Unique among the territories of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, Britain succeeded in holding back and even reversing the tide of Germanic conquest for nearly two centuries. This was an age of heroes… It was the Age of Arthur!
This is the ninth-part of our discussion of Britain in the so-called Age of Arthur: the 5th though the mid-6th Century A.D. It is a fascinating period, with the Classical civilization of Greece and Rome giving way to the Germanic “Dark Ages”. It was the sunset of Celtic-Roman culture in Britain; it was the Age of Arthur!
But who was Arthur?
Before we answer that question, it is necessary we understand the world in which he lived.
THE POSSIBLE ORIGINS OF ARTHUR
Sometime in the last decade(s) of the 5th century, a new leader emerges among the Britons. He is Arthur (or Artos), perhaps Romanized as Artorius. His name might have been either a nickname (“the Bear”) or his given name. In either case, his exploits as a war leader soon catapulted him into a position of primacy among the Celtic warlords.
Arthur is perhaps a kinsman (nephew?) of Ambrosius Aurelianus, the leader of the British in the latter half of the 5th century (see Ch. 6). If a nephew, it is likely to have been by marriage: Gildas states that Ambrosius “alone” of his family survived slaughter during the terrible years of the “Saxon Terror”. We have no information regarding Ambrosius’ wife, only that he had grandchildren living in Gildas’ time (the 3rd or 4th decade of the 6th century). Though Ambrosius was almost certainly a southern Briton, whose power-base was possibly in the Belgae territory around Amesbury; it is not contradictory to suggest that Arthur could have been raised in the north, from whence may have come Ambrosius’ spouse. It was here that a strong cavalry tradition existed, both among the north British nobility, and perhaps among the descendants of Roman cavalry units stationed on or behind Hadrian’s Wall (including Sarmatian horsemen, as discussed in earlier installments of this series). It is possible (though, admittedly, a stretch) that Arthur was even related to descendants of the Roman soldier, Lucius Artorius Castor; who may have sired a family while Britain in the late 2nd century. Alternatively, Ambrosius’ exile in Armorica (Brittany) as a young man could have resulted in marriage to a daughter of the Alani people, some of which were settled in Armorica by Flavius Aëtius when Magister Militum (“Master of the Soldiers”) of the West; and Arthur could then have been of Armorican-Alan blood. Either origin would gives Arthur familiarity in his childhood to the Sarmatians or the Alans; and perhaps even kinship. Though such contact or kinship is ultimately unnecessary to explain Arthur’s success as a cavalry leader (the British nobility prided themselves upon their excellence as horsemen), it is a tantalizing theory nevertheless.
It should not be ignored that Arthur is linked by Geoffrey of Monmouth with the royal house of Dumnonia. During the dark days following the Saxon Terror, many of the Britons who fled to Armorica were from Dumnonia. They founded there a “Lesser Dumnonia” (Domnonée) . Arthur could have been related to the royal house as a son of an exiled Dumnonian royal. This would not contradict a familial connection with Ambrosius, himself perhaps connected to the Dumnonian royal house.
RISE TO POWER
With all this in mind, let us paint a speculative narrative, attempting to bring to life Arthur; and describe his rise to prominence:
He first serves in his uncle Ambrosius’ mounted Comitatus; perhaps among Alani kinsmen or childhood companions; or (if north British) neighbors and boyhood friends of Sarmatian extraction. Like them, he is a horseman born-and-bred. He handles lance, sword and javelin from horseback with equal skill. In early Welsh sources, he is described as a large and powerful warrior.
In battle he and his comrades are covered in armor of scale or mail, wearing conical helmets sporting horsetail crests. Arthur’s comrades (the Welsh word is Cymbrogi, meaning “Compatriots”, “Sword Brothers”, or “Comrades-in-arms”) spend many a day-and-night in the saddle, forging unbreakable bonds of fellowship and camaraderie. These are the archetypes of the “Knights of the Round Table”, perfecting their warrior skills in countless minor skirmish and foray into enemy lands.
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