383 AD: The Start of the End for Roman Britain
383 AD: The Start of the End of Roman Rule
383 AD: The start of the end for Roman Britain marked the transition to the post-Roman era in Britain.
Roman rule ended at different times and under different conditions in various regions of Britain. In 383, the usurper Magnus Maximus, claiming to be emperor, withdrew his forces from northern and western Britain, leaving local warlords in command. This marked the beginning of the post-Roman era in these areas.
Around 410, the Romano-British expelled the usurper Constantine III’s magistrates. In response to the Rhine Crossing in late 406, he had previously removed the Roman garrison from Britain and taken it to Gaul, leaving the island vulnerable to barbarian attacks. In response to a request for assistance, the Roman Emperor Honorius issued the Rescript of Honorius, instructing Roman cities to take care of their own defense.
By the middle of the 6th century AD, Procopius had accepted that Roman control over Britannia had been completely lost. Honorius was fighting the Visigoths led by Alaric in a long war in Italy, and there were no extra troops to defend faraway Britain.
The Backdrop to Change
Early in the fifth century, the Roman Empire was unable to defend itself against either internal rebellion or the expanding Germanic tribes of Western Europe. This scenario and its implications determined Britain’s eventual permanent separation from the rest of the Empire. After a time of being on their own, the Anglo-Saxons came to southern England in the year 440.
Late in the fourth century, the Empire was ruled by a dynasty that included Emperor Theodosius I. This family retained political power within itself and formed alliances with other dynasties through intermarriage while engaging in internal power struggles and fending off outside contenders (called “usurpers”) who sought to replace the ruling dynasty with their own. These internal ploys depleted both the military and civilian resources of the Empire. In the course of combating attempted coups by figures such as Firmus, Magnus Maximus, and Eugenius, tens of thousands of soldiers were killed.
The historical connection between the Empire and Germanic tribes was at times antagonistic, at others cooperative, but eventually disastrous since the Empire was unable to prevent the Germanic tribes from gaining a dominant position in the relationship. Germanic warriors dominated the Western Roman Empire’s armed forces by the beginning of the fifth century. This was because there were a lot of deaths and less money coming in from taxes. Romanized Germans also played a big role in the empire’s internal affairs.
Various Germanic and other tribes beyond the frontiers were able to take advantage of the Empire’s weakened state in order to expand into Roman territory. In some cases, they moved their entire populations into lands once considered exclusively Roman. This culminated in a series of successful migrations beginning in 406. The Roman military was unable to stem the tide of these invasions, leading to Rome losing control of its provinces in Britain, Gaul, and elsewhere.
As Britannia was vulnerable to being cut off from the Empire by incursions on the key communications route from Italy through Trier to the Channel coast, the crossing of the Rhine aroused tremendous concern. This was far more than simply another raid. It marked the beginning of an era of mass migration, as thousands of people moved across Europe looking for a new home and new opportunities.
Annals of Change
Anno 383 - 388
In 383 AD, Magnus Maximus, the Roman general then assigned to Britain, crossed into Gaul with his forces to start his successful attempt for imperial supremacy. He assassinated the Western Roman Emperor Gratian and controlled Gaul and Britain as Caesar (that is, as a “sub-emperor” under Theodosius I).
The final trace of Roman presence in the north and west of Britain dates to the year 383, with the possible exception of army deployments at Holyhead Mountain in Anglesey and strongholds such as Lancaster. These outposts may have stayed in place until the 390s, but they were small, and their main goal was to stop Irish clans from moving in and taking over.
Coins dating after 383 have been found along Hadrian’s Wall, showing that troops were not taken from it or were immediately returned after Maximus’ triumph in Gaul. Gildas wrote in the De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae around 540 that Maximus left Britain with all of its soldiers, armed bands, governors, and young people, never to return.
After 383, Saxons, Picts, and Scots raided Ireland. Unknown causes led to large-scale permanent Irish colonization along Wales’ shores. This suggests that without the Roman troops, Britain was vulnerable to attack.
Maximus invaded Italy in 388 to take the purple. He lost in Pannonia in the Battles of the Save (in Croatia) and Poetovio (near Ptuj, Slovenia). Theodosius executed him. After Maximus’ execution, the Roman troops departed from Britain in 407 AD, leaving it open to raids by Germanic tribes such as the Jutes, Saxons, and Angles.
Anno 389 - 406
After Maximus died, Britain was ruled by Emperor Theodosius I until 392. At that time, Eugenius tried to take over the Western Roman Empire, but Theodosius beat him and had him killed. Honorius, Theodosius’ 10-year-old son, became the Western Roman Emperor in 395. Stilicho, Theodosius’ brother’s son-in-law, and Honorius’ father-in-law, controlled the throne.
Stilicho reputedly authorized a naval war against the Picts between 396 and 398 to stop their east coast incursions. He may have given orders to attack both the Scoti and the Saxons at the same time, but this is the last record of a Roman military campaign in Britain.
Stilicho fought Alaric and Radagaisus in 401–402. He finally depleted Hadrian’s Wall of soldiers.
The final Roman coinage recovered in Britain is from 402, implying either that Stilicho also withdrew the remaining troops or that the Empire could no longer afford to pay them. Picts, Saxons, and Scoti raided, perhaps expanding.
Anno 407 - 410
The Alans, Vandals, and Suebis from east Gaul crossed the Rhine, perhaps frozen, on December 31, 406, and caused significant destruction.
As there was no effective Roman reaction, the surviving Roman soldiers in Britain feared a Germanic crossing of the Channel into Britain and renounced imperial authority. Maybe this was made easier by the strong chance that the men had not been paid for some time. Their first two commanders, Marcus and Gratian, were slain after failing to secure their future. Constantine III, a soldier, was their third pick.
In 407, Constantine led the surviving British warriors across the Channel into Gaul, organized support, and aspired to become the Western Roman Emperor. Constantine was able to conquer Hispania because Honorius’ loyalist armies south of the Alps were too busy fighting the Visigoths to put down the uprising quickly.
Constantine’s kingdom collapsed in 409. His soldiers in Gaul were seduced by loyalist Roman generals, and some were in Hispania. Germans west of the Rhine rebelled, maybe aided by Roman supporters, and those east crossed into Gaul. Britain, without troops and reeling from Saxon assaults in 408 and 409, is worried about Gaul. Britain, without troops and reeling from Saxon assaults in 408 and 409, is worried about Gaul. In 409 or 410, the Romano-British and several Gauls rejected Constantine’s magistrates, maybe feeling hopeless under him. The Byzantine historian Zosimus (fl. 490–510) directly blamed Constantine for the expulsion, saying that he had allowed the Saxons to raid and that the Britons and Gauls were reduced to such strains that they revolted from the Roman Empire. They “rejected Roman law, reverted to their native customs, and armed themselves to ensure their own safety.”
In 410 AD, Emperor Honorius refused a British request for aid, according to Zosimus. The Western Emperor Honorius told the British civitates to defend themselves in the Rescript of Honorius of 411 since his administration was still battling usurpers in the south of Gaul and the Visigoths in southern Italy.
Honorius was imprisoned in Ravenna by the Visigoths and helpless to stop their sack of Rome when the rescript was issued (410). He could not help anyone. By 411, Constantine III had been defeated by imperial Rome’s intrigues. He and his son were assassinated. The imperial failure to protect Rome, coupled with the deaths of Constantine III and his son, was a devastating blow to Honorius’ reputation as an emperor.
Source: (History Time, 2019)
- Wikipedia Contributors. (2022, December 19). Honorius (emperor). Wikipedia; Wikimedia Foundation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Honorius_(emperor)
- Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
- National Library of Wales, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
- unknown Roman artist (diptych)Dea Picture Library (photo), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
- History Time. (2019). Britain After Rome // The Age of Arthur – History Documentary [YouTube Video]. In YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1k3e4qlgtaQ
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