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

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Book II: Legends and history of the end of Roman Britain

The most elaborate and demanding of all the books, this unravels the legendary picture of the end of Roman unity (I argue that Roman civilization lasted in Britain long after its political separation from the Western Empire), separating it from the purely historical elements, and trying to show, both what we can actually know about the end of Roman power, and what the legends have to tell us about succeeding history.

 

Analysis of the transition from legend to historical fact in Gildas’ account of the end of Roman power in Britain. The origin of Gildas’ legend of the Roman Empire is placed in the British North beyond the Wall of Hadrian, and accepted ideas about Ammianus Marcellinus’ account of the so-called conspiratio barbarica of 367 are revised - it was an excuse for a Roman settlement of accounts with the British-based usurper Valentinus.

Discussion of the evidence for the Rescript of 410, from which British independence was held to be dated. It is rather conservative, and denies one or two currently accepted tenets.

Some evidence is brought to argue that, at some point after 410, the Picts suffered a memorable defeat, exterminating much of their adult manhood; after which, the local bishop Ninian temporarily imposed Baptism and a church system on them. This defeat established the British Roman state for a generation, and also welded northern tribes such as the Gododdin in loyalty both to the British Roman state and to the Christian religion. The Picts, on the other hand, soon rebelled.

A is the name I have given to the legendary pseudo-history of Roman Britain, from which both Gildas and Nennius drew versions (Nennius’ version is his Chapter 30). Here I undertake to reconstruct it, beginning with an elucidation of major divergences between Gildas and Nennius’ accounts.

Close analysis of Gildas’ description of four of his five tyrants, showing that each is described in a different and personalized light, and that the description of each presupposes different sources of information - in other words, that Gildas did not merely make up his charges.

This completes the reconstruction of A, showing that it articulates in narrative form a complete native (Celtic) theory of sovereignty and race. As a narrative, it reached its climax and its end with the defeat of the Picts mentioned above (in The Picts destroyed?).

A suggestion that A itself has its roots in misunderstood memories of the last fifty years of Roman power in Britain (analyzed above, in Magnus Maximus and the Picts), handed down without a time dimension in the memory of tribes who had a strong narrative culture but no chronological or written traditions.

A reconsideration of the Greek historian Zosimus’ notorious notice that the British - shortly after 410 - rebelled against "the Roman magistrates" and drove them out of Britain and vast regions of Gaul. The date is shown to be unhistorical; Zosimus misunderstood a British-originated account of events that happened generations after 410. I argue that this document was "L", also known to Gildas (see book 1, ch.3 above). Zosimus’ description of the socio-political background to the "rebellion" is shown to be precious.

Surviving stylistic features show that, while A belongs to the Celtic Christian culture of Gildas rather than to any surviving Roman environment, it is somewhat earlier than Gildas. After a considerable oral prehistory (see The prehistory of A) it was written down in Latin some time between 490 and 540. This emerges as the likeliest period for Zosimus’ "rebellion".

This argues that there was some sort of continuity in British history between a series of pretender Roman Emperors claiming their succession from Constantine III (407-411) and the definitely Celticized kings of Gildas’ time, and that Constantine came to be regarded as the founder of British monarchy. Once we reject Zosimus’ misleading notice, we must regard the lords of Britain in the fifth century as Roman.

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

Comments to: Fabio P. Barbieri


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