In some portrayals of the Arthurian legends, such as the 2004 film King Arthur, the eponymous war leader is depicted as a Roman officer. Generally, this is held to be more accurate than simply making him a native chieftain or king. However, is this actually a plausible concept, or is it just adding another inaccuracy to the tales?
Reasons He Probably Wasn’t Roman
An important factor to bear in mind is when exactly Arthur was supposed to have lived. After all, we could hardly expect him to have been a Roman officer if the Romans had left Britain centuries earlier.
As it happens, the majority of the evidence indicates that Arthur was active at some point in the sixth century, generally towards the beginning as opposed to the end. That is where the Annales Cambriae places him, as well as Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae and also the earlier Historia Brittonum. While there is some debate as to which decades in the sixth century he was active in, the evidence for the general period – the sixth century – is quite firm. The conclusions of some scholars that place his climactic battle at the very beginning of, or even prior to, the sixth century are based on inadequate grounds (see the article ‘The Battle of Badon’).
So if Arthur was active in the early sixth century, then when did the Romans leave Britain? The traditional date for this is 410, but again, on flawed grounds. This is when a letter was sent by Honorius to the inhabitants of Britain to the effect that the Romans could no longer defend, so they would thereafter have to fend for themselves.
There are a number of scholars who believe that this letter was actually sent, not to Britain, but to a similarly-named region in southern Italy. But even if it was sent to Britain, this does not mean that this marks the departure of the Romans from Britain.
In reality, Roman rule of the island had already ceased by the time Honorius sent that letter. This is the reason that the letter was not accompanied by a mass withdrawal of Roman forces from Britain.
The majority of the Roman armies had already been removed from Britain during the usurpations of Magnus Maximus (in 383) and Constantine III (in 406). The final blow that really ended Roman rulership in the island came in 409, when the locals revolted and expelled the Roman administration.
So we can see that the majority of the Roman forces were no longer in Britain by 406, and the actual administration was no longer there by 409. Then, over 100 years later, Arthur was active in battle against the Saxons.
This is quite a large amount of time between the departure of the Romans and the floruit of Arthur. It is certainly true that not every single Roman soldier or officer had necessary left by the early fifth century, but even if some had remained, they would have all been dead long before Arthur’s time. On this basis alone, it seems very unlikely that Arthur could have been a Roman.
Reasons He May Have Been Roman
Despite the great time span between the Romans leaving and Arthur’s floruit, there are some reasons for lending credence to the idea that the famous king was actually a Roman, or connected to the Romans in some way.
A very important piece of evidence is found from the words of Gildas. He stated that Ambrosius, ‘perhaps alone of the Romans, had survived the shock of the storm’ of the initial Saxon invasion.
Interestingly, this confirms that there were still Romans in Britain right through to the start of the Saxon conquest of south-east Britain, which most likely started in the 430s. This proves that not all the Romans were gone by 410, even though Britain was then out of the Empire. And not only were Romans in general still here, but Romans of high authority too.
We know this because Gildas tells us that Ambrosius’s parents had ‘worn the purple’. Just what exactly this means is a debated matter. Purple was a colour worn by the upper classes, including the emperors themselves. But it was also worn by military tribunes and by consuls. Therefore, the parents of Ambrosius were definitely of high Roman rank, though we cannot be sure exactly which rank they belonged to.
Another uncertainty is what exactly the nature of their ‘Roman’ status was. The Empire no longer had control over any part of the island, so any remaining Roman presence in the island would either have been in the style of an independent, organised Roman state (similar to the usurpations of previous centuries, only this time, the Empire was not actively trying to recover the island) or was simply a matter of powerful Roman officials taking the lead among the natives.
Or alternatively, it may be that there were no actual Romans at all left over after 409, but the natives continued to live according to the culture and society that the Romans had brought in, thus continuing to have roles that involved ‘wearing the purple’ just as in the Roman Empire proper. Or in fact, it may have been a combination of these three suggestions.
We know from inscribed stones that there were still ‘consuls’ right up until the sixth century, so we can be certain that the Britons did still continue to hold Roman offices, though there is no clear evidence of a unified state (at least not as early as the immediate post-Roman period).
In any case, the evidence from Gildas and from inscribed stones is that there was definitely still a Roman society of some kind flourishing among the natives (possibly involving descendants of the Romans themselves) right up until Arthur’s time.
The significance of this goes beyond simply the fact that a Roman society was still present in Britain up to Arthur’s time. More than this is the fact that Ambrosius is described as Arthur’s paternal uncle in later records. Therefore, if this relationship (or a similar one) is historically authentic, then this means that Arthur himself was part of a high-ranking family within that Romano-British society.
Supporting Arthur’s Roman connection is the fact that Welsh records describe him as ‘ameraudur’, a word derived from the Latin ‘imperator’. This word meant ‘Emperor’, being used as one of the titles of the Roman Emperors.
While some scholars hold that the Welsh word had a broader meaning and could simply be used to denote a war leader, there is limited evidence for this – just because the individuals who are recorded as using that title were not necessarily the leaders of a large empire does not necessarily mean that the bearers of the title did not consider themselves to be emperors.
Therefore, the fact that Arthur is described as ‘ameraudur’ (or ‘imperator’) is most likely supporting evidence for Arthur being a very high-ranking member of a Romano-British society.
As we have seen, the Romans were officially gone from Britain by the very early fifth century, which is a whole century removed from the time of Arthur, in the early sixth century. On that basis, it could seem highly unlikely that Arthur was any sort of Roman.
However, despite the official removal of the Romans from Britain, both archaeology and the words of Gildas confirm that a Roman society and form of governance still existed in the island at least right up until the time of Arthur, who is, himself, described as an imperator in Welsh texts.
Therefore, although we cannot be sure of the extent of Roman blood in his lineage, the society that he ruled over was thoroughly Romanised, and he himself would have most probably been considered a Roman ruler of some kind, perhaps even a self-styled ‘emperor’.