Far-sighted Romans, Short-sighted Britons


In the second and third centuries, Roman Empire trade with Britannia was increasingly ravaged by seaborne pirates the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, all of whom would eventually settle in Britain. At that time, Rome still ruled the waves, controlling the trade routes through the Normandy-Kent corridor; however, shipments were interrupted or diverted, deliveries missed, cargo sunk by these same pirates. All this, combined with the increasing resistance to Roman rule on the Continent, convinced the Empire of the need to build forts to defend its Britannia property. Thus were born the Saxon Shore forts.

Courtesy Athena Review They were nine in all, and they stretched north along the southeastern seacoast. The westernmost fort was at Portus Adurni, which is today Portchester. The northernmost fort was Branodunum, on the northern Norfolk coast. In between were Garaiannum and Othona (above the Thames) and Regulbium, Rutupiae, Dubris, Lemannis, and Anderitum (below the Thames). Armed to the teeth with catapults and ballistas and other heavy equipment, these forts were organized by the Count of the Saxon Shore, one of history’s famous “shadowy figures,” about which we know very little, and were models of Roman efficiency and planning.

These forts were successful, for the most part, in keeping Saxons and Angles and Jutes at bay, although one could convincingly argue that the Roman navy had a say in this as well. (One could argue that Roman military mystique played a hand here as well.)

However, the Romans left without much more than a by-your-leave in 410, a mere pittance of years after these forts were constructed and implemented. Naturally, the Romans took their navy with them. What was left to the Britons, then, was a ring of forts that should have done the trick. And they did, for a time. But as these things go, pressure from the north forced the Romano-British to spread their defenses, having to leave some of the Saxon shore unprotected. Then, as has been examined in previous essays, the Britons actually invited the Saxons to eat at their tables, fight by their side, and live on their land. By being in the right place at the right time, the Saxons accomplished more with less than they had in the two or three centuries previous. The Romans were gone for good, and the Saxons were in Britannia to stay.

Now, the Romans, it can be argued, were looking into the future when they built the Saxon Shore forts. The Count, be he one person or several persons, historical or fictitious, had the right idea. The forts were relatively close together and allowed defenders to coalesce into naturally defensive positions in order to harass and turn back attacking armies. The Romans picked the right spots to defend, too, by observing shipping patterns and maximizing the defensive perimeter. The Romans determined that such defensive maneuvers would send a message to pirates: This is our land and our trade; interfere with it at your peril.

The Romans also had a tough time subduing marauders in the north. Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall were meant to keep Picts and Scots in the wilds of the north. Rome had the manpower to man both walls, all nine forts, and countless points in between. The Britons did not. When the Romans left, the Britons tried to defend more with less. The result was chaos. Picts and Scots streamed over the walls, in search of the wealth of Britain. The Britons, strapped for bodies to fight in the army, saw the Saxons as a logical choice to fill the void. Trouble was, the decision to invite the Saxons in was a short-sighted one.

The Britons did not follow the Romans’ far-sighted lead. It was a difficult choice, yes, and one that had to be made. And yet, one can’t help wondering whether peace could have been concluded with Picts and Scots and a united front presented against the real threat–the Saxons.