The Groan of the Britons, the plea for help to Rome that never came

Those who enjoyed watching gladiator, have a special memory of the opening scene that opens the film: the battle between the legions commanded by Máximo and the barbarian tribes that oppose them. At one point, these fierce enemies sing an overwhelming war song that, thanks to the magic of cinema, has a trick: it is actually a sound track taken from Zulu, a film that director Ridley Scott likes a lot. The Zulu chants hit the German mouth perfectly, adding to its impressive appearance. Of course, nothing to do with what some classical sources say about the so-called Groans of Britonsthat is, the Groans of the Britons.

Obviously, the Britons were barbarians in Roman eyes but not Germans. They inhabited the south of Albion, present-day Great Britain, being of Celtic culture and Brittonic language (one of the Celtic linguistic groups together with the Goidelic of Scotti and Gaelic). They could not prevent the invasion of Rome, which Julius Caesar carried out twice, in the years 55 and 54 BC, the first probably as recognition and the second to replace his ally Mandubracio on the throne. Later, Augusto planned three other campaigns of conquest that did not materialize because he needed the troops in other places or by agreement with the natives. Caligula also had everything ready but in the end he put his soldiers to collect shells and it was Claudius who finally occupied the islands in the year 43 AD

The British leaders Togodumnos and Carataco resisted although in the end the Roman war machine prevailed. From then on, a stage of settlement, pacification and expansion began that was occasionally broken by sporadic rebellions, of which the most famous was the one carried out by Queen Boudica between the years 60 and 61. However, the Romans arrived in Caledonia, present-day Scotland , where they built Hadrian’s Wall as a border because the cost of maintaining control in that region outweighed the benefits.

Section of Hadrian’s Wall as it passes through Milecastle/Photo: Adam Cuerden on Wikimedia Commons

Of course, that limes it was relatively effective while the legions took care of its custody. But when the Western Roman Empire began to crumble it took with it all of its political and military work, all the resources of war being necessary to protect the limits of Rome itself. In this context, Picts and Scotti, the peoples who inhabited the highlands to the north of the wall, found the opportunity to jump over it and fall on the south. The former were descendants of the Caledonians while the latter originally came from Ireland; both were considered very warlike and used to make rapid raids which, unopposed, spread terror among the Britons.

Later they were joined by the mysterious attacotti and to this we had to add the raids that the German Saxons and the Franks began from the continent. The chaos that led to the decline of the power of Rome increased with the bands of indigenous Britons and even deserter legionnaires -there were many-, characterizing the panorama from the fourth century. The Emperor Valentinian appointed You eat Britanniarum (something like Count of Britannia) to Flavio Theodosius, general and father of the future emperor of the same name -who accompanied him in this episode-, to solve what had been called the Great Conspiracy (because all those enemies seemed to have agreed and in some cases it was).

Flavio Theodosius took with him German troops made up of Batavians, Herules, Jovios and Victors. He landed in Britain in 368 and astutely offered an amnesty to all deserting legionaries which, when accepted en masse, allowed him to rebuild the depleted garrisons. He then relentlessly advanced towards Hadrian’s Wall pushing the invaders to the other side, then reestablishing Roman order, also creating the new province of Valentia as a buffer. He ordered many mutineers to be executed but others he incorporated into his army, in the case of the attacottiusing them in subsequent continental campaigns.

The tranquility lasted for a little less than a century, after which the evils returned to reproduce. It was because Constantine III, increasingly in need of troops, withdrew his army from the archipelago in the year 407 and with it his administration, leaving the Britons abandoned to their fate. In 451 the ears of Rome reached what was baptized as gemitus britannorumthe Groan of the Britons, a dramatic plea for help made by rulers south of the limes to face that danger. According to the account of the British cleric Gildas in his work De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the ruin and conquest of Britain), written in the second quarter of the 6th century and which constitutes a testimony of the apocalyptic situation that the country was experiencing, the recipient of the message was General Flavio Aecio.

Aetius, veteran of the Battle of the Catalaunic Fields and one of the last remaining supports of the tottering empire to the point of earning the nickname the last roman, was emerging as the most appropriate to redirect things. Having rejected Attila’s unstoppable Huns was an unbeatable endorsement, of course; even if it was thanks to a great coalition, achieving it also had its merits. In reality, we do not know if Aecio was really the recipient of the SOS, and we also do not know his answer if there was one, since Gildas’s text does not mention his name exactly, but that of Agitius, and the sources later do not clarify much either because they take his work as a base, such as the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical history of the people of the Angles) by Bede the VenerableBenedictine monk who lived in the following century.

So this Agitius is identified with Aetius, dating the period between the year 446, when he received his third consulate, and 454, when he began his fourth. However, there are authors who believe that Gildas was referring rather to Egidio, another soldier who had distinguished himself in Gaul by facing the Visigoths and reigning de facto in the north of that province by refusing to recognize the legitimacy of the Libyan Emperor Severus. The problem with this interpretation is that Egidio was never consul. Now, did things really get that serious?

Some historians say no, that the archaeological record does not indicate it and that Gildas used a hyperbolic tone in his narration. He was a chronicler of higher culture, educated by teachers and not in a monastery, who used a difficult Latin and who, above all, despite being a native of Britain, was deeply Romanized. At that time Rome, although decadent, was still the beacon of the world and of Christianity. His absence means chaos by definition and it is likely that he magnified the news of some troubled periods that would have reached him by word of mouth.

Britain between the end of the 4th century and the beginning of the 5th, when the Romans left/Image: Wikimedia Commons

In De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae the Britons are portrayed as too impious and disunited to fend off the Picts and Scotti threat. They only got any success when they put themselves in the hands of God but they were specific moments and the matter was only channeled when King Vortigern hired Angles, Saxons and Jutes as mercenaries, Germanic peoples from Anglia, Saxony and Jutland respectively.

What happens is that the newcomers, once the job was done, decided to stay and create their own kingdoms there, making Vortigern look like the fool who had opened the door for them and being ousted by his own people.

However, Anglo-Saxons had been recruited before, after the march of the legions in the first decade of the fifth century; They had even given rise to some Germanic communities on British soil, as archeology shows. Be that as it may, that wave with its consequent emancipation, which it is not clear if it was imposed or mixed with the native British substratum, laid the foundations of what would become the seventh century English medieval Heptarchy, formed by the four main kingdoms (Wessex , Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria) and three minor ones (Sussex, Kent and Essex). From their fusion, seasoned by the Viking contribution, the already unified England of the 10th century emerged.

And all for a moan.


De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (Gildas)/Ecclesiastical history of the people of the Angles (The Venerable Bede)/Defending the island. From Caesar to the Armada (Norman Longmate)/How the barbarian invasions shaped the modern world (Thomas J. Craughwell)/The ending of Roman Britain (AS Esmonde-Cleary)/Wikipedia

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