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The Greek historian Zosimos served as a senior official, probably an advocatus fisci, in one of the prefectorial courts of the eastern Empire, eventually rising to the rank of Comes. Writing at the turn of the sixth century, he wrote a history (in Greek) of the Roman emperors from Augustus until the early 5th century. Zosimus was an avowed pagan (clearly not just another Byzantine), not hiding his animosity towards the Christian church, because of which he was mostly neglected by the later Christian medieval scribe.
This is what Photius has to say about Zosimus:
It may be said that Zosimus did not himself write the history, but that he copied that of Eunapius, from which it only differs in brevity and in being less abusive of Stilicho. In other respects his account is much the same, especially in the attacks upon the Christian emperors. I think that both these authors brought out new editions, although I have not seen the first edition, but it may be conjectured from the title of the "new edition," which I have read, that, like Eunapius, he published a second edition. He is clearer and more concise, as we have said, than Eunapius, and rarely employs figures of speech.
According to Roger Pearse, Zosimus "refers to the hated tax, the Chryargyrum (2.38.4), abolished by Anastasius I in 498, in terms that suggest strongly that he lived after that date. Evagrius Scholasticus (elsewhere in this collection) writing at the end of the 6th century attacks Zosimus, and tells us that Eustathius, who died around 518, also wrote against him. This allows us to date Zosimus to the early 6th century." If indeed Zosimus wrote this late, it would make him about the most divorced in space and time of all the late Classical historian, from the events which they described.
His work though, as inherited by us, is incomplete only books I-V and part of book VI survive, and contain Zosimus' description of the troubled times between Julian the Apostate and Honorius, terminating just before the sack of Rome in 410. If Zosimus, as it seems, wrote in the first decade of the 6th century, it is hard to imagine he did not write about later events.
As we have seen above in the comment of Photius, Zosimus pieced together his sources, mainly constructing his history from contemporary sources such as Olympiodorus and Eunapius. According to Roger Pearse, he "used Dexippus for book 1, Eunapius for books 2-5.27, and Olympiodorus thereafter. The history of the latter went down to 425. All these are entirely or mostly lost, but Zosimus copied them slavishly. This can be seen in book 5 where the presentation of Stilicho is hostile while he follows Eunapius, and then becomes mildly positive in 5.34 when he is following Olympiodorus." Because of this method, he makes many chronological and geographical blunders, sometimes confusing characters, conflating actions being chronologically unreliable as well. Small wonder that Zosimus is generally seen as a bad historian, and some describe him as moonstruck or muddleheaded. (Thompson).
The text of Zosimus survives in a single manuscript now in the Vatican, Codex Vaticanus Graecus 156. This was written over a period of two centuries, the 10th-12th, probably in the celebrated and scholarly Studios monastery in Constantinople. However the manuscript has suffered damage. A quaternion of 8 leaves is missing at the end of book 1 / start of book 2. Also a single leaf has been cut out in book 5, ch. 22. The Ms. was in the Vatican in 1475, but was moved to the closed shelves during the wars of religion in 1572. It was made available again in the 1850s. A surreptitous copy was made in the 16th century, however, and from copies of this all the texts until 1887 were derived. (Pearse)
Because he was so far removed in both time and space from Britain, he seems a poor witness for events that concern Britain in the late fourth and early fifth century. This is even more of a problem, because Zosimus is the main source for two major events in British history the revolt of 409 and the Rescript of Honorius. He has been criticized severely for his lack of comment, being seemingly a mere copyist of his sources. That may well have been the case, but this was very typical of ancient historians, and not necessarily a bad thing. For instance, it may also mean that we can rely on his writings as accurately copied from his sources, without the risk of meddling. This, and his close reliance on the very impressive work of Olympiodorus, offsets his drawbacks somewhat. But this does not mean that he can be blindly relied on; he did not use his sources accurately. Book VI, ominously containing the evidence crucial for Britain, is desperately muddled, in fact so much so that several modern editors have suggested that Zosimus dropped dead before having the chance to correct the mess of his first draft!
The revolt of 409
Zosimus is our foremost source for the dating of the British revolt. Though I could understand those who would argue that it is not that crucial to determine if the revolt took place in 408, 409 or 410, I must assert here that it is. The events leading up to this revolt, which in all likelihood meant the End of Roman Britain, as well as the revolt itself are not very clear to us. Determining when this revolt took place means that we can establish if it was in effect a revolt against Constantine III or against Honorius, which would make it a revolt against the empire.
Zosimus has several references to this event. His sixth book starts with the invasion of Italy by Alaric, but then changes the subject back to Celtic events:
Nova, Book VI.1
The next 4 chapters look back in time at the careers of the tyrants Marcus (misdated to 407) and of Constantine III, among which Zosimus, likely depending on this on Olympiodorus, describes an incursion and a subsequent British revolt in AD 408-9:
Nova, Book VI.5.2-3
Often taken to be Saxons, we cant be sure who these invaders were, the Franks having ravaged Gaul at the same time. What we can be sure of is that the invaders actions induced the provincials to look for their defence to Constantine III. Zosimus is clear who he thinks was responsible for this attack and the subsequent revolt:
Nova, Book VI.5-6
At that time, the host of barbarians (Vandals, Alans, Sueves, etc.) moved from Gaul into Spain, a move recorded for 409. Did any of these remain behind and attack Britain? The possibility is there, although a slim one. Franks, Frisians and Saxons were often seen as one of a kind, their mass often given an ethnic label based on the ethnicity of the commander only. Maybe the Franks mounted an attack, but archaeological evidence points to Saxons. This is confirmed by the Gallic Chronicle of 452, which mentions an attack by Saxons:
Gallia a CCCCLII, Honorius, 16th year : (AD
409 or 410)
The rest of the events mentioned take place in 410, which means that in all likelihood, the British provinces, under attack from the Saxons, revolted at the latest in 410.
The discussion still rages about who they revolted from; was it just the administration of Constantine III that they expelled subsequently? Or was it the Empire in general that they dismissed, their actions being compared with that of the Bacaudae in Gaul? I will go into this discussion elsewhere (see: Bacaudae). Zosimus is very clear that Constantine is the culprit, but he is not clear about the subsequent status of Britain: independent or waiting for help from the legitimate emperor Honorius.
The Honorian Rescript
Zosimus then mentions a letter from Honorius to the cities (poleis) of Britain, apparently a response to a petition for military aid:
Nova, Book VI.10.2
Though often mentioned right after the revolt of 409, this event is written in another part of book VI, which happens to be a quite defective part as well. Though the seeming disparity of the province revolting in 409 and then appealing to Rome for military aid in 410 is explained away as the result of a change in emperors, this cant be the solution to the problem, as Constantius III was not killed before 411, and it took even longer for Honorius to re-establish control of Gaul. The rebellion seems to have been against his officials, while the appeal to Rome was sent to the legitimate emperor, Honorius (AD 393-423).
This event is usually, erroneously referred to as "The Roman Departure from Britain" or something like that. We cannot possibly read this quote as a policy specific for the British only, in response to an unmentioned plea for help that some even see confirmed by Gildas. It should also be remembered that this event occurs in-between the description of the war in Italy, which has lead some historian to comment that the Brittia mentioned here could well have been a misreading of Bruttia, a beleaguered city in south Italy. Most likely though, the province of Brittii in southern Italy is meant here, which is also mentioned in the Notitia Dignitatum:
Dignitatum Occidentis chapter 2, The Praetorian
Prefect Of Italy
The fact Zosimus was capable of mixing up names and misplacing events should be taken account; more so, because Honorius had already in 406 issued an edict to encourage the provincials in the rest of the Empire take up arms to protect themselves.
Nevertheless, this criticism against the notion that the year 410 was the departure of Britain from the Roman Empire" has met very stiff opposition. Supposed conformation from Gildas is used to corroborate Zosimus:
DEB II, 18
This simple sentence is used by some historian as an equation with the Honorian Rescript, yet this seems totally out of context in my personal opinion. First, this scene of departing Roman troops is not in the least bit the same as a distant Emperor writing a letter to the civitates, and second, this letter is associated with the Second Pictish War (another fiction that has sprung up, see Discussion), which is in any event to be dated earlier than 410! Leaving aside Gildas, one can easily see that letting go of the enormous landmark of 410 would present the British historian with a problem of no small order. It would uproot the history as it has been taught in insular school for generation upon generation. A Roman reoccupation would have to be reconsidered, a possibility that was taken into account by at least some historians, but which seems to have been discredited by the second half of the twentieth century.
I would of course never discredit the events around 409-410, the Britons rejection of (a) Roman government. This event has indeed been proven by other sources, as well as its approximate date. But I would not equate this revolt with the absolute proven end of the British province, or even worse, with the departure of the Roman legions. This would be an irresponsible use of Zosimus, as is best proven by the fifth-century British themselves even after 410 did they ask for help from Agitus, expecting Imperial protection.
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