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Saturday, 19 February 2011

Northern Britain and the Fall of the Roman Empire

[The text - of my Anderson Lecture, delivered at the University of Saint Andrews, on 18 February has now been published (you can read it here) so I have removed it from the blog, except for the piccies. 

The argument in the article goes essentially as follows: we ought to think about Roman-barbarian relations in the north of Britain more in the context of those on the other frontiers, African as well as Rhenish; we ought to think about Roman-barbarian relations much less exclusively in terms of conflict and confrontation - the two worlds were inter-twined; on the Rhine frontier it is possible to suggest a rough three-band conceptualisation of barbarian polities, with those in the middle, intermediate band most affected by the imperial crisis around 400 AD; the North Sea should be seen as a cultural zone of two-way interaction and not just as a frontier across which one-way 'migration' or invasion took place; the 'Pictish' confederacies discussed by late Roman sources started at Hadrian's Wall, not the Forth - the rough frontier of the seventh-century Pictish kingdom; a military reorganisation of Britain took place in the reign of Magnus Maximus which involved a movement of regular troops away from the line of the Wall and the (probably only temporary, at least as initially envisaged) handing over of authority in the highland  zone to local military leaders and 'irregulars'; this affected the southern Pictish areas between the walls and perhaps areas further north too; by the middle of the fifth century it produced crisis in that area and a fragmentation of an earlier extensive but weak confedearcy into smaller competing units; it might be that the British on the wall expanded north and became a dominant power; in the period around 600, crucial changes led to a shift in the balance of power towards the English in the south-east (the Scottish east coast should be seen as in the North Sea cultural zone) and the Scots and other powers on the west coast; the British in the intra-mural zone might have been squeezed militarily from both sides and an English political identity might well have become more popular in local competitions for authority; shifts in these years produced change and perhaps political crises in the Pictish areas north of the Forth; it might be to this period that we should trace the creation of the Scottish and indeed other kingdoms, such as Bernicia; internal Pictish strife might explain why the Picts do not seem to be a very active player in the early seventh-century politics that are visible to us.]

Major Barbarian groupings
in the fourth century
The structure of Gildas' historical

Late fourth-century Roman
 military metalwork in Britain
(from a 1986 article by H.-W.

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