As ever, dear readers, welcome.
At the end of the 4th century AD, the westernmost Roman province, Britannia, was in serious trouble.
Founded after a long conquest in the 1st century AD,
it had gradually become stable, in part because there were Roman military outposts throughout the province,
not to mention the 90 miles of wall which separated the province from its not always friendly neighbors to the north.
Stability—as well as security—came with the garrisons of such places, however,
and, late in the 4th century, these were being withdrawn.
It had really started with Magnus Maximus (c.335-388AD),
a general who would become emperor of the West in 383AD, in part with the aid of troops which he had withdrawn from those garrisons.
A second would-be emperor, who called himself “Constantine III” (?-411AD),
drew even further upon the troops in Britain in 406AD, seemingly pulling out the last of the regulars.
Britannia had already been suffering from coastal raids by pirates and Germanic peoples and the later Roman government had constructed a number of coastal defenses, the so-called “Saxon Shore Forts”,
but, without those troops, Britannia was about to be on her own when it came to defense. The last straw came about 410AD, when the Western emperor, Honorius (384-423AD),
sent a letter (an “imperial rescript”), which appears to reply to an appeal by the province for help, in which he addressed the leaders of the cities (he calls them “civitates”)–rather than his own government’s officials, which looks like a bad sign–telling them that they need to take up arms themselves, implying that no imperial soldiers will be sent.
This, and what came before it, plunged Britannia into an era of raids from several directions,
the north of England,
and Germanic tribesmen from the east.
Amidst this chaos, we have mention of a local king, Vortigern, who, with the idea of “set a thief to catch a thief” hired some Germanic invaders who’ve been living on coast to add muscle to his own fighters.
These mercenaries were led by two brothers, called “Hengist” and “Horsa”
and Vortigern soon regretted his offer, as Hengist and Horsa sent for their relatives from across the North Sea and, within a few years, southern and central Britain were overrun with Germanic peoples.
Magnus Maximus, Constantius III, and Honorius were real people, from the historical record. Vortigern, Hengist, and Horsa are from a very murky period in early British history and may be nothing more than a way to explain the explosion of Germanic colonization of southern Britain in the next couple of centuries.
In Tolkien commentaries, Hengist and Horsa and their part in Germanicizing Britain are often equated with this:
“About this time legend among the Hobbits first becomes history with a reckoning of years. For it was in the one thousand six hundred and first year of the Third Age that the Fallohide brothers, Marcho and Blanco, set out from Bree; and having obtained permission from the high king at Fornost, they crossed the brown river Baranduin with a great following of Hobbits. They passed over the Bridge of Stonebows…and they took all the land beyond to dwell in, between the river and the Far Downs.” (The Lord of the Rings, Prologue, I, “Concerning Hobbits”)
This was, of course, the founding of the Shire
and thus, it is suggested, Marcho and Blanco equal Hengist and Horsa, two sets of brothers involved in creating new settlements—but I’m not so sure.
That JRRT associated the Hobbits with the mercenaries is possible, of course—after all, Tolkien would certainly have been well aware of early British history, but I would add another possible duo, one of which he had known since his first days studying Latin at King Edward’s School in Birmingham: the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus.
If you’re not familiar with their story, in brief it goes like this:
Their mother was a priestess, Rhea Silvia, and their father may have been the Roman war god, Mars.
Their grandfather, Numitor, had been the king of Alba Longa, the forerunner of Rome, but had been forced out of power by his brother, Amulius. When his grandnephews, Romulus and Remus were born, Amulius saw them as a potential threat, and so he had them put into a basket and dropped into the Tiber, thus—or so he hoped—removing the kin blood guilt he would have suffered had he killed them himself.
The god of the Tiber, however, was on the side of the family of the rightful king, and the basket was washed ashore, where the twins were adopted by a local she wolf.
They were then discovered by a local shepherd and raised among the flocks, only to be discovered, in time, as the missing princes. Their wicked great uncle was overthrown and their grandfather was restored to the throne, but the restless boys, instead of waiting to inherit the throne, set out to found their own city. They later quarreled and Romulus killed Remus,
and so Romulus alone was the builder of Rome.
But why add Romulus and Remus to this foundation myth?
The land which became the Shire, although part of the northern realm of Gondor, was abandoned when the Hobbits arrived, empty of all people, although the East Road and the Great Bridge survived and were still in use (part of the King’s grant to the Hobbits had included the obligation of keeping them in repair—The Lord of the Rings, Prologue I, “Concerning Hobbits”). Romulus and Remus, like the Hobbit brothers, left the inhabited part of Latium and their grandfather’s city, just as the Hobbits left Bree, to create a new settlement on empty land. (For more on this, see Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, Book 1, Sections 3-7—here’s a LINK so that you can refer to it yourself: https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0151%3Abook%3D1%3Achapter%3D3 ) Thus, like Marcho and Blanco, Romulus and Remus were founders, characters Tolkien would have known about from his early teens.
In contrast, Hengist and Horsa were leaders of a violent invasion of land which had been settled long before the Roman arrival in 43BC and still was, in the early 5th century, AD. They were conquerors, then, not founders, and thus perhaps less likely models. So far as I know, however—at least from the Letters—JRRT makes no connection between the Hobbits and the Germanic invaders or the proto-Roman twins, so perhaps we can imagine both as (rather distant) models for the founders of the Shire?
Thanks, as always, for reading,
Be careful whom you invite to help you with invaders,
Know that there’s always