As has been seen, Roman Empire’s administration had been exemplary. Rome’s founders had erected a stable bureaucracy that possessed an intelligent set of checks and balances which adapted over time and changing circumstances. As it had transitioned into an empire another group of far-sighted lawmakers had adapted the government so that it could integrate new provinces and cultures. By 400, every local government from Britain to India had a variation of the Roman model.
Through foreign and domestic wars, its income had also been stable. Taxes had been individually assessed based on personal holdings and then collected in the form of coins. Tradition had made the wealthy elite responsible for local administration as well as local project funding; forums, baths, public buildings, and roads had all been a part of their normal responsibility.
At the provincial level, money had been used to pay for the hospices along the highways that were used by official travelers as well as craftsmen, artists, and traders. Reserves were left alone in case of emergency. The empire paid the military and the officials who had been publically educated, but the senators came from wealthy families and had been given nothing for their public service by tradition.
Then Constantine had displaced the Roman governor and his bureaucracy and installed his own. When the Romano-British citizens revolted and overthrew Constantine’s government, the provincial government collapsed. Severing the connection with Rome meant no more income, no military support, and only limited contact with the empire. Dismantling the provincial government meant no local military or political order.
The local governments had remained intact and functioning through all that. However, throughout the last half-century of Roman rule the wealthy had been either immigrating to the continent or their country villas in Britannia where they had stopped performing public service. By 410, most of them were no longer contributing their resources to the villages and towns.
The departure of the wealthy from public life was just as catastrophic as the loss of provincial government. The wealthy had maintained local buildings and roads throughout Britain. Without them, all of these things fell into disrepair. Their business relations had kept them connected to other settlements and to the greater empire. Without them, villages were suddenly isolated.
As we have seen, the core of Roman civilization was education. Teaching a single language and mythology united the upper class in a common culture that spanned across the empire while educating the most talented among the poor at the public’s expense and then pushing them toward government positions had ensured a high level of competency at all levels of government. It had also made government employees unusually loyal to Rome.
However, the grammatici and the rhetorici that had done the teaching had been funded by the education of the rich, so without them the teachers would have had no patrons in Britain. Probably, some of them remained behind and found work where they could (Gildas’ education is proof of that), but those who insisted on their traditional income were forced to leave for the continent.
Along with the political changes came economic adaptations. Coins had been coming to Britain for centuries as pay to government officials and soldiers. They had then spent their money on the island and dispersed the new money. But as of 410 Britain was no longer part of the empire and received no more shipments of coin.
Judging by the wear of later Roman coins, money was used for a long time after the last shipments – we think it was still in circulation until maybe 430 or 440. They were used until no one could read them any more. After that, the Britons drifted into a bartering system as it was practiced among the Irish and had been among the pre-Roman British – with a female slave, a milk-producing cow, and an ounce of silver as equal standards of exchange.[i] Bartering meant that trade would be more limited from that point on; artwork, specialists, and weapons were still easily transportable, but cattle were the most convenient unit of exchange and they were more difficult.
For centuries Britannia had been protected by the Roman military, but the military had been paid by Roman coins and those were no longer free flowing after about 407, which means that whatever official military forces Constantine had left behind had probably dispersed long before 420.
During the last few decades of Roman Britain, the foederati had been protecting the eastern and southern coast from pirating and raids. They had been paid by food and supplies as well as coins, and probably by more and more trade items after 407. As we have seen, even these protectors would eventually revolt and conquer the very lands they had been protecting. That would leave the Britons on their own to protect themselves with homemade spears, bows designed and used for hunting, and any sharp household objects they could find.
The new economic system was local in the extreme – with a bartering system in place it had to be. It also ensured that the social, military, and even political aspects of post-Roman Britain were also local. Public buildings and roads crumbled from no maintenance. Local governments went from a well-educated bureaucracy to an informal group of town elders. The effect was as significant to them as the sudden loss of internet would be to us in the modern world.
[i] The exact equivalencies seem to have varied by region and time but the basic exchange, the bartering dollar, was the female slave/milking cow/ounce of silver.