Was Honorius’ Letter Really Sent to Britain?

The year 410 is usually cited as the end of Roman Britain on the basis of a letter sent by Emperor Honorius. But might that letter have been sent elsewhere?

Dec 18, 2023By Caleb Howells, BA Doctrines and Methodology of Education
emperor honorius letter

 

The Romans ruled Britain for nearly four centuries, from 43 CE until the beginning of the fifth century. Most commentators agree that the actions of Magnus Maximus can be viewed as the beginning of the end of Roman rule over Britain. He withdrew a large portion of Roman troops when he proclaimed himself emperor and set off to attack Emperor Gratian on the continent. This was in 383, quite some time before the fifth century. But while acknowledging that it was a gradual process, many modern sources claim that one specific year can be cited as the final end. In 410 Emperor Honorius wrote a letter telling the recipients that the Romans could no longer protect them. But was it really sent to Britain?

 

Honorius’ Letter

painting alaric visigoths
Painting of Alaric entering Athens, 1920s, via Britannica

 

First of all, what exactly was Honorius’ letter? The sender, Honorius, was the emperor of the Western Roman Empire from 393 to 423. This was a period of intense strife for the empire. “Barbarian” tribes, such as the Visigoths and the Vandals, were overrunning the Roman territories, plundering Roman cities. Many of these barbarians had gone all the way through Gaul and into Spain. Roman control over Western Europe was falling apart dramatically and very quickly. Even Rome itself was threatened. The Visigoths, led by Alaric, campaigned down into Italy in 401 to attack the Romans. Several subsequent attacks took place over the next few years, including a siege of Rome itself in 408. Another siege occurred the following year, which resulted in Alaric setting up Attalus as a puppet emperor in opposition to Honorius.

 

According to Roman historian Zosimus, writing at the beginning of the sixth century, Honorius sent a letter the following year to the cities of Britain. He told them that the Romans could no longer protect them and that they would need to be responsible for their own defense.

 

What We Know About the End of Roman Britain

magnus maximus king illustration honorius
Illustration of a king, possibly Magnus Maximus, from the Llanbeblig Book of Hours, c. 1395, via Wikimedia Commons

 

For many decades, scholars have uncritically accepted Zosimus’ statement that Honorius sent this letter to Britain. But does this make sense with everything else we know? To analyze this issue, let us first examine what we do know about the end of Roman Britain.

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In the year 383, Magnus Maximus became a usurper emperor with the support of the troops in Britain. He took a large portion of these troops and traveled to Gaul to defeat the legitimate Western Roman Emperor, Gratian. Looking back on these events from the sixth century, the British writer Gildas wrote the following:

 

“After this, Britain is left deprived of all her soldiery and armed bands, of her cruel governors, and of the flower of her youth, who went with Maximus, but never again returned.”

 

Archaeology does not support the view that all Roman troops went with Maximus and never returned. However, it does show that huge portions of Britain, particularly Wales and the border regions to the north, became largely if not entirely undefended.

 

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Ivory diptych of Stilicho and his wife and child, c. 395, Milan, Italy, via Wikimedia Commons

 

After this, Gildas describes how the Romans returned several times to aid the Britons against raids by the Picts and the Scots. At least one, but possibly two, of these campaigns can be corroborated by the writings of the early fifth-century writer Claudian regarding the Roman commander Stilicho in 396-398. After this, in 407, a soldier from Britain known as Constantine III followed the example of Magnus Maximus, usurping the empire and taking with him many of Britain’s forces. In fact, it is possible that he took essentially all the remaining Roman troops from the island — that, at least, is the traditional interpretation. But this did not end Roman rule of the island, for the administration was still in place.

 

Zosimus reports a very important event that occurred in the year 409. He explains that due to the Romans failing to protect them, they grew tired of having the Romans still nominally ruling them. Thus, the native Britons expelled the Roman administration from the island.

 

How this Relates to Honorius’ Letter

ancient-roman-letter-vindolanda-honorius
Ancient Roman letter from Northumberland, c. 100 CE, via the British Museum, London

 

How does all of this information relate to the question of whether Honorius’ letter was sent to Britain or not? For one thing, we see that the Britons were generally in quite a vulnerable position by the beginning of the fifth century. Almost all the Roman troops defending the island had been removed by Maximus and Constantine III. We also see that the concept of the Romans coming to the aid of the Britons would not be out of place around the year 400. Such a thing occurred under Stilicho, so there is no reason why the Britons might not have expected something similar in 410. On this basis, it might make sense that Britain was the recipient of the letter.

 

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Coin of Roman Emperor Honorius, c. 400 CE,via Wikimedia Commons

 

On the other hand, the occasions in which the Romans had come to the aid of the Britons all occurred while the Romans were still ruling the island. Really, they were just protecting their own provinces. Yet, in 409, the Roman administration was overthrown. Therefore, by 410, when Honorius sent his letter, Britain was no longer a Roman province. Why would Honorius send a letter about defense to a region that had already declared independence?

 

The Context of the Letter

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Coin of Priscus Attalus, c. 410, via numisbids.com

 

Aside from the issue of Honorius sending such a letter to Britain after it had already removed itself from the empire, the context in Zosimus is significant. Remember, he is the one and only source for this letter, so we need to pay close attention to his account.

 

The letter appears in a passage entirely about Italy. Zosimus explains that Alaric, the leader of the Visigoths, attacked various cities in Italy that had refused to accept Priscus Attalus as the new emperor. He then describes how Alaric went on to Bononia (modern-day Bologna) and then on to Liguria. It is immediately after this statement that Zosimus mentions Honorius telling the cities of Britain to defend themselves.

 

For what reason would Zosimus mention Britain here? The entire passage is about Italy. Zosimus had already discussed Britain elsewhere, for he is the one who mentions the Britons expelling the Romans in 409. Yet this passage here has nothing to do with Britain and is focused on Alaric’s attacks against the Romans in Italy.

 

If Not Britain, Then Where?

coin brettioi honorius
Greek coin showing the tribal name Brettioi, third century BCE, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Was Honorius telling the Britons that they had to defend themselves because he was pulling troops away from their territory to defend Italy? No. By 410, there were no troops left in Britain to withdraw. Therefore, if Britain really was meant here, then it would have to be the case that Honorius was warning them of the danger of an approaching attack. From the context of the passage, this could only be an attack from Alaric. However, there are two issues with this interpretation. Firstly, why would Honorius care to warn a territory that was no longer part of the empire? Secondly, Alaric was campaigning all the way over in Italy, over one thousand miles away from Britain.

 

Britain simply does not make any sense in this passage. On the other hand, there was a very similarly-named region in southern Italy, called “Bruttium.” This region was the tip of the foot of Italy. In Greek, Britain and Bruttium were spelled “Brettania” and “Brettia” respectively. As we can see, changing one for the other would require only a very minor mistake.

 

reference map southern italy antiquity
Reference Map of Ancient Italy. Southern Part, by William R. Shepherd, 1911, via Wikimedia Commons

 

It is true that Bruttium was unlikely to be in immediate danger from Alaric, since until that time the Visigoths had never campaigned further south than Rome. However, since Bruttium was still within the empire, we do not need to interpret the letter as indicating that Bruttium was supposed to be in any immediate danger. We can simply interpret the letter as meaning that Honorius would be withdrawing Roman troops from Bruttium to strengthen his defense of northern Italy. Thus, he was informing the cities of Bruttium that they would have to defend themselves since the Roman protection would no longer be there. In fact, the distance between Bruttium and Alaric makes such a scenario all the more probable. It would be logical for Honorius to take reinforcements from the territories which were furthest from danger.

 

One argument against this is that Zosimus specifically says that Honorius wrote to “the cities” rather than to the provincial governor of those cities. However, such an argument places far too much weight on the exact wording used in the account. It is not intended as a technical explanation of the process of communication, but rather, a brief overview of what happened.

 

How Likely is the Mistake?

Hannibal John Chapman 1800
Depiction of Hannibal, by John Chapman, 1800, via Britannica

 

How likely is it that a reference to Britain in an ancient or early medieval document could be a mistake for Bruttium? Is there any actual precedence for this, or it is just crude “sounds-like” methodology on the part of the modern researcher?

 

In fact, there are several examples of this in ancient literature. For example, in Dio Cassius’ account of Hannibal, the Carthaginian war leader, he makes reference to Britain. He describes how Hannibal heard of the result of the Battle of the Metaurus in central Italy. With the Romans being victorious, Hannibal retreated into “Britain.” This was very obviously Bruttium in southern Italy. The writer Athenaeus, a Greek grammarian, wrote the building of a ship for Hiero of Syracuse, a Greek city-state in southern Italy. He explains that the wood for the foremast was taken from a tree from the mountains of “Britain.” Again, this is an obvious mistake for Bruttium in southern Italy. What these and other examples show is that there is nothing extraordinary about understanding “Britain” in Zosimus’ passage to be a mistake for Bruttium.

 

Was Honorius’s letter Sent to Britain or Bruttium?

sack of rome william honorius
Sack of Rome, by Wilhelm Lindenschmit the Younger, late 19th century, via National Geographic

 

In conclusion, we can see that the overwhelming weight of evidence supports the idea that Honorius did not send a letter in 410 to the Britons. They were already outside of the empire, having recently expelled the Roman administration. There is no logic at all in him writing a letter to them to warn them to defend themselves. The context in which this letter is mentioned is entirely about Alaric’s attacks on Italy. Therefore, it is very likely that the mention of “Britain” here is actually “Bruttium” in southern Italy. Such a mistake can be seen in other ancient texts.

 

In the context of Honorius’ letter, it is likely that Honorius had to withdraw troops from Bruttium to reinforce the territory that Alaric was attacking. Since Bruttium was far from these attacks (but still close enough that troops could plausibly be taken without too much delay), this makes sense. In fact, it is becoming increasingly accepted among scholars. It even appears in the Encyclopedia Britannica entry for “Honorius,” without any qualification or mention of doubt.

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By Caleb HowellsBA Doctrines and Methodology of EducationCaleb is a published history author with a strong interest in ancient Britain and the Mediterranean world. He holds a BA in the Doctrines and Methodology of Education from USILACS. He enjoys learning about history in general, but he especially loves investigating myths and legends and seeing how they might be explained by historical events and individuals.