Ontelly

Sunday Feature - The Romans in Britain - The Birth of the Britons


Historian Bettany Hughes investigates the shocking dislocation of the end of Roman rule in Britain. Traditionally it's said that Roman rule ended in the year 410: 1600 years ago, when the Roman emperor Honorius supposedly told us to fend for ourselves, but it's much more complicated than that. Britain became embroiled in a series of revolts by imperial usurpers which weren't so much 'Romans Go Home' but 'Emperor come here!' and it all went very badly wrong. It's hard to imagine London closing for business, becoming a ghost town whose citizens have fled, with a choice of growing their own veg in the countryside or becoming bully boys for a local war leader, but that's exactly what happened when Roman rule collapsed in Britain. Londoners left strange thank-you gifts for the gods as they closed the city down - like the Draper's Lane hoard of copper pots and sacrifices, which we'll be investigating. The usurper emperors accidentally brought a systems collapse to tipping point. In the maelstrom that followed, pagan Anglo Saxons who'd originally been Roman mercenaries were joined by new immigrants from their Germanic homelands and a lot of eastern Romano-Brits decided that they were the future, while others desperately clung to their Roman Christian ways. But in Wales, Cornwall and Devon, they looked aghast at this barbarism. An early form of devolution, and a boost in local power (legend says from the rebel emperor Magnus Maximus), led the West to hold on proudly to their Roman identity, fending off Saxons and assimilated Saxon 'wannabes' all the way till the medieval campaigns of Edward I. Edward might have thought of himself as the true heir of Rome but to the Welsh he was nothign more than the last barbarian.