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

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Chapter 2.2: The Rescript of Honorius

Fabio P. Barbieri

In Gildas' narrative, the second Roman expedition leads directly to the Rescript of Honorius, the document with force of law with which the Western Roman emperor, Honorius, directed Britain's local authorities (Ciuitates) to take arms and defend themselves, in the course of the turmoil of 410AD.

The story of the loss of Britain is well known. By 406, the Western Roman Empire seemed to have been restored. After firming up various borders including Britain's, the hated but able chief minister Stilicho had finally managed (or so it seemed) to bring to heel Alaric, king of the Visigoths and terror of the Roman Balkans, while carefully avoiding the destruction of this potentially useful man and his potentially useful army.

Then winter came, and all hell broke loose. Crossing the frozen Rhine, barbarian tribes from the far interior of Germany, Alani, Suebi and Vandals, smashed into Gaul to apocalyptic effect; and it became clear that, behind them, the horror of the Huns was on the move. The fall of Stilicho, whose aura of invincibility was now gone, quickly followed; the emperor Honorius, who had reason to suspect that he aspired to the crown, was now able to do away with him. Alaric and his Visigoths, hungry and feeling betrayed, revolted again, and began an agonizingly slow pillage of Italy, which was, after two years, to lead them - for the first time in 800 years - to great Rome itself, while the imperial government, safe in the protective swamps of Ravenna, stubbornly insisted on no negotiations with rebel barbarians.

The barbarian invasion of Gaul had an electric effect on British Roman troops. Desperate to attack the enemy on the continent before they reached Britain, they proclaimed two emperors in succession (one Marcus, and one Gratianus), swiftly murdering each of them when they were felt not to be eager enough to fight. Their third candidate, a common soldier[1] with the auspicious name of Constantinus (Constantine III[2]), got their drift, and promptly and ostentatiously began to nominate war commanders, a Romano-Briton and Frankish, for Roman and allied forces respectively. He invaded the continent, drafted large numbers of troops and Germanic auxiliaries, and chased the invaders into Spain[3]. He came to a nasty end, betrayed by one of his own commanders (the Briton Gerontius) and eventually captured and executed by the representatives of Honorius. His brief adventure had little effect on the ongoing catastrophe in the West, and his death must have been regarded as strictly a side-note when compared with Alaric's seizure and pillage of the City and his abduction of Galla Placidia, young sister of two Emperors, who was soon to marry - under whatever constriction - his successor Ataulphus.

The fall of Rome in 410 rang through the whole empire like a trump of Doom. People simply could not imagine a world of which the great city was not the impregnable centre. Grim old St.Jerome, who knew Rome well and had taken refuge from its worldly wickedness in Palestine, was shattered by the news; in the heat of his despair, but still in control of his writing talent, he described the whole world as a beheaded trunk, fallen after the fall of its head, Rome - an image of startling, tremendous rhetorical power, and a justly famous passage quoted by every historian; the more telling since the sombre priest, who had left the City in anger, might be expected to regret its fall as little as Isaiah regretted Babylon.

Other barbarians seem to have taken it as a hint. Chronicles mention a particularly savage Saxon raid in Britain and north Gaul about 409-411. This is confirmed by archaeological finds in the Netherlands and western Niedersachsen, where a number of treasure hoards were found all including coins datable to 407-411, which show that in that period a large amount of Roman wealth entered the north-west corner of Germany. The map of these finds is significantly different from hoards from immediately before - up to about 397 - or from about 425, which extend along the middle and lower Rhine as far Belgium in the west and Thuringia in the east, and are obviously Frankish[4]. Perhaps the Saxons had heard of the fall of Rome to fellow-Germans, and thought their time had come - after all, "these things were not done in a corner".

When Gerontius' treachery made Constantine's plans fall apart, most of his army suddenly discovered that they had after all always been loyal to the legitimate emperor. But Honorius had had enough; ordinarily attached to every shadow of prerogative and right of the Emperor of Ravenna (it had been his insistence on no negotiations with barbarians, drawn out over three frightful years, that had caused Alaric's revolt and torn the heart out of the West), his actions with respect to Britain are so untypical as to be startling. He wrote a Rescript or imperial decree, addressed not to an imperial governor but to local authorities (ciuitates; in Zosimus, poleis), ordering them to arm and defend themselves.

There is a general feeling among historians that the Rescript was issued in response to a British appeal for help (indeed, that is the meaning of the word Rescript) but Zosimus has nothing to say about that. All he says is that such a document was issued. The only historian who speaks of such an appeal is Gildas - and the difficulties of relying on his word should be obvious. However, one point seems undeniable: by addressing the ciuitates, the emperor derecognized at one blow any surviving imperial representative in Britain[5]. The ciuitates or poleis were the institutions of local government, as opposed to representatives of the imperial centre; they carried over into the semi-federal system of the Roman Empire the names and identities of pre-Roman groupings, and their name could also mean "tribes" or "city-states". According to modern historians, it was more or less unprecedented for an emperor to write to them: emperors wrote to their own representatives.

The contents of the Rescript, ordering the British ciuitates to take up arms and defend their own island, were equally unexpected. The Emperor was first and foremost the Army commander, and defence had always been a jealously guarded prerogative of his government, with which civilians, let alone provincials, were not allowed to meddle. (As a result, whenever Roman government was helpless or distracted, every border crisis tended to provoke an usurpation, since the only way for threatened provinces to make army troops respond to danger or be allowed to levy extra drafts was to install an Emperor of their own.) What Honorius was saying was that the Roman structure of government in Britain had collapsed or could not be said to exist, since he had nobody to write to beside the ciuitates; he addresses Britain as if it was a leaderless province.

The Rescript came to be regarded as a token of abandonment such as no other Roman province had suffered. Rome (after 476, Constantinople) never gave up its claim to rule and defend any territory fallen in dicione barbarorum; Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Vandals, Swabians, Burgundians, were "accepted within the borders" under the more or less fictitious title of foederati, resident allies; but Britain was simply given up, though no barbarian nation had managed to seize it. Whatever its actual legal value may have been, the world, and Britain, took the Rescript for a surrender of sovereignty[6]. Its effects can be traced in many contemporary documents; an orthodoxy soon developed that in the year 410 Britannia had been lost to Rome. More than one contemporary chronicle entry repeats this statement, and it turns up in Bede with no obvious direct source, as testimony to an once widespread tradition.

Gildas had read at least one such entry, for its language found its way into his storehouse of ideas. A minor chronicle-history written between 423-450, the Narratio de imperatoribus domus Valentinianae et Theodosianae, describes "the Britains[7]" as being "taken away from the Roman name for ever" (Britanniae Romano nomini in perpetuum sublatae). I find the influence of this formula in at least two passages. First, it reminds us of Gildas' puzzling distinction between Britannia - the name of the patria both before and after the Roman period - and Romania - her name as long as the Britons were the slaves of the Romans. Where had he got the idea that Britain, and Britain in particular, of all the lands subjected to the ancient race of heroes, should take the name of its conquerors? For he is speaking of Britain in particular: solo nomen Romanae seruitutis haerere facturos...ita ut non Britannia sed Romania censeretur, "[they were] to make the name of Roman servitude cling to the soil... so that it should be reckoned [or: taxed[8]] not as Britannia but as Romania."

The answer is to be found in The ruin 17.1. Britain having been nearly destroyed by the second Pictish invasion, British ambassadors appear before Roman authorities a second time, and, in a brief but powerful scene, beg for help ne penitus misera patria deleretur nomenque Romanorum - "that the unfortunate fatherland should not be erased to the end (penitus)[9], nor the name of Romans". The deletion of the patria as an entity - and notice that the name Britannia is not used - would entail the deletion of its Roman name. Gildas uses with lovely double effect the verb delere, to cancel, to erase, which could mean both, militarily, "to destroy", and, in his own professional writer's vocabulary, to delete or erase, as you could erase the name of Romans from a parchment. To the British heralds, the erasure of their name of Romans would be one and the same with the end of their island nation.

I cannot be sure that the Narratio... is his source, since the expression nomen Romanum is a fairly common one; but if Gildas had come across something about Britannia being lost to the nomen Romanum, this would be the best explanation why he thought that the island's name had been changed after the Roman conquest. What a change of name could mean to Gildas, in terms of his own ideology and world-view, is not clear to us; that he made a dramatic scene out of it suggests that the idea had particularly struck him, and that it had struck him suggests that it was not familiar. He treats it no differently from the way a talented modern, and shows no clear understanding of the complex of Latin concepts involved. Nomen Romanum means something like "the entitlement to call one's tribe Roman, the totality of the people who call themselves Romans", but it also has a close connection with nomen in the sense of "good name, renown, glory".  To be "taken away for ever from the Roman name" does not only mean to lose administrative and political continuity with Rome; it means to be cut off, rejected, from the great Roman community, from the glory and pride of the Roman name, to be told that Rome is nothing to you and you nothing to Rome. The two words in perpetuum underline the grim seriousness and solemnity of the event. Gildas, on the other hand, uses the word nomen purely as we would; the verb deleretur shows that he is thinking of writing down names on a piece of paper. Nor does he speak of the nomen Romanum, which is the technical term, as we would expect him - given his luminous precision of expression - if he was at all acquainted with the idea; he speaks of a nomen Romanorum - not "the Roman name", but "the name of Romans", referring not to the universal Romanhood, but to the entitlement of single Britons to call themselves Romans. But the echo is too strong and specific not to conclude that he took this idea from an earlier item in which the expression still had its Roman meaning. Gildas has largely misunderstood what the expression meant, but he has read it.

The writer of the Narratio de imperatoribus... was not a great prose stylist or a powerful mind; Gildas was both, and what he did with this idea shows just how great. Its very strangeness stimulated his imagination. He invested it with the emotional power that the best rhetoric ought to have: taking the bald annalistic notice - whether from the Narratio... or from some other source - he teased out of it everything that the idea of losing the name of Romans, nomini Romanorum, could mean, and, disregarding year and circumstances, worked a dramatic episode around this conceit of the name begged for and lost, in whose name the legati from the former Romania travel on their humiliating and pathetic journey. He further projected it back (creating another, fortunately infertile, historical mistake) into the beginnings of Roman rule, when the island turned from Britannia to Romania. His invention has great literary propriety: everything the British ambassadors say and do, everything that the Romans do afterwards, is directly relevant to this idea of losing the name of Roman. The response of the Romans to this plea made "in" their name is the splendid last expedition - and then the Rescript. The Britons have had at one time what they wanted and its very opposite, they have been saved from the Picts - but erased from the name of Rome. Britanniae Romano nomini in perpetuum sublatae.

Gildas does not quote the Rescript verbatim, as he did with the Letter to Agitius and at least four ecclesiastical writers (in fact, we know nothing of the form in which it was cast, since Zosimus does not quote it directly either). But there is no need to suggest that he had not read it: what he is doing is editorializing, giving his own view of its meaning. The Roman authorities, he says, were unwilling to shed further blood for petty thieves (latrunculi) who would not defend themselves first. This is not the language of diplomacy, and Gildas, the skilled rhetor, knew it. So, surely, did his audience, Educated Britain, composed of ecclesiastics, kings, and kings' followers, people familiar with the conventions of international correspondence (as with Procopius' British embassies to Constantinople). Even if they happened not to know the terms of the original document,, they would realize that this was Gildas himself expounding his view of what it meant that the emperors of the world would not fight for Britain. The obvious editorial touch is, at any rate, typical of his methods.

Gildas' image of Rome was compounded of legendary native features and of the Byzantine terror of his day; and he blithely misapplies it to the events of 410. If Justinian could send endless armies to Italy, Persia and Spain in the 550s, Gildas seems to have felt that "Rome" could have sent as many soldiers as it pleased to Britain in 410. He seems unaware of the division between Western and Eastern Roman Empires, nor of the desperate straits to which the Western monarchy was reduced in 410. This raises a question: did Gildas not find the catastrophe of the West in those church historians he is known to have read, such as Rufinus? Evidently not. Even granting that he wrote not as an impartial historian but as a public prosecutor of British kings and churchmen, it is to me unimaginable that he could have written as he did if he had actually seen a detailed account of the fall of the West. Yet he did read passages from Rufinus and Sulpicius Severus.

The only explanation that makes sense is that he only read excerpts. He does mention that he sent for information overseas and found it disappointingly thin (4.4); this may account for the occasional elements of actual history I have called B - they come from excerpts from overseas correspondents. But these amount to no more than patches in the essentially native Welsh weave I have called A; Gildas may have set out with the praiseworthy notion of probing history as far as he was able, but it is clear that the data received from his correspondents were fixed in a frame of reference which he regarded as so obviously true that it did not occur to him to question it. This accounts for his poor understanding even of Continental Roman history, his apparent failure to distinguish between Rome and Byzantium. Knowing nothing of the context in which it was issued - and having come across, perhaps, some of the anti-British screeds issued in those days by authors as diverse as Jerome and Ausonius - it is natural that he should see the Rescript as what he describes: a Roman refusal to shed their valuable blood in the defence of those who would not defend themselves.

The obvious editorial touch also means that what he was describing was as familiar to his listeners as that Queen Anne is dead. He would not have presented a visibly twisted version of a historical event, unless he was intending to jolt them out of complacent assumptions; and he would not have done that unless the Rescript was a part of those complacent assumptions. Wholly typical of his methods! Just as he drove home with little subtlety the message that the British are the slaves and not the blood-brothers of the Romans, so he delivered a devastating, insulting reading of the document that the British may have regarded as their charter of self-government.

In my view, therefore, Gildas' account of the Rescript is, with the exception of B, his first item of British history depending on direct written evidence rather than on proto-Welsh legend. The Rescript, and the single idea that the Rescript had marked the loss of Britain from the nomen Romanum, are at the back of his whole contention, the written, Roman authority for believing that the British would not fight for themselves but would abase themselves by begging for succour from distant Rome; and Gildas is a writer who cares greatly for writing and for Roman authority. He projects it backwards into the early history of his country, and forwards to his own day, working up to it with his story of the two Roman expeditions and down from it with his repeated attacks on British cowardice and indiscipline.

Does he have any reason to think as he does? On at least one occasion (26.4), Gildas speaks of the evil fame of the British among neighbouring nations. That evil fame certainly existed, to the point where the poet Ausonius of Bordeaux, offended at some critical remarks from a Briton called Silvius Bonus, indulges in an elephantine bit of professorial whimsy, taking twelve lines of supposedly satirical verse - about six times as many as needed - to inform us that a Briton called Bonus, Goodman, must be misnamed, because no Briton can be a Good Man[10]; which is not funny in the first place. If Gildas was sent a selection of Continental entries about Britain and the British, he is likely to have come across a few such items. But is he justified in using them to explain Honorius' action? I think he is. We may assume that Honorius was to some extent helpless, with several pretenders and four barbarian hosts at large in his empire; but the fact that he writes to the ciuitates, as if there were no Imperial authority in Britain, shows a different spirit. It is not even that Honorius was quite without troops; the still considerable remnants of Constantine's faithless army, with its large drafts of barbarian allies, were yet at large between Spain and Gaul, and they might have been got rid of by ordering them back home, where their own homes and families were being threatened and overrun by barbarians.

What the facts suggest is that Honorius was sick of Britain and that was that. No Briton of rank for the last five years had shown the least loyalty to anyone or anything; two pretenders had been enthroned and murdered; a third had been betrayed by one of his two own magistri militum - the Briton; the Frank had stayed loyal - who had in turn been betrayed by his own army. Faced with this unclean tangle of corrupt ambition and violence, Honorius, whatever his own character, must have felt the same mixture of anger and contempt that led his contemporary Jerome to dismiss Britain as "a province fertile of tyrants". It was Britain, and Britain alone, that Ravenna wanted out of the Empire[11]. In this respect Gildas was perfectly right, though perhaps for the wrong reasons. The Rescript was a rebuff.


[1]It is only the unreliable Procopius who calls him "a man of not unknown birth"; Orosius, a historian contemporary to the events, states that he came "from the lowest soldiery", ex infima militia - probably a rough and tough centurion type, risen through the ranks. It would not have been the first time that such a person had aimed for the imperial throne.

[2]There was, of course, a Constantine III in the legitimate succession in Constantinople (if such a row of palace conspiracies, assassinations, civil wars and usurpations may be called legitimate), son and associate emperor of Heraclius I (610-41) and briefly emperor in his own right (641). But as he has no place whatever in our research - and not much even in Byzantine history - we will ignore him, and, for convenience, simply call the British usurper by that title.

[3]On the face of it, this was a strange direction to drive them; but Constantine may have not wanted to push them as from the shores of Britain as possible, but also hoped to damage the power base of Honorius, whose family hailed from Spain and had large estates there. In fact, Honorius' kinsmen suffered considerably and some of them were murdered.

[4]Map on page 53, MAX MARTIN, Wealth and treasure, in LESLIE WEBSTER & MICHELLE BROWN, The transformation of the Roman world, London British Museum Press 1997.

[5]Britain was cut adrift from Rome before the worst of legal centralization and serfdom were enacted in the last desperate struggle to hold the Western empire together. The powers of the ciuitas were transferred to the comes or Count - the direct origin of the mediaeval institution of the territorial noble lord - in the 460s, and the Codex Theodosianus includes an incredible amount of fifth-century laws depriving every sort of peasants, craftsmen and labourers of the freedom to move, change employment or marry outside their own professional group. This inevitably resulted in the enslaved and oppressed groups supporting barbarians or revolting; in Gaul, rebellious serfs called bacaudae set up actual states.  Few of these savage enactments affected Britain; and when people speak of British bacaudae without evidence, it is as well to remember that the bacaudae we know about were in revolt against laws many of which may never have applied to the island at all.

[6]SNYDER op.cit., 22.

[7]The word Britanniae, in the plural, refers to the four or five provinces carved out of the island in the days of the later Roman empire; that is, not to Britain as an island, but to the Roman part of it alone. Curiously enough, if the annalist had written Britannia in the singular, he would have been more likely to refer to the whole island, including its barbarian parts.

[8]In Nennius ch.28, censum means tribute, and he has certainly drawn this word and usage from older sources. It is possible that Gildas may have used the verb censire in the same way; especially since he does not seem to make any other allusion to the payment of tribute - which is not only a priori impossible, since tribute was, a major feature of superior kingship in a Celtic society, but also contradicts the other version of the same legend we shall shortly be discussing, which speaks of a revolt against census.

[9]This penitus, by the way, means that Britannia-Romania is already partly erased; which goes to confirm that Gildas' picture was of the Picts (against whom the British ambassadors are seeking help) invading and destroying originally Romano-British land. When the Romans, at the end of their epic second expedition, organize the building of the stone Wall, they are recognizing the damage already inflicted, limiting the further progress of Pictish arms rather than pushing them back.

[10]Ausonius, Epigrammata 107-12:


Siluius ille Bonus, qui carmina nostra lacessit,
Nostra magis meruit disticha, Brito Bonus.
"Siluius hic Bonus est" "Quis Siluius" "Iste Britanus."
"Aut Brito hic non est Siluius, aut malus est."
Siluius esse Bonus fertur ferturque Britannus;
Quis credat ciues degenerasset bonum?
Nemo bonus Britto est. Si simplex Siluius esse
Incipiat, simplex desinate esse bonus.
Siluius hic bonus est, sed Siluius est Brito idem;
Simplicior res est, credite, Brito malus.
Silui, Brito Bonus: quamuis homo non bonus esse,
Ferris nec se quit iungere Brito Bono.


That bloke Silvius Goodman, who dared assault my verses,
Has merited more my distichs, that bloke Goodman of Britain.
"This Silvius is a Goodman.""What Silvius?""That bloke from Britain."
"Well, either he's not a Briton, or a Bad Man."
It is said that Silvius is good, it's said he's a Briton;
What citizen can believe that he could degenerate to Goodness?
No Briton is a Good Man. If he were only a Silvius,
He should begin, and cease to be a Good Man.
This Silvius is a Goodman, the same Silvius is British;
Believe me, it is much easier to think a Briton evil.
I am silent, Goodman Briton; though you are not called Good,
Nor can such a word be joined to the word Briton.

And to think that Ausonius was using the same language in which Catullus and Martial dealt their wicked, clever epigrammatic dagger-blows!

[11]It is an interesting reflection on the still entrenched nationalism of some writers, that an outstanding historian, fully acquainted with the evidence, mentioning these events in passing (as he was discussing another point), speaks of "Britain ridding itself of Ravenna" - an Euro-sceptical reading for which there is no evidence whatever, and which depends on the presumption that contemporary men of Roman culture would even want to "rid themselves" of the Empire: a presumption that every piece of writing from the period, not excluding Salvianus, utterly contradicts. The heritage of Froude and Motley is with us yet, it seems.

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

Comments to: Fabio P. Barbieri

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