<< Go to Episode 2

Return to 'At The Edge Of The World' Episode Index

Go to Episode 4 >>

*   At the edge of the world –Episode 3  image010.jpg


Watch this episode in our YouTube channel

c44BC to cAD410: Roman Britain and early Christianity


Now we go back to before our proper beginning: England was part of the Roman Empire and called Britannia.   Scotland was never part of that empire, but was called by the Romans Caledonia.   Both names stuck.   The most important Roman emperor for us and the whole of Europe, Russia, America - even today - was Constantine the Great who in the early fourth century made Christianity the state religion for his empire.


Written and presented by Robert Smith, Chairman of the Manorial Society of Great Britain - www.msgb.co.uk






Written and presented by

Robert Smith


Voice over

Barney Powell

Rebecca Cooper


Music production &

Original music

Simon Roberts

(Lyric media group)


Original film footage

Ian Phillips


Picture editor

Roberto Ekholm


Asst picture editor

Guilfre Jordan


Associate Producer

Ian Phillips



Antonio Parente


Picture sources:


Re-enactment: Legion III, Cyrenaica (eastern Lybia), photo user: Caligula's Wife, New England (USA) in a re-creation of a 1st century AD Roman legion; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Legionary#mediaviewer/File:Wells_0706_054.jpg


Re-enactment: Roman troops in action; http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Roman_Army_%26_Chariot_Experience,_Hippodrome,_Jerash,_Jordan_(5072088459).jpg


Emperor Constantine I presents a representation of the city of Constantinople as tribute to an enthroned Mary and Christ Child in this church mosaic, Hagia Sophia, c 1000; Error! Hyperlink reference not valid.


An 'aerial view' of how Constantinople might have looked in Byzantine times; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Turkey


Emperor Nero, AD54-68; http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:John_William_Waterhouse_-_The_Remorse_of_the_Emperor_Nero_after_the_Murder_of_his_Mother.JPG


Hadrian's Wall facing East towards Crag Lough; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hadrian's_Wall


Head of Constantine. (Rome, Capitoline Museum. Photo: Jean-Christophe BENOIST);



Emblem of King Ferdinand of Castile and Queen Isabella of Aragon, the Catholic Monarchs, who finally unified Spain and expelled the last Muslim rulers from Granada in 1492; https://visionwild.wordpress.com/tag/catherine-of-aragon/


SS Cyril and Methodius holding a paper on which is written the Cyrillic alphabet, imported into Russia in the 10th century by these Christian evangelists; pronunciation is Kirillic; a mural by the Bulgarian iconographer, Z Zograf, 1848, Troyan Monastery; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saints_Cyril_and_Methodius


Map of the Roman Empire, c AD54;



A 19th century interpretation of the assassination of Gaius Julius Caesar at the Senate House, Rome, 44BC; http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki File:Karl_Theodor_von_Piloty_Murder_of_Caesar_1865.jpg


Mark Antony, friend and colleague of Julius Caesar who set out to avenge the assassination;



Cleopatra and Julius Caesar; painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme, oil on canvas, 1866: Cleopatra ruled Egypt jointly with her younger brother Ptolemy.   This picture shows her  before Caesar when she confronts Julius Caesar after emerging from a roll of carpet. The Egyptian Queen had been driven from the palace in Alexandria by her brother/husband Ptolemy XIII.   To maintain purity of the royal line, sisters and brothers, and other close family members, routinely married in pharaonic Egypt.   Perhaps in the same way that Judaism is passed through the female, so throne-worthiness passed or was strengthened through the female, line in Egypt.   Cleopatra had to disguise herself to regain entry and treat with Caesar for protection and restoration to the throne.   She succeeded and became Caesar's mistress, possibly bearing his son, Caesarian, who was probably murdered by Octavian, who became the first Roman Emperor as Augustus in 27BC.   King Ptolemy was probably killed by Caesar who put down all opposition to Queen Cleopatra, who reigned in Egypt, as its last queen, until 30BC when she committed suicide in face of Octavian's Roman legions.   Egypt then became a province of the Empire until the seventh century when it was captured by the Muslims.



Rome's first Emperor, Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, known as Augustus, who was adopted as his son (in Roman law) by his great uncle Julius Caesar.   Augustus was a title borne by all subsequent Roman emperors, Byzantine emperors, and Holy Roman emperors from Charlemagne in AD800 until the dissolution of that moribund empire in 1806 by Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of the French (1804-1814/15).   Emperors from all three empires will feature in this documentary.



Byzantium, or in Turkish Byzantion, known as Istanbul (meaning 'The City') since the Ottoman-Turkish conquest of Constantinople in 1453, although Western atlases continued to call the city Constantinople until 1923, when the Ottoman caliphate was abolished by Kemal Ataturk, who became President of Turkey, and the country's capital was transferred to Ankara, in Asia Minor.   The map shows the position of Byzantium, which lies in Europe, and the modern political boundaries in red. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Byzantium


Map of the Roman Empire, c AD125, under Emperor Hadrian; http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Roman_Empire_125_de.svg


Hadrian's Wall; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hadrian's_Wall


Emperor Caligula, Gaius Caligula Julius Caesar Germanicus, named after his father Germanicus who conquered the Alamans (in western Germany on the left bank of the Rhine); r AD37-41; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caligula


Statue of Incitatus with a mounted rider, perhaps Caligula.   The Emperor is said to have created this horse Consul (chief magistrate) of Rome; http://historyoftheancientworld.org/2012/11/


Sculpted head of Emperor Nero, r AD54-68; Error! Hyperlink reference not valid.


Nero, painting by John William Waterhouse, of the Emperor after murdering his own mother Agrippina the Younger, granddaughter of Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa and Julia, the daughter of the Emperor Augustus, making Nero the great grandson of the first Emperor of Rome.   He committed suicide shortly after killing his mother; http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:John_William_Waterhouse_-_The_Remorse_of_the_Emperor_Nero_after_the_Murder_of_his_Mother.JPG


Constantine the Great in mosaic (c 1000) holding The City, Hagia Sophia being prominent; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constantinople


Brutus: according to the 12th century historian, Geoffrey of Monmouth, in his History of the Kings of Britain, was the great grandson of Aeneas.   After the fall of Troy, told in Homer's heroic poem (The) Illiad, Brutus is supposed to have founded a new Troy in southern Britain, known as Trinovantum (London), an unlikely tale; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brutus_of_Troy


Piazza del Popolo (People's Square), Ravenna, about 85 miles south of Venice, on the Adriatic coast; Eastern (Byzantine) emperors' Italian centre until about 700.   In its heyday, in the sixth century, it was ruled by exarchs sent from Constantinople, whose presence overawed popes in Rome: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:PiazzaDelPopolo01.jpg




Contemporary picture of Christian clergy meeting at the First Council of Nicaea in 323 at the summer palace of the Emperor Constantine the Great to thrash out the Church's stand on theological beliefs and to determine canons (laws), not least the degrees of divinity of the Trinity.   It failed on the Trinity and the 'substance' of the Holy Ghost is still unresolved.   Divisions were papered over, but not for long, and these will be discussed in later episodes as they have implications for the islands at the Edge of the World:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Council_of_Nicaea


Map of the Roman Empire showing the 'barbarian' invasions in the fifth century: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Turkey


A map of Constantinople made by Cristoforo Buondelmonte, of Florence (Firenze) in 1422:



Basilica of SS Cyril and Methodius in Moravian town of Velehrad, Czech Republic:



With the evangelical mission of SS Cyril and Methodius to Ukraine and Russia in the 10th century, Greek Orthodoxy became by far the largest Christian church in Europe, much larger than that presided over by popes in Rome, and was a factor in the Great Schism (split or separation) between Rome and Constantinople in the next century.   Schism is pronounced sizm: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Kirill_Mefodij.jpg


Celebration of the Holy Qurbana in the Syriac Church, roughly equivalent to the Eucharist.   It means Holy Offering or Sacrifice and is known in this Christian Church as the Sacrament of Perfection: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syriac_Orthodox_Church


Pope Shenouda III, The Coptic Orthodox Christians' Pope in Egypt, listens to President Barack Obama deliver a much anticipated speech to the Muslim world from the conference hall of Cairo University in Egypt 4 June 2009.   In fact, Pope Shenouda died after this Episode was filmed, and it would have been difficult to go back into it.   Photo by Chuck Kennedy.   This official White House photograph is made available for publication by news organizations and/or for personal use printing by the subject(s) of the photograph. The photograph may not be manipulated in any way or used in materials, advertisements, products, or promotions that in any way suggest approval or endorsement of the President, the First Family, or the White House.   This image is a work of an employee of the Executive Office of the President of the United States, taken or made during the course of the person's official duties. As a work of the U.S. Federal Government, the image is in the public domain.   As ever, we are grateful to the Federal Government for the use of photographs: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coptic_Orthodox_Church_of_Alexandria


Map showing the early Muslim conquests out of Arabia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muslim_conquests


A 19th century representation of the Battle of Poitiers, in 731, when a new Muslim invasion was thwarted by Charles Martel, the Merovingian king of France's chief adviser.   Mr Smith, in this part of Episode 3, is being provocative with a counter-factual that a Muslim victory could have meant the Islamation of the whole of Europe and, by extension, of the Americas.   It is unlikely that a Frankish defeat would have made much difference, but it is a thought, is it not? http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Steuben_-_Bataille_de_Poitiers.png


Charles Martel: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Charles_Martel_01.jpg


Christopher Columbus:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christopher_Columbus


The Catholic Monarchs, see caption above: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catholic_Monarchs


Map of Italy, c 600, showing the disposition of Catholic and Byzantine territory: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Italy_1050.jpg


In the 17th century, the British materialist thinker Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) wrote that for most people 'life is nasty, brutish, and short', as it was in his day, and had been from the beginning of history until the middle of the last century.   The rich did better because they could afford better, but much of what they ate and drank killed them too.   It was not until the 20th century that, even for the rich, medicine and surgery got better, and since the end of the Second World War (1945) very much better for those in the West.   Far more people (billions) still have little or no medicine and are frequently starving.   It has been said that, had the US and Britain not spent the hundreds of billions they did spend on the Iraqi invasion of 2003 and attempted pacification, they could have supplied clean water and sewers to the whole world who did not have these facilities that we take for granted: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Hobbes


West Front of Winchester Cathedral.   Winchester was the capital of the kingdom of the West Saxons (Wessex): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Architecture_of_cathedrals_and_great_churches


Émile Durkheim (1858-1917), French philosopher, founder of scientific sociology, and atheist (he repudiated his Judaism) who nevertheless believed that religion provided order and moral compass, especially to children:



Ripon Cathedral, shot by Ian Phillips


Fresco depicting a Bacchanalian rite: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Villa_of_the_Mysteries


Preparation for a sacrifice. Marble fragment of an architectural relief, first quarter of the 2nd century, from Rome; Musée du Louvre, Paris: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Roman_sacrifice_Louvre_Ma992.jpg


A bronze tablet in the Capitoline Museums, Rome, recording a law of the Senate:



Palazzo Madama, Rome: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Maccari-Cicero.jpg


Grateful thanks to Wikimedia and Wikipedia, and all those photographers who have made the pictures in this Episode.   Some of these captions have been amplified by Robert Smith



Episode transcript:


We said in the last episode that we shall have to attend to the Roman Empire in this episode, and you must be wondering why we have not met a single Anglo-Saxon yet.   

The Anglo-Saxons are coming, but first we have to etch into our minds a bit of information about this Empire which has crucial bearing on the spread of Roman Christianity, Roman government, Roman jurisprudence, Roman arts and literature in Europe.  


Everyone knows of the Roman Empire, and there have been several good drama documentaries on British television in the last couple of years, since sold to broadcasters worldwide.  

Julius Caesar is probably the most memorable Roman, and he was assassinated in 44BC outside the Senate, the Roman parliament house.  

This was followed by a long civil war - first, between the assassins and Mark Antony, and then between Mark Antony, supported by the legendary Queen Cleopatra of Egypt, and Octavian, adopted son of Julius Caesar.  

Octavian was victorious and became the first Roman emperor as Augustus in 30BC.   He founded a race of emperors who were to reign until the fifteenth century, claiming an imperial legitimacy from Augustus.   They did not reign from Rome for much of that time, but from Constantinople, a Greek city, then called Byzantium.  

These rulers are known as the Eastern Roman or Byzantine emperors.   We shall meet some of them who were to influence events as far away as Britain.


The Roman Empire, at its greatest extent under the Emperor Trajan, at the beginning of the second century AD, stretched from Basra in modern Iraq, in the east, to Britain, or Britannia as it was called, at the Edge of the World, in the west.  

It included all of modern Spain, Portugal, France, Belgium, Italy, Austria, former Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Romania, Greece, Turkey, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Morocco.   It also incorporated slices of south-west Germany, Hungary, the Crimea (now in the Ukraine), Georgia, and Armenia.  

Trajan was succeeded, in AD117, by Emperor Hadrian, who built the Wall, named after him, between Britannia and Caledonia, the Roman name for Scotland.   The most infamous of the emperors are said to have been Caligula, who made himself a god. 

He also made his horse, Incitatus, Consul (or chief magistrate) of Rome, and murdered his sister and his sister's child by him.   He was murdered by his own bodyguard, called the Praetorians.   

The other is Nero, who is supposed to have played the fiddle while Rome burned - an apochryphal story - and murdered his mother, Agrippina, with whom he also had an incestuous relationship - not an apochryphal story.  

For a rollicking read, I can do no better than to recommend two historical novels by Robert Graves, I, Claudius and Claudius the God, in which both of these psychotic emperors feature.


The most important emperor for us is Constantine the Great, who made Christianity the state religion, encouraged its growth, and reigned from 312 to 337, founding Constantinople in 330 as the new Roman capital in place of Rome.  

We shall come to him later, and what we need to remember is that southern Britain was part of this vast empire for 350 years, and was influenced by imperial culture.   Britain takes its name from a mythological Roman figure, called Brutus, according to the twelfth-century chronicler, Geoffrey of Monmouth, who may have invented him.


Christianity was transmitted through Roman Catholicism, although Rome was, in fact, the junior partner to Constantinople in Christendom for centuries.   Roman popes had to be confirmed by East Roman or Greek emperors, who enjoyed some temporal sway in Italy into the eleventh century. 

Their governors, known as exarchs, ruled from Ravenna, on the Adriatic Sea, a route march of not much more than 300 miles from Rome, so wise popes showed due deference.  

Catholic conquest of Western Europe was opposed in the former imperial provinces of Iberia, Gaul, and Britannia, not by pagans so much as by an older form of Christianity that had probably germinated in the second and third centuries, and thriven in the last century of imperial rule in Western Europe.  

Disputes between Roman evangelists and local Christians will seem, to most of us, pettifogging unless you agree with me that they were less about forms of worship than about obedience to papal authority, an authority fitfully exercised.  

The island of Britain was particularly recalcitrant, and much of it was under the control of incomer pagans and established Christian heretics - our Anglo-Saxons and Britons - in the fifth century.


The East Roman, or Byzantine, Empire, based on Constantinople was so enormously rich that it was simply called 'The City' by everyone (its modern Turkish name, Istanbul, also means The City).  

It was ruled by emperors who enjoyed a dwindling overlordship over the Roman pope from the mid-eighth century until the final split - called the Great Schism - in 1054 when, for simplicity, we might say that there were two main brands of European Christianity

- Roman Catholicism and Greek Orthodoxy, the latter a mighty religion in numbers of adherents since the missions of St Kiril and his brother St Methodius, in the ninth century, who added Ukraine and, later, Moscow to Christendom.  

Nor shall I ignore, in a later episode - when we come to speak of the Dark Ages - the several break-away strands of the Greek Church which prospered for centuries under Muslim and other non-Christian rulers in Syria, modern Iraq, Iran, southwards to Kerala, in India, and eastwards as far as China, where there remain forms of this ancient Christianity to this day.


Within the two European strands of Christianity in their early years - the fourth and fifth centuries - there were deviations - unsurprisingly, branded heretics by Roman and Orthodox churches.  

Principal of these at the time was the Coptic Church of Egypt which still has its own pope in preponderantly Muslim modern Egypt, where it lives on under Pope Shenouda III.  

Officially, Copts make up 10 per cent of the Egyptian population of 70 million today, but it has been suggested that the proportion of Christian Copts is closer to 20 per cent because the Egyptian authorities are reluctant to alarm the Muslim majority with the true figure.  

There was and is the Syrian Church with centres throughout the Near East and in modern Iraq, although rather fewer in that desperate country since the Anglo-American invasion of 2003 and the lack of any sane plan to win the peace.  

Christians are much less tolerated there than under Saddam Hussein whose Ba'athist Party had secularized that country, and most Christians have quit their homeland.


As we shall see, the Western Roman Empire fell in the fifth century.   By the middle of the seventh century, the greatest threat to Christendom, Greek and Roman, came from Islam.  

Muslim armies careered out of Arabia and the Byzantine emperors lost Palestine, Syria, and North Africa, including their most valuable province of Egypt, where most of the empire's grain originated.  

Muslims even made some early progress into Anatolia (Turkey today), the Byzantine heartland.   Constantinople, as a great imperial city, never fully recovered.

Muslims from North Africa detached most of Iberia from Christianity in the seventh and eighth centuries, and might have overthrown Christianity in the West altogether, had their invasion of modern France not been stopped at Poitiers in 732 by the Christian leader Charles Martel.  

What if the battle had gone the other way?   Is it possible that Western Europe would have converted to Islam, as other peoples conquered by Islam converted?   Imagine the consequences if the 16th century Portuguese and Spanish conquistadores of Central and South America, had been Muslims.  

What if North America had been conquered by Muslim British?   Of course, Columbus' voyage in 1492 across the Atlantic made the American continent safe for Christianity.


Even so, Iberia was lost to Christendom for 800 years, until the fall of the Muslim sultanate of Granada, also in 1492, to the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella.  

Between 800 and 1050, parts of Italy itself were regularly under Muslim rule or threat of invasion from Muslim Sicily, until that island was conquered and made secure for Roman Catholicism in the eleventh century by the Normans.  

The Normans, I can almost hear you asking?   Well, the Normans did not just conquer England.   We might say now that they were on a roll, one branch going south into the Mediterranean to Sicily, the other across the English Channel to Hastings, both branches becoming kings.


Don't be surprised if, as I tell this story, the world upto fifteen hundred years ago seems very like the world today.   Names, places, language, expectation, and means of acquiring and exercising power may be somewhat different, but in the way human beings behave, nothing fundamentally has changed at all.  

To purloin the seventeenth-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes' observation that life for most people in his century was nasty, brutish, and short, it was hardly less so in this period, traditionally, and not always accurately, called the Dark Ages.  

It is today still nasty, brutish, and short over great tracts of the Earth, and even in areas of our own advanced Western civilization.   If our ancestors had any advantages over us, they were certainly not material, the yardstick by which we measure benefit in the 21st century.  

What our ancestors did have, and we no longer have, was cohesion in religious belief.   Only a hundred years ago, the French social scientist and atheist, Emile Durkeim, believed that society needed religion.  

Our ancestors believed and it filled them with the wonder and hope of Salvation, where everyone would be equal.   How else could they have coped with what we shall be hearing in this documentary?  

If Death was the only goal of Life, then Faith was the key to everything.   Religion gave purpose and meaning to all - it still does to many people.   It defined right and wrong.   It was through religion that people expressed all important matters in this formerly Roman world which two great faiths had to share from the seventh century.


We shall be coming back to these matters before we are done, but in the next episode, we shall outline the Anglo-Saxon background, and if anyone is thinking of sending an email to ask why we have not yet mentioned Picts, Welsh, Irish, Jutes, Franks, Frisians - peace, we shall get to them.


Copyright Robert Smith, Manorial Society of Great Britain



The Manorial Society of Great Britain Ltd is a Company Limited by Guarantee

Registered in England and Wales No: 3296984