BMCR 1998.09.06

An Age of Tyrants: Britain and the Britons, A.D. 400-600

, An age of tyrants : Britain and the Britons, A.D. 400-600. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998. xix, 403 pages : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm. ISBN 9780271017426. $22.50 (pb).

The cover and frontispiece of Christopher Snyder’s new book are lurid Dungeons and Dragonsesque illustrations that immediately suggest yet another amateurish bash at the history of “Arthur’s Britain.” First impressions are misleading, however, for the book itself is a sober and useful contribution to the literature. While not perhaps a revolutionary approach to its subject, An Age of Tyrants will no doubt find its way into many a scholar’s library. Its value to specialists in late Roman Britain will, I suspect, be minimal, but for those more concerned with other regions of the late or sub-Roman worlds, S.’s book opens a window on a subject and period too easily dismissed as the marginal preserve of hobbyists.

Not, of course, that post-Roman Britain is underrepresented in the literature, but rather that its obscurity has encouraged vast quantities of if, might, and maybe history-writing which rarely rewards the patience it requires. The most recent exception to this rule is Kenneth Dark’s excellent Civitas to Kingdom (Leicester, 1993), a book that the present volume in no way replaces. Instead, An Age of Tyrants provides a sort of extended discussion of the methodological problems that Dark skirts in his archaeologico-narrative history.

S.’s book is a revision, though seemingly a rather slight one, of a 1994 Emory University dissertation. The provocative title is an allusion to Jerome’s famous remark about Britain’s fecundity in the production of tyrants, while the subtitle and its dates are really a bit disingenuous: sources for the sixth century are even less adequate than those for the fifth, and S. quite rightly says very little about the years after 500. Yet for that very reason a more accurate subtitle might have been “The World of Patrick and Gildas,” as it is their texts that occupy very nearly half of S.’s most detailed analyses. The book as a whole is divided into four parts. The first is a narrative account of the “Twilight of Roman Britain,” heavily dependent on T.S. Burns’ Barbarians within the Gates of Rome and rather too uncritical of the primary sources. Part two deals with the written record for sub-Roman Britain, while part three surveys the archaeological record. Part four, a mere twenty-seven pages long, is labelled “Synthesis” and attempts to bring together the results of the many discursive pages that precede it.

There is no need to say much about part one. Pedestrian and uncritical, it remains a perfectly adequate introduction to Constantine III’s usurpation and could safely be offered to undergraduates. The substance of S.’s research clearly lies in parts two and three, and it is on these that the book must be judged. The author himself assesses their contribution on p. xix: “Merely to bring together what has already been done by archaeologists and historians working in the Roman and Celtic fields would be a major contribution.” On this point he is quite right, and he does indeed make that contribution. “But,” he goes on, “this is not just a collection and assessment of other scholars’ findings.” Here, unfortunately, his success is less unmixed, but this in no way lessens the value of the first achievement.

Part two begins with an introduction to the written sources, useful for students, though rather patchy in its analysis of the Greek historians and the fifth-century chroniclers (it is throughout unclear whether any German-language works were consulted). Most of the section, however, is taken up with an analysis of particular terms and their application to or in the world of sub-Roman Britain. This analysis, S. hopes, will reveal the social, cultural and political realities of a period for which no narrative can be written. S. begins with the word Britannia, and progresses in the course of a hundred pages through patria, Britanni, cives, reges, tyranni, and concludes with a glance at a number of “miscellaneous terms.” The work here consists of the sort of rigorous leg-work that a dissertation requires, but which might have been sensibly trimmed for publication. It is, for instance, debatable whether a discussion of tyranny in the Attic dramatists furthers S.’s own arguments very much at all. Still, the writings of Patrick and Gildas are the core texts on which the analysis here rests, and S. does indeed show us how Patrick and Gildas reflect their world in their use of the words he discusses. One might complain that the sheer rhetorical charge of Gildas’ prose is sometimes downplayed in the hope of fixing a technical dimension to it. Nevertheless, this part of S.’s book does leave a reader knowing a good deal more about the thought-world of sub-Roman Britain than almost any of us will have gone in with.

Part three, on archaeology, is without any real question the most valuable part of the work. S. himself describes it as a rescue operation, saving and publicising the sub-Roman evidence buried in a few paragraphs at the end of countless site-reports. Whatever else its ambitions, this rescue operation is a smashing success. Britain is often taken as a paradigmatic case for the collapse of Roman culture in a formerly Roman province. Unlike Gaul or Italy (and perhaps, to a lesser extent, Spain), where the model of transformation from a Roman to a sub-Roman material culture is firmly and rightly entrenched, in Britain the model of cataclysm prevails in the minds of all but a very few specialists. Here, however, S. has compiled evidence from a wide variety of sites, showing that the material culture of the fourth century persisted into the last third of the fifth century. This material culture was quite clearly not the public and monumental Roman culture of the Antonine or Severan periods, but every bit as Roman despite that fact. If An Age of Tyrants does no more than dispel the myth of fifth-century cultural cataclysm — and anyone who reads these pages ought to be convinced — it will have served an abiding purpose.

With that said, it is no great criticism of the author to note that the synthesis offered in the book’s last twenty-five pages is really no more than a judicious weighing of other scholars’ conclusions. It is, at any rate, nice to have various conflicting interpretations of sub-Roman Britain handily accessible in one place. This is precisely the main contribution of S.’s book. Those of us who work on other regions of the fifth-century world are used to seeing Britain as something wholly other, an exception that proves the rule elsewhere in the late Roman west. An Age of Tyrants demonstrates that Britain had a good deal more in common with the rest of the sub-Roman world than tradition has generally acknowledged.

I conclude with a few points of detail since convention dictates that such quibbles come at the end of a review. They are unlikely to be of interest to the casual reader:

p. 19. p. 113: S. indulges in the traditional agonizing over the supposedly “civilian” office of the British usurper Gratian whom Orosius calls municeps. The word need mean no more than that Gratian was a native of Britain, a usage attested as early as Cicero, and says nothing at all about his position, official or otherwise.

p. 21: Stilicho was executed in 408 not 409.

part II and passim: the rather otiose citation of the Greek forms of the specific terms under discussion is marred by the total absence of accents and breathings. If the Greek forms were thought necessary, they should have been given correctly.

p. 125: There is no evidence that Constans, son of Constantine III, was a monk in Britain, nor for that matter that he or his family was British. To call him “perhaps the first British monk” is misleading.

p. 131: “Manifold” is not a synonym for “many.”

p. 236: The verb “discontinue” must be transitive.

passim: The value of Procopius’ testimony for the fifth-century west is never questioned, though it is by no means self-evident. At very least an extended footnote would have been in order.