Category Archives: Scotland

Edinburgh or Ancyra?

Here’s a little gem, slightly edited for effect:

Once [there], our traveller could … feel safe in a proper metropolis, with its ancient fort standing proud on a rugged crag, its old town crowding down the hill’s gentler back, and its regular, properly-planned new town spread out below, with its imposing architecture and grand monuments to distant monarchs.

Immediately, this reads like a description of Edinburgh, doesn’t it? But, in fact, it is a description of late antique Ancyra — but written by Sara Parvis in Marcellus of Ancyra and the Lost Years of the Arian Controversy 325-345.

Sara (one of my Ph.D. supervisors) is Senior Lecturer in Patristics at the University of Edinburgh, where she had already been living for several years at the time her book about Marcellus was published.

This is the kind of little gem one writes into one’s book for those who know. I love it.

Discover Late Antiquity: The Sixth-Century West

1996 French stamp issue featuring Clovis I (r. 496-511)

1996 French stamp issue featuring Clovis I (r. 496-511)

We’ve talked about Justinian. What of the West from 500ish to 600ish? Well, it’s a dangerous place to visit. While such a statement could be taken literally, I mean it figuratively in this instance. You see, the emergent polities of post-Roman western Europe are often seen as the precursors of their medieval and even modern successors. Visigoths in Spain, Franks in Gaul, Anglo-Saxons in Britannia, Picti in Caledonia. The French Republic celebrated Clovis, the Merovingian King of the Franks (d. 511), on a postage stamp (I own a copy).

Last time we saw how Justinian recaptured Africa, a bit of Spain, and Italy, thus reuniting parts of the western and eastern Mediterranean divided for more than a century. The rest of the West does not join in the Roman imperial fun.


Gaul is dominated in this century by a people group called the Franks — I recommend reading their story in Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, from c. 595. Their king at the turn of the century was Clovis, who was descended from a fifth-century Frankish leader named Merovech; his dynasty is called Merovingian and will last into the 700s. The two most important factoids about Clovis: 1. he unites the various Frankish groups into a single kingdom; 2. when he converts to Christianity, he chooses Catholicism, not Homoian/Arian Christianity. As a third thing to take away, let it be noted that both he and his father claimed to hold titles and offices within Roman administration and acknowledged the headship of the faraway Emperor in Constantinople. Clovis also conquers various parts of southern Gaul previously under Visigothic rule.

Later Franks do the same, in fact. By century’s end, Gaul is theirs, and they are pushing increasingly further into Germania. This trans-Rhine world of the Merovingians is highly significant. Previously, because of the Mediterranean focus of Rome, Germania was barely ever taken, most of it not at all. Now the Merovingian Franks are taking over various parts of the trans-Rhine world and incorporating it into their kingdom and administrative system, bringing with them Catholic Christianity, their own coins, taxes, and laws. Germania is thus moving from the hinterland to becoming an integrated part of the European world, politically, culturally, religiously.

Sources: One of the best for the period, besides Gregory of Tours, is the anthology From Roman to Merovingian Gaul by Alexander Callander Murray.


The Third Council of Toledo in Codex Vigilanus (10th-c, my favourite Spanish manuscript)

The Third Council of Toledo in Codex Vigilanus (10th-c, my favourite Spanish manuscript)

I’m the sort of person who would normally say, ‘Spain’, in these conversations, but the piece of Mediterranean geography I’m referring to is the whole peninsula, including Portugal. The Visigoths were the main force in Hispania this century, and they were busily consolidating their power. They were remarkably successful at it, given that the topography of the peninsula tends more towards fragmentation than centralisation. The Visigoths maintained Roman book culture, taxation, and military traditions. They used these to fund battles against the Franks in Gaul.  They also hosted a lot of church councils in Toledo starting this century (which only had two, the Second [527] and Third [589]). At the Third Council of Toledo, King Reccared I of Hispania and Septimania, oversaw the adoption of Catholic Christianity within his realms — hitherto, the Visigothic kingdom had been Homoian/Arian.

Sources: I’m less of an expert on Hispania, but primary sources worth looking at are John of Biclaro’s Chronicle and Isidore of Seville’s History of the Kings of the Goths, both of which are translated by Kenneth Baxter Wolf in Conquerors and Chroniclers in Early Medieval Spain.

Britannia, Caledonia, Hibernia

At the northern edge of the Roman Empire was Britannia; to the North was Caledonia (modern Scotland), and across the Irish Sea was Hibernia (Ireland). Some of the contenders for King Arthur are alleged to have lived in the sixth century. On the whole King Arthur issue, see my review of Guy Halsall’s Worlds of Arthur. In the 500s, the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Britannia are taking shape and forging themselves into polities. There is little, if anything, Roman about the pagan, Germanic-speaking Anglo-Saxons. Gildas, writing either early or mid-century, says:

Britain has kings, but they are tyrants; she has judges, but unrighteous ones; generally engaged in plunder and rapine, but always preying on the innocent… (ch. 27, trans. J.A. Giles)

Without a lot of archaeology, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for this century is largely unhelpful, sadly. What it does show, however, is that we are still in what might be termed the ‘migration period’ in Britannia. The mingling of Germanic and Romano-British that would produce Anglo-Saxon culture was ongoing.

Of course, the thing that had the greatest impact on Anglo-Saxon politics occurred at century’s end. Here is how it is told by Bede in ch. 66 of The Reckoning of Time (often excerpted as the World Chronicle, as in the Oxford World’s Classics translation of the Ecclesiastical History of the English People):

In the thirteenth year of the reign of Maurice and the thirteenth indiction, Gregory, the bishop of Rome and outstanding teacher, assembled a synod of twenty-four bishops at the tomb of the blessed Apostle Peter, to make decisions concerning the needs of the Church. He sent to Britain Augustine, Mellitus and John, and many others, with God-fearing monks with them, to convert the English to Christ. Aethelberht was soon converted to the grace of Christ, together with the people of the Cantuarii over whom he ruled, and those of neighbouring kingdoms. [Gregory] gave him Augustine to be his bishop and teacher, as well as other holy priests to become bishops. However, the people of the Angles north of the river Humber, under Kings Aelle and Aethelfrith, did not at this time hear the Word of life. (trans. Faith Wallis)

Britannia’s neighbours were also divided. Eire was an assemblage of small kingdoms that had a variety of different relationships, as we see in the Chronicle of Ireland. Palladius and Patrick had already brought Christianity in the century before. In the thick of dynastic struggles, in fact, a young Irish nobleman named Columba was to take refuge in Pictish lands, bringing Christianity to their kingdom and settling a monastery on Iona. Columba died in 597, and Adomnan’s Life of St Columba is worth a read.

All over Britain and Ireland, small kingdoms were vying for power, and coalesced towards century’s end in the smaller states that would shape the character of the 600s — see Chris Wickham, The Inheritance of Rome: A History of Europe from 400 to 1000, 157-160.


Finally, let us return to the Mediterranean world. One would think that Justinian would be the end of this story, that we could just dust our hands and say, ‘Italy = Byzantine.’ However, if we were to do that, we’d have to use definition 5 or 6 of ‘Byzantine’ at

5. complex or intricate …
6. sometimes lowercase characterized by elaborate scheming and intrigue, especially for the gaining of political power or favor …

First, we have to acknowledge the growing local power of the Metropolitan Bishop of Suburbicarian Italy. I mean, the Pope. In Rome. Things for him are complicated because of his continued support for the Emperor in Constantinople, but the tendency of the Exarchate based in Ravenna to interfere in Roman affairs.

Also, the Lombards. They invade northern Italy in 568 and stick around until 774. In the 590s, their invasions push South towards Rome. Italy is not so simple, all of a sudden!

Italy in 572

Italy in 572

Thus, we have Ostrogoths under Theoderic in 500. The coming of the East Romans in 535; final conquest of Italy by Justinian’s forces in 554. Then we have the coming of the Lombards in 568. They proceed to push ever further south. By Lombard King Alboin’s death in 572, Italy has been carved up into different spheres of ‘Byzantine’ and Lombard influence.

Sources: For the closing decade, most definitely the letters of Gregory the Great. I can’t just now think of where else to look for the Lombards besides the eighth-century History of the Lombards by Paul the Deacon. For the early 500s, a most invaluable source are the Variae of Cassiodorus.

Well, I know it was longer than usual, but here you have it. The disconnected, fragmented, post-Roman West. New kingdoms forming, asserting themselves, gathering taxes, fighting each other, entering into diplomatic relations with each other, sharing missionaries with each other. It’s a brave, new mediaeval world.


Immigration and the Fall of Rome

There was a recent Twitterstorm involving a UKIP backer millionaire by the name of Arron Banks, Dame Averil Cameron, and Prof. Mary Beard, OBE (full details on Buzzfeed). The Tweet that started it said:

True the Roman Empire was effectively destroyed by immigration.

Dame Averil Cameron — author of the excellent and recently-updated The Mediterranean World in Late Antiquity AD 395-700 the first edition of which, alongside her volume The Later Roman Empire, was my Late Antique textbook in undergrad — weighed in against Banks, soon joined by Mary Beard. Cameron tweets:

Since when has this been true? Terribly out of date idea, what has he been reading?

Of course, the answer to Dame Averil’s question is that he studied Roman history in school. Which is all fine and good, but doesn’t necessarily give you the knowledge and chops to hold your own against the likes of Cameron and Beard.

Finally, before I get to my own thoughts, a Tweet from Banks:

yes sacking Rome nothing to do with the down fall ( eyes to sky )

Not a contemporary picture of the sack of Rome

Not a contemporary picture of the sack of Rome

Let’s take the sack of Rome as our starting point. I’m wondering which sack of Rome Banks has in mind — or if perhaps he has in mind both the sack of 410 by Alaric and the Goths or 455 by Geiseric and the Vandals. This is a good starting point for addressing the idea that the (western) Roman Empire fell because of ‘immigration’, I think.

First: Does sacking Rome lead to the fall of the Empire?

Short answer: No.

Medium answer: Still no. The western Roman Empire is still intact for decades after the first sack and well entrenched in her problems by the second.

For people who argue that ‘immigration’ caused the Fall of the Roman Empire, what the sacks of Rome really are is emblematic — the psychological shock that struck hearts from Orosius in Spain to Augustine in Africa to Jerome in Palestine. And, of course, they were wrought by immigrant barbarians.

Let us, for the moment, concede that the barbarian migrations are the cause of the Fall of the Western Roman Empire. Certainly, anyone must concede that the new kingdoms to arise in former western provinces under the rule of Vandals, Suevi, Visigoths, Franks, Anglo-Saxons, and Ostrogoths, are founded by persons of non-Roman culture and from non-Roman nations (usually Germanic and from across the Rhine-Danube frontier). And certainly these peoples in their Voelkerwanderung had something to do with the loss of imperium by the Roman West.

But is an army under the command of a man who calls himself a king really a group of ‘immigrants’? Whether Late Antique ethnicity is almost purely performance, as argued by Guy Halsall in Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, or whether there is something deeper to it, I agree with Halsall that these groups are primarily military, not national — even if Peter Heather is right in his counter-argument that Alaric’s Goths are direct, biological descendants of the Goths who killed the Emperor Valens at the Battle of Adrianople in 378.

All of them come to Roman territory seeking fame and fortune — within the existing structures of the Roman polity. They do not actually turn up wanting to conquer Rome, dismember her empire, or seize all her land. These things ultimately happen because of the failure of the Roman government to negotiate with them successfully and give them their rights.

The Roman Empire had met barbarians before. She had met barbarian warlords, kings, and warbands. And they had even settled on Roman land. The Roman Empire could deal with immigration; it was an incredibly diverse place, and people from one end of the Empire could travel to the other and maintain their home traditions. Thus we see shrines to Jupiter Dolichenus on Hadrian’s Wall, for example, let alone the Anatolian worship of the Persian god Mithras everywhere from Musselburgh in Edinburgh to Dura Europos in Syria.

The Roman world in Late Antiquity included speakers of Latin, Greek, Syriac, Coptic (the latest form of the Egyptian language), Arabic, Armenian, Gaulish, and no doubt Gothic. It had a flexible system of culture and economy; this is one of the great hallmarks of the Romans, was it not? Roman culture is never ‘pure’ — it starts off a little bit Italic, a little bit Latin, a little bit Etruscan, a little bit Greek. It shifts and reshapes itself everywhere its legions, its proconsul, its Praetorian Prefects, go. There is no great cultural monolith of ‘the Romans’.

And its borders are always porous. As David Breeze (who wrote the book on Hadrian’s Wall) argues, Hadrian’s Wall is not to keep the Caledonians out but simply to monitor traffic between Britannia and Caledonia. When the Picti do finally band together in 367, yes, it serves a purpose (but it also gets overrun). Similarly, people cross the Rhine and Danube. The Romans had bridges over them! Sure, our main image of the Rhine frontier is the one in Ammianus, of Julian burning down the homes of the Alamanni. But that’s not ‘normal life’. The desert peoples of North Africa were also part of this Roman system — indeed, some of the Berbers in the post-Roman period saw themselves as the continuators of Roman culture. In the East, it was  not the ‘immigrant’ groups like the ‘Saracens’ (as our sources call them) or Arabs who cause the real problems, but the acutal military endeavours of the Sassanian Persian Empire — another political force with a real army.

If we concede that barbarians cause the Fall of the Roman Empire, it’s not because they are ‘immigrants’. It is because they are highly organised groups of soldiers whom the Roman officials are unable, and often unwilling, to appease or treat humanely. And sometimes, they are actually invaders who come to conquer Roman land and settle it for themselves.

Armies and immigrants are not the same thing.

And it is not immigration that led to Roman military failures against the barbarians, either. That was due to poor planning, bad weather, civil war, sheer exhaustion, and so forth. Not immigrants.

Thus, ultimately, even if we want to put the weight for the Fall of Rome on the barbarians, to unproblematically call them ‘immigrants’ is to completely miss the mark in determining who they were and what they were doing when they entered Roman territory.

(But then, I’m a foreigner, aren’t I? So I, an immigrant, would say this.)


Fireworks. Flashes. Fizzes. Screams. Whistles. Explosions. Lighting up the night sky. Delicate, large, timed to music. And us, the crowd standing below, thousands in the street, symphonically serenaded, delighted by the display of lights in the night sky above the castle.

A throng of us. Here are we two beforehand, waiting in the darkness. Our first ‘selfie’ on my new phone (my first phone with a camera designed for narcissism).

IMG_20160829_210336186Edinburgh’s Fireworks Concert is not the biggest display of fireworks you’ll meet. I was once told by an American that his hometown did a ‘better’ display. I arrogantly assume he confused the concepts of ‘bigger’ and ‘better’, for the Fireworks Concert that closes out the Edinburgh International Festival on the final Monday of each August is not about size.

It is about glory. About art. Finesse.

No fireworks in the shapes of eagles, flags, happy faces, here.

The fireworks — fizz, pop, bang — are instead timed to a live performance by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra down in Princes Street Gardens. A delightful, clever ploy to draw crowds to listen to classical music in the vapid age of Bieber, et al.

This year joined the international commemoration of the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death. First, then, came Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, opening with the ‘Dance of the Knights’ or ‘Montagues and Capulets.’ Music that is itself an explosion and display.

If you don’t know this bit of Prokofiev, here’s someone’s video from Monday, a full thirty minutes and thirty-two seconds. The sound is poor — very tinny. But some idea of this beginning of things:

The recording I was raised on can be found on Spotify, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet, track 11.

Music has power. Although my world has shifted me onward into words, words, words, I am a clasically-trained clarinettist (not just a classically-trained philologist) who sang in youth choirs way back when. There is wordless power in music that my world of words, words, words appreciates.

This particular piece holds sway over me. Something stirs inside whenever I hear it. It is rousing. I don’t really have words for it, though. It is some sort of powerful, emotive res — thing. Feelings are difficult to describe, even when normal ones such as ‘anger’ or ‘love’ or ‘happiness’ — as Geordie Laforge discovered trying to explain anger to Data once, and as my friend who studies ‘joy’ in Augustine confronts every day.

But whatever this stirring, rousing thing in my chest is, it was certainly enhanced by fireworks.

The celebration of Shakespeare continued on to Bernstein’s Westside Story. (And so — more of a celebration of Romeo and Juliet, which is not my favourite Shakespeare play!) Different coloured fireworks had a rumble in the night sky above Edinburgh Castle, Jets and Sharks.

And, again, the power of music, visible in the in-one-place, happy, delighted dancing of my wife standing in front of me. Music lifting us out of ourselves, out of self-consciousness, out of inhibitions. Freedom from beauty. The power of (good) art.

And then a non-Shakespearean finale, Shostakovich’s Festival Overture. (I’d hoped for some Mendelssohn.)

Some finale fireworks photos (because a picture paints a thousand words, as they say):

The Edinburgh Conference on Late Antiquity

The daffodils are out!

The daffodils are out!

This past Thursday and Friday, I was attending the Edinburgh Conference on Late Antiquity for Postgraduates and Early Career Researchers. It was an engaging time, and I applaud my colleagues and friends who put it together — Alison John, Fraser Reed, and Audrey Scardina. They received over 80 abstracts and had to whittle that number down to 40, although originally planning for 24 — this resulted in some parallel sessions. But you gotta do what you gotta do.

They chose wisely.

Indeed, when I think on the papers, I was really only bamboozled by two of the more archaeology/material culture papers, but not because the arguments and content were poor but because of the breakneck pace at which data of a sort I — as a more literary historian and philologist — don’t typically deal with was presented. Only one paper seemed more of a summary of evidence than an argument; this is a fate that befalls many when they give 20-minute papers — 20 minutes is sometimes enough to do nothing more than present all the data you have! It is an art and a skill to hone and, essentially, shrink an argument to fit the allotted time.

My only other critiques would be one paper needlessly spending over half the time on theory whose application seemed like common sense to me, and another that used different textual evidence to interpret some art than I would have, myself.

I was pleased to hear papers by two of my friends, Doctoranda Belinda Washington, and Doctorans Fraser Reed. I’d never quite got much grasp on what Fraser’s urban archaeology of Late Antique Thrace looked like before, so his paper, skilfully reduced from 40 to 20 minutes, ‘Gate Complexes as Indicators of Urban Character in Late Antique Thracia’, was most welcome. Belinda does research on imperial women of the same period I look at papal letters — also, her paper, ‘Gut Instincts: The Description of Eudoxia’s Death by Pseudo-Martyrius’, involved maggots and rotting flesh, so I was in.

Papers covered archaeology, art history, architecture, politics, literature, education, poetry, religion, epistolography, myth. The time range was as early as the late third century to as late as the seventh. Papers dealt with East (as far as Georgia) and West (as far as Gallaecia [that was my paper]), Latin and Greek and Syriac and Coptic authors, northern archaeology and Mediterranean archaeology, sarcophagi, domes, letters (as texts and as objects!).

And any conference with at least one paper on Gregory of Tours makes me happy.

I came away wanting to spend more time with Priscian, Donatus (the grammarian), the Panegyrici Latini, Ennodius of Pavia, as well as to revisit John Rufus’ Plerophoriae more deeply — and his Life of Peter the Iberian in the first place. I also met a bunch of new people, and I hope to keep these contacts open as our careers progress.

My own paper, ‘Picking Up the Pieces After the Barbarians Come to Town: The Letters of Leo the Great as Sources for the First Generation Unde Post-Roman Rule’ was well-received. I discussed Leo, Epistle 15, to Turribius of Astorga and why Turribius felt it necessary to write the pope on an essentially decided issue. Roger Collins agreed with my main argument (win!); one of my fellow early career scholars thinks there were more Priscillianists than I do.

Overall, a good conference. Glad I went.

Passing milestones and jumping through hoops: Getting a PhD

I am now — finally and officially — a doctor. It took four years and almost a month to get here, with most of the milestones and hoops transpiring over the past few months.

On 2 July, after 3 years and 10 months of intense research and furious writing that ended in a long day of formatting and creating a Table of Contents and such exciting things, I submitted two soft-bound copies of my PhD thesis to be examined, one would be sent to my external examiner, the other to my internal examiner. The submission of a thesis is, as an event, something of an anticlimax. You go to a little window at the Postgraduate Office and drop off the copies. No song and dance. To offset this fact, they have a plastic jar of candies from which you may choose one. I had something called a Drumstick that proved very chewy.

Before that milestone, I had to jump through the hoop of submitting paperwork that made me eligible to submit and alerted my examiners to my impending thesis.

The next milestone came very quickly on 6 August when I had my viva, my viva voce examination (defence). It was less a cross-examination/interrogation and more a thorough conversation about my research, pushing me to go farther on some issues than I was willing/had space to in the thesis itself. It was really good; they both liked it and had some very helpful feedback.

This was the big milestone for me. For some people, it’s submission. But submission was a grand anticlimax, not only because of the circumstances but also because the work itself was still untried, unproved. What would the outcome be? There was still too much uncertainty at submission. But after my viva, I knew what they thought of my work. And I knew that there were only minor corrections to do before I could submit the final copy and be officially awarded my PhD.

The next hoop that had to be jumped (and this one not by me!) was the submission of the examiners’ report to the committee that reviews vivas before officially letting me know what the corrections were to be. Unfortunately, due to a technical error, the examiners’ report did not reach the committee in time for their 17 August meeting (no one’s fault). I, nonetheless, had a copy of this report, so I was able to do my corrections before the committee’s meeting on 18 September.

Corrections are neither a milestone nor a hoop. They are a requirement (for all but a very select few), ranging from typos to factual errors to amplified bibliographies to added/rewritten chapters. Thankfully I only had typos and bibliographies to be amplified, as well as changing my citation of Gregory of Tours from Historia Francorum to Historiae (full stop).

Only 18 September, I received the e-mail from the committee approving my examiners’ corrections. I sent my corrected copy off to my internal examiner. He then had to approve my corrections, that I had done them correctly. This he did on Monday.

The next milestone involved several hoops. Not only must the final copy of the thesis be hardbound like a book with golden lettering on the spine, not only must it include things like the abstract and lay summary as well as a signed declaration that it’s my own work, not only must it be laid out and paginated in a very particular, detailed manner — it must also come with a piece of paperwork and a CD with a pdf of the thesis.

This is the hoop that makes the least sense whatsoever.


What is this, 2001?

I remembering burning CDs in 2001.

But most people don’t run around burning CDs anymore. I, at least, have an optical drive in my big laptop, so burning a CD was not difficult. But, really, in an age when Master’s students don’t even submit hard copies of their theses but only a digital, online copy, why can PhDs not be submitted digitally in such a way? Anyway, I bought ten CDs (one is not an option) and burned one.

Then it turns out that the quickest anyone in Edinburgh can hardbind a thesis is 24 hours, and that the university printer is not the one who can do it that quickly. So, on Tuesday, when I thought I was going to be passing another milestone, the final hoop had me waiting until Wednesday while Mail Boxes, Etc. did their job.

They did a fine job, and on Wednesday I successfully passed the final milestone by jumping through these hoops. Here I am:

IMG_20150923_113941And now I have a copy of this letter, making it all real:

PhD Letter


Offa’s Dyke

I just watched Episode 3 of Michael Wood’s 1981 documentary series, In Search of the Dark Ages, ‘In Search of Offa’. This series is an interesting concept — Wood does not popularise history through dramatic re-enactments or even retelling many of the stories associated with the person and time under discussion. Instead, he engages the viewer with a combination of retelling select episodes and many visits and combinations with long-haired, bell-bottomed archaeologists, many of whom are also very well-bearded. The story, then, is told through archaeology.

The most significant archaeological site associated with Offa is not a then-recently-discovered 6-foot-long, 2-foot-high piece of defensive wall in Hereford (‘very interesting’, ‘the most extensive piece of Anglo-Saxon defensive wall found in the whole of the British Isles’), but, of course, the dyke.

Offa’s Dyke is a big … dyke … separating the land controlled by this powerful Mercian king and the land of the Welsh. It was 64 miles long, consisting of (and here I quote my Encyclopedia of the Anglo-Saxon World) ‘an earthen bank thirty feet (10 m) wide with a ditch six feet (2 m) deep and twelve feet wide (4 m) on the Welsh side.’

In the documentary, the archaeologist with whom Wood is discussing the dyke says that he thinks the dyke was purely defensive. The gates postulated by Fox in the 1930s proved to be later modifications of the original construction. Unlike Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall, there were no points of controlled crossing between one domain and the other. The Welsh were to be kept out. Or at least deterred. Not controlled.

This is all well and good.

However, the archaeologist then proceeded to imagine a palisade atop the dyke, possibly even with towers. And a garrison. My Encyclopedia says that no evidence of a palisade or a fortress has been found in 71 (!) excavations of Offa’s Dyke.

My immediate reaction was to question this reconstruction — current thinking doesn’t even tend to put a palisade on the Antonine Wall (my post on that here), and it’s not as long (37 miles). Furthermore, the idea of armies watching for Welsh raiders and using signal outposts to call up all the locals for a skirmish — this implies a standing army somewhere other than the kings’ warbands.

A garrison just sitting around on a fortification like that with nothing to do but keep out cattle-rustlers requires a sophisticated system of taxation and provisioning, as well as a professional army, the likes of which I don’t believe King Offa would have had. He was a conqueror — his kingdom was so large and united because he kept killing off other dudes. Not because of marriage alliances or inheritances. Not because he had a long tradition of complicated tax-raising such as Rome had had.

Nonetheless, my Encyclopedia does verify the essentially defensive nature of the dyke. Even without a standing army, a fortification such as this without a single gate would have proven an obstacle to raiding parties. Even if its deep is not as deep as that of the Antonine Wall — 2m vs 6 m — it is an impressive deterrent. And this is part of the function of both the Antonine and Hadrian’s Walls — part of controlling movement is keeping out the movement you’d rather not have.

So, even if Offa’s Dyke may not have had a standing army, it is still a wondrous piece of military engineering. Well done, Offa of Mercia, one of the few kings Charlemagne considered nearly his equal.