Wednesday, 6 October 2021

King Arthur and the Conquest of Gaul

The Tyrant Emperor
The usurpation of Magnus Maximus in 383 AD is well known; the withdrawal of much of the Roman garrison to support Maximus's imperial ambitions was a major contributory factor leading to the end of Roman rule in Britain by 410 AD.

Maximus is often accused of the final evacuation of Hadrian’s Wall but this view is no longer supported by the archaeological evidence. However, his expedition required the evacuation of many of the Roman forts of the Western Pennines and North Wales, including Legio XX from Chester, never to be reoccupied. The Seguntienses, said to be of the former garrison of Segontium (Caernarfon, Maximus’s seat in Welsh tradition), are recorded in the 4th century Notitia Dignitatum among the auxilia palatina in Illycrium, the province where Maximus’s troops had the final conflict with Theodosius I in 388 AD.1

Segontium Roman fort imposed on modern Caernarfon
(reconstruction CADW)

In his hostile summary of the usurpation of Maximus, Gildas clearly shows he held the man in contempt and did not approve of his rule. Gildas paints a vivid picture of the event:

“The island was still Roman in name, but not by law or custom. Rather, it cast forth a sprig of its own bitter planting, and sent Maximus to Gaul with a great retinue of hangers-on and even the imperial insignia, which he was never fit to bear: he had no legal claim to the title, but was raised to it like a tyrant by rebellious soldiery. Applying cunning rather than virtue, Maximus turned the neighbouring lands and provinces against Rome, and attached them to his kingdom of wickedness with the nets of his perjury and lying.”

“One of his wings he stretched to Spain, one to Italy: the throne of his wicked empire he placed in Trier, where he raged so madly against his masters that of the two legitimate emperors he drove one from Rome, the other from his life – which was a very holy one. Soon, though entrenched in these appalling acts of daring, he had his evil head cut off at Aquileia...”2

Gildas held Maximus responsible for stripping Britain of its military leaving the country defenceless against the onslaught of the barbarian hordes. He continues:

“After that Britain was despoiled of her whole army, her military resources, her governors, brutal as they were, her sturdy youth, who had followed in the tyrants footsteps, never to return home.”3

Gildas is delivering a sermon against a self-induced down turn in the fate of the Britons, punished for their sins by God with persistent raids by the Scots and Picts followed by settlement of the Saxons. It is clearly Maximus that Gildas holds responsible for severely depleting the countries defences and starting this decline although further Roman troops were withdrawn from Britannia by the Roman military commander Stilicho in 402 AD and the British usurper Constantine III in 407 AD. It has been suggested that it was Maximus who first settled Saxons in Britain, as foederati to fight for the country, and that he was the proud tyrant (superbus tyrannus) mentioned by Gildas in chapter 14 (above) that he comes back to in chapter 23.4

About three hundred years after Gildas wrote, another British text, the Historia Brittonum (History of the Britons), c.829/830 AD, states that Maximus was the sixth emperor to rule in Britain and he spoke with St Martin. This is verified in the Life of Saint Martin, in which the 4th century chronicler Sulpicius Severus writes of a meeting in 384 between the usurper-emperor Magnus Maximus and Martin of Tours.5

The very next chapter in the Historia Brittonum records the seventh emperor to reign in Britain was Maxim(ian)us who went from Britain with all her troops and killed Gratian and “held the Empire of all Europe.” According to this document, Maximianus refused to send the soldiers home to their wives and lands but settled them in Armorica. This is why, the text claims, “that Britain has been occupied by foreigners, and the citizens driven out.” This is clearly the same man as Maximus from the previous chapter who Gildas reprobates so sternly. Evidently, here Maximus is Maximianus and clearly there is an error between the number of Emperors to rule Britain recorded in the Historia Brittonum.6

The next chapter tells us how Maximianus was made Emperor in Britain by a mutiny, again echoing Gildas. He soon crossed to Gaul and overcame Gratian who was betrayed at Paris by his commander-in-chief, Merobaudes and fled. Gratian was captured at Lugdunum (Lyons) and executed. Maximus (note the name spelling changes back again) elevated his son Victor to Augustus of the Western Roman Empire making him effectively co-emperor. The text of the Historia Brittonum goes on, “After a long lapse of time Maximus was stopped by the consuls Valentinian and Theodosius at the third milestone from Aquileia. His son Victor was killed in Gaul in the same year  by Count Arbogast”.7

Arthur's Battles in the Historia Brittonum
(British Library Harley MS 3859)

The same 9th century manuscript of the Historia Brittonum (British Museum MS Harleian 3859) describes a series of battles attributed to a man named Arthur, dux bellorum, leader of battles.8 The location of these battles has been plotted all over Britain, rarely, but occasionally, on the European Continent. Arthur’s twelfth and final victory in this list is successfully leading the Britons against the Saxons at Badon. In the 6th century Gildas described this as the siege of Badon Hill, although he doesn’t name the leader of the Britons, it is accepted as a historical event that occurred within 10 years either side of 500 AD, thus, accepting the Historia Brittonum account, framing Arthur’s floruit. 

Three hundred years later Geoffrey of Monmouth produced the History of the Kings of Britain (Historia regum Britanniae, c.1138),9 the centrepiece being the first full biography of Arthur the soldier of the Historia Brittonum but now elevated to Emperor and conqueror of Europe. Geoffrey’s text produced such a dramatic change to Arthur the soldier, much of the material found in no other source, that most regard the majority of its contents a product of the man’s imagination.

Geoffrey’s sources have been the subject of much debate for a number of years. Geoffrey certainly used the Historia Brittonum as part of his source material. Many of the stories contained therein he greatly expanded in his own way, confusing names and geography as he does. Notably, Geoffrey refers to the Roman usurper as Maximianus which he no doubt took from the Historia Brittonum, the name used as noted above. When Geoffrey writes of Maxim(ian)us he expands on the settlement of Armorica by troops from the British garrison. 

Illustration of King Arthur from Historia regum Brittannie

It is not until Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th century, some three hundred years after these battles are first described in the Historia Brittonum and some six hundred years after he is said to have lived, that Arthur is described as leading an expedition to Gaul. Geoffrey’s account is not by any means historical, it is literature, a fictional story, yet modern author’s continue to claim to reveal "the true story” behind Arthur’s European conquest based on Geoffrey’s work. 

Two potential candidates that campaigned in Gaul are popularly considered as being behind King Arthur’s Gallic invasion. A late 5th century British king named Riothamus, who took 12,000 men to Gaul “by way of ocean” and down the Loire valley, has been cited as the real event behind Arthur’s Gallic war.10 Then there is the Armorican campaign of the 2nd century Roman Officer Lucius Artorius Castus which is seen as the inspiration behind the Arthurian tale.11 Significantly Geoffrey doesn’t mention either. At least Riothamus is a candidate in the right time frame, but it is a far stretch to argue for the memory of a 2nd century Roman equestrian officer as the inspiration behind the legendary Arthurian battles as recorded in the Historia Brittonum some six hundred years later and then the Grail Romances of the 12th century and later.12

Do we really need a Roman Arthur, or an Arthur who fought the Romans? In the 16th century Polydore Vergil challenged the authenticity of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account of Arthur fighting both Romans and Saxons; how could the same man fight enemies two hundred years apart?13

Yet, almost 900 years after Geoffrey wrote his Arthurian fables they continue to inspire today's Arthurian enthusiasts who claim to have unearthed new evidence and identified the real figure behind Arthur’s European conquest.14

Ultimately the problem lies in the vagueness of the source material and the lack of positive identification of the battle sites listed in the Historia Brittonum. By manipulating the chronology, relocating the geography and reinterpreting names then Arthur can be many things to many people. 

Perhaps the most satisfactory explanation is to see Geoffrey’s Arthur as a literary figure constructed with various elements taken from a range of historical heroes to produce a composite character. Recently it has been argued that Geoffrey modelled his Arthur on five different historical characters and produced a composite figure which concluded that the late 4th century Roman usurper Magnus Maximus was the primary source for Geoffrey’s story of the conquest of Gaul by Arthur.15 I believe there is certainly some merit to this suggestion and presents a perfectly rational argument that Geoffrey simply modelled Arthur’s European adventures on Maximus’s usurpation and brought them into Arthur’s time, i.e. the late 5th early 6th century. 

Yet, there are still those who insist that it was a true event that lies behind Geoffrey’s Arthurian European invasion. Taking this a stage further, and in response to Polydore Vergil’s criticism, it has been argued that the legendary King Arthur was actually two historical figures. Firstly, the man who fought the Romans in the 4th century was Magnus Maximus’s general Andragathius, the man behind the usurper’s conquest of Gaul and executioner of the Emperor Gratian, identified as Arthur I. It is claimed this man is identifiable as Maximus’s son in the genealogies of South Wales. Secondly, the later Arthur who fought the Saxons being a late 6th century petty king also from south Wales.16

This dual Arthur theory, characters two hundred years apart, was first proposed over thirty years ago but recently has been reproduced in a new work which claims the account of Maximus’s invasion of Gaul is so similar to Geoffrey’s account of King Arthur’s conquest of Europe that the author concludes that they must be describing the very same event.17

I reviewed this work in October last year and came in for some criticism that I had missed evidence for Arthur I of the 4th century and I was invited to revise my post. Gladly, I have accepted the opportunity to look at this again; a comparison of Geoffrey’s legendary history and Maximus’s invasion of Gaul to determine similarities of the two accounts follows.


 >> Next: Magnus Maximus and Geoffrey of Monmouth


Notes & References
1.  Sheppard Frere, Britannia: A History of Roman Britain, BCA, 1974, p.361.
2. Gildas: The Ruin of Britain and other documents (Arthurian Period Sources, Vol 7), edited and translated by Michael Winterbottom, Phillimore, 1978, chp 13.
3. Ibid., chp 14.
4. Guy Halsall argues that neither the written or excavated evidence supports Gildas's 5th century model of the Saxon settlement in Britain. He proposes an alternative scenario that Magnus Maximus settled Saxon troops in the late 4th century; this later evolved into the dramatic account of the mid-5th century adventus saxonum and (owing to Maximus's popularity in British tradition) transferred to Vortigern. [Halsall, 4.b]
a) Guy Halsall, Barbarians Migrations and the Roman West 376-568, Cambridge University Press, 2007. Appendix: Gildas’ Narrative and the identity of the ‘proud tyrant’.
b) Guy Halsall, Worlds of Arthur: Facts and Fictions of the Dark Ages, Oxford University Press, 2014, pp.214-216.
5. Nennius: British History and The Welsh Annals (Arthurian Period Sources, Vol 8) edited and translated by John Morris, Phillimore, 1980, chp 26.
6. Ibid., Chp 27.
7. Ibid., Chp 29.
8. Ibid., Chp 56.
9. Works consulted:
a) Geoffrey of Monmouth, The History of the Kings of Britain, Lewis Thorpe (Introduction, Translator), Penguin Classics, 1973;
b) The History of the Kings of Britain: An Edition and Translation of the de Gestis Britonum (Historia Regum Brittannie) by Geoffrey of Monmouth, Edited by Michael D. Reeve, translated by Neil Wright, Boydell Press (Arthurian Studies, 69), 2009;
c) The History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth, Translated and Edited by Michael A. Faletra, Broadview Press, 2007.
10. a) Geoffrey Ashe, The Discovery of King Arthur, Henry Holt & Company, 1987;
b) Marilyn Floyde, King Arthur's French Odyssey: Avallon in Burgundy, BSF Publishing; Revised edition, 2016.
11. The Armorican campaign is based on the inscription on Lucius Artorius Castus’s tombstone in Dalmatia (modern Croatia); however, the correct reading is almost certainly ‘Armenians’.
12. a) Malone, Kemp, Artorius, Modern Philology 23 (1924–1925): pp.367–74;
b) Linda Malcor, Lucius Artorius Castus, Part 1: An Officer and an Equestrian, Heroic Age, 1, 1999;
c) Linda Malcor, Lucius Artorius Castus, Part 2: The Battles in Britain, Heroic Age 2, 1999;
d) Scott C Littelton and Linda Malcor, From Scythia to Camelot, Routledge, 2000.
13. The publication of Polydore Vergil's Anglica Historia in 1534 sparked a debate over the veracity of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia regum Britanniae, a work which Vergil saw as largely Geoffrey's invention. See: James P. Carley, Polydore Vergil and John Leland on King Arthur: The Battle of the Books, Arthurian Interpretations, Vol. 15, No. 2, 1984, pp.86-100.
14. Paul Sire, King Arthur’s European Realm: New Evidence from Monmouth's Primary Sources, Mcfarland & Co., 2014.
15. Miles Russell, Arthur and the Kings of Britain, Amberley Publishing, 2018.
16. Blackett and Wilson, Artorius Rex Discovered, MTB, 1986.
17. Caleb Howells, King Arthur: The Man who conquered Europe, Amberley Publishing, 2019.


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