Friday, July 19, 2019

The Many Faces of Arthur – 3 Historical Candidates

by Chris Thorndycroft

It is widely believed that the King Arthur of legend has some kernel of truth in a real, albeit shadowy, 5th century warrior called simply Arthur. No King of Camelot. No Merlin. No Round Table. Just Arthur. The History of the Britons credited to the 9th century monk Nennius calls this Arthur a ‘Dux Bellorum’ (leader of battles) who rallied a British resistance against the invading Anglo Saxons after Rome severed its ties with Britain in the 5th century. Aside from a couple of mentions in the Welsh Annals that claim Arthur won a great victory at the Battle of Badon and fell at the ‘strife of Camlann’ along with somebody called Medraut, everything else we know about him comes from poetry, folklore and fiction.

But there are several figures in the late to post-Roman period whose exploits have some parallels with what little we know of him and his more fanciful exploits in later legend. Much theorising has been done in trying to establish various figures as the ‘real King Arthur’. Let’s take a look at three popular candidates.  
Funerary memorial from late 2nd/early 3rd century dedicated to 'Lucius Atorius Castus'. Found in Podstrana (Croatia) in 1850 and published in Francesco Carrara “De’ Scavi di Salona nel 1850: Con cinque tavole” (1852)

Lucius Artorius Castus
This Roman military commander probably lived between 175 and 250 A.D. which is a good two centuries before the end of Roman rule in Britain. All we know of him comes from a couple of stone inscriptions found in Croatia which give an outline of his military career, listing the legions he served in. One of these legions - the VI Victrix - (of which Artorius was a prefect) was stationed in Britain from around 122 A.D. It seems that Artorius was later promoted to Dux Legionum (General of the Legions) and commanded ‘Brittannician’ units (possibly referring to auxiliary units that had served in Britain) against either the Amoricans or Armenians. 

His name alone makes him an interesting candidate. 'Arthur' comes to us via the Latin family name ‘Artorius’ which was borrowed into Welsh and there seem to have been no Artoriuses/Arthurs in Britain before the time of Lucius Artorius Castus. It was the historian Kemp Malone who first put forward the idea of Artorius as the original King Arthur. C. Scott Littleton and Linda A. Malcor expanded on this theory, linking him to 5,500 Sarmatian auxiliary troops sent to Britain in 175 A.D. after their defeat by Emperor Marcus Aurelius. 

Parallels have been drawn between Sarmatian customs and elements of Arthurian legend such as carrying a dragon standard and worshiping a sword thrust into the ground reminiscent of the sword in the stone. However, most of these Sarmatian customs cannot be reliably traced back to Roman times and their counterparts in Arthurian legend are relatively late additions. Also, there is no evidence that Lucius Artorius Castus had anything to do with the Sarmatian auxiliaries other than that they were both in Britain at the same time.  

The stone fragments in Croatia are in poor shape and there has been much debate as to their interpretation, specifically of Artorius’s rank. Malcor suggests that ‘prefect of the legion’ meant that he was a fort commander who became an unofficial ‘commander of the region’ leading Sarmatian cavalry units. Others interpret the rank as ‘camp prefect’; a different rank and mainly an administrative role given to soldiers at the end of their career meaning he wouldn’t have seen much action while in Britain. That does however, make his subsequent promotion to Dux Legionum a little unusual. Incidentally, while this title may echo the ‘Dux Bellorum’ bestowed on Arthur by Nennius, the former was an official Roman title while the latter seems to have been an informal way of saying ‘military leader’ in the Latin tongue.

The 2004 movie King Arthur starring Clive Owen and Keira Knightley is based on the Sarmatian theory (Linda A. Malcor was a consultant on the film). Set in 467 AD, Artorius is a descendant of the original Lucius Artorius Castus and his Sarmatian ‘knights’ include the unlikely names of Lancelot, Galahad and Gawain. 

The Arthurian prototype? 'Emrys Wledig' (Ambrosius the Ruler) from a 15th century Welsh language version of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain
Ambrosius Aurelianus
The most damning argument against the existence of a real Arthur is that the 6th century monk Gildas – the closest thing we have to a contemporary commentator – makes no mention of him. In his religious rant On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain, Gildas makes it clear that it was Ambrosius Aurelianus who was the champion of the Britons and then goes on to mention the siege of Badon Hill as the last great defeat over the Saxons (a battle later credited to Arthur in the History of the Britons).  

An explanation for Arthur’s absence is suggested in the 12th century Life of Gildas by the cleric Caradoc of Llancarfan. Arthur, Caradoc explains, slew Gildas’s older brother Hueil and one might assume that Gildas would be less than enthusiastic to sing his praises and may even strike his name from the record entirely. 

Gildas presents Ambrosius Aurelianus as a man of noble Roman stock whose parents were killed in the wars with the Saxons. The History of the Britons later expands on this making him ‘king among the kings of Britain’. It also includes a strange tale about a boy called ‘Ambrose’ who is something of a child prophet. The tyrant Vortigern struggles to build a tower and is told by his councilors to sacrifice a fatherless boy and sprinkle the earth with his blood. When young Ambrose appears to fit the bill, the lad tells Vortigern that he is unable to build his tower because within the hill are two dragons; a red one signifying the Britons and a white one the Saxons. Upon learning that Ambrose is the son of a Roman consul, Vortigern gives him all the western provinces of Britain. It is unclear if Ambrose and the ‘king of kings’ Ambrosius Aurelianus are one and the same in the History of the Britons although it does seem likely. 

The 12th century cleric Geoffrey of Monmouth clearly thought they were two different characters as he reproduces the two dragons story in his fantastical History of the Kings of Britain. He conflates the boy with the legendary Myrddin the Wild (a bard who was driven mad with grief and retreated into the Caledonian Forest to become a prophet) and calls him ‘Ambrosius Merlinus’ (Merlin). This is an entirely separate character to the military commander ‘Aurelius Ambrosius’ whom Monmouth makes the high king of Britain, brother of Uther Pendragon and King Arthur’s uncle. 

Whoever Ambrosius Aurelianus was, he seems to have made enough of an impact on British history and folklore that he became entwined with the Arthurian legend or was perhaps even something of a template for the fictional Arthur. 

Kingdom of the Visigoths (in orange, light and dark) circa 500 AD. The Visigothic king Euric consolidated the nation resulting in the Roman Emperor Anthemius's request to Riothamus and his 12,000 warriors to lend their aid. 
One of the more fanciful bits of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain (and that’s saying something) is when Arthur leaves Britain to conquer most of northern Europe before taking on the might of the Roman Empire. He is forced to return to Britain to deal with Mordred, his nephew, who has seduced Guinevere and seized his throne in his absence. 

There is a historical figure who may have done something vaguely similar that inspired Monmouth. Most of what we know about the military commander Riothamus comes from The Origin and Deeds of the Goths by the 6th century historian Jordanes. In it, Riothamus, king of the Britons, comes to the aid of the Roman Emperor by bringing 12,000 troops to fight the Visigoths around 470 A.D. 

It is unclear if Riothamus was king of the Britons in Britain or of the various British kingdoms in Armorica which was well on the way to being settled at that time (hence its modern-day name of Brittany). The name Riothamus seems to be a Latinisation of the British name Rigotamos meaning ‘great king’. This could mean that it was a title held by somebody (Arthur? Ambrosius Aurelianus?) but a letter from the Gaulish bishop Sidonius Apollinaris asking him to intervene in a dispute is addressed to ‘his friend Riothamus’. Surely a friend would use a personal name rather than a title?     

The historian Geoffrey Ashe is the strongest proponent of the Riothamus theory. He even went so far as to say that Riothamus might have been betrayed by Arvandus, the Praetorian prefect of Gaul, mirroring Arthur’s betrayal by Mordred in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s work. Ashe’s further claim that Riothamus died near the French town of Avallon (thus inspiring the tale of Arthur’s death on the island of Avalon) is unsupported by any evidence.

While it is fun to look for parallels between known historical figures and King Arthur, none of the candidates are without problems. Lucius Artorius Castus may have been in the right place but he was a couple of centuries early and doesn’t seem to have been a great military leader, at least during his time in Britain. Had his middle name been different, he would not even be a candidate at all. The parallels drawn with Riothamus are largely parallels with Geoffrey of Monmouth’s work of fiction rather than the early records of Arthur and although Ambrosius Aurelianus led a very similar career to Arthur, why isn’t he called Arthur? 

In all eventuality, Arthur was just Arthur; the 5th century war leader described in the History of the Britons who held the Saxons at bay for a time and about whom we know frustratingly little. But whoever he was, his deeds had an impact that is still felt today in the legends told of him. 

4. Ashe, Geoffrey (1985). The Discovery of King Arthur. London: Guild Publishing 


Chris Thorndycroft is the author of the Hengest and Horsa trilogy. His follow-up, Sign of the White Foal, is the first part in a trilogy that re-tells the legend of King Arthur in an historical setting. Set in 5th century North Wales, it combines Celtic myth with real history and is based on the earliest elements of the Arthurian legend. 

You can follow Chris on Twitter, Goodreads and Facebook or join his mailing list and get a free Arthurian novella!

A generation after Hengest and Horsa carved out a kingdom in the east, a hero of the Britons rises in the west...

North Wales, 480 A.D. The sons of Cunedag have ruled Venedotia for fifty years but the chief of them – the Pendraig – is now dying. His sons Cadwallon and Owain must fight to retain their birthright from their envious cousins. As civil war consumes Venedotia, Arthur – a young warrior and bastard son of the Pendraig – is sent on a perilous quest that will determine the fate of the kingdom. 

The Morgens; nine priestesses of the Mother Goddess have found the cauldron of rebirth – a symbol of otherworldly power – and have allied themselves with the enemy. Arthur and six companions are dispatched to the mysterious island of Ynys Mon to steal the cauldron and break the power of the Morgens. Along the way they run into the formidable Guenhuifar whose family have been stewards of Ynys Mon for generations. They need her help. The trouble is, Guenhuifar despises Arthur’s family and all they stand for…

Based on the earliest Arthurian legends, Sign of the White Foal is a rip-roaring adventure of Celtic myth and real history set in the ruins of post-Roman Britain.

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