|Volume 2 2006 pages 23-41|
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The political function of 'early Christian' inscriptions in Wales
Hilbert ChiuAbstractThe corpus of 'early Christian' inscribed stones in Britain, dating from the fifth to the late sixth century, is an underutilised historical source. Most studies focus on linguistic issues or questions of dating. Others are restricted to individual or geographically confined groups of inscriptions.1 Only a few, such as Charles Thomas's book on post-Roman Demetia and Dumnonia, examine the corpus as a whole for patterns or trends. These have generally been cautious in making conclusions about British society, except to consider the origins of the epigraphic habit, or the nature of fifth-century Irish settlement.2
Over 50 inscribed stones, dating from the early fifth to the late sixth century, survive in north-west Wales. In contrast to other British inscriptions of the period, these inscriptions exhibit a surprising degree of Romanitas on the part of the people they commemorate. This paper aims to examine this phenomenon in greater detail. It furthers the argument that the inscriptions played a political role in legitimising the power of the elite in early Gwynedd. It also considers the inscriptions in the context of surviving textual and archaeological evidence.
This paper focuses on an epigraphic phenomenon noted by historians, but as yet not convincingly explained.3 This phenomenon involves the 50-odd inscriptions in north Wales, which I argue are different from the other British inscriptions. They emphasise their subjects' Latinity and Romanitas, and they do this by referring far more frequently to Roman values and titles than inscriptions elsewhere. While the idea that these inscriptions may have served to legitimise power has previously been proposed,4 the intention here is to consider the epigraphic evidence in greater detail, as well as the implications of such a conclusion.5
Past scholarship has noted the odd geographic placement of surviving 'early Christian' inscriptions in Britain.6 They are clustered in north-west and south-west Wales, in modern Brecknock (Wales), and in Cornwall. These were not the more Romanised regions of the fifth and sixth centuries, compared with regions such as the Severn valley from modern Shropshire to Gloucestershire, the area around Caerwent in south-east Wales, or the eastern part of Dumnonia embracing Devon, Somerset and perhaps Dorset, none of which came under Anglo-Saxon dominion until the seventh century. Only a handful of inscriptions from these regions survive, even though excavations in Wroxeter, Gloucester and Caerwent suggest that the towns continued to be occupied, and that late-Roman civic buildings continued to be used, though seemingly as markets and churches.7 Nor are the inscriptions found solely in areas where Christian British kingdoms are attested in other evidence.8 Only a few have been found in the Cumbria or Elmet regions, where a number of non-inscribed Christian burials and crosses dating from this period survive in situ.9 All the evidence points to the continuity of Romano-Christian life there in the fifth century. Accordingly, the inspiration for putting up Latin epigraphic memorials cannot be attributed purely to the survival of late Romano-Christian tradition.10 In other parts of the western empire, the geography of inscribed stones similar to the type found in Britain (horizontal and with the HIC IACET formula) corresponds closely with areas of strong Romano-Christian establishment: along the Rhine and the diocesan capital of Trier and on the Rhone valley around Lugdunum.11 Nowhere else is the peculiar geography of early Christian British inscriptions paralleled.
One solution has been to attribute this British epigraphic habit to a combination of Irish and Romano-Christian influences. According to the Bu'lock-Thomas theory, the Irish settlers in Demetia introduced the habit of putting up vertical commemorative stones, a habit which combined with the late Roman tradition of inscribing in Latin, leading to a unique form of vertical inscription.12 Yet the evidence for Irish influence in the inscriptions of north-west Wales is not particularly strong. There are only two surviving ogam inscriptions, one at Llystyngwyn in Caernarvonshire reading ICORIGAS in ogam and ICORI[X] FILIVS POTENTINI in Latin, and the other inscription further east at Bedd Emlyn in Denbighshire reading SIMILINI TOVISACI in both ogam and Latin.13 There are otherwise no inscriptions with definite Goidelic names, although one cannot rule out the possibility that some of the Brittonic names had Goidelic counterparts.14 There is as much evidence for the introduction of an Irish commemorative tradition through settlers in north-west Wales as there is further east, where evidence of Irish epigraphic influence also appears twice: in the only inscription found in Shropshire, at Wroxeter, which reads CVNORIX MACVS MAQVI COLINE (Goidelic in Roman capitals), and one at Silchester in Hampshire, which reads TEBICATO[S] [MAQ]I MUC[OI] in ogam.15
Other factors linking inscriptions in north-west Wales to Irish influence are also equivocal. Whereas the Romano-Christian HIC IACET formula appears quite often in south-west Wales, albeit overshadowed by the overall percentage of FILIVS forms, there are only two examples of the FILIVS form in north-west Wales without an accompanying HIC IACET.16 The only other evidence of Irish influence is the 75% or so of north Welsh inscriptions vertically inscribed.17 Given the lack of correlation between the geographical placement of vertical inscriptions and the other indications for Irish settlement, it is possible that this vertical habit was not uniquely Irish. It may well have become fashionable in the fifth century because, as Handley argues, in rural localities the stones could be used both as memorials and as boundary markers.18 Although Irish elite settlement might have occurred sporadically in north-west Wales, leading to isolated instances of bilingual inscriptions and Irish place-names, on balance it is probably not possible to attribute the stimulus for the entire corpus of inscribed stones there to Irish epigraphic influence.
The second limb of the Bu'lock-Thomas theory is that the original Irish impetus was then combined with Romano-Christian epigraphic tradition. Scholarship has focused mostly on the question of how and when this latter tradition came to Britain, and less on the issue of why this tradition was manifested in certain areas and not others. Whether we accept Handley's notion of continuity from Roman Britain or the more accepted theory of importation from Gaul, it remains that the HIC IACET formula is particularly, and strangely, dominant in north-west Wales.19 This formula appears only four times in Demetia proper, where the largest percentage of all inscriptions lies (35% of all surviving inscriptions).20 In addition, thirteen (25%) of the north-western inscriptions are horizontal, following the Romano-Christian tradition, whereas only five (5%) of all other surviving inscriptions in Wales are horizontal.
Even if one points to the more even distribution of FILIVS and HIC IACET forms in the region between Demetia and Gwynedd (modern Cardiganshire), and in the cluster of inscriptions at Brycheiniog-Gwent, the fact remains that the north Welsh inscriptions exhibit far more explicit evidence of Romano-Christian civilisation. Eleven of them (20%) describe their subjects in terms of secular or religious occupation, such as SACERDOS (bishop/priest),21 PRESBYTER CVM MVLTITVDINEM FRATRUM (priest with many brethren),22 MEDICI (healer),23 CIVES (citizen),24 MAGISTRATI (magistrate),25 or exhibit signs of Romano-Christian moral-signatures such as NOBILIS (noble man),26 BEATUS/SANCTA (holy),27 the only instance of consular dating on British inscriptions: IN TE[M]PO[RE] IVSTI[NI] CON[SULIS] (in the time of the consul Justinus),28 and the only British inscription with the classical D(IS) M(ANIBUS) formula: D M BARRECTI CARANTEI (to the departed spirits of Barrectus Caranteus).29 In contrast, such signs appear only three times (5%) in Demetia: PROTICTORIS (protector),30 SERVATUR FIDAEI PATRIEQUE SEMPER AMATOR (guardian of the faith and lover always of the homeland),31 and LATIO (from Latium);32 not once in the rest of Wales; and just once (3%) in Cornwall: EPISCOPUS (bishop).33 The Romano-Christian component of the epigraphic tradition thus appears to have become more fashionable in north-west Wales, centered in Anglesey and Caernarvonshire, than it was in other inscription-intensive areas such as Demetia, Brycheiniog-Gwent, and Dumnonia. In those places, the HIC IACET formula had also caught on but was not nearly as dominant (15% of surviving Dumnonian inscriptions).
This is extremely odd, considering the lack of surviving evidence for other forms of Roman elite culture, urban or rural, in precisely this north-western region of Wales.34 It does not seem to have been organised as a civitas during Roman occupation, as Demetia was with its capital at Moridunum (Carmarthen).35 Although Segontium (Caernarvon) was a major military harbour in late Roman times, no villas have been discovered in the area, whereas some have been found in Demetia.36 It is unclear whether the region was divided into pagi (rural districts of native local government), or under military control from the legionary fortress at Chester. One indication is that auxiliary camp sites and late Roman forts, probably to guard against the Irish raiding mentioned by Patrick, have been found among native settlements.37 Some scattered inscriptions from these garrisons have survived, and may have provided a model, if not inspiration, for later inscriptions.38 Yet these are very few compared with the heavy concentration of inscriptions in the Severn valley, where they coincided with a significant number of villa sites.39
This evidence does not preclude the possibility of 'Romanisation' in the late empire, for which evidence may not have survived as readily. It is possible that a significant part of the Romanised population was uprooted during the fifth century and resettled in north-west Wales. Gildas mentions that before the battle of Mount Badon against the Saxons, which decided the fifth-century wars in the Britons' favour, 'the citizens were forced to flee and were scattered more irretrievably than usual'.40 There is also a later tradition in Gwynedd that its ruling dynasty was founded by the resettlement there of a north British tribe from a 'district called Manau Guotodin', under their king Cunedda.41 Unfortunately, it is impossible to verify this story, since its only sources are the unreliable ninth-century Historia Brittonum, as well some genealogies written even later.42 The tendency now is to discredit it, but it is necessary to recognise that the resettlement of friendly foederati in areas which needed defending, such as north-west Wales, was a frequent part of late-imperial policy.43 Even if we dismiss the details of the story, it may nonetheless represent some tradition of mass movements of people into Gwynedd.44
Ultimately, it is difficult to determine with accuracy the full extent of 'Romanisation' or resettlement in north-west Wales using only circumstantial evidence, or the lack of evidence, as a guide. This paper will not attempt it. By statistical comparison between epigraphic and archaeological finds in north-west Wales and finds in other areas of Roman Britain, it is at least possible to infer that some sort of reversal took place in the fifth and sixth centuries. The region exhibiting the least amount of surviving evidence for Roman society before 400 happens to contain a corpus of inscriptions bearing the most explicit signs of Roman society after 400. Even if some of the forces behind these inscriptions came from the continuation of a Roman elite who either settled in north-west Wales after 400 or had always been there, a better explanation is needed for why they suddenly decided that it was important to memorialise in stone. The rest of this paper will attempt to explore the idea of political legitimacy as an explanation.45
A political explanation
One way of explaining the phenomenon is to see the inscriptions not only as burial commemorations, but as politically useful tools to claim Romanitas. This is where I intend to consider the legitimacy proposal in greater detail. The possibility that inscribed stones were used to emphasise either the subject's secular claims, or more often the subject's descendants' claims, has been explored in more detail in Handley's study on the sociology of the inscriptions.46 After all, a vast majority of inscriptions in north-west Wales and elsewhere in Britain were originally found in fields, beside Roman roads, or in church cemeteries which post-date the inscriptions themselves.47 Inscriptions on stone were a relatively expensive and pretentious method of commemoration, and the people who were commemorated seem to be, as Charles Thomas describes them, 'a network of upper-class families'.48
A noticeable characteristic of inscriptions in north-west Wales is the number of times they were used to claim social status beyond the strict 'subject + subject's father' formula common in British inscriptions elsewhere. These longer inscriptions include the famous one at Llantrisaint in Anglesey, of Bivatigirn's most holy wife, which describes Bivatigirn as vassus (borrowed Celtic word for servant or client) of Paulinus and, based on one reading of the inscription, Ando cognatione (relative of Andus).49 There are also the inscription of Senacus the priest at Capel Anelog in Caernarvonshire, who claimed to be buried cum multitudinem fratrum (with many brothers),50 and Cantiorix's inscription at Penmachno, which claims that he was not only a Venedotis Cives [sic] (citizen of Gwynedd) but even consobrinos [sic] Magli magistrati (a cousin of the magistrate Maglos).51 The impression from such claims is that the extra information on familial or social connections was self-consciously applied to amplify the buried subject's importance. By extension, his or her descendants' claims to status or moral virtues, or perhaps power, would also be amplified.
In addition to these are the two instances of inscriptions specifying the subject's native tribe. The first is at Llanaelhairarn in Caernarvonshire, commemorating Aliortus Elmetiacos (Aliortus the Elmetian).52 The second is at Penbryn in Cardiganshire, slightly south of the main cluster of inscriptions in north-west Wales, which commemorates Corbalengi ... Ordous (Corbalengus the Ordovician).53 Since the Ordovices were the people who lived in north to central-west Wales during the Roman occupation of Britain, it appears that both these inscriptions are linked to a tradition in early Gwynedd of using inscriptions to place the subject in social rather than purely religious context. This is evident when they are compared with stones elsewhere in Britain, where inscriptions with claimed connections to important people other than the subject's father are rare. One inscription at Glamorgan claims that its subject Bodvocus was the great-grandson of Eternalus Vedomavus, whose fame must have survived long enough for the claim to be beneficial in some way.54 Another inscription at Tintagel Island in Cornwall reads PATER COLI AVI FICIT ARTOGNOU (Artognou the descendant of Pater[nus?] Colus made this) [space] COLI FICIT (Colus made this), indicating that Artognou emphasised his connection to Colus not only by claiming it, but even by recycling Colus' old memorial stone.55
From this it is possible to infer that the people who put up inscriptions in commemoration of dead relatives did so with an awareness of how these inscriptions could be used to stress or to claim certain things, or to show off. A closer look at the inscriptions in north-west Wales suggests that the elite there often used it to claim Romanitas. The first example of this is the deliberate Latinisation of Celtic names in some inscriptions but not others. The use of the Latin genitive -i or -is ending on Brittonic or Goidelic names, rather than the standard Brittonic or Goidelic genitive endings has been noticed by both Charles Thomas and Kenneth Jackson.56 Examples in north-west Wales include ETTORIGI,57 MAILIS,58 DEVORIGI,59 MACCUDECCETI,60 and MONEDORIGI,61 while an inscription at Pentrefoelas in Denbighshire which reads BROHOMAGLI IATTI HIC IACIT ET UXOR EIUS CAUNE has two Latinised Brittonic names.62 Examples of Latinised names in the nominative include a sixth-century king of Gwynedd, CATAMANUS,63 as well as CONBARRVS,64 ALIORTVS65 and PORIVS.66 There are also a number of non-Latinised names in the nominative, such as CANTIORIX,67 ICORIX (and its Goidelic form ICORIGAS in ogam),68 and RIGOHENE.69 If all the names were Latinised, then it would be possible to say that it was merely a standard process in the construction of a Latin inscribed stone memorial. That this was not always the case, however, indicates perhaps some element of intent, either by the people putting up the inscriptions, or by the subjects themselves while alive, to adopt more Roman-sounding versions of their names.
This possibility is supported by some evidence of made-up Latin names. These were not common Latin names, and in some cases are not found in epigraphic or textual evidence elsewhere. It would obviously be easy to attribute common Latin names such as Saturninus, Paulinus, or Latinus to continuity from Roman Britain or to external contacts.70 A common name need not be adopted for political reasons. It is not so easy to explain why the subjects of some inscriptions had names such as EQVESTRIS, nominative EQVESTER, which does not appear anywhere else.71 The name seems to derive from the classical Latin eques (horseman/knight). If so, having such a name would itself be a claim for social and political status.72
Admittedly, linguistic evidence can only go so far. Better evidence of claimed Romanitas is the overt expression of Romano-Christian values. These include inscriptions commemorating religiosity or moral values, such as Saturninus and his unnamed wife who were described respectively as beatus (blessed) and sancta (holy).73 Bivatigirn, the husband of the most holy woman at Llantrisaint, is described as OMNIVM CIVIVM ADQVAE PARENTVM EXEMPLVM ET MORIBVS DISCIPLINA AC SAPIENTIAE AVRO ET LAPIDIBVS (an example to all citizens and relatives both in character, morality and wisdom, [worth more] than gold or precious stones).74 The emphasis on a very Roman concept, civium (of the citizens), which was used by Patrick and seems to have been common in the Romanised British population, as well as the biblical quotation to end the inscription, both point to emphasis on the subjects' Romanitas.75 Finally there is my personal favourite at Trawsfynydd just south of Caernarvonshire, which reads PORIVS HIC IN TVMVLO IACIT HOMO [X]PIANVS FVIT (Porius lies in this tomb, he was a Christian man).76
It seems unusual for a commemoration in the late fifth or early sixth century, in a part of Britain supposedly Christian and with other overt signs of Christian organisation, such as inscriptions with EPISCOPOS (bishop) and PRESBYTER (priest), to remind its audience so explicitly that the subject was a Christian man. Instead, it was probably added to remind its audience that the subject had lived as a Christian man should.77 The only example of such a claim in inscriptions elsewhere in Britain is at Cynwyl Gaeo in Carmarthenshire which reads SERVATVR FIDAEI PATRIEQVE SEMPER AMATOR HIC PAVLINVS IACIT CVLTOR PIENTISIMVS AEQVI (here lies Paulinus, a guardian of the faith and lover of his fatherland, a most conscientious observer of all that is right).78 This too is explicit on Romano-Christian values - patriotism combined with morality and religiosity - and is good evidence that such claims may not have been limited to early Gwynedd, but were only more common there.
Other values of a secular Roman society are also mentioned in some inscriptions, such as Cantiorix's inscription which describes him as a cives (citizen) and a cousin of a magistratus (magistrate/legal office holder)79 and Melus, who is given the epithet medicus (doctor).80 Another inscription with these values is the commemoration of King Catamanus of Gwynedd, listed in later genealogies as the son of Maelgwn (Maglocunus) and father of Cadwallon. He is described in this inscription as REX SAPIENTISSIMVS OPINATISSIMVS OMNIVM REGVM (a king wisest and most renowned of all kings).81 This is similar to King Vortipor's inscription at Castell Dwyran in Demetia which describes him as Protector, a late Roman imperial office with military as well as civil powers, and in that case not as a king.82
These proclamations should be compared with epithets in some inscriptions that show signs of a non-Roman system of power. There are two such inscriptions in north-west Wales. One reads CAELEXTIS MONEDORIGIS in Latin83 and the other SIMILINI TOVSACI in both Latin and ogam.84 Caelextis appears to be the common Latin name Caelestis, while Similini is probably a Goidelic name.85 The epithets, however, are both British, Monedorigis meaning 'king of the mountain' and Tovsaci meaning 'the prince' or 'the leader'. These epithets can probably be classed as descriptions, because they are not used here as Brittonic names with particular meanings, but as adjectives added to non-Brittonic names. The combination of both Roman and British titles within the same region and chronology suggests that if the elite had wished to appeal always to tribal-British senses of legitimacy, there was nothing to stop them from doing so, whether in Latin or in British. After all, a British inscription has survived at Towyn, slightly south of the cluster of inscriptions in Caernarvonshire and seemingly dating not much later than the inscriptions discussed thus far, which reads CINGEN CELEN [--] TRICET NITANAM + TENGRUIN MALTE[C] GUADGAN ANTERUNC DUBUT MARICIAU MOLT [--] PETUAR MI[C]ARTR (The body of Cingen lies beneath. Egryn, Mallteg, Gwaddian, together with Dyfod and Marchiau. The tomb ... four).86 It is perhaps the clearest sign, along with the other hints of an underlying British society examined so far, that the elite had never been as Roman as their inscriptions would claim.
Unfortunately, the documentary evidence is insufficient to determine with certainty why only the elite in north-west Wales wished to show off their Romano-Christian credentials. Nonetheless I suggest that a close reading of Gildas may provide the best explanation. Gildas was obsessed with the notion of legitimate rule. His De Excidio does not mention a person in power, whether king or priest, without some statement on the legitimacy of that power. It is usually a negative statement, as befits the theme of his work. This concept of legitimacy is also closely tied to late-Roman legalistic thinking. Thus the usurper Maximus's departure to Gaul, at least a century before Gildas's own time, is described as ... insuper etiam imperatoris insignibus, quae nec decenter usquam gessit, non legitime, sed ritu tyrannico et tumultuante initiatum milite ... ([the island sent Maximus to Gaul] with even the insignia of an emperor, which he was never fit to bear: he had no legal claim to the title, but was raised to it like a tyrant by rebellious soldiery).87 The descriptions of tyranni ruling Britain in Gildas's own time should be read with an appreciation of this legalistic thinking (non legitime ... tumultuante initiatum milite). To Gildas, any form of power based on military force was unlawful, and therefore tyranny. In this respect his description was very similar to the Byzantine historian Zosimus's view of events in this lost province, in which the Britons' rejection of 'Roman law', expulsion of Roman magistrates, reversion to 'native customs', 'return to arms', and 'the re-establishment of their own governments' were all components of tyrannical rule.88 Gildas's description of his own society laments the decline of peaceful legal rule which had given way to this kind of rule by military prowess, which he calls 'cruelty':Ungebantur reges non per deum sed qui ceteris crudeliores exstarent ... si quis vero eorum mitior et veritati aliquantenus propior videretur, in hunc quasi Britanniae subversorem omnium odia telaque sine respectu contorquebantur ...This was an unfavorable comparison with an earlier age of legitimate rule under his hero Ambrosius Aurelianus. When Gildas wrote that Ambrosius 'perhaps alone of the Romans had survived the shock of this notable storm (the Saxon uprising)', he was lamenting the loss not of all Romans during the wars, but of all Romanitas.90 It was the essence of Romanitas, which to Gildas meant respect for God, morality (ie peace) and legal rule, that disappeared even from Romans such as Ambrosius's descendants, and from leaders with Roman names such as Aurelius Caninus and Cuneglasus.91 Kings such as Vortipor and Maglocunus were not tyrants because they usurped the throne - Gildas is explicit that both were of royal blood - but because they were morally bad and fought one another.92 Cuneglasus is similarly condemned for 'waging such a war against men and God ... with arms special to [him]self', while Maglocunus is described as having a dream 'of rule by force'.93 To Gildas, these tyrants were typical of an age when people with power no longer observed their proper place in society, unlike in his youth when reges, publici, privatae, sacerdotes, ecclesiastici, suum quique ordinem servarunt (kings, people in public office, people in private life, bishops, and churchmen kept to their own place).94
(Kings were anointed not in God's name, but as being crueler than the rest ... if any seemed gentler and a little more inclined to truth, he was regarded as if he was the downfall of Britain; everyone directed their hatred and their weapons at him without respect ...)89
It is easy to downplay Gildas's ideology as the moralistic exhortation of one cleric, rather than an idea taken seriously by his society.95 Yet it is precisely this sense of legitimate power and moral sanctity that is emphasised in many of the inscriptions examined above. Gildas's accusations match well with inscriptional counterclaims such as Bivatigirn's life of Biblical moribus disciplina ac sapientiae auro et lapidibus; Cantiorix's cousin who claimed to be a magistratus with legal office; or Porius's memorial which emphatically reminds the reader of his Christian life.96 Nor is there any reason to think that the sub-Roman society along the Severn and in south-east Wales would readily discard ideals of legal and symbolic power. As mentioned above, the archaeological evidence shows that towns were still occupied, and we know from Gildas that descendants of earlier Roman office holders such as Ambrosius were still around in his time.97 Recent explorations into Gildas's Latinity have suggested that he may have been trained by grammatici and perhaps rhetorici,98 while the iron stylus found at Wroxeter, and the Vergilius Romanus manuscript attributed to south-east Wales of the fifth or sixth century showing 19 pictures of people in typical Roman clothing and reclining while dining, may point to some measure of continued Roman elite life.99 It is therefore probable that one of the motivations for stressing religious morality and Romanitas in the inscriptions of north-west Wales was to counter the thinking of a part of the Romanised population, of people like Gildas, who attacked the legitimacy of the new native kingdoms.
It is odd that the elite of north-west Wales should have been particularly sensitive to this issue, given that the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms further east have left little evidence of attempting to adopt Roman icons of legitimate rule. Gildas seems to provide the answer for this in his section on Maglocunus of Gwynedd. He describes Maglocunus as insularis draco (dragon of the island). He then says that Maglocunus was 'mightier than many in both power and malice', and recalls that he 'removed many of these tyrants from their country and even their life'.100 By 'these tyrants', he probably means tyrants such as those his De Excidio attacks in general, rather than the specific four that he has already discussed. Either way, these statements and the fact that Gildas devoted considerably more writing space to Maglocunus all suggest that the king had been bent on extending his authority with his armies (Gildas speaks of 'viri ... sanguinum et doli' (men of blood and craft) and 'violenti regni' (rule by force)).101 At the same time, Maglocunus was a man who ought to have known better because he was trained as a monk and educated by 'a teacher who was the refined master of almost all Britain' (habueris praeceptorem paene totius Britanniae magistrum elegantem).102 He had been brought up in precisely the same religious and secular culture which the elite of his kingdom claimed to possess. In Gildas's portrait of Maglocunus, later remembered in Welsh tradition as Maelgwn, we have the only personification of a process suggested by the inscriptions, in which a society probably based on clientage and military prowess attempted to claim legitimate authority, most likely symbolic rather than direct, over a Romanised population who cared about legal rule.103
Another indication of this attempted extension of authority is the Historia Brittonum. It is plainly an unreliable source that fuses elements from Gildas and elements of many other legends - Welsh, north British or scriptural - into a plot of best fit. It should not be completely ignored, because underlying the narrative are two notable divergences from Gildas.104 The first is the belief that the Britons did nothing wrong, and that they ultimately lost to the invaders because it was the will of God; it was meant to be.105 The second divergence is that never in the Historia Brittonum are the Britons portrayed as disunited. Every battle is fought by a unified British force against the common enemy, and every war leader is described as a leader of all the British.106 It is unimportant whether this was actually the case. What matters here is that within the tradition of the Historia Brittonum was a firm assertion that at the time of the wars (fifth and sixth centuries) there was some form of political unity. When combined with the fact that the text was closely connected to Gwynedd, the picture of claimed supremacy and leadership of all the Britons makes sense.107 Maelgwn was called the 'dragon of the island', his son Catamanus was called in his inscription 'the wisest and most renowned of all kings', and his grandson Cadwallon was condemned by Bede in his Historia Ecclesiasticae Gentis Anglorum as the one Welsh king who took the fight to the English and even conquered Northumbria for a year.108 Another ninth-century text, the Annales Cambriae, similarly uses the title rex Brittonum for the early kings of Gwynedd.109
Seen in this light, the possibility of direct diplomatic contacts between Britain and the Roman empire of Justinian merits reconsideration in future work. The idea was originally formulated from a combination of sources. These include Procopius's offer of Britain to the Goths in exchange for them surrendering Sicily,110 the inscription at Penmarcho in Caernarvonshire which reads: FILI AVITORI IN TEM[PORE] IVSTI[NI] CON[SVLIS] (... the son of Avitor in the time of the consul Justinus [540 CE]),111 and the discovery of Aegean red-slipped pottery at a number of Cornish and Welsh sites including the important secular settlement at Dinas Emrys in Gwynedd.112 The specific arguments and counter-arguments for these diplomatic contacts are too lengthy to delve into here, and there is still plenty of dispute over the Gallic or Byzantine origins of the consular dating.113 Either way, the attempt to claim diplomatic links with the empire, and perhaps even the receipt of subsidies from Justinian, which Procopius claims, fits well with the inscriptional and textual picture of power and persuasion in early Gwynedd.114 The ideology of legal legitimacy in western Europe was still very much tied to the symbolic authority of the Roman emperor, and the prestige to be gained from diplomatic contacts and Mediterranean trading goods, especially after Justinian's re-conquest of parts of Italy and Spain in the sixth century, would not be lost on the elites who wanted so much to appear genuinely Roman.115 It was to this society that the odd set of consular dating at the end of the Historia Brittonum owed its origins.116 Other historians have recognised that this society clung on to its Romanitas, but perhaps this cling was more than just inertia or nostalgia. Perhaps there were contemporary political considerations as well.
Wendy Davies once described the political make-up of fifth- and sixth-century Wales as a hiatus, with different grades of kingship based on clientage.117 She and other historians such as Kenneth Dark have nonetheless tried, based respectively on later textual or archaeological evidence, to reconstruct kingdoms and boundaries.118 For Davies, the map looks like a retrospective extension of later Welsh kingdoms, while Dark makes his kingdoms resemble the civitas of late Roman Britain, each with defined territories and relatively equal political power. This paper has not disputed these constructions, so much as questioned their value. Are we to draw these political maps according to effective military power, to the extent of clientage or actual recognition of supremacy, or merely to the symbolic authority unilaterally claimed by a 'great king'? Studies in Celtic inter-kingdom systems of power, such as Thomas Charles-Edwards's look at the notion of ruiri (great kings) among the Uí Néill in northern Ireland, certainly emphasise the complexity of these political relationships.119 We can be certain from the study of the inscriptions that there was far more peaceful interaction between these different kingdoms in Wales than Gildas would have everyone believe. There are the two inscriptions of the Elmetian at Gwynedd and the Ordovician buried at Cardigan, the Goidelic inscriptions at the sub-Roman towns of Silchester and Wroxeter, and a brief passage in the Life of Saint Samson of Dol which describes Samson's parents as coming from two separate southern Welsh kingdoms, Gwent and Demetia, and married with the mutual agreement of their fathers who were court officials to the respective kings.120 Gildas's bias in claiming constant war should at least be reconsidered against the considerable evidence for different levels of kingship, the movement of British, Romano-British and Irish elites between different supposed kingdoms, and the possibility of different types of power: military, legal, and symbolic.121
Another implication is the need to rethink the origin of Powys. The kingdom itself is not attested until the ninth century, but historians have always assumed that some sort of political unity in that region existed earlier, based on strong traditions of royal ancestors. Wendy Davies considers the ninth-century Canu Taliesin as evidence of a family of leaders in the region during the sixth century, and the similarly dated Canu Llywarch Hen as evidence that Powys was once centered on the upper Severn-Shropshire region until it was lost to the Mercians in the early seventh century.122 An inscription at Llantysilio-y-Ial, dating also from the early ninth century, should also be brought into the debate. It commemorates one Eliseg, who 'united the inheritance of Powys from the hand of Catem, through his forces he [inherited it] from the power of the Englishmen with both his own sword and fire'.123 The inscription then links Eliseg to a list of kings leading back to Vortigern, Germanus and even Maximus. The strong sense in this inscription of liberation from the English before the foundation of the kingdom, combined with the fact that the name Powys came from Pagenses (the rural folk), suggests that the kingdom was consolidated after the loss of the Severn valley, the heart of the civitas of the Cornovii, to the English and the possible decline in the authority of Gwynedd over the region. At least it indicates that the history, and particularly the political arrangement, of these regions in the fifth and sixth centuries is far from settled.124 Perhaps a more thorough examination of epigraphic evidence provides a useful historical-archaeological tool for future work in the area.
Without further evidence, we may never know for sure why those who put up the inscriptions of north-west Wales were particularly concerned with presenting themselves as Romans and Christians. Why the concern disappeared by the mid-seventh century, and why the inscribed stones were not destroyed or erased, are questions for future consideration. This paper has tried to illustrate precisely how unusual the inscriptions were, and argued that the way in which they claimed Romanitas shows a concerted effort at identifying with Roman ideals of legitimate power. When considered together with Gildas and later textual sources, this conclusion may suggest a very interesting picture of power, claimed authority, and cultural identity in a period of great change.
Hilbert Chiu, Centre for Medieval Studies, University of Sydney
1 See K Jackson, Language and History in Early Britain: a Chronological Survey of the Brittonic Languages 1st to 12th Century A.D. (Edinburgh, 1953; repr Dublin, 1994); V Nash-Williams, The Early Christian Monuments of Wales (Cardiff, 1950); P Sims-Williams, The Celtic Inscriptions of Britain: Phonology and Chronology c. 400-1200 (Oxford, 2003); E Okasha, Corpus of Early Christian Inscribed Stones of South-West Britain (London, 1993); R Macalister, Corpus Inscriptionum Insularum Celticarum vol 1 (Dublin, 1945).
2 The most recent include C Thomas, And Shall These Mute Stones Speak? Post-Roman Inscriptions in Western Britain (Cardiff, 1994) 82-85; M Handley, 'The early medieval inscriptions of Western Britain: function and sociology' 339-362 in J Hill and M Swan (eds), The Community, the Family and the Saint: Patterns of Power in Early Medieval Europe (Turnhout, 1998); M Handley, 'The origins of Christian commemoration in late Antique Britain', Early Medieval Europe 10/2 (2001) 177-199; J Knight, 'The early Christian Latin inscriptions of Britain and Gaul: chronology and context' 45-50 in N Edwards and A Lane (eds), The Early Church in Wales and the West, (Oxbrow Monography 16, Oxford, 1992).
3 Most notably P Sims-Williams, 'The uses of writing in early medieval Wales' 15-38 in H Pryce (ed), Literacy in Medieval Celtic Societies (Cambridge, 1998).
4 Ibid, 15-17.
5 Citations for stones will follow the numbering in Macalister where possible, indicated by the abbreviation CIIC. I have followed Nash-Williams's and Thomas's relatively similar dating of the inscriptions, which have been broadly vindicated in the phonological approach used by Sims-Williams, Celtic Inscriptions of Britain, summary at 351-368. Dating is still an important issue, but does not generally affect the arguments of this paper.
6 J D Bu'lock, 'Early Christian memorial formulae', Archaeologia Camrenensis 105 (1956) 133-141, at p 134; Jackson, Language and History, 165-166.
7 K Dark, 'Pottery and local production at the end of Roman Britain' 53-65 in K Dark (ed), External Contacts and the Economy of Late Roman and Post-Roman Britain (Woodbridge, 1996) at p 55-63; J Knight, 'Late Roman and post-Roman Caerwent: some evidence from metalwork', Archaeologia Cambrensis 145 (1996) 35-66; C Sparey-Green, 'Poundbury, Dorset: settlement and economy in late and post-Roman Dorchester' 121-152 in Dark (ed), External Contacts and the Economy of Late Roman and Post-Roman Britain, at p 136-141. The fullest survey of the archaeological evidence is in K Dark, Britain and the End of the Roman Empire (Stroud, 2000) 105-142.
8 Cf Jackson, Language and History, 165-166, who attributes the geography of the stones to the continuity of Christianity in the highlands.
9 C Thomas, The Early Christian Archaeology of North Britain (London, 1971) 111ff; C Thomas, 'The Evidence from North Britain' 93-122 in M W Barley and R P C Hanson (ed), Christianity in Britain 300-700 (Leicester, 1968) at p 94-97; Bu'lock, 134.
10 Cf Handley, 'Origins of Christian Commemoration', 177-199. For a clear survey of the geography of inscriptions from Roman Britain, see J C Mann, 'Epigraphic Consciousness' 254-256 in J C Mann, Britain and the Roman Empire (Brookfield, 1996).
11 Based on my reading of E Diehl, Inscriptiones Latinae Christanae Veteres (Berlin, 1931).
12 Bu'lock, 133-141; Thomas, And Shall these Mute Stones Speak?, passim.
13 Respectively CIIC 380 and CIIC 399.
14 Three stones are in dispute: ERCAGNI (R White, 'Excavations at Arfryn, Bodedern, long-cist cemeteries and the origins of Christianity in Britain', Anglesey Antiquarian Society and Field Club Transactions (1971-1972) 19-51) at Arfryn, Anglesey; CIIC 319 at Llanfaelog, Anglesey; and CIIC 326 at Penrhos-Lligwy, Anglesey.
15 Respectively R Wright and K Jackson, 'A late inscription from Wroxeter', The Antiquaries Journal 48/2 (1968) 296-300; and CIIC 496.
16 CIIC 385: FILI LOVERNII ANATEMORI at Llanfaglan, Caernarvonshire; CIIC 400: VINNEMAGLI FILI SENEMAGLI at Gwytherin, Denbighshire.
17 Thomas, Early Christian Archaeology, 111.
18 Handley, 'Early medieval inscriptions', 339-362.
19 Handley, 'The origins of Christian commemoration', 177-199. Proponents of the importation from Gaul theory include Bu'lock, 139; Jackson, Language and History, 165-166.
20 CIIC 369 at Llandeilo Fawr, Carmarthenshire; CIIC 370 at Llanfihangel-ar-Arth, Carmarthenshire; CIIC 443 at Meline, Pembrokeshire; CIIC 428 at Cilgerran, Pembrokeshire.
21 CIIC 325 at Llantrisaint, Anglesey; CIIC 384 at Bodafon, Caernarvonshire.
22 CIIC 391 at Capel Anelog, Caernarvonshire.
23 CIIC 386 at Llangain, Caernarvonshire.
24 CIIC 325 at Llantrisaint, Anglesey; CIIC 394 at Penmachno, Anglesey.
25 CIIC 394 at Penmachno, Anglesey.
26 CIIC 402 at Plas-yn-Rhos, Flintshire.
27 CIIC 323 at Llansadwrn, Anglesey.
28 CIIC 396 at Penmachno, Anglesey.
29 Nash-Williams 285 at Tomen-y-Mur, Merionethshire.
30 CIIC 358 at Castell Dwyran, Carmarthenshire.
31 CIIC 360 at Cynwyl Gaeo, Carmarthenshire.
32 CIIC 435 at Llandysilio, Pembrokeshire.
33 CIIC 459 at Tawna, Cornwall (now illegible).
34 Summarised in B Jones and D Mattingly, An Atlas of Roman Britain (Oxford, 1990) 156,164 and 222.
35 W Davies, Wales in the Early Middle Ages (Leicester, 1982) 87; Jones and Mattingly, 154.
36 Jones and Mattingly, 198.
37 Ibid, 85-87; Saint Patrick, Confessio ed and trans D Howlett, Liber Epistolarum Sancti Patricii Episcopi (Dublin, 1994) 25, paragraph 1, mentions the fierce raiding which took captive 'many thousands'; V Nash-Williams, The Roman Frontier in Wales ed M Jarrett (2nd ed; Cardiff, 1969) esp 157-174 - administrative buildings only found in Chester and Caerwent, baths found at Caernarvon but in a second-century military fortress.
38 V Nash-Williams, The Roman Frontier in Wales (Cardiff, 1954) plate XL.
39 Jones and Mattingly, 152.
40 Gildas, De Excidio Brittanniae ed and trans M Winterbottom, The Ruin of Britain and other works (London, 1978) 95, paragraph 19.3.
41 Nennius, Historia Brittonum ed and trans J Morris, British History and the Welsh Annals (London, 1980) 79, paragraph 62.
42 Davies, 89.
43 D Dumville, 'Sub-Roman Britain: history and legend', History 62 (1977), 173-192.
44 Davies, Wales in the Early Middle Ages, 89.
45 Suggested but not explored in Sims-Williams, 'The uses of writing in early medieval Wales', 15-38.
46 Handley, 'The early medieval inscriptions of western Britain', 339-362.
47 Out of the north Welsh stones, I count roughly 40% from fields, and some 35% more from churchyards whose construction post-dates the stones, though it is possible that the churches were built on earlier church sites.
48 C Thomas, 'The end of the Roman south-west' 198-213 in K Branigan and P Fowler (eds) The Roman West Country (London, 1976) 207.
49 CIIC 325; Handley, 'Origins of Christian commemoration', 194.
50 CIIC 391.
51 CIIC 394.
52 CIIC 381.
53 CIIC 354.
54 CIIC 408 at Margam Mountain: BODVOCI HIC IACIT FILIVS CATOTIGIRNI PRONEPVS ETERNALI VEDOMAVI.
55 C Morris, 'Excavations on the lower terrace, site C, Tintagel Island 1990-1994', Antiquaries Journal 77 (1997) 1-143.
56 Thomas, And Shall these Mute Stones Speak?, 82, shows this process occurring in Demetia as well; Jackson, Language & History, 192-193, points out that it ended in the seventh century.
57 CIIC 318 at Llanbabo, Anglesey.
58 Nash-Williams 10 at Llanfaelog, Anglesey.
59 S White and G Smith, 'A funerary and ceremonial centre at Capel Eithin, Gaerwen, Anglesey: excavations of neolithic, bronze age, Roman and early medieval features in 1980 and 1981', Transactions of the Anglesey Antiquarian Society (1999) 1-166, at Capel Eithin, Anglesey.
60 CIIC 326 at Penrhos-Lligwy, Anglesey.
61 CIIC 413 at Barmouth, Merionethshire.
62 CIIC 401. I have limited examples to those specifically identified by linguists as Latinisations. For details on each see Celtic Inscribed Stones Project Online Database: available online at http://www.ucl.ac.uk/archaeology/cisp/database/ [24 April 2005]; Jackson, Language and History, 187-193.
63 CIIC 870 at Llangadwaladr, Anglesey.
64 CIIC 324 at Llantrisant, Anglesey.
65 CIIC 381 at Llanaelhairarn, Caernarvonshire.
66 CIIC 420 at Trawsfynydd, Merionethshire.
67 CIIC 394 at Penmarcho, Caernarvonshire.
68 CIIC 380 at Llystyngwyn, Caernarvonshire.
69 CIIC 419 at Llanymawddwy, Merionethshire.
70 Saturninus appears in CIIC 323 at Llansadwrn, Anglesey; Paulinus in CIIC 325 at Llantrisaint, Anglesey and CIIC 360 at Cynwyl Gaeo, Carmarthenshire; Latinus in CIIC 470 at Worthyvale, Cornwall.
71 Based on my reading of Diehl, vol 3 index.
72 The full inscription in CIIC 415 at Llandanwg, Merionethshire reads EQVESTRIS NOMINE; the use of Equestris here as a name has been accepted and commented on in Jackson, Language and History, 168, 193.
73 CIIC 323.
74 CIIC 325.
75 Saint Patrick, Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus ed and trans D Howlett, Liber Epistolarum Sancti Patricii Episcopi (Dublin, 1994) 35, paragraph 2.
76 CIIC 420; the lettering is now worn and this reading by Macalister was questioned by Jackson, Language and History, 166.
77 W Davies, 'The church in Wales' 132-146 in Barley and Hanson (ed), Christianity in Britain, at p 132, reads these inscriptions as indicating that the Church was more organised in north Wales.
78 CIIC 360.
79 CIIC 394.
80 CIIC 386.
81 CIIC 870.
82 CIIC 358; Thomas, And Shall these Mute Stones Speak?, 211, points out the desirability of claiming Roman ancestry in Dumnonia.
83 CIIC 413 at Barmouth, Merionethshire.
84 CIIC 399 at Bedd Emlyn, Denbighshire.
85 Jackson, Language and History, 185-187.
86 CIIC 1033; dating is difficult.
87 Gildas, 13.
88 Zosimus, Historia Nova ed and trans R Ridley, New History (Sydney, 1982) 127-129, chapter VI.1-6.
89 Gildas, 21.4.
90 Gildas, 25.3; P Sims-Williams, 'Gildas and the Anglo-Saxons', Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies 6 (1993) 1-30, points out Gildas' attachment to the values of Romanitas.
91 Mentioned briefly in Gildas, 30, 32.
92 Gildas, 31.1, 33.4.
93 Gildas, 32.2, 34.1.
94 Gildas, 26.2.
95 Davies, 'The church in Wales', 137-146. The only recent works on the political thinking of Gildas are P Schaffner, 'Britain's Iudices' 151-155 in M Lapidge and D Dumville (ed), Gildas: New Approaches (Suffolk, 1984); Bachrach, 'Gildas, Vortigern and constitutionality in sub-Roman Britain', Nottingham Medieval Studies 32 (1988) 126-140 (a limited study due to its indifference to non-textual sources).
96 Respectively CIIC 325, 394, 420.
97 Gildas, 25.3; discussed in P Sawyer, From Roman Britain to Norman England (2nd ed; London, 1998) 83-84; and Dark, Britain and the End of the Roman Empire, 144-149.
98 N Wright, 'Gildas' prose style and its origins' 107-128 in Lapidge and Dumville (ed), Gildas: New Approaches; implications explored in M Lapidge, 'Gildas' education and the Latin culture of sub-Roman Britain' 29-39 in Lapidge and Dumville (ed), Gildas: New Approaches. The continuity of elite life is discussed in J Morris, 'The literary evidence', 55-74 in Lapidge and Dumville (ed), Gildas: New Approaches at p 62-63.
99 Dark, Britain and the End of the Roman Empire, 35-40. The picture of continued Roman life in the Vergilius Romanus manuscript is supported by the archaeological evidence for the importation of Mediterranean wine and olive oil: see D Williams and C Carreras, 'North African amphorae in Roman Britain: a re-appraisal', Britannia 26 (1995) 231-252; J Wooding, 'Cargoes in trade along the western seaboard' 67-82 in K Dark (ed), External Contacts and the Economy of Late Roman and Post-Roman Britain (Woodbridge, 1996).
100 Gildas, 33.1.
101 Gildas, 34.1; K Dark, Civitas to Kingdom, (London, 1994) 77, reads this passage as Maglocunus killing other north-west Welsh kings, but I see no specific evidence to support this reading.
102 Gildas, 36.1.
103 This seems to fit the implications in W Davies, Patterns of power in Early Wales (Oxford, 1990) 10-24, which points to the various degrees of power and various forms of office in a society where absolute power was unusual; interestingly she does not explore the role that Roman concepts of legal power played in this system.
104 As has been done by Dumville, 'Sub-Roman Britain', 173-192; Dark, Britain and the End of the Roman Empire, 43-45.
105 Explicitly stated at Nennius, paragraph 45.
106 Eg Nennius, paragraphs 31, 43-46, 48, 56.
107 Esp Nennius, paragraph 40, which claims that Dinas Emrys was once the capital of all Britain; the connection is made in N Chadwick, 'Early culture and learning in north Wales' 29-120 in N Chadwick et al, Studies in the Early British Church (Cambridge, 1973) at p 37-46.
108 Bede, Historia Ecclesiasticae Gentis Anglorum, ed and trans B Colgrave and R Mynors (Oxford, 1969) 212-215.
109 Annales Cambriae ed and trans J Morris, British History and the Welsh Annals, 47.
110 Procopius, History of the Wars (ed and trans) H B Dewey, book 3, III.31-40, book 6, VI.28 and XV.4, book 8 XX.4-6.
111 CIIC 396.
112 For arguments and counter-arguments, see J Ward, 'Procopius' "Bellum Gothicum" II.6.28: the problem of contacts between Justinian I and Britain', Byzantion 38 (1967) 460-471; M Fulford, 'Byzantium and Britain: a Mediterranean perspective on post-Roman Mediterranean imports in western Britain and Ireland', Medieval Archaeology 23 (1989) 1-6; E Thompson, 'Procopius on Brittia and Britannia', Classical Quarterly 30 (1980) 501-505; D Williams and C Carreras, 'North African amphorae in Roman Britain: a re-appraisal', Britannia 26 (1995) 231-252; L Alcock, 'The archaeology of Celtic Britain 5th-12th century A.D.' 48-60 in D Hinton (ed), 25 Years of Medieval Archaeology (Sheffield, 1983); E Campbell, 'The archaeological evidence for external contacts: imports, trade and economy in Celtic Britain A.D. 400-800' 83-96 in K Dark (ed), External Contacts and the Economy of Late Roman and Post-Roman Britain at p 88.
113 Handley, 'Origins of Christian commemoration', 177-199.
114 Procopius, Anecdota to the Secret Histories ed and trans G Williamson (London, 1990) XIX.13.
115 Ward, 'Procopius', 465ff; Wooding, 81.
116 Nennius, paragraph 66.
117 Davies, Wales in the Early Middle Ages, 85-86; also Davies, Patterns of Power, 10-24.
118 Davies, Wales in the Early Middle Ages, 85-102; Dark, Civitas to Kingdom, 112-134.
119 T Charles-Edwards, 'Early medieval kingships in the British Isles' 28-39 in S Bassett (ed), The Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (London, 1989); T Charles-Edwards, 'Native political organization in Roman Britain and the origin of MW brenhin' 35-45 in Antiquitates Indogermanicae: Studien zur Indogermanischen Altertumsklunde und zur Sprach- und Kulturegeschichte der indogermanischen Völker (Innsbruck, 1974).
120 The Life of St. Samson of Dol ed T Taylor (Felinfach, 1991) chapter 1.
121 Cf Evans, 'From the end of Roman Britain', 101-103, argues from textual and limited archaeological evidence for purely military-based power by the mid-fifth century.
122 Davies, Wales in the Early Middle Ages, 94, 99-102.
123 The relevant extract of the inscription (CIIC 1000) reads: ... CONCENN ITAQUE PRONEPOS ELISEG EDIFICAUIT HUNC LAPIDEM PROAVO SUO ELISEG IPSE EST ELISEG QUI NECXIT HEREDITATEM POUOISI EX MANU CATEM PER UIRES SUAS E POTESTATE ANGLO RUM ET CUM GLADIO SUO ET IGNE ...
124 Dark, Civitas to Kingdom, 79-89, assumes that Cuneglasus was the early king of Powys, but Gildas is not specific as to where Cuneglasus or Aurelius Caninus were kings, leading to the possibility that they were urban reguli (little kings) in the more Romanised regions of Wroxeter and Caerwent respectively. Dark's archaeological evidence on the formation of kingdoms in such regions (89-134) is dubious at best.