British Appeal to Agitius

The British appeal to Agitius occurs at §20 in the part called Independent Britain in The Ruin of Britain by Gildas (trans. Michael Winterbottom). Traditionally, Independent Britain ranged from the death of Maximus to the third consulship of Aëtius with a possible nine year variance ending at the year that Aëtius was murdered (388-446/454). This time period is strictly based on the assumption that Agitius is Aëtius.

Various writers have debated over the Roman named Agitius, though. In Professor Christopher Snyder’s book, An Age of Tyrants, he tells of the discrepancy in the identity of Agitius, stating that it could be Aëtius or even Aegidius. In the notes section of The Ruin of Britain, Dr. John Morris states that Gildas misplaced the appeal within his own narrative. Professor David Dumville has discussed the issue, also. The corruption within Gildas’ text and/or the major inconsistency between the sources seems well-documented. In the section called Independent Britain, the British enemies were the Scots and the Picts. Both brought war upon the British in §14 and §19. They appeared to be the reason for the appeal to Agitius in §20. Finally in §21, the Irish pirates and the Picts returned to their homelands. During this time of truce, the British slipped further into moral decay. Nowhere in Independent Britain did Gildas portray the Saxons as a major problem for the British. In fact, Gildas does not mention the Saxons at all in Independent Britain. Though the Gallic Chronicle of 452 (trans. Alexander Callander Murray, From Roman to Merovingian Gaul) makes note of a Saxon attack in 408, Olympiodorus of Thebes ( trans. C. D. Gordon, The Age of Attila) writes that the British discontent with Rome stemmed from Stilicho removing the garrisons that defended the British from the Picts.

The Gallic Chronicle of 452 states that the Saxons subjugated the British provinces after the British had endured a variety of disasters and misfortunes. It was listed as occurring in 441 or 442. Considering this along with the details regarding the traditional time span for Independent Britain, the apparent problem between the sources can be underscored. With the Saxons subjugating the British, at least, four years before the third consulship of Aëtius, it puts the Gallic chronology at odds with the chronology implied by Gildas’ writing. This conclusion is made with the assumption that the British would have appealed for help before they were completely subjugated. Based on this, Gildas could not have seen or copied any appeal specifically mentioning the words, tri-consul, if the chronology of his narrative correlates with the Gallic Chronicle of 452.

It seems more likely that Gildas would have identified the wrong man instead of misplacing a major event within his own narrative. This seems to imply that Gildas relied upon an oral source for the appeal to Agitius or personally added the tri-consul gloss to the letter he copied. Either scenario makes the imperial title appear as a corruption within the text if the general chronologies of the sources do not contradict each other or themselves.

In light of these details, the third consulship of Aëtius has not been used to date the events within the writings of Gildas. Still, it is essential to date the events of The Ruin of Britain so it can be used with other available sources. Orosius, Prosper of Aquitaine and the Gallic Chronicle of 452 document the execution of Maximus as occurring in 388 (trans. Alexander Callander Murray, From Roman to Merovingian Gaul). Gildas mentions this happening in §13 at the end of the section entitled Roman Britain. Professor David Dumville establishes this as his starting point in his work, “The Chronology of De Excidio Britanniae, Book I” (Studies in Celtic History V – Gildas: New Approaches). The event serves well as a starting point for dating this part of Gildas’ narrative.

The beginning of Independent Britain at §14 seems to rehash the events that ended in §13. With this assumption, the tyrant is identified as Magnus Maximus and not as one of the three British usurpers that rose briefly to power in the beginning of the fifth century. In §18 and §19, the Romans told the British to defend themselves and gave little prospect of returning. This is interpreted as the Rescript of Honorius noted by Zosimus (trans. Green and Chaplin, New History).

When the Romans left at the beginning of §19, the Scots and Picts wreaked havoc upon the British. The citizens abandoned the towns and the Wall in §19.3 as if to avoid the grips of cannibalism that seized the cities of Spain (Hydatius/Olympiodorus). Echoing the words of Hydatius, the Gallic Chronicle of 452 tells of an enormous famine in Gaul between the years of 411 to 416. Gildas states that disasters abroad increased internal disorder on the island at the end of §19. With the British, also, suffering from food shortages, the famine ran from the Mediterranean to the western shores of the North Sea. This seems like a famine that would still be talked about in Gildas’ day.

All the while, the British suffered from attacking barbarians. The British sent out a second appeal. This time it went to Agitius. Gildas mentions the event in the first sentence of §20. Effort should be made to not date this event, at this point. If taken literally, this event had to occur no earlier than 446 based on the year that Aëtius achieved his third consulship. Instead of decades elapsing as traditionally accepted, the dreadful and notorious famine still raged on as noted in §20.2. These events happened within the section entitled Independent Britain and there is no indication that any of these events went past 416 if Agitius is not considered to be Aëtius.

Though still nagged by a spelling discrepancy, during this narrow time period, there was a man of some stature in Gaul with a similar name to Agitius. Agroetius was the Head of Chancery for the usurper, Jovinus, according to Lewis Thorpe’s translation of Frigeridus in The History of the Franks.

The second paragraph in fragment 26 of Olympiodorus tells of Roman rule returning to much of Gaul and possibly Britain. It further states that the imperial control remained until the death of Emperor Honorius. Based on this fragment from the Theban historian, this peace would have lasted until 423. Though maybe the conjecture of C. D. Gordon being interjected into the words of the ancient writer, the fragment still notes a small window of time where there was no warring mentioned. This lack of fighting could give the illusion that Roman authority had returned to the island. In §21 of Gildas’ writings, there is a period of a truce between the British, the Irish pirates and the Picts. Still the British’s every action plagued their salvation.

After §21, a plague swooped brutally upon the British people. This plague fell within the section called The Coming of the Saxons in §22.2. An independent reference to this plague can be inferred from Constantius of Lyons in section VIII of the Life of St. Germanus, Bishop of Auxerre (trans. F. R. Hoare, The Western Fathers). Gildas states that the plague laid low so many in such a short period of time that the living could not bury all of the dead. Constantius writes that the illness first struck the children and then the elders, bringing death in about three days.

The plague in section VIII occurred sometime before 429. This year is established by the ability to date section XII in Constantius’ writings. Constantius tells of Bishop Germanus traveling to Britain to combat the Pelagian heresy. Prosper of Aquitaine dates this event to 429.

Though there is no known contemporary writers before Gildas that tell of the coming of the Saxons like he does at §23.3, later sources document the event. Nennius (trans. John Morris, British History and The Welsh Annals) and Geoffrey of Monmouth (trans. Lewis Thorpe, The History of the Kings of Britain) describe the event. Nennius gives 428 as the year that the English came to Britain.

In §23.5, the Saxons revolted after being hired to beat back the people of the north in §23.2. Constantius notes that the Saxons and the Picts made war on the British in section XVII while Germanus preached against the Pelagian heresy [on the east side of Britain] in 429. In §24, Gildas elaborates the destruction caused by the Saxons.

In §25.2, the cruel plunderers went home. Described more as raiders than conquerors, it seems inappropriate to assign this to the last British event in the Gallic Chronicle of 452. The famous mentioning of Ambrosius Aurelianus by Gildas appears in §25.3. All dates provided by Nennius that involve this Roman gentleman take place before 441. Upon the removal of the tri-consul reference, the dates provided by Nennius no longer conflict with the British appeal to Agitius.

In §26, Gildas states that the British and barbarians battled back and forth; both sides scored victories. This lasted right up till the siege of Badon Hill.

With a liberal view, §23.5 through §26 dates from 429 to the 470’s. The revolt of the Saxons erupted in 429. If Germanus’ Alleluia victory was one of the four battles of Vortimer against the Saxons, it effectively dates some of the events in Geoffrey of Monmouth, possibly leading to the dating of Uther’s first trip to Ireland. A slightly adjusted version of the dates suggested by the Cistercian monk, Alberic, can be inserted here. Geoffrey Ashe mentions these dates in his book, The Discovery of King Arthur.

The last mention of British affairs in the Gallic Chronicle of 452 happens around 441 as previously noted. After enduring a variety of disasters and misfortunes, the British provinces fell under the authority of the Saxons. The Saxons held this control or maintained an upper-hand against the British to, at least, 452. Otherwise, it seems likely that the Gallic Chronicle would have used different wording in the 441/442 entry or would have noted the power shift that seems to occur later between the two sides.

In Charles C. Mierow’s translation, Jordanes indicates that the British had become a force of reckoning in section XLV of The Origin and Deeds of the Goths. The Gothic writer notes that the Roman Emperor, Anthemius, requested military aid from the British king, Riotimus. The year that Anthemius rose up as the Emperor of the West is deduced from Hydatius (trans. Alexander Callander Murray, From Roman to Merovingian Gaul). The British return to power would have been recognized by the year 467 but most likely would have occurred earlier than that.

So, by dropping any concern for the third consulship of Aëtius, the sources can be synchronized into a more concise chronology. The variance in the time of the Agitius’ appeal shrinks by two-thirds from nine years to three years. The events of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles and the work of Bede can be linked to the other sources, but some of the dates are null and void. These works color in the elements of the enemy of the British Romans.

Ambrosius Aureliani falls within the time period of Independent Britain and The Victory at Badon Hill.