A recent aspect of historical research about the fall of the Roman Empire has been to look at it from the point of view of the ‘barbarians’, as our view of this period has been coloured by the fact that the sources used have been pro-Roman.
At the November meeting of the Alnwick and District Local History Society, Mike Thompson tried to ‘put the record straight’.
In the last two centuries of Roman rule, Britain was ruled for 84 years directly from Rome, and for 70 years by Usurpers, rulers of a Gallic Empire.
In 259 AD, Germanic tribes crossed the Rhine, and the Roman Army set up Postumus as Gallic Emperor, ruling Britain, Gaul, Spain and the Rhine area.
Rome tried and failed to regain control, but Postumus was assassinated by his own troops. By 274, Tetricus was the Gallic emperor.
Aurelian, the Roman emperor, attacked and defeated him, reuniting the Roman Empire. Aurelian was responsible for upgrading existing forts, and introducing Saxon-shore forts to protect against Saxon invaders. He was assassinated in 275, and another period of instability followed. In Britain, Bonosus, whose father was British, seized power, but his reign lasted only two years.
In 286, Carausius, who was in charge of a fleet in the Channel to combat pirates, was accused of corruption by stealing the captured treasure.
In retaliation, he declared himself Emperor of Britain and Gaul. He was responsible for the construction of four more huge Saxon-shore forts, including Portchester. Carausius was assassinated by his treasurer in 293, but Rome was steadily regaining control in this period.
Constantius I came with his troops to Britain, but died here in 306 AD. His son, Constantine (later the Great), was acclaimed Emperor by the army.
The Roman Empire had been split into four parts (the Tetrarchy), and Constantine had much to do before gaining control of the whole Roman Empire, but finally achieved this in 324. He reigned until 337 and put an end to the persecution of Christians.
After his death, the Empire was left to his three sons, but they fought amongst themselves about the division.
Constans, the youngest came to Britain in 350 for support, but the troops preferred Magnentius, and Constans was assassinated. However, Magnentius was defeated by Constantius II.
In the late fourth century, there were raids from the Irish, Picts, Angles and Saxons during the summer, which were of increasing ferocity.
Roman troops deserted, and Theodosius, the Roman Emperor, came to Britain to regain control. Magnus Maximus, the British commander, usurped the throne in 383. He appointed himself Emperor of Britain and Gaul, and was revered by the Welsh, who called him Macsen Wledig.
This was a period of massive social change. Towns shrank, and villas and farms were built instead.
Foolishly, Magnus Maximus attacked the Roman Empire, and was defeated and executed in 388.
In 399, Stilicho, then in charge of the Roman Empire, sent troops to Britain, but by 402 these seem to have been withdrawn.
In 406-7, the Rhine froze over and Germanic tribes crossed and attacked.
There was no effective response from Rome, so the troops in Britain decided to choose their own commander, Constantine III, as a defensive measure. He led his troops across to Gaul, and set himself up as Emperor, but gradually lost control, and the situation slid into anarchy.
Mike Thompson ended by postulating that the difference between the north and south of Britain (the military in charge in the north, and rich landowners with no significant military background living in isolated villas in the south) meant that the north was more stable and prosperous than the south after the fall of the Roman Empire, and this was only shattered by the arrival of the Vikings.
The next meeting of the Society will be held on January 27, 2015, at 7.30pm when Andrew Griffin will be talking about Wallington.