Brexit Stage Left: The Historical Patrick, ‘Britishness’ and Imperial Romanitas


Image: William Warby / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

I recently had the pleasure of reading an interesting article by Andrew Gardner which has just been published in the  Journal of Social Archaeology, entitled: Brexit, boundaries and imperial identities: A comparative view’ (January 17, 2017). The paper set out to explore the dynamics of imperial identity formation, both past and recent present, via the background of Brexit, Border Studies and frontier frameworks. In doing so, it draws upon several chronological examples, the most interesting to me of course being that of Insular Britain in the 4th and 5th centuries AD.

I have always been particularly interested in the creation, interplay and maintenance of multiple identities in the North Western Frontier Zone of Britain, South West Scotland and the Irish Sea during the same period – especially given the areas importance when it comes to Early Insular Christianity. Sites such as at Kirkmadrine, Whithorn, Maryport, Kirkliston et al, provide fleeting evidence for an early western regional Christian activity, commemoration and identity expression, not to mention the placing and effect of Hadrians Wall on peoples on both sides.

Indeed it is from this same area that the Historical Patrick  most likely hailed from, and within whose writings we can find a complex articulation and cognition of multiple religious and cultural identities – Irish, British, Pictish and Roman. Gardner’s interest in exploring the role and impact of ‘peripheral’ locations in the articulation, maintenance and transformation of larger imperial ‘core’ identities  is well placed and the  wider region’s geographic, political, economic and social interfaces in the 4th and 5th centuries provide an ideal vehicle for doing so.

Of course, we do not need to look very hard in the modern world to see that distinct cultural, religious and ethnic polities which border one another often result in a more visible and articulate ‘peripheral’ self expression/cognition of ‘core’ identity. Having a clearly defined and regular ‘other’ in plain sight provides ample social and political opportunities to develop cognitive and cultural distinctions of ‘Them’ and ‘Us’. And it was, naturally, no different in the past. The writings of the Historical Patrick provide a rare, but valuable, window on the same.

Imagine my surprise then, to find two rather strange, almost throwaway statements by Gardner (albeit referencing others) on the very subject of the Historical Patrick’s own sense of identity – namely, that “he appears to have abandoned the idea of being Roman’ and that “he did not associate his religious identity with ‘Romaness'”.

I quote both below, in context (with my bold for emphasis).  Although I suspect the second example may not have been intended by the author as a direct reference to Patrick, I include it for clarity anyway – mainly due to it echoing the original statement and also the fact that Gardiner references the same author’s book in both cases.

More clearly, there is actually evidence for the continuation of both ‘British’ and ‘tribal’ identities after the end of Roman administration in the early 5th century, particularly from some of the small number of insular written sources, such as inscribed stones (White, 2007: 154–176, 202–207), and the 5th/6th century writings of Patrick and Gildas. It is especially notable that both of these authors appear to have abandoned the idea of being Roman (even though they write in Latin), but do identify as Britons (Higham, 2002: 39–73; Jones, 1996: 121–130).

Gardner (2017), Brexit, boundaries and imperial identities

Whether such patterns fully provided the resources for a ‘British’, as opposed to regional, identity is difficult to judge, partly because few artefact types survive the economic changes following on from Roman administrative withdrawal, and partly because our later ‘British’ written sources do not clearly articulate this identity in material terms, but rather in terms of Christianity vis-à-vis the pagan Saxons, and indeed the role of the church in social relations at this time is probably very significant (Higham, 2002: 59–72). However, it is ironic – but quite telling – that these Christian writers do not associate their religious identity with ‘Romanness’.

Gardner (2017), Brexit, boundaries and imperial identities

While this is no doubt true of the likes of Gildas, such a statement concerning the Historical Patrick would not, in this decade, find much support among anyone with a passing familiarity with his two surviving 5th Century documents. In fact, not only  can such a view be shown to clash considerably with Patrick’s own words, in-text allusions and inferences; it fundamentally misunderstands the very motivation behind Patrick’s lesser known document, the Epistola, or ‘Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus’ – a document  which, while promoting a somewhat idealized Christian version of Insular British Romanitas, nevertheless rests on Patrick’s own sense of his privileged background, status and entitlement as an Imperial Roman citizen.


Image: Wigwam Jones / Fickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Leaving aside the small matter of his identifying himself as Patricius (a name given to him by his decurion father Calpornius), and that he was apparently taken captive at a small villa (which was staffed with slaves and owned by his grandfather Potitus), near an unidentified Roman vicus (Conf, 1; Epist, 10) – there are several allusions within his writings which clearly illustrate not only a background familiarity with civic Romanitas, but also inferences that it was an ongoing contemporary reality/lived experience of his intended British audience.

For example, Patrick laments (somewhat facetiously) that his early education in Latin literacy was interrupted by his captivity and enslavement in Ireland; whilst also referring to, and directly addressing senior contemporaries in Britain who were experts in Law, Sacred Letters and Rhetoric (Conf, 9; Conf, 13). This not only suggests a parental expectation that he would have partaken of a functioning roman civil education system in his youth, but also that some of his fellow contemporaries in Britain, beneficiaries of just such an education, were still accorded a venerable status and rank for having done so.

Elsewhere, when referring to Britain and Gaul as distinct political/geographic entities in themselves, Patrick does so in the plural, i.e. ‘The Britains’, and ‘The Gauls’ – a manner which strongly suggests the cognition of provincial units within the Roman administrative system of late antiquity (Conf, 23; Conf, 32; Conf, 43). He also specifically distinguishes between the Roman Gauls with those of the pagan Franks (Epist, 14).  Not only does Patrick continue to think of such places in such terms, he seems content that his contemporary  British audience will too – something which tallies closely with that of other independent, contemporary authors who also used the same terms in a similar fashion re: collective Roman provinces.

When Patrick has need to communicate measurements and value to his British audience, he does so using imperial units and currency (Conf, 20; Conf, 50; Epist, 14); once again, seemingly content that his audience will have no problem in understanding his meaning. He also repeatedly stresses and takes pride in his having freeborn noble status by birth (Conf, 37; Epist, 10; Epist, 15) by consistently utilizing a Roman legal term to denote same. Indeed, his lamenting the loss of such a status (via his willing [Christian] sacrifice by virtue of his mission to barbarians in Ireland, beyond the fringes of empire) implies that his intended Romano-British audience both conceived of and recognized the inherent imperial legal value and protection afforded by such a freeborn status.

All this is mere preamble however. It is the very reason for his writing of the Epistola, or ‘Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus’, which supplies the most illuminating example of both his conception of an insular British ethnic identity, alongside and within, a very real, shared experience and awareness of the imperial Roman umbrella of citizenship. In order to better understand the letter, some background is important.


Image: Wigwam Jones / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Coroticus was the apparent leader of a band of freebooters/slavers who had apparently raided, killed and captured a number of Patrick’s recent converts. Upon hearing the news, Patrick immediately dispatched an envoy with a letter, pleading for the return of the baptized converts and other valuables which had been taken in the raid. Both envoy and request were scorned. As a result, Patrick then hurriedly wrote a second letter (the one we have today) metaphorically addressed ‘To The Soldiers of Coroticus’ – but in reality, the letter was a open encyclical intended to be read far and wide by multiple recipients and communities in Britain.

It is an outraged and angry admonishment of the ill treatment of himself and his converts, designed to publicly highlight and shame the actions of Coroticus and his followers in the eyes of their contemporaries. Patrick’s articulation of the utter horror at the enslavement of Irish Christians, subsequently sold on by, and to, Pagan Irish and (apostate) Picts, strongly suggests that he was hoping that such crimes would be frowned on by many of his intended British recipients. Indeed, the underlying implication is not so much outrage that Coroticus himself, both (nominally) Christian and a fellow countryman of Patrick, (i.e. British) would do such a thing – but that he should even dare to do so to those associated with, and nominally protected by – Patrick himself – a fellow Briton.

For any aspect of this literary appeal to have even potentially worked in Patrick’s favour, the intended audiences of the letter must have at least subscribed to a shared identity and background  i.e. they were Patricks ‘fellow citizens’, his ‘fellow Christians’, his ‘own people’ from his ‘own country’ who had ‘not recognized him’, his ‘mission’, or the newly Christianized status of his Irish converts for decades. Yet, if Patrick’s missionary activities had not been widely welcomed by the same; if his British Christian opponents had not previously considered  Irish Christians as equivalent members of a shared religious identity – then what could Patrick have possibly hoped for in appealing to their sense of civic justice? The answer lies in his own words, near the very beginning of the letter. After introducing himself, Patrick gets straight to the matter:

Manu mea scripsi atque condidi uerba ista danda et tradenda militibus mittenda Corotici, non dico ciuibus meis, neque ciuibus sanctorum Romanorum sed ciuibus daemoniorum, ob mala opera ipsorum. Ritu hostili in morte uiuunt, socii Scottorum atque Pictorum apostatarumque…

With my own hand I have written and composed these words, to be given and handed over, dispatched to the soldiers of Coroticus, I do not say my fellow citizens, nor to fellow citizens of the holy Romans, but to fellow citizens of demons…

Patricius, Epistola 2 Trans: Howlett (1994)

Note Patrick’s triple usage and repetition of ciuibus, (‘citizens’) and that he explicitly separates them on both civic and religious grounds. He publicly denounces and disavows them as not being fellow ‘citizens’ (i.e. fellow Romano-Britons) nor fellow ‘citizens’ of the Holy Romans (i.e. fellow Christians); choosing to insultingly call them fellow ‘citizens’ of demons. At the risk of stating the obvious, renouncing them as both secular and religious fellow ‘citizens’ would not have carried much currency if there hadn’t already been a pre-existing shared identity in the eyes of his intended recipients. Ergo, regardless of how little they may have thought of him, both they and Patrick were nevertheless considered ‘fellow citizens’ and (nominally) fellow Christians, in the eyes of third party Britons.


Image: Jim Bauer / Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Now consider that Patrick’s writings are heavily infused throughout with biblical allusions and call backs to scripture – a literary rhetorical device intended to resonate with those learned and  fluent in biblical metaphors. Of all the many biblical references contained within his texts, the majority are from the Acts of the Apostles (concerning Paul) and the Pauline Epistles of the New Testament – something hardly surprising given the overwhelming Pauline influence on his missionary theology and his sub-textual self identification as an ‘Apostle to (Irish) Gentiles’.

Even within the tiny excerpt from Patricks Epistola above, there are at least five separate biblical throwbacks.

For the present purposes, of most interest to us is the repetition of ‘citizens/citizenship’. Outside the Old Testament, Patrick’s original term used (civibus < civis) is only to be found in (Vulgate) Acts. Specifically within a passage concerning Paul’s unlawful mistreatment by Roman authorities who do not realize that he is a Roman Citizen (Acts 22:22-29). Read Patrick’s original above, and then imagine reading it through the prism of the inferred biblical parallel:

22 audiebant autem eum usque ad hoc verbum et levaverunt vocem suam dicentes tolle de terra eiusmodi non enim fas est eum vivere23 vociferantibus autem eis et proicientibus vestimenta sua et pulverem iactantibus in aerem24 iussit tribunus induci eum in castra et flagellis caedi et torqueri eum ut sciret propter quam causam sic adclamarent ei25 et cum adstrinxissent eum loris dixit adstanti sibi centurioni Paulus si hominem romanum et indemnatum licet vobis flagellare26 quo audito centurio accessit ad tribunum et nuntiavit dicens quid acturus es hic enim homo civis romanus est27 accedens autem tribunus dixit illi dic mihi tu Romanus es at ille dixit etiam28 et respondit tribunus ego multa summa civitatem hanc consecutus sum et Paulus ait ego autem et natus sum29 protinus ergo discesserunt ab illo qui eum torturi erant tribunus quoque timuit postquam rescivit quia civis romanus esset et quia alligasset eum

Actus Apostolorum 22:22-29 (Biblia Sacra Vulgata)

22 Up to this word they listened to him. Then they raised their voices and said, “Away with such a fellow from the earth! For he should not be allowed to live.” 23 And as they were shouting and throwing off their cloaks and flinging dust into the air, 24 the tribune ordered him to be brought into the barracks, saying that he should be examined by flogging, to find out why they were shouting against him like this. 25 But when they had stretched him out for the whips, Paul said to the centurion who was standing by, “Is it lawful for you to flog a man who is a Roman citizen and uncondemned?” 26 When the centurion heard this, he went to the tribune and said to him, “What are you about to do? For this man is a Roman citizen.” 27 So the tribune came and said to him, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?” And he said, “Yes.” 28 The tribune answered, “I bought this citizenship for a large sum.” Paul said, “But I am a citizen by birth.” 29 So those who were about to examine him withdrew from him immediately, and the tribune also was afraid, for he realized that Paul was a Roman citizen and that he had bound him.

Acts of the Apostles, 22:22-29

One does not need to be a Sherlock Holmes in order to connect the metaphorical dots. Patrick. A Romano-British Missionary in Ireland. Considered by fellow Britons to be/or have been, a Roman Citizen. Protesting his ill treatment by a fellow Roman citizen. Utilizing similar biblical parallels concerning the unlawful ill treatment of Paul, the ‘missionary apostle to the gentiles‘, who also had Roman citizenship. At the hands of fellow Romans who did not realize their shared legal and civic status.

For extra bonus kicks (and I’d love to think that Patrick is really sticking the knife into Coroticus here) the passage in Acts also makes a deliberate point of juxtaposing the Tribune – a powerful military commander of soldiers, as having bought his citizenship for a large sum of money – with that of Paul, the humble downtrodden missionary with a freeborn noble status conferred by birth. The subtext and righteous role reversal  is priceless, given Patrick’s previous emphasis on his own free born civic status and, even more so, if  Coroticus himself – a petty tyrant engaged in dodgy economic and military adventures operating within the wretched hive of scum and villainy beyond the imperial frontier between Ireland, Britain and Scotland – had indeed secured his own citizenship, via financial means, as opposed to lineage.

Everything comes full circle.


Image: Rob Hurson / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The very reason behind Patrick’s Epistola was a desperate appeal for recognition and justice – not so much to fellow Christians (the Confessio makes it abundantly clear that his British seniors and peers had little time for him) – but more explicitly, to fellow Christians in the Western Britain/Irish Sea Area who shared a common Imperial Roman Citizenship, i.e. peoples who may have been expected to view Patrick’s ill-treatment at the hands of a fellow Roman citizen with some alarm or disdain. Such an appeal to a common sense of civic equality makes absolutely no sense unless there was a contemporary reality behind it. Namely, a deep engagement, regard for and ongoing complex insular British sense of Imperial Civic Romanitas.

The argument that Patrick “appears to have abandoned the idea of being Roman” or that “he did not associate his religious identity with ‘Romaness'” cannot be sustained. It is the very antithesis of his own words, his own beliefs, his own background and his own highly elaborate and fluid personal sense of insular and imperial identities. In saying so (even if it is only uncritical repetition of Higham and Jones), Gardiner  dilutes his otherwise fine points with the exact opposite of what he claims Patrick to have been and thought.

Patrick’s own words and inferences, written at the end of a long life regarding his personal past and immediate present, illustrates a rich cognitive engagement with what it meant for some to be a Roman-Briton – both at home and beyond the furthest reaches of the empire. His entire religious motivation, underpinned by Pauline theology, utilized very specific biblical allusions to the New Testament Acts; a text which set out to ‘explain’ how Christianity spread to the wider Roman Empire. Which Patrick in turn harnessed in large parts, in order to legitimize his own socially subversive efforts to extend a conceptual shared Romanitas, via the medium of Christianity, to the Barbarian Irish beyond the frontier.

All in all, the article is perhaps a timely reminder of just how little the Historical Patrick is known and utilized by modern scholars outside of insular specialisms – let alone actually read and fully appreciated in his literal, metaphorical, contextual, anthropological, linguistic, theological and biblical contexts.  For most of the twentieth century, with a few notable exceptions, there was no long term engagement with Patrick by UK based scholars in particular – no doubt a result of a certain sense of classical literary superiority  towards the vulgar Latin of his text, not to mention, the overt Irish national and political baggage that was associated with his later cult.

Despite his wholesale association with Ireland, the Historical Patrick straddles the Irish sea with a foot on both islands. His documents are the only primary sources for either Ireland or Britain in the 5th Century. Despite ushering in the earliest surviving recorded Irish history before mysteriously brexiting stage left, he was someone who clearly identified as a Romano-Briton. He may have spent much of his earlier and later life, living, working, and writing in Ireland –  yet his surviving documents, as we have them, are largely aimed at complex Romano-Britons in a complicated Roman-Britain. There is probably more, in fact, to be found of them within his writings, than of the Irish converts to which he dedicated his life’s mission.

Food for thought, perhaps.


Post Script: 29/01/17

The elephantus in the room perhaps, is roughly when within the 5th Century one wishes to view and place Patricius and his writings. When laid out as above (and leaving his Christian eschatology aside) it certainly doesn’t lend the impression of a man who was overly concerned with a tumultuous and catastrophic collapse of Romanitas in Britian such as that contained within old fashioned ‘410 AD’ historical narratives.

If anything, no matter where he may have been within the 5th century chronological spectrum (in old age, at the time of his writings) – Patrick has always illustrated a highly nuanced, longer and complex economical/political transitional period, such as that only now being evidenced in modern archaeological scholarship and discussion (eg. Walton & Moorehead, 2016; Cool, 2014; Collins, 2005). As such, whether he and his intended audiences represent stubborn, isolated pockets of residual ‘Romanness’, or more longer lasting wider regional/provincial/imperial identities long into the 5thC, he continues to be a valuable source for the same.

Of course, one could also say that he could easily be placed any time in the second half of the fourth century too, which, from an Irish perspective is especially interesting. Despite many twentieth century scholarly attempts, there has never been a widely accepted consensus on a particular 5thC date range. Much of it involved torturous attempts to work backwards from much later Irish annals and hagiographical material. Confusion arising from Prosper/Palladius and an obvious Early Medieval Irish ecclesiastical retro-fitting and conflation, certainly hasn’t helped.

However, if one shifts his potential lifespan back to the mid-late 4thC AD, perhaps  overlapping into the 5thC; a lot of (later) conceptual dating problems disappear; giving us a somewhat easier fit within both Romano-British and Insular Irish contexts. Perhaps even a tentative explanation for why he had to be ‘brought forward’ in time by later Early Irish authorities embarrassed at the revelations discovered in Prosper’s account.

An ongoing, unhurried sense of Romanitas on his and his audiences part. Late antique reports of Irish/Pictish border incursions and raids on North Western Britain c.360-370s AD. Patrick’s own inferences to a widespread second generation of Britons born into slavery in Ireland. The rise and development of the earliest Irish Ogham ‘alphabet’ influenced by Latin and/or increasing Irish/British interaction  across the Irish sea. The contemporary and (strangely sudden) Irish interest in adopting quasi-literacy and new ways of monumentally commemorating (and articulating the Irish names of) their elite dead through same. All this, despite the fact that for almost four centuries before, they had shown little interest in their close neighbour’s penchant for roman literacy.

Its almost as if there was a sea change in how they thought about, regarded and experienced,  the very concept of the written word.

*Cough* Fledgling Christianity *Cough*.

All this appears to have been happening, or just about to happen, in the late 4thC AD, which, considering core events in Roman Christianity in the early 4thC, is astonishingly quick. Placing Patrick’s initial captivity, loosely, into this background – and then his subsequent return in later life as a missionary intent on spreading the gospel in the far west of the country in order to ‘finish the job’ and help bring about biblical prophecies of ‘end times’) – makes a little more sense in the grand scheme of things.

If this was so, even roughly, then the advent of Early Irish Christianity, in no small part due to Western British Christianity, could very well be a little older than we may have previously given it credit.


Bibliography and Further Reading

Adams, Sean A. (2009) “Paul the Roman Citizen: Roman Citizenship in the Ancient World and its Importance for Understanding Acts 22:22–29”, in Paul: Jew, Greek, and Roman (ed.) Stanley E. Porter. Leiden, Brill, 309-326.

Charles-Edwards, T. M., (2000) Early Christian Ireland. Cambridge University Press.

Collins, Rob. (2006) ‘Late Roman Frontier Communities in Northern Britain: a Theoretical Context for the ‘End’ of Hadrian’s Wall’, in:Croxford, B. Goodchild, H., Lucas, J., and Ray, N. (eds.)  TRAC 2005: Proceedings of the Fifteenth Annual Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference. Oxford: Oxbow Books.

Cool, H.E.M. (2014). ‘Which ‘Romans’; what ‘home’? The myth of the ‘end’ of Roman Britain’, in Haarer, F.K. (ed.) AD 410: The History and Archaeology of Late and Post-Roman Britain, Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies, London, 13-22.

De Paor, L (1993) (Ed. and trans.) Saint Patrick’s World. Blackrock and Dublin: Four Courts Press.

Dumville, D. N. (1993) Saint Patrick: A.D. 493-1993. Woodbridge, Suffolk, Rochester: NY.

Forsyth, K. (2005) ‘Hic Memoria Perpetua: the Early Inscribed Stones of Southern Scotland in Context’, in S. Foster and M. Cross (eds) Able Minds and Practiced  Hands: Scotland’s Early Medieval Sculpture in the 21st Century, 113–134.

Gardner, A. (2017) ‘Brexit, boundaries and imperial identities: A comparative view’, Journal of Social Archaeology 10.1177/1469605316686875

Gardner, J. F. (1993) Being a Roman Citizen. Routledge.

Handley, M.A. (1998) “The early medieval inscriptions of western Britain: function and sociology”, in J. Hill and M. Swan (eds.), The Community, the Family and the Saint. Patterns of Power in early medieval Europe, 339-361.

Handley, M.A. (2001) “The origins of Christian commemoration in late antique Britain”, Early Medieval Europe 10, 177-199.

Higham, N.J. (2002) King Arthur: Myth-making and History, London. Routledge.

Howlett, D. R. (1994) Liber Epistolarum Sancti Patricii Episcopi. The Book of Letters of Saint Patrick the Bishop. Dublin.

Hunter, F. (2007) Beyond the Edge of the Empire–Caledonians, Picts and Romans, Rosemarkie.

 Jones, M.E. (1996) The End of Roman Britain, Cornell University Press.

 Koch, J.T. (2003) ‘Celts, Britons and Gaels’, Transactions of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion, New Series, Vol. 9, 41-56.

 Maldonado, A. (2011) ‘What Does Early Christianity Look Like? Mortuary archaeology and conversion in Late Iron Age Scotland’, Scottish Archaeological Journal  33.1–2, 39–54.

 O’Loughlin, T. (1999) St. Patrick: The Man and his Works, Triangle. London.

 Petts, D. (2003) Christianity in Roman Britain. Stroud.

 Thomas, Charles (1981) Christianity in Roman Britain to AD 500. Batsford.

Walton, P. and Moorhead, S. (2016) Coinage and Collapse? The contribution of numismatic data to understanding the end of Roman Britain, Internet Archaeology 41.


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