Groans of the Britons - Appeal to Aetius

Britons' Appeal to Aetius for Help Ancient Places and/or Civilizations Legends and Legendary People Visual Arts

Gildas, an ancient chronicler, tells us that after Rome's legions left Britannia, intruders invaded the shores and borders of the country we know today as Britain. The people—known as Britons—needed help, so they appealed to a Roman general called Flavius Aetius:

So the miserable remnants sent off a letter again, this time to the Roman commander Agitius [Aetius], in the following terms: “To Agitius [Aetius], thrice consul: the groans of the British.”

Further on came this complaint: “The barbarians push us back to the sea, the sea pushes us back to the barbarians; between these two we are either drowned or slaughtered.” But they got no help in return.

This image depicts a painting by Pat Nicolle—called Romano British Appeal to General Aetius—and imagines how the scene might have looked when Aetius received the letter pleading for help. 

Gildas wrote his chronicle in the Latin language. He used these Latin words—gemitus britannorum—to describe the letter which Britons wrote to Aetius. We could translate those two words, from Latin to English, in two different ways. One way is:

  • "groans of the Britons"

The other way is:

  • "lamentations of the Britons"

The letter is generally known as “The Groans of the Britons,” but some scholars think that “lamentations” is the better translation.

We can figure-out, approximately, when the Britons wrote their letter because they address Flavius Aetius as “thrice Counsul.”

  • Because Aetius served as a Roman Consul for the third time, beginning in 446, the letter could not have been sent earlier than 446.
  • Because Aetius died in 454, the letter could not have been sent later than 454.

After Rome abandoned Briton, in 410, Aetius was a key figure in Rome’s Western Empire. Fighting against various tribes and would-be invaders, such as Attila the Hun—whom he defeated in the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains—Aetius was assassinated by the sitting Roman Emperor, Valentinian III, on September 21, 454.

From fragments of historical writings—including those attributed to Priscus, the ancient historian who met Attila the Hun—we learn that the loss of Aetius was a bad blow to the Emperor who’d struck him down:

The Emperor [Valentinian III] was persuaded by their sycophancies [the words of plotters against Aetius] and, moved to murder Aetius, he killed him in a flash.

Reckoning that his deed was a boon to him, he [the Emperor] said to someone capable of guessing riddles [Edward Gibbons believed that the riddle-guessing person was the poet Sidonius Apollinaris—see Chapter 35 of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire]: “Did I not perform the killing of Aetius well, my man?”

The other replied: “Whether well or not, I do not know. But know that you cut off your right hand with your left.” (Quote, from Fragment 70, in The Fragmentary History of Priscus: Attila, the Huns and the Roman Empire, AD 430-476, at page 127.)

The original painting, displayed above, is maintained in a private collection. 

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5189stories and lessons created

Original Release: Oct 07, 2013

Updated Last Revision: Dec 10, 2019

Media Credits

Image, described above, copyright Pat Nicolle and Scholars Resource, all rights reserved.  Image provided here as fair use for educational purposes and to acquaint new users with Pat Nicolle's wonerful illustrations and the Scholars Resource website.  Online, via Scholars Resource website.


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"Groans of the Britons - Appeal to Aetius" AwesomeStories.com. Oct 07, 2013. Dec 09, 2019.
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