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Thursday, 22 September 2016

The Irish Part 2

Sometime between 306 and 312 AD there may have been a significant Irish incursion into Britain in support of rebels.  We don't know who or where the rebels were and other than noting they were apparently suppressed we can say little more.

According to Ammianus Marcellinus in the years before 359/360 AD there was a treaty in place between Rome and the Irish and, possibly, the Picts.  This was standard Roman frontier practice and it was probably the latest of a succession of such agreements. The treaty broke down and resulted in subsequent and frequent Irish incursion.

Ammianus notes “the areas near the frontier were devastated”.  We don’t know if this was either north or south of the Wall.  If the target area was north of the Wall it would have been the territory of one or more of the British client states that Rome subsidised against the Picts. 

If the devastation did occur north of the Wall it might explain what subsequently happened in 367 AD when those clients- the Dummnonii, Novantes and Votadini- sided with the Irish and Picts or at the very least allowed their armies free passage. Significantly they did not ravage Pict territory while the best of the fighting men were away. This was a major break in north British policy and would be explainable if the north British felt that active allegiance to Rome would put their territories at risk from a combined and irresistible Irish and Pict attack.

The Irish then began to raid Britannia in a systematic fashion culminating in major incursions and consequent Roman defeats between 367-9AD. 

Charles-Edwards see's this primarily as the reaction of Bréga to the failure of the treaty which in part guaranteed its primacy in Ireland. That would imply the Romans broke it or were perceived to have done so.  It would also suggest a heavy Irish investment in trade infrastructure - namely ships. This in turn means transporting enough warriors to tackle a Roman Field Army became an easier task.  The Pict motivation was probably a result of one Imperial punitive expedition too many and of the opportunity provided by the Irish alliance that allowed the north British to be over awed and neutralised.

In 367 AD Britannia was overwhelmed by the Irish (Scotti and Attacotti) and the Picts, just possibly accompanied by some north British.  Two senior Roman commanders and their forces fail to resist them. Ammianus tells us that Count Nectaridus "responsible for coastal defences" was killed and the General Fullofaudes was "circumvented by the enemy" however we may wish to interpret that phrase; some scholars favour 'captured' others that he was slain. We have no idea if Nectaridus died on land or at sea* but both the Irish and Picts arrived by sea and a nautical fight is not impossible. 

The Roman Field Army was beaten and dispersed with many deserting.  Britannia was then pillaged as the victors spread out to loot.  This would have been a horrific experience for the British provincials and it left, as we read in Gildas, a lasting impression.

It should not be thought that this rapine was limited to the north for the raiders are recorded as being in areas adjacent to Londinium (London).  

So far as we can tell the fortified cities and towns successfully provided refuge but outside of them few who found themselves in the path of the raiders would have been safe.

Subsequently the Romans would refer to the event as the Barbarian Conspiracy seeing the Frank and Saxon attacks on Gaul and the simultaneous Irish and Pict assault on Britannia as evidence of a well executed diabolical plan. 

In far-away Cyprus Epiphanius Bishop of Salamis noted the event - this was clearly not a little local difficulty.

* Contrary to some secondary accounts our sources do not tell us that Nectaridus was Count of the Saxon Shore nor do they reveal any naval resources at this time allocated to Britannia.

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