Groans of the Britons

In a couple of months’ time, the United Kingdom will hold a referendum over a contentious question: ‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?

As a foreigner currently residing in Britain, I am denied a vote in the referendum. Not having to worry about making up my mind on such matters, I get to use my time on other endeavours instead.

In my desire to make the most of this opportunity, I managed to discover for myself, and to read, a most stunning and wildly entertaining historical (well, kind of, anyway) work: GildasDe excidio et conquestu Britanniae (‘On Britain’s Ruin and Conquest’).

The De excidio et conquestu Britanniae is sixth-century piece that describes, among other things, Britain’s situation after the Romans decided to write off their unruly northwesternmost possession, to focus on more pressing matters instead, and the subsequent Saxon conquest.

Admittedly, this is a moderately disappointing narrative at first: wouldn’t it be great if the Romans had been made to withdraw, following a proto-Brexit referendum . . . ?

At any rate, Gildas writes (ch. 18-20, transl. J. A. Giles) –

The Romans, therefore, left the country, giving notice that they could no longer be harassed by such laborious expeditions, nor suffer the Roman standards, with so large and brave an army, to be worn out by sea and land by fighting against these unwarlike, plundering vagabonds; but that the islanders, inuring themselves to warlike weapons, and bravely fighting, should valiantly protect their country, their property, wives and children, and, what is dearer than these, their liberty and lives; that they should not suffer their hands to be tied behind their backs by a nation which, unless they were enervated by idleness and sloth, was not more powerful than themselves, but that they should arm those hands with buckler, sword, and spear, ready for the field of battle; and, because they thought this also of advantage to the people they were about to leave, they, with the help of the miserable natives, built a wall different from the former, by public and private contributions, and of the same structure as walls generally, extending in a straight line from sea to sea, between some cities, which, from fear of their enemies, had there by chance been built. They then give energetic counsel to the timorous natives, and leave them patterns by which to manufacture arms. Moreover, on the south coast where their vessels lay, as there was some apprehension lest the barbarians might land, they erected towers at stated intervals, commanding a prospect of the sea; and then left the island never to return.

No sooner were they gone, than the Picts and Scots, like worms which in the heat of the mid-day come forth from their holes, hastily land again from their canoes, in which they had been carried beyond the Cichican valley, differing one from another in manners, but inspired with the same avidity for blood, and all more eager to shroud their villainous faces in bushy hair than to cover with decent clothing those parts of their body which required it. Moreover, having heard of the departure of our friends, and their resolution never to return, they seized with greater boldness than before on all the country towards the extreme north as far as the wall. To oppose them there was placed on the heights a garrison equally slow to fight and ill adapted to run away, a useless and panic-struck company, who slumbered away days and nights on their unprofitable watch. Meanwhile the hooked weapons of their enemies were not idle, and our wretched countrymen were dragged from the wall and dashed against the ground. Such premature death, however, painful as it was, saved them from seeing the miserable sufferings of their brothers and children. But why should I say more? They left their cities, abandoned the protection of the wall, and dispersed themselves in flight more desperately than before. The enemy, on the other hand, pursued them with more unrelenting cruelty than before, and butchered our countrymen like sheep, so that their habitations were like those of savage beasts; for they turned their arms upon each other, and for the sake of a little sustenance, imbued their hands in the blood of their fellow countrymen. Thus foreign calamities were augmented by domestic feuds; so that the whole country was entirely destitute of provisions, save such as could be procured in the chase.

Again, therefore, the wretched remnant, sending to Agitius, a powerful Roman citizen, address him as follow:—”To Agitius, now consul for the third time: the groans of the Britons.” And again a little further, thus:—”The barbarians drive us to the sea; the sea throws us back on the barbarians: thus two modes of death await us, we are either slain or drowned.” The Romans, however, could not assist them, and in the meantime the discomfited people, wandering in the woods, began to feel the effects of a severe famine, which compelled many of them without delay to yield themselves up to their cruel persecutors, to obtain subsistence: others of them, however, lying hid in mountains, caves and woods, continually sallied out from thence to renew the war. And then it was, for the first time, that they overthrew their enemies, who had for so many years been living in their country; for their trust was not in man, but in God; according to the maxim of Philo, “We must have divine assistance, when that of man fails.” The boldness of the enemy was for a while checked, but not the wickedness of our countrymen; the enemy left our people, but the people did not leave their sins.

A major political and strategic departure, resulting in significant movements in Scotland, in an obvious reluctance of a former provider of (relative) stability and legal security to provide continued support to British affairs, in a detrimental impact on the economy, and eventually in getting a new (equally foreign) ‘management’ to replace the old one – and all this even though Britain finally (re-)gained control over its borders, in an attempt to prevent unwanted mass migration?

It’s a good job that history never ever repeats itself, I thought to myself when I laid aside Gildas’ work . . .

About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
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6 Responses to Groans of the Britons

  1. chattykerry says:

    Excellent work as always. Those pretentious Romans, ‘No sooner were they gone, than the Picts and Scots, like worms which in the heat of the mid-day come forth from their holes!’ The Romans went much further into Scotland than people think. I used to play on an old Roman wall, a mile or so from my house on the south side of Glasgow. It was magnificently built and I used to sit and imagine where the villa was – now all parkland.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It’ll never cease to amaze me that, even with the means of 21st century travel, you get to fly for three hours or so, and you still haven’t even left the territory of what used to be the Roman Empire. The vastness is astounding (as was, of course, the price at which this achievement came…).

    Liked by 1 person

  3. chattykerry says:

    They were astonishingly successful and so advanced in engineering and military skills. I imagine they might have been equally admired and disliked by the countries they occupied. Not unlike how the rest of the world thinks about America, perhaps? Right now we are under the wrath of the Gods with 500 year flooding in Texas but surprisingly few deaths. Since I am part Native American maybe I could do the opposite of a rain dance? 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Build a wall? Now that sounds familiar…

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Incredible!
    I started blogging this month, and it is a pleasure that I came across your blog.
    It has inspired me to start my next article.
    Thank you:)


  6. mrviren says:

    I love this!! Great stuff


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