Gildas, in the 6th century, tells us that a generation after Britain had left the Roman Empire, a plea was sent to Rome to return and rescue the Britons from incoming hordes:
“To Aetius thrice Consul, hear the groans of the Britons
The barbarians drive us to the sea, the sea drives us to the barbarians; between these two means of death, we are either killed or drowned.”
The Romans, however, could not assist them, and in the meantime the discomfited people, wandering in the woods, began to feel the effects of a severe famine, which compelled many of them without delay to yield themselves up to their cruel persecutors, to obtain subsistence.
Flavius Aetius was the senior general commanding in Gaul and Hispania, and the effective ruler of much of the Western Empire. Britannia had left the Empire long since and been abandoned. He did not respond.
Who wrote the letter he does not say. This was in about 450 AD, forty years after the legions had been expelled from Britannia. Aetius had other things on his mind at the time, such as suppressing numerous invasions and rebellions, and the little matter of confronting Atilla the Hun as he invaded Gaul with the largest invasion force in Roman history. The Britons only ever thought of their own position. How little things change.
What was this island, cut off from the Empire? It had been conquered as a public relations exercise by Claudius and while towns and roads and coloniae were built, much of Britannia remained a wild frontier for the three and half centuries of occupation. It was the one province of the West which never spoke Latin but kept its own language. It was the one province of the Roman Empire from which no native ever rose to become a leading general or magistrate. When the legions withdrew and the last Roman magistrates were expelled, the Celtic Iron Age seems to have resumed as if nothing had happened in the meantime.
It was a fertile land and one defended only by the soldiers of a distant Empire, and increasingly not even by Romans but auxiliaries, and when even these withdrew then there came other Britons, untamed Britons, and from across the sea came tribes of untamed Germany
Was this letter to Aetius written by a king or a faction? Gildas is unclear, but the wording he gives is in the style of an oration recounted by Tacitus, which is to say made up for effect. (Not that I would knock a Tacitus oration: Solitudinem fecerunt, pacem appelunt – brilliant) Nevertheless, whatever its words and from whomever it came, the letter was written, as a plea for Rome to ride to the rescue.
Perhaps it was the ultimate Remoaner moment. Are we to expect a faction of die-hard pro-Europeans to write, forty years hence, a similar letter to a leader of the European Empire, and what will they find?
The letter Gildas describes, the Groans of the Britons, was addressed to the closest commander of an empire dying as it stood. No answer came, but there was none in truth who could answer, for those who wrote the letter were appealing to the dream that was Rome, and no more than a dream. The Empire they called to was already dead.
- Quarrel of a dying empire poisoning modernity
- Brexit moment 1688
- Brexit moment 1714
- Gaius Cassius and Cingonius Varro
- On the Ruin of Britain (Parts I and II) (‘De Excidio Britanniae’) by Gildas
- History of the Britons (‘Historia Brittonum’) by Nennius
- SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard
- The Dream of Rome by Boris Johnson
- A History of Ancient Britain by Neil Oliver
- The Age Of Arthur by John Morris
- The Confessions – St Augustine
- Augustine: Conversions and Confessions by Robin Lane Fox
- By Tacitus:
- By Suetonius:
- By Virgil:
- By Thomas Hobbes: