Beginning in the fourth century the Roman Empire had been settling Saxon tribes along the southern and eastern coastline to keep the shipping lanes in the English Channel open and stop other Germanic tribes from pirating. In exchange for food, supplies, and their own land within the empire they functioned as Rome’s navy there. The foederati installations worked well, too. They worked hard and forced the raiders to work harder and each new tribe that was settled made the system more effective.
The Romans had hired the Saxons because they were the best seamen of the time. That is not why the arrangement worked so well though. For the Saxons, the attraction was not the easy food and supplies or the fighting. The big appeal was the empire itself. Decades ago, people thought that the Germanic tribes had overrun and destroyed the Roman Empire. The truth is that the empire collapsed internally. Some tribes, like Attila’s Huns, did despise everything Roman.
Not most of them though. Most tribes held the Roman Empire in awe and served it till the end. Many of its best and most loyal generals, Stilicho and Aetius among them, were of Germanic descent. For the Saxons who settled on the British coast, being a foederati was more than income. It was a chance to live within the empire. They realized that they would never become Roman themselves but they could hope that their children might.
However, the sequence of events that would lead to the end of Rome was already in motion when the first foederati settled in Britain. As we have seen, Saxon raiding did affect trade and the attacks by Picts, Germanic tribesmen, and Irish – both individually and together – did make living conditions less appealing. The fourth century would see many of the richest Romans moving back to the continent. When they left, the public structures they were responsible for stopped being maintained. With them went a level of romanitas as well. The arrival of Saxon foederati also coincided with the first generals being elected as emperor. Each time a new man was declared emperor he took as many Roman troops as he could in order to go to the continent and pursue his claim.
What that meant for the foederati and their families was that they saw less of what was Roman, what impressed them. They saw fewer regular soldiers and were supervised less because there fewer around. When they traveled they did it on roads that were no longer pristine, and when they arrived they saw public structures that were slowly falling apart
No contemporaries mentioned the foederati during the coups of 383 and 406-7. They probably stayed at their posts patrolling the English Channel and keeping a look out for raiding parties in the best Roman tradition as their Roman and more civilized employees selected new emperors, installed new governments, stole garrison troops, and left for the continent. It strikes this particular historian as ironic that even while every successful Roman general was ripping the empire apart while he tried to become the next emperor, the outsiders were doing what they could to protect the empire’s borders.
Their devotion to duty did not matter in the end though. The barbarian attacks came again around 410. The Roman citizens still overthrew Constantine’s government and invited Honorius to send a new bureaucracy. Honorius still told the civitates of Rome that they were on their own, leaving local villages to keep the foederati supplied with food, clothing, and tools.
At first the events of 410 would have had little effect on the Saxons. Their employers still spoke Latin, were a part of Roman culture, and acted Roman. Local villages probably could not support the foederati, but the Roman Empire would have set up storehouses to store surplus grain and other supplies in case of a drought. The locals could have used them and replenished as they could while they waited for the Roman Empire to return in force and reestablish order.
However, the Roman Empire never did come back. It struggled along for six more decades, but never had the strength to bring send soldiers and another governor to Britain. The surplus foederati materials were exhausted within a few years. Local villages and civitates may have been able to work something out for a few years after that, but it was nothing permanent. By 441, they would have been tapped. It was not, as Gildas would have us believe, the incompetence of a single man that allowed the Germanic peoples to invade Britain. Nor was Bede correct, that the brilliant manipulations of another man created the opportunity.
Britain fell to the Germanic tribes because the British people made a series of intelligent decisions based on an incomplete knowledge of their situation. They also had no foreknowledge of how their decisions would play out. Their only serious mistake was their inability to find a way out of the situation they had put themselves in.
1 Goffart, Barbarians and Romans 418-584. The Techniques of Accomodation, (Princeton, 1980).
2 Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons: 350-1064, (Oxford, 2013), 44-5. He sees three phases of the Germanic presence in Britain: Within the structure of the Roman Empire, alongside Romano-British materials, and new sites ancestral to Anglo-Saxon settlements.