Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.8.5


M.E. Jones, The End of Roman Britain. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996. Pp. 323. ISBN 0-8014-2789-4.


Reviewed by A.T. Fear, University of Keele.

The end of Roman Britain, like the fall of the Empire of which she formed not an insignificant part, has always excited interest in the English-speaking world. The subject itself lies in a twilight world between Classical Antiquity and the Anglo-Saxon period with unwelcome mythological intruders such as King Arthur also making appearances. It is therefore treacherous terrain for any scholar. The popular historical tradition has tended to see Britain, much against the Britons' will, being abandoned by Rome and then overwhelmed by hordes of Anglo-Saxons. Nor was this view restricted to popular historians: Theodor Mommsen, as MJ notes, remarked that 'it was not Britain that gave up Rome, but Rome that gave up Britain'.

In recent years there has been a strong reaction against this viewpoint and MJ's tent is firmly pitched in this new camp. His view is that not only would the Britons not have begged Rome to stay, but would have cheered her departure. The subject is dealt with in two halves. The first three chapters discuss the 'Germanist' thesis that the Romano-British were submerged under waves of barbarian tribesmen from continental Europe, the following three deal with Romano-British attitudes to Roman rule and the state of Britain at the end of the empire.

Like Higham in his Rome, Britain, and the Anglo-Saxons, MJ rejects the notion of large scale barbarian invasion. His analysis here is convincing and wide-ranging. A wise side-swipe is given to the relevance of place-name studies as evidence of invasion patterns (a curiously English obsession which has plagued this period of history for many years). The archaeological record for MJ shows that Anglo-Saxon migration into Britain was no greater in size than other movements of Germanic peoples at this time (whose numbers have notoriously diminished in the light of recent scholarship) and that the migrants were predominantly composed of warrior bands rather than entire family units.

To support his case MJ attempts to show that a mass-invasion would have been logistically impossible. He draws on ships found in Saxon burials and finds them both to have been prohibitively costly to construct and impractical through their lack of carrying capacity. Using early depictions of ships he also argues that it is likely that the Angles of this period did not use sails. The evidence presented by MJ makes a coherent picture, but even he has to admit its partial nature. Argumenta ex silentio are always weak and we cannot be sure that the sail-less depictions MJ cites are necessarily typical or accurate, rather than stylistic, representations of the actual vessels concerned. After all, later depictions of the Danish invasions of Britain show the Danish fleet devoid of sails. Moreover, funerary warships may have differed significantly from other less glamourous vessels which have left no similar traces for us.

Again, like other modern scholars, MJ takes the literary sources available to us more seriously than has been customary in the past. He accepts the re-dating of Gildas' De Excidio Britanniae to the beginning of the sixth century and is inclined to believe that Gildas made use of a fifth century source, noting the break in Gildas' literary style when he describes the Saxon invasion. The argument, while not cast-iron, is highly persuasive and, if correct, an important revaluation of Gildas as a source for this period.

The dilemma posed by a rejection of the 'Germanist' hypothesis is why, if the Anglo-Saxon warbands were so small, did Britain lose so much of her Roman heritage. This was not the case, for example, in Spain where the Hispano-Romans continued to refer to themselves as Romans, their church structures survived, and the Visigothic invaders adopted a substantial number of late Roman mores. MJ answers this question in two ways -- first by arguing that there was a considerable dislike of Rome in Britain and then positing that the provinces of Britain were in a precarious state at the end of the Roman Period.

MJ believes that there was substantial hostility to Rome's rule in Britain and that this was reflected by a dislike of the Britons at Rome. By using sub-Roman sources he reconstructs provincial history from the Britons' point of view and in this reconstructed world the verdict on Rome is harsh. MJ's enterprise is a worthy one, but once again open to question in some respects. As he himself admits, the selection of texts available is narrow and may be unrepresentative of late Romano-British opinion as a whole. Perhaps a more serious question which ought to be raised is how accurate a knowledge of the Roman past these sources preserve. Neither Gildas nor Nennius' accounts of the Roman occupation inspire confidence and often seem to rely as much on a wish to present a rationalised explanation of their own circumstances as an authentic memory of the Roman period. As such they may tell us much more about contemporary views of the world than those of the Romano-British. The absence of Rome as a political structure in St Patrick's work is seen as an indication of the rejection of Rome. This is an intriguing use of Patrick, but in the end fails to convince. Ecclesiastic writers frequently by-passed the most obvious of secular power structures in their work and there is no evidence that Patrick need not be following this common pattern. Gildas is also seen as preserving anti-Roman sentiment. MJ's treatment of Gildas is sensitive and he makes the important point that such anti-Roman sentiment as is found here is as likely to reflect an upper-class as a lower-class perception of Roman rule. MJ also detects a feeling of hostility at Rome towards Britain. Here, however, the evidence is again selective and the context of the pieces quoted requires a negative presentation of the island. MJ has omitted to note that there were occasions when Roman sources are positively full of the island's praises - for example the Psuedo-Eumenius' Panegyric to the Emperor Constantius. Nor are such praises confined to imperial rhetoric: the Gallic writer Constantius in his Life of St Germanus (ch.18) refers to Britain as 'that most wealthy isle.' In general, if Rome was so antipathetic to things British, it is difficult to see why she held onto the island as long as she did (for a suggestive discussion see M.P. Charlesworth, The Lost Province or the worth of Britain, Cardiff 1949). MJ fails to confront this problem. His analysis is thought-provoking and gives a much needed corrective to some views of Roman Britain, but in doing so somewhat overstates its case.

MJ also attempts to demonstrate that Roman rule in Britain was poor. He sees a tailing-off in the quality of governors appointed and a rise in corrupt practices, neither of which provided the provincials with the compensation of security. Unfortunately, he does not show that this was any more marked in Britain than elsewhere in the Empire. The evidence used is highly suggestive and used competently, but MJ again tends to overstate his case. Perhaps the worst of MJ's sins is his varied interpretation of thin evidence. Silence or near silence is read in different ways to fit the argument: St Patrick's silence about things Roman is argued to show the hostility of Britain to Rome, yet the absence of evidence about the degree to which Britain may have participated in the Gallic Empire shows she was 'perhaps even a willing participant'. MJ's treatment of the restiveness that Roman misrule would have provoked among the upper classes is compelling, and such discontent is by far the most important for the history of the province. His attempts to find Bagaudic disturbances on the island however is much less successful, and his efforts to chart the impact of Christianity on the island are hindered by a naive methodology. He is however right to reject the view that Pelagianism was a powerful movement of social protest.

The social stresses of late Romano-British society were exacerbated, MJ believes, by a deterioration in the environment. Here a phenomenal battery of data is marshalled. At first it appears that what is being suggested is an almost apocalyptic scenario, but in the end MJ suggests more plausibly that these effects had a creeping effect which came to a head at the end of the Roman occupation. Again, of course, the chronology of environmental problems is not secure. Many of the features that MJ lists could have come after not before the Roman withdrawal, and he is forced to admit that 'chronological uncertainties stalk the analysis'. Environmental problems are linked with Roman rule and the demand for goods from the Roman Army is seen as producing a downward spiral of overworking the land at a time when it was under pressure from changing environmental circumstances. Again good points are pushed a little too far. The Roman Army may well have provided a stimulus for the Romano-British economy as well as being an unproductive burden. Some villas could have owed their genesis and survival to markets presented by Roman forces; an example would be the villa at Eaton-by-Taporley near Chester which may well have found its main source of custom in the legionary fortress there. There is perhaps too much of a tendency to accept without question the fashionable assumption that human impact on the natural world is always negative and that man cannot rise above environmental changes, but must succumb to them.

In general, the main reservation about the book must be its tendency to overstatement. Too little hard evidence is made to say too much. In MJ's defense it needs also to be said that the methodological problems encountered are frequently underlined by the author himself. Despite this tendency, the book is an extremely valuable addition to serious scholarship on Roman Britain, presenting as it does a well-argued and very different picture of the island from those normally to be found. It will be welcome both to the researcher and in the classroom where MJ's iconoclasm will be an ideal place to engender debate on key issues among undergraduates or serve as an ideal text on which to centre a graduate seminar.