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

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Chapter 1.3: Sixth-century fact and Gildas

Fabio P. Barbieri


There is in my view a kernel of reality in Gildas' "Roman history"; but it is to be sought, not in the "historical" account, but in the points he is making. Gildas, we know, had no intention of writing a history. His work was dominated by a passion for the present, and the past mattered so far as it shed light on the horrible conditions of his day. The fact that he seems to have little to say on foreign matters - except for the Saxons - leaves a misleading impression that the British of his time knew and cared little of anything beyond the Channel; but when he does not mention a subject, it is not necessarily because he does not know of it.  He is a conscious rhetorical artist with a definite object in mind: that such a man will select his evidence for effect is not so much probable as axiomatic. His view of the "Romans" clearly had a contemporary relevance. And it is perhaps not sufficiently realized that the name he was using was not that of some famous people of long ago. "Rome" was the common name of a great power of his time whose ferocious aggression was the most visible single feature of the mid-sixth-century international scene: the empire of Justinian the First, whose murderous and determined onslaught on the West destroyed the two strongest Germanic successor states, Vandals and Ostrogoths, and, more worryingly for the British authorities, seized the gateway to the Atlantic from the Visigoths.

here has been, and there still is, a tendency to whitewash Justinian, the emperor responsible for these wars: one of history's monsters, the Hitler, the Stalin, the Pol Pot of his time. And while a Gibbon, writing in an age which knew little of murderous mass oppression (which so far as it existed - in the Highland clearances, in Ireland, in the slave plantations of British colonies - was practised by his own class and far away from his eyes) could be excused for failing to see the meaning of Justinian's acts, our century has no such justification. We have had quite enough brutal renewers of mankind and quite enough armies rampaging across nations in the name of abstract New World Orders to know what these things mean. And when a historian like J.M. Wallace-Hadrill describes the Romans of Italy as "lacking cohesion and pride"[1] because they had been somewhat less than enthusiastic about Justinian's Greek hordes and mercenary scum from the ends of the Earth, followed by a vampiric locust-swarm of tax-gatherers leaving starvation in their wake, and one such as Evelyne Patlagean is capable of treating Justinian's reign as forsooth a great age[2]; then polite language simply cannot be used. The only word for it is a scandal.

Some things are not properly understood, or even known, unless they are hated. Destroying ancient seats of learning (such as the Academy of Athens) is wrong. Oppressing the Church is wrong. Humiliating and dethroning a Pope is wrong. To attempt extermination of religious minorities such as the Samaritans is wrong. Show trials are wrong. The death penalty for homosexuality is wrong. And false accusations of homosexuality to procure the judicial murder of inconvenient persons are wrong. Mass murder is wrong. Fostering criminals and deliberately supporting gangs in a great city is wrong. Insensitivity to the sufferings of your own subjects is wrong. Perverting taxation into systematized looting is wrong. Disregard of mass starvation caused by your taxes and your wars, and insistence on more taxes and more wars, are wrong. Aggressive war is wrong. Brutal and treacherous invasions are wrong. Despoiling an empire to pay for a whole sequel of aggressive wars is wrong. The wanton waste of public money in a series of megalomaniacal schemes (both wars and buildings) is wrong. The building of a police state, the destruction of the old ruling class, the plunder of private fortunes, the capricious raising and equally capricious destruction of nobodies in high office purely on the grounds of their ability to plunder more efficiently, are wrong. And as these comprehend Justinian’s whole record, his policies and his instruments of policy, how can our historians blind themselves to what he did and was?[3]

In Justinian, the unplanned and poorly motivated personal tyranny that had been at the heart of Roman monarchy ever since its Augustan beginnings found what it needed to complete itself: a bookish, bloodless self-righteousness, ready and willing to sacrifice human lives on the altar of “a good cause”. The short history of the Roman Empire, and the long one of the successor Byzantine state, were to be marked by it for ever; preserving unchanged the worst characteristics of old Roman politics - the unsettled law of succession of an Empire that had arisen from usurpation and civil war[4]: the brief and troubled dynasties, the civil wars, the palace conspiracies - while the creatures who, one after the other, succeeded by mostly illegal and brutal means to a throne that was never stabilized until it was too late, strove nevertheless to project themselves as sacred, unchangeable, hieratic presences, stiff with ivory and gold and the pretension of their culture.

A good deal of this came from the personality of Justinian himself, an anaemic and unimaginative megalomaniac completely untouched by the agony of millions, let alone the exhaustion of the imperial coffers, and therefore disposed to drive the imperial machinery far beyond any sane limit in pursuit of a wholly unreal vision of Roman greatness. But part of it was also the result of the kind of Empire-centred attitude visible even in a man who hated him, Procopius. In some ways Justinian must have reflected the mind of his people, who, in a time and a country prone to coups and plots, never did get rid of him.

Much of the scholarly reluctance to call a spade a spade and a monster a monster is justified by the supposed unreliability of our main, if scarcely sole[5], source for the villainy of Justinian and his associates: the Anekdota, or Secret History, by Procopius of Caesarea. And it is true that this is a strange document. Procopius had been, if not Justinian's official historian[6], at least a favoured writer. He was no professional historian, but a civilian staff member of the Byzantine army who had spent much of his career with Justinian's leading general, Belisarius, on the Persian border, in Africa and in Italy; and at some point in the course of these stirring experiences, he began, like many witnesses of great wars before or since, to write his own account, in eight books. But what nobody knew was that he was also secretly compiling a ninth book, never to be published until Justinian and all his court of monsters were dead: hence the later title Secret History. It makes festering reading.

Though the leading writer of the period, Procopius is not a historian of the first rank. He is careful and accurate enough, and even in the "official" History, he does not actually distort any facts; but, though he has read Herodotus and Thucydides, he lacks the gift that these men, so different in so many ways, both had to a supreme degree - the gift of forming a coherent and convincing picture. Procopius is quite incapable of making any connections except the most obvious, and his perspective is sadly narrow. It is typical of his inability to "only connect" that, in telling the events that led to the independence of Britain in 410AD, he seems to see no link at all between the rise of the British usurper Constantine III and the great invasion of Alans, Vandals and Swabians that overwhelmed Gaul in 406-7 and that - according to Zosimus - had caused the series of usurpations from which he emerged. And the reason is that he is, as I said, Empire-centred; he can only see events as they affect the Emperor or Emperors of Rome. He is only interested in Constantine III so far as he threatened the legitimate emperor Honorius, and in the barbarian horde so far as Honorius had to do something about it; therefore he doesn't notice that most of Constantine III's activities were to do not with Honorius but with the barbarians, whom he defeated in Gaul and pursued into Spain. And since "Constantine III, usurper" is in a different mental pigeonhole from "Alan-Vandal-Suebian invasion", he writes very misleadingly, mentioning Constantine's usurpation (407) after the fall of Rome to the Visigoths (410), and the Alan-Vandal-Suebian invasion later still. There is no reason to believe he was unaware of the chronology involved, but his readers are bound to understand that these events happened in that order - and they didn't.

This lack of mental order is also the reason why many historians have found the Anekdota unconvincing. Procopius is unable to turn his many and various grudges against Justinian, his court, his fiend-like queen Theodora and her equally depraved friend Antonina (the wife and, according to him, the ruin of the great Belisarius) into a coherent picture. He starts from the wrong end, placing Antonina before Belisarius and Belisarius before Justinian; though that is understandable on personal grounds - he had spent most of his career around Belisarius, had once admired him greatly, and regarded the woman as a disastrous influence - it is totally unworthy of an intelligent historian. His description of Justinian is incoherent, jumbling in one whirl of hate his insensitive disregard of his subjects' suffering, his destruction of ancient institutions, his brutal wars of aggression - and the fashionably billowing sleeves of his thugs in Constantinople. Procopius has a serious point; those "Hunnish" sleeves were used to carry concealed weapons; but as the climax of a list of crimes against humanity, it is pitiful. Gildas, or Justice Robert Jackson[7], would have done better.

He also suffers from a disability typical of Roman culture; like Suetonius and Juvenal, but to an even higher degree, he is obsessed with sexual misbehaviour, especially among high-ranking women. His pornographic report of rumours about Theodora and Antonina take up a lot of unnecessary space; unlike most historians - clearly a blameless breed - I do not regard them as particularly unreliable or incredible[8], but they are largely irrelevant, and taint the whole book with a sour and petty taste of sexual spite.

Procopius opened the Anekdota by imploring future readers to believe him, since he had to tell a tale of cruelty and horror such as normal sane men in a normal sane age would not be able to comprehend. Punctually, they have not comprehended it, and the fault is largely his own. And yet, behind the pettiness and spite, the picture is clear enough; and it is a picture with which our century is desolatingly familiar. The judgement of the historian on the Great Emperor, whom he had had the pleasure of knowing personally, is simple: Justinian was the Devil incarnate. And this was not a metaphor. Procopius really believed that this man, at whose court he had lived and in whose service he had worked, was the Fiend come to earth in an obscene parody of the Incarnation, to torture mankind. He had experienced Justinian's presence as the presence of absolute evil; a feeling with which those who knew for instance Stalin were tolerably familiar. As for his wife, a recent view[9] of another murderous couple may be quoted almost unaltered: "Each of the Wests was independently a fully fledged... psychopath. Each was extremely dangerous. Together, they were lethal." Justinian paid public credit to the inspiration and support of his wife; an endorsement that condemns her.

The goal of this utter outsider, a man of obscure provincial birth whose uncle had lucked upon the imperial crown after a successful career in the Imperial Guard in spite of a rumour[10]that he could neither read nor write, was simple and, like the “scientific” popular racism of Hitler[11] and the "scientific" Communism of Stalin, rooted in widespread but false values of contemporary culture: to rebuild, at all costs, the glory that was Rome. What this meant in reality was brutal open-ended aggression against every successor state: states that had by then stood, more or less peacefully and more or less in order, for two or three generations. To pay for this, Justinian squeezed his empire more than dry, reducing his subjects to starvation; and each conquered country in turn was immediately subjected to similar exactions. His fiscal policy may be summed up in the reported slogan of one of his creatures, John the Cappadocian - "Give me more pounds! The Emperor needs more pounds for his wars!". To make matters worse, Rome's eternal enemy Persia was at the time ruled by a man of similar temper, Chosroes, who seems to have decided that the world was not big enough for Rome and Persia both. For most of Justinian's reign, the empire was never fighting on less than two fronts.

Britain was firmly within Justinian's claim. There is an ominous shift of tone between two Byzantine writers, Zosimus and Procopius. Zosimus, who was a pagan and presumably out of sympathy with Justinian's murderous travesty of Christianity[12], praises the British for defending Britain and northern Gaul from barbarians and has no complaint about their "usurping" government; rather, he implies that, having been abandoned by the Romans, they had a right to govern and defend themselves. He also mentions the Rescript of Honorius, an imperial decree dated 410AD that in practice allowed them to do just that. Procopius, who - whatever his view of the man - was a member of Justinian's government and believed in the centrality of the Christian Emperor, has nothing to say about the British fightback against the English[13] and describes their authorities as tyrannoi[14], that is illegitimate and usurping. Byzantium had never for one minute given up meddling in the West, usually to disastrous effect; so there is a menacing ring to Procopius' statement that, since Constantine III's usurpation, the Romans had never managed to re-take the island, and it cannot be a coincidence that he completely ignores the Rescript of Honorius, and treats that emperor with contempt, as being guilty of the fall of the Roman west[15].

Procopius describes a Byzantine attempt to kill two birds with one stone: early in the war, during a peace conference, Belisarius, in exchange for the island of Sicily[16], offered Britain to the Ostrogoths, then settled in Italy and surrounding countries. Procopius' account is clearly eyewitness material, with Belisarius irritably commenting on what he regards as the speciousness and length of the Gothic case, and the Goths commenting on the insincerity of his own; and the offer indubitably has Justinian's authority behind it - a couple of lines later, Belisarius refuses to discuss Gothic proposals for Campania because he has no imperial authority to do so. It was Justinian who wanted the Goths to invade Britain for him.

This, incidentally, tells us something about the nature and quality of Justinian's motivations. We can see from Procopius' passages about Britannia and the phantom he called Brittia, that the greatest of islands was known to him purely from books, to the point where he could be readily hoaxed about its position[17]; and, while we know that ordinary working seamen from Byzantine harbours knew the place much better, there is no reason to think that Justinian himself, a landlubber from the mountains of Skopje, or any of his court, shared any of it. If Procopius is at all indicative, then the Byzantine higher classes can only have known Britain from books. But never mind; their books said that it had once been a Roman province; therefore Justinian wanted it invaded, in his name, by the Ostrogoths - start a bloody and expensive war in a very distant country that has done you no harm, just because of a dead ancient claim. No clearer symptom of the bookish unreality of his ambitions can be imagined.

Though debated by historians, this offer is neither impossible nor even unlikely. From Odysseus to Onassis, Greeks have never ceased being seamen, and the empire of Justinian depended on sea power. To their seamen, Britannia was not on the Moon: it was at the end of a trade route which, to judge from the amount of Mediterranean pottery found even in minor inland centres, must have been as familiar to many Byzantine shipmasters as the back of their own hands[18]. Archaeological sites such as Tintagel have yelded pottery produced in Gaza (Palestine), Byzacena, Phocaea, Cyprus and various Aegean islands. Any of the major East Mediterranean harbours could certainly have found a master able to plot a safe route to "The Cassiterides", the Tin Islands whose metal was in constant demand by bronze-makers throughout the Mediterranean, for as many ships as the Imperial government might see fit to send. And moving barbarian peoples around like pieces on a chessboard was an old Byzantine game: it was within living memory that the Ostrogoths had been sent to Italy to overthrow another barbarian king whom the Emperor had happened not to like. One hears Gildas' caustic comments about the lack of a British fleet to ward off the Roman invasion, non militaris in mari classis parata fortiter dimicare pro patria, and wonders about the state of British sea power, if any[19], while Greek ships, harbingers of a power that was even then busy subduing all the Mediterranean, reached Britain unhindered every sailing season.

Procopius, like the ambassador Olympiodorus before him, was no private citizen writing down the street rumours of provincial towns, but a high functionary who may without stretching the imagination be held to have known as much as the imperial government knew. He was on Belisarius' staff, and his authority for the offer to the Ostrogoths must be regarded as impeccable. A government prepared to make such a proposal cannot have been well disposed towards the kings of the British; and, given Justinian’s notorious duplicity and paranoia, his welcomes and his lavish gifts to frequent British embassies[20] could not be regarded as reassuring. In the 550s, the Byzantines had seized Gibraltar and Malaga from Visigothic Spain[21]; these regions, as far as Britain was concerned, were the halfway house between "Rome" and Britain, and recent history had shown that no country was safe as long as it was accessible to the Imperial fleet. The Ostrogoths had once managed to drive the Greeks out of all Italy except one single harbour, and that harbour had been their ruin.

This must have raised cold shivers among the more outward-looking Britons. The limits to Roman power, if any, were not readily appreciated so far from its centre, and the apparently endless resources used to destruction in the harrowing wars in Persia, Italy and Spain, must have left the impression that Napoleon left on his enemies: of an empire capable of raising armies without end or stint or limit. It was not Greek military brilliance that put an end to the Ostrogothic state; it was sheer overwhelming persistency, eighteen bloody and hideous years that wore the Ostrogoths down to nothing and reduced the heart of the Latin West to starvation and cultural collapse (it was in this period that the tripartite Roman system of naming went out of use in Italy). And at the same time the Roman Empire was fighting a major war against the Persians. It hardly seems irrelevant that Gildas says that, before turning acies flammae, the edge of flame, against the furthest West - Britain - Rome had subdued the islands of the East and "first achieved peace with the Parthians of the Indian borders", obtinuissent... primam Parthorum pacem Indorum confinium. In the past, peace with "the Parthians of the Indian borders" had preluded to an all-out assault on the furthest West.

This supplies us with a date and confirms another Peace (or rather, a ten-year truce) between Justinian and Chosroes of Persia was agreed in 561: if Gildas is alluding to it, then it took place as he was writing, and he regarded a Roman invasion of Britain as the inevitable next stage. And if Gildas is alluding to it, then the traditional date of the battle of Badon Hill is correct. According to the Annales Kambriae, the battle of Badon took place in 516/518. Gildas dated his writing of De Excidio forty-four years and one month after; this would be between 560 and 561: complete correspondence[22]. It is, in theory, imaginable that some later compiler noticed the Persian reference in Gildas, read it correctly, and dated the battle of Badon back from it. If so, it cannot have been the author of the Annales himself: he reports the death of Gildas’ contemporary Maelgwn, whom Gildas addresses as alive, in 547! And surely it is asking rather much of Dark Age Welsh savants, to expect them - in such a greatly changed political and intellectual environment - to be able to correctly identify a pivotal but not obvious date; if any back-tracking there was, it is easier to believe that it was from the known date of composition of The ruin of Britain. Otherwise, we have to conclude that the date of the peace of Justinian and Chosroes and the Annales Cambriae date of Badon are two independent markers pointing to the same chronology; and at any rate, neither of the two possibilities does anything to discredit it.

This has an important corollary. It was twenty-five years before (537) that Belisarius had offered Britain to the Ostrogoths, in Justinian’s name. If Gildas could hope to rouse British fears of a possible Byzantine invasion now, the fears he was appealing to must have been long entertained. The mention of the Persian is probably a device to explain to sceptical readers why the long-dreaded Roman invasion delayed so long; they had to deal with the Persians first - and, adds Gildas threateningly, now they had.

To late-classical geography, Persia (with India, scrupulously mentioned by Gildas) was the Eastern end of the civilized world - just as Britain, "the greatest island in the world", was the Western; settling matters with that remote country may well have been seen as the natural prelude to settling them with its equally remote opposite.

There is a lot more evidence, if of a less exact kind, for a date in the early 560s. The date of 561 for The Ruin agrees with Gildas’ death date in Irish annals: 570, which would make him fifty-three - an early but scarcely unusual age in that dangerous and insanitary time. The scandal of invalid British episcopal titles awarded in Armorica, alluded to in The Ruin, was dealt with by the Second Council of Tours, 567 (typically ecclesiastical slowness!), which ruled that no British or Roman bishop might be consecrated in Armorica without the consent of a metropolitan. The Life of St.Gildas of the Monk of Ruys, a largely legendary production, contains a notice that the Irish king Ainmire summoned the renowned Gildas to Ireland to reform the monasteries there; the only known Ainmire from the period reigned quite briefly in Leinster in the late 560s. In turn, the work of reformer of Irish monasteries attributed to Gildas by this notice agrees with the fact that, while his The Ruin survived in various British and Continental monasteries, his fragments on monastic discipline and his so-called Penitential survived in Ireland alone. Forty years later, in about 600AD, St.Columbanus of Luxeuil - an Irish monk - remembered Gildas with great respect as an authority on monastic discipline, a great auctor from an earlier generation, distant enough to be regarded as classical, but close enough for the problems he discussed - simoniac bishops and the relationship between monks inclined to severity and their more easy-going abbots - to be still contemporary and contentious (Columbanus himself was about as severe as they came)[23].

All these elements place the heyday and death of Gildas in the 560s. I think therefore that we can take the dates of 516/7 and 561 as pretty much established; Gildas was writing in the last years of Justinian, when the beast’s tail had almost stopped thrashing, but might still look very formidable to outsiders.

And now let us try to read, or rather to hear, The ruin as it must have sounded to its contemporaries, with their ears still ringing with rumours of war atrocities in Italy and Africa, Spain and the Balkans, the Black Sea and the Persian border. I think there is little doubt that its description of Roman conquest absolutely growls with echoes of recent events. The power of Rome is sweeping all countries east and west with a flaming sword edge. The furthest men in the world, "the Parthians of the Indian border", may soon make peace; indeed, they may already have made it. Why should Gildas criticize the lack of naval defence when the Romans first came? If he suggests the need of such preparedness in his day, the enemy in his mind cannot be the Saxons - they are in Britain already; but all the most successful "Roman" campaigns began with invasions from the sea. Why underline the fiscal greed and tyrannical control of the Roman state? It is not to no purpose that Gildas makes as much as he does of the spoliation of Britain by her first invaders, especially in its fiscal aspects - the forced labour and enslavement[24], the stamping of the Imperial name on all the gold and silver.

It must be admitted that, under such circumstances, no literary artist, let alone one as skilful as Saint Gildas, has any need of a direct threat: "if you don't start behaving, the Romans will come again and eat you all up, as they already did once long ago". It works incomparably better as the softly-heard background, the growl of distant thunder, to everything he is saying. More importantly still, Gildas does not in fact want the Romans to come (though if they did, and savaged the country as they are doing to Italy and Spain, the British, he implies, could have no complaint of God's justice) but rather the British to be converted. That is the real, the positive burden of his work. There is no sin he is not disposed to forgive, if the wicked kings and the corrupt churchmen will just turn again and know their God; murder, treachery, simony, heresy, parricide, incest, are just some of the moral horrors for which he promises prompt and immediate pardon.

In my view, therefore, Gildas expected not an English takeover - he is quite clear that Mount Badon has put an end to any major barbarian threat - but a Roman invasion. For all those who stood in the way of Justinian and his ambitions, the 540s and 550s must have felt like June 1940 to our fathers: the horror of universal dissolution, the rise of a long-dreaded and apparently invincible enemy. Why, after giving a lyrical description of the land of Britain, does Gildas neglect its early legendary history - of which, he informs us, he knew quite enough - and begin with the Roman invasion? Because, like the description of the beauty and fertility of Britain the Bride which immediately precedes it, Roman invasion is a part of his theme[25]. Once already, in the past, the Romans have come, slaughtered locals as rebels and not fit even for slaves, taken over Britain's whole wealth, and settled her with their people. Do you not, he is suggesting, hear again the distant rumble of their footsteps?

If Gildas indeed believed that history could repeat itself in that sense, it must have been that he held the Empire of the world to be, not a passing historical fact, but an eternal reality, which, once brought about on this earth, is, like the creation of man and the Redemption, an irreversible divine truth. Once the Empire had been established by Caesar, it would exist for ever, and the status of all earthly government would be defined by their relationship with the imperial centre, which was Roman whether or not it was placed in Rome. This is indeed the common doctrine of both classical and mediaeval ages: His ego nec metas rerum nec tempore pono/ Imperium sine limite dedi... - so says God in the only piece of classical poetry which we are certain that Gildas did know[26]. The Roman Empire must have been not a state among other states, but the constant background to all history. To Gildas, the furious revival of Roman political power was not a surprise, but a return to the natural and proper condition of civilized mankind.

However, it is the effect of Justinian’s activities on Gildas that must be noticed. What happened was that Gildas' despair at contemporary British politics, his belief in Roman authority, the general racist beliefs of his time, and his reversal of it in an anti-British direction, combined in his mind with the genuine horror of Justinian and his hordes, to produce a picture of merciless justice, of Rome as the power of pure punishment. Believing in Roman authority as ultimate, Gildas had to believe Justinian's actions were justified; and while he could not be aware of the mean, crawling, vicious reality of Justinian's tyranny in his own empire (or at least, not as aware of it as someone like Procopius, who lived in it), he knew all too well the contemptible realities of British rule. British sins and Roman punishment came together in his mind as complementary realities, as fitted to each other as lock and key; and furnished a pattern of politico-moral interpretation that can be traced in the rest of his picture of history.

Now Gildas' Saxons look like nothing so much as bad copies of Gildas' Romans. They too inflict God's punishment as the Romans had, but without as much right: they too plunder and take over the land, settling in it as a new aristocracy; they too destroy those among the natives who surrender, more or less at random, keeping some as slaves (alii fame confecti accedentes manus hostibus dabant in aeuum seruituri, si tamen non continuo trucidarentur...); in both cases there is mention of hunger (inopiam, 6.1; fame; 25.1) before the conquerors return to their homes (Romam...repedantibus, 6.1;...cum recessissent domum crudelissimi praedones... 25.2). And with such a conscious literary artist as Gildas, we do not have to believe that the resemblances between these two groups of invaders are casual or subconscious. He has structured them around the ancient Christian idea that diabolus simia Dei, evil things always are bad imitations of good ones. The Saxons are bad imitations of the "nobler" class of invader.

The element of supernatural support is especially to be noted. The Saxons had supernatural support for their settlement in Britain: their omens offered them three centuries of residence there, and Gildas never says anything to make us doubt the efficacy, if not the sanctity, of these pagan forecasts. He says they were based on a certo presagio, a firm omen; and makes them be followed by their effective success. Now Gildas' story of the Roman conquest of Britain is underlain by the common Christian view that the peace imposed by the Romans, and especially by Augustus, over all the world, and emphasized by the famous closing of the gates of Janus' temple (not that I'm suggesting that Gildas knew of that episode!), was the necessary and divinely appointed condition under which the Gospel of Jesus could be preached to all the nations. The great island was the last part of the world to be taken over, and Gildas explicitly says that it happened after in omni paene terra... cessauere bella, "wars had ceased throughout almost the whole earth"; that paene means no doubt that Britain was the only exception. Its conquest fulfilled the divine plan[27] to have Roman peace throughout the world, so that the Gospel should be preached; according to Gildas, with the protection and support of Tiberius Caesar. If he does not underline this Divine aspect of the Roman triumphs, it is surely because he thought it too obvious.

Now, though Gildas doesn't actually state it explicitly, it is fairly obvious that the omen driving the Saxons to Britain was devil-given rather than God-given. Gildas is one of those who believe that, before the coming of Christ, all human religions save the Hebraic were entirely the work of the devil: priscos illis communesque cum omnibus gentibus errores, quibus ante aduentum Christi in carne omne humanum genus obligabatur abstrictum... patriae portenta ipsa diabolica paene numero Aegyptiaca uincentia "those ancestral errors, and shared with all the gentes[28], by which, before Christ came in the flesh, all the human race was chained... those very miracles of the Devil in our own nation, almost surpassing those of Egypt in number..." (4.2). Portenta diabolica: the Devil had power to work actual miracles, not just delusions. Stories of effective marvels worked by Pagan gods would not find Gildas sceptical; he would just say that they were indeed miracles, but not from the right side.

The Saxons are still under the Devil's bondage in their entirety, Deo hominibusque inuisi, hateful to men and to God; and they have in common with sin and the Devil that they are to be dreaded more than death, quos propensius morte... tremebent. Gildas is not using exaggerated language here. He seriously says that it would have been better to die in war with the Pictish and Irish invaders than to make a deal with the Saxons, just as it is better to die than to make a deal with the Devil. But there is something of a matter of proportion involved. As the Saxons were not supported by God as the Romans were, so too they were nothing like the Romans in power, in irresistibility, and in the length of stay promised them. Even with Britain denuded of its ancient armies, and after a terrible plague that had decimated the population, their strength had not been remotely enough to take over the island. Correspondingly, even the fading shadow of the British, led by "almost the last" of the Roman aristocracy set up long ago when the British had been destroyed and enslaved, had been able to rein them in. And even those devil's oracles that had sent them sailing on their way had not dared offer them more than three hundred years on the island, half of it spent plundering (...uaticinabatur certo apud eum presagio, quod ter centum anni patriam, cui proras librabat, insideret, centum uero quinquaginta, hoc est dimidio temporis, saepius uastaret...). But we are to understand that these omens, at the very least, stretched a point: if the Saxons' plundering of Britain ceased about Gildas' birth, at the time of Badon Hill, then, however we reckon the date of that battle, they certainly had not had the 150 years promised by a reliable omen - certo apud eum presagio. And I know, says Gildas, that since then forty-four years and a month have passed[29].

If the distant roar of Byzantine armies is the background noise of Gildas' world, the need for all-out war against the Saxons is the burden of his song. Gildas is no pacifist. Almost the first thing he says is that "Since it was granted to me not so much to describe the dangers of mighty soldiers in grim war, as to speak out about poltroons, I have kept silent, I confess, while the space of twice five years or more went by; to my immense grief, as the Lord is witness Who searches my inward parts....[30]" He wishes he could write about gallantry and heroes, but his time supplies few.

He does not only regret his failure in his religious obligation, but also in his literary duty: as he could not write about heroes but only about scoundrels, he kept silent - silui, fateor, cum inmenso cordis dolore. I get the impression of a wonder-boy, an immensely promising young scholar from whom everyone expected a lifetime of literary achievement, but who, perhaps after a few early successes, had fallen silent for more than a decade (spatio bilustri temporis uel eo amplius praetereuntis) to the astonishment and distress of all his admirers. Here, it seems, he explains why: this is no time for great pages about heroes - this is a time to weep.

One conclusion demands to be drawn: Gildas had a literary model to which he aspired. “It was not given to me to describe heroes”; someone else, evidently, had had that privilege, probably about the Saxon war, detailing "the dangers of mighty soldiers in grim war". He had wished to emulate this writer; he may even, as soon as his literary talent was clear to his contemporaries, have been expected to. But while others were allowed to use their writing talents to praise heroes, he laments he is only able to describe "poltroons" - the tasty Latin descriptive desidiosi - and even that it is the baseness of the subject, as much as his unwillingness to posture on the stage, that kept him silent for more than ten years.

This, in turn, shows that the literary monument, the story of valiant heroes fighting Saxons, against which which Gildas wanted to measure himself, was a contemporary, eyewitness account; otherwise, it makes no sense that Gildas should feel unable to imitate the great writers of the past because in his time there were no contemporary heroic models. Literary, moral and religious disappointment, come together in his "immense grief". Nobody who reads The ruin can doubt that Gildas was born to write; but a man of his serious and passionate temperament would never have been content to indulge in art for art's sake while his nation and his fellow-countrymen suffered. His art, like that of Dickens or Dante, would always have been in the service of social and religious ideals, of an intensely felt sense of ethics.

Living in a world where war was an inevitable part of politics - pax Romana had been well and truly over for two centuries, and peace between states was not so much difficult as impossible to maintain, due to the inchoate pressures of migrating barbarians and the incapacity of the civilized world to defend its territories - Gildas never thought of peace as a possibility; but he did want to discipline war, placing it - as it should be - in the service of a stable national community, rather than of disruptive, immoral warlords. His fury at British cowardice and treachery implies that gallantry and warrior loyalty are good things; such good things, indeed, that the nation that does not have such virtues is ipso facto damned. He sees no contradiction between such a scale of values and his Christian faith, which is heartfelt and deep; he has never stopped to wonder about the Christianity of killing men, since the visible evil of warlord violence and barbarian idolatry dominates his time. Had he known Marcus Porcius Cato, he might have borrowed his tag: ceterum censeo Saxones delendi esse. It is not enough, Gildas says, to boast that you do not, like them, offer sacrifice to idols (38.5) if you do not obey the Lord. And how do you obey the Lord? Well, Gildas says that the kings have displeased the Lord, and brings several unflattering Biblical parallels (39-41); and then he mentions one Old Testament king who had not displeased Him - King Asa, who, according to Chronicles, had done away with 100,000 pagan Ethiopians[31] (42.1) come to Judah with less than kind intentions. Immediately after he attacks those who put up with Christian bad kings such as the five whose moral characters he has just finished dissecting.

What is the connection between putting up with evil Christian lords and displeasing the Lord by not destroying 100,000 pagan invaders? Obviously, that wicked kings have inflicted so much violence and civil war on Britain that the country has no strength left to expend on pagan Saxons. They have killed by battle or stealth brave fighters who would have been better employed on the Saxon frontier: the heroic two brothers murdered by Constantine in church, Maglocunus’ valiant royal uncle and most of his splendid guard. Here we see the connection between Gildas' two British vices, treachery at home and cowardice abroad. As they are too busy killing each other, to put it crudely, they cannot spare the time to kill their enemies. Brother kills brother - and all the time the Saxons have Christian slaves descended from the starving wretches who had surrendered to them before Badon in order to eat (25.1); and all the time they hold sacred Christian shrines[32]. If the British had had the persistency and courage, the Saxons could have been expelled altogether; but they prefer to kill each other rather than to seriously fight for Britain the Bride, their beautiful mother country.

Gildas turns the story of Jepthah sacrificing his own daughter to the Lord "in order to lay low the innumerable armies of the Pagans" into a metaphor of sacrificing one's own natural pleasures and affections to the great task of patriotic and Christian war of liberation; from which we assume that one of the reasons why the Saxons were not yet driven out for good was simply some people's selfish idleness - they were too bent on propria uoluptas... cum tympanis et choris, id est carnalibus desideriis... "their own lust... with instruments and songs, that is with carnal desires..." (one suspects he may be thinking of a specific story, possibly famous in his time, of someone who left the war for a girl). To this he throws out a quotation from St. Paul: "I'm not looking for what is useful for me, but what is useful to the greater number, to save as many as I can". He also repeatedly calls on the clergymen of his time to make the British hear, like the Jews of old, the sound of innumerable invisible armies, more than outnumbering the Pagan hosts (70.3: 71.2: 72.2); it seems that part of the duty of a good priest was to preach the Crusade, and to explain that, however large the Saxon hosts might be - and the huge size of Gentile hosts is as much a commonplace for Gildas as it was for the Old Testament - the angels of the Lord are more numerous, and will draw sword on our side. Do not be afraid of the Saxons, he says. God does not mean them to have either kingship or permanent possession over this island; even their devilish omens could not promise them permanent possession of the island, only three hundred years of temporary residence. And, if properly read, they will tell you that the day has almost come to put an end even to their remaining - peaceful - time in Britain[33]. The promise of a hundred and fifty years of plunder and a hundred and fifty years of peace had been a devil's lie, sufficiently proved by the fact that the period of plunder had reached a forcible end a at Badon, only seventy-five or so years after it started. Devils lie, that is their nature; Gildas probably knew enough Greek for the meaning of diabolos; but they only do so "by high permission of all-ruling Heaven" - that has always been Catholic doctrine. The devils who released that lying oracle to their deluded pagan worshippers, therefore, had only meant to mislead them, first for the punishment of the Britons, but then to their own destruction. And now is the time, the year, the day. Gildas is counting not even the years, but the months. Now even the devil's oracles, properly interpreted, promise victory to the British. There is no danger that the Saxons should ever rule the island; that has not been promised them; but now they can, as they could not before, be driven from it - the plunderer be plundered, the enslaver be enslaved, the invader be invaded and conquered.

And indeed, if it is fate that the English should not stay on the island beyond a hundred years; then, if the British do not drive them out, someone else will. The will of God, one way or another, will be done. While the Saxons never had a claim to rule the island as kings, the Romans, in the legal system postulated by Gildas, would not have had to claim kingship; they had it already. It was their own decision to stay away from Britain, and they could rescind it. They can come themselves, with their irresistible strength that had already broken the island before, and punish both those who had done the evil - the Saxons - and those who had failed to punish them - the British.

If, therefore, the British do not morally and politically get their act together, and undertake a moral reformation one of whose side-effects will be a crusade against the barbarians, then - the threat is left unspoken; but something is coming compared to which the string of previous disasters, Irish, Pictish, Saxonic, will seem as nothing, a tool of punishment that can and will destroy the island if it pleases. God is weary of British crimes.

ow think of the news that must have been reaching Britain from Italy - not a distant or unreachable country - with every new ship that sailed: cities plundered, cities burned, cities as great as Milan razed to the ground; armies routed and slaughtered, people starved to cannibalism, freed men enslaved, churches and monasteries burned down; and everywhere tax agents swarming like locusts, trying to squeeze the last ounce of sustenance from a desolate land and an exhausted people. What had Italy done to deserve it? - or Africa? Nothing, except not driving out the barbarians by themselves. The Romans had come and done the job, with no consideration for the common people of the land.

If I am correct in my reading, then Gildas' contemporaries must have had a fairly exact idea of what a "Roman" invasion meant; and it is not imaginable that Gildas, of all people, should be so out of touch as not to know it. He was the sort of person who, in our day, reads all the papers, with particular emphasis on the political news. Sitting in his religious community, he took notice of all the news that reached him from all corners of his country, and was - as other people might not have been - personally saddened and angered by the iniquities of politicians he may never have seen in person. Such are the people who, today, fill letter columns and are often asked why they get so upset about the Government's latest misdeed. He was part of the Church, an international society whose headquarters were and are in Italy: do we for a minute imagine that news from Italy would not have affected him? The whole tone of his work is urgent: change your lives, change them now - the destroyer is here, this is the last day you can do it without consequences, this is the last day you can turn to the Lord and be healed - if you don't do it NOW, punishment is waiting.

Notes


[1]J.M.WALLACE-HADRILL, The barbaric West 400-1000, ch.2.

[2]The empire in its glory, in The Cambridge illustrated history of the Middle Ages, vol.1

[3]He is, of course, credited with codifying Roman law into his famous Code. But it is not at all clear to me that his order to have existing law codified (with such enlightened features as serfdom, systematic torture, and the death penalty for sodomy, which disgraced Western law codes for more than a thousand years after) should outweigh the fact that he all but destroyed, in practice, the rule of law in his empire. Plenty of tyrants, after all, looked for the lustre of lawgivers: Napoleon (whose code was notably more humane than Justinian's) and Mussolini come to mind. Justinian even fostered his own mafia-like gang, the Blues, which, according to Procopius, had a virtually free hand in Constantinople and committed hundreds of murders; which is difficult to explain rationally in any way whatever.

[4] If there is anyone who still has not read Sir Ronald Syme’s The Roman revolution (Oxford 1939), reading that sinister masterpiece, all too obviously reflecting the horrors of Syme’s own time, will be an enlightening if almost unbearable experience.

[5]After spending much of his introduction to the Anekdota running down Procopius’ reliability and character, the Loebs editor ends up stating that four or five separate sources, which he quotes, broadly substantiate his main charges against Justinian and his accomplices: H.B.DEWING, introd. vol.6, Procopius, Loebs.  He does not even mention all available sources; my friend David P.Hill, for instance, pointed out to me that the Liber Pontificalis also gives a very negative image of Justinian, with Pope Agapitus calling him "Diocletian" to his face. Diocletian was the worst kind of persecutor, and, to the Liber, his name had the same resonance as the names Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot to me.

[6]The Loeb editor H.B.Dewing suggests that Procopius wrote the enormously flattering Building works of Justinian to get back in the Emperor's good books after The history of the Wars had gone down badly for not licking his boots with the required thoroughness. Procopius Vol.1, introduction.

[7]The American chief prosecutor at Nuremberg, author of two magnificent, well-argued speeches against Nazi war criminals.

[8]Tyrants are often worse, and not better, than one thinks. If I, for instance, described Mussolini as a rapist and knife-welding thug in his youth, I would be suspected of wanting to gild the lily of his indubitable political criminality; yet both charges are thoroughly substantiated - Mussolini himself boasted of one such rape. DENIS MACK SMITH, Mussolini, p.4 and passim.

[9]ANNA GEKOSKI, Killing by numbers, London 1998; quoted to remind the reader that criminal and murderous couples are by no means unknown. There is no reason, either, why a psychopath should not become an Emperor - many such are on record. Therefore no a priori rejection of Procopius' account is possible.

[10]Since exactly the same story was told of the great Gothic king Theodoric, we should take that with a grain of salt. It probably only resulted from the disdain of metropolitan society for the success of provincials without any background, one of them a barbarian.

[11] Nazism has frequently been associated with astrology and mysticism; but, while some Nazi hierarchs were no doubt interested in such thing, there is no question whatever that Nazism itself was anything but an outgrowth of the popular racist anthropology of the second half of the nineteenth century; which, in turn, was indubitably a form of nineteenth-century “scientific rationalism”. (Nazism, for instance, adopted from nineteenth-century anthropology the innately racist notion of polygeneticism - the origin of the human race at more than one point and from more than one population.) The high authority of Lord Bullock insists that Hitler himself was an aggressive rationalist who despised omens and mysticism and expected that planetaria would replace churches. Even the mysticism of someone like Himmler should be regarded rather in the light of the notorious spiritualist and theosophical outbursts of the late Victorian age, that is as a result not of religion, but of the decay of rationalism. Someone like Conan Doyle came to his brand of superstition, not from the Catholic Church, but from his refusal of it; and in fact, the same thing might be said of most Nazis from Hitler on down. From this point of view, we may well argue that the Nazi rejection of Einstein depended not only from the fact that he was Jewish, but also from his annihilating criticism of nineteenth-century science, that cut at the base of their “scientific” views.

[12]The date of Zosimus is disputed. His extant work only covers the early fifth century, but the next chapter will show reason to believe that he worked in Justinian’s early years, before the tyrant-emperor began his persecution of Pagans. I will also show reason to believe that he had misunderstood those of his sources which spoke of a British “rebellion” against Rome; but that is not important here - the only point is to demonstrate the changing Byzantine attitudes to the former Roman West.

[13]He may not even have known that there were Germanic invaders in Britain. He was misled by Frankish hoaxers into believing there were two islands, Brettania and Brittia, of which the former is the ancient Roman dominion, but lies in the position of Ireland; the latter, he seems to have thought, was never Roman, and it is there that he locates the kings of the British, the English, and a third people, the Frisians.  I discuss this strange picture in Appendix 4.

[14]5.24.36: "From then on, however, the Romans were unable to retake Britain, but it remained under the protection of tyrannoi".

[15]Honorius, in general, has received a very bad press, mainly on account of his murder of Stilicho, his impotence before the Visigoths, and his assault on the Pelagians; but while it is true that he mishandled the Goths till after the fall of Rome, it is hard to see that he could have done much. He did eventually see reason and make a deal with them, and he showed a good deal of political instinct. His survival of several usurpations was quite an achievement, and the worst for the West only came after he was dead, when the Vandals - hitherto a minor if not negligible quantity - took advantage of the disorders of the usurper John's fall to invade North Africa and place a mailed glove around the Roman world's throat (quite apart from their ferocious persecution of Catholics). The execution of Stilicho was probably justified, since Stilicho does seem to have aimed, long-term, to place his family on the imperial throne. As for the Pelagians, even B.R. Rees, who openly dislikes St.Augustine's theology, admits that their views were incompatible with Christianity. When Procopius, in particular, tells an insulting anecdote of Honorius’ spineless indifference at the fall of Rome, we have to remember that Procopius - in spite of his hatred of Justinian - shared his ruinous basic ideological commitment to restoring the Roman Empire in the West. Therefore he was bound to represent Honorius as an inadequate, spineless twit: that the Roman Empire could not have survived could not be admitted, and therefore a scapegoat had to be found. Poor old Honorius has been it ever since.

[16]Which they had offered to him first - but scarcely without compulsion. PROCOPIUS, Wars, 6.6.26-31.

[17] cf.Appendix 5

[18]"Fulford has argued that the Insular import wares were not trans-shipped in France or Spain, but travelled direct from the East Mediterranean. 'Britain', he concludes, 'was a deliberate objective of certain ships setting out from Eastern ports', from the Aegean or Constantinople... The small amount of North African amphorae and red-slip wares on early medieval insular [British and Irish] sites contrast with the much greater bulk of eastern wares, reversing the pattern on west Mediterranean sites..."; italics mine. J.K.KNIGHT, The End of Antiquity, Stroud 1999, quoting MICHAEL FULFORD, Byzantium and Britain, in Medieval archaeology 33 (1989). In other words, while Gaul and Spain traded mainly with North Africa and via local or North African ships, Britain traded mainly with the Byzantine East and via Byzantine ships. They almost certainly came to buy tin, important in the Byzantine bronze-making industries, and perhaps other metals such as lead and alloys such as pewter. Slaves may have been another valuable British export. See also C.A.SNYDER, op.cit. 135 and notes.

[19]The historical Taliesin speaks of a fleet owned by the powerful king Gwallawg of Elmet and kept in readiness for war with large magazines of prepared spears. MEIRION PENNAR, Taliesin poems, Llanerch 1988, p.111.

[20]In the Anekdota, Procopius complains about the lavish gifts Justinian used to pour out to every barbarian embassy, including the British (19.13); his point being that he was wasting taxpayers' money - wrung from a starving empire at the price of blood - on useless prestige expenditure. The only consolation is that the barbarians were as duplicitous and ruthless as he was; Procopius implies that they multiplied embassies because - as we would say - "they had seen him coming", and certainly the many Frankish embassies entertained at the imperial palace do not seem to have done anything to stop Buccelin's fearsome raid on newly Byzantine Italy (555). It seems fairly clear that all this diplomatic coming and going was, on both sides, a waste of time; to that extent, Procopius is probably right.

[21]They may also have held some Pyrenean passes, because there is a story of a Frankish princess fleeing Spain for Gaul, captured by Greeks in the mountains and sent to Sicily. PAUL THE DEACON, Gesta Langobardorum 3.21.

[22] Of course, the reason why the Byzantines made a ten-year truce with their ancient enemies was that they were becoming pretty busy just then with the odd Slav and Avar in the Balkans. But even if Gildas had heard of this latest barbarian invasion, he probably expected an empire that had never failed to win its recent wars to deal with such local difficulties in short order.

[23]It does, however, blow to bits the dating of the death of Maglocunus/Maelgwn to the famous Yellow Plague of 547, unless of course we decide that Gildas had aimed his pained, severe and personal attack at a man fifteen years dead. See below, bk.1, ch.5.

[24]One of Justinian's provisions in the Pragmatic Sanction for the governance of Italy was the re-imposition of serfdom on the peasants set free by the Gothic king Totila to fight the Greeks. To Gildas, if he heard of Totila's decree, this would have made the war one of slaves against their masters; he had no fondness for those who "prefer slaves to masters and commons to Kings" - Fragment 3, GILDAS op.cit.

[25]The description of Britain as beautiful and fertile also fills somewhat the same purpose as the old Italian joke. "God" - it says - "having made all the other countries, got around to making Italy. And he made it such a masterpiece of it, with high mountains and fertile plains, rivers and hills and blue sea, that the Angels grew worried. Michael said: Lord, while I would not presume to question Your judgement, I think this is rather unfair to other countries. How are they going to measure up? And God answered: Don't worry about that; I'll make it up to them when I make Italians." In other words, Gildas' Britain could be a paradise, except that Britons live in it.

[26]Aeneid 1.278-9: Jupiter is promising Venus that the empire of Aeneas' descendants shall stand for ever: To them I give no term in space, in time;/ To them I gave empire without end...

[27]If the conquest of Britain was actually the last stage of the Roman conquest of the world, then the marriage legend that I suspect at its heart - see previous chapter - was directly, mystically connected with the beginning of Salvation, that had waited for worldwide peace. It gave Britain a special place in world history. Shakespeare seems to have picked on this aspect in Cymbeline, in which the peace between Britain and Rome preludes to the reign of Octavian Augustus and even allows that world census that, according to Luke, took place as Our Lord was born. NORTHROP FRYE, A natural perspective, New York 1965, pp.66-67. It is surely to the point that the lost Welsh legend of Caesar and Casswallawn seems centered on their rivalry for the love of the famously beautiful maiden Fflur - in other words, it was a struggle about marriage and sexual power. BROMWICH, Trioedd, Triad 67 and s.v. Casswallawn and Fflur.

[28]The use of gentes means that Gildas meant not "all mankind" but "all the Gentiles", all the goyim. The humanum genus was held by this diabolical rule because the Jews, alone, were unable to redeem it or themselves: Gildas well knew how much of their Bible consists of reproaches for their apostasy, hard-headedness and inconsistency.

[29]This reminds me strongly of David Howlett and Charles Thomas’ theories about "the Biblical style" and hidden cryptograms in British inscriptions. I am far from able to assess such things, but if their theories are valid, Gildas might be hinting at a numerical riddle. Certainly the allusive tone - "and I know that since then forty-four years and a month have passed" suggests something we do not understand, and the insistence on numbers - three keels, three hundred years of which a hundred and fifty spent plundering - does not seem typical of Gildas elsewhere. It certainly does nothing to disprove my contention, further on in Book 3, that Gildas had no chronological skills; a man might well know his own age to a nicety and still not be able to reckon the dates of World War One.

[30]1.2:- Quia non tam fortissimorum militum enuntiare trucis belli pericula mihi statutum est, quam desidiosorum; silui, fateor, cum inmenso cordis dolore, ut mihi renum scrutator testis est Dominus - spatio bilustri temporis uel eo amplius praetereuntis... I think Winterbottom mistranslated this passage slightly, failing to see that the first part of the sentence is the justification of the second, spoken in a tone of regret: "because I could not speak of heroes... I was silent, to my great regret, for over ten years". He is apologizing for writing nothing for so long; and we remember that it took "the religious prayers of the brothers" to get his pen moving.

[31]Gildas, alas, wasn't to know that the author of Chronicles had just the tiniest whiff of the blowhard about him. The passage in question has 500,000 Jews - from the kingdom of Judah alone - facing 1,000,000 Ethiopians! 2Chr14.8-15.

[32]See book 9, ch.2.

[33]There is another hint that the Saxon presence in Britain might be fated to have a definite end. When describing starving Britons surrendering to the crudelissimi praedones, Gildas says that they were to be slaves in aeuum. Not in aeternum; in aeuum; not in eternity, but for an age. This is a slight clue, but it might hint at a promise of ultimate liberation for the slaves of the Saxons, after a given period of time. Aeuum can in fact mean eternity, but it is far more often used for a given term - a lifetime, or even a century (ter aeuo functus, having lived for three centuries).

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

Comments to: Fabio P. Barbieri


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