Britain’s first Brexit was the hardest
Thomas Cole, 'The Course of Empire: Destruction', 1836   
Brexit: lessons from history Series

Europe had not always been joined in a single union. Once, lacking any sense of a common identity, it had been prey to tribal rivalries and hatreds. But all that had changed. Much of the continent had been brought to share the same laws, the same currency, the same single market.

The demands on its leaders, though, were immense. Huge challenges had to be met: internal rivalries; migratory pressures; revolts by the left-behind. Confronted by these issues, it was hardly surprising that leaders in the continental heartlands of Europe should have wearied of one crisis in particular: Brexit.

Their initial hopes that it might be reversed had been dashed. Increasingly, rather than fight it, they had come to accept it as a fait accompli. In AD452, writing in Marseille, a chronicler duly recorded it as a simple statement of fact that the island was “lost to the Romans”.

A detailed account of how Britain came to leave the Roman Empire is impossible. The written sources are brief and fragmentary; the evidence from archaeology hotly contested. Only the dimmest outline of the story can be distinguished, silhouetted against the general murk. One thing, though, is clear: the narrative is one of gathering chaos. “Fertile in rebels,” St Jerome called Britain: a breeding-ground of dissent.

In 383, an ambitious warlord had stripped the island of its garrisons, crossed the Channel, and ruled as emperor in Gaul for five years. Then, in 406, the remnants of the field army in Britain backed and murdered two new usurpers in quick succession. In 407, a third pretender, the self-proclaimed Constantine III, left for Gaul. There he succeeded in obliging the offical ruler of the Roman West, a pallid and decidedly low-energy emperor by the name of Honorius, to recognise him as his partner in the purple.

Meanwhile, back in a Britain denuded of its defences, pirates from across the North Sea had begun to raid its shores. Accordingly, in 409, the Britons took up arms themselves.

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A century later, writing in distant Constantinople, a historian named Zosimus spelt out what this had meant in practice. The Britons, he recorded, “were obliged to throw off Roman rule, and live independently. No longer were they subject to Roman laws.”

Unsurprisingly – the study of the period being what it is – these brief comments by Zosimus raise almost as many questions as they answer. Who precisely had the Britons been rebelling against? It is possible that it was specifically Constantine III, and that the British rebellion had been, not a rejection of Roman rule, but the precise opposite: a display of loyalty to the legitimate emperor.

Evidence for this is to be found in a letter that Honorius may have sent to the Britons in 410, authorising them – while he was distracted by barbarian invasions and his on-going rivalry with Constantine – “to take defensive measures on their own behalf”. It is certainly the case that elements within the British elite continued to identify with Rome for decades to come. Writing to officials on the continent, they would describe their representations as “the groans of the Britons”.

Such despair was only to be expected. Britain had long been a part of the imperial system. Over the course of four centuries, its upper classes had been marinaded in classical culture, its economy woven inextricably into the continental single market, and its sense of its place in the world founded on its identity as a Roman province. For many among the British elite, then, the prospect of being abandoned by the imperial authorities was a horrifying one. It was a leap into the dark.

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And yet there were many in Britain, perhaps, willing to make just such a leap. It is notable that in 411, when Constantine III was defeated and his head sent to Honorius, Britain was not restored to imperial rule. If there were many in the province who identified strongly with Roman order, then it is likely that there were many as well who deeply resented it.

Out in the fields no one studied Virgil. The peasantry had always had good cause to resent the exactions of the imperial tax-collectors. Increasingly, though, as Britain was stripped of its garrisons, and both internal and external security went into freefall, it seems that many among the ruling classes as well began to feel that they were getting no return on their taxes.

In Britain – more, perhaps, than anywhere else in the empire – loyalty to Rome co-existed with a sense of alienation from its rule. No matter how assiduously a British aristocrat might take baths or invest in central heating, he was almost certain to be viewed on the continent as a redneck. Centuries after the absorption of Britain into the Roman empire, the very notion of a civilised Briton was still capable of generating hilarity. “There’s no such thing,” one poet in fourth century Gaul had sneered.

To Roman geographers, Britain had always ranked as a place of mystery: for to lie beyond the bounds of the Ocean was to lie beyond the bounds of the civilised world. The crisis of 409 demonstrated just how ruinously the ambivalences of Britain’s status within the Roman empire had been metastasising.

The Brexit of the fifth century AD was a hard Brexit indeed. With the severing of the sinews that for so long had bound it to the imperial bureaucracy and economy, the society of the erstwhile province endured a cataclysmic implosion. Cities were abandoned to squatters; coinage vanished from circulation; the richest and most fertile portions of the island began to be carved up by barbarian warlords. Nowhere else in the Roman world was there collapse on quite this scale.

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The process of transformation that would see the province of Britannia emerge, over the course of five centuries, to become the kingdom of England was far more total than anything experienced in Italy or Gaul. So alien, indeed, did the stone roads and towering walls of the vanished imperial order appear to the Anglo-Saxons to seem “orthanc enta geweorc”: “the cunning work of giants”.

Look into the mirror of the first Brexit, and a sombre parody can be found there of the country’s current agony. Lurking behind the nightmares of Leavers is a dread of the Brussels bureaucracy as the agents of an overweening imperium, impatient to reduce Britain to the status of a province; lurking behind those of Remainers is the vision of a once prosperous part of a European union reduced by its departure to rubble and weeds.

The story of Britain’s exit from the Roman empire might seem, then, to offer nothing but the grimmest of lessons. The dilemma with which geography has always confronted us – too close to continental Europe to separate ourselves from it, too peripheral ever to be at its heart – is not going away, after all, no matter how the current imbroglio may end up resolved.

Yet if the events of the fifth century offer warnings, so also do they offer reassurance. The European Union is not the Roman Empire; a no-deal Brexit will not lead to the total de-monetisation of our economy. Bad though things may seem now, they have been infinitely worse in the past.

Small comfort it may be, but to look back at Britain in the fifth century, when social and economic chaos was total, and long established bases of power and authority were collapsing all around, is to appreciate just what a crisis can truly be.