By 400 CE, Britain had been part of the Roman empire for almost four centuries – four centuries that had slowly transformed the isolated island. A system of solid roads now criss-crossed the land, linking large towns and allowing trade to flow. The landscape had been tamed, with ancient forests retreating further under the plough and axe, and Britain became a farming island, growing and exporting grain abroad. The people, once living in tribes for defence against each other, had come to expect peace, order and prosperity, although they may still have identified strongly with their tribal roots.
It had been a long era of wealth and protection under the Pax Romana – the peace of Rome.
But the Roman state was also very different by 400 from the one which Julius Caesar himself had served when Romans first set foot on Britannia. The many gods of the old religions – Jupiter, Mars and Juno among them – were giving way to a new single God, one whose ‘son on Earth’ Jesus had died at the hands of Romans in Palestine. Christianity was now the official religion of Rome.
The Empire was also rocked by internal struggles as rivals frequently laid claim to the title of Emperor. Britain itself had raised one such rebel emperor in Magnus Maximus in the 380s and the island played a role in many rebellions over the decades that followed.
Beyond Britain, civil war was common as factions tussled for control of the Empire. As a result, Rome was less and less able to defend its borders from the ‘barbarians’ who surrounded its frontiers. Provinces at the edge of the Empire were slowly stripped of their legions, recalled to defend Italy from invasion, or to support an emperor against his enemies. Hungry for land and wealth and probing for weaknesses, these peoples from beyond the Empire began to threaten the stable lives of those within it. Those with the most – land, property and wealth – had the most to fear.
Not much evidence of what happened at the end of Roman Britain survives. The centuries before had seen a long, slow decline in the island’s fortunes and the steady building of walls and forts for defence. What is clear is that by 410 CE, the island had slipped permanently from the control of any foreign emperor.
Perhaps the most interesting clues about these chaotic years are the hoards of gold, silver and jewels which have been found buried across the east of the country in modern times. They represent enormous wealth and their original owners must have been some of the most powerful families in Britain.
The hoards also hint at stories of terror, flight and death as, for one reason or another, the people who hid them in the ground were never able to return to dig them up. This is one of them.