Britain prospered in the latter days of the empire, but the wealth that came from its lucrative grain trade went to the rural aristocracy. Religion exacerbated the tensions between them and the urban poor. When St. Martin’s militant stance against pagans reached Britain, it took the form of a revolution of the Christian, urban poor against the pagan, rural aristocracy. The revolution ended Roman rule in Britain, but quickly split into two factions: an Imperialist faction that saw itself as allied to Christian Rome, and a Nationalist faction that saw this as an opportunity to revive their ancient British traditions.
Despite the difficulties the empire faced, Britain prospered in the fourth century. Britain had prospered from the tin trade even before the Romans conquered the island, but after the empire’s division, Britain took Egypt’s place in the west as the primary source of grain. Constantine began his career at the very beginning of the fourth century as a soldier in Britain. As emperor, he made Christianity the official religion of the empire. While imperial officials and military officers converted more often, the rural aristocrats held onto their old religion, worshipping old Celtic gods, now identified with and carved in the semblance of the Roman pantheon. At the same time, the rich withdrew to their rural villas, leaving the towns behind. Instead of public works, they diverted their wealth to building more opulent residences for themselves. Meanwhile, the reforms intended to save the empire fell on the poor, making the systems of patronage more and more like medieval serfdom.
Then, on December 31, 406, a horde of Vandals, Suevi and Alans crossed the frozen Rhine and proceeded to cut a swath across Gaul. Cut off once again from the rest of the empire by barbarians, the poor rose up, like the bagaudae in Gaul. The revolution’s ranks were filled with the urban poor. The civitates had been formed from the ancient Celtic tribes. The chieftains had been turned into magistrates, and the elders into the members of the curiae. The old tribal loyalties and customs had survived most of all in the cities, among the very urban poor who now took over the country. They killed most of the rural aristocracy, sacked the villas, desecrated the pagan shrines and broke the idols.
In Viroconium Cornoviorum, the capital of the Cornovii, a young priest named Vitalinus was one of the most fiery supporters of the revolution. He mixed the teachings of a British monk named Pelagius about free will with a sharp sense of social justice and a fiery, militant anger against the pagan aristocracy. Vitalinus was acclaimed bishop of Viroconium, and was quickly recognized as the spiritual — and increasingly political — leader of the revolution.
The military commanders in Britain all had friends and allies among the rural aristocracy, but many of the soldiers — garrisoned in the cities and Christian themselves — supported the revolution. In Eboracum, the Dux Britanniarum tried to intervene against the revolution, but his soldiers overthrew him, installing a soldier named Marcus to replace him, whom they declared as emperor. Marcus made the mistake of allowing himself too much luxury, which reminded the revolutionaries too much of the aristocrats they rebelled against, so Marcus did not rule long. In his place, the soldiers selected another soldier named Gratian. At this point, the barbarian horde in Gaul had caused enormous damage and cut them off almost entirely from Rome. The soldiers wanted to cross the Channel to fight them and press their claim on the empire, like Constantine or Magnus Maximus before them. Gratian wanted to keep his forces in Britain to defend against Pictish raids, so the soldiers killed him as well. Finally, on the 100th anniversary of Constantine’s elevation in Britain, they elevated a soldier with the same name.
Constantine left behind an officer named Coelestius in Eboracum as Dux Britanniarum, and proceeded to remove all the mobile troops from Britain that he could in his attack on the barbarians in Gaul, and his bid for the imperium. For a time, Constantine ruled Gaul, the Britains and Spain. The mobile field army became the core of Consantine’s army, and its commander, the Comes Britanniarum Gerontius, became his magister militum. In 409, with his court wracked by scandal and his magister militum Stilicho executed, Honorius had little choice but to recognize Constantine as co-emperor.
Honoratus had maintained his position as Comes litoris Saxonici by quietly supporting the revolution despite his misgivings. Honorius had removed many of his troops to Italy in 401, and Constantine had taken some more for his invasion. The Comes litoris Saxonici had traditionally not just defended the coast from Saxon attacks, but done so by employing Saxon foederati. With his garrisons dangerously depleted, Honoratus hired what foederati he could. In 409, however, Saxon pirates noticed that Constantine had left Britain all but undefended, and attacked. Honoratus’ foederati betrayed him to join the raiders.
The revolution had elevated Constantine in the hopes that he would address their concerns: primarily, by ending an exploitative tax and tenure system that subjected them to the landed aristocracy. Instead, Constantine had abandoned them to the depredations of barbarian raiders. In Londinium, the former consular governor of Maxima Caesariensis remained, a devout Christian named Gaius Ambrosius Aurelius. His father had gained the name Ambrosius Aurelius because of his close relationship with St. Ambrose, and it was largely due to that connection that Magnus Maximus had appointed him governor. Ambrosius Aurelius did not support the revolution, but he was a fair-minded man, a pious Christian, and though wealthy, he was descended from the ancient tribal aristocracy of the Catuvellauni. Many of the revolutionaries saw their mission not as overthrowing Rome, but reforming it. Rome, they said, was a glorious Christian empire; the pagan rich men they fought against did not represent Rome, but had betrayed it. Many of these revolutionaries looked to Ambrosius Aurelius for leadership.
When the Saxons overran Honoratus’ forts and limitanei, Ambrosius Aurelius drew up what warriors he could — including foreign mercenaries and recruiting what Britons he could find and train — to counter the raiders. Of course, the assumption of such a responsibility contradicted Constantine’s position, so Ambrosius Aurelius’ desperate campaign to fight off the Saxons forced him to also overthrow Constantine’s rule in Britain. Though he considered Vitalinus a schismatic for preaching Pelagius’ teachings, he nonetheless sought the Cornovian bishop’s support. Together, they cast Constantine’s officials out of Britain. Vitalinus offered further support, personally leading a warband of warriors from the militarized zone to help Ambrosius Aurelius fend off the Saxons. They came from the least Romanized areas of Britain, those who had retained the most of the ancient British culture. They were fierce, undisciplined warriors, like the Saxons themselves, but they were effective. Vitalinus’ warband turned the tide against the Saxons, forcing them to flee.
In the Continent, the barbarians that had crossed the Rhine three years earlier now began crossing the Pyrenees. Constantine sent his son Constans to deal with that threat, even as he received news that his general Gerontius had also betrayed him. Gerontius made an alliance with the barbarians, and attacked Constantine from Spain. In desperation, Constantine marched on Italy. His invasion failed. Honorius took him prisoner and executed him.
It was then that Alaric, leading a band of Visigoths angry that Rome had broken its contract with them and not paid them as promised, sacked Rome. Ambrosius Aurelius wrote to Honorius, asking him to send troops to restore the depleted garrisons of Britain. Honorius had retreated to Ravenna, having just lost Rome. He had no soldiers that he could send to Britain. His response was directed to the civitates, the city-states built from the ancient Celtic tribes, telling them to look to their own defense.
This response split the revolution into two parties. One followed Bishop Vitalinus, who saw the rescript as passing the imperium to the civitates, the modern incarnations of the ancient British tribes. Though Christian and contemptuous of the old paganism, Vitalinus also came from one of the least Romanized areas of the island and followed the teachings of a British monk. He championed a unique Romano-British culture, and wished to see Britain emerge as the center of its own culture, and as a champion of Pelagian Christianity, opposed to the fatalistic creed that seemed to be gaining the upper hand in Rome.
On the other side, Ambrosius Aurelius became the central figure for those who saw Honorius’s Rescript as a temporary measure. The empire had entered a dark time, certainly, but ever since the Emperor Aurelian had been honored by the Senate as Restitutor Orbis (Restorer of the World), they had become accustomed to a pattern of crisis and recovery. While many feared that the end of the world prophesied by St. John of Patmos must be at hand, many others believed that eventually, a new Restitutor Orbis must come, one who would restore Roman rule and Roman life. Their mission, then, was to maintain what they could until Rome returned.
For some fifteen years, the civitates ruled Britain independently. There was an economic boom, as trade continued to pour wealth into the island, but rather than going into opulent rural villas, that money was distributed throughout the island. The onerous imperial tax burden kept more wealth in Britain, as well. That wealth attracted raiders. While Constantius fought the Germanic tribes and various imperial claimants in Gaul, Saxons, Scots and Picts launched raids against Britain.
In 418, facing opposition from bishops in Africa and the Emperor Honorius, Pope Zosimus condemned and excommunicated Pelagius and his student Celestius. The official condemnation of Pelagianism as a heresy did frighten some Nationalists to join the Imperialist faction, but mostly it drew the line between them even more starkly. To the Nationalists, the Imperialists represented a treacherous faction loyal to a foreign occupier, one that had condemned their spiritual leader, a fellow countryman, as a heretic. To the Imperialists, the brand of heresy made the Nationalists not just an opposing faction, but the bearers of a sort of theological disease that threatened the body of Christ.
During this time, Vitalinus and Ambrosius Aurelius had both organized efforts between the new kingdoms to organize defenses against the raiders. They now persuaded the kings to form a diocesan council in Londinium. There, they both presented their visions for Britain. Ambrosius Aurelius suggested organizing the diocese under a Roman-style rex, who would be tasked with keeping the island safe until Rome returned. The Honorian Rescript made his position very unpopular, though. Rome had abandoned them when they needed her, and they had prospered in the years without her. Besides, the magistrates had just becomes kings themselves, and had no desire to give that up. Vitalinus presented a model from their Celtic past, looking west to Ireland to propose a High King of Britain. This idea was far more popular. The council accepted it, bestowing the title on Vitalinus, who changed his name from the Latin “Vitalinus” to the British “Vortigernos.”
|406||A horde of Vandals, Suevi and Alans cross the Rhine. They proceed to attack Gaul, cutting Britain off from the rest of the empire.|
|407||The revolution begins. A soldier named Marcus is declared emperor. He is quickly deposed and replaced by Gratian, who is himself deposed and replaced by a soldier named Constantine, acclaimed on the 100th anniversary of Constantine the Great’s acclamation in Eboracum. Constantine immediately crosses the Channel with all the mobile armies in Britain, in particular the field army.|
|408||Constantine establishes his capital at Arelate.|
|409||Honorius is forced to recognize Constantine as co-emperor.|
|410||Constantine faces barbarian invasions and a series of betrayals. Facing raids by Picts and Irish without any defenses thanks to Constantine’s imperial ambitions, the Britons throw out his administrators. Alaric sacks Rome. In a final, desperate ploy, Constantine invades Italy, but is defeated. Honorius’s rescript is addressed to the civitates in Britain, instructing them to look to their own defense.|
|418||Pelagius is excommunicated as a heretic.|