The Mystery of the Britons’ Appeal to Flavius Aetius

In Post-Roman Britain, the Britons sent an appeal to a Roman commonly identified as Aetius. This identification has big implications for the chronology of the era, but is it secure?

Dec 28, 2023By Caleb Howells, BA Doctrines and Methodology of Education
flavius aetius britons

 

The beginning of the Post-Roman Era in Britain is shrouded in mystery. For this reason, there is considerable debate over the chronology of events in the fifth century.

 

The traditional chronology of fifth-century Britain has been determined by the words of Gildas, a sixth century British writer. One of the events that he refers to is a letter sent by the Britons to the Romans, appealing for help. The letter was sent to a man named “Agitius.” Traditionally, this has been understood to be a reference to Flavius Aetius and has been used as an important chronological marker. However, there are some serious problems with this traditional interpretation.

 

Falvius Aetius and the Traditional Chronology

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

 

After describing how the Romans left Britain, Gildas explains that the Britons started to suffer from attacks by the Picts and the Scots. They were unable to effectively defend themselves, so they appealed for help from the Romans. Gildas seems to quote directly from the letter they sent, which began:

 

“To Agitius, thrice consul, the groans of the Britons.”

 

The letter went on to describe how the barbarians were overrunning their land, pushing them back to the sea, leaving them with no escape. However, the Romans offered them no assistance. Therefore, after some time, the Britons decided to appeal to Germanic mercenaries, the Anglo-Saxons. The Britons gave them some land and resources in return for their service. However, the Anglo-Saxons eventually became dissatisfied with what they were receiving, leading to them rebelling and conquering more land. This marked the start of the Anglo-Saxon conquest of Britain. As we can see, in a poorly-documented era, establishing the date of this letter would go a long way to determining the chronology of fifth century Britain.

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alfred submitting witan 1847
Depiction of Anglo-Saxon King Alfred, by C. Steckmest, 1847, via the British Museum

 

On the basis of this letter, the Anglo-Saxon arrival is generally placed in c. 450, with the conquest starting probably within the next few years. The basis for this date is that the name “Agitius” could be a form of the name “Aetius.” There was a prominent general by that name in the first half of the fifth century — Flavius Aetius. He was a powerful Roman leader who was active in the war against the barbarian tribes during the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. We can see why the Britons may have wanted to appeal to him for help. Furthermore, Flavius Aetius was the only man (excluding emperors) within a 300-year period who was consul three times. Since the letter addresses him as “thrice consul,” this seems to prove that it was sent after he became consul for the third time. Flavius Aetius had his third consulship in 446, and he died in 454. Therefore, the Britons’ appeal has traditionally been placed within this small window.

 

The Issue of the Name

gildas de excidio folio manuscript aetius
Gildas’ De Excidio, folio 14v, via British Library, London

 

One issue with the traditional identification of Agitius with Aetius is that the names are not quite identical. Some scholars have argued that there is no issue in concluding that “Agitius” is simply a form of the name “Aetius.” The letter “g” in this era was sometimes pronounced like a “y” which means that the pronunciation of “Agitius” would have been essentially identical to that of “Aetius.” For this reason, most scholars do not have an issue with this interpretation.

 

flavius aetius julio strozza 18th century
Portrait of Flavius Aetius, by Julio Sprozza, 18th century, British Museum

 

On the other hand, other scholars (such as Michael Jones in Nottingham Medieval Studies) have argued that the philology of the name is beside the point. What matters is how it was actually written in practice. Although there are some later documents which spell Flavius Aetius’ name with a “g” included, no contemporary document contains such a spelling. Recall that Gildas appears to be actually quoting the letter directly. This makes it unlikely that he would have used a non-contemporary spelling. Still, we cannot exclude the possibility that he updated the spelling intentionally.

 

Chronological Issues

anglo saxon bird shaped broach sixth century
Anglo-Saxon style bird-shaped broach, sixth century, Metropolitan Museum, New York

 

A much more significant issue for the traditional identification of Agitius is the chronology of fifth century Britain. While it is true that this is a poorly-documented era, there are some contemporary records. These records come from the continent. Renowned scholar John T Koch pointed out that two fifth-century continental sources “both show uncontrolled military action by the Anglo-Saxons in Britain at a date earlier than 446.”

 

These two sources are the Gallic Chronicle of 452, and The Life of St Germanus, written in the 470s. Archaeology also shows a significant Anglo-Saxon presence in Britain from c. 430, some 20 years before the traditional date of the Anglo-Saxon arrival. Therefore, the evidence is clear that the Anglo-Saxons arrived and were warring in the country long before Aetius received his third consulship. Therefore, the traditional chronology simply cannot be correct. Two main possibilities have been proposed to resolve this issue. Either the letter was misplaced by Gildas in his sequence of events, or it does not refer to Flavius Aetius after his third consulship.

 

The Qualitative “Thrice”

folio aeneid cristoforo majorana
Folio from Eclogues, Georgics and Aeneid, by Cristoforo Majorana, c. 1470, via Walters Art Museum, Maryland

 

One key fact which many researchers have overlooked is the fact that “thrice” does not simply have a numerical meaning. It has generally been assumed that when Gildas referred to Agitius as “thrice consul” (literally, in Latin, “ter consul”), he was referring to Agitius as having been consul three times. But this is not necessarily the case. The word “thrice” does not just have a numerical meaning. It also has a qualitative meaning. That is, it can be used in an emphatic sense, highlighting the excellence or degree of something. This may be related to the practice seen in the Bible, where the writers would sometimes repeat a quality (such as “holy”) three times.

 

One example of this use of the Latin word “ter” is seen in Virgil’s Aeneid. In both Book I and Book XI, we find characters referring to others as “thrice happy.” This obviously does not mean that they became happy three times, but rather, it means that they were extremely happy.

 

hermes crioforo
Bust of Hermes in one of his many forms, Roman copy of Greek original, sixth century BCE, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Another example of this is seen in the title given to a combination of the Greek god Hermes and the Egyptian god Thoth. This god is known as “Hermes Trismegistus,” meaning Hermes Thrice-Great. The Roman equivalent of the Greek god Hermes was Mercury. Thus, in Classical Latin, this god was “Mercurius ter Maximus.” Notice the use of the word “ter” here, just as in Gildas’ reference to Agitius.

 

In this example, it is obvious that Hermes was not considered to have become great three times. There is no indication whatsoever of this understanding. The use of ‘thrice’ in this title is very obviously qualitative, not numerical.

 

With these examples in mind, it could be the case that Agitius was referred to as “thrice consul” in a qualitative way, not a numerical way. It could be that this use of the word “thrice” was used simply to emphasize the excellence of Agitius’ consulship, which he could have held just once. This would greatly expand the potential candidates for the real Agitius.

 

Suffect, Honorary, and Independent Consuls

carausius antoninianus roman coin aetius
Ancient coin depicting Emperor Carausius, third century CE, via the Royal Mint

 

Another issue, also highlighted by historian Michael Jones, is that there is no guarantee that the Agitius mentioned by Gildas is someone whom we know held the consulship. The problem is that the official list of consuls only includes those who were appointed consuls at the beginning of the year. However, sometimes a consul died before the end of the year, or he retired or was removed from office for whatever reason. If this occurred, he would have to be replaced. The replacement, who held the position just for the remaining part of the year, was known as a suffect consul. There is no list of these suffect consuls, but we know that they existed.

 

Additionally, we know that independent consulships were sometimes set up in territories that had become independent from the Roman Empire. This occurred, for example, within Carausius’ breakaway empire over Britain and part of Gaul. Significantly, various territories had become independent by the fifth century. Again, we do not have a list of whatever independent consuls must have existed at that time. Furthermore, there is evidence that official titles, such as “consul,” were being used in a looser sense in the fifth century. Some prominent figures may have been called “consul” simply in an honorary sense.

 

Was Agitius Really Flavius Aetius?

sarcophagus stilicho aetius
Possible depiction of Flavius Aetius on the so-called Sarcophagus of Stilicho, fifth century, Milan, Italy, via Wikimedia Commons

 

The chronological evidence from the Gallic Chronicle of 452, The Life of St Germanus, and archaeology clearly shows that the Anglo-Saxons were warring in Britain before 446. Therefore, the Britons’ appeal to Agitius simply cannot have been sent to Flavius Aetius after his third consulship, which was in 446. It must have been sent long before then (unless Gildas simply misplaced it in his sequence of events, and it was actually an appeal regarding the Anglo-Saxon attacks, not preceding them). Some scholars have argued that a different figure was the recipient. This may well be the case.

 

The word “thrice,” as we have seen, can be used in a qualitative way rather than a numerical way. It could well be that it was sent to someone who is only known to have been consul once. Alternatively, it could have been sent to someone who is not known to historians as consul at all, because he was a suffect consul. Or he could have been a consul of a territory that was already independent of the Roman Empire. Whatever the case, if Gildas’ sequence of events is accurate, the Britons’ appeal to Agitius simply cannot be dated to c. 446. It must have occurred much earlier.

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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.