The Dragon and the Eagle: 

A Romantic View of the Survival of the Western Roman Empire in Britain,

in parallel with the Survival of the Eastern Roman Empire in Byzantium.


Last updated: 6th September 2010.

In the rest of this web site I have used a definition for the Roman Empire which means that the Western Empire fell in 476, and was revived by Charlemagne in 800. Apart from a gap from 924-960, it then survived until 1282 (by which time it was known as the Holy Roman Empire), when Rome became indepedent under the Pope. A different, more romantic view grants the role of legitimate successors to the Roman Empire in the West to the Britons, who long maintained their independence in Wales. The justification for this whimsical idea is that:

a) Uniquely among the peoples of the Western Empire, the citizens of Britain were explicitly instructed to defend themselves, by Emperor Honorius in 410.

b) Uniquely among the peoples of the Western Empire, the citizens of Britain did maintain their freedom against the Germanic invaders, for the best part of 1000 years.

Both of these justifications can be questioned. Regarding (a), The exact signficance of the "Honorian Rescript" of 410 is disputed. Presumably it was felt necessary because of the law preventing Roman civilians from bearing arms. But in any case the Emperor Valentian revoked that law in 440, in the face of widespread attacks by Germanic nations. Regarding (b), the Basques also maintained their freedom after the fall of the Western Empire, throughout most of the middle ages. Their Kingdom of Navarre was only divided between Spain and France in the 16th century. However it should be noted that the name "Welsh" (from which came Wales and Cornwall) derived from the Germanic word for "Romans" --- it is cognate to Waalsch (the Dutch word for the Walloons, their Romance-speaking neighbours in Belgium), to Welsche (until recently the German word for all their Romance-sepaking neighbours, still used in Swiss German for French-speakers in Switzerland, and by German-speakers in the Tyrol for Italians), and to Wallachia (the part of Romania bordering on German-speaking settlements in Hungary). So, unlike the Basques, the Britons were regarded as "Roman" at least by their German neighbours.

Regardless of whether there is any real justification for considering the Britons as the true heirs to Rome in the West, it is interesting to compare the fate of the Britons and the Byzantines (successors to Rome in the East) in the Middle Ages.  Just as in the East, the fortunes of the Britons rose and fell a number of times over the millenium from the 5th to the 15th century. This web page charts those fortunes, which surprisingly often moved in parallel. Because their territories never overlapped, a single map is used to display the territories of the Britons, and the Byzantine Empire, at various times. Note however that the dates for East and West are rarely exactly the same, although they are typically within a generation of one another. Note also that there is no implication that the territories of the Britons had a single monarch, unlike the Empire. However, because this page is a "romantic" vision, I have taken the liberty of discussing the territories of the Britons in 530 as being dominated by Arthur, their famous warleader, and speculating generously (although not impossibly so) as to the power of the Britons in Britain and Gaul at that time.

Most of the maps below reproduce the Byzantine Empire at times shown the 18 centuries of Roman Empire page (although note that the maps are rotated relative to the maps on that page). One however is new: that for the Byzantine Empire in 633.


Note: to view these maps as a coarse "movie", first adjust the size of this window to be slightly larger than a map plus its title, then click on next (>) or previous (<) at the beginning of each title. To return to the Index of Maps, click on the up arrow (^).

Index of Maps

530 / 565 -- Maximum: Arthur and Justinian.
630 / 623 -- Attacks from the east: Saxons and Persians.
634 / 633 -- Fleeting Victory: Cadwallon and Heraclius.
786 / 756 --  Retreat and Fragmentation.
940 / 1040 -- Consolidation and Expansion.
1099 / 1091 -- Blitzkrieg from the east: Normans and Turks.
1154 / 1167 -- Recovery: Owain Gwynedd and Manuel Comnenus
1409 / 1453 -- The End: Owain Glyndwr and Constantine Paleologus


    ^  > 530 / 565 -- Maximum: Arthur and Justinian.

Britons Byzantine 525 565 Arthur Justinian

In 410 the cities of Britain, under heavy Saxon attack, were told by the Western Emperor Honorious to fend for themselves. This they did with greater success than any of the other peoples of the Western Empire. By 486 all of these other peoples (except the Basques) had fallen under the rule of Germanic invaders, while the Britons still controlled most of the diocese of Britain. Much of the east had been lost to German tribes (chiefly Angles, Saxons and Jutes), some of whom had arrived as mercenaries a generation or two earlier. Some of the displaced Britons had fled overseas, founding colonies in Armorica (which were independent) and in northern Spain. The latter acknowledged Suevic (and later Visigothic) suzerainty and hence are shown in light red. Around this time, the Britons were led by Ambrosius Aurelianus, remembered as the last of the Romans. According to Welsh accounts (*), he was succeeded by the war-leader Arthur who won great victories against the Saxons, perhaps in the early 6th century. The map above is a speculative and generous estimation of British territory in the aftermath of these victories. Saxon lands are shown as subject to the Britons (speckled) since, according to the Byzantine historian Procopius, Britain at at this time had three kings: a king of the Britons, a king of the Angles, and a king of the Frisians (in Kent perhaps). Frankish texts also contain hints that there was a resurgence of British power in Armorica, particularly along the Loire, in the mid 520s. According to one history of the Armorican Britons (**), Arthur also had victories in Gaul. Not long afterwards the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire under Justinian also began reconquering the West from its German kings. It reached its maximum at the time of his death in 565.

(*) Written around 300 years after the event. The same history, reputedly by Nennius, is also our first record of the red dragon as the symbol of the Britons. It may have derived from the serpentine windsock of the Roman cavalry.
(**)  Written perhaps in 1019 (almost 500 years after the event), or perhaps even later. If it was written after 1135 then this claim was probably derived from the false history of Geoffry of Monmouth, and can be dismissed.

<  ^  >  630 / 623 -- Attacks from the east: Anglo-Saxons and Persians.

Britons Byzantine 630 623

The Briton's gains were lost within a generation as the Britons fell into civil war. By the early seventh century the Saxons (as the Britons called, and still call, the Germanic-speaking nieghbours in the Island of Britain) had pushed westward to the sea, reaching the Briston channel and the Irish sea. Around 630 Edwin, king of the Angles of Northumbria, captured the Isle of Man and Anglesey in the latter. He even besieged Cadwallon, king of Gwynedd (the foremost British kingdom) on Puffin Island in northern Wales. Welsh tradition says that Cadwallon went into exile in Ireland. In Gaul the Franks also pushed the Britons westward, into the Armorican peninsula known ever since as Brittany (little Britain). Meanwhile by the early seventh century the Byzantine Empire lost most of its territory in Spain, Italy and the the Balkans, to the Visigoths, Lombards and Avars respectively. Taking advantage of wars between rival Emperors, the old enemy in the east, Persia, also attacked. By 623 the Persian king Chosroes had captured all Byzantine territory from Egypt to eastern Anatolia. A few years later the Persians, and the Avars, besieged Constantinople. But the Emperor Heraclius had already left with his army by sea to begin the counter-offensive.

<  ^  >  633 / 633 -- Fleeting Victory: Cadwallon and Heraclius.

Heraclius Cadwallon 633

Cadwallon returned from exile, and raised a new army for a counter-offensive against Edwin. He enlisted (perhaps forcibly) the aid of Mercia, the neighbouring Angle kingdom, ruled by Penda. On the 12th of October in 632 (or possibly 633), Cadwallon defeated and slew Edwin. He then proceded to ravage the Angles of Northumbria, seemingly to exterminate them. Only Bernicia, the rump of the Northumbrian kingdom north of Hadrian's wall, remained unconquered. The Byzantine Empire under Heraclius also made a seemingly miraculous recovery. Heraclius defeated the Persian forces in their heartland, and they overthrew their own king Chosroes and sued for peace. The Avar hegenomy in the Balkans collapsed. By 633 the eastern frontier was fully restored, and the Slavs in the Balkans (former subjects of the Avars) were brought to heel also.

<  ^  > 786 / 756 -- Retreat and Fragmentation.

Britons Byzantine 8th century

Cadwallon's reconquest turned out to be fleeting. A Prince of Bernicia, Oswald, offered him battle near Hadrian's wall, and this time it was Cadwallon who was slain, in 634. Oswald took back all of Northumbria, and the Britons retreated into Wales (although they continued to war against Northumbria with their Mercian allies until Penda's death in 655). By the mid eighth century, the Northumbrians had reduced the Britons in the north to the tiny kingdom of Strathclyde, centred on Dumbarton (the fort of the Britons). In the south, the West Saxons pushed the Britons westward into Cornwall, and in Gaul the Franks under Charlemagne conquered the eastern parts of Brittany. Similarly, Heraclius' reconquests fell apart within a few years of when the Arabs attacked in 633. By the mid eighth century, the Empire was reduced to a core consisting of Anatolia and coastal Thrace, plus various islands and coastal regions that the Empire's navy protected from the Mulsims.

<  ^  > 940 / 1040 -- Consolidation and Expansion.

Britons Byzantine 1000 Donald Strathclyde Basil

In the ninth century, attacks by Norsemen on the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms gave some relief to the Britons, except in Cornwall which was annexed by the West Saxons. In the tenth century the Britons consolidated their territories into three large areas, each for the most part with a single ruler. The Britons of Strathclyde under king Dyfnwal (Donald) (937-45) were able to advance their kingdom southwards as far as Leeds (*).  Apart from minor kingdoms in the south-east, Wales around this time was ruled by a single king, Hywel the good (942-50). In Gaul the Britons had also consolidated under a single ruler, and were once again a force to be reckoned with. By 867 King Salomon ruled an area almost as great as that shown in the map for 530, and his royal status was acknowledged by the king of France. In the early tenth century the country was overrun by Vikings, but Alain Barbetorte (938-52) restored British rule to all of Salomon's kingdom except the Normandy peninsula. However, he styled himself Duke, not King. Meanwhile the Byzantine Empire had also recovered from its nadir in 756, as the Muslim world progressively lost its politcal unity from then onwards. Its only permanent losses from its position in 756 were parts of Italy and its Islands.

(*) According to an account of the Life of Saint Cathloe, which seems to imply a date close to 940, at the intersection of the rules of Constantine of Alba (900-943), Dyfnwal of Strathclyde (937-45), Erikir of York (perhaps 937-940, appointed by Aethelstan according to a Saga), Edmund of England (939-946) and Oda of Canterbury (941-958) .


<  ^  > 1099 / 1091 -- Blitzkrieg from the east: Normans and Turks.

Britons Byzantine Normans Turks

Strathclyde could not keep its southernmost conquests from England, although it did retain Cumbria (so-named after the word the Britons used to refer to themselves, Combrogi, meaning people of the same land). Strathclyde came under the protection of Scotland, and was peacefully annexed to it probably around 1016, on the death of its last king, Owain the bald. Across the sea, Brittany was also peacefully losing its British political identity. From 958 to 1166, the Duchy was ruled by the Count of Rennes, a French-speaking city that had been annexed to Brittany in the 9th century. But the story in Wales was not so peaceful. Not long after their conquest of England in 1066, the Normans turned to Wales. When Rhys ap Tewdwr, king of Deheubarth (southern Wales) was killed in 1093, the Welsh chroniclers recorded it as the end of the Kingdom of the Britons. Therafter they referred only to Cambria, or (borrowing from English), Wallia. By 1099 much of Wales had been conquered and castellated by Norman lords; only fragments remained under native princes. The Byzantines also suffered a Blitzkrieg from the east at this time: the Seljuk turks had smashed their army at Manzikert in 1071, and occupied almost the whole of Anatolia by 1091. Elsewhere various Slav nations (Bulgars, Serbs, and Croats) regained their independence from the Empire, and southern Italy was lost to the Normans.

<  ^  > 1154 / 1167 -- Recovery: Owain Gwynedd and Manuel Comnenus

Owain Gwynedd Manuel Comnenus Britons Wales Byzantine

Surprisingly, the Britons in Wales recovered and expelled the Normans from all except the south of their country. Civil war in England enabled Owain Gwynedd to dominate the country by 1154. He was the last British leader to style himself King (of Wales), and also the first recorded as Prince of the Welsh. The Byzantine Empire also recovered, but only with help from the West in the form of the first crusade against the Turks. Much of Anatolia was reoccupied, and Bulgaria and Serbia brought back into the fold. By 1167 Emperor Manuel Comnenus had received the submission of Lesser Armenia and the Crusader states on former Byzantine soil, and defeated Hungary to regain control of Croatia. 

<  ^    1409 / 1453 -- The End: Owain Glyndwr and Constantine Paleologus

Owain Glyndwr 1409 Constantine Paleologus 1453

In 1166 the Dukedom of Brittany came under the rule of the Henry Plantagenet (who also held the English crown), and from then on was dominated by foreigners. It was eventually annexed to France in 1532. By contrast, Wales continued to produce native rulers, several of whom took the title Prince of the Welsh, or Prince of Wales. The most powerful (his position and territories were recognized in 1267 by treaty with the English king Henry III) was Llywelyn ap Gruffudd. But he is also known as Llywlyn the last, because Edward I, son of Henry III, conquered all of Wales and caused his death in 1282. The title Prince of Wales was thereafter to be bestowed upon the Crown Prince of England. But the Principality of Wales was not quite dead. More than a century later, in 1400, a Welsh noble, Owain Glyndwr, raised the standard of rebellion. Again taking advantage of civil strife in England, his strength grew rapidly. In 1404 he called a Parliament and was crowned Prince of Wales, and by 1405 held the entire country apart from a few castles. But the English Prince Henry (later crowned as Henry V) changed tactics, blockading Owain, and by 1409 had reconquered most of Wales (as shown here). Glyndwr was reduced to a guerrilla leader, and disappeared a few years later, never to be seen again. Thereafter Wales remained firmly under English rule, and was formally annexed in 1536.

Similar events overtook the Byzantine Empire. After Manuel it suffered from weak Emperors, and through Venetian trickery Constantinople fell to the army of the 4th Crusade in 1204. Crusader states were established in the Aegean region, with a Latin "Emperor of Romania" in Constantinople. The legitimate Roman Emperor, Michael Paleologus was restored by 1261, and most of the Crusader territory reconquered. The restoration of the Byzantine Empire was far longer lived than its Welsh analogue, with the Paleologus dynasty ruling for almost two centuries more. The eagle had been the symbol of Rome's legions since the time of Marius (104 B.C.), but the Paleologi adopted the double-headed eagle as their Imperial insignia. The last reigning Emperor in Constantinople was Constantine Paleologus, who died during the fall of the city to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. His brother, Thomas, despot of Morea (southern Greece) then claimed the Imperial crown, but he lost his despotate to the Ottomans in 1460. His daughter Zoe Paleologa was married to Ivan III of Russia. Thus was introduced the double-headed eagle as a symbol of the Russian Crown, and the idea of Moscow as the "third Rome". But that is one too many romantic ideas of the survival of the Roman Empire for this web page.


The Dragon and the Eagle in the Middle Ages: Summary Map

Byzantine Britons Mediaeval Roman

This map shows those areas that are common to at least four of the eight maps above. That is, it should represent the "typical" extent of the realms of the Britons and the Byzantine Empire in the Middle Ages. The only anomalous feature of this map is the fact that the Byzantine Empire reaches as far as the Danube, in what is now Serbia. The four main concentrations of Britons, in Strathclyde+Cumbria, Wales, Cornwall, and Brittany, are clearly displayed.



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