Sunday, 31 August 2008

Byzantine links with post roman britain ...

The simple view of the post roman history of Britain is that the army left sometime before 410, and in 410 the cities and communities of Britain were told to fend for themselves. This they failed to do and collapsed under the weight of hordes of land hungry anglo saxon migrants. What of course this view does not show is the fact that there must have been an ongoing conflict for at least two centuries as the the anglo saxon communities pressed westward and the romano british retreated, yet were capable of mustering the effort to build fortifications such as Wansdyke. We akso know, both from literary sources, such as Gildas and Nennius that there were kingdoms in the west of britian, perhaps based originally on old roman local government divisions which themselves were based, loosley, on pre-Roman tribal boundaries. And that these stateles contained towns, certainly with eveidence that there was a roman style town functioning at Wroxeter till sometime after 500. There are arguments as to how romanized Roman britain was and to what extent romanization was only skin deep - he construction of towns in Roman Britain mainly because 'had to have them' and how majority of popultion in west and north continued to live in tribal villages, areas that were less romanized than the south and east. Interestingly, there's a similar example from Morocco. Most of Tingatania was abandoned by Rome in the face of the Vandal advance in the 400's but Volubilis remained occupied until being abandoned after an earthquake and then re-occupied with a smaller walled settlement on the edge of the town next to some fresh water springs, the town aqueduct being one of the casualties of the earthquake. These people were not Romans, even though some of them were buried with gravestones with latin inscriptions, and whose deaths were still dated from the founding of the province. Nor were they Arabs, their arrival had to wait until the coming of Islam. Most likely they were berbers, whos great grandparents may have had a patina of romanization but whose descendants were not, but who treated Latin as the 'official' language for business. And if anyone should doubt that Rome had an influence on the Berber's simply look to theBerber calendar, the names of the months and the celebration of Yennayer 1 as New year's day on 14 January, neatly paralleling the Orthodox Julian calendar. So one can say that it is quite probable that there were functioning post Roman statelets in the west of Britain. Like Bereber Volubilis, they were probably Roman in name only, even if their elites gave themselves titles such as 'protector' which drived from late Roman official titles, and the towns were only large native vilages perhaps with a few Roman style buildings built of wood, not stone. Now there statelets cannot have existed in a vacuum. Historians tend to concentrate on the saxon ascendancy and the conflict with the Romano British, yet we know that churchment travelled from the still british west to mainland europe, and given that these churchmen sailed on boats, that there must have been some sort of trade. And not just with Gaul. Byzantine coin finds are more common in the west than the east of england suggesting greater trade links.
(Question - how does this compare to the distribution for frankish coins?), but certainly suggesting that there was direct contact between the Byzanitine empire and the British successor state in Cornwall, based around Tintagel. Of course Byzantium does not mean Istanbul. The sixth century Byzantine empire had successfully reconquered North Africa and the grain ships sailed from Egypt and Carthage to feed the population of Constantinople. And paralleling the coin distribution, North African pottery is more common in west of england than east - pointing to trade route via north africa for supply of items such as wine and olives. And again the finds are focused around Cornwall and Tintagel. But why would anyone bother to sail to Tintagel from Carthage to trade with a gang of smelly celts who spoke bad latin and claimed to be Roman. Certainly not out of altruism. But the smelly celts had one thing that was in short supply elsewhere - tin - needed for making bronze. And in much the same way that minoan and phonecian traders before them found it worthwhile to risk the long sea journey to trade for tin so must it have been for the byzanitines, trading luxuries for tin ingots. And there are modern parallels to this scenario. During the second world war the danish colony in Greenland was cut off from Denmark, but managed to keep going and pay for the necessary imports by having something to trade, in the Greenland case cryolite that they could sell to the US and then use to pay for imports. Now this is all circumstantial. But someone with links to the Byzantine Empire was trading with Tintagel, where people did also make grave markers with inscriptions in bad latin. And the journey must have been worth their while - the more interesting question is what other forms of contacts were there and did they include any degree of cultural exchange.


dgm said...

And a secondary, but equally interesting question realets to the 630's and teh Byzantine loss of North Africa.

Did the contacts cease before then, or did they cease as a result of the Muslim expansion, and if so, did the loss of these contacts have any impact on the sustainability of the post roman statelets in the west?

dgm said...

There is evidence, such as that in the Chronicle of John the Alsmgiver that there was an organised tin trade and that it was sufficiently well organised for churchmen to gain passage from the byzantine lands to enagage in religious dispute with said smelly celts.

And I guess there are a couple of supplementary questions:

1) did irish monks voyage via cornwall to armorica/galicia to avoid the pagan lands in england

2) and as per my previous comment, did the collapse of the tin trade as a result of the muslim expansion mean that the post roman statelets could not pay for resources (foederati, mercenaries) to slow the saxon advance?

Fred said...

Genetic analysis would help in suggesting contacts. My female Cornish ancestors had distinctly Mediterranean, and quite possibly North African DNA. Women for tin?
Could be other explanations of course, but apparently, having checked, Sephardi Jewishness is not one of them.