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The Life And Writings Of Saint Patrick -Saint Patrick

As will be seen hereafter, the ancient authorities generally assign the death of St. Patrick to the year 493, when he was in the hundred and twentieth year of his age. Accepting this statement as true, the birth of the Saint must be assigned to the year A.D. 373, so that, if he were born after the 17th of March in that year, he would not have quite completed the one hundred and twentieth year of his age at the time of his death; but if born earlier in the year he would have completed that age, and that he was about 120 years when he died is, as Todd observes, the best attested fact of his entire history. Some ancient authorities, however, give 372 as the year of his birth. Marianus Scotus the Chronicler expressly says that he was born in that year in the island of Britain, and his authority on such a point must be held to be of great weight.

Assuming that Patrick was born on the banks of the Clyde in the year 373, it will be well to get some idea of the state of the country at that time. He was by birth a Brito-Roman; that is, a Roman citizen of British origin, and born in the British municipal town of Nemthor or Ail-Cluade. At this time—that is, about A.D. 369—Roman Britain was divided into five provinces, of which Valentia was the youngest, having been formally constituted a province by Theodosius, after a victorious campaign against the Picts and Scots in that year. It was called Valentia in honour of the Emperor Valens, and included, it is commonly said, all the territory between the Walls—that is, between the Wall of Hadrian, extending from the Solway Firth to the Tyne and the Wall of Antoninus, just then renewed by Theodosius, which extended from Old Kilpatrick on the Clyde, where the hills close upon the river to a point on the Firth of Forth, a little to the west of the present Forth Bridge. As it is our view that St. Patrick was born in the Roman municipality at the western end of the Wall, which was always garrisoned by a strong body of Roman troops, it may be well to describe the Wall in the words of one who went over the ground and knew it well.

It consisted of a large rampart of intermingled stone and earth, strengthened by sods of turf, and must have originally measured twenty feet in height, and twenty four feet in breadth at the base. It was surmounted by a parapet, having a level platform behind it for the protection of its defenders. In front there extended along its whole course an immense fosse, averaging about forty feet broad and twenty feet deep. To the southward of the whole was a military way, presenting the usual appearance of a Roman causeway road.

This vast structure was first erected about the year 140 by Tollius Urbicus, a Roman general sent by Antoninus to repress the inroads of the Caledonians. But the Highland tribes again and again burst through the Wall, so that Severus was obliged to come in person, about the year 208, to teach them a salutary lesson. Severus penetrated far beyond the Wall into the heart of the Highlands, and so punished the northern tribes that they were obliged to sue for peace.

Severus reconstructed the Wall from the Forth to the Clyde, and planted several strong outposts in the Highland territory, so that the invaders were for a time effectually curbed, and confined to the fastnesses of their native mountains.

There were, however, several subsequent revolts, when the tribes of the north crossed the Wall, and harried the Roman territories. The most formidable of these took place in A.D. 360, only a few years before the birth of St. Patrick. It appears that the Picts from the north, the Scots or Irish from the west, the Attacots from the mountains of Galloway, and the Saxons from the eastern shore, all attacked the Roman province simultaneously. It was the most formidable of the barbarian incursions that had yet taken place, and affrighted not only the loyal Britons, but even the authorities in Rome itself. The ‘vagabond’ Scots from Ireland are particularly referred to as harassing the province, because, as they came generally by water, the Imperial troops never knew when or where they were about to make an incursion.

This formidable coalition of the barbarians demanded a consummate general; and so Theodosius, afterwards known as the Great, was sent to repel and chastise the raiders. This was in A.D. 369; and it is very probable that amongst the high officials who accompanied the victorious general may have been Colpurnius, the father of the future saint, who most likely had served under Theodosius in Gaul, and accompanied him to his native Britain. That great general not only drove off the invaders, but also renewed the Wall once more, and strengthened the garrisons that defended its various stations from the Forth to the Clyde. For this we have the express testimony of the Roman historian, Ammianus Marcellinus. It may be assumed, then, as quite certain that during this campaign the plain from Dunbarton to Kilpatrick would have been filled with Roman troops, for it was their strongest position along the whole line of the Wall, so that it might well receive the name, if it had not received it previously, of Bannavem Taberniæ, or the River-End Plain of the Tents. We have said that Nemthor was a Roman municipium or free-town, with the privilege of self-government, This may be fairly deduced from the language of St. Patrick himself, for he expressly states that his father was a Decurio, and leaves us to infer that he held that office in the town where he lived at the time of the Saint’s birth.

We know both from Bede and Adamnan that after the departure of the Romans from Britain, in A.D. 410, the Britons of the North-West of the Roman Province succeeded in establishing an independent kingdom, extending from the Derwent in Cumberland to the Firth of Clyde. The capital of this kingdom was the strongly-fortified position called Alcluith by the Britons themselves; but by the Gauls it was more commonly designated Dunbreatan, or Dunbrittan, from which we have the modern form of Dumbarton, or more correctly Dunbarton. During the Roman occupation it was the strongest outpost of their empire, and from immemorial ages was regarded as the great stronghold of the Britons in the North. We know from Ptolemy that the northern tribes, both British and Caledonian, had several ‘towns,’ which were probably stockaded fortresses in strong positions, held by chosen warriors for the defence of the frontier. But there was no position in Scotland so strong by nature, and so easily defensible, as the Rock of the Clyde, for it was situated at the junction of the Leven with the estuary of the Clyde, approachable only by a causeway, and even when approached, absolutely inaccessible, except by one steep and narrow pathway, partially cut through the solid rock. Around this fortress grew up a British town, and round the British town a Roman town grew up in the plain along the river bank, both of which were amalgamated into ‘municipium,’ or free town, whose inhabitants were one governed by their own laws, and enjoyed the right of Roman citizenship. The governing body was the local Senate or Curia, whose members were therefore called Decuriones. The Senate chose the magistrates from amongst their own body, to whom the executive government was entrusted. Hence, St. Patrick describes himself as ‘a free-man by birth,’ and not only a free-man, but a ‘noble,’ because the members of a senatorial family belonged to the nobles of the city; but they forfeited their status if they failed to discharge the duties annexed to their position and office. Hence the Saint adds that he ‘sold his nobility for the good of others,’ because by going to preach the Gospel in Ireland he forfeited the privileges which he would otherwise enjoy as a decurio and magistrate of his native city.






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