Ancient Rome

The Britons’ Plea for Help: Unraveling the Mystery of ‘Agitius’

The Post-Roman Era in Britain’s beginning is unclear, leading to debates on the fifth-century events’ chronology. Gildas, a sixth-century British writer, plays a crucial role in shaping the traditional chronology of this period. He mentions a letter from Britons to the Romans seeking help, addressed to a man named “Agitius,” commonly believed to be Flavius…

The Post-Roman Era in Britain’s beginning is unclear, leading to debates on the fifth-century events’ chronology. Gildas, a sixth-century British writer, plays a crucial role in shaping the traditional chronology of this period. He mentions a letter from Britons to the Romans seeking help, addressed to a man named “Agitius,” commonly believed to be Flavius Aetius. However, there are challenges with this interpretation.

Falvius Aetius and the Traditional Chronology

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

Gildas recounts how Britons faced attacks from the Picts and Scots after the Romans departed, prompting them to seek Roman aid. The letter to Agitius, as quoted by Gildas, described their plight as barbarians pushed them towards the sea. Despite their plea, the Romans did not assist. Subsequently, the Britons turned to Germanic mercenaries, the Anglo-Saxons, offering land and resources in exchange for protection. Over time, the Anglo-Saxons turned against the Britons, leading to their conquest and the start of Anglo-Saxon rule in Britain.

In an era with limited documentation, determining the letter’s date would greatly aid in establishing the fifth-century Britain’s chronology.

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

The Anglo-Saxon arrival is typically dated around 450 AD, with the conquest beginning shortly after. The basis for this date is the similarity between the name “Agitius” in a letter and the name “Aetius,” a prominent Roman general in the early fifth century. Aetius played a significant role in the war against barbarian tribes during the decline of the Western Roman Empire, making him a logical figure for the Britons to seek help from.

Moreover, Aetius held the title of consul three times, a rare occurrence outside of emperors within a 300-year period. The letter addressing him as “thrice consul” indicates it was written after his third consulship in 446 AD, as he passed away in 454 AD. Therefore, scholars traditionally place the Britons’ appeal within this timeframe.

The Issue of the Name

Gildas’ De Excidio, folio 14v, via British Library, London
Gildas’ De Excidio, folio 14v, via British Library, London

While some scholars have raised concerns about the slight difference between “Agitius” and “Aetius,” most agree that the pronunciation of the letter “g” at that time could sound like a “y.” This linguistic nuance supports the argument that “Agitius” is indeed a variation of “Aetius,” strengthening the traditional interpretation.

On the contrary, scholars like Michael Jones from Nottingham Medieval Studies argue that the philology of Flavius Aetius’ name is not as important as how it was actually written in contemporary documents. While some later texts spell his name with a “g,” no contemporary document does. Gildas, who seems to be quoting the letter directly, would likely have used the correct contemporary spelling. However, there is a possibility that he intentionally updated the spelling.

Chronological Issues

Regarding chronological issues, a significant challenge to the traditional identification of Agitius is the timeline of fifth-century Britain. Despite limited documentation from this era, there are some contemporary records from the continent. Scholar John T Koch highlighted two fifth-century continental sources that show Anglo-Saxon military activity in Britain before 446.

Gildas’ De Excidio, folio 14v, via British Library, London
Gildas’ De Excidio, folio 14v, via British Library, London

These sources, the Gallic Chronicle of 452 and The Life of St Germanus from the 470s, indicate early Anglo-Saxon presence in Britain. Archaeological evidence also supports an Anglo-Saxon presence in Britain around 430, twenty years before the traditional date of their arrival. This suggests that the Anglo-Saxons were in Britain and engaging in warfare long before Aetius received his third consulship, challenging the traditional chronology.

The Qualitative “Thrice”

Two main possibilities have been suggested to address this issue: either Gildas misplaced the letter in his sequence of events, or the letter does not refer to Flavius Aetius after his third consulship. The term “thrice” in the letter’s description may hold qualitative significance in understanding its context.

One important point that has been overlooked by many researchers is that the term “thrice” goes beyond just a numerical meaning. It has been commonly assumed that when Gildas mentioned Agitius as “thrice consul,” or “ter consul” in Latin, he meant that Agitius held the position of consul three times. However, “thrice” carries not only a numerical value but also a qualitative one. It can emphasize the excellence or degree of something.

This qualitative use of the Latin word “ter” can be observed in Virgil’s Aeneid where characters are described as “thrice happy.” This does not imply that they experienced happiness three times but rather signifies that they were extremely happy.

Another instance of this qualitative usage is found in the title of the combined Greek god Hermes and Egyptian god Thoth, known as “Hermes Trismegistus,” meaning Hermes ThriceGreat. The Roman equivalent of Hermes was Mercury, so in Classical Latin, this god was referred to as “Mercurius ter Maximus,” highlighting the use of “ter” similar to Gildas’ reference to Agitius.

It is evident from these examples that the term “thrice” in such contexts is more about emphasizing quality rather than quantity.

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Suffect, Honorary, and Independent Consuls

Considering the examples provided, it is possible that Agitius being referred to as “thrice consul” may not necessarily indicate he held the consulship three times numerically. Instead, it could be a qualitative description emphasizing the excellence of his consulship, even if he only held the position once. This interpretation broadens the scope of potential candidates for the true identity of Agitius.

There are various types of consuls, including suffect consuls who replaced those who died, retired, or were removed from office during the year. These suffect consuls served for the remaining part of the year, but they are not always included in official lists. Independent consulships were also established in territories that gained independence from the Roman Empire, such as Carausius’ breakaway empire over Britain and Gaul. The use of titles like “consul” in an honorary sense was common in the fifth century, further complicating the identification of Agitius.

The uncertainty surrounding the identity of Agitius mentioned by Gildas raises questions about whether he was indeed Flavius Aetius or another individual who may have been honored with the title of consul in a non-traditional manner.

Was Agitius Really Flavius Aetius?

The evidence from the Gallic Chronicle of 452, The Life of St Germanus, and archaeological findings all point to the fact that the Anglo-Saxons were already engaged in warfare in Britain before 446. This indicates that the Britons’ plea to Agitius could not have been made after his third consulship in 446, as suggested by some scholars. It is more likely that the appeal was made much earlier, possibly even before the Anglo-Saxon attacks began.

Some researchers propose that the appeal may have been directed towards a different individual altogether. It is possible that the term “thrice” in reference to consulship could be interpreted qualitatively rather than quantitatively. This opens up the possibility that the plea was sent to someone who held the position of consul only once, or perhaps to someone not recorded in historical accounts as a consul, such as a suffect consul or a consul of an independent territory.

In conclusion, if we consider Gildas’ account of events to be accurate, it becomes clear that the Britons’ appeal to Agitius must have taken place much earlier than 446. The exact recipient of the appeal and the circumstances surrounding it remain open to interpretation and further investigation.

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Sophia Dimitriou
Sophia Dimitriou graduated with an M.A. in Classical Archaeology from the University of Thessaloniki. Her writings delve into the daily life and significant events of ancient Greek and Roman societies.

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