Even though Geoffrey of Monmouth and Sir Thomas Malory have the Roman Empire in full existence during the traditional Arthurian period, history tells us that, in the West, the Roman Empire ceased to exist in AD 476, though the Eastern or Byzantine Empire lasted for nearly 1,000 years longer.
Sir Thomas Malory states that Arthur defeated the Emperor Lucius Hiberius and was crowned Emperor of Rome by the Pope. Claris et Laris also supports the idea of the Roman Empire existing during Arthur’s time, stating that the Emperor Thereus invaded Britain but was defeated.
The Western Roman Empire
During the period from 400-600 AD, the Western Roman Empire experienced a significant decline and ultimately fell in 476 AD. The era was marked by internal strife, external invasions, and the loss of territories. The fifth century saw a series of weak and short-lived emperors in the Western Roman Empire. Political instability and corruption within the imperial administration weakened the central authority.
The Western Roman Empire faced relentless invasions by various barbarian groups, including the Visigoths, Vandals, Huns, and Ostrogoths. These invasions caused widespread destruction, economic distruption, and further weakened the Roman military.
In 410 AD, the Visigoths, led by Alaric, sacked Rome, marking the first time the city had been captured by an enemy in over eight centuries. The sack of Rome shocked the Roman world and signaled the vulnerability of the once-mighty empire.
The year 476 AD is traditionally considered the end of the Western Roman Empire. The last Roman emperor of the West, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed by the Germanic chieftain Odoacer, who declared himself ruler of Italy. Although the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine Empire) continued to exist, the politicial entity of the Western Roman Empire ceased to exist.
After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, various Germanic kingdoms and successor states emerged on the former Roman territories in the Western part of the empire. These states adopted Roman customs, administrative practices, and some aspects of Roman law, which contributed to the preservation of Roman cultural heritage in the West. The fall of the Western Roman Empire is often seen as a pivotal moment that marked the end of antiquity and the beginning of the Middle Ages in Europe. The period following the fall of the empire was characterized by a decentralization of power and the rise of feudalism.
In the early 6th century, the Ostrogothic king Theodoric the Great established the Ostrogothic Kingdom in Italy. His reign was characterized by relative stability and a policy of maintaining Roman institutions. In the 6th century, the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian I launched campaigns to reclaim parts of the Western Roman territories, including North Africa and Italy. This led to the temporary reconquest of some of these regions, such as the Vandal Kingdom in North Africa and parts of Italy.
Roman invasion of Britain
The Roman invasion of Britain was a significant event in ancient history, and their presence in the British Isles had a lasting impact on the region. The Roman conquest of Britain began in 43 AD during the reign of the Roman Emperor Claudius. The invasion was launched by Aulus Plautius, a Roman general, who led a large Roman force to conquer the island.
The initial phase of the invasion focused on the southern and southeastern parts of Britain. The Romans faced resistance from various Celtic tribes, most notably the Catuvellauni led by Caratacus (Caradog in Welsh) and the Trinovantes. Despite initial resistance, the Romans established a series of forts and settlements to secure their hold on the conquered territories. Major cities, such as Londinium (modern-day London), became crucial centers for Roman administration, trade, and culture.
In 60 or 61 AD, the Iceni tribe, led by Queen Boudica, rebelled against Roman rule. Boudica’s forces managed to destroy several Roman settlements, including Londinium and Verulamium (modern-day St. Albans). However, the rebellion was eventually quashed by Roman legions, and Boudica’s fate remains unclear.
In the early second century AD, the Roman Emperor Hadrian ordered the construction of Hadrian’s Wall in the north of Britain. This defensive fortification stretched from the east to the west coast, marking the northernmost boundary of the Roman Empire in Britain. The wall served as a defensive barrier against potential invasions from the northern tribes.
Around 142 AD, the Romans pushed further north and constructed the Antonine Wall, located farther north than Hadrian’s Wall. However, the Antonine Wall was abandoned around 160 AD, and the Romans retreated to Hadrian’s Wall.
Over time, Roman influence began to permeate British society, and the process of Romanization took place. This involved the spread of Roman culture, customs, language, and technology, as well as intermarriage between Romans and native Britons.
By the late first century AD, the Romans had established Britannia as a province of the Roman Empire. Roman administration and governance were firmly established, and the region became an integral part of the empire.
Roman withdrawal from Britain
The end of Roman rule in Britain was a gradual process that occured over several decades, rather than a single event. It was a complex period characterized by political, military, and social changes, leading to the eventual withdrawal of Roman authority and the emergence of independent Anglo-Saxon and Celtic territories.
In the late third and early fourth centuries AD, the Roman Empire faced increasing pressure from barbarian invasions along its frontiers, including in Britain. As a result, Roman legions that were stationed in Britain were increasingly needed to defend other parts of the empire.
By the early fifth century AD, the Roman legions began to be withdrawn from Britain to support defense efforts elsewhere. The departure of Roman military forces weakened the Roman hold on the region, leaving it vulnerable to external threats.
The Roman withdrawal from Britain also led to economic decline as trade connections with the rest of the Roman Empire diminished. The loss of Roman infrastructure, such as roads and markets, further impacted the economy of the region. With the Roman legions gone, political cohesion in Britain weakened. Local Romanized elites and military leaders vied for power, and regional control became decentralized. This fragmentation made it challenging to mount a unified defense against external threats.
With the departure of Roman troops, Britain became susceptible to attacks from various outside groups, including Picts and Scots from the north and Anglo-Saxon raiders from across the North Sea. These incursions put additional strain on the region’s ability to defend itself.
In 410 AD, according to a letter from a Romano-British leader named Gildas, the British inhabitants of Britain wrote to the Roman consul Aëtius, asking for military aid to repel the invaders. The response is said to have been the famous letter known as the “Groans of the Britons,” in which Aëtius declined the request, citing his own struggles against the Huns.
As Roman control weakened, various Germanic tribes, notably the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, began settling in Britain, particularly in the eastern and southeastern regions. These settlers established independent Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, marking the beginning of the period known as the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy.
In some part of Britain, Celtic resistance continued against the Anglo-Saxon invaders. Celtic leaders like Vortigern and Ambrosius Aurelianus are mentioned in historical sources as figures who resisted the Anglo-Saxon encroachment.
Following the Roman withdrawal, Britain entered a period known as the Dark Ages, during which various Germanic and Celtic groups vied for control, leading to the emergence of early medieval kingdoms and eventually the establishment of Anglo-Saxon and Celtic territories.
The exact details of the end of Roman rule in Britain are not entirely clear, as historical sources from this period are limited and often subject to interpretation.