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Zosimus - Historia Nova
(early sixth century AD)
Robert Vermaat

The Greek historian Zosimos served as a senior official, probably an advocatus fisci, in one of the prefectorial courts of the eastern Empire, eventually rising to the rank of Comes. Writing at the turn of the sixth century, he wrote a history (in Greek) of the Roman emperors from Augustus until the early 5th century. Zosimus was an avowed pagan (clearly not just another Byzantine), not hiding his animosity towards the Christian church, because of which he was mostly neglected by the later Christian medieval scribe.

This is what Photius has to say about Zosimus:

Bibliotheca, Codex 98:
Read the History of count Zosimus, ex-advocate of the fisc, in six books. Being an impious heathen, he frequently yelps at those of the true faith. His style is concise, clear, and pure, and not devoid of charm. He begins his history almost from the time of Augustus, and glances rapidly at the emperors down to Diocletian, merely mentioning their proclamation and the order of succession. From Diocletian he treats at greater length of his successors in five books. The first book contains the emperors from Augustus to Diocletian and the sixth book ends at the time when Alaric, who was besieging Rome for the second time, when the citizens were reduced to desperate straits, raised the siege and proclaimed Attalus emperor. Soon afterwards he deposed him because of his incapacity, and sent an embassy to Honorius, who was then at Ravenna, with proposals for peace. But Sarus, himself a Goth and an enemy of Alaric, with about 300 men attached himself to Honorius, and, promising to do his utmost to assist him against Alaric, succeeded in making the negotiations unsuccessful. Here the sixth book ends.

It may be said that Zosimus did not himself write the history, but that he copied that of Eunapius, from which it only differs in brevity and in being less abusive of Stilicho. In other respects his account is much the same, especially in the attacks upon the Christian emperors. I think that both these authors brought out new editions, although I have not seen the first edition, but it may be conjectured from the title of the "new edition," which I have read, that, like Eunapius, he published a second edition. He is clearer and more concise, as we have said, than Eunapius, and rarely employs figures of speech.

According to Roger Pearse, Zosimus "refers to the hated tax, the Chryargyrum (2.38.4), abolished by Anastasius I in 498, in terms that suggest strongly that he lived after that date.  Evagrius Scholasticus (elsewhere in this collection) writing at the end of the 6th century attacks Zosimus, and tells us that Eustathius, who died around 518,  also wrote against him. This allows us to date Zosimus to the early 6th century." If indeed Zosimus wrote this late, it would make him about the most divorced in space and time of all the late Classical historian, from the events which they described.

A transcript of the relevant chapters can be found at this site.

His work though, as inherited by us, is incomplete – only books I-V and part of book VI survive, and contain Zosimus' description of the troubled times between Julian the Apostate and Honorius, terminating just before the sack of Rome in 410. If Zosimus, as it seems, wrote in the first decade of the 6th century, it is hard to imagine he did not write about later events.

As we have seen above in the comment of Photius, Zosimus pieced together his sources, mainly constructing his history from contemporary sources such as Olympiodorus and Eunapius. According to Roger Pearse, he "used Dexippus for book 1, Eunapius for books 2-5.27, and Olympiodorus thereafter. The history of the latter went down to 425. All these are entirely or mostly lost, but Zosimus copied them slavishly. This can be seen in book 5 where the presentation of Stilicho is hostile while he follows Eunapius, and then becomes mildly positive in 5.34 when he is following Olympiodorus." Because of this method, he makes many chronological and geographical blunders, sometimes confusing characters, conflating actions being chronologically unreliable as well. Small wonder that Zosimus is generally seen as a bad historian, and some describe him as ‘moonstruck’ or ‘muddleheaded’. (Thompson).

The text of Zosimus survives in a single manuscript now in the Vatican, Codex Vaticanus Graecus 156.  This was written over a period of two centuries, the 10th-12th, probably in the celebrated and scholarly Studios monastery in Constantinople.  However the manuscript has suffered damage.  A quaternion of 8 leaves is missing at the end of book 1 / start of book 2.  Also a single leaf has been cut out in book 5, ch. 22.  The Ms. was in the Vatican in 1475, but was moved to the closed shelves during the wars of religion in 1572.  It was made available again in the 1850s.  A surreptitous copy was made in the 16th century, however, and from copies of this all the texts until 1887 were derived. (Pearse)


Because he was so far removed in both time and space from Britain, he seems a poor witness for events that concern Britain in the late fourth and early fifth century. This is even more of a problem, because Zosimus is the main source for two major events in British history – the revolt of 409 and the Rescript of Honorius. He has been criticized severely for his lack of comment, being seemingly a mere copyist of his sources. That may well have been the case, but this was very typical of ancient historians, and not necessarily a bad thing. For instance, it may also mean that we can rely on his writings as accurately copied from his sources, without the risk of meddling. This, and his close reliance on the very impressive work of Olympiodorus, offsets his drawbacks somewhat. But this does not mean that he can be blindly relied on; he did not use his sources accurately. Book VI, ominously containing the evidence crucial for Britain, is desperately muddled, in fact so much so that several modern editors have suggested that Zosimus dropped dead before having the chance to correct the mess of his first draft!

The revolt of 409

Zosimus is our foremost source for the dating of the British revolt. Though I could understand those who would argue that it is not that crucial to determine if the revolt took place in 408, 409 or 410, I must assert here that it is. The events leading up to this revolt, which in all likelihood meant the End of Roman Britain, as well as the revolt itself are not very clear to us. Determining when this revolt took place means that we can establish if it was in effect a revolt against Constantine III or against Honorius, which would make it a revolt against the empire.

Zosimus has several references to this event. His sixth book starts with the invasion of Italy by Alaric, but then changes the subject back to ‘Celtic events’:

Historia Nova, Book VI.1
Celtic affairs have not yet been given above the treatment they deserve it is right that I relate them now in detail.

The next 4 chapters look back in time at the careers of the tyrants Marcus (misdated to 407) and of Constantine III, among which Zosimus, likely depending on this on Olympiodorus, describes an incursion and a subsequent British revolt in AD 408-9:

Historia Nova, Book VI.5.2-3
The barbarians above the Rhine, assaulting without hindrance, reduced the inhabitants of Britain and some of the Celtic peoples to defecting from the Roman rule and living their own lives, independent from the Roman laws. The Britons therefore took up arms and, braving the danger on their own behalf, freed their cities from the barbarian threat. And all Armorica [Brittany] and the other Gallic provinces followed their example, freed themselves in the same way, expelling the Roman officials and setting up a constitution such as they pleased.

Often taken to be Saxons, we can’t be sure who these invaders were, the Franks having ravaged Gaul at the same time. What we can be sure of is that the invaders’ actions induced the provincials to look for their defence to Constantine III. Zosimus is clear who he thinks was responsible for this attack and the subsequent revolt:

Historia Nova, Book VI.5-6
Gerontius … winning over the troops there [in Spain] caused the barbarians in Gaul to rise against Constantine. Since Constantine did not hold out against these, the greater part of his strength being in Spain, the barbarians from beyond the Rhine overran everything at will and reduced the inhabitants of the British Island and some of the peoples in Gaul to the necessity of rebelling from the Roman empire… Now the defection of Britain and the Celtic peoples took place during Constantine’s tyranny, the barbarians having mounted their attacks owing to the carelessness in administration.

At that time, the host of barbarians (Vandals, Alans, Sueves, etc.) moved from Gaul into Spain, a move recorded for 409. Did any of these remain behind and attack Britain? The possibility is there, although a slim one. Franks, Frisians and Saxons were often seen as one of a kind, their mass often given an ethnic label based on the ethnicity of the commander only. Maybe the Franks mounted an attack, but archaeological evidence points to Saxons. This is confirmed by the Gallic Chronicle of 452, which mentions an attack by Saxons:

Chronica Gallia a CCCCLII, Honorius, 16th year : (AD 409 or 410)
The Britains were devastated by an incursion of the Saxons.

The rest of the events mentioned take place in 410, which means that in all likelihood, the British provinces, under attack from the Saxons, revolted at the latest in 410.

The discussion still rages about who they revolted from; was it just the administration of Constantine III that they expelled subsequently? Or was it the Empire in general that they dismissed, their actions being compared with that of the Bacaudae in Gaul? I will go into this discussion elsewhere (see: Bacaudae). Zosimus is very clear that Constantine is the culprit, but he is not clear about the subsequent status of Britain: independent or waiting for help from the legitimate emperor – Honorius.

The Honorian Rescript

Zosimus then mentions a letter from Honorius to the cities (poleis) of Britain, apparently a response to a petition for military aid:

Historia Nova, Book VI.10.2
Honorius wrote letters to the cities in Britain, bidding them to take precautions on their own behalf.

Though often mentioned right after the revolt of 409, this event is written in another part of book VI, which happens to be a quite defective part as well. Though the seeming disparity of the province revolting in 409 and then appealing to Rome for military aid in 410 is explained away as the result of a change in emperors, this can’t be the solution to the problem, as Constantius III was not killed before 411, and it took even longer for Honorius to re-establish control of Gaul. The rebellion seems to have been against his officials, while the appeal to Rome was sent to the legitimate emperor, Honorius (AD 393-423).

This event is usually, erroneously referred to as "The Roman Departure from Britain" or something like that. We cannot possibly read this quote as a policy specific for the British only, in response to an unmentioned plea for help that some even see confirmed by Gildas. It should also be remembered that this event occurs in-between the description of the war in Italy, which has lead some historian to comment that the ‘Brittia’ mentioned here could well have been a misreading of ‘Bruttia’, a beleaguered city in south Italy. Most likely though, the province of Brittii in southern Italy is meant here, which is also mentioned in the Notitia Dignitatum:

Notitia Dignitatum Occidentis chapter 2, The Praetorian Prefect Of Italy
Under the control -of the illustrious praetorian prefect of Italy are the dioceses mentioned below: Italy; Illyricum; Africa. Provinces: of Italy seventeen:Venetia; Aemilia; Liguria; Flaminia and Picentim, and Picenum; Tuscia and Umbria; Picenum suburbicarium; Campania; Sicily; Apulia and Calabria, Lucania and Brittii; the Cottian Alps; Raetia prima, Raetia secunda; Samnium; Valeria; Sardinia; Corsica.

The fact Zosimus was capable of mixing up names and misplacing events should be taken account; more so, because Honorius had already in 406 issued an edict to encourage the provincials in the rest of the Empire take up arms to protect themselves.

Nevertheless, this criticism against the notion that the year 410 was the departure of Britain from the Roman Empire" has met very stiff opposition. Supposed conformation from Gildas is used to corroborate Zosimus:

Gildas, DEB II, 18
They then give energetic counsel to the timorous native, and leave them patterns by which to manufacture arms.

This simple sentence is used by some historian as an equation with the ‘Honorian Rescript’, yet this seems totally out of context in my personal opinion. First, this scene of departing Roman troops is not in the least bit the same as a distant Emperor writing a letter to the civitates, and second, this letter is associated with the ‘Second Pictish War’ (another fiction that has sprung up, see Discussion), which is in any event to be dated earlier than 410! Leaving aside Gildas, one can easily see that letting go of the enormous landmark of ‘410’ would present the British historian with a problem of no small order. It would uproot the history as it has been taught in insular school for generation upon generation. A Roman reoccupation would have to be reconsidered, a possibility that was taken into account by at least some historians, but which seems to have been discredited by the second half of the twentieth century.

I would of course never discredit the events around 409-410, the Britons rejection of (a) Roman government. This event has indeed been proven by other sources, as well as its approximate date. But I would not equate this revolt with the absolute proven end of the British province, or even worse, with the departure of the Roman legions. This would be an irresponsible use of Zosimus, as is best proven by the fifth-century British themselves – even after 410 did they ask for help from ‘Agitus’, expecting Imperial protection.


  • Buchanan, James J., and Davis, Harold T. (1967): Zosimus' Historia Nova, (Trinity University press, San Antonio, Texas), pp. 249-58.
  • Jones, Michael E. and John Casey (1988): The Gallic Chronicle Restored: A Chronology for the Anglo-Saxon Invasions and the End of Roman Britain, in: Britannia XIX, pp. 367-398.*
  • Jones, Michael E. (1996): The End of Roman Britain, (Cornell).*
  • Pearse, Roger ed.: Early Church Fathers - Additional Texts, at: http://www.ccel.org/p/pearse/morefathers/home.html (scroll down to page bottom for Zosimus).
  • Snyder, Christopher A. (1998): An Age of Tyrants, Britain and Britons AD 400-600, (Stroud).*
  • Thompson, E.A. (1977): Britain, AD 406-410, in: Britannia 8, pp. 303-318.*
  • Thompson, E.A. (1983): Fifth-Century Facts?, in: Britannia 14, pp. 272-274.*
  • Wood, Ian N. (1984): The End of Roman Britain: Continental Evidence and Parallels, in: Lapidge and Dumville, Gildas: New Approaches, pp. 1-26.*

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