Groans of the Britons
The Groans of the Britons (Latin: gemitus Britannorum) is the name of the final appeal made by the Britons to the Roman military for assistance against Pict and Scot raiders. The appeal is first referenced in Gildas' 6th-century De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae; Gildas' account was later repeated in Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum. According to Gildas, the message was addressed to the general Flavius Aetius and requested his aid in defending formerly Roman Britain from the Picts and Scots. The collapsing Western Roman Empire had few military resources to spare during its decline, and the record is ambiguous on what the response to the appeal was, if any. According to Gildas and various later medieval sources, the failure of the Roman armies to secure Britain led the Britons to invite Anglo-Saxon mercenaries to the island, precipitating the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain.
The message is recorded by Gildas in his De Excidio Britanniae, written in the second quarter of the sixth century, and much later repeated by Bede. According to these sources, it was a last-ditch plea for assistance to Agitius, generally identified as Aetius, military leader of the Western Roman Empire, who spent most of the 440s fighting insurgents in Gaul and Hispania. The formerly Roman Britons had been beset by raids by the Picts and Scots from northern Britain, who were able to pillage far to the south after the Roman armies had withdrawn from the island in 407.
The text describes Aetius as being consul for the third time, dating the message to the period between 446, when he held his third consulate, and 454, when he held his fourth. Leslie Alcock has raised a tentative possibility of the Agitius to whom the gemitus is directed actually being Aegidius – though he was never consul. Aside from Miller, who leaves the possibility open, this alternative has not been pursued. The usurper Constantine III had taken the last Roman troops from Britain in 407, and the civilian administration had been expelled by the natives a little later, leaving the inhabitants to fend for themselves during increasingly fraught times. Parts of the plea was recorded:
Latin: Agitio ter consuli, gemitus britannorum. [...] Repellunt barbari ad mare, repellit mare ad barbaros; inter haec duo genera funerum aut iugulamur aut mergimur. English: To Agitius, thrice consul: the groans of the Britons. [...] The barbarians drive us to the sea, the sea drives us to the barbarians; between these two means of death, we are either killed or drowned.— Gildas, De Excidio 1.20
The Romans, however, could not assist them, and the Britons were left to their own devices.
Problems of interpretation
The reference to Aetius' third consulship (446) is useful in dating the increasing strife in Britain during this period. Gildas' mention of the appeal is a minor part of a much larger religious polemic, however, which means that the image described may be more hyperbolic than realistic, especially as his sources were probably derived from oral tradition. The traditional picture of Romano-British society in post-Roman Britain as besieged and chaotic is also being increasingly challenged by archaeological evidence. The viewpoint of Gildas is coloured by his classicizing rather than monastic education, based at some remove on the Roman education of a rhetor, a source of his elaborated and difficult Latin.
Gildas' narrative describes the Britons as being too impious and plagued by infighting to fend off the Picts and Scots. They managed some successes against the invaders when they placed their faith in God's hands, but they were usually left to suffer greatly. Gildas mentions a "proud tyrant" who Bede names as Vortigern as the person who originally invited Germanic mercenaries to defend the borders, but the identification of this actual historical person has not yet established, so the actual dating of the start of Saxon federatii presence in Britain is still contentious.
Archaeological evidence supports some Germanic communities being in place in England before the 440s. The rebellion of Carausius in 380 and his recruitment of Frisian and Frankish federatii to man the Saxon Shore, for example, fits the myth of Vortigen quite well, including his betrayal and death. If it is true that Saxons were federatii allied with the Romano-British who stayed when the legions left, then the Battle of Badon Hill may have actually been fought in the northwest of England between Scots invaders from Ireland and British-Saxon defenders.
Gildas' mention of "Hengist and Horsa" is highly suggestive that the actual origin of "Saxons" in Britain had already fallen into myth by the time of Gildas' writing. Gildas writes as if they are real people, yet historians now interpret this term as a military tradition, like "Romulus and Remus," not an actual genealogy. Gildas' metaphors of collapse also need to be interpreted in the context of the Justinian plague, which halved the population of Europe around 550 CE, the time he was writing. Metaphors commonly interpreted to mean invading Saxons could actually be referring to plague sweeping across the land.
What is clear, is that ultimately, there was an increasing Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain in the fifth and sixth centuries and increasing Anglo-Saxon culture, including language.
- End of Roman rule in Britain
- Battle of Mons Badonicus
- Sub-Roman Britain
- Kingdom of Gwent
- In full Agitio ter consuli gemitus Britannorum
- In Michael Lapidge and David Dumville, eds. Gildas: New Approaches (Studies in Celtic History 5) 1984.
- Alcock, Arthur's Britain, 1971:107: "Agitius is most reasonably identified with Aegidius... but Aegidius was never a consul." Alcock 1971 was critically reviewed by K. H. Jackson in Antiquity 47 (1973), noted by Thomas D. O'Sullivan, The De Excidio of Gildas :169 and notes.
- Miller, "Bede's use of Gildas," English Historical Review 90 (1975:247).
- E. A. Thompson, ed. The De Excidio of Gildas
- Michael Lapidge, "Gildas' education and the Latin culture of sub-Roman Britain', in Lapidge and Dumville 1984.
- De Excidio Britannae, as translated by John Allen Giles
- Mummy, Kevin, "The Groans of the Britons: Toward the British Civitates Period ca. 406-455 C.E.", Ex Post Facto: Journal of the History Students at San Francisco State University, 2002