arrival of the Moors). In Brittania, as soon as the legions were withdrawn to protect Rome, in 410 around the time Rome, the cities were mostly deserted, and tribal organization reasserted itself.

This did not mean that Rome was gone. Although the Western Empire was taken over by Gothic leaders, (Visigoths in Spain, Lombards in Italy, etc) the Eastern Roman Empire in Constantinople continued, although it constantly had to fight the Persian Empire, first the Sassanids, then the Islamic Caliphates. At the end of the Migration period, Justinian embarked on a reconquest that successfully annexed the old Roman Provinces of southern Italy, southern Spain, North Africa, Sicily, and other islands, which lasted until the Arab conquests and the Eastern Empire continued until 1453. After the Norman conquest, many displaced Saxon warriors went there to serve in the Varangian Guard. Also, while the city of Rome was reduced, it was still there. There was an entire Saxon Quarter in Rome, where merchants and pilgrims could find lodging (and people who spoke their language). Alfred the Great visited there, and sent money for its maintenance.

The Anglo-Saxons interacted with other Atlantic coastal kingdoms, as well as those around the Mediterranean and eastern Europe.


Clark, Gillian, Late Antiquity: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford U Press, 2011

Goffart, Walter, Barbarian Tides: The Migration Age and the Later Roman Empire (The Middle Ages Series) University of Pennsylvania Press 2009

Laycock, Stuart, UnRoman Britain: Exposing the Great Myth of Britannia , The History Press, 2010

Millward, James A., The Silk Road: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2013

Rosen, William, Justinian’s Flea: The First Great Plague and the End of the Roman Empire, Penguin  2007

Salway, Peter, Roman Britain: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford, 2002

Schultz, Josie Harrison, Tintagel

Ward-Perkins, Bryan, The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization , Oxford U P, 2006

Wickham, Chris, The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages 400-1000 (The Penguin History of Europe) Penguin Books; 2010

Map is from Euratlas (it looks much better in color)

Image of Caractecus from BBC I, Claudius because how many SCAers have talked about liming their hair?

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