I watched a film recently called King Arthur, showing London post Rome (guessing set in Middle Ages with modern-ish buildings but still with some Roman buildings / walls showing.

It got me thinking: are there historical texts in England querying where these structures came from?

Post Rome I know we reverted to timber structures and lost a lot of knowledge in construction, especially road building.

It would be surely like finding a skyscraper in 1600, in that it would amaze and confuse people, or did they retain verbal knowledge passed down or via church like: "there was once a great empire that ruled this land"?

Looking at Rome itself, the Colosseum still stands so people must have retained respect for structures - I’m guessing - otherwise they would reuse the stone for other things.

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    They did reuse the stones from many of the buildings. See Were there any Roman villas in Britain which were used rather than destroyed after the Romans left?. You may also be interested in Did Anglo-Saxons make use of large-scale, non-military Roman ruins?. Commented Jul 14, 2020 at 23:02
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    The accepted answer here may also be of interest: Were Medieval Britons aware of the existence of the Roman Empire?. Commented Jul 14, 2020 at 23:04
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    Welcome to History:Stack Exchange. Thank you for your question; please consider revising it to be more in line with our community expectations. Like many other stacks, we expect questions to provide evidence of prior research. That helps us to understand the question, and avoids our repeating work you've already done. Our help center, and other stacks provide additional resources to assist with revisions.
    – MCW
    Commented Jul 15, 2020 at 0:02
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    Perhaps a better question would be knowledge of the many neolithic structures (Stonehenge &c), whose builders were as distant in time from the Romans as the Romans are from us.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jul 15, 2020 at 4:34
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    Lost knowledge in road building? That's quite an oversimplification. It was not like someone in the middle ages thought "gee I want to construct a road but I have no idea how to do it". It was more in the style of not having the need, the motivation, and the spare resources to do it. There is no industrial technology required for those buildings and roads which couldn't have been made available if they really had the motivation and the money to do it. (they have built gigantic cathedrals in that time period, so you can't say they didn't know how to build stuff)
    – vsz
    Commented Jul 16, 2020 at 4:25

2 Answers 2


For the Anglo-Saxons, the knowledge that it was the Romans whose city it was is less relevant than why those cities were there no more, or, well, why they were in such a poor state. However, for a direct answer, Gildas and Bede describe Britain as part of Rome (though possibly not with a specific statement that "The Romans built these") and this would have been understood by the educated people.

However, there was also an allegoric understanding where these came from and I wanted to focus on that.

Poetic Description

I recommend 'The Ruin', a splendid Anglo-Saxon poem. It features a lament on the state of the present as opposed to a glorious past, based on a township. The featured city is believed to be Bath.

... The halls of the city
once were bright: there were many bath-houses,
a lofty treasury of peaked roofs, many troop-roads, many mead-halls
filled with human-joys until Fate the mighty changed all that. ...
'The Ruin'

Note I modified that links' "terrible chance" to "Fate the mighty" as in the Wikipedia translation. Wyrd (as in the original) had a specific meaning and "chance" doesn't really represent it.

Anglo-Saxon Worldview

Christian doctrine was primarily influenced by a few select works for the Anglo-Saxons.

Implicit in The Ruin is a philosophy of history, a way of looking at historical events—especially, an explanation for the fall and ruin of cities and empires.
—Doubleday, '"The Ruin": Structure and Theme'

Augustine, whose De civitate Dei was one of the most influential works for contemporary Anglo-Saxons, featured heavily and he was intent on explaining "the ways of God to man".

Orosius' Historiae adversus paganos tried to explain that "the prevalence of disasters in human history is the just punishment for sin, provided by a God who rules history and uses it to carry out His will".

Additionally, Gildas was able to construct history to fit what had happened:

In reproaching kings and clergy for their wickedness and threatening them with deserved punishment, Gildas draws on the Old Testament prophecies and on New Testament warnings. The history of the fall of Britain at the beginning of the work seems primarily intended as an exemplum for the sinners reproached in the latter part, showing them the end of their wickedness.
—Doubleday, '"The Ruin": Structure and Theme'

So the glorious Romans were thrown down because they were not fervent enough in their belief. The fall of a civilization was guaranteed by the people not giving thanks for their success, and vices and sin always abound in such times.

After the destruction, the desolate cities remain as monuments of the Lord's vengeance.
—Doubleday, '"The Ruin": Structure and Theme'

Reasons for the Fall

... Days of misfortune arrived—blows fell broadly—
death seized all those sword-stout men—their idol-fanes were laid waste—
the city-steads perished. Their maintaining multitudes fell to the earth.
For that the houses of red vaulting have drearied and shed their tiles,
these roofs of ringed wood. This place has sunk into ruin, been broken into heaps,

There once many men, glad-minded and gold-bright,
adorned in gleaming, proud and wine-flushed, shone in war-tackle;
There one could look upon treasure, upon silver, upon ornate jewelry,
upon prosperity, upon possession, upon precious stones,
upon the illustrious city of the broad realm.

Stone houses standing here, where a hot stream was cast
in a wide welling; a wall enfolding everything in its bright bosom,
where there were baths, heated at its heart. ... 'The Ruin'

... implicit in these three descriptions are the three worldly loves that St. John counsels against: the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.
—Doubleday, '"The Ruin": Structure and Theme'

Baths were, of course, the cesspit of all sin, a place of fornication, and a promotion of luxuries. Bathing thrice a year was the hallmark of a saint while bathing plenty was only an indication that the people were avaricious, greedy, and lustful.

In other words, the city (and Rome in general) was ripe for falling because its inhabitants loved too much the worldly and not enough the otherworldly. The Lord was driven to smite the Roman (Britons) down as they had to be punished for their sin.

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    Don't understand the down votes, tbh. It seems the OP is trying to give a flavour of post-Roman views of Roman civilisation in Britain. The fact that much of the extant literature is Christian is just that, a fact. I see no evangelising here!
    – TheHonRose
    Commented Jul 15, 2020 at 10:20
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    Minor comment: Gildas was not "Anglo-Saxon"; he is writing during the Anglo-Saxon invasions and complains about them. (But he's certainly valid as an example of what people in post-Roman Britain were thinking.) Commented Jul 15, 2020 at 13:00
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    Question: were cities like Bath actually depopulated when Rome ceased to rule Britain? I know this happened along the Adriatic sea. This would mean there was no continuity in culture for common people, and post-Rome people were looking 'from the outside' so to speak at Roman city ruins.
    – Ivana
    Commented Jul 15, 2020 at 16:32
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    @Ivana That sounds like a great question for this site :-)
    – Kryten
    Commented Jul 15, 2020 at 17:00
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    @Ivana, one major problem with determining post-Roman continuity in most cities both in Britain & the Continent is that the relevant archeological evidence has been destroyed. one way is that when new houses & structures are built, older ones are dismantled or destroyed; water, sewage & electrical trenches also remove evidence. And then there is the issue that earlier archeologists -- who were learning the science -- either destroyed the later evidence in their quest to find the earliest, or failed to document their findings completely. So in many case, we won't ever know.
    – llywrch
    Commented Jul 17, 2020 at 16:34

The authors of historical texts which reached us knew that Britain was ruled by the Roman empire some time ago. Educated people who wrote historical texts read Latin books, knew some history and knew about Roman empire. But this was a very tiny minority. Most of people were illiterate, and even those who could read have not seen many books, they saw Roman ruins, probably were amazed and could tell legends about them. Since history did not preserve opinions of non-educated people, we can only guess what they thought.

In other places, the situation was similar. Here is what an educated Persian traveler writes in 11th century:

Everywhere in Syria I saw about 500,000 columns and no living soul knows what are they and where did they come from..."

I saw a column of stone there was some inscription on it, not in Arabic, but in some other script. I asked someone what is this. - "This is a talisman against scorpions. There are no scorpions in this city, and even if someone brings one, it escapes". The height of this column I determined as 10 arash.

By the way, Persia and Syria were probably much more literate countries than England, and the Roman empire still existed and was well known to Persians and Syrians at Khusraw's time. And there is no doubt that Khusraw himself was literate.

Even in the ancient Greece the situation was somewhat similar. They marveled about enormous walls of palaces of Mycenaean civilization and could only tell legends about it. These legends they recorded for us, and this is the only reason we give these palaces names like "Agamemnon's palace".

Ref. Nasir i Khusraw, Safar-name. The book of travels (Russian transl. Moscow 1933.

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    The difference between Britain and Persia & Syria at that time was perhaps cultural. The Christians inherited fairly directly from Rome, used Latin as their lingua franca, and so had access to all of Roman history that survived. Islam, by contrast, was a religion largely imposed from outside, Arabic was a much different language from either Latin, Greek, or the middle Persian of the Sassanids, so pre-Islamic history would not have been as easily accessible.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jul 15, 2020 at 4:31
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    Sorry, but I don't think this answers the question about historical texts in England. Syria is interesting but it isn't England.
    – Stew
    Commented Jul 15, 2020 at 7:57
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    Another analogy, perhaps closer, is what the European crusaders called the ruins they found in the Middle East – such as Solomon's temple for Al-Aqsa mosque. But I agree with the others that analogy isn't great for establishing particular history. Commented Jul 15, 2020 at 13:27
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    @Luaan That statement may depend on time and place. I suspect literacy in what is now England was close to zero in any language in the period about 400-600 AD
    – Henry
    Commented Jul 17, 2020 at 10:43
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    Being illiterate (not being able to read or write Greek, Latin or another language) is not the same as being uneducated or without knowledge. For most of history, culture and knowledge were transmitted orally. The written sources that we are lucky enough to have inherited, are the result of communities and individuals decided that particular parts of their oral knowledge was worth the investment of writing it down. That goes for Homer, Greek philosophy, the Jewish and Christian bible books, Beowulf etc. Commented Jul 17, 2020 at 15:45

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