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From last week's the British Museum conference 410 AD. The highlight for me was Rob Collins from the University of Newcastle on "Limitanei and Comitatenses: Military Failure at the End of Roman Britain?".

His conclusion was that while the Field Army left, the Saxon Shore Forts stripped to a skeleton force, and many of the Welsh forts exited, but that the Northern forces under the Dux Brittanorum largely remained in place and that individual units remained in place and became warbands, with Roman commanders becoming war lords.

From my notes:-

Army back ground-
-Split between Comitatenses ( mobile field units, larger) and Limitanei (Policing, Frontier, smaller units)
-3/4 of pay in kind (ie not cash), topped off by donatives
-Recruits supplied locally, but most of the stories are about the draft dodgers rather than volunteers, sons following fathers etc)
-No decline in fighting quality
-Under 25% barbarian

In Britannia:-
Dux Brittanorum, in North
-37 units, 4-12,000 men

Comes Brittanorum
-Mobile field army, 9 units, 3-6,000 men

Comes Litoris Saxonicum (Saxon Shore)
-Nine units, 1,200- 3,500

Tantalisingly, the Notitia Dignitatum for modern Wales seems to be missing- a further Comes defending the Western coastline may have existed. Also , we have no list of Foederati, so the overall number will be larger.

There were a number of reasons for troop withdrawal- Magnus Maximus in 383, Eugenius raised to the purple in 392 in Gaul with British support, Stilicho withdrawal of troops to defend Italy in 401/402, Constantine III usurpation in 407, and from 409/10 no pay received from the Continent after the British rebellion (though cash now made up only a small amount of the troops pay). In addition, troops would retire, fall ill, or get killed.

There were also a number of reasons to support continuity of troop presence- putting down the Barbarian conspiracy of 367/369, Magnus Maximus wanting to maintain his base, and Stilicho's campaigns in Britannia in 398/400. Furthermore not all soldiers were necessarily taken to the continent. Recruits for usurpers could be taken from barbarian settlements, and as the threat to the frontiers did not disappear, 100% withdrawal from the province is not likely. In addition, both Dux and Comes would continue to have a role to maintain; units had very strong connections with their locality and there are examples from literature of units being reluctant to move, and finally not all areas are the same.

Looking at the different forces, the mobile field army of the Comes Brittanorum would campaign as needed in the spring and summer and then winter in dispersed towns. It is possible that the Dorchester belt belonged to a member of the field army.

Turning to the archeological evidence, over half the Saxon Shore forts were vacated by 400 AD (Lympne, Reculver, Caister, and Burgh). Several others showed activity after 400 AD (though often less organised than before)- Brancaster, Porchester, Bradwell, Dover and Richborough. The volume of finds at Richborough indicate that it was a very significant port of call for entering and leaving Britannia.

In Wales and the South West, Caerleon and Chester were occupied up to 410, and the comparison can be made to Wroxeter which continued to be occupied and even flourish. Generally in this area, hill forts begin to become the prime sites for the elite with little 5th century activity in Roman forts. The Welsh aristocracy also link back to Magnus Maximus (Macsen Wledig of the Mabinogion) and Cunedda Wledig. In the book Britannia Prima, the case is made for this province's survival as a separate entity until the early medieval period.

In the North, virtually all the forts endure in the 4th century with evidence for 5th century occupation. Often this changes- so in the Principia at York (once a sacred place) metalwork and upmarket butchery trades were carried out- though the butchery seems to have been focussed on suckling pigs and feasting. In Birdoswald, the granary store is converted into a great hall- implying that a storage depot (eg supplyinmg multiple forts) was no longer needed, perhaps as Birdoswald operated as its own entity, or that imported grain was no longer happening, and supplies were obtained locally.
Local units post 410 AD were getting supplies from local farmers (possibly as tax) and commanders becoming warlords (as in Egypt). There also seems to be a strong correlation of zoomorphic pennanular brooches type E on Roman military sites.

Some supposition (I suspect this will not be in the final published paper):-
The Field Army, led by the Comes Brittanorum left for the Continent as evidenced by formerly British based units being on the Continent- effectively "hollowing out" the Province. The Saxon Shore was stripped of garrisons and left with skeleton staff. The Northern frontier units were left, as were tribal militia and foederati. The Northern garrisons therefore remained largely in place with their units and Roman commanders, and became the core foundation for warbands in the 5th century. (Note, commentary such as Zosimus, or the Gallic Chronicle (probably writing from Marseilles and certainly from Gaul), would not be able to "see" these Northern units when they wrote "The Provinces of Britain were laid waste by an invasion of Saxons").

So inc conclusion, was there a military failure in Britannia?

In the South, yes.
In Wales and the West, maybe.
In the North, no.



That's some excellent and valuable information. Thanks a lot!
I heard that Gildas received a beating - well, that's fashion I suppose, although it was time that historians came away from the views of David Dumville, who virtually raised Gildas on a pedestal.

I heard that the (in)famous 'letter to Honorius' was ditched. Finally! The 'evidence' of the Britons supposedly writing for help was based on such flimsy evidence - especially the supposed 'evidence' from Gildas in support of the ambiguous text of Zosimos - it's good that the pendulum has swung away from this.