Piracy in Late Roman Britain: A Perspective from the Viking Age

Piracy in Late Roman Britain: A Perspective from the Viking Age

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Piracy in Late Roman Britain: A Perspective from the Viking Age

By Andrew Pearson

Britannia, Vol. 37 (2006)

Introduction: One of the key issues concerning late Roman Britain is the nature of contacts with seafaring peoples from the continental North Sea coast. More often than not, these interactions have been seen as hostile, provoking a military response from the Romans that is most recognisable in the archaeological record by new and often massive coastal fortifications from the third century onwards.

Despite the many modern narratives on the subject, notions about the character of Germanic raiding are poorly defined. In large part this is due to the absence of any detailed accounts of piracy in the historical record, and indeed contemporary references are so sparse that episodes of coastal attacks are entirely open to doubt.1 Archaeological traces of raiding are even more rare, and this lack of evidence makes possible alternative assessments of late Roman military strategy around the British coast. The question has still wider implications, for it impacts upon our understanding of the character of the transition from Roman Britain to the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.

By contrast, there can be no doubt about the reality of Viking attacks on Britain, Ireland, and indeed on a wider continental stage. Historical records and archaeological evidence combine to give a picture (albeit one that is still incomplete) of how raiding developed during this period and the manner in which it was conducted. It is argued below that there is a basic similarity between the initial phase of Viking attacks and those of the barbarians on the coast of Roman Britain. Using this premise, the present paper seeks to shed light on the issue of North Sea piracy during the later centuries of Roman rule.

All parallels between late Roman Britain and the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms are to an extent superficial and must be treated with caution. It is recognised from the outset that there are many important distinctions between the early German incursions and those of the later Scandinavians, from social milieu to maritime technology. There is, for example, considerable debate as to whether the Anglo-Saxons were capable of direct voyages over the North Sea, or if raiding was only achievable by ‘coastal crawling’ and a crossing at the Straits of Dover. The scale of the polities under attack, and the military capacity and organisation of Roman Britain and the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, were also markedly different.

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