Dark Age DatesInevitably the most important question, the one which has chiefly exercised historians, is the nature of the military crises of these two centuries. Both centuries are politically dark, and the sixth - it might seem - rather more so than the fifth.
David Dumville, 1977
The term ‘Dark Ages’ is not the innocent invention of conscientious academics, stumped for the want of a clearer term. It has always been used to impose a viewpoint and to suppress evidence.
John Morris, 1973
years of Arthur’s lifetime are the worst recorded in the history
of Britain”, John
Morris reminds us. This absence of documentation is used to excuse the
pejorative name for this era, the Dark Ages. Once this term denounced all
the fallen centuries following the glorious rule of the Romans. Now, it
just refers to a brief period in British history, between Roman rule and
the foundation of England, and its advocates insist it should be retained
since this era genuinely is ‘dark’ from the historian’s
perspective, due to the absence of documentary evidence. Of course there's
no getting away from Badon, and no denying that the British themselves
gave the name Arthur to their victorious leader. But what was the significance
of the campaign he led, and what came after it, are questions which, for
the Dark Age historians, must remain forever in the realms of the unknown.
History must be written from the written record, and only one sixth century
insular document survives. Gildas, who does not name Arthur, is our prime,
indeed our only historical source for the first half of the sixth century.
The genuine political history of the post-Badon period is only what can
be extracted from his sermon, and the Dark Age historians haven't managed
to extract very much.
Before we examine our sources, David Dumville reminds us, we must have ready the right questions to ask. The obvious question to ask first of Gildas is, when exactly is he writing? We have some clues. Gildas himself tells us he is writing 43 years after Badon - “That was the year of my birth; as I know, one month of the forty fourth year since then has already passed” - and ten years after some other event which could have provoked him to write but didn’t - “And it was, I confess, with unmeasured grief at heart that I kept silent (the Lord, scanner of consciences, is my witness) as the space of ten years or more passed by.” But what was that event, and when was Badon?
Bede gives an approximate date for the battle. In his History of the English Church and People he tells us Badon was fought about 44 years after the arrival of the Saxon federates, and that that event occurred during the reign of Marcian, who became emperor in 449 and ruled for seven years, which gives us a date for the Saxon advent of between 449 and 456, and for Badon of between 493 and 500. Marcian actually ruled from 450 to 457, so Bede is out by a year. But in any case his dating here is clearly derived from Gildas. Further, he elsewhere dates the Saxon Advent to 447, so we can't assume any definite knowledge on his part. Fortunately we have a Dark Age British source which set out very deliberately to put the record straight.
'Nennius’’ gives a very different date for the Saxon advent, in chapter 66, a section known as the Computus. The sources of ‘‘Nennius’’ are largely known, and the source for the Computus is pretty certainly Victorius of Aquitaine’s Cursus Paschalis or Easter Tables, which in turn were based on the consular list drawn up by his contemporary and countryman, Prosper. The Cursus Paschalis correlates a number of Roman date calculations - the consular, the Olympiads, the year since the foundation of Rome - with a Christian Easter calculation beginning with the first Easter, Christ’s resurrection, as Year One. This event Tertullian dated to the consulship of Rubellius and Fufius Geminus, that is, to us, 29 AD. Victorius completed his tables in 457 AD, at which point the consular list stops although the Easter calculations were continued by others. This document was, Robert Vermaat tells us, “made official” by a synod in Gaul in 541, the same year in which the Emperor Justinian officially abolished the consulship.
The old Roman system of dating by the annual consuls - there were usually two for each year - was ultimately replaced in the Empire by two different Christian dating systems. The west eventually settled on the Anno Domini system which is still with us, in which the supposed year of Christ’s birth becomes Year One. The Greek east calculated from the beginning of the world, a date based on the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. The first reference in the Computus correlates Victorius’ table with this Greek system. “From the beginning of the world to Constantinus and Rufus are 5,658 years”. Constantinus and Rufus were consuls in 457 AD, the last on Victorius’ list.
The next two calculations contain arithmetical errors: “From the two Gemini, Fufius and Rubellius to Stilicho, 373 years” and “from Stilicho to Valentinian, son of Placidia, and the reign of Vortigern, are 28 years.” The first is out by two years, the second by three. Stilicho’s first consulship was in 400 AD, actually 371 years after the consulship of the Gemini; Valentinian’s first consulship was 25 years after Stilicho’s, in the first year of his reign - emperors always were consuls in their first year. It was in 425 AD that Valentinian III was joint consul with his cousin the eastern emperor Theodosius II, and in that year, according to ‘‘Nennius’’, Vortigern ‘held empire in Britain’. And so we come to the date of the Saxon Advent. ‘‘Nennius’’ tells us the mercenaries were recruited in the fourth year of Vortigern’s reign, during the consulship of Felix and Taurus, which on both counts gives 428 AD. Though he also tells us that this was “in the 400th year from the incarnation of Our Lord Jesus Christ”, this is clearly a mistake, quite possibly a copyists error. The word ‘incarnation’ should read ‘passion’, ‘‘Nennius’’ is here counting from the original western Year Zero. The 400th year after the passion of Christ, accepting Tertullian’s date, would again give us 428 AD.
On the surface, the final calculation in the Computus makes no sense. “From the year when the Saxons came to Britain and were welcomed by Vortigern to Decius and Valerian are 69 years.” The names Decius and Valerian are linked in Christian history; they were borne by two emperors of the mid-third century whose wicked persecution of the Christians brought divine wrath down on their heads. But there is no joint consulship of these two names in the fifth century, or indeed anywhere else, in any extant list. Counting 69 years from consulship of Felix and Taurus, what we come to is second consulship of Emperor Anastasius, which in 497 he held alone.
Robert Vermaat suggests a solution: “Though no Decius and Valerian occur together anywhere, there is a Valerian (or Valerius) in A D 521 (A P 494). This may be the explanation for this error,” but then admits “why this year would have been important to 'Nennius' is not clear.” It becomes clear if we simply dismiss these two names as a later addition and a deliberate red herring, and treat the entire Computus as a correction of Bede, of which this is the conclusion. Bede tells us the Saxons came to Britain at the invitation of King Vortigern in the time of Marcian, and that Badon was fought about 44 years after their arrival. ‘Nennius’, elaborately, dates Vortigern’s accession to 425 AD, the Saxon federates to 428 AD and then 69 years after that ... what? I suggest this is originally the date ‘Nennius’ gave to Badon.
In confirmation, Badon occurs in year 72 in the Welsh Annals. It is a later calculation which equates ‘year 72’ with 516 AD. This would make the Annals ‘year zero’ 444 AD, a date with no obvious significance in Welsh history. Seventy two years before 497 AD, on the other hand, is 425 AD - the year of Vortigern’s accession.
Our solitary sixth-century source can now be dated precisely. The Ruin of Britain was written in the 44th year after Badon, in 540 AD. Then we can deduce what event, just over ten years previously, almost provoked Gildas into writing an earlier denunciation of his countrymen. In 529 AD the Council of Orange condemned Pelagius and the semi-Pelagians of Gaul. The Pelagians had always protested that their condemnation by Imperial decree, and without a hearing, was invalid. Pope Zosimus had agreed with them. They struggled for years to have their case reopened, and heard properly, in the time-honoured Christian tradition, in a synod. Finally, a century late, the Council of Orange had validated Pelagius’ hereticisation. Yet Gildas’ Pelagian contemporaries still clung to the error and maintained their wicked separation from the Church of the Empire. At the time he then held his peace, but he can do so no longer.
Obviously, despite his claims and his calling on God as his witness, it was not the synod over a decade previously which provoked Gildas into writing his sermon in 540. And neither was it the violence of the British tyrants.
Heretic Emperor: The Lost History of King Arthur
Copyright © V M Pickin 2009
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1 Sub-Roman Britain, p174
2 The Age of Arthur, p507
3 John Morris, The Age of Arthur, p 87
4 Gildas, The Ruin of Britain, 26.1
5 Gildas, The Ruin of Britain, 1.2
6 Robert Vermaat, Victorius of Aquitaine - Cursus Paschalis annorum DXXXII
7 They were uniquely disgraced: Decius was the first Roman Emperor to be killed by the enemy on the field of battle, and Valerian was the first to be taken captive by the enemy (the Goths and the Persians respectively). The Christian rhetorician Lactantius puts them fourth and fifth in his list of wicked persectutors who suffered God’s vengeance, De Mortibus Persecutorum.
8 Robert Vermaat, Victorius of Aquitaine - Cursus Paschalis annorum DXXXII