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Athena Review  Vol.I, no.2


Late Roman and Dark Age Historians of Britain  


 The transition from ancient to medieval times viewed over six centuries, from Ammianus to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles.

Ammianus Marcellinus (AD 330-395)

 Gibbon considered Ammianus to be the  most notable Latin historian after Tacitus, and the best contemporary source on the late 4th century Empire. Though he was a Syrian Greek, Ammianus wrote in Latin. His major work, written in AD 390, is Commentaries on the Remaining Conducted Affairs (Rerum gestari libri qui supersunt), of which books 14-31 survive.   Born into a wealthy family at Antioch in about AD 330, Ammianus became a Roman officer at an early age, and traveled through much of the Empire. Describing himself as miles quondam et Graecus ("a soldier and a Greek"), Ammianus brings to his writings both military experience and the comprehensive perspective of the Greek historical tradition which began with Herodotus. In the well-established canons of Roman historical writing, the historian epitomizes periods by selectively relating the major events. As Ammianus believed this method recorded only "incomplete knowledge," his writings stand out among the contemporary writers Eutropius, Festus, and Aurelius Victor. Telling his readers that his quest is to write the whole story, to record ad scientiam proficiet plenam ("with a view toward complete knowledge"), Ammianus describes wars, happenings at court, heroic acts, and the current state of the Roman empire, including growing turbulence along the frontiers.

 The principle focus of his main written work, the Rerum gestarium, is the Persian campaign led by Julian the Apostate in AD 363, of which Ammianus provides an eyewitness account. In his capacity as miles, Ammianus first served in Persia as an officer under Constantinus II's general Urinus, where he witnessed the brutal events of the Persian capture of Amida in 359. He later served under Julian in the campaign that saw the Emperor killed and the army defeated near Nisibis in the summer of 363. Ammianus provides a lengthy, often emotional account of the events in Persia. This includes in-depth sketches of Julian himself, who commanded Britain and Gaul after being named Caesar in AD 355.

 As attested by writings of both Ammianus and Julian (himself a prolific writer and competent historian), Britain was an important source of grain for Gaul. One large grain-producing area may have been Salisbury plain. Ammianus directly mentions ships arriving in war-weary Gaul: "He even constructed granaries in place of those burned, in which could be stored the supply of grain usually brought over from Britain" (Book 18, 2,3; AD 359).

 Julian, in his AD 361 Letter to the Athenians, also mentions the arrival of ships from Britain after his campaiging of AD 358-9 effectively reopened the supply routes between Britain and Gaul:

"Then followed the second and third years of that campaign, and by that time all the barbarians had been driven out of Gaul, most of the towns had been recovered, and a whole fleet of many ships had arrived from Britain. "

 Ammianus spent the years 355-357 in Gaul. Between military accounts, he relates the history, geography, and culture of the Gallic provinces, based on his experiences and the writings of the Greek historian Timagenes. In retelling the story of Gaul, Ammianus includes mythological origins and the early history of the region. In his descriptions of Britain under the rule of Julian, Ammianus writes that unrest in Gaul distracted Julian from taking an active role as commander of Britain. During the winter of AD 360, he briefly sent the commander of the armed forces, Lupicinus, to the island:

 "In Britain during the tenth consulship of Constantius and the third of Julian, invasions by the fierce tribes of the Scots and the Picts, who had broken the peace they had agreed upon, were causing destruction in those areas along the frontiers, and the provinces, worn out by numerous disasters in the past, were caught in the grip of fear. The Caesar Julian, who was wintering at Paris and was preoccupied by various problems, was afraid to go to the assistance of those across the sea, as I have related Constans did, in case he left the Gallic provinces without a ruler at a time when the Alamanni were roused to savagery and war. "(Book XX, 1)

 In AD 367 barbarian tribes mounted a concerted invasion by land and sea, and breached Hadrian's Wall. As Ammianus states, "The Picts and Saxons and Scots [Irish] and Atecotti harassed the Britons with continual afflictions." Theodosius, sent to quell the revolt, rebuilt Hadrian's Wall, and restored peace to Britannia for the next 40 years.

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Eutropius (fl. AD 350-370)

 Flavius Eutropius, a contemporary of Ammianus Marcellinus, and fellow soldier under Julian in the Persian campaign, became the court historian for the emperor Valens (364-378). Little else is known about his life. He should not be confused with his more notorious contemporary, Eutropius the Eunuch, who was a powerful advisor to the Emperor Arcadius and Consul in 399 (prior to being beheaded for high treason).

 While working for Valens, Flavius Eutropius wrote a ten-book compendium of Roman history entitled Historiæ romanæ breviarium (A Concise History of Rome), which provides details of the British campaigns of Caesar, Claudius, Nero, Vespasian and Trajan, as well as later happenings in Gaul. His description of Claudius' conquest of Britain in AD 43 is based partly on Tacitus:

 "He made war upon Britain, which none of the Romans after Julius Caesar had meddled with; and conquering it by Cnaeus Centius and Aulus Plautius, illustrious and noble gentlemen, he had a famous triumph. He added likewise some islands, lying in the ocean beyond Britain, to the Roman Empire, which are called Orcades; and gave the name of Britannicus to his son." (VII, 13)

 In discussing Nero's reign, Eutropius refers to Boudicca's rebellion:

 "He [Nero] attempted no conquest in the military way, and very nearly lost Britain. Under him two very famous towns were there taken and destroyed" [ie., London and St. Albans, or Colchester] (VII, 14)

 Eutropius also provides details on the successful campaign of Vespasian in Britain:

 "[Vespasian] having been sent by Claudius into Germany, and from there into Britain, engaged thirty-two times with the enemy, and added two very potent nations [gentes], twenty towns, and the Isle of Wight [Insulam Vectam], near Britain, to the Roman Empire." (VII, 19)

 Eutropius somewhat mistakenly attributes the construction of the Antonine Wall to Septimius Severus (who did in fact repair the wall):

 "Septimius had his final campaign in Britain, and in order to secure the lines, he had built a palisade stretching 32 miles from sea to sea. "(VIII, 18)

 This inaccuracy was picked up by Orosius in his History, from which it was later copied by Bede in his 8th century Ecclesiastical History (see below). Eutropius was translated into Greek in AD 380 by Paeanius as well as by a certain Capito (whose writings are now lost). Besides Orosius and Bede, Eutropius was used by both St. Jerome and Hincmar of Reims (ca. AD 806-882). More recently, he has been referenced by 18th and 19th century historians including Gibbon and Mommsen.

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Claudian (fl. AD 395-410)

 Claudius Claudianus, a Greek born in Alexandria, is often considered the last great poet of the pagan world. He lived in Rome at the end of the 4th century AD, and is best known for verse written in praise of Honorius and his general Stilicho. One of his poems, On the Consulship of Stilicho, provides our only source for an expedition to Britain mounted by Stilicho in AD 396-8. Frere (1987) believes this is evidence of naval activity against the Irish, Picts, and Saxons. Claudian's colorful style in this poem and another, The Gothic War, also provides rare detail on the appearance of the Picts and Caledonians:

 "There also came the legion set to guard the furthest Britons, the legion that curbs the savage Scot and scans the lifeless patterns tatooed on the dying Picts." (Gothic War, 416-418)

 "Next spoke Britannia, dressed in the skin of some Caledonian beast, her cheeks tatooed, her sea-blue mantle sweeping over her footsteps like the surge of ocean."  (On the Consulship of Stilicho, II)

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Olympiodorus (fl. AD 407-425)

 A Greek historian from Thebes, Olympiodorus had an interest in geography which led him to travel widely. One result is that his History of 22 books is frequently based on personal observations. Very careful about technical terms, he is noted for his "bare-bones" reports stressing facts and chronological accuracy. He was frequently referenced by Zosimus, especially for the period between AD 400-425. On Stilicho, he says:

 "There was no doubt discontent [in Britain], with the rule of the Vandal Stilicho, and with lack of attention his government paid to the defence of Britain against the Picts."  (Fragment 12)

  From the same source, on the usurper Constantine III:

 "Constantine had been proclaimed in the provinces of Britain and brought to power by a revolt of the soldiers. Indeed, in the provinces of Britain before the seventh consulship of Honorius in 407, they had stirred the army there to revolt, and proclaimed a certain Marcus as supreme ruler. (Fragment 12)

 After the short-lived rule of Gratian, killed by his own troops in AD 407, Constantine assumed command:

 "Constantine was then raised to the position of supreme commander. He appointed Justinus and Neovigastes as generals, and leaving ...Britain, crossed with his forces to Bononia [Bologna]... He waited there and, having won over all Gaul and the Aquitanian soldiery, he became master of Gaul as far as the Alps..." (Fragment 12)

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The Notitia Dignitatum (ca. AD 395-430)

 This late Imperial administrative document, known only from an 11th century copy, the Codex Spirensis, is the unique historical source for the  Saxon Shore Forts, a network of coastal defenses built around southeast Britain in the 3rd and 4th centuries AD.

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Paulus Orosius (fl. AD 414-417)

 Orosius, who worked closely with St. Augustine of Hippo at the beginning of the 5th century, is the author of the first world history by a Christian. He was a native of Spain, probably the town of Braga, from which he was forced to flee by the Vandal invasion of 414. Having gone to Africa he was befriended by Augustine, who prompted his major work, Histrorium adversus paganos libra VII (Seven Books of History Against the Pagans). This work was used extensively by Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People (ca. 735 AD). In the late 9th century (ca. 890-891) Alfred the Great had both Orosius and Bede translated into Old English. Nearly 200 manuscripts of the Old English version are extant.

 Orosius wrote in the wake of the sack of Rome by Alaric the Goth in 410. He attempts to counter the view, adopted by many pagans, that Rome's troubles had multiplied since the Empire became Christian. Using material taken from Livy, Tacitus, Justin, and Eutropius (all of whom were pagan), Orosius' History gives examples of calamities and set-backs that befell the Empire before the rejection of paganism. That the work is polemical does not negate its value; it served as a prelude to Augustine's City of God, and is important as an independent historical source. Although the work contains many errors, it is a useful record of the years 378-417.

 In about AD 414, Augustine sent Orosius to Bethlehem. There Orosius argued against the theologian Pelagius, whose heretical doctrines had become popular in Britain Orosius tried to have the teaching condemned, but was unsuccessful. Returning to Africa, he began his Histories. Orosius' other works (both ca. AD 414) include Reminder to Augustine Concerning the Error of the Priscillianists and the Origenists, and Apology Against the Pelagians.

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Constantius (5th century AD)

 The life of this 5th century historian remains obscure, but his work De Vita Germani (The Life of Germanus) is an invaluable history of St. Germanus, the bishop of Auxerre who made two notable journeys into Britain (AD 429 and 446) to combat Pelagianism. During the Saint's first journey, Constantius describes the "Hallelujah Victory," an ambush led by St. Germanus against the Picts and Saxons, who threw down their weapons and fled when Germanus instructed the men to yell "Hallelujah!" three times. Constantius also records a public debate between Germanus and the supporters of Pelagius, describing the latter as "The authors of the evil doctrine. . . gleaming with their riches, brilliantly clothed, and surrounded by much flattery" (Life of Germanus, 12-27). The work also mentions that St. Patrick was a student of Germanus in Gaul ca. 418-428.

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Zosimus (early 6th century AD)

 The Greek historian Zosimus served as a senior official of the eastern Empire, rising to the rank of comes (count). Early in the sixth century he wrote a History in Greek of the Roman emperors from the time of Augustus until the early 5th century. Books I-V and part of Book VI are extant, and contain Zosimus' description of the the troubled times between Julian the Apostate and Honorius, mainly constructed from contemporary sources. Like Ammianus before him, Zosimus mentions that Julian brought grain levies from Britain to Gaul:

"Julian had timber gathered from the forests around the river and 800 boats larger than galleys built. These he sent to Britain and had them convey grain." (III,5,2)

Zosimus also describes a Saxon incursion and a subsequent British revolt in AD 408-9:

 "The barbarians beyond the Rhine, attacking in force, reduced the inhabitants of Britain and some of the Celtic tribes to the point where they were obliged to throw off Roman rule and live independently, no longer subject to Roman laws. The Britons therefore took up arms and, braving the danger on their own behalf, freed their cities from the barbarians threatening them. And all Amorica [Brittany] and the other Gallic provinces followed their example, freed themselves in the same way, expelled the Roman rulers, and set up their own governments as far as lay within their own power."  (VI, 5, 2-3)

 Zosimus later mentions a letter from Honorius to the Britons, apparently a response to a petition for military aid: "Honorius wrote letters to the cities in Britain, bidding them to take precautions on their own behalf." (VI,10,2) The seeming disparity of the province revolting in AD 409 and then appealing to Rome for military aid in AD 410 is explained by Frere (1987) as the result of a change in emperors. The pretender Constantine III was declared emperor by the legions in Britain in AD 407; the rebellion seems to have been against his officials, while the appeal to Rome was sent to the legitimate emperor, Honorius (AD 393-423).

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Gildas (ca. 497-570)

 Gildas, a monk, was eventually sainted. He founded a monastery in Brittany, St. Gildas de Rhuys, and is considered to be a founding father of English monasticism. His history, De excidio et conquestu Britanniae (The Ruin and Conquest of Britain), written in about AD 550, spurred the development of the monastic system in Britain, which had little following before 500 AD. It is also important as the only extant narrative account of Britain in the 6th century. Gildas had first hand experience of Britain in transition from late Roman to Saxon times, and reports on events close to him:

 ". . . the siege of Bath-Hill, when took place also the last almost, though not the least slaughter of our cruel foes, which was (as I am sure) forty-four years and one month after the landing of the Saxons, and also the time of my own nativity ." (II,26)

 Gildas's history is in part an attempt to demonstrate that the invasions of Britain by the Scots, Picts, and Saxons were punishment from God for faithlessness, disobedience, moral failings, and (not least) for the Britons being short-sighted enough to hire Saxon mercenaries. Gildas, like the later historian Nennius, attributes the fall of Britain to the "proud tyrant" (probably a reference to the Welsh king Vortigern) who invited the Saxons to Britain as mercenaries after an appeal to Rome for military help in AD 383 went unanswered. In return for helping to guard the borders, these Saxons were given lands in the east. Some modern historians have suggested that Gildas may have villainized Vortigern because the king was a Pelagian. Gildas also narrates the efforts of the British king Ambrosius Aurelianus (later identified with King Arthur) to repel the Saxons, who ultimately defeated him at Mons Badonicus.

 Gildas' sources are a combination of biblical scriptures and oral accounts cited from memory by those who had been told in their childhood of the events that shaped 5th-6th century Britain. Gildas sums up his difficulties as a historian (and those of the modern student of Dark Age history) as follows:

 "I shall not follow the writings and records of my own country, which (if there were ever any of them) have been consumed in the fires of the enemy, or have accompanied my exiled countrymen into distant lands, but be guided by the relations of foreign writers, which, being broken and interrupted in many places, are therefore by no means clear. "(II,4)

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Gregory of Tours (AD 538-595)

 Also known as Georgius Florentius, Gregory was the bishop of Tours from AD 573 until his death. His Historia Francorum (History of the Franks) is a basic source on the 6th century Franco-Roman kingdom and on the life of Clovis (ca. AD 466-511), who conquered northern Gaul in 494 and became a Christian in 498. While not directly about Britain, Gregory's writings help place the early Dark Ages in historical context.

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Procopius (6th century AD)

 Procopius, born in Caesarea, was the private secretary to Belisarius, Justinian's chief general. He is considered the leading authority on Justinian's reign (AD 527-565), and wrote histories of the Goths, Persians, and the Vandals. In The Gothic Histories (IV, 20), he divides the invaders of Britain into two groups, the Angles and the Frisians, and may well have gained this information from a group of Angles sent to Constantinople as part of a Frankish diplomatic mission.

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Cuthbert (ca. AD 635-687)

 Cuthbert, who began as a shepherd before becoming a monk, eventually rose to be named Bishop of the Benedictine Abbey at Lindisfarne. He was noted for aiding plague victims, and was posthumously made a saint. He left a journal of his visit to Carlisle (Luguvalium) in AD 685, where he mentions a working fountain and surviving portions of the Roman town wall.

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TheVenerable Bede (AD 673-735)

 One of the most significant historical sources for 8th century England is Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Historia ecclesiastica gentis anglicorum). King Alfred the Great (849-899) had the work translated into Old English during his reign. In modern times, an edition of Bede's Ecclesiastical History still widely followed is that of Charles Plummer, first published in 1896.

 At the age of seven Bede was placed at the Wearmouth Abbey in Northumbria under the tutelage of Bishop Benedict Biscop. Benedict, of noble birth, taught in the areas of theology, astronomy, art and music. His frequent travels to the Continent and Rome and his broad humanistic interests no doubt influenced Bede at this period in his development. In 682 Bede was transferred to Saint Paul's Monastery in Jarrow, where he remained for the rest of his life. Bede served under its first Abbot, Ceolfrin Cabbot.

 Considered "The Father of English History," the Venerable Bede's approach to his historical sources differed from that of his post-Roman predecessors such as Gildas. In the preface to his Ecclesiastical History, Bede cites his sources, (ie., the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, Constantius, and Orosius), whether written or oral, and how they were obtained. Though his work was primarily a history of the Church, during Bede's time the Church was tied inextricably to events in the secular world, playing a major role in uniting warring tribes of Saxons, Angles, Jutes, and Celts into a people that could be called the English.

 In contrast to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, Bede's history is an attempt to unify distinct chronological events into a continuous narrative—a remarkable achievement considering the breadth of the work, which begins with in the 1st century BC with Julius Caesar and ends in AD 731. To aid in dating events Bede made use of and popularized the now familiar Anno Domini (AD) dating convention, originally devised by a Syrian monk named Dionysius Exiguus to accurately schedule Easter from 532 to 626.

 Bede is notably fair in his treatment of traditions different from his own. He expresses admiration for Celtic Saints, and treats both Celtic and Roman leaders with equanimity. His treatment of the Romano-British period (Bk.1, ch. 3-5), drawn from Eutropius and Orosius, accepts their partially inaccurate view that the turf-built Antonine Wall was erected by Septimius Severus, but contains a useful description of the wall itself:

 "Following his [Severus's] victory in the grievous civil wars which assailed him, he was forced to go to Britain by the revolt of almost all the allies. There, after a large number of difficult engagements, he decided to separate off that part of the island he had recovered from the unconquered tribes, not by means of a wall, as some think, but by a rampart. For a wall is made of stone, but a rampart, with which a camp is fortified to repel the might of enemies, is made of turf, cut from the earth and raised high above the ground like a wall. In front of it as a result is a ditch, from which the turfs had been taken, and on top of it are fixed stakes made from the hardest wood. In this way Severus built a great ditch and very strong rampart, fortified with numerous towers on it from sea to sea." (Book 1,Chap.5)

  Bede also wrote biblical commentaries and a treatise on the feast days.

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Alfred the Great (AD 849-899)

 Alfred was born the son of king Aethelwulf in 849 at Wantage in Berkshire. Ascending the throne as king of Wessex in 871, Alfred drove out the Viking invaders in 878. He then set out to encourage learning in Britain and to prepare both intellectual and military defenses against further barbarian incursions. He commissioned the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, which kept a record of important events for centuries after his death. Alfred's interest in learning led to the translation into English of "certain books which are most necessary for all men to know." Among these were works by Boethius, Orosius, Gregory, and Bede. Some were translated by Alfred himself, including The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius, who died ca. AD 524 after being imprisoned by Theodoric. Some of Alfred's own literary works survive, as does a biography by his contemporary, Asser, Bishop of Sherborne.

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The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles (ca.  AD  891-1154)

 These are the first historical works written in Old English or Anglo-Saxon, the Germanic language of the 5th century invaders of Britain.  The Chronicles, commissioned by Alfred the Great, are a series of overlapping lists of dates and events composed at different monasteries over a period of several hundred years, stretching from the reign of Alfred the Great to the 12th century.   The material provided by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles is usually even more abridged than outlines of Roman history such as that of Eutropius:

 "409. In this year the Goths took the city of Rome by storm, and never afterwards did the Romans rule in Britain...In all they had reigned in Britain 470 years since Julius Caesar first came to the country. "

 "418. In this year the Romans collected all the treasures which were in Britain, and hid some of them in the earth so that no one afterwards could find them, and some they took with them into Gaul."

 "423. In this year Theodosius the younger succeeded to the kingdom."    (Parker Chronicle, manuscript A')

 The Chronicles begin with the arrival in Wales of the Saxon invaders Cerdic and Cynric in AD 494, then reverts to Julius Caesar's arrival in Britain (55 and 54 BC). The work then proceeds in chronological fashion through the date of the last entry (AD 1154).

 Surviving manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles are unique, as scribes independently added new events between those previously recorded, or following the last entry. The Parker manuscript, for example (also known as A'), shows the hands of no fewer than ten scribes.

 The most reliable authority on the various manuscripts is Charles Plummer (also an editor of Bede's works), whose late Victorian study of 1892-9 delineated seven separate manuscripts, labelled A', A, B, C, D, E, F. These all derive from a single Æ manuscript, now lost, based on still earlier monastic sources such as Easter tables, some used by Bede for the brief chronology at the end of his Ecclesiastical History of the English People.

 Composed in a time of bards and storytelling, the brevity of the Chronicles suggest they were both a mnemonic device and a historical record, helping to recall an oral tradition of the event, or the event itself. The detailed list of dates, names, and events that comprise the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles are of inestimable valuable to historians. The account is accurate, varying little from the currently accepted dates. This long-term, composite work is justifiably considered the most important English history written before the Norman Conquest.

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Nennius (ca. 9th Century AD)

 Nennius was a Welsh writer whose collection of documents called Historia Brittonum represents a mixed assortment of styles falling somewhere between chronicle, fabulous romance, and narrative history. The work begins with the history of the Britons, listing 33 ancient cities (see box).

The ninth century names of British cities (from Historia Brittonum, by Nennius):

 "These are the names of the ancient cities of the island of Briton. It has also a vast many promentories, and castles innumerable, built of brick and stone. Its inhabitants consist of four different people; the Scots, the Picts, the Saxons, and the ancient Britons." .

 "Cair ebrauc (York);  Cair ceint (Canterbury); Cair gurcoc;   Cair guorthegern;   Cair gusteint (Carnarvon);  Cair guoranegon (Worcester);   Cair segeint (Silchester);  Cair guin truis;  Cair merdin;  Cair peris (Portchester);  Cair lion (Caerleon);  Cair mencipt (St Albans);  Cair caratauc;  Cair ceri (Cirencester); Cair gloui (Gloucester);  Cair luilid (Carlisle);  Cair graut (Granchester);  Cair daun (Doncaster);  Cair britoc (Bristol);  Cair meguaid (Meivod);  Cair mauiguid; Cair ligion (Chester);  Cair guent (Caerwent);  Cair collon;   Cair londein (London);   Cair guorcon;  Cair lerion (Leicester);  Cair draithou (Draiton);  Cair pensavelcoin (Ilchester);  Cair teim;   Cair urnahc (Wroxeter);  Cair celernion;  Cair loit coit."  (Nennius, Hist.Brittonum)

 The Britons are traced to Aeneas, whom Virgil identifies as the founder of Rome, and to his descendant Brutus, who is claimed to have founded Britain. This notion is perpetuated in later historians including Geoffrey of Monmouth. A substantial portion of the work is devoted to the affairs of the Welsh king Vortigern, who is blamed for inviting the Saxons to Britain. Nennius also covers the legends of St. Germanus and St. Patrick's work in Ireland.

 The narrative is colorful and contains the earliest specific reference to King Arthur. The work records twelve battles fought in defence of Wales against the encroaching Saxons, in the last of which Arthur singlehandedly killed 940 Saxons. Nennius, however, makes no mention of Camelot or the Knights of the Round Table, which are later additions.


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