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

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  Vortigern Studies > Faces of Arthur > British History > Book VI > chapter 6.1

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Chapter 6.1: The attitudes to Vortigern and their causes

Fabio P. Barbieri

From 442, the past of Britain seems to move from history, however tenuous, into legend.  Few historians have challenged the historicity of Gildas' account of the Saxon war, although archaeology asks certain questions (where are all the destroyed cities and slaughtered victims of the war?  Even the famous example of Caistor-by-Norwich, which seems to afford the safest instance of a stormed and slaughtered Roman town, has been challenged); on the other hand, only the brass neck and tin ear for legend of a John Morris has been up to the task of taking the accounts of subsequent events as history, rather than as the legend they so obviously are.  And it is as legends that we will treat them, at least to begin with.  Our analysis will centre on the figure of Vortigern, Gildas' superbus infaustus tyrannus, the indubitably historical king of Britain who first summoned the Saxons and who, from St.Gildas onwards, is central to every account, whether certainly legendary or dubiously historical; and we will find that the evolution of his role, personality and significance is revealing in the extreme.

The Vortigern of Gildas - for we need not doubt that his superbus infaustus tyrannus is the same figure as the villain of legend[1] - is not the Vortigern of Nennius, Geoffrey of Monmouth, or William of Malmesbury, a black-hearted rogue as incompetent as he is criminal, eventually ruined by a far worse menace – Hengist.  Gildas says nothing of poisoning, of complicity with Saxons and Picts, of incest, betrayal, suborned murder, and the sacrilegious assumption of a Bishop’s robes.  His Vortigern is, of course, a usurper, but Gildas throws no other charges at him; indeed, in a curious way, he hardly blames him.  It is not Vortigern’s personal character that is the issue, so much as his whole country and especially the upper classes.  Our Bible-soaked author compares him with the Pharaoh of Isaiah 19 - the silly princes of Zoar[2], quotes Gildas, giving foolish advice to Pharaoh[3].  Surely the princes of Zoan are fools, the counsel of the wise counsellors of Pharaoh is become brutish [i.e. as stupid as an animal's].  How say ye unto Pharaoh, I am the son of the wise, the son of ancient kings? [We notice that the prophet seems to imply that, though the counsellors of Pharaoh boast of their descent from ancient kings, he himself does not; Gildas might mean this to reflect on the usurping nature of the superbus tyrannus' government.]  Where are they?  Where are thy wise men?  and let them tell thee now, and let them know what the Lord of hosts hath purposed upon Egypt.  The princes of Zoan are become fools, the princes of Noph have deceived: they have also seduced Egypt, even they that are the stay of the tribes thereof.  In other words, it is not "Pharaoh" who is at fault so much as his advisers; and even among them, Gildas prefers to compare the usurper's Senate to the princes of Zoan [stupid] rather than to those of Noph [deliberately mendacious].

As a result, everything Pharaoh does turns out wrong.  This is a theme of other parts of Isaiah, in particular ch.36, in which the ambassador of the Assyrian king Sennacherib describes the disastrous effect of his meddling in Palestine with a vivid image which passed into the stock of English metaphors: Pharaoh is a reed from the Nile with a hidden crack, and if a man (such as the king of Judah) should put his weight on it for support, it will break under him - and the jagged end will go right through the hand.  A broken reed; "That is what Pharaoh, king of Egypt, is to everyone who relies on him" (2Kings 18.21: Isaiah 36.6).

Isaiah's economic picture may also be relevant.  To him, Egypt was the rich kingdom.  He seems to know nothing of the wealth of Mesopotamia, only ever described by an Assyrian ambassador (Is.36.17); everywhere else the Assyrians are an army and only an army.  Babylon's distant splendour is sometimes glimpsed over the horizon, but you might read all Isaiah's first thirty-nine chapters without suspecting that there was such a place as Nineveh, or that the Euphrates and Tigris were just as busy and rich as the Nile, whose economic importance is absolutely unique in the prophet's eyes.  The same chapter (Is.19.5-10) from which Gildas quoted on the foolish  princes of Zoar, also lists Egypt's various economic activities, fishermen, weavers, flax-dressers and craftsmen of every description, with doom impending over each and every one of them.  Gildas envisages the superbus tyrannus as one like Pharaoh in wealth and pride, surrounded by economic activity and trying to extend the reach of his power far beyond its sensible bounds... and far away from him, from the ends of the earth, the most terrible army in the world is gathering.  In 24.2, Gildas explicitly compares the Saxons with the Assyrians[4].

It is to punish Egypt for its luxurious idolatry that God is preparing the time of trial.  He does not mean to destroy the rich country, but to purify it: In that day shall there be an altar to the Lord of hosts in the land of Egypt... And the Lord shall be known to Egypt, and the Egyptians shall know the Lord in that day, and shall do sacrifice and oblation; yea, they shall vow a vow unto the Lord, and perform it.  And the Lord shall smite Egypt; he shall smite it and heal it; and they shall return even to the Lord, and he shall be intreated of them, and shall heal them.  There can be no doubt that Gildas meant this whole chapter to be implicit in his mention of the silly princes of Zoan, since the element of the Lord smiting Egypt and healing it is fully present: ...ut in ista gente experiretur Dominus solito more praesentem Israelem, utrum diligat eum an non; "So that the Lord should test, as he often does, the Israel of today against this nation, [to prove] whether they love Him or not" (26.1), is only one of several passages reiterating the theme of punishment and trial for Britain's faith, but it follows straight on from the Saxon war and the revolt of Ambrosius, which Gildas clearly connects specifically with Isaiah 19.  In 4.2, Gildas explicitly compares the paganism of old Britain with that of Egypt; and it follows that Britain, like Egypt, will be stricken and healed, and become dedicated to the one true God.  Gildas probably knew that the Egypt of his day was Christian.

Gildas' use of Isaiah 19 is however curious in one respect - one in which the prophet himself makes a quite extraordinary statement.  The chapter opens with a militant vision of the Lord of Hosts at war against Egypt's idols.  The burden of Egypt: behold, the Lord rideth upon a swift cloud, and shall come into Egypt: and the idols of Egypt shall be moved at His presence, and the heart of Egypt shall melt in the middle of it.  In other words, the prophet's message is at heart one of uncompromising hostility against Egyptian paganism.  This war in heaven, between true and false gods, has a very practical terrestrial side: And I will set the Egyptians against the Egyptians, and they shall fight every one against his brother... and the spirit of Egypt shall fail in the midst thereof; and I shall destroy the counsel thereof; and they shall seek to the idols, and to the charmers, and to them that have familiar spirits, and to the wizards.  It is after this destruction of the wisdom of Egypt, proceeding from the annihilation of the magical powers of the idols - which, in turn, is surely due to the Lord coming down in wrath on the gods of Egypt - that the Egyptians will I give into the hands of a cruel lord; and a fierce king shall rule over them, says the Lord, the Lord of hosts.  The obvious parallel with the British being given into the hands of such cruel lords as the Saxons does not need underlining; but the point is that, if that parallel is present, then so is that of the spiritual state of Egypt before the disaster - a pagan country ruled by evil spirits and their wizards and familiars.

Is Gildas saying that Vortigern was a pagan?  I doubt it: had he wanted to, he might have made the case far more clearly - after all, the charge of apostasy is a dreadful one.  Besides, the point of Isaiah 19 is not the spiritual state of Pharaoh, but that of his whole people: it is they who are under the power of charmers, wizards, men and women with familiars, and evil spirits.  More remarkable is that the prophet says that, in the future day of purification, Egypt shall return to the Lord.  This can only mean - extraordinarily - that he understands the great empire to have once fallen off from the worship of the Lord of Hosts.  Perhaps he has somehow heard of Akhenaten's attempted and terribly frustrated monotheistic experiment?  Certainly the picture of Egyptians against the Egyptians, and they shall fight every one against his brother does seem similar to that of the confrontation and struggle which is well known to have attended Akhenaten's monotheistic attempt: Isaiah is saying that the struggle in heaven between faith in the monotheistic God of Israel and the polytheistic idols of Egypt is mirrored by violent civil disorder in terrestrial Egypt - in other words, by a war of religion; and where else in Egyptian history, before the persecutions of the Roman period, did such a struggle take place, except in the reign of Akhenaten?  And Isaiah cannot simply have been making things up out of ignorance or presumption: no Palestinian in history can ever have been out of touch with Egyptian realities, or not aware of the relative power of Egypt as compared to his own land.  But whatever the case, the parallel with Britain must be that, just before the Saxons came, Britain was in what Gildas regarded as a state of apostasy, having forgotten the Lord; and that the Saxons were her punishment for having done so.

There is no evidence for any return to pagan practices in fifth-century Britain: temples tend to be demolished or turned into private habitations around the turn of the century[5], and while evidence of Christian religious activity later is not dense, it is constant.  There may have been continued pagan activity in places like Maiden Castle[6], but largely in the nature of a provincial or rural survival, not of a vigorous and definite pagan revival such as Augustine dreaded after 410 and such as actually manifested itself under the usurper John in 425.  This is no reason to deny absolutely that such a thing took place: if pagan revivals were possible so late in Italy, and if the young Patrick took part in one in Britain in the 390s, it is not impossible to imagine them a generation or two later.  We do however know that a great deal of relativism and religious indifference attended the Mild King's fall, and that, while there is no clear mention of paganism, there was a definite anti-Church movement in the Pelagians, received in Britain as friends, according to E: it may be that it was to this particular apostasy that Gildas was pointing - after all, his source E regarded it as no less than turning from God to Satan.

The evidence that Gildas meant to use Isaiah's description of the plight of Egypt not in bits, but as a whole, as a parallel to that of pre-Saxon Britain, is in what the prophet foretells as the final end of the Egyptian crisis.  Isaiah's God punishes Egypt for being unfaithful to Him - the same charge Isaiah so often and so resoundingly makes against Israel, sounding rather out of place here.  But once Egypt has "turned", even "turned back", to the Lord, then they shall cry to the Lord because of the oppressors, and he shall send them a saviour, and a great one, and he shall deliver them.  Do we doubt that Gildas had these words in mind when he spoke of Ambrosius - the saviour, the great one who delivered the nation from the oppressors in the name of the Christian God?

Ambrosius is Gildas' opposite term to the luxurious, doomed picture of Pharaoh-Vortigern and his stupid court.  The dichotomy should be clear to any Latin speaker.  Vortigern is the superbus tyrannus, the proud usurper; Ambrosius is the uir modestus, the modest hero.  Of the two Latin words for man, homo and uir, homo (related to humus, earth[7]) means man in the mass, man with no moral distinction, and Gildas uses it when speaking of man as mortal or sinful[8]; uir (from which uirtus, courage, virtue) is man as noble, dignified, manly, as in the famous opening of the Aeneid, Arma uirumque cano..., "I sing the weapons and the hero...", as well known to Gildas as to us.  Uir is as much in opposition to tyrannus as virtue to arrogance and measure to madness; an opposition which corresponds exactly to that between modestus and superbus, cutting across Greek and Roman, Platonic and Epicurean, Pagan and Christian distinctions.  Everyone respected modesty, living according to modus, to proper measure; everybody hated and, more to the point, looked with superstitious dread upon, the superbus, the man who puts himself above, super, others.  (It has been shown that this is also the basic meaning of that much abused word hybris, so often misinterpreted as defiance to the gods when in fact it means arrogance towards one's fellow men[9].)

It is much to the point that the tyrannus is not only superbus but infaustus, ill-starred: superbia, hybris, always went with ill-fortune.  And when, within three chapters of each other, we find the anti-hero of Britain's fall branded both superbus and infaustus, and the hero of her recovery defined as modestus, we should not be in any doubt that this ancient and basic idea was in charge.  It still lives today: "pride comes before a fall"; "the bigger they come, the harder they fall"; "up like a rocket, down like the stick" - dozens of popular sayings testify to the ancient and universal connection between excessive arrogance and sudden ruin.

While the Egyptian imagery of Gildas, who inserted his comparison with Pharaoh and his court as an editorial comment on the tyrannus' decision to call in the Saxons, is clearly his own work, as typical of his style as of his mind, the dichotomy modestus/superbus is just as clearly part of a store of accepted ideas.  Gildas delivers it in a bald and unadorned manner: Ambrosius Aurelianus is simply uir modestus - it could almost be a part of his name - and the tyrannus is just as simply superbus and infaustus.  (The use of infaustus crudelisque tyrannus in Muirchu, as we saw, strongly suggests that the expression was formulaic.)  In the face of the proud bejewelled lords of Vortigern's council, whose Egyptian splendour carries a vague suggestion of paganism, stands the single, modest figure of the prince from a fallen dynasty, surrounded only by the nameless ciues, the working bees of the British earth, and by a few sturdy reliquiae of dispossessed aristocracy - who, turning back to the Lord, rescue the nation from the catastrophe in which the "proud" princes of Zoan had sunk it.

Not to misapply Christian categories, Ambrosius is endowed not with the religious virtue of humility, but with its next-door neighbour modesty - a more Classical, more universal virtue.  He is modest like Caesar was clement, Solomon wise, Trajan the best of princes, Richard I lion-hearted; "Vortigern" is the superbus tyrannus just as other fallen sovereigns down the centuries have been execrated.  I feel confident that the British man on the Clapham omnibus would use these titles for these two kings unselfconsciously – as with John XXIII il Papa buono (the good Pope), Louis XIV le Roi Soleil, Attila the Scourge of God, Demetrius the Besieger (son of Antigonus One-Eye), Niall of the Nine Hostages, Harald Fair-Hair, John Lackland, Bloody Mary, and, best of all, the Byzantine emperor known as Constantine V Kopronymos, an adjective I decline to translate.

The names given to those royal heroes and villains are a bit more than mere propaganda.  They may reflect actual qualities: Caesar really forgave his enemies, Richard Plantagenet really was the bravest of the brave, Trajan really was an extraordinary mix of brilliant general and able and kindly ruler, Demetrius did besiege many towns, John Plantagenet did lose an awful lot of territory, and the name of Constantine V really was execrated.  The point however is that, while the nickname of Constantine V was awarded after death, and that of King John can only have been whispered while he lived, those leaders known for positive qualities were aware of them; that their followers were aware of them (an ambassador for Richard told Saladin that "if their good qualities could be brought together, the whole world would not contain two such princes"), and that they made damn well sure that the population at large was aware too.

By the same token, there is no particular reason to deny that Ambrosius was modest and manly.  We may well believe that he took no part in the country's politics until his time came; after all, Gildas and his source would not have condemned Vortigern's council so unconditionally if their modest hero had had anything to do with it.  He stayed home - abroad, probably in Gaul, where his family had fled the Saxons - and, Voltaire fashion, "cultivated his own garden".  We remember that later Welsh tradition knew a famous and ancient Triad which praised the Three Ungrasping Princes[10], who did not seize a throne though it was theirs by right.  He modestly did not put himself forwards - until the kingdom of his father, gripped by barbarians, called to him in despair, and the modest hero stepped forth to his country's rescue, as strong silent British men have done ever since.  He cuts a very British, one might almost say English, figure of a hero.

Seriously, though, the ideological opposition between modesty and arrogance is closely parallel to that between simplicity and court ostentation.  Court ostentation may easily be seen as the social reflex of individual conceit, so that the remembered splendour of Vortigern's time came to seem as a material reflection of their sin of pride.  The sources of Constantius of Lyons remembered the gilded swagger of rich Britons with their courts of flattering followers; a century later, to their descendants, it had taken mythic qualities.

It is a clear psychological compensation to be able to see in that wealth, remembered in Gildas' time as incomparable, hanging over latter days like a reproach, no more than the corruption of wealth, and to take refuge in the idea that our times are, at least, outstanding for modesty and valour.  The gorgeous corruption of Vortigern's time, which Gildas masterfully hints at with a few words and a Biblical quotation, is parallel to the pride - and, closely related with it, the relativistic contempt for truth - that has eaten at Britain and led it to destruction; and from that point of view, the mighty ruins dotted all over the British landscape come to signify, not the nostalgia for a great age now lost, but the terrible warning of what happens to rich, proud, corrupt nations, made stiff and weak by their very prosperity.  Britain was fatally weakened by a plague; but what Gildas describes as the greater plague is nothing else than prosperity itself, following upon the defeat of the Picts.  It was wealth itself that had poisoned Britain.

Attributing past disasters to the sins of the defeated - especially when the defeated are our own ancestors - is so frequent a phenomenon that I do not think we need doubt we are in the presence of a universal human attitude.  It often happens that the last ruler of a dynasty or a state, fallen under the wrath of the gods, is remembered by his successors as proud, superbus, hybristes, especially if the state in question is of some dimension and power and its fall is very sudden.  The last king of Rome was Tarquinius superbus, Tarquin the Proud; Nabonidus, last king of Babylon, was described as proud and irreligious, by a stunned priesthood searching for the reason of the fall of Babylon to Persian barbarians, almost as soon as he had fallen[11]; the mightiest Greek tyrants were remembered for their pride - after they had fallen.

This implies a more or less naive moral positivism: the idea that, because something has been visited by the wrath of the gods, therefore it must have been punished for something.  But its real content is not intellectual (since moral positivism is one of the easiest things in the world to refute) so much as emotional: it reflects the enormous mental dislocation of people who had seen the greatest reality in their lives borne down suddenly and beyond recall.  How could something so great, so impressively splendid, so apparently powerful, fall, and fall so fast, and so irreparably?  Why - the ideas rearrange themselves, slowly or quickly - why, just because it seemed so great and splendid.  It was too vast.  It was arrogant.  It challenged the gods.

There can be no doubt that Vortigern's age still exerted some residual mental pull in Gildas' day.  Across fifty or seventy-five years of war, across a clearly diminished culture that no longer could build in stone and did not manage to re-people and rebuild its own cities, across a country wretchedly shared with barbarians, broken up by civil war and sedition, threatened with Roman invasion, people must have looked upon 410-440 as in some ways a golden age.  Its monuments were still there to strike the eye, great stone walls around ancient cities and forts, immense aristocratic mansions now slowly falling to ruin, long stone roads of phenomenal stoutness, which legend was soon to ascribe to Elen or Marcella - all reinforced the haunting memory of the wealth of Britain in the time of the ancestors.  Ambrosius' descendants ruled over an ebbing country and a shrunken people, and they knew it only too well.

To this depressing feeling of inadequacy, as much as to dynastic hatreds, must be due Gildas' particular portrayal of Vortigern. The superbus tyrannus was a part, an embodiment if you will, of a collective moral failure.  The British body politic, the educated classes, were collectively responsible for the evil of their days, and would be collectively punished.  This was the class that was swept away by a blow of God's justice, and the blow itself proves they were collectively wicked.  Had they not been wicked, God would not have destroyed them (this particular sort of moral positivism, though theologically unsound, is often found in Church Fathers).  When the poorer ciues, who are not Roman (nota bene!)[12], are left without their leadership, the image he uses for them is not ugly or contemptous - it is that of small, hard-working, golden bees, producers of precious honey and useful wax, swarming home to take shelter under the natural royalty of Ambrosius as though to their hive.

At the heart of it - always remember the basic racist doctrine of Gildas and his contemporaries - lay a racial failure.  The rectores, the Roman-originated ruling, military and landholding class, were lost when Maximus took the army away; only lesser men were left.  And it is surely a related fact that the wickedness Gildas condemns in the time of the superbus tyrannus is essentially a wickedness of the educated landholding classes, those who live in luxury, get drunk on (expensive imported) wine, try to legally steal land from each other, and associate to threaten and overthrow the king; the rot had already set in then, long before his own age.  Gildas, as I said, has no contempt for the British ciues, the ordinary working bees of Britain, so long as they are just that: working bees.  But his culture despises the British in a position of power.  The Romans are natural rulers, and the British are all right so long as they keep in their place; and the net result of the Saxon war is to make the ordinary British working class resort to one of their last surviving natural superiors, Ambrosius, "almost the last of the Roman nation".

We are to assume that the moral collapse of Vortigern's times is directly related to this racial poisoning.  Gildas seems to have regarded the whole "native" chieftain class as "tyrants", with all the word’s negative connotations, merely by virtue of their British blood; though the exhibition they actually made of themselves can hardly have improved his opinion.  And when he describes the usurper later known as Vortigern as a tyrannus, he implies that Vortigern is of British, not Roman blood.  The name found in later sources conveys the same insulting message, redoubled: Vortigern translates into proto-British the Gildasian title of superbus tyrannus - Vor-Tigern, "over-lord": a British name, as opposed to Ambrosius' Graeco-Roman one, and one that says that its holder is not even a gwledig, but a teyrn, not the legitimate king, only the over-kinglet, an underling among kings, a tyrant set up by smaller tyrants tyrannically.  “Vortigern” is a racial and social insult, and the fact that superbus tyrannus is apparently a translation of Vortigern seems to show that it, with all that it implies, was already in regular use in Gildas' time.

The overthrow of the Mild King is therefore the defining moment when the native class of tyranni gain power over Britain against one of the last true-born Roman families (for if Ambrosius was of good Roman blood, so a fortiori was his father!).  Gildas would hardly need to make the point, since it would be as much as ABC to them, as clearly implied, with all its moral and racial connections, by the simple word "tyranny", as the words baas and kaffir would once have been enough to evoke a whole world of Afrikaner racial ideas.

This attitude, shown to the full in Gildas' view of the tyrannus' court, clearly reflects a state of mind to whom the fall of the British Roman state in 442 or so was the central issue, one which looked at the end of the awesome, rich, stone-building Roman civilization as the supreme crisis of their history.  In Gildas, the Saxons are mainly hated for having been, however long ago, the instrument of that fall; the issue, that is, not so much the Saxon invasion itself, as the fall of the great Roman British world that it brought about.  It is only much later, when the British came to realize that most of the island was lost to the English for ever, and that their conversion and the arrival of an archbishop deprived the British even of their "Christian" sense of superiority, that hatred for the man remembered as having invited them grew and grew.  Gildas regarded Vortigern not so much as evil as criminally stupid; but by the time we get to Nennius, the Saxons are at the centre of the picture, and Vortigern is no longer merely a fool, but a traitor.


[1]A variant reading in two Breton manuscripts suggests that the name may actually have featured in his text.  But the evidence is scarcely decisive: any moderately intelligent person could have identified the unnamed (if he was) tyrannus of our standard text, who was ruined by calling in the Saxons, with the usurping King Vortigern of Geoffrey and his successors, who was a tyrant and was ruined by calling in the Saxons; and at least one of the two manuscripts dates to the thirteenth century, i.e. is certainly post-Geoffrey.

[2]Gildas' familiarity with the Bible actually led him into a minor error.  He has confused Zoan, one of the Egyptian capitals (Greek Tanis), with Zoar, a town in southern Palestine.  For Zoan, cf. Num.13.22, Ps.78.12,43, Ezek.30.14; for Zoar, Gen.14.12, 19.20-22, Deut.34.3, Isa.15.5, Jer.48.34.  He may have been helped to his confusion by the fact that Zoar was actually one of the companion cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, saved from destruction by Lot's prayer, but, according to Jeremiah, doomed to a very bad end later.

[3]For all subsequent items, cf. Isaiah 19.  The whole chapter forms one clear unit with no overruns, dedicated to a particular view of Egypt, and it is my view that Gildas meant it all to shine through in his quotation: certainly most of it - the foolish decision of Pharaoh and his council, the savage foreign oppressor who is to rule over Egypt, the Egyptians turning to God, and God sending them a deliverer - is highly relevant to what we know of fifth-century British history.

[4]It is possible that he may have, in this shattering prophecy, concealed a more hopeful message; for the second part of the book of Isaiah – which we now know to be by another author, a Diaspora Jew in Persian times - is one long hymn of hope and praise, foretelling that the people of the Lord will not be punished for ever, but be led back to their own home while heathen nations - including Egypt and Assyria - are paid in ransom for them, handed over to destruction in their place.  Possibly Gildas hoped that such a thing might in the future be said even of his own people; but, even if he did, he knew that the captivity in Babylon lasted seventy years.

[5]SNYDER op.cit., 203-208: "A Romano-Celtic temple was also built [at Brean Down, Somerset] and was demolished c.390...replaced by a rectangular stone-built structure [some time after which the site became a Christian cemetery with Celtic-type slab-lined and cist graves]"; "...a probable Christian community at Shepton Mallet [a semi-rural "Roman small town" in Somerset along the Fosse Way] in the later fourth century [underline mine].  Pottery and coinage take us up to about 400AD..."; a late[-Roman] or sub-Roman [i.e.about 350-442] stone building standing beside the first Anglo-Saxon church [at Wells Cathedral]...tentatively identified as a mausoleum... later religious activity at the site argues for a Christian mausoleum"; at Ancaster, near Grantham, Lincolnshire, "a late Roman cemetery containing over three hundred graves... some... speculate that this was a Christian cemetery.  Coins found in one grave date to the 360s, but it is possible that the burials continue into the fifth century...";  "A Romano-Celtic temple was built just outside [Chelmsford] c. 320... the site... produced 90 coins more or less evenly spread between 310 and 402, ending with issues of Arcadius; some time after 402, ritual discontinued at the temple, and a small three-room house was erected against its eastern wall..."; the temple of Apollo at Nettleton, on the other hand, "had become derelict in the second half of the fourth century.  Some time after 370 it was adapted for habitation, and was used as a farmstead until 392 and possibly later [in 402 or later the farm seems to have suffered a brutal raid]... Richard Reece sees occupation at the site lasting well into the fifth century".  At West Hill Uley (Gloucestershire), an ancient sacred site pre-dating the Roman conquest, which had later grown into a temple, was "demolished c.400.  The dismantling of the building was systematic, and the removal of the stonework done carefully.  Excavation further disclosed at least three [later] phases of structures... associated with Theodosian coinage... the first of these structures... a double-aisled timber basilica, probably a church, [was] constructed some time after... 402"; succeeding stages of building also show evidence of Christian use.  In the Scilly Islands, surely as provincial a site as can be imagined, "a Romano-Celtic pagan shrine... yelded a late Roman treasure... suggesting... paganism to the end of the fifth century"; on the other hand, "an early Christian wooden church was replaced by a stone chapel on St.Helen's, and the few graves excavated point to Christian cemeteries..."

[6]SNYDER loc.cit.: "some time after 367, a pagan temple was built on the hillfort's plateau.  Maiden Castle... may then have become an enclosed shrine similar to the temple at Lydney, possibly associated with a sub-Roman cemetery.  According to its first excavator, the temple... had its floor replaced, suggesting 'an existence prolonged well into the fifth century'.   Thereafter, a nearby circular shrine may have replaced the Romano-Celtic temple."  Circular shapes are unusual - though not unknown - for Christian churches, but fairly frequent (often in association with square shapes) for Celtic and Romano-Celtic temples; so pagan worship of a sort may have gone on in Maiden Castle into the fifth century.  The presence of a typically Celtic, if Romanized, cult site on the hillfort, suggests some religious continuity with the pre-Roman period, even though the site had been deserted in favour of the Roman town of Dorchester.  Such continuities could be associated with prominent local families, claiming descent or continuity of function either from the ancient kings or from sacerdotal lineages dedicated to local cults.  The replacement of the temple floor suggests the possession of means and access to skilled workers, which gives the same message.  This, in turn, has a strong suggestion of the great influence of domini ac patres nostri in the world of E, influence such that, if some of them are found to be hostes ecclesiae, then the church is in danger.

[7]GIACOMO DEVOTO, Dizionario etimologico, Florence 1968, s.v. uomo, virtú

[8]For instance: 1.4, ...ob peccata hominum querulas sanctorum prophetarum uoces... "the complaining voices of the prophets, on account of the sins of men..."; 4.2, ...errores quibus ante aduentum Christi in carne omne humanum genus obligabatur adstrictum... "errors, by which the whole human kind was bound in chains before Christ came in the flesh..."

[9]NICK FISHER, HYBRIS, status and slavery, 45-88 in ANTON POWELL (ed.), The Greek World, Routledge, London 1995.

[10]Pryderi mentions it in the Fourth branch of the Mabinogi to praise Manawyddan, when Manawyddan refuses to go to war against his cousin Casswallawn ap Beli after the latter has usurped the throne of Britain from the representatives of Manawyddan's brother Bran.

[11]As excellently demonstrated, it seems to me, by AMÉLIE KUHRT, Nabonidus and the Babylonian priesthood, 119-155 in MARY BEARD & JOHN NORTH (eds.), Pagan priests, Duckworth, London 1990.  She argues that the description of Nabonidus' supposed impieties, in clay tablets written after the event by Babylonian priests, were in effect the attempt to find reasons why the gods should have withdrawn their protection from the king of Babylon, and finding it in an odd ragbag of supposed sins ranging from the building of a temple to the god of the moon to an overlong campaign in the Arab desert, joined together under the catch-all categories "pride" and "impiety" and amounting to a self-destructive madness.  In point of fact, of course, these supposed "sins" hardly justify, let alone explain, the fall of a great kingdom: the truth is that it was overcome by a stronger enemy.

[12]Ambrosius was “almost the last of the Romans”, and in all of Britain there were only a few sturdy reliquiae; but there were plenty of miserrimi ciues, who flocked, confugiunt, to him. In other words, ciues and Romani were separate, probably complementary groups.

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

Comments to: Fabio P. Barbieri

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