In the year 350 AD, to paraphrase the historian Robin Fleming, Britain was as Roman a place as anywhere in the Empire. It had a dense network of roads and ports, luxurious villas with mosaic floors and private bathhouses, a profusion of small, prosperous towns that served as markets for regional trade, and a massive garrison of professional soldiers who manned Hadrian’s Wall in the north and a line of forts along the coast. Trade on a huge scale connected the province to the rest of the Roman Empire: British grain fed the army along the Rhine frontier, while North African pottery and Gallic wine graced the tables of even the island’s middle class.
By 550, that world was gone. There were no more cities of any size. The money economy had disappeared a century beforehand and was just starting to make a comeback. Nobody was building structures of any size in stone or mass-producing goods, as they had during the Roman period. New styles of dress had come into vogue, emphasizing the warrior status of high-ranking men with swords, helmets, and fancy belt buckles. The Latin language had been mostly forgotten, replaced by either common Brittonic—the ancestor of modern Welsh and Cornish—or the forerunner of the language we speak today, English. Petty kingdoms ruled by violent, power-hungry elites dominated the landscape instead of provinces controlled by Roman governors.
Britain was changing of its own accord as the Roman army pulled out and society as a whole underwent something like a collapse, but a wave of migrants from the North Sea coast of the Continent between the mouth of the Rhine and modern-day Denmark also played their part in rewriting the demographic, cultural, economic, and political scene of Eastern Britain. We call these people the Anglo-Saxons.
Historians and archaeologists have debated this migration for centuries. Was it a mass movement of people across the North Sea who filled in a depopulated landscape made desolate by the collapse of the Roman state, or was this a takeover at the top of society by a small, predatory group of warriors who made themselves into a new elite?
I’m Patrick Wyman, and I just finished my PhD on the end of the Roman Empire. I always wished that more professional historians tried to talk to the general public, so that’s why I’m doing this podcast on the fall of Rome.
The world that grew out of this Anglo-Saxon migration was much more closely connected to the North Sea than it was the Mediterranean. People spoke the forerunner of modern English rather than Latin or Brittonic. It was a pagan society, where much of Roman Britain had already been Christian. Most of all, this Anglo-Saxon world was a more politically fractured and violent place. One estimate based on a large-scale study of skeletons, for example, states that people living in this Anglo-Saxon eastern Britain were about four times as likely to be stabbed as had been the case in Roman-era Britain.
This Anglo-Saxon migration, and what it would have been like for one extended family to live through this enormous and fundamental transformation of society, is the topic of this episode of the Fall of Rome. If that sounds interesting to you, give it a listen, and if you have any questions just sound off in the comments below.