01 July, 2008

Lord of Silver, by Alan Fisk. Book review

Edition reviewed: Xlibris, 2000, 0-7388-3416-5

Lord of Silver is set in Roman Britain and its neighbouring kingdoms in 366/367, against the background of the ‘Barbarian Conspiracy’. All the main characters are fictional. The name of the central character, Austalis, is recorded on a tile now in the Museum of London, but nothing is known of the individual concerned. Some historical figures appear as secondary characters, including the theologian Pelagius and the Roman army officer Magnus Maximus (later a rebel Emperor, whom regulars here may have encountered as the Macsen Wledig of Welsh tradition and from Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy).

Austalis is a young warrior of the British tribal kingdom of Gododdin, which bordered the Roman province of Britain at the east end of Hadrian’s Wall. His father Notfried was a Frisian who served in the Roman Army, and Austalis is eager to see the great Empire his father told him so much about. Entering Roman Britain through one of the forts on Hadrian’s Wall, he travels to the provincial capital Londinium (modern London), seeking variety, an education and a religion. Austalis finds Roman Britain exciting and cosmopolitan, full of strange and marvellous sights and people. Two of its exotic religions, Mithraism and Christianity, offer to accept him, and when the rich and beautiful Lady Marcella agrees to marry him it seems to Austalis that he has found all he desires. But his dreams are dashed at the last minute, leaving Austalis to plot a terrible revenge.

The strength of Lord of Silver, for me, is its historical detail. Readers who are familiar with Roman Britain will be delighted to recognise names, sites and objects known from historical and archaeological records. Marcella’s villa, now known as Lullingstone Roman Villa (more information and some links on Wikipedia), is lovingly described, as is the Temple of Mithras in London, Vercovicium fort on Hadrian’s Wall (now known as Housesteads) and the Temple of Nodens at Lydney in Gloucestershire. I recognised the “Murder House” at Housesteads in the novel, and the mausoleum at Lullingstone – and I’m not an expert on Roman Britain. I expect there are a great many more that I didn’t recognise. If you enjoy walking around ruins and trying to imagine how they worked in real life, Lord of Silver would be a great handbook to take with you. Another delightful feature of the novel was its use of isolated names from the archaeological record, people who aren’t even a footnote in history. The main character himself, Austalis, is known only from a message written on a Roman roof tile. His father Notfried (Hnaudifridus), commander of an auxiliary troop, is known from an altar at Housesteads Roman fort. Senecianus and Silvianus are known from a curse tablet deposited at the Lydney temple, in which Silvianus curses Senecianus for the loss of a valuable ring. If the inscription on the silver Venus ring found at nearby Silchester, which reads “Senecianus, may you live in God”, refers to the same Senecianus, this might even be the ring in question. Nothing further is known about these two individuals, the ring or the quarrel between them. In Lord of Silver, Alan Fisk gives them a fleeting life as minor characters.

As well as his travels in Roman Britain, Austalis journeys to the tribal kingdoms involved in the Barbarian Conspiracy, including his homeland of Gododdin, the lands of the mysterious Attacotti (here identified as the inhabitants of the Hebrides and speaking a language related to Basque), the Irish settlers in what is now Wales, and the Germanic kingdoms of continental Europe such as the Frisians, Saxons and Angli. These tribes and kingdoms are also carefully described, from their style of dress and buildings to their customs and social structures. As a result, Lord of Silver offers a detailed picture of life both inside and outside the Roman Empire in the late fourth century.

Although the romance between Austalis and Marcella, and its impact on Austalis’ subsequent actions, drives the whole plot, the emotional portrayal is surprisingly low-key, leaving many gaps about the characters’ feelings and motivations for the reader to fill in. Austalis describes Marcella as the only woman he ever loved, and I suppose the reader has to take his word for it, yet his actions seem to me to have at least as much to do with hurt pride. Marcella’s side of the relationship is hardly shown at all. Similarly, the Barbarian Conspiracy itself is organised with astonishing, and to me rather unsatisfying, ease. And although Austalis is afraid that he is watched by Roman spies, the only ones he encounters seem to be on his side. I would have liked to see a little more excitement, action and danger, and a few more twists and turns in the plot.

The novel is written in straightforward modern English, with the occasional phrase in Latin or German to hint at the linguistic diversity of the Empire. A map would have been useful to follow Austalis’ complicated journeys, especially outside Britain. The author includes a short but useful historical note acknowledging some of the historical sources behind the novel.

Detailed fictional survey of the religious and social landscape of late Roman Britain and its neighbouring tribal kingdoms.

Has anyone else read it?


Rick said...

Austalis' background sounds intriguing - a native of Gododdin, yet his father is a Frisian. (Did his father marry a Gododdin girl, and settle there?)

Do I get a little whiff of pan-British theme here? If I were just told that a 4th century character were Frisian, I would take the implication to be proto-English - though not listed by Bede, surely Frisians were in the mix of people whom everyone else called Saxons, and who eventually called themselves Angli.

stevent said...

I hadn't even heard of it. I've heard of Alan Fisk but not this particular novel. Sounds interesting. I don't know much about late Roman Britain. My studies tend to pick up after the Romans withdraw and the Angles and Saxons come across the channel.

Carla said...

Rick - yes, Austalis' father settled in Gododdin after he retired from the Roman army and married a Gododdin girl. The novel doesn't go into why he chose to do that, beyond saying that having been born a Frisian and served as a Roman he then wanted to make a third life for himself in Gododdin. It doesn't say why he chose Gododdin, or have much to say about Austalis' mother, and doesn't go into Austalis' background and upbringing in detail.

Bede mentions a Frisian trader in seventh-century London, so he knew of the Frisians as an identifiable group. It seems highly likely that there were people of Frisian origin among the early English, and probably other groups as well. The Byzantine historian Procpius, writing in the 560s, says that Britain was inhabited by Angles, Frisians and Britons. Procopius was earlier than Bede but also much further away geographically. You could read this as (a) the Frisians were a major group in the 6th century and had become much less important by the time Bede was writng, or (b) Procopius' informant happened to know about Angles and Frisians, and Bede's sources happened to know about Angles, Saxons and Jutes, neither list being necessarily complete, or (c) the names could be applied imprecisely and inconsistently (by analogy with modern ethnic labels like 'Asian'). Bede's neat threefold division might reflect the main groups, or maybe just the ones who were claimed as ancestors by the people who held political power in his day.

How do you mean "a little whiff of pan-British theme"?

Steven - it's worth looking out for, and wouldn't be at all a bad introduction to late Roman Britain. I'm interested in trying to understand late Roman Britain partly for its own sake and partly in order to have a chance of understanding the societies that came after. They were influenced by their recent past, which included Rome.

Bernita said...

Almost a travelogue then.

Gabriele C. said...

I have read the book and I agree with you about the historical details that make the book interesting. I'd have liked a bit more action, but I'm a Bernard Cornwell girl, lol. ;)

It was not unusual that auxiliaries decided to settle in the land where they often had spent some 20 years of their life and already shaped a place for themselves. Solders weren't allowed to marry but that didn't keep them from having relationships and families, and their original home often had changed and the old social ties had been cut.

Carla said...

Bernita - yes, you could call it that.

Gabriele - I thought it interesting that Notfried had decided to settle outside the Empire in the tribal kingdom north of the Wall, instead of settling down in the vicus outside the fort, or somewhere on the military supply network, where he would have known people from his military service. I agree it makes sense that he didn't go home; home might have changed out of all recognition in 20 years! Perhaps he had met a girl from the north - after all, there was any amount of trade and travel, and Gododdin was an ally or client kingdom - and love decided his location.

Gabriele C. said...

Lol, or perhaps he was on the Wanted lists in the Roman Empire. :)

Carla said...

If he was, they didn't take his bronze diploma of citizenship away, or put him on a blacklist :-) Austalis presents the diploma and is allowed into Roman Britain, so presumably his father wasn't persona non grata in the Empire and could have settled in it if he chose.

Gabriele C. said...

Ok, then he had a feud with a Batavian auxiliary and feared some sneaky assassin. :)

Lol, only writers can come up with a backstory for someone else's character.

Meghan said...

Hmmm. Although I love historical detail, I also love character-driven stories where I can understand and relate to the people I'm reading about. It sounds like there are times when that doesn't always happen?

Rick said...

Carla - there's a sort of Heisenberg principle about post-Roman Britain - you can get information from historians close in time but remote in place, or vice versa.

I didn't remember Procopius' statement, but was just going by geography, and modern Frisian being reputedly 'closest' to English. Do we even know what exactly those tribal names signified? I picture a mixed bag of Germanic-speakers settling in Britain, their dialects mostly similar enough that a single vernacular developed.

What stands out to me is that the Romans and Britons apparently called all Germanic-speakers Saxons, while they themselves eventually all called themselves English. Some of them must have called themselves Saxons at one time (and what ever happened to 'Norsex?'), but there weren't anything like tribal distinctions in Bede's day, were there?

The 'little bit of pan-British' theme' is misleading - I mean pan-British in the modern sense, not in the sense of Britons versus Saxons. Here we have a Frisian, who may not be a 'Saxon,' but whose native language was surely interintelligible with proto-English, who settles in Gododdin, and thus becomes 'proto Welsh.'

Whether or not this was Fisk's intent, he is painting a picture of peoples already intermixing 100-150 years before the source events of the Arthurian tradition. I once caused a bit of an uproar on the Compuserve history forum by saying that for all we knew, Arthur could have been 'English' himself, just as the West Saxon line goes back to a king with a British-sounding name.

Carla said...

Gabriele - especially as the father is part of Austalis' backstory - so it's a backstory of a backstory..... Good fun, though :-)

Meghan - I thought the historical detail was the best aspect of the book.

Rick - an uncertainty principle is highly appropriate for post-Roman Britain :-)
I think the short answer is no, not with any precision, especially as the surviving sources aren't written by the groups in question so we're dealing with what other people called them. Which calls into question how accurately or precisely those other people used the names. Same sort of problem as with the Picts - the name appears in Roman and later sources, with strong indications that it was an umbrella term for several groups, but we don't know what any of those groups called themselves either individually or collectively, or even if they had a collective name for themselves at all.
I have the same sort of vision of the early 'English' in Britain as you, a mixture of people speaking various sorts of Germanic, who had settled at various times (spanning a couple of centuries at least) and for various reasons, including retired Roman soldiers, traders, federates, independents etc.
British, Gaelic and Roman sources all seem to have settled on 'Saxon' as the collective term for Germanic speakers living in Britain.
'English' ended up being the collective term used by the Germanic speakers themselves, but there are questions over when that happened and how universal it was. Bede certainly thought there had been three distinct tribal groups. He uses 'Anglorum' as a collective term for all of them, but whether everyone else agreed with him is up for discussion. You could say that Bede was an Angle (he identified his area, Northumbria, as having been settled by Angles) and therefore applied his own tribal name to the whole out of a sort of patriotism. Had there been a Bede-equivalent writing in Kent or Sussex, would they have called everybody Jutes or Saxons on the same principle? There wasn't, so we don't know. Bede identifies the peoples he writes about in the seventh and eighth centuries by names that include South Saxons and West Saxons, so presumably he recognised that groups calling themselves Saxons existed. He chose to count them as part of the gens Anglorum, but he knew they didn't call themselves Angles. Is that a tribal distinction? Discuss......

No wonder you caused a rumpus on Compuserve with that statement :-) Have you been forgiven yet? I find that modern ethnic labels dissolve into meaninglessness when attempting to apply them to the past. I lean to the view that ethnic identity is something that's self-declared, not something objective. And that it can as easily be plural as singular. So if Arthur chose to call himself a Briton, or a Roman for that matter, or a Dumnonian (or whatever tribal kingdom), or any combination thereof, that would be what he was - unfortunately that's the one thing we are never, ever, going to be able to find out. (Short of inventing a time machine and going to ask him). It's worth noting that Historia Brittonum says the Hengist settlement included a dynastic marriage between a British ruler (Vortigern) and a Saxon noblewoman (Hengist's daughter). Dynastic marriages like this would seem highly likely - there are a few more, better-documented, from later periods - and they instantly raise questions about the 'correct' ethnic label for the next generation. If Arthur existed, the gap in history into which he fits most readily is around the turn of the fifth century, a generation or so after the Vortigern-Hengist story is set. Who's to say that a leader of that generation might not have been born of a dynastic alliance like Vortigern's? And who's to say whether anybody at the time cared, as long as he could win battles?

Lord of Silver seems quite einterested in exploring the intermixing of different cultures. Austalis says at one point that in Gododdin he's a Frisian, among the continental Angles and Saxons he's a Roman, in Roman London he's a Briton and to the Attacotti he's a not-Attacotti. What's his ethnic identity? Good question. And the same applies to various other characters, e.g. he comments that his Roman lady Marcella is probably just as British as he is, if not more so, and many of the other people he meets have mixed parentage or have lived in several cultures. This variety is one of the aspects of late and post-Roman Britain that I find interesting.

tenthmedieval said...

This sounds like a fun exercise in peopling a book with known names, but can I just say:
"here identified as the inhabitants of the Hebrides and speaking a language related to Basque"

Aaaaggh, it's the pre-Indo-European Pictish thesis under cover! Also, Gododdin isn't a place, it's a (much later!) name derived from Common-Celtic-through-Latin Votadini, and should really only be used for the people. That gets clumsy, of course, but still. Right, finished with pedantry now! :-)

Carla said...

Tenthmedieval - To be fair, the author refers to "the land of Gododdin", which could mean the people or the place or both. He also uses the Latin name Votadini. Presumably there would have been a British equivalent used by people who spoke British. Do we know what the British name was in 366? If not, then using the later name to stand in for it seems fair enough to me.
I was trying to give an idea of approximate location for any readers who hadn't heard of the Gododdin.
Also to be fair, the Attacotti in the novel exist all over Britain, not just in the Hebrides (although that's their main territory), and they aren't claimed as ancestors of the Picts. So I don't think it's quite the pre-Indo-European-Pictish thesis, though you'd have to ask the author for his detailed rationale. (He has a website, which is linked off my website, so you could find his email address there if you wanted to discuss it!). At least his Attacotti weren't sub-human cannibals.

Gabriele C. said...

Yeah, that Basque thing jarred me a bit, too, but the author has not studied Comparative and Indoeuropean Linguistics with Prof. W. Schmidt in Göttingen. :)

Carla, I have the same fun with my Visigoths - who didn't call that themselves to begin with; they were the Greuthungi and Tervingi and some smaller tribes. On the other hand, they must have had a feeling of being a larger entity, because Alareiks was king of the whole lot, and they accepted anyone who joined them and fought for them and kept their laws, be he/she another German like a Vandal or Marcomanni, a Hun, an adventurous Roman who thought the Goths were more fun than the marriage his dad had arranged for him :) or whoever else they picked up on their way from Greece to Spain. Which is the reason why King Alareiks can name my MC Alamir his Banner Bearer and second in command despite Alamir being Roman. And when Raginamers uses Alamir's origins to rally men against him, he can't simply say, he's a Roman (because he is a Goth to them), but has to make sure people think he is a Roman who does not follow the Gothic laws and might not fight for them at some point because he still has ties to his Roman family.

Rival factions like Sarus' followers who left the 'Visigoths' and fought for Rome divided on a level of personal loyalty rather than tribal divisions.

And don't get me started on the mixed bunch that crossed the frozen Rhine in 406 AD. :)

Rick said...

Carla - the one way 'Dark Ages' is legitimate, at any rate in Britain, is that they are so truly dark to us. The very fact of an Arthurian debate is the perfect illustration. A central figure of later European tradition is localized in Britain c. 500, and we can't even say whether he is based on a real person and events or not. (The comparison to Troy is wonderful.)

The story of Gregory the Great and Augustine of Canterbury suggests that Angli was already the collective self-identification of English-speakers in general. Somewhere I once read that the title Rex Anglosaxonum was best translated as 'King of the English Saxons,' of people who regarded themselves as English, but of Saxon heritage. (In my Lyonesse their counterparts all end up calling themselves Saxons, but some place names preserve the alternative, such as Englehead and Northengleshire.)

Ethnic identity is indeed pretty much self-ascribed, or at least socially ascribed, especially when there aren't source populations of strikingly different typical appearance. Austalis' father perhaps embodies the 'typical extreme' - only a relatively few people would shift self-identification twice, but they'd still be far from rare. Mixed marriages must have been extremely common, at least among the upper and middle strata (not so much the peasants, I imagine).

I waver about Arthur, as you know, but if the tradition is broadly true that he was the successor to Ambrosius Aurelianus, whatever his personal background he probably called himself Roman, and regarded his cause as the Roman cause. Perhaps only in retrospect, among the proto-Welsh, did it become 'British.' An interesting sub-question is what it meant to be 'Roman' in Britain c. 500. Did they give theoretical allegiance to the emperor in Constantinople? Or elevate an emperor of their own? Later Welsh tradition called Ambrosius Emrys Wledig, emperor, but Arthur is only said to have been 'Dux Bellorum.'

Yes, they did eventually forgive me!

Tenthmedieval - I'll go with what Carla said; the author is making a reasonable connection to the later people, and wrestling with the problem of geographical naming convention. Older convention always spoke of populations rather than lands, e.g., 'King of the English' versus 'King of England.'

Surely at one time everyone in Britain spoke non-IE languages. I have no idea how late any of them remained in use, but is there some reason they probably were not related to Basque? Or is Basque just an overused dumping ground for language mysteries?

Gabriele - I was told, by someone who seemed to know his stuff, that current (1990s) thinking is that 'Germanic invaders' were a very mixed bag indeed. Though presumably enough 'Goths' spoke Gothic that it was worth someone's time to translate the Bible into it!

Gabriele C. said...

Rick, Basque is totally overused in the way of 'those people spoke a Basque-related language' without anyone having been able to put forth at least a plausible reason, let alone arguments that might hold. One of the jokes in our department was, "I'm waiting for the book that will explain how the Navajo dialects are derived from Basque." :)

Carla said...

Gabriele - that sounds familiar, a collection of smaller groups eventually combining together into a bigger one, perhaps by way of some kind of confederacy. Your Alamir is in an interesting situation, a Roman among the Goths.

Rick - The "not Angles but angels" story about Gregory the Great refers specifically to people from Deira, which is one of the areas that Bede said was settled by Angles. So it doesn't necessarily imply that Angles was the collective self-identification. The slave boys from Deira could have called themselves Angles without any reference to what other Germanic-speaking groups elsewhere in Britain called themselves. If Pope Gregory then decided to apply the name to all the Germanic-speakers in Britain, that could just be one more instance of a label being applied by an outsider.

I might expect longer-distance mixing among the aristocracy, so a king and a princess from groups a hundred miles apart might marry to seal a large-scale alliance. Among the lower levels people perhaps wouldn't travel so far, but you might still get considerable inter-ethnic mixing in areas where different groups happen to live in close geographical proximity. I think it's West Heslerton in Yorkshire where the archaeology is consistent with a group of British and a group of English more or less next door to each other. In such areas people might choose to keep themselves in separate enclaves, or they might choose to intermarry, and that choice would likely be cultural (I suppose one would need a lot of DNA evidence from the local cemetery to assess the rate of intermarriage). Not to mention the ordinary Roman soldiers marrying local girls, the equivalent of GI brides. I'd expect a fairly mixed population at most levels.

Re Arthur, there are certainly theories that he was consciously (re)inventing pre-Roman tribal 'Celtic' customs as a deliberate replacement for Roman ways that didn't work properly any more. You see the Round Table claimed as evidence of a 'Celtic' custom of sitting in circles, for example. Helen Hollick's fiction takes this line (and casts Arthur in opposition to Ambrosius, who in her version is something of a fuddy-duddy trying to cling to dead Roman values). Other theories take Arthur as continuing or reviving the Roman government (Mary Stewart's fiction gives him a strong Roman heritage, complete with descent from Magnus Maxiumus). You can make the argument any way you please. There's so little evidence that it can carry a wide range of interpretations.

Gildas is the nearest source, writing in Britain in the early to mid sixth century. (So he violates your uncertainty principle in that he is the right time and the right place, though he fulfils it in spades in his elliptical style). Anyway, he uses 'Roman' when he is referring to people from the Roman provinces in continental Europe. It's always "The Romans came and built a wall, then told the British how to defend it and sailed away again". I don't think he uses 'Roman' to refer to people from Britain - as if 'Roman' to him explicitly meant someone from outside Britain. Though I have to take the linguists' word for this, and as Gildas' Latin is famously complex and verbose I get the impression that even the experts don't agree on his precise shades of meaning.

For what it's worth, I imagine the Roman province of Britain carried on happily elevating emperors of their own - after all, they had a couple of centuries of tradition of it by 400 - and just stopped bothering to send them across the Channel with expeditionary forces to have a go at conquering the rest (which is what did for all the previous jumped-up British emperors except Constantine the Great, who happened to win his battle). Western Rome was in no position to try conquering Britain, neither was Constantinople (although there is a theory that Justinian had a go at it by diplomacy, hence all the Byzantine luxury goods in Western Britain), so they were fairly safe from Imperial interference, and in any case Honorius had told Britain to "look to their own defences" so they could even use that as a cloak of legitimacy.

Gabriele/Rick - Take Gabriele's word for it that Basque is an over-used answer to linguistic mysteries. Perhaps it's a sort of rough equivalent of "it's quantum, innit?" in science :-)
There are academic arguments, which I do not begin to claim I can follow at anything other than the most basic level, about when Indo-European languages came to Britain. Some theories place it very early indeed, waaaaay back when the islands were being re-populated at the end of the last Ice Age. Others place it much more recently. It used to be assumed that IE languages came into use in Britain in the Iron Age roughly alongside La Tene style metalwork - this is what I was taught at school - but I don't know how solid that really is and how much relies on a set of circular assumptions. Personally I don't see how one can identify language until writing appears - so as far as I can see, the people who built Stonehenge could have spoken an IE language for all we know.

tenthmedieval said...

I think current thinking on the Celtic adventus to Britain is that it came in two waves separated by some considerable time, like, two hundred years or so, 500 and 300 BC, though much earlier dates used to be proposed and may still have defenders. The name I know of for the recent dates is Barry Cunliffe.

As to the points about names, you make fair points in response to my griping; I shouldn't really expect my kind of pedantry to be carried out by people mainly trying to write a good book. That is still stretching things with the Attacotti though.

The problem with relating things to Basque, as well as the ones already mentioned, is that it's uniquely non-Indo-European in a Europe where everything else, bar the Finno-Ugric tongues, is. If we knew for a fact that all of Europe had been a single-language zone before the Celts and Germans and the rest had come along and messed it up, that would make sense but of course there's no proof of that. It's as or more likely that there were dozens of more-or-less unrelated languages spoken in Europe before Indo-European tongues arrived. It's the proverb of the blind men and the elephant, except we are collectively only one blind man. We've got the trunk and so hypothesise that we're looking at a serpent; but the whole rest of the animal could still have been there once...

The other thing I was going to mention was this:

Gildas is the nearest source, writing in Britain in the early to mid sixth century. (So he violates your uncertainty principle in that he is the right time and the right place, though he fulfils it in spades in his elliptical style). Anyway, he uses 'Roman' when he is referring to people from the Roman provinces in continental Europe. It's always "The Romans came and built a wall, then told the British how to defend it and sailed away again". I don't think he uses 'Roman' to refer to people from Britain - as if 'Roman' to him explicitly meant someone from outside Britain.

But, on the other hand, you've got Patrick's letter to Coroticus at exactly the same time lambasting his men in terms that suggest that they could ordinarily be called Romans. This is the sort of thing that makes people wonder where on earth Gildas's perspective comes from...

Carla said...

Tenthmedieval - many thanks. I'd take Barry Cunliffe's word for most things in relation to the Iron Age.

Basque is such a fascinating puzzle that it's perhaps not surprising that it attracts theories. There's always going to be a sort of itch to explain why such a unique language - it isn't definitely related to any other in the world, is it? - exists in a tiny area.

The Ice Age must have done some interesting things to human distribution in Western Europe, concentrating people in limited areas that happened to retain favourable conditions. If the people in each area had ended up sharing a common language, because of their geographical proximity, then when the ice started to recede and the human population could spread north again, there might have been only one or a few languages in use across the continent, especially if the rate of population spread was faster than the rate at which languages evolve. Dialects and languages could then have started to diverge as population groups settled down in new regions. (A bit like sudden speciation into new ecological niches after a mass extinction, I suppose, but with languages). Conversely if the areas that were populated during the Ice Age contained numerous different language groups, these different languages could have spread independently as the population expanded as the ice retreated and the continent would have a large number of more or less unrelated languages in use until (for whatever reason) IE languages became dominant. Unfortunately language doesn't fossilise, at least until the advent of writing, so although we can excavate a cemetery or a settlement and look at the artefacts in use, it's hard to tell what language(s) their owners spoke.

Yes indeed, Patrick's letter to Coroticus. Patrick seems quite clear that Coroticus and his people ought to be Romans, even if they aren't behaving as such (!). I suppose it could be argued that Patrick is writing a bit before Gildas, in the later fifth century whereas Gildas is the early to mid sixth, and that things had changed in the interim to such an extent that even an educated man like Gildas didn't know that British people could once have been considered Romans. That seems unlikely to me. Perhaps Gildas was a British patriot? Perhaps it fitted his thundering sermon better to treat the 'Romans' as an external force? If there had always been something of a dichotomy between Britain and the rest of the Empire - not inconceivable, given Britain's position on (or beyond) the outer fringes, and consistent with its habit of throwing up breakaway emperors - then perhaps Britain could be as 'Roman' as any speaker wanted it to be.

Rick said...

Tenthmedieval - do the two Celtic waves correspond to the Q-Celtic and P-Celtic languages respectively?

Carla - Basque does indeed hold temptation for writers, because of its 'lost world' quality - related to no known language, surrounded by IE languages, it is a sort of linguistic Stonehenge, an open invitation to speculate.

Anything Gildas says probably tells us a lot more about Gildas than about Britain c. 500! One of the gods' many jokes on us is that from smack in the middle of the transition period in Britain comes one primary source - a barely coherent, uninformative screed.

'Roman' must indeed have meant different things to different people, especially the farther you go after 410. As I recall, Honorius' rescript merely said in effect, 'Sorry, can't help just now.' The first generation of Romano-Britons surely thought the legions would be back in due course, but the concept must have become increasingly abstract, or at least disconnected from the Roman Empire as we think of it.

Carla said...

Rick - somehow I doubt it would be quite that neat :-)

Yes, that's how I read the rescript of Honorius. It was addressed to the civitates of Britain, more or less local government level, and told them to look to their own defences. It isn't a formal declaration of independence. Which is why I don't like the idea that Roman Britain somehow "ended". I think it faded away, and a lot slower in some places than in others.

Gabriele C. said...

Poor Honey hadn't much of a choice, really. The Visigoths were busy roaming Italy, the Vandals marched through Spain all the way to the African provinces and in the end he had to cede Carthago to them, the Alamanni, Burgundians and assorted other big bad Germans were carving niches for themselves on the wrong side along the Rhine, Constantine wanted to be Emperor, and after him it was Jovinus and then others, the Huns rode up and down the Norican border and thought Italy and Gaul looked a fun place.... He simply had no sodiers left to send to Britain and keep the Saxons and Picts out. Hell, at the pace things were going, he was probably glad the Picts weren't in Italy already. ;)

Carla said...

Yes, "overstretched" doesn't do the situation justice, does it? Maybe he hoped things could only get better :-)