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Jason GodeskyVisit Jason Godesky's website: The Saxon Shore

Described by one of his teachers as "one of the most intelligent and aware students I have encountered in 33 years of teaching. … He is amazing!" Jason has won awards for fiction and oratory and Web page design. As acting Editor-in- Chief, Jason founded The Saxon Shore five years ago. From those humble beginnings, the Saxon Shore has grown in size and scope. These days, Jason mainly works with the technical and design issues of running the Shore, more and more leaving academic issues in more professional hands.

Jason Godesky is the author of Soulforge, a seven chapter sage, which chronicles the travels of Rakeesh the Liontaur's Paladin Sword, "Soulforge."

Jason Godesky is also the president of the Association for Computing Machinery (PittACM) and Visual Editor of the The Pittsburgh Undergraduate Review at the
University of Pittsburgh.

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Vortigern the "Big Man"

Jason Godesky

The Saxon Shore
first published on
The Saxon Shore

In 400 CE, Britain was among the most prosperous of the Roman provinces of the West. Largely untouched by the barbarian invasions ravaging the Continent, its agricultural production made it the “Egypt” of the Western Empire (Vermaat, 2000), and though events in the previous half-century had greatly run-down its vital importance to Ravenna and Rome, it remained firmly a diocese of the Roman Empire, at the height of its Romanitas. A short century later, and the island could not be any further from that picture. The Classical society had been replaced with a “Heroic” society—that is, one where warfare was the primary activity of the elites (Alcock, 1987). Like the change from the LPRIA to Roman Britain, there was a great deal of change, and a great deal of continuity: these two processes should most likely be seen as always operating in tandem, rather than separated out, as many archaeologists have been wont to do. While the day-to-day life of the vast lower class remained relatively unchanged, the differences among the aristocracy could hardly be more marked; yet, even there, we see continuity. How, then, did this drastic change take place? Discussion of this pivotal question must necessarily turn on our views on a shadowy figure encountered in the twenty-third chapter of Gildas’ De Excidio Britanniae:

Then all the councillors, together with that proud tyrant Gurthrigern [Vortigern], the British king, were so blinded, that, as a protection to their country, they sealed its doom by inviting in among them (like wolves into the sheep-fold), the fierce and impious Saxons, a race hateful both to God and men, to repel the invasions of the northern nations. … Foolish are the princes, as it is said, of Thafneos, giving counsel to unwise Pharaoh. (DEB 23, Giles trans.)

The question of whether the superbus tyrannus is actually named in the original is an unanswered one, but we shall assume here, not without reason, that he was (Dumville, 1977). Gildas’ use of metaphor is quite probable here (Higham, 1994)so an examination of his use of the term “pharaoh” may yield other information regarding this superbus tyrannus. The next occurrence of the word is in chapter 37:

…I will briefly set down the threatenings which are denounced against these five aforesaid lascivious horses, the frantic followers of Pharaoh, through whom his army is wilfully urged forward to their utter destruction in the Red Sea, and also against such others… (DEB 37, Giles trans.)

The final mention of the term, in chapter 76, seems to be nothing more than a summary of the Exodus story. However, the reference made in chapter 37 is quite relevant to Vortigern: the “five aforesaid lascivious horses” are obviously referring to the five “tyrants” Gildas had previously denounced. While the possibility exists that Gildas is here referring to them as sub-kings under an over-king who may have inherited Vortigern’s position (and thus, the use of the term “pharaoh”), there is little evidence for such a structure in post-Roman Britain (e.g. Salway, 1981). Instead, it may be worthy of note that even in Gildas’ seemingly (albeit deceptive) relative chronology, Vortigern precedes the tyrants of his own day. Therefore, these “tyrants” may not have been following Vortigern politically as sub-kings, but rather, following him chronologically, and establishing their reigns along the same lines as Vortigern’s. Can we then glean something of the general practices of Vortigern, by an examination of Gildas’ five tyrants?

It should be noted that the one solid, indisputable reference to this figure is Gildas’ “superbus tyrannus.”As Christopher Snyder excellently argues (1998), the use of the term “tyrannus” was undergoing a drastic change in this period. In the classical world, Christian writers began to develop its connotation of a ruler who assumed power through extra-legal means; that is, an “emperor” or “king” or other such ruler (the titles were often used interchangeably—Late Antique emperors were often referred to as rex Romanorum) who did not hold the imperium (i.e., was not “legitimate”). Naturally, in the world of Late Antiquity especially, yesterday’s tyrannus could be tomorrow’s imperator, but it was from this meaning of an illegitimate ruler that was eventually derived the denotation of a cruel or despotic ruler. At the same time, as Dr. Synder shows, the Celtic cognate tigernos was coming into wide use as a title of respect, denoting a person of power. This term was devoid of the emerging classical notions of the ruler’s legitimacy or justice. Its appearance in the name of Vortigern, with the element Vor- indicating “top” or “head” or some other supremacy, matches well with Gildas’ term superbus tyrannus; this may indicate Gildas was making a pun on Vortigern’s name.

The use of the term “tyrant” to describe nearly all the leaders of post-Roman Britain, then, is telling. When Saint Jerome calls Britain “a province fertile of tyrants,” when Patrick addresses the “tyrant” Coroticus and Gildas addresses the “five tyrants” of the De Excidio Britanniae, we may see here an island divided amongst many rulers who lack not only Roman imperium, but any sort of institutionalized power. The “Honorian Rescript” would have given the imperium to the British civitates, and given the use of curial titles in various inscriptions, it seems that the rulers of post-Roman Britain either were of the curial class, or wanted very much to be seen as being from the curial class. However, the Honorian Rescript may just as well have been addressed to Italian civitates, and the use of curial titles may be the act of “tyrants” wishing to give themselves some form of legitimacy by tapping into the curial mythos in a society where a renewed emphasis was seemingly placed on LPRIA identifications and rulers (for example, the refortification of the centers of LPRIA secular power, the hillforts), and where possibly the Roman imperium may have lain with the curia of the civitates. So, the use of curial imagery and titles may as well be the act of tyrants trying to legitimize their power as continuity in the power of the civitates.

Be that as it may, the only British ruler mentioned in a post-Roman British text who is not referred to as a tyrant is Ambrosius Aurelianus in Gildas; however, this need not necessarily mean he was not a tyrant, only that Gildas did not call him such. It may be that Gildas’ high esteem for Ambrosius led him to avoid the word, but it may also be that he was not a ruler at all. Gildas refers to Ambrosius Aurelianus as leading the Britons in battle against the Saxons—he may well have been a general, rather than a ruler. Or, there is the possibility he may be somehow connected to the fourth century Prefect of the Gauls, Ambrosius Aurelius, father of St. Ambrose, and been involved in some abortive attempt to restore Roman authority to Britain (Salway, 1981). Either way, the possible exception of Ambrosius is, in fact, no exception at all.

So, then, we see that all the rulers of post-Roman Britain that we find in the texts are referred to as “tyrants.” This, then, would seem to suggest that there was no institutionalized power in Britain. If there were such an institution in Britain, then we would have at least one ruler who would not be a tyrant; there may be numerous other “tyrants” in opposition to that ruler, but we would have at least one legitimate king. We have no textual evidence of any such primary, central ruler; nor does the archaeology suggest any such pattern (some centers, such as South Cadbury, are quite impressive, but evidence is lacking for any sort of pan-British influence). Therefore, from this excessive use of the term “tyrant,” as well as our accounts of how Roman Britain ended and the general (though by no means complete) lack of archaeological continuity, it seems reasonable to assume that post-Roman Britain lacked any sort of institutionalized power, and that the leaders who emerged could therefore not be anything but “tyrants.”

If Gildas’ five tyrants were following Vortigern’s example, it was surely in the nature of their reign. From Gildas’ description of these, as well as Patrick’s description of Coroticus and the more generalized descriptions gleaned from these and a handful of other sources, we may construct a textual image of post-Roman British leadership, which we can then compare to the archaeological evidence. From this, we may be able to construct a general model of who Vortigern was, and where he derived his power from.


The first of the five tyrants Gildas addresses is Constantine, “the tyrannical whelp of the unclean lioness of Damnonia.” This is usually taken as a pun on the name of the Dumnonii tribe, in Cornwall. Gildas mentions how Constantine had “not one worthy act could he boast of” at the time of writing, suggesting he may have been a young ruler, possibly in the beginning of his reign. Yet his later says “I know [Constantine] as yet to be in this life extant,” suggesting that rumors were circulating as to his demise. Gildas addresses Constantine on two accounts: he charges him with “having put away his wife,” and with the slaying of “two royal youths.” We will turn first to the matter of the “adultery.”

Such “putting away” of wives is a common enough allegation in Gildas, as we shall see, so it would stand to reason that there is something here beyond the sermonizing of an old cleric. We know in the Continent the barbarian “generalissimos” gained a great deal of their initial leverage from marriage into the imperial family. The later Pillar of Eliseg places an unusual emphasis on the purported marriage of Vortigern to a descendant of Magnus Maximus, which, if there is any historical validity to it, should most likely be seen in light of the Continental parallels. Therefore, we may see this “putting away” of wives as an attempt to establish some sort of legitimacy. As discussed previously, we seem to have negative evidence in the use of the word “tyrannus” for a lack of imperium in post-Roman Britain. In Gildas’ allegations, we may detect some apprehensions on the part of the rulers concerning this situation. This is a point to which we shall return.

The murder of the “two royal youths” by Constantine in a church would seem to fit well with Gildas’ assertion that

Kings were anointed, not according to God's ordinance, but such as showed themselves more cruel than the rest; and soon after, they were put to death by those who had elected them, without any inquiry into their merits, but because others still more cruel were chosen to succeed them. If any one of these was of a milder nature than the rest, or in any way more regardful of the truth, he was looked upon as the ruiner of the country, every body cast a dart at him, and they valued things alike whether pleasing or displeasing to God, unless it so happened that what displeased him was pleasing to themselves. (DEB 21, Giles trans.)

While there is certainly a great deal of rhetoric in this description, it seems difficult to maintain that Gildas could have characterized his Britain as so politically volatile if it was in fact stable. With Constantine we see two of the earmarks of British “tyranny,” then: a pre-occupation with legitimacy, and political instability. But we also see an emphasis on warfare in the ruling class—although it is an emphasis Gildas disparages—which is diagnostic of “Heroic” society. That this is tied to political instability should be no surprise; no doubt this instability created an “evolutionary” effect, with the more belligerent aristocrats managing to survive, while those “of a milder nature than the rest” did not. In this instability, then, we may see the mechanism by which Classical society became Heroic. But then, the question must be asked, why was there such instability?

Aurelius Conanus

One may be forgiven here for supposing a connection with the Ambrosius Aurelianus discussed earlier, particularly given Gildas’ assertion that Ambrosius’ descendants had “degenerated” from their forebear’s “modesty” and virtue. However, Aurelius was a common enough name in the Roman world, and we should not jump to any conclusion of relation based only on that. The description of Aurelius also paints a picture of political instability, citing Aurelius’ “thirsting unjustly after civil wars and frequent spoil” and the “vain and idle fancies of thy parents and brethren, together with the untimely death that befell them in the prime of their youth.” Apparently, Aurelius’ family, even if it was not necessarily Ambrosius’, was one that was nonetheless used to holding power, and had lost many members from the political instability of the time.


It is rare to find archaeological attestation of the same individuals we find in texts, and so one of the truly incredible artifacts for the student of this period is the “Vortipor Stone,” discovered in 1895 by Bowen Jones. Law read the stone as, “MEMORIA VOTEPORIGIS PROTICTORIS,” or, translated, “The monument of Voteporix the Protector” (see the CISP Online Database).

Gildas’ description of Vortipor as “whose head now is growing grey,” leads one to conclude that Vortipor is at least becoming old, at least for a king of the time (as we have seen, political instability may have made a king with a “grey head” an unusual thing). Gildas locates Vortipor in Demetia, that is, modern Dyfed. There is strong evidence to suggest a great deal of Irish influence there, and possibly Irish overlordship (Dark, 1994), although the use of the Irish legend of the “expulsion of the Deisi” may be placing undue confidence in a story with a strongly mythological tone. Or, we may read Gildas’ comment that Vortipor was the “son of a good king” in light of later Welsh tradition who named his father Agricola, and credited him with the final victory over the Irish overlords of Dyfed, but this, too, may place too much confidence in later, essentially legendary, material.

Vortipor is also accused of “putting away” his wife, as was Constantine. Gildas adds to this an allegation of raping his “shameless daughter,” which, if it is not entirely his invention, may still seem to fit into a model of dynastic establishment, if far removed from usual practice.


Gildas’ description of Cuneglasse is of a great “warrior-king,” although it is a model Gildas himself disparages. He speaks of Cuneglasse as a “tawny butcher,” a “bear” and as “guider of the chariot which is the receptacle of the bear.” He mentions Cuneglasse’s “war as well against men as also against God himself, against men, yea, thy own countrymen, with thy deadly weapons.” Here, then, we see a clear picture of a “tyrant” who holds his power by the regular exercise of force. Gildas makes charges against Cuneglasse on sexual grounds, as well, alleging he, too, has “put away” his wife, in favor of her sister. Cuneglasse, then, fits very well into the two themes we have seen in the previous “tyrants:” political instability, and a preoccupation with dynastic concerns.


The “tyrant” Gildas spends the most time on, and the only one whom he does not urge to repent but rather is assured he is destined for hell, is Maglocunus, who was been strongly identified with Maelgwn Gwynedd. The opening words of Gildas’ tirade against Maglocunus tell us much:

And likewise, O thou dragon of the island, who hast deprived many tyrants, as well of their kingdoms as of their lives, and though the last-mentioned in my writing, the first in mischief, exceeding many in power, and also in malice, more liberal than others in giving, more licentious in sinning, strong in arms, but stronger in working thine own soul's destruction, Maglocunus. (DEB 33, Giles trans.)

Here we see reiterated the themes of political instability and a stress on a military record. But, we also see a stress here laid on “giving,” which we shall find again in later descriptions of various British “tyrants.” This sort of “generosity” is extremely important in “Heroic” society, as it is the primary means of holding together the warriors who form the elite. In Welsh and Anglo-Saxon poetry, generosity is very often found as the mark of a great leader. The members of a warband attach themselves to a given leader primarily for the chance of glory, but also for the share of the booty given by their leader’s generosity (Alcock, 1987). Such giving can also form social ties of indebtedness, and such was undoubtedly their function in “Heroic” society: the more generous the leader was, the more indebted his followers were to him, helping to maintain the cohesion of the warband and thus, of the elites. While this undoubtedly has roots in Classical patronage, it is a very different thing; for one, the “clients” are of much higher status than the clients of Classical patronage, and the “generosity” is primarily to create social bonds of indebtedness in order to create a cohesive elite, rather than to extract labor from the masses.

Gildas mentions that Maglocunus’ kingdom is larger than most others in Britain (possibly all others), and strangely enough, remarks on Maglocunus’ physical height. This may reinforce the image of the British “tyrant” as primarily a warlord, who often had to resort to his own physical strength in battle. Gildas mentions how Maglocunus slew his uncle and his warband in his youth, and this may be how he initially came to power. Either way, this would be an illustration of both political instability, and dynastic concerns. Gildas seems to insinuate that Maglocunus dabbled with monasticism for a time; this may be reminiscent of Constantine III’s son, Constans. However, Maglocunus did not remain in the monastery, but rather, returned to rule his kingdom.

At this point in Gildas’ sermon, he mentions another interesting theme which will be seen repeatedly:

“…for now thou dost not listen to the praises of God sweetly sounded forth by the pleasant voices of Christ's soldiers, nor the instruments of ecclesiastical melody, but thy own praises (which are nothing) rung out after the fashion of the giddy rout of Bacchus by the mouths of thy villainous followers…” (DEB 34, Giles trans.)

Though we may have only one poem from this period (if an extremely early date is accepted for Anierin’s Y Gododdin), the Welsh poetry which immediately proceeds it is filled with the sort of praise poems that Gildas may be describing here. A great number of the works of Taliesin, for instance, are spent praising Urien Rheged for his ability in war, and his generosity. With the political instability already illustrated in Gildas, such poems of praise may have had a political impact. As we have seen, an image of generosity was vital to these rulers, in order to attract the best warriors to their warbands. As warfare became an elite activity, the armies became very small. The laws of Ine, for instance, define an army as anything more than 30 men, and an early Anglo-Saxon kingdom was nearly toppled by 80 (Alcock, 1987). This is understandable if we accept a use of the almost “guerrilla” tactics which are routinely used by non-state peoples (Keeley, 1996). As such, it seems reasonable to assume that it was such strategies which were employed by the Anglo-Saxons, and the less Romanized Britons of modern day Wales and northern England, where Romanization never proceeded very far, and the Lex Julia could not be as strictly enforced. This would also explain the rapid fall of the more Romanized civitates to the Anglo-Saxons, and the slow attrition of Wales and other Celtic areas (Higham, 1992), as well as the small forces described in the textual sources.

With such small warbands, the attraction of even a single warrior to a leader’s service could be pivotal, so the advertisement of a warlord’s image as strong in battle and generous in the distribution of booty may have been an important part of post-Roman British politics. This may be closely tied with the preoccupation with dynastic concerns we have already noted, as some warriors may be swayed to serve a leader who could provide some sort of legitimacy. The early Welsh praise poems, such as those attributed to Taliesin, may even have precedence in the Classical world, with the panegyrics which became popular in Late Antiquity. Thus, with praise poems before and after this period, and allusions to them in our textual sources, we may have little reason to doubt their existence, or postulate their importance in the post-Roman political landscape.

Maglocunus is then accused of murdering his wife and his nephew, that he might marry the latter’s wife. Here, again, Maglocunus combines the two themes of political instability and dynastic concerns. He then opens a lengthy diatribe on the hopelessness of Maglocunus’ state, and the assuredness of his damnation.


We have one other picture of a British tyrant, and this one in a good deal more detail. This is the “Coroticus” Patrick addresses in his “epistle.” While Dumville is certainly right in pointing out the dangers of trying to place this “tyrant” based on information from later genealogies, I must disagree with his suggestion that this may have been an Irish, rather than a British, figure (Dumville et. al 1993). As Dumville himself admits, the evidence indicating an Irish origin is ambiguous. On the other hand, Patrick’s reference to Coroticus as a “tyrant” carries with it the classical implications mentioned before: native Irish rulers were “petty kings,” but only a ruler from a Roman or formerly Roman land could truly be a “tyrant.” Furthermore, Patrick refrains from referring to Coroticus’ followers as “fellow citizens of the holy Romans” due to their sins. While this may indeed refer to Christianity more than Romanitas I find it far-fetched to posit the existence of a Christian leader in Ireland opposing St. Patrick, at the time of his missionary activity. All in all, the evidence seems to either indicate a British origin, or equivocate. For our purposes, then, we may presume Coroticus was British (as concensus opinion states), or, at the most, that he was a British “tyrant” operating in Ireland, possibly with strong Irish ties. Either way, his career can be taken as largely typical of British “tyranny,” particularly in light of the commonalities it shares with the previously enumerated themes, as we shall now discuss.

The incident of which Patrick writes seems to have been a raid by Coroticus’ soldiers upon a group of newly baptized Irish. A significant amount of booty was evidently captured, as well as a number of the Irish, who were sold into slavery to “Scots and Picts and apostates.” In the second paragraph of the epistle, we find the most telling account of Coroticus’ “tyranny”:

“Whence therefore I beseech most of all, [you] 'holy and humble of heart,' that it be not permissible to flatter such people, 'to take food' or drink with them, nor ought one be obliged to accept their alms until, with tears poured out to God, they perform penance rigorously enough and liberate the slaves of God and the baptized handmaids of Christ, for whom he died and was crucified.” (Epistola, de Paor trans.)

This may well be an early form of excommunication (Dumville et. al 1993), but the activities Patrick forbids the “holy” from partaking with Coroticus strike to the very core of the nature of British “tyranny” and the themes previously visited in Gildas. First, “it is not permissible to flatter such people.” As seen with Maglocunus, the poetic tradition stretching from the Late Antique panegyric to the early medieval Welsh praise poem may have served important political functions of fortifying a “tyrant’s” prestige and standing. Thus, Patrick seems to be laying down restrictions that could have important, debilitating political effects for Coroticus. The other restrictions—against sharing food or receiving alms—may be much the same. As is well known of “Heroic” society in general, “feasting” with one’s warriors is an important social function. Moreover, the image of generosity—to one’s warriors, as well as to society in general and particularly the poor in Late Antique Christian society (Brown, 1992)—was, as we have seen, a very crucial one to a British “tyrant.” So, we see that Patrick is restricting Coroticus from exercising the most important functions a British “tyrant” had of maintaining his power.

A generalized model of British "tyranny"

From the preceding, we may assemble a model of British “tyranny” in general. The view that these were Roman emperors in miniature, trying to use the same basic strategies as the imperial government only on a smaller scale, leads to innumerable difficulties. However, political anthropology offers us a type of leader who fits the themes we have identified perfectly: the “Big Man.” The “Big Man” first appears in Melanesian ethnography, where no true “chief” can be discerned. The Big Man is distinguished by his reliance on personal ability, rather than institutionalized power (Ember, 1998). Such leaders generally dominate the political scene at the tribal level (Service, 1975), but in fact can be found throughout the chiefdom and state levels as well (Van Bakel et. al, 1986).

The collapse of the imperial government’s ability to exert control over the island of Britain may have provided a unique power vacuum, where institutionalized power was no longer available. In such a situation, it is hardly surprising that “Big Men” should rise to prominence. By manipulating the social ties of Late Antique patronage, leaders could arise from any number of sources: the Church, the lower aristocracy, military officers, even the local bailiffs of the powerful “super rich” landowners of the central provinces who, if modern ethnography can have any parallel, must surely have been important in the patronage system (Amsbury, 1979). What they would have shared, however, was a foundation for their power not in the institutionalized power of the state, but rather, their own, personal abilities to manipulate resources—and here, we mean “resources” in the widest possible sense, including not only material resources, but also social resources, in the form of various relationships, ties, and bonds. The original, Melanesian Big Men, for instance, maintained their power by an intricate series of loans, which gave them a great deal of control over the tribe’s economy. Therefore, young men trying to attain a wife would need to indebt themselves to the Big Man to pay the bride price—thus furthering his power. Similar methods were employed by the rulers of the Greek Dark Ages prior to the rise of the city-states, only the difference in the economy led to a greater emphasis on the acquisition of warriors and the exercise of military might (Van der Vliet, 1986). Likewise, post-Roman Britain posed a very different economic situation from Melanesia, but the basic strategies have a great deal of similarity. The breakdown of state-level society left various state-level structures available to “Big Men.” These must be seen as among the most vital resources these “tyrants” had to manipulate to maintain their power, particularly the military; although Salway is certainly right that many units must have disbanded themselves when pay was no longer forthcoming (Salway, 1993), some military units had come to identify themselves more closely with the local population, and it may be hypothesized that these may have maintained some cohesion, defending that population, even with the absence of imperial reimbursement—though provisions from the local community in return for defense is certainly a likely arrangement (Gardner, 1999).

Instability is one of the earmarks of “Big Man” systems (Van Bakel et. al, 1986). Without the support of any institution, Big Men easily fall prey to pressures from both inside, and outside. Any slip in even the image of power can lead to a crop of new contenders, anxious to seize the Big Man’s prominence, prestige, power and influence. Thus, a great deal of the Big Man’s time is generally spent maintaining an image of prestige, generally through great displays of generosity, or throwing extraordinarily expensive parties—a common custom known as “potlatching.” Besides enhancing the prestige of the Big Man, this sort of giving creates social bonds of indebtedness to the Big Man, serving to further reinforce his power (Goodell, 1985). Thus, while the Big Man is generally the economic focus, with most of the goods flowing to him, the economy may be seen as redistributive, or pseudo-redistributive (Kottak, 2000), since the Big Man is forced to spend almost as quickly as he gains, in order to maintain his position. Again, we see parallels for this in post-Roman Britain. Gildas, Patrick, and Constantius of Lyons all give a general depiction of Britain as wealthy—Constantius going so far as to call Britain “the wealthy island.” While this may have something to do with the general level of rhetoric, the massive earthworks we find from this period would indicate some general wealth. We also have centers of trade such as Tintagel, and the survival—even the prosperity—of centers such as Wroxeter into the sub-Roman period. A prodigious number of military regalia have been identified archaeologically, but even if these were worn by civilians (as has been argued), it cannot be denied that these were indications of status, thus indicating a certain amount of wealth. What is truly suspicious of this all, however, is the transient nature of this wealth: there are earthworks, but almost nothing done in stone. The roads are left to decay, and monumental architecture in stone is almost unheard of. We have archaeological evidence of a great number of persons rewarded with wealth, but the pattern that emerges is the most amount of energy spent on those things which can be accomplished fairly quickly. While this would contradict our textual evidence in a state-based model of leadership, it is perfectly reasonable if we posit the “tyrants” were “Big Men.” For, as mentioned before, the Big Man is less a receiver of wealth than a channel of wealth. The Big Man must spend prodigious amounts, and very quickly, if he is to maintain his power and prestige; otherwise, someone else will spend more wealth, more quickly, and overtake his position. Thus, our defenses are primarily earthworks that can be finished much more quickly than stone walls, and people are given prestige goods and status symbols to ensure their loyalty. The archaeological evidence which Alcock discusses in detail (Alcock, 1987) all support this conclusion of a great deal of wealth being spent very quickly, but not being invested in things that would take so long to finish as to put the Big Man’s power in jeopardy. Surely, in this situation, the military was one of the most important parts of the Big Man’s expenditures, and most of the wealth was almost certainly spent trying to procure their loyalty.

The political importance of panegyric and dynastic claims would go hand in hand with the instability of “Big Man” systems and the pivotal need to maintain prestige as the key to power. Extravagant generosity was probably even more pivotal, and may be the earmark of the post-Roman British economy. However, even the most skillful Big Man eventually wanes in influence, leading to the civil wars bemoaned by Gildas. With this model of British “tyranny,” then, let us conclude with an assessment of “Vortigern’s” career in light of these parallels.

Vortigern revisited

The “council” Gildas describes has often been a sticking point for students of the post-Roman period. While we know of a provincial council from the earlier days, in the first century (Salway, 1993), such councils had become something entirely different. The “Council of the Gauls” was re-established in 418 to address pressing concerns after a long hiatus. These councils may be characterized, then, as being primarily in response to some pressure in Late Antiquity. The “council” described by Gildas, then, may have been convened to address the threat posed by Aetius and the possibility of a return of Roman power, which would have jeopardized the power of all the British “tyrants” who had emerged in the absence of imperial authority (Salway, 1981).

Vortigern may have been a Christian cleric, perhaps a bishop or even an archbishop (Vermaat, 2001). This would certainly not have been very extraordinary, as we know many Gallic aristocrats, for instance, had entered the clergy and attained high positions, including bishoprics. As bishops, these aristocrats enjoyed an extra layer of protection, and expanded their clientele, as the bishop had the entire episcopal diocese as his clients (Mathisen, 1993). With the collapse of Roman authority, access to such clerical sources of power may have proven invaluable. Moreover, his aristocratic status would have given him an extensive range of material and social resources to exploit. Ultimately, he was a “Big Man,” and evidently an extraordinarily successful one at that. Gildas’ reference to him as the “superbus tyrannus” gives one the impression of a Big Man with much greater skill and success than any of his contemporaries; he may have come closer to establishing a new institutionalized power than any other British leader. If this was the case, he may have had far more to lose should Aetius invade. No doubt using the same skills that gave him his power in the first place, Vortigern may have influenced the council to decide in favor of hiring Saxon foederatiIn this, he was showing his true Romanitas, by employing a classically Roman strategy to forestall the threat of Roman invasion. Moreover, Gildas tells us the Saxons revolted following another classically Roman move: the betrayal of the foedus once the barbarians were no longer needed (Higham, 1994). Vortigern, as the most influential member of the council, was no doubt chosen to put their plan into action, and so, receives particular attention from Gildas who, with the benefit of hindsight, was able to see the disastrous outcome of the plan. Though Gildas sees duplicity in the Saxons’ demand for supplies, we may see from plentiful Continental examples that no duplicity is necessary: the Roman Empire generally considered betrayal of terms with barbarians to be of little consequence. It was a similar betrayal that launched the career of Alaric, for example.

Later traditions would develop an entire legendary cycle around this figure, revolving around a judgment made in hindsight. However, ultimately, Vortigern was tragically typical of the late Roman outlook, but dealing with a political climate in rapid change, where state-level society was breaking down, and forcing the emergence of new models of leadership based on ascribed status, instead of institutionalized power.


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Vortigern the "Big Man" is Copyright 2001, Jason Godesky. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Comments to: Jason Godesky

VortigernStudies is copyright Robert Vermaat 1999-2008. All rights reserved