British History, 407-597, by Fabio P. Barbieri

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Appendix 4: Procopius and Britain

Fabio P. Barbieri


In spite of the ingrained scepticism of the historical mind, one explanation not very often put forwards for the vagaries of sources is the simplest - they lied.  Historians prefer to focus on the flaws and prejudices of individual viewpoints, the areas of ignorance and skewed vision, and the errors in transmission; but they tend to assume that the witnesses will have written in good faith.

This, surely, is a good thing.  To assume that a witness is, not just honestly mistaken or partial, but consciously lying, is not a recipe for sane debate.  But there are such things as liars, methodical, deliberate, and wide-ranging; and if some of them are - directly or indirectly - a major source, then we have a problem.

The huge cycle of histories of Procopius of Caesarea is our practically sole contemporary narrative source for mid-sixth-century Britain apart from St.Gildas.  There are a series of mentions of the country:

1)- in the Anekdota or Secret history, British ambassadors are mentioned as the most distant among the "barbarians" who took advantage of the emperor's vainglorious liberality by multiplying embassies to take advantage of his fat donatives (19.13);

2)- early in his account of the wars in Italy, he mentions that when the Roman Empire was divided, Britain, the largest island in the world, had been allotted to the West (3.1.18); that Constantine III, supported by the army, usurped the throne of the West (3.2.31); and that after his fall, the empire could never recover the island, which remained in the hands of tyrants or usurpers (3.2.38);

3)- that "the misfortunes of Britain" were famous as far as the city of Rome (5.24.36);

4)- that Britain was offered to the Ostrogoths at the beginning of the war in exchange for Sicily (6.6.28).

The first, third and fourth items come from Procopius' personal experience and may be relied upon, as far as they go.  It is interesting to find that "the misfortunes of Britain" were a well-known commonplace in sixth-century Rome and had found their way into the Sybilline books; and while the news that communications between Britain and Byzantium were so close and frequent that British ambassadors came in a steady flow to take advantage of Justinian's vainglory, and that, in the other direction, Justinian and Belisarius felt perfectly able to offer the great tribe of the Ostrogoths free passage to Britain in the keels of ships that knew the route - tells us little that we did not know (given the huge archaeological evidence of massive trade between the Byzantine east Mediterranean and sixth-century Britain), it adds dimension and interest to the archaeological material (and to Gildas' veiled hints of possible seaborne invasions from "Rome").  The second item, Procopius got out of books, and did not make a very good job of it either.  He did not mention the two usurpers who preceded Constantine III, Gratianus and Marcus; he placed his usurpation before the great barbarian invasion of 406-7; and, in conflict with contemporary sources, he made Constantine out to be a man of no unknown origin, while Orosius, who was well informed about British matters, said that he had come from the lowest rank of soldiery.

In other words, Procopius on fifth-century Britain is either useless - replicating earlier and better sources - or positively harmful, misrepresenting the results of rushed and superficial readings.  Only two items have any interest: his claim that Constantine III was a man of renown might reflect on contemporary sixth-century views of the usurper, who certainly was remembered much later as the hero who first wore the crown of Britain; and the mention of "tyrants" who followed him in ruling Britain - all Britain, the whole of that Roman Britain which had previously "fallen to the lot of the Western Empire" - shows that he had heard of a succession of monarchs ruling the whole of the formerly Roman territory in the island.  On the other hand, he had not heard of the Saxon revolt of 442, which may suggest that his informant wrote before it happened; and when he got around to a description of Britain which included two settled tribes of Germanic barbarians, he did not recognize it.

His longest, and most contemporary, description of Britain, is part of the report of the collapse of an attempted marriage alliance between the great Frankish king Theudibert and the royal family of a neighbouring Germanic tribe, the Varni[1]: the king who had married Theudebert's sister died untimely, and his son seems to have refused to marry his stepmother.  A romantic legend of a spurned English bride was concocted[2], no doubt to spare Frankish blushes[3].  In this description, part of a long single episode in his eighth book, the island across the Channel from Gaul and the mouths of the Rhine, is called Brittia and is seen as quite separate from Britain.

8.20.1.At about this time war and fighting sprang up between the nation of the Varni and the soldiers[4] who live on the island called Brittia; and it came about from the following reason.  2. The Varni dwell beyond the River Ister and extend as far as the northern ocean along the river Rhine, which separates them from the Franks and the other nations who dwell in that region. 3. Now among all these nations, which in ancient times dwelt on both sides of the Rhine, each people has its particular name, but the whole group was called, in common, Germans.  4. The island of Brittia lies in this part of the ocean, not far from the coast, being about 200 stades off[5] and approximately opposite the mouth of the Rhine and between the islands of Britain and Thule. 5. For while Britain lies to the west about in line with the furthest ends of Spain, separated from the continent by at least 400 stades distance[6], Brittia is towards the rear of Gaul, namely that side which faces the ocean, being, that is, to the north of both Spain and Gaul.  6. And Thule, as far as men know at any rate, is situated towards the extremity of the northern ocean[7].

The island of Brittia is inhabited by three very populous nations (ethne tria polyanthropotata) each having a king (basileus) over it.  7. And the names of these nations are Angiloi, Frissones and those of one name with the island (homonymoi), Brttones.  8. And so great appears to be the population of these three nations, that every year they emigrate thence in large companies and go to the land of the Franks.  9. And the Franks allow them to settle in the part of their land which appears to be more deserted; and by this means they say that they are winning over the island.  10. Thus it actually happened that not long ago, the king of the Franks, in sending over some of his intimates on an embassy to Basileus Justinian in Byzantium, sent with them some of the Angiloi, thus seeking to establish his claim that the island was ruled by him[8].  Such are the facts relating to the island that is called Brittia.

11. The Varni, not long ago, were ruled by a man called Hermegisclus.  He, being eager to strengthen his kingship (basileion), had made the sister of Theudebert, first (archoutos) of the Franks, his wedded wife.  12. For his previous wife had died recently, having been the mother of one child, Radigis by name, whom she left to his father, and he sought a marriage for this child with a maiden born in Brittia, whose brother was then king of the nation of the Angiloi, and had given her a large sum of money because of his wooing.

13. Now, this man, while riding with the most notable of the Varni in a certain place, saw a bird sitting in a tree and croaking loudly.  14. And whether he really comprehended the bird's voice, or possessing some other knowledge, simply made a mysterious pretence of comprehending the bird's prophecy, he at any rate told those with him that he would die forty days later.  15. For this, he said, was revealed to him by the pronouncement of the bird.  "Now I", he said, "making provision that you should live most securely and at your ease[9], have related myself with the Franks by marriage, and I have bestowed Brittia on my son by betrothal[10].  16. But now, since I expect to die very shortly, and, as far as this wife is concerned, I am without issue male or female, and my son, furthermore, is still unwed and without his bride; come now, let me communicate my thought to you, and, if it should seem to you not without some profit, do you, as soon as I reach the term of my life, put upon it the seal of your approval and execute it.  17. I think, then, that it will be more to the advantage of the Varni to make the alliance by marriage with the Franks, than with the islanders.  18. For the Brittioi on the one hand are not even able to join forces with you except after a long and most difficult journey, while the Varni and Franks, on the other hand, have only yonder[11] water of the Rhine between them[12], so that being very close neighbours to you and having achieved an enormous power, have the means ready at hand both to help you and to harm you whenever they wish; and they will indubitably harm you if the said marriage alliance shall not prevent them.  19. For men naturally find a neighbouring state's power, when it surpasses their own, grievous and a most ready cause of injustice, for a powerful neighbour may with comparative ease secure causes of war against his neighbours who are doing no wrong[13].  20. Since, then the facts are these, let the island[14] girl who has been wooed for this boy be given up by you, and all the money which she has received by us for this purpose, let her retain as remuneration for this indignity; but let my son Radigis be married to his own stepmother henceforth, just as our ancestral law permits us[15]."

21. So he spoke, and on the fortieth day from the pronouncement he fell sick and fulfilled his destiny.  22. Then the son of Hermegisclus, after taking over the kingdom of the Varni, by the will of the notable men among these barbarians, carried out the counsel of the dead king[16], and straightaway renouncing his marriage with his betrothed, became wedded to his stepmother.  22. But when the betrothed of Radigis learned this, she could not bear the indignity of her position and undertook to secure revenge with him for his insult to her.  23. For so highly is virtue regarded among these barbarians[17] that when merely the name of marriage has been mentioned[18]among them, though the fact has not been accomplished, the woman is considered as having lost her maidenhood.

24. First, then she sent an embassy to him of some of her kinsmen, and inquired for what reason he had insulted her, though she had neither been unfaithful nor done him any wrong.  25. But since she was unable to accomplish anything by this means, she took up the duties of a man and proceeded to deeds of war[19].  26. She accordingly collected 400 ships (sic!) immediately (sic!!) and put on board them an army of not fewer than 100,000 fighting men (sic!!!)[20], and she in person led forth this expedition against the Varni.  27. And she took with her one of her brothers, who was to assist her in settling the situation; not that he was holding the kingship, for he was still living in the position of a private citizen[21].  28. Now these islanders are valiant beyond any of the barbarians we know, and they enter battle on foot.  29. And this is not merely because they are unpractised in horsemanship, but the fact is that they do not even know what a horse is, since they never see so much as a picture of a horse in that island; for it is clear that this animal has at no time lived in Brittia.  30. And whenever it happens that some of them on an embassy or some other mission, make a visit among the Romans or the Franks or any other nation which has horses, and they are there constrained to ride on horseback, they are altogether unable to leap upon their backs, but other men lift them up in the air, and thus mount them on the horses, and when they wish to get off, they are again lifted and placed on the ground.  31. Nor in fact are the Varni horsemen either, but they too march on foot.  Such, then, are these barbarians.  And there were no supernumeraries on the fleet, for all men rowed with their own hands.  Nor do these islanders have sails, as it happens, but they always navigate by rowing alone[22].

32. When they came to land on the Continent, the maiden who commanded them, having established a strong stockade close by the mouth of the Rhine[23] river, remained there with a small number, but commanded her brother to lead forwards all the rest of the army against the enemy.  33. So when the Angiloi reached that place, marching swiftly, the two armies engaged in combat with one another, and the Varni were defeated decisively.  34. And many of them fell in this struggle, while the entire number of those remaining, together with the king, turned to retreat; and the Angiloi, after keeping up the pursuit for only a short time as is customary for infantry[24], returned to camp.  35. But the maiden rebuked them when they returned to her, and inveighed most heavily against her brother, declaring that nothing worthy of mention had been achieved by the army because they had not brought her Radigis alive.  34. She then selected the most warlike men among them and sent them off straightaway, instructing them to bring the man captive without fail  37. Then, by way of carrying out her mission, these men went about searching that whole country thoroughly, until they had found Radigis hiding in a dense wood; then they bound him and took him back to the girl.

38. So he stood before her eyes trembling and expecting die instantly by the most cruel death; she, however, contrary to his expectations, neither killed him nor inflicted any other harm upon him, but, by way of reproaching him for his insult to her, inquired of the fellow why in the world he had made light of the agreement and allied himself to another woman, and that though his betrothed had not been unfaithful.  39. And he, seeking to defend himself against the charge, brought forwards the commands of his father and the zeal of his subjects, and he uttered words of supplication and mingled many prayers with his defence, excusing his actions by the stress of necessity.  40. And if it was her will that they should be married, he promised that what had been done unjustly in the past would be repaid by his subsequent conduct.  41. Now when this was approved by the girl and Radigis had been released from his bonds and received kind treatment in all other matters, he straightaway dismissed the sister of Theudebert and married the girl from Brittia.  Thus did these events take place.

This is followed by a couple of fables in the general area of death and the otherworld, of flagrantly pagan cast and certainly Gaulish origin: that a part of Brittia had been fenced off from the rest to be a land of the dead (so that any living thing that crossed the fence died) and that, coincidentally, a village or villages on the coast of Gaul were remitted taxes for their supposed task of ferrying the souls of the dead to Brittia.  Procopius claimed to have heard the story of the ferrying of the dead from people who had actually experienced it, but for once even his credulity was strained, and he attributed the whole story, however frequently repeated to him, to dreams.  As it evidently reflects on the Gaulish view of Britain rather than on Britain itself[25], it is of no interest to us, except that some scholars - for reasons best known to themselves - have decided that a fence running north to south and separating the world of the living from the world of the dead is the same as a wall running east to west and separating Roman Britain from the barbarians, and that Procopius' informants were speaking of the Wall; not, one would think, a very safe deduction.

The origin of the story, with all the notices it embodies, is fairly obvious from the text....so great appears to be the population of these three nations, that every year they emigrate thence in large companies and go to the land of the Franks.  9. And the Franks allow them to settle in the part of their land which appers to be more deserted; and by this means they say that they are winning over the island.  10. Thus it actually happened that not long ago, the king of the Franks, in sending over some of his intimates on an embassy to Basileus Justinian in Byzantium, sent with them some of the Angiloi, thus seeking to establish his claim that the island was ruled by him... The embassy was of very high status ("some of his intimates", men next to the king in rank), and will hardly have been either small in number or short in duration.  There is another allusion to the presence of English in an embassy "to the Romans" in an episode that seems to have fixed the character of the Angiloi in Procopius' mind, and which he must therefore have witnessed in person: these islanders... enter battle on foot.  29. And this is not merely because they are unpractised in horsemanship, but the fact is that they do not even know what a horse is, since they never see so much as a picture of a horse in that island; for it is clear that this animal has at no time lived in Brittia.  30. And whenever it happens that some of them on an embassy or some other mission, make a visit among the Romans or the Franks or any other nation which has horses, and they are there constrained to ride on horseback, they are altogether unable to leap upon their backs, but other men lift them up in the air, and thus mount them on the horses, and when they wish to get off, they are again lifted and placed on the ground.

If Procopius got his idea of the military nature and horseless condition of the English from their representatives in Theudebert’s mission, then it stands to reason that all his other information in 8.20.1-41 is from them.  It is all clearly related: the English are with Theudebert’s envoys because he wants to prove - as the story's exordium says - that the English settled on the continent are under his sovereignty, and those in "Brittia" under influence; and the story of the jilted English princess accounts for a setback of Theudebert’s, a severe one - rebuffs hardly come more serious than to have the king's own sister sent home.  Even the tale of the Land of the Dead somewhere in Brittia has to do with the Frankish claim to rule the coasts of Gaul, even where they exact no tribute.

I think we can almost put a name on these "intimates" of Theudebert's.  "Asteriolus and Secundinus enjoyed great credit with king Theudebert.  They were both of them educated men, well-trained in the humanities.  Secundinus had led several embassies to the Emperor as the representative of Theudebert, and this had made him boastful and often outrageous in his behaviour..." - Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, 3.33.  And Secundinus was not too civilized to come to blows with his rival Asteriolus and eventually to murder him.  Quite a good reliable person for an embassy; a man of high unblemished character; a man who would not tell lies!  If he had managed to lie to the Greeks up hill and down dale, it is easy to imagine how his already swollen self-regard would have grown to dangerous, even murderous heights; at any rate, this shows that information coming from Frankish embassies from Theudebert were apt to be tainted, if nothing else, by the extremely bad character of his envoy.

To attribute all the nonsense here produced to Frankish envoys alone would not be wholly fair.  Some of the silliest, if not of the most fantastic, errors, have the fingerprints of Procopius himself.  For instance, his absurd notice that the Varni abutted on the North Sea, Rhine and Danube, clearly comes out of ancient and now invalid Roman geography.  He has simply placed the ancient border between Romans and barbarians - outdated since the Franks and Alamanni built large states on both sides of the two rivers - between the Franks and their neighbours; for which the Franks, whose heartland was the Rhine valley and who held the upper Danube and claimed suzerainty over Baiovaria, would not thank him.  Procopius was, as I pointed out, not a trained historian; and I doubt that any trained historian would have simply applied a superficially appropriate, but really irrelevant category such as the time-honoured but now time-worn geographical division between the civilized and the savage world, to the contemporary entities Varni and Franks.  To Procopius, the Franks were part of the Roman world, the Varni were not - hence the former were this side of the Rhine and Danube, the latter beyond.  There is even what looks like a direct quotation of that kind of outdated Roman geographical tract, when he says, in a completely pointless aside, that among all these nations, which in ancient times dwelt on both sides of the Rhine, each people has its particular name, but the whole group was called, in common, Germans, which actually contradicts another notice (5.12.9-11).  Indeed, the whole picture comes from bookish Roman notions: when he says that Thule, "as far as men know at any rate", lies in the far north of the ocean, he is unconsciously identifying "men" with "Romans".

So Procopius misapplied his moderate learning because of his tendency to think in grooves.  However, all the most outrageous lies and oddities, whatever their origin, serve a Frankish purpose.  It is possible to imagine that Procopius may have failed to connect the Brittia of the Franks, with its three barbarian tribes, with the Britain of his literary sources, a Roman island ruled by a line of illegitimate sovereigns, tyranni, whom there is no reason to see as anything other than Roman.  But if he did, it was the Franks who confirmed him in the belief that they were two different lands; and they did so because, as they made it very clear, they regarded the island as their own happy hunting ground.  The Franks, says Hermegisclus, "have achieved an enormous power"; can anyone doubt the source of this story?  And even the huge power attributed to the English by the story - stratiotes, soldiers, by definition; the bravest in the known world; capable of mobilizing 100,000 formidable fighters, cross the sea, and not only defeat an enemy nation but scour its whole territory in pursuit of its king - ends up redounding to the Franks' advantage: they had a better claim to the alliance of the English, some of whose representatives travelled with them, than to that of any other tribe.

And while Procopius' mistakes arise from faulty connections - as the Franks are in Roman territory, their border has to be on the Rhine and Danube; as Brittia does not sound like Roman Britannia, it cannot be the same island - there is another class of errors in the story, featuring not so much faulty connections as deliberate, straight-faced illogic; and at least one of them is traced directly to the Franks.  They claim to be settling Britons, English and Frisians on their own territory so as to acquire influence in the island of Britain and bring under their control - how does the one follow from the other?  Surely it is more likely that the massive settlement of islanders on the continent would give island powers a handle on Frankish affairs, than the reverse.  And a fallacy of the same order is embedded in the story of Hermegisclus: Hermegisclus wants his son to marry his Frankish stepmother - none other than the sister of mighty Theudebert - because a connection with the mightiest of his neighbours would strengthen his position.  Unless we take Hermegisclus to be a moron, this is nonsense: such a marriage would tend to let the Franks even deeper into Varni affairs than they already are, and further reduce the freedom of manoeuvre of a small king facing an overmighty neighbour.  The natural procedure in such cases is to make a marriage alliance with one of the next-strongest close neighbours; and that, in fact is what Radigis does - disregarding the romantic nonsense about jilted princesses taking great hosts to avenge their honour.  Unless we believe this highly improbable story, there is no reason to think anything but that he sent his step-mother home - probably to the great chagrin of Theudebert, who must have counted on her presence at court - and married his English intended, thus strengthening his position.  The story of the jilted English maiden is not only romantic, it is - in its basic underlying political doctrine - illogical; and it is illogical in the same way as the description of the relationship between the Franks and the three tribes of Brittia, reversing the terms of political commonsense.  In other words, they show a common style, which suggests that they were told by the same liar - shall we say, Theudebert's ambassador Secundinus?

The fact that peeps from under the multi-coloured cover of the story is that Theudebert, not a weak or indecisive monarch, effectively did nothing.  There is no suggestion whatever that he took any of the measures attributed to the English princess; he did not react to a major dynastic and political setback.  The logic of things is that the English and the Varni are backing each other to gain extra manoeuvring space against - we will admit this - a genuinely overmighty and influential Frankish power with its hand in both their powers; and that they are succeeding in doing so.

But that is of no great importance within our research: what matters is to establish that the data in Procopius 8.20.1-58 are of Frankish origin, and to have some idea of their mendacity and their purpose.  The best that can be said is that it is interesting to see that the Franks - or a Frankified Roman such as Secundinus, as mendacious and as barbarous as his masters, and committed to Theudebert - envisage the English (whom they must have known well enough) as the kind of nation that could easily cross the sea in numbers and mount a formidable invasion of a continental kingdom, however small; and that as this sort of thing seemed likely to them, it may be that some such event actually happened.  After all, we do know that Saxon/English settlers settled in numbers at various spots on the coast of northern Gaul.

Notes


[1]Procopius, Wars 8.20.11-46.

[2]Although Procopius must have put in something of his own.  He praises the heroine of this fable for going to war to avenge her virtue even when it was only a betrothal that was broken.  This corresponds more closely to Byzantine than to English or Frankish ideas; it was in the Eastern Empire, not among the island barbarians, that "the habit of attaching [compulsory] validity to betrothals" was "increasing" in the sixth, seventh and eighth centuries, which Evelyne Patlagean attributes to "oriental, perhaps Jewish influences".  EVELYNE PATLAGEAN, Prologue to a history of the East, in ROBERT FOSSIER (ed.), The Cambridge illustrated history of the Middle Ages, vol.1, p.125.  I myself sense in the episode an implicit but vehement reproach to Procopius' favourite targets, the depraved Emperess Theodora and her detestable friend Antonina: look, he says, what these barbarians will do to defend the virtue you palter with - even women will go to war for its sake!

[3]Gregory of Tours seems to know nothing of this fiasco of Theudebert's, though he regards him as one of the best Frankish kings ever.  But this is no reason to deny it happened.  Gregory, who seems never to have heard of the Varni, is at his most vague and imprecise when dealing with Frankland's north-eastern frontier; his account of Theudebert's successful campaign against the Danes in Frisia (History of the Franks 2.3) is unable to quote a single place-name, whereas the same king's adventures against the Visigoths in southern Aquitaine (3.21-23) are described with some precision.  And if, as I guess, the collapse of the Varni marriage alliance had annoyed and perhaps mortified Theudebert, he would not be anxious to have it bruited abroad; hence the lengthy and fabulous excuse heard by Procopius, and hence, perhaps, why Gregory, who came a couple of generations later, never knew of it.

[4]This description of the English as "soldiers" first and foremost might have some relevance to their original role as mercenaries in the defence of Britain, or more probably to their contemporary role as Frankish foederati on the coasts of Gaul.

[5]37.2 Km. or 23.22 miles.  Clearly, the Straits of Dover.

[6]It is impossible to make complete sense of these data.  The island which lies roughly in line with Spain is Ireland, as every mediaeval western geographer knew; and to place Brittia between two other great islands, Brettania and Thule (Scandinavia) strongly suggests that Ireland is what was meant.  But there is no way on God's green earth that Ireland could ever be held to be 400 stades (75km or 45 miles, more or less) from any continental coast; that can only apply to the western coasts of Britain along the Channel.  It looks as though Procopius had confused two notices, one of which perhaps - the distance of "Britain" from Gaul - was given to him in good faith to describe the English Channel, while the other - the position of "Britain" north of Spain - can only have been a deliberate lie.

[7]Although they are joined in one verse number, these two sentences obviously belong in different paragraphs.

[8]To be fair to Procopius, it is possible to feel a certain amount of doubt about Theudebert's claims in these expressions.  The fact that he describes, in the same sentence, the Emperor of Constantinople with the same generic word for "sovereign king" - basileus - used for the three kings in Brittia that Theudebert claims as tributaries, shows what Theudebert was trying to achieve: to project himself as a king of kings equal with the mighty lord of the Romans.  Theudebert was the first barbarian king ever to impinge on the imperial Roman prerogative of minting golden coins.  None of this would endear him to Procopius, who shared the general Roman mindset of his age, and the fact that he reports his claims at all is noteworthy.

[9]In Germanic eyes, this is indubitably an ignoble goal and may justify all the disaster that follows.

[10]This is either loose language from Procopius, or a fragment of a completely different political notion: that is, that the wedding of Varni prince and English princess was to lead to a political union such as that of William III and Mary II.  This would, of course, be a political novelty of the first importance to the Franks, but I doubt whether we can build so much on a single sentence which contradicts everything else the story says and may amount to a mere slip of the pen.

[11]This is probably why Procopius mentioned the "certain place" where this happened, earlier; it must have been a specific spot, from which the king could point out the boundary river between Varni and Franks.

[12]This is nonsense.  No denizen of the shores of the North Sea would describe the journey from Britain to the Continent as long and most difficult, and, wherever the frontier between Franks and Varni was, it was not on the Rhine.  On the other hand, underlying these flowers of Greek rhetoric there may well have been a comparison between the difficulty of crossing the sea and of crossing a river, in which case the border between the tribes - like that between Offa's continental Angles and the Myrgingas - would be on a river, perhaps the Weser.

[13]This is clearly a covert criticism of Justinian's foreign policy.

[14]Again, he is harping on the vast waterway between the island of Britain and the continent, and, implicitly, the difference with the mere and no doubt fordable river that separated them from the Franks.

[15]I don't think we need doubt that this reflects an explanation given by Frankish speakers to a Greek splutter of outrage - What!  He actually wanted his son to marry his stepmother? - and incorporated by Procopius in this verbose, classicizing speech, not only not Varnish, but hardly Frankish-sounding either.

[16]Even though the whole story is obviously a fable, the legal and socio-political implications of this picture of power structures among the Varni are of the greatest interest.

[17]An obvious covert attack on Procopius' favourite objects of hatred, the empress Theodora and Belisarius' wife Antonina.

[18]In his urge to push a hard-line agenda of sexual purity, Procopius neglects the fact that the marriage in question had been rather more than just mentioned: a large sum had been paid for the bride, and therefore the legal status of marriage was operative.  Whether or not the "fact" itself, as he regards it, has been performed, is irrelevant to the bride, and, more to the point, to her family, which was involved as a whole in the negotiations for her hand.

[19]This is relevant to the previous mention of the English as stratiotes, soldiers: they are of so military a nature that even one of their maidens will gather armies and go on expeditions to defend her honour.

[20]It is possible that these absurd figures also have a sub-text of warning the Byzantine army and navy away from seas in which such enormous naval and army forces can be so easily arrayed for war.  Underlying all this is Theudebert's claim that both the Varni and the English are in some sense under Frankish suzerainty - see what resources we can call upon from our allied and tributary neighbours, let alone ourselves, if we want?  On the Roman side, Procopius' credulity is only excusable by the fact that he and his contemporaries were unhappily used to thinking of barbarians as enormous and overwhelming hordes; the thought of a swiftly assembled army of 100,000 would not seem so incredible to people who could read in their history books about Attila's hosts, and who were even then beginning to have to deal with a new and monstrous wave of Avaric and Slav interlopers.

[21]Another hint ad usum Byzantinorum: this enormous expedition was not even set up by a reigning king, but by a "private citizen" and a girl!  Think about it, lads...

[22]Contrary to the enormities about not having horses, this is a fair account of seamanship as practised in the North Sea at the time, confirmed both by archaeological remains and by Sidonius Apollinaris.  STEPHANE LEBECQ, The question of logistics, in RICHARD GAMESON (ed.), Saint Augustine and the conversion of England, Stroud 1999, 52ff.

[23]To repeat myself: this is certainly not the Rhine; it may be the Weser.

[24]Roman infantry!

[25]It is interesting to find on the north coast of Gaul, not only outright paganism, but paganism effective enough to claim, according to Procopius, tax exemptions form the Franks for its services in ferrying the dead, as late as the sixth century.  The people who told Procopius this story must have been part of Frankish missions, and for once it is impossible to see the advantage to them of lying to the Greeks in that matter: and it follows that they probably believed the tales they told.

History of Britain, 407-597 is copyright 2002, Fabio P. Barbieri. Used with permission.

Comments to: Fabio P. Barbieri


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