Emperor Justinian and the British Kings, c. 540

Emperor Justinian

Roman historian Procopius had a lot to complain about in his Secret History. Its pretty easy to say that he did a hatchet job on his bosses, Emperor Justinian and General Belisauris. Procopius was the Late Antique equivalent of a severely conservative ‘think tank’ founder, you know the type that queue up to appear on talk shows and start whisper campaigns. He shared some whoppers, perhaps the least of which is theorizing that his emperor is really a demon and the court women were even worse.

Complaints about Justinian’s use of the treasury are constant throughout the Secret History.

There was no time at which he ceased giving huge gifts of money to all the barbarians, to both easterners and westerners as well as out of the North and to the South, as far as the inhabitants of Britain … for they poured into Byzantion from every corner of the world in order to reach him….he was overjoyed with this state of affairs, believing it to be a lucky opportunity to exhaust the wealth of the Romans and throw it out to the barbarians, as good as throwing it into the churning waves of the sea. (Procopius, Secret History, III:13-15)

If Justinian’s ambition to recapture former imperial territory was real, then he had to build hegemony, buying allies and perhaps paying for proxy wars. He also had to keep former Roman territory that paid him at least lip service happy. So if British kings styled themselves protectors of the Roman province and requested subsidies to pay Saxon troops to protect Roman territory, it would be hard to Justinian to turn them down while handing out money to barbarians. Regardless of how they asked, there was enough gold going from Constantinople to Britain for Procopius to know about it and complain.

Justinian I  Tremisis. Rome mint. Struck circa 540-546 AD.
Justinian I Tremisis. minted in Rome. Struck circa 540-546 AD.

If a lot of gold was heading to Britain, it probably went to the western territories along the Irish sea where archaeologists have found most of the Roman/Byzantine trade goods in the fifth century. Most notably, the Penmachno stone from Gwynedd dates the grave of the son of Avitorius who was buried to the time of Justi* Con[sul]. This stone has been most often dated to the consulship of Justinian in 540 (Sarris, p. 200). Gildas’ five kings are likely to be among the beneficiaries of Justinian’s largess, and he singles out Maelgwn of Gwynedd as the most powerful. So it is interesting that the one king we would predict would have been in touch with Justinian’s court, has the Penmachno stone in his kingdom and  is the only British citizen recorded as dying in the ‘great mortality’ in 547. The Annals Cambriae are usually off by a couple of years in this section so this lines up well with the Irish records of plague in the 540s.

 The great death [plague] in which Maelgwn, king of Gwynedd died. ‡Thus they say ‘The long sleep of Maelgwn in the court of Rhos’. Then was the yellow plague.‡ (Annals Cambriae, 547)

anus Mortalitas magna inqua pausat mailcun rex genedotae (A-text of Annals Cambriae, Gough-Cooper ed.)

Likewise the additional material added in the B-text (‡) referring to Maelgwn’s death during the ‘yellow plague’ has the hallmarks of oral history found in Irish sources. (I’ll come back to folklore on Maelgwn and his death some other day.) For unknown reasons, Irish folklore color codes the plague as yellow – although no epidemic infectious disease of the mid-sixth century causes yellowing. Ann Dooley has made a well argued case for the ‘yellow plague’ and other terms like blefed as being references to the plague. So we have a route and rationale for the Plague of Justinian to reach the Irish Sea zone from any number of points with direct contact infected areas of Justinian’s territory. While its possible that Justinian’s goods reached Britain through Gaul (possibly through the Loire valley) (Little 2007:10), while Justinian held territory in Iberia and controlled the Straits of Gibraltar, a direct route by sea is also possible. Plague fleas can be transported in cereals or textiles for long distances.

One of the oddities of early Anglo-Saxon records is that most of the royal dynasties go back to about 550, about a hundred years after the Anglo-Saxons themselves claim (and archaeology confirms) that they came to Britain. Failure to pay for security services rendered is also a consistent feature in folklore of the ‘adventus’. Archaeology also tells us that links to Byzantium were lost from the mid-sixth century, right around the time of the plague. So whatever help Justinian was sending Britain, it may have been to keep the ‘Saxons’ on the payroll for a little while longer, but as soon as trade with Byzantium (and presumably Roman foreign aid) is cut off around the time of the plague, we find the origins of the English royal dynasties.

So when I look at the recent Staffordshire hoard of gold military equipment, I just have to wonder how much of Justinian’s gold is recycled there.

Items from the Staffordshire hoard


Anthony Kaldellis, ed. & trans. Prokopios: The Secret History and Related Texts. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett, 2010.

Ann Dooley “The Plague and its Consequences in Ireland” in Plague and the End of Antiquity, ed. Lester Little, Cambridge, 2006.

Peter Sarris. Empires of Faith: The Fall of Rome to the Rise of Islam, 500-700. Oxford History of Medieval Europe, 2011. [Sarris is the only recent historian to discuss these linkages between Justinian and events in Britain, but he does not mention Maelgwn’s death.]

Lester Little “Life and Afterlife of the First Plague Pandemic” in Plague and the End of Antiquity: The Pandemic of 541-750.  Lester Little, ed.  Cambridge, 2006.


11 thoughts on “Emperor Justinian and the British Kings, c. 540

  1. Excellent, Michelle. The Hoard seemed to me a whole lot of new, paradigm-changing evidence for Anglo-Saxon art. But there was masses of gold in Wales (eg at Llandudno) so there is no compelling reason to think the gold was recycled. Later there was of course gold from just pre the Conquest (coins) found not far off the A1 near Buckingham, where there would have been a mint. You are certainly right to fit Justinian into the picture (maybe some of the hidden sources of 7th and 8th century sumptuous East Mediterranean art – the Sassanian silk (?) which gave the Echternach symbols (?) arrived at this period to our shores…) I think of a modern paradigm: Russia gradually loosening its stranglehold on former Soviet bloc countries.

    1. Britain does not have a native source of gold so it all comes into the island in some other form. I don’t think they were shipping gold bars at this point, but I could be wrong about that. Coins seem like the most likely source of new gold coming into the island. So anyway, gold objects produced on the island come from either coins or melted down art, so its all recycled.

      1. I think you will find Martin is correct, Britain does have an ample source of native gold, which has been mined in Wales since at least Roman times. There is a more recent tradition that British monarchs use Welsh gold for their wedding rings. There was no need to recycle the gold.

  2. Great link between Justinian and Britain, thanks Michelle! Its possible Justinian was paying for handy mercenaries, but also as you say, possible he was trying to assure allies in the north, or at least to not encourage the northern Islanders to join forces with the barbarians in western Europe. But given that he was such a strong advocate for the Christian church to support the rule of his empire, I also wonder if he wasn’t paying British clerics to help consolidate the British church? Is that possible do you think? …
    About the plague being introduced to Britain and Ireland, I can’t imagine that there were so many mercenaries or clerics travelling back and forth to bring it home – although it only takes one unfortunate instance. And I’ve thought about the usual idea of grain and cloth carrying the fleas, but there’s no reason to assume Britain or Ireland was importing grain, and while I’m sure there were a few noble families who would have loved a piece of high cost cloth that could bear the cost of long-distance transport, for example, Chinese silk, again I can’t imagine relatively much of this sort of trade coming in, and so its unlikely that this cloth trade brought fleas. Although again its possible, it only takes one instance.
    But the best way the plague could reach Britain was by being carried by people. So what sort of people came in such numbers that it was likely that sooner or later one of them would carry in a plague-infected flea? We do have traders, and travelling monks and pilgrims, and just plain adventurers off to see the world. But again, these tend to travel in small groups and be fairly isolated. And the numbers would presumably drop off soon, as the rest of the world is being racked by plague and famine, and commerce is collapsing by the minute.
    I was reading the text about Saint Ultan, who was renowned for taking in plague orphans. One day the Irish high king, in ‘great fear’, sent to beg Ultan to raise his hand to stop plague entering Ireland, which he did. This story is a little out of sync datewise we think, but it has an extraordinary line in it, to explain why the king was in such a state of terror. It says, ‘There happened to come a vast seafleet which filled most of Ireland’s estuaries.’ So here is the answer I suspect – the plague was brought to Ireland (and Britain) by hundreds, perhaps thousands, of boatloads of plague refugees. If enough refugees flee the plague looming in their local area, inevitably someone will bring it with them.
    The issue of ‘fleeing’ before the plague was a huge philosophical issue, discussed in that wonderful
    End of Antiquity book, now on my favourites shelf. It doesn’t take much to imagine that as the plague moved through western Europe, that anyone with a boat, or who could pay for passage on a boat, would see this as a good way to flee, putting hopefully a safe stretch of ocean between themselves and the pestilence. And the obvious place to flee to, across the ocean, would be Britain and Ireland. These boat refugees may represent only a tiny slither of the main continental population, but it wouldn’t take many boats to appear to fill the estuaries and put great fear into the heart of a king for his people.
    So, interested to hear what you think of this?

    1. There is no evidence of refugees fleeing to Britain or Ireland. I think the reference to flight is probably be exaggerated and flight was probably not very far. There was quite a lot of travel between Cornwall and Brittany, and the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ coming in the East, but plague is not linked to any of them.

      As for trade goods, there is a lot of imported pottery in the west and most of the amphora would have contained something, probably wine. I think there was probably more food being transported than we assume. Likewise Ireland was exporting butter and probably leather. Wool is another possibility. Southern Europe did not have as many animals and so would have needed animal products.

  3. The plague term Buidhe/Croin Chonaill, and perhaps as Ann Dooley suggests, the bla of blafed, is interesting, as we seem to have a group of yellow-ish colours associated with someone called Conall. Yet, as Michelle says above, no disease of the day, or the plague, causes a distinctive yellowness. In Irish of old, the colours are frequently coupled with people’s names, and it seems that these colours would have held a depth of symbolic and mnemonic references. We see this also, for example, in the Welsh answer to the riddle in the Battle of the Trees, where the answer is Bran/purple/alder. But unfortunately, we don’t really know much about what concepts all the colours referenced. So I suspect that the use of the colour ‘yellow’ in reference to the plague lies in this way, its a mythic or culture-bound reference, rather than the colour caused by the disease.

    Which brings us to Conall. Who was Conall, that his name would be forever tied to the plague? Its been suggested that someone called Conall was the first to contract the plague in Ireland, but I find this very unlikely as naming such a significant horror for someone that most people had never heard of, would be odd and doesn’t gel well with an oral culture which needs a good story to promote ideas and words and concepts. So I went looking for likely ‘Conall’s in myths. The most famous of course is Conall Cernach, but try as I might, I could find nothing that would suggest an association with plague, or disease.
    But then there is Conall Corc, aka Corc mac Luigthig, founder of the Cashel-based Eogenacht kings. And here suggestively we have yet another red-ish/yellow-ish colour associated with Conall. The story goes that he got his name as a cauldron of magic exploded while he was a child hiding under the table – and singed his ear. And as we know, buboes frequently appeared in the lymph nodes just below the ear. So Conall Corc does begin to tick boxes here – someone famous that everyone would know and recognise his story, associated with the right colour, and the colour is associated with his ear.
    I don’t know if this is right – to mythically associate the Buidhe Chonaill with Conall Corc. It makes sense of a sort, but I’ll be interested to hear any response or ideas?

  4. There was a lot more trade in the Anglo-Saxon era than most scholars have recognized. For instance, they have always felt strongly that the beautiful ivory carvings taken from graves had to be made of walrus bone or whale bone–but recent DNA tests show that much of it was carved from elephant tusks.

    1. Do you mean The Franks Casket, for example? Where would such tusks have been obtained from? Byzantium?

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