Thursday, July 22, 2010

A strange story

Eboracum with the Colonia in the foreground and the fortress across the river.

In my last two posts, I presented evidence that Roman York (Eboracum) was home to a large African community in the late 300s. This was due to the stationing of Nubian archers and other African legionnaires in this and other garrison towns of northern England.

Did many remain after the end of Roman rule c. 400? By then, the legions had been largely pulled out and redeployed elsewhere in the dying empire. So the African legionnaires were certainly fewer in number. But these pullouts did not affect the veterans, who were already settled on local estates with their families. Among these ‘Afro-British’ settlers, valued skills like archery would have been passed down from father to son, thus making their community a key player during increasingly troubled times...

What happened after the end of Roman rule? Did this community survive into sub-Roman times? This is the period that began with the last pullout of Roman troops c. 400 and ended with the collapse of Romano-British society in the late 500s.

The historical sources are not entirely mute on this question. These sources, however, have been corrupted by the passage of time. There is also the human temptation to embellish the facts and tell a good story. This is especially so for the sub-Roman period, when many written records were destroyed and when writing itself became almost a lost art. Historical accounts survived only in oral form before being later written down, often much later.

The source that most interests us is the Historia Regum Britanniae (c. 1136), purportedly a translation of an old Welsh chronicle. It is largely consistent with earlier works on British history, like the Historia Britonum (9th-century), the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (8th century), and the De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (6th century). On the other hand, many of its passages seem too outlandish to be true.

One passage, for instance, reports that over a hundred thousand Africans took part in the struggles between the Romano-British and the Anglo-Saxons:

The Saxons, having had experience of his [the British ruler’s] shiftiness, went unto Gormund, King of the Africans, in Ireland, wherein, adventuring thither with a, vast fleet, he had conquered the folk of the country. Thereupon, by the treachery of the Saxons, he sailed across with a hundred and sixty-six thousand Africans into Britain, which in one province the Saxons by perjuring their oath of fealty, and in another the Britons by continually carrying on civil wars amongst themselves, were utterly laying waste.

Entering into covenant, therefore, with the Saxons, Gormund made war upon Careticus, and after many battles betwixt them, drove him fleeing from city unto city until he forced him into Cirencester and did there beleaguer him.

[…] When Gormund at last had taken and burnt the said city, he did battle with Careticus and drove him fleeing beyond the Severn into Wales. Then he desolated the fields, set fire to all the neighbouring cities, nor did he stint his fury until he had burnt up well-nigh the whole face of the country from sea to sea; in such sort that all the colonies were battered to the ground by rams, and all they that dwelt therein along with the priests of the churches delivered up to the flashing of their swords or the crackling of the flames.

[… after] the tyrant of evil omen had laid waste, as hath been said, well-nigh the whole island with his countless thousands of Africans, the more part thereof which was called Loegria did he make over unto the Saxons through whose treachery he had come into the land. The remnant of the Britons did therefore withdraw them into the western parts of the kingdom, Cornwall, to wit, and Wales […]

Historia Regum Britanniae 11:8-10

If we exclude the African subplot, this story is consistent with other historical accounts, i.e., the Romano-British state fell because of internal dissensions and because the Anglo-Saxons had renewed their war of conquest after a half-century of vassalage.

But did these warring factions recruit soldiers from an African state in Ireland? No such state is described in any other account. On the other hand, the chronicler may have confused Hibernia (Ireland) with Eboracum (York)—the old garrison town where many African legionnaires had once been stationed. The two place names are especially similar if we remember that Eboracum would have been shortened to Ebora in late Latin.

Initially, these Africans may have hired themselves out to opposing Romano-British factions. Then, with the renewal of the Anglo-Saxon invasion, it is possible that many of them defected to that side, having seen which way the wind was turning. Perhaps this mass defection was decisive. Or perhaps the Welsh chronicler needed a scapegoat.

Anyhow, there is no doubt about the final outcome: the Romano-British state collapsed under conditions probably as dramatic as those described above. And it is certainly plausible that some soldiers switched sides. These were chaotic times when people had to live by their wits. In this, the Afro-British were probably no worse than others.

Did their community last into Anglo-Saxon times? This is doubtful. Even without the carnage of war, their numbers would have steadily declined, partly because of the below-replacement fertility that prevailed throughout the Roman Empire and partly because of the 6th-century plagues that carried off one in three people. There was also assimilation: beyond a certain point, successive intermarriage would have led to many individuals passing into the broader Romano-British society.

And, of course, there was the carnage of war. As soldiers, the Afro-British would have suffered many casualties. As civilians, they would have been caught up in the widespread destruction of the late 500s.

If this community did survive into Anglo-Saxon times, there would surely have been some mention by the
Venerable Bede [672-735], a prolific Christian writer who lived in Northumbria and often visited York. Yet he made no reference to them.

Or maybe he did. In his commentary on the book of Genesis, he comes down hard on Nimrod, who is often identified by Christian and Jewish commentators as a black African (because his father was Cush):

Genesis 10:8-9a Now Cush begot Nimrod. He began to be mighty on the earth, and he was a stout hunter before the Lord.
While the descendants of Shem and of Japheth remained in the innocence of a life of honesty, there arose from the cursed offspring of Ham one who corrupted the condition of the human way of life by a new kind of living. So long as he was puffed up by his remarkable power, he at first lived by hunting; then, having gathered an army, he strove to exert an unaccustomed tyranny upon the peoples. […]

10:9b From this came a proverb: Like Nimrod a stout hunter before the Lord.
It was turned into a proverb because unaccustomed deeds were done in his times. And the additional phrase, before the Lord, is for the sake of magnifying the outrage, namely that it was totally rash and arrogant that a man should dare to live in such a way on earth ‘before the Lord’.

But then why didn’t Bede mention these Afro-British in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum)? Perhaps there was a reason for not mentioning them. He had sent an earlier draft to Ceolwulf, king of Northumbria, and asked for the king’s approval. If there had been an alliance between the Anglo-Saxons and Eboracum, Ceolwulf’s family would have been directly involved...

We will never know the full story. (It’s not for nothing that this period is called the Dark Ages). It’s likely that when Roman rule ended c. 400, power fell into the hands of a number of regional entities, including one centered on Eboracum. These entities gradually consolidated to fight the Anglo-Saxon invasion, eventually becoming a single kingdom under a charismatic leader, the semi-mythical “King Arthur.” This leader reduced the Anglo-Saxons to vassalage c. 500, thus bringing about a half-century of peace. Then, after his death c. 550, the Romano-British kingdom split up into warring factions. The Anglo-Saxons seized the opportunity and allied themselves with one or more of the losing factions, including the Afro-British warlords based at Eboracum.

It was an alliance that the Anglo-Saxons lived to regret, apparently because of “unaccustomed deeds.” Perhaps the African soldiers plundered not only Romano-British civilians but also those Anglo-Saxons who had remained in vassalage. Who knows? All we really know, based on archeological evidence, is that Eboracum became uninhabited at some point in the late 500s. And so ends a strange story.


Geoffrey of Monmouth. (1904) Histories of the Kings of Britain (Historia Regum Britanniae), transl. by Sebastian Evans

Venerable Bede. (2008). On Genesis, transl. by C.B. Kendall, Liverpool University Press.


ben10 said...

Could the nubian tradition of long range archery have passed to the famous bristish 'long bow'?

Stephen said...

"the famous English longbow" is an ancient pattern found in Otzis the Iceman's bow.

Insightful said...

the Bow and Arrow technology is one of the earliest technologies to sweep the world. It is found among Khoisan Bushmen, Andaman islanders, American Indians, etc. and may ave come with the original humans out of Africa. Sixty thousand year old stone points which might be identified as arrowheads have been found in Africa.

Tod said...

The Northern British climate would play havoc with the composite bows that Romans used because they were glued together. The English used a non-composite (ie 'self bow') bow for that reason.

The famous English longbow is not just a yew self bow. Ötzi the Iceman was making his own bow when he died. I doubt DIY bows of his era were really like the English ones.

Early modern humans in Europe did not even use throwing spears let alone bows.

Stephen said...

The rural population of Britain was never fully romanised there remained a lot of villages that continued pre-Roman patterns. As such they probably out reproduced the romanised and multicultural urban populations. The post Roman period shows allot of evidence for resurgent tribalism, the reoccupation of pre-roman hill forts the abandonment of Roman sights the deliberate destruction of villas. Some people even started wearing torks again.

Such an alien people would not be able to fit in with such tribalism and likely wiped out.

Without the support of Roman logistics, industry and reinforcements the descendents of Roman legionaries and auxiliaries would have no advantage over any one else with a spear.

To try to place the mythic king Arthur somewhere after or during the Roman withdrawal but there is really no more evidence for that than a pre-roman Arthur after all it is the last name of Caracactus. Arthur was just a minor welsh legend until it became viral amongst the 11th and 12th century Normans.

Rocha said...

It's common in ancient and medieval sources to overextimate forces. So it's not surprizing when we read about such numbers of africans, the truth is that the number was way fewer.

Tod said...

"Such an alien people would not be able to fit in with such tribalism"

I accept that they would be danger, but that would tend to make then coalescence into a cohesive fighting community based inside the fortifications (which would be formidable while they were manned). Raiding bands of warriors would have avoided an attack on such a hard target.

Some Roman weapons and tactics would not require all that much infrastructure and could have persisted far longer than other aspects of Roman culture if they gave an advantage in war.

Peter Frost said...


As I understand it, the earlier forms of the bow required a) considerable human strength and b) visual acuity. These were qualities that the Nubians were said to excel at. I don't know whether this is an HBD issue, but the ancient literature repeatedly refers to the Nubians as being the best archers.


"The rural population of Britain was never fully romanised there remained a lot of villages that continued pre-Roman patterns."

There is no evidence of the indigenous Celtic language surviving in Roman Britain, except in the west (Wales and Cornwall). This is unusual, since we do see evidence of language survival in Roman Gaul. Why? And even in Gaul, we find much evidence of rural depopulation, suggesting that people were internalizing Roman cultural norms (small families, postponement of marriage, high incidence of never-married individuals, social atomization, etc.).

It's not for nothing that the eastern and southern portion of Roman Britain was named the 'Civil Zone'. It was the region where the population had become Romanized, at least in the judgment of the Romans themselves.


You're right. A 'hundred thousand' just means a lot of people in antiquity.


After the legions left, the Romano-British depended largely on mercenaries to defend themselves, many of whom were former barbarians. This was part of their undoing.

Tod said...

" Romano-British depended largely on mercenaries to defend themselves"

That suggests they had a functioning society which was generating a surplus because mercenaries have to be paid. Up until WW1 most deaths of soldiers during war were from disease.

War, famine, plague and death are a causual sequence but would the Romana - Brits have died out quickly enough for them to be outnumbered. That they could hire mercenaries would indicate a fuctioning infrastructure which would tend support reproduction. Romano-British reproduction would still be in a society with all the advantages for survival from disease that offers. Young men not part of a family group are far more likely to die from disease (going by data from immigrants to the US ). So the mercenaries could have been dying off as fast as they could sign up and during wars with attendant plagues much faster.

I think the impact of disease may have been the main factor given that infections spread more easily in urban areas.

Stephen said...

There are no Celtic inscriptions in Whales either they are all in Latin. In fact the Latin inscriptions found in Whales are often said to be written in especially pure Latin because it did not come into common usage and stayed a scholarly language. On the contrary it is argued that the barbarized Latin found in Gaul is evidence of it becoming commonly spoken.

In eastern Britain the pre Roman tribes were Belgic and as such probably spoke a Germanic language. Probably the predecessor of old English as Old English has allot more in common with other languages found in Belgic areas such as Flemish and Frisian than with the supposed Anglo Saxon origins in Saxony and Denmark.

Peter Frost said...


Mercenaries are expensive, but the payment for their services does not necessarily take the form of wages. Even during Roman times, the 'compensation package' included non-monetary items:

- land grants for veterans.
- sinecures for higher-ranking soldiers
- a right to a share of any plunder.

The Romano-British had limited funds and probably relied heavily on non-monetary forms of payment.


Perhaps. There is no doubt, however, that Latin was commonly used in the Civil Zone of Roman Britain.

The general opinion is that the Belgae spoke a Celtic language, see the Wikipedia article for a discussion of this point.

Dahinda said...

Are all Africans Nubians? Africans could come from the Roman province of Africa which included Carthage and was not Nubian but more European.

Peter Frost said...


Please see the previous posts. The cemeteries of Roman York have yielded large numbers of human remains from both North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. There are also written sources that indicate the presence of sub-Saharan Africans ('Ethiopians') in the Roman army, including the legions stationed in Britain.

Stephen said...

"The general opinion is that the Belgae spoke a Celtic language, see the Wikipedia article for a discussion of this point."

A lot of generally accepted history is based on no evidence and the groundless musings of a 19th century historian. Here is an alternate view:

"Perhaps. There is no doubt, however, that Latin was commonly used in the Civil Zone of Roman Britain."

"No doubt" is not often heard when discussing such ancient times. There are more Latin inscriptions from whales than the "civil zone". Villas are the minority of sites most rural sites in the period are still native style villages, this shows much more continuity and less romanisation than in places like Gaul.

Anonymous said...

The sub (post)-roman britons used a great deal of latin on the burial stones (monuments) which dot the countryside; although the script and grammar might vary. See Alcock et alii; you may make your own conclusions, but many subroman leaders assumed a latinized title/name or were referenced with british and latin eponyms. The literate were writing in Latin(albeit a liturgical latin.) It would seem to fit the need for a 'lingua franca' in the early post roman melange.
Rial Obran filius Cunovali

Anonymous said...

So the negro Hebrew ruled the dark ages of Europe for 1000 years that's revelation20:6 so this must mean so called slave names of black Americans really belongs to them if most of txhere Surnames come from the anglo saxson