Tag: Rome

Shields – Tribal Symbols and National Emblems

Roman Military Scutum Shield.

A shield is a piece of personal armour held in the hand or mounted on the wrist or forearm. Shields are used to intercept specific attacks, whether from close-ranged weaponry or projectiles such as arrows, by means of active blocks, instead of providing passive protection.

But they are much more than that. They are emblems, banners and insignia. They demonstrate power and signify authority. The shield is significant, it’s a statement of intent. The shield is the standard of an army.

Shields vary greatly in size, ranging from large panels that protect the user’s whole body to small models (such as the buckler) that were intended for hand-to-hand-combat use. Shields also vary a great deal in thickness; whereas some shields were made of relatively deep, absorbent, wooden planking to protect soldiers from the impact of spears and crossbow bolts, others were thinner and lighter and designed mainly for deflecting blade strikes.

Finally, shields vary greatly in shape, ranging in roundness to angularity, proportional length and width, symmetry and edge pattern; different shapes provide more optimal protection for infantry or cavalry, enhance portability, provide secondary uses such as ship protection or as a weapon and so on.

The Wandsworth Shield is a circular bronze Iron Age shield boss or mount decorated in La Tène style that was found in the River Thames at Wandsworth in London sometime before 1849.

In prehistory and during the era of the earliest civilisations, shields were made of wood, animal hide, woven reeds or wicker. In classical antiquity, the Barbarian Invasions and the Middle Ages, they were normally constructed of poplar tree, lime or another split-resistant timber, covered in some instances with a material such as leather or rawhide and often reinforced with a metal boss, rim or banding. They were carried by foot soldiers, knights and cavalry.

Depending on time and place, shields could be round, oval, square, rectangular, triangular, bilabial or scalloped. Sometimes they took on the form of kites or flatirons, or had rounded tops on a rectangular base with perhaps an eye-hole, to look through when used with combat. The shield was held by a central grip or by straps that went over or around the user’s arm.

The oldest form of shield was a protection device designed to block attacks by hand weapons, such as swords, axes and maces, or ranged weapons like sling-stones and arrows. Shields have varied greatly in construction over time and place. Sometimes shields were made of metal, but wood or animal hide construction was much more common; wicker and even turtle shells have been used. Many surviving examples of metal shields are generally felt to be ceremonial rather than practical, for example the Yetholm-type shields of the Bronze Age, or the Iron Age Battersea shield.

Battersea Shield closeup.

Size and weight varied greatly. Lightly armored warriors relying on speed and surprise would generally carry light shields (pelte) that were either small or thin. Heavy troops might be equipped with robust shields that could cover most of the body.

Many had a strap called a guige that allowed them to be slung over the user’s back when not in use or on horseback. During the 14th–13th century BC, the Sards or Shardana, working as mercenaries for the Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II, utilized either large or small round shields against the Hittites. The Mycenaean Greeks used two types of shields: the “figure-of-eight” shield and a rectangular “tower” shield. These shields were made primarily from a wicker frame and then reinforced with leather.

Covering the body from head to foot, the figure-of-eight and tower shield offered most of the warrior’s body a good deal of protection in head-to-head combat. The Ancient Greek hoplites used a round, bowl-shaped wooden shield that was reinforced with bronze and called an aspis. Another name for this type of shield is a hoplon. The hoplon shield inspired the name for hoplite soldiers.

Greek Hoplite with Aspis Shield.

The hoplon was also the longest-lasting and most famous and influential of all of the ancient Greek shields. The Spartans used the aspis to create the Greek phalanx formation. Their shields offered protection not only for themselves but for their comrades to their left. Examples of Germanic wooden shields circa 350 BC – 500 AD survive from weapons sacrifices in Danish bogs.

The heavily armored Roman legionaries carried large shields (scuta) that could provide far more protection, but made swift movement a little more difficult. The scutum originally had an oval shape, but gradually the curved tops and sides were cut to produce the familiar rectangular shape most commonly seen in the early Imperial legions.

Famously, the Romans used their shields to create a tortoise-like formation called a testudo in which entire groups of soldiers would be enclosed in an armoured box to provide protection against missiles. Many ancient shield designs featured incuts of one sort or another. This was done to accommodate the shaft of a spear, thus facilitating tactics requiring the soldiers to stand close together forming a wall of shields.

Advancing in testudo formation.

Typical in the early European Middle Ages were round shields with light, non-splitting wood like linden, fir, alder or poplar, usually reinforced with leather cover on one or both sides and occasionally metal rims, encircling a metal shield boss. These light shields suited a fighting style where each incoming blow is intercepted with the boss in order to deflect it.

The Normans introduced the kite shield around the 10th century, which was rounded at the top and tapered at the bottom. This gave some protection to the user’s legs, without adding too much to the total weight of the shield. The kite shield predominantly features enarmes, leather straps used to grip the shield tight to the arm. Used by foot and mounted troops alike, it gradually came to replace the round shield as the common choice until the end of the 12th century, when more efficient limb armour allowed the shields to grow shorter, and be entirely replaced by the 14th century.

Norman Warrior bearing Kite Shield.

Below is a list of shields from the early Roman era to the middle part of the Middle-Ages. The list is by no means exhaustive, and I have no doubt left some prominent examples out. However, the list attempts to convey the rapid change in shield design, which began with the Celtic ‘rectangular’ shield design and ended with the ‘Norman-style’ kite shield that was designed for use by cavalry and yet adopted for infantry use.

Celtic Shields

Celtic shields were usually oval or elongated oval in shape. They could also be round or hexagon shaped. On the front was usually a hollow wood shield boss to protect the hand. The boss was usually elongated to make the shield stronger and was sometimes covered by a metal plate. On the inside of the boss hole was a handle to hold the shield. The shields were made of wood, usually oak or linden (also called lime). Most often they were covered with leather.

Iron Age bronze shield, known as the Battersea Shield in the British Museum.

Battle shields were often individually decorated with various symbols. They were designed to be both light and strong. Celts used their shields defensively but also as an offensive weapon. A favorite tactic of a Celtic warrior was to strike the enemy with his shield. The Celts in Britain used smaller shields in battle while continental Celts used larger shields. Shields sometimes shattered in combat and were an expendable item.

Another style of Celtic shield, A Highland targe from the National Museum of Scotland.

Sparabara

Whilst not specifically a shield, but rather a type of warrior, The Sparabara, meaning “shield bearers” in Old Persian, were the heavy front line infantry of the Achaemenid Persian Empire. They were usually the first to engage in hand-to-hand combat with the enemy. Although not much is known about them today, it is believed that they were the backbone of the Persian army who formed a shield wall and used their two-metre-long spears to protect more vulnerable troops such as archers from the enemy. The term is also used to refer to the combination of these shield-bearers and the archers that were protected by them.

Sparabara at the Battle of Marathon(12 September, 490 BC).

The Sparabara were armoured with quilted linen and carried large rectangular wicker shields as a form of light manoeuvrable defense. This, however, left them at a severe disadvantage against heavily armoured opponents such as the hoplite, and his two-metre-long spear was not able to give the Sparabara ample range to plausibly engage a trained phalanx. The wicker shields were able to effectively stop arrows but not strong enough to protect the soldier from spears. However, the Sparabara could deal with most other infantry, including trained units from the East.

The sparabara were supposed to be used in conjunction with Persian heavy cavalry and chariots, which would attack from the rear. An example in which the cavalry failed to be engaged is the Battle of Marathon, which had catastrophic results.

Aspis

The Aspis was commonly carried by Greek Hoplites and were used in the early Roman period. The Aspis was a large concave shield (often referred to as a hoplon), measuring between 80–100 centimetres (31–39 in) in diameter and weighing between 6.5–8 kilograms (14–18 lbs). This large shield was made possible partly by its shape, which allowed it to be supported on the shoulder.

Greek Hoplon Shield.

The hoplon shield was put together in three layers with the center layer made of thick wood, the outside layer facing the enemy made of bronze and leather made up the inside of the shield. The revolutionary part of the shield was, in fact, the grip. Known as an Argive grip, it placed the handle at the edge of the shield, and was supported by a leather fastening (for the forearm) at the centre.

These two points of contact eliminated the possibility of the shield swaying to the side after being struck, and as a result soldiers rarely lost their shields. This allowed the hoplite soldier more mobility with the shield, as well as the ability to capitalize on its offensive capabilities and better support the phalanx. The large hoplon shields, designed for pushing ahead, were the most essential equipment for the hoplites.

The Scutum

Perhaps the most recognisable of all the shields, the Scutum represented the might and power of the Roman Empire.

The Scutum.

The Scutum (English: /ˈsktəm/; plural scuta; Classical Latin: [ˈskuːtũː]) was a type of shield used among Italic peoples in the archaic period, and then by the army of ancient Rome starting about the fourth century BC. The Romans adopted it when they switched from the military formation of the hoplite phalanx of the Greeks to the formation with maniples.

In the former, the soldiers carried a round shield, which the Romans called clipeus. In the latter, they used the scutum, which was a larger shield. Originally it was an oblong and convex shield. By the first century BC it had developed into the rectangular, semi-cylindrical shield that is popularly associated with the scutum in modern times. This was not the only shield the Romans used; Roman shields were of varying types depending on the role of the soldier who carried it. Oval, circular and rectangular shields were used throughout Roman history.

In the early days of Ancient Rome (from the late regal period to the first part of the early republican period,) Roman soldiers wore clipeus, which was like the aspides (ἀσπίδες), a small round shield used in the Greek hoplite phalanx. The hoplites were heavy infantrymen who originally wore a bronze shield and helmet.

The phalanx was a compact, rectangular mass military formation. The soldiers lined up in very tight ranks in a formation which was eight lines deep. The phalanx advanced in unison, which encouraged cohesion among the troops. It formed a shield wall and a mass of spears pointing towards the enemy.

Its compactness provided a thrusting force which had a great impact on the enemy and made frontal assaults against it very difficult. However, it also had its drawbacks. It worked only if the soldiers kept the formation tight and had the discipline needed to keep its compactness in the thick of the battle. It was a rigid form of fighting and its maneuverability was limited. The shields being small provided less protection. However, their smaller size afforded more mobility. Their round shape enabled the soldiers to interlock them to hold the line together.

Sometime in the early fourth century BC, the Romans changed their military tactics from the hoplite phalanx to the manipular formation, which was much more flexible. This involved a change in military equipment. The scutum replaced the clipeus. Some ancient writers thought that the Romans had adopted the maniples and the scutum when they fought against the Samnites in the first or second Samnite War (343-341 BC, 327-304 BC). However, Livy did not mention the scutum being a Samnite shield and wrote that the oblong shield and the manipular formation were introduced in the early fourth century BC, before the conflicts between the Romans and the Samnites.

Plutarch mentioned the use of the long shield in a battle which took place in 366 BC. Couissin notes archaeological evidence shows that the scutum was in general use among Italic peoples long before the Samnite Wars and argues that it was not obtained from the Samnites. In some parts of Italy the scutum had been used since pre-historical times.

Polybius gave a description of the early scutum. He wrote that it was oblong and had a convex surface 2 ½ feet wide and four feet long. It thickness at the rim was “a palm’s breadth” (about four inches). It was “made of two planks glued together, the outer surface being then covered first with canvas and then with calf-skin. 4 Its upper and lower rims are strengthened by an iron edging which protects it from descending blows and from injury when rested on the ground. It also has an iron boss (umbo) fixed to it which turns aside the most formidable blows of stones, pikes, and heavy missiles in general.” Polybius, The Histories, 6.23.2-4

The scutum is light enough to be held in one hand and its large height and width covered the entire wielder, making him very unlikely to get hit by missile fire and in hand-to-hand combat. The metal boss, or umbo, in the centre of the scutum also made it an auxiliary punching weapon as well.

Roman Legionary and Kit.

Its composite construction meant that early versions of the scutum could fail from a heavy cutting or piercing blow which was experienced in the Roman Campaigns against Carthage and Dacia where the Falx and Falcata could easily penetrate and rip through the scutum. The effects of these weapons prompted design changes that made the scutum more resilient such as thicker planks and metal edges.

When compared to the earlier aspis which it replaced, the aspis was heavier and provided less protective coverage than the scutum but was much more durable.

The oval scutum is depicted on the Altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus in Rome, the Aemilius Paullus monument at Delphi, and there is an actual example found at Kasr el-Harit in Egypt. Gradually the scutum evolved into the rectangular (or sub-rectangular) type of the early Roman Empire.

Roman Oval Scutum.

By the end of the 3rd century the rectangular scutum seems to have disappeared. Fourth century archaeological finds (especially from the fortress of Dura-Europos) indicate the subsequent use of oval or round shields which were not semi-cylindrical but were either dished (bowl-shaped) or flat. Roman artwork from the end of the 3rd century till the end of Antiquity show soldiers wielding oval or round shields.

The word “scutum” survived the Roman Empire and entered the military vocabulary of the Byzantine Empire. Even in the 11th century, the Byzantines called their armoured soldiers skutatoi (Grk. σκυτατοί).

Clipeus

Roman Clipeus Shield.

The legionary scutum, disappeared during the 3rd century. All troops adopted the auxiliary oval (or sometimes round) shield (clipeus). Shields, from examples found at Dura and Nydam, were of vertical plank construction, the planks glued, and faced inside and out with painted leather. The edges of the shield were bound with stitched rawhide, which shrank as it dried improving structural cohesion. It was also lighter than the edging of copper alloy used in earlier Roman shields.

Clipeus virtutis, Latin for “shield of bravery”, was awarded to Augustus for his “courage, clemency, justice and piety” by the senate and displayed in the Curia Iulia.

The Anglo Saxon Shield

The shield was another extremely common piece of war equipment used by the Anglo-Saxons—nearly 25% of male Anglo-Saxon graves contain shields. In Old English, a shield was called a bord, rand, scyld, or lind (“linden-wood”). Anglo-Saxon shields comprised a circular piece of wood constructed from planks which had been glued together; at the center of the shield, an iron boss was attached.

It was common for shields to be covered in leather, so as to hold the planks together, and they were often decorated with fittings of bronze or iron. Textual descriptions and visual representations indicate that some shields were convex, but archaeological evidence for this has not yet been found.

No painted Anglo-Saxon shields have been discovered; however, painted shields from the same time period have been found in Denmark, and Beowulf describes shields as being “bright” and “yellow.” These pieces of evidence suggest that some Anglo-Saxon shields may have been painted.

Two round, wooden shields from Thorsberg moor; dating to the 3rd century CE, they are similar to the shields used by the Anglo-Saxons.

Old English poetry always states that shields were made of lime (linden-wood), but few actual examples have been found by archaeologists. Evidence indicates that alder, willow, and poplar wood were the most common types; shields of maple, birch, ash, and oak have also been discovered. The diameter of shields greatly varied, ranging from 0.3 to 0.92 m (1 to 3 ft), although most shields were between 0.46 to 0.66 m (1 ft 6 in to 2 ft 2 in) in diameter. Their thickness ranged from 5 mm to 13 mm, but most were between 6 mm and 8 mm in width.

Anglo-Saxon shield bosses have been separated into two main categories, based on the method of manufacturing. The carinated boss was the most common type—the design originated in continental Europe, and such bosses found in England date from the fifth to the mid-seventh century, at least. It is unclear exactly how carinated bosses were manufactured.

The other type is the tall cone boss, which was commonly used from the seventh century onward. These bosses were constructed of an iron sheet (or sheets), and were welded together from the rim to the apex. Iron or bronze rivets were then used to attach the boss to the shield; four or five rivets were most commonly used, although as many as twelve were used in some instances.

Replica painted Anglo Saxon Shield.

Behind the boss, the shield was cut and an iron grip was attached to the opening, so that the shield could be held. Grips were usually 10 to 16 cm (4 to 6 in) in length, the sides of which were either straight or gently curved. Evidence indicates that flanges were sometimes used to enclose a wooden handle.

As for defensive equipment, most Anglo-Saxon warriors only had access to shields. Pollington theorized that the shield was “perhaps the most culturally significant piece of defensive equipment” in Anglo-Saxon England, for the shield-wall would have symbolically represented the separation between the two sides on the battlefield. Smaller shields were lighter and easier to manoeuver, and therefore were best used in minor skirmishes and hand-to-hand combat. In contrast, larger shields were most commonly used in full-scale battles—they would have provided better protection from projectiles and were needed to construct a shield wall.

Depiction of an Anglo Saxon shield wall.

Viking Shields

The Viking shield was used for attack and defence. The sagas specifically mention linden wood for shield construction, although finds from graves show mostly other timbers, such as fir, alder and poplar. These timbers are not very dense and are light in the hand. They are also not inclined to split, unlike oak. Also, the fibres of the timber bind around blades preventing the blade from cutting any deeper unless a lot more pressure is applied. In conjunction with stronger wood, Vikings often reinforced their shields with leather or, occasionally, iron around the rim. Round shields seem to have varied in size from around 45–120 centimetres (18–47 in) in diameter but 75–90 centimetres (30–35 in) is by far the most common.

Viking Shield Colour Variations.

The smaller shield sizes came from the pagan period for the Saxons and the larger sizes from the 10th and 11th centuries. Most shields are shown in illuminations as being painted a single colour although some have a design painted onto them; the most common designs are simple crosses or derivations of sun wheels or segments. The few round shields that survived have much more complicated designs painted on them and sometimes very ornate silver and gold work applied around the boss and the strap anchors.

The Gokstad ship has places for shields to be hung on its railing and the Gokstad shields have holes along the rim for fastening some sort of non-metallic rim protection. These were called shield lists and they protected ship crews from waves and the wind.

Viking Longship showing the arrangement of the shields on the starboard side.

Some Viking shields may have been decorated by simple patterns although some skaldic poems praising shields might indicate more elaborate decoration and archaeological evidence has supported this. In fact, there is a complete subgenre of Skaldic poetry dedicated to shields, known as “shield poems”, that describe scenes painted on shields. For example, the late-9th-century skaldic poem, Ragnarsdrápa, describes some shields painted with mythological scenes. Viking shields were also heavily used in formations.

The shield wall or skjaldborg was a main formation in which accomplished Viking warriors would create a line of interlocked shields and thrust spears at adversaries. Other notable tactics included the svinfylking “boarsnout”, in which warriors would create a wedge configuration and attempt to burst through the front line of nearby foes.

Viking shield wall with interlocking shields.

The Vikings also used Kite Shields (see below).

Medieval Kite Shields

A kite shield is a large, almond-shaped shield rounded at the top and curving down to a point at the bottom. The term “kite shield” is a reference to the shield’s unique shape, and is derived from its supposed similarity to a flying kite, although “leaf-shaped shield” and “almond shield” have also been used in recent literature. Since the most prominent examples of this shield have appeared on the Bayeux Tapestry, the kite shield has become closely associated with Norman warfare.

Bayeux Tapestry Kite Shield Wall.

The first known illustration of a kite shield appeared in the Gospels of Otto III, indicating it was in use with Western European armies by the late eleventh century. The shield was developed for mounted cavalry, and its dimensions correlate to the approximate space between a horse’s neck and its rider’s thigh.

A narrow bottom protected the rider’s left leg, and the pronounced upper curve, the rider’s shoulder and torso. This was a vast improvement over more common circular shields such as bucklers which afforded poor protection to the horseman’s left flank, especially when he was charging with a lance. Though their great length and unwieldy nature made them cumbersome and inconvenient for foot soldiers, kite shields nevertheless gained popularity, spreading throughout Western Europe during the 1100s.

Aside from Normandy, they also appeared early on in parts of Spain and the Holy Roman Empire, and it is unclear from which of these three regions the design originated. A common theory is that the kite shield was first inherited by the Normans from their Viking predecessors.

However, no documentation or remains of kite shields from the Viking era have been discovered, and they were not ideally suited to the Vikings’ highly mobile light infantry. Kite shields were depicted primarily on eleventh century illustrations, largely in Western Europe and the Byzantine Empire, but also in the Caucasus, the Fatimid Caliphate, and among the Kievan Rus’.

The Varangian Guard, Byzantine mercenaries, largely recruited from Viking territories in the north of Europe.

For example, an eleventh century silver engraving of Saint George recovered from Bochorma, Georgia, depicts a kite shield, as do other isolated pieces of Georgian art dating to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Kite shields also appear on the Bab al-Nasr in Cairo, which was constructed around 1087. Arab historians usually described them as tariqa or januwiyya.

Kite shields were introduced in large numbers to the Middle East by the First Crusade, when Arab and Byzantine soldiers first observed the type being carried by Norman crusaders; these left such a favourable impression on Byzantium that they had entirely superseded round shields in the Komnenian army by the mid twelfth century.

Around the mid to late twelfth century, traditional kite shields were largely replaced by a variant in which the top was flat, rather than rounded. This change made it easier for a soldier to hold the shield upright without limiting his field of vision. Flat-topped kite shields were later phased out by most Western European armies in favour of much smaller, more compact heater shields. They were still being used by the Byzantines well into the thirteenth century.

The Pelte

The Pelte is a a crescent-shaped wicker shield (Latin: peltarion) carried by a Peltast, a type of light infantry, originating in Thrace and Paeonia, who often served as skirmishers in Hellenic and Hellenistic armies.

In the Medieval period the same term was used for a type of Byzantine infantryman. as their main protection, hence their name. According to Aristotle, the pelte was rimless and covered in goat or sheep skin. Some literary sources imply that the shield could be round, but in art it is usually shown as crescent-shaped. It also appears in Scythian art and may have been a common type in Central Europe.

The shield could be carried with a central strap and a hand grip near the rim or with just a central hand-grip. It may also have had a carrying strap (or baldric) as Thracian peltasts slung their shields on their backs when evading the enemy. Peltasts’ weapons consisted of several javelins (akontia), which may have had throwing straps to allow more force to be applied to a throw.

In time, some armoured foot knights gave up shields entirely in favour of mobility and two-handed weapons. Other knights and common soldiers adopted the buckler, giving rise to the term “swashbuckler”.

Stainless Buckler Shield.

The buckler is a small round shield, typically between 8 and 16 inches (20–40 cm) in diameter. The buckler was one of very few types of shield that were usually made of metal. Small and light, the buckler was easily carried by being hung from a belt; it gave little protection from missiles and was reserved for hand-to-hand combat where it served both for protection and offence. The buckler’s use began in the Middle Ages and continued well into the 16th century.

References

  • Drummond, James (1890). “Notes on Ancient Shields and Highland Targets”. Archaeologica Scotica. 5.
  • Schulze, André(Hrsg.): Mittelalterliche Kampfesweisen. Band 2: Kriegshammer, Schild und Kolben. – Mainz am Rhein. : Zabern, 2007. – ISBN 3-8053-3736-1
  • Snodgrass, A.M. “Arms and Armour of the Greeks.” Cornell University Press, 1967
  • “The Hoplite.” The Classical Review, 61. 2011.
  • Hellwag, Ursula. “Shield(s).” Encyclopaedia Aethiopica, Siegbert Uhllig (ed.), vol. 4, 650-651. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.

 

 

 

 

Frisians

The Frisians are a Germanic ethnic group indigenous to the coastal parts of the Netherlands and northwestern Germany.

They inhabit an area known as Frisia and are concentrated in the Dutch provinces of Friesland and Groningen and, in Germany, East Frisia and North Frisia (which was a part of Denmark until 1864).

The Frisian languages are still spoken by more than 500,000 people; West Frisian is officially recognized in the Netherlands (in Friesland), and North Frisian and Saterland Frisian are recognized as regional languages in Germany.

The ancient Frisii enter recorded history in the Roman account of Drusus’s 12 BC war against the Rhine Germans and the Chauci. They occasionally appear in the accounts of Roman wars against the Germanic tribes of the region, up to and including the Revolt of the Batavi around 70 AD. Frisian mercenaries were hired to assist the Roman invasion of Britain in the capacity of cavalry. They are not mentioned again until c. 296, when they were deported into Roman territory as laeti (i.e., Roman-era serfs; see Binchester Roman Fort and Cuneus Frisionum). The discovery of a type of earthenware unique to 4th century Frisia, called terp Tritzum, shows that an unknown number of them were resettled in Flanders and Kent, probably as laeti under Roman coercion.

From the 3rd through the 5th centuries Frisia suffered marine transgressions that made most of the land uninhabitable, aggravated by a change to a cooler and wetter climate. Whatever population may have remained dropped dramatically, and the coastal lands remained largely unpopulated for the next two centuries. When conditions improved, Frisia received an influx of new settlers, mostly Angles and Saxons. These people would eventually be referred to as ‘Frisians’, though they were not necessarily descended from the ancient Frisii. It is these ‘new Frisians’ who are largely the ancestors of the medieval and modern Frisians.

By the end of the 6th century, Frisian territory had expanded westward to the North Sea coast and, in the 7th century, southward down to Dorestad. This farthest extent of Frisian territory is sometimes referred to as Frisia Magna. Early Frisia was ruled by a High King, with the earliest reference to a ‘Frisian King’ being dated 678.

In the early 8th century the Frisian nobles came into increasing conflict with the Franks to their south, resulting in a series of wars in which the Frankish Empire eventually subjugated Frisia in 734. These wars benefited attempts by Anglo-Irish missionaries (which had begun with Saint Boniface) to convert the Frisian populace to Christianity, in which Saint Willibrord largely succeeded.

Frisian Warriors.

Some time after the death of Charlemagne, the Frisian territories were in theory under the control of the Count of Holland, but in practice the Hollandic counts, starting with Count Arnulf in 993, were unable to assert themselves as the sovereign lords of Frisia. The resulting stalemate resulted in a period of time called the ‘Frisian freedom’, a period in which feudalism and serfdom (as well as central or judicial administration) did not exist, and in which the Frisian lands only owed their allegiance to the Holy Roman Emperor.

During the 13th century, however, the counts of Holland became increasingly powerful and, starting in 1272, sought to reassert themselves as rightful lords of the Frisian lands in a series of wars, which (with a series of lengthy interruptions) ended in 1422 with the Hollandic conquest of Western Frisia and with the establishment of a more powerful noble class in Central and Eastern Frisia.

In 1524, Frisia became part of the Seventeen Provinces and in 1568 joined the Dutch revolt against Philip II, king of Spain, heir of the Burgundian territories; Central Frisia has remained a part of the Netherlands ever since. The eastern periphery of Frisia would become part of various German states (later Germany) and Denmark. An old tradition existed in the region of exploitation of peatlands.

Frisian treasure from the Medieval period.

As both the Anglo-Saxons of England and the early Frisians were formed from largely identical tribal confederacies, their respective languages were very similar. Old Frisian is the most closely related language to Old English and the modern Frisian dialects are in turn the closest related languages to contemporary English, together forming the linguistic category of Anglo-Frisian.

The Frisian language group itself is divided into three mutually unintelligible languages:

Of these three languages both Saterland Frisian (2,000 speakers) and North Frisian (10,000 speakers) are endangered. West Frisian is spoken by around 354,000 native speakers and is not threatened.

Today there exists a tripartite division of the Frisians, into North Frisians, East Frisians and West Frisians, caused by Frisia’s constant loss of territory in the Middle Ages. The West Frisians, in general, do not necessarily see themselves as part of a larger group of Frisians, and, according to a 1970 poll, identify themselves more with the Dutch than with the East or North Frisians. Therefore, the term ‘Frisian’, when applied to the speakers of all three Frisian languages, is a linguistic, ethnic and/or cultural concept, not a political one.

References

  • Greg Woolf, “Cruptorix and his kind. Talking ethnicity on the middle ground”, Ton Derks, Nico Roymans (ed.), Ethnic Constructs in Antiquity: The Role of Power and Tradition (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2009) (Amsterdam Archaeological Studies, 13), 207-218.
  • Jos Bazelmans, “The early-medieval use of ethnic names from classical antiquity. The case of the Frisians”, in Ton Derks, Nico Roymans (ed.), Ethnic Constructs in Antiquity: The Role of Power and Tradition (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2009) (Amsterdam Archaeological Studies, 13), 321-329.

The End of Roman Rule in Britain

The end of Roman rule in Britain was the transition from Roman Britain to post-Roman Britain. Roman rule ended in different parts of Britain at different times, and under different circumstances.

In 383, the usurper Magnus Maximus withdrew troops from northern and western Britain, probably leaving local warlords in charge. Around 410, the Romano-British expelled the magistrates of the usurper Constantine III, ostensibly in response to his failures to use the Roman garrison he had stripped from Britain to protect the island. Roman Emperor Honorius replied to a request for assistance with the Rescript of Honorius, telling the Roman cities to see to their own defence, a tacit acceptance of temporary British self-government. Honorius was fighting a large-scale war in Italy against the Visigoths under their leader Alaric, with Rome itself under siege. No forces could be spared to protect distant Britain. Though it is likely that Honorius expected to regain control over the provinces soon, by the mid-6th century Procopius recognised that Britannia was entirely lost to the Romans.

Map showing the end of Roman rule in Britain – 383AD – 410AD.

By the early 5th century, the Roman Empire could no longer defend itself against either internal rebellion or the external threat posed by expanding Germanic tribes in Northern Europe. This situation and its consequences governed the eventual permanence of Britain’s detachment from the rest of the Empire.

In the late 4th century, the empire was controlled by members of a dynasty that included the Emperor Theodosius I. This family retained political power within itself and formed alliances by intermarriage with other dynasties, at the same time engaging in internecine power struggles and fighting off outside contenders (called “usurpers”) attempting to replace the ruling dynasty with one of their own. These internal machinations drained the Empire of both military and civilian resources. Many thousands of soldiers were lost in battling attempted coups by figures such as Firmus, Magnus Maximus and Eugenius.

The Empire’s historical relationship with Germanic tribes was sometimes hostile, at other times cooperative, but ultimately fatal, as it was unable to prevent those tribes from assuming a dominant role in the relationship. By the early 5th century, as a result of severe losses and depleted tax income, the Western Roman Empire’s military forces were dominated by Germanic troops, and Romanised Germans played a significant role in the empire’s internal politics. Various Germanic and other tribes beyond the frontiers were able to take advantage of the Empire’s weakened state, both to expand into Roman territory and, in some cases, to move their entire populations into lands once considered exclusively Roman, culminating in various successful migrations from 406 onwards. The crossing of the Rhine caused intense fear in Britannia, prone as it was to being cut off from the Empire by raids on the primary communications route from Italy, to Trier to the Channel Coast. In the event, this was much more than just another raid.

The Eastern and Western Roman Empire of Theodosius I in 395.

Chronology

383–388

In 383, the Roman general then assigned to Britain, Magnus Maximus, launched his successful bid for imperial power, crossing to Gaul with his troops. He killed the Western Roman Emperor Gratian and ruled Gaul and Britain as Augustus (i.e., as a “sub-emperor” under Theodosius I). 383 is the last date for any evidence of a Roman presence in the north and west of Britain, perhaps excepting troop assignments at the tower on Holyhead Mountain in Anglesey and at western coastal posts such as Lancaster. These outposts may have lasted into the 390s, but they were a very minor presence, intended primarily to stop attacks and settlement by groups from Ireland.

Coins dated later than 383 have been excavated along Hadrian’s Wall, suggesting that troops were not stripped from it, as once thought or, if they were, they were quickly returned as soon as Maximus had won his victory in Gaul. In the De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, written c. 540, Gildas attributed an exodus of troops and senior administrators from Britain to Maximus, saying that he left not only with all of its troops, but also with all of its armed bands, governors, and the flower of its youth, never to return.

Raids by Saxons, Picts, and the Scoti of Ireland had been ongoing in the late 4th century, but these increased in the years after 383. There were also large-scale permanent Irish settlements made along the coasts of Wales under circumstances that remain unclear. Maximus campaigned in Britain against both the Picts and Scoti, with historians differing on whether this was in the year 382 or 384 (i.e., whether the campaign was before or after he became Augustus). Welsh legend relates that before launching his usurpation, Maximus made preparations for an altered governmental and defence framework for the beleaguered provinces. Figures such as Coel Hen were said to be placed into key positions to protect the island in Maximus’ absence. As such claims were designed to buttress Welsh genealogy and land claims, they should be viewed with some scepticism.

In 388, Maximus led his army across the Alps into Italy in an attempt to claim the purple. The effort failed when he was defeated in Pannonia at the Battle of the Save (in modern Croatia) and at the Battle of Poetovio (at Ptuj in modern Slovenia). He was then executed by Theodosius.

Magnus Maximus

389–406

With Maximus’ death, Britain came back under the rule of Emperor Theodosius I until 392, when the usurper Eugenius would successfully bid for imperial power in the Western Roman Empire, surviving until 394 when he was defeated and killed by Theodosius. When Theodosius died in 395, his 10-year-old son Honorius succeeded him as Western Roman Emperor. The real power behind the throne, however, was Stilicho, the son-in-law of Theodosius’ brother and the father-in-law of Honorius.

Britain was suffering raids by the Scoti, Saxons, and Picts and, sometime between 396 and 398, Stilicho allegedly ordered a campaign against the Picts, likely a naval campaign intended to end their seaborne raids on the east coast of Britain. He may also have ordered campaigns against the Scoti and Saxons at the same time, but either way this would be the last Roman campaign in Britain of which there is any record.

In 401 or 402 Stilicho faced wars with the Visigothic king Alaric and the Ostrogothic king Radagaisus. Needing military manpower, he stripped Hadrian’s Wall of troops for the final time. 402 is the last date of any Roman coinage found in large numbers in Britain, suggesting either that Stilicho also stripped the remaining troops from Britain, or that the Empire could no longer afford to pay the troops who were still there. Meanwhile, the Picts, Saxons and Scoti continued their raids, which may have increased in scope. In 405, for example, Niall of the Nine Hostages is described as having raided along the southern coast of Britain.

407–410

On the last day of December 406 (or, perhaps, 405), the Alans, Vandals, and Suebi living east of Gaul crossed the Rhine, possibly when it was frozen over, and began widespread devastation.

As there was no effective Roman response, the remaining Roman military in Britain feared that a Germanic crossing of the Channel into Britain was next, and dispensed with imperial authority – an action perhaps made easier by the high probability that the troops had not been paid for some time. Their intent was to choose a commander who would lead them in securing their future but their first two choices, Marcus and Gratian, did not meet their expectations and were killed. Their third choice was the soldier Constantine III.

Coin of Constantine III.

In 407 Constantine took charge of the remaining troops in Britain, led them across the Channel into Gaul, rallied support there, and attempted to set himself up as Western Roman Emperor. Honorius’ loyalist forces south of the Alps were preoccupied with fending off the Visigoths and were unable to put down the rebellion swiftly, giving Constantine the opportunity to extend his new empire to include Spain.

In 409 Constantine’s control of his empire fell apart. Part of his military forces were in Spain, making them unavailable for action in Gaul, and some of those in Gaul were swayed against him by loyalist Roman generals. The Germans living west of the Rhine River rose against him, perhaps encouraged by Roman loyalists, and those living east of the river crossed into Gaul. Britain, now without any troops for protection and having suffered particularly severe Saxon raids in 408 and 409, viewed the situation in Gaul with renewed alarm. Perhaps feeling they had no hope of relief under Constantine, both the Romano-Britons and some of the Gauls expelled Constantine’s magistrates in 409 or 410. The Byzantine historian Zosimus (fl. 490’s – 510’s) 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 straits that they revolted from the Roman Empire, ‘rejected Roman law, reverted to their native customs, and armed themselves to ensure their own safety’.

It has been suggested that when Zosimus records that the natives expelled the Roman civilian administration in 409 he might have been referring to the Bacaudic rebellion of the Breton inhabitants of Armorica since he describes how, in the aftermath of the revolt, all of Armorica and the rest of Gaul followed the example of the Brettaniai. A later appeal for help by the British communities was, according to Zosimus, rejected by the Emperor Honorius in 410 AD. In the text called the Rescript of Honorius of 411, the Western Emperor Honorius tells the British civitates to look to their own defence as his regime was still fighting usurpers in the south of Gaul and trying to deal with the Visigoths who were in the very south of Italy. The first reference to this rescript is written by the sixth-century Byzantine scholar Zosimus and is located randomly in the middle of a discussion of southern Italy; no further mention of Britain is made, which has led some, though not all, modern academics to suggest that the rescript does not apply to Britain, but to Bruttium in Italy.

Religious Orthodox icon: Holy Venerable Zosimus of Solovki.

Historian Christopher Snyder wrote that protocol dictated that Honorius address his correspondences to imperial officials, and the fact that he did not implies that the cities of Britain were now the highest Roman authority remaining on the island. The idea that there may have been larger-scale political formations still intact on the island has not been completely discredited however.

At the time that the Rescript was sent, Honorius was holed up in Ravenna by the Visigoths and was unable to prevent their Sack of Rome (410). He was certainly in no position to offer any relief to anyone. As for Constantine III, he was not equal to the intrigues of imperial Rome and by 411 his cause was spent. His son was killed along with those major supporters who had not turned against him, and he himself was assassinated.

Factual disputes

Regarding the events of 409 and 410 when the Romano-Britons expelled Roman officials and sent a request for aid to Honorius, Michael Jones (The End of Roman Britain, 1998) offered a different chronology to the same end result: he suggested that the Britons first appealed to Rome and when no help was forthcoming, they expelled the Roman officials and took charge of their own affairs.

One theory that occurs in some modern histories concerns the Rescript of Honorius, holding that it refers to the cities of the Bruttii (who lived at the “toe” of Italy in modern Calabria), rather than to the cities of the Britons. The suggestion is based on the assumption that the source (Zosimus) or a copyist made an error and actually meant Brettia when Brettania was written, and noting that the passage that contains the Rescript is otherwise concerned with events in northern Italy.

Criticisms of the suggestion range from treating the passage in the way it was written by Zosimus and ignoring the suggestion, to simply noting its speculative nature, to a discussion of problems with the suggestion (e.g., ‘why would Honorius write to the cities of the Bruttii rather than to his own provincial governor for that region?’, and ‘why does far-off southern Italy belong in a passage about northern Italy any more than far-off Britain?’). The theory also contradicts the account of Gildas, who provides independent support that the reference is to Britain by repeating the essence of Zosimus’ account and clearly applying it to Britain.

E. A. Thompson (“Britain, A.D. 406–410”, in Britannia, 8 (1977), pp. 303–318) offered a more provocative theory to explain the expulsion of officials and appeal for Roman aid. He suggested that a revolt consisting of dissident peasants, not unlike the Bagaudae of Gaul, also existing in Britain, and when they revolted and expelled the Roman officials, the landowning class then made an appeal for Roman aid. There is no textual proof that that was so, though it might be plausible if the definition of ‘bagaudae’ is changed to fit the circumstances. There is no need to do this, as any number of rational scenarios already fit the circumstances. There is the possibility that some form of bagaudae existed in Britain, but were not necessarily relevant to the events of 409 and 410. The alleged ubiquity of Pelagianism amongst the British population may have contributed to such a movement if it had existed, not to mention large-scale purges amongst the British elite over previous decades. Among the works that mention but skirt the issue is Koch’s Celtic Culture (2005), which cites Thompson’s translation of Zosimus and goes on to say “The revolt in Britain may have involved bacaudae or peasant rebels as was the case in Armorica, but this is not certain.”

Sources

 

  • Frere, Sheppard Sunderland (1987), Britannia: A History of Roman Britain (3rd, revised ed.), London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, ISBN 0-7102-1215-1 
  • Giles, John Allen, ed. (1841), “The Works of Gildas”, The Works of Gildas and Nennius, London: James Bohn 
  • Higham, Nicholas (1992), Rome, Britain and the Anglo-Saxons, London: B. A. Seaby, ISBN 1-85264-022-7 
  • Jones, Barri; Mattingly, David (1990), An Atlas of Roman Britain, Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers (published 2007), ISBN 978-1-84217-067-0 
  • Laing, Lloyd (1975), The Archaeology of Late Celtic Britain and Ireland, c. 400–1200 AD, Frome: Book Club Associates (published 1977) 
  • Mattingly, David (2006), An Imperial Possession: Britain in the Roman Empire, London: Penguin Books (published 2007), ISBN 978-0-14-014822-0 
  • Snyder, Christopher A. (1998), An Age of Tyrants: Britain and the Britons A.D. 400–600, University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, ISBN 0-271-01780-5 
  • Snyder, Christopher A. (2003), The Britons, Malden: Blackwell Publishing, ISBN 978-0-631-22260-6