Historicity of King Arthur
The historicity of King Arthur has been a source of considerable debate among historians as recently as the 1970s. Today, academic historians generally agree that Arthur was a mythological or folkloric figure.
Arthur first appears in historical context as a leader fighting against the invading Saxons in 5th- to 6th-century Sub-Roman Britain at the Battle of Badon in a text written more than three centuries after his activity. He develops into a legendary figure in the Matter of Britain from the 12th century, following Geoffrey of Monmouth's influential Historia Regum Britanniae.
Recent theories concerning the historical origin of Arthur include Dál Riata king Áedán mac Gabráin's son Artúr mac Áedáin in the 6th century, Ambrosius Aurelianus who led the Romano-British resistance against the Saxons, a 2nd-century Roman commander of Sarmatian cavalry named Lucius Artorius Castus, British king Riothamus who fought alongside the last Gallo-Roman commanders against the Visigoths in an expedition to Gaul in the 5th century, or an amalgamation of any of them as well as other figures and myths.
|“||There is no historical evidence about Arthur; we must reject him from our histories and, above all, from the titles of our books.||”|
|— David Dumville, 1977|
|“||No figure on the borderline of history and mythology has wasted more of the historian’s time.||”|
|— J.N.L. Myres, 1986|
The origin of the name Arthur is unclear. The most widely accepted etymology is from the Roman family name Artorius, itself of obscure and contested etymology, possibly of Messapic or Etruscan origin. According to linguist and Celticist Stephan Zimmer, it is possible that Artorius has a Celtic origin, being a Latinization of the hypothetical name *Artorījos derived from the patronym *Arto-rīg-ios, meaning "Son of the Bear" or "Warrior-King". *Arto-rīg-ios is unattested, but the root *arto-rīg is the source of the Old Irish personal name Artrí. Some scholars have noted that the legendary King Arthur's name only appears as Arthur, Arthurus, or Arturus in early Latin Arthurian texts, never as Artōrius (although the Classical Latin Artōrius became Arturius in some Vulgar Latin dialects). However, it may not refer to the origin of the name Arthur, as Artōrius would regularly become Art(h)ur when borrowed into Welsh.
John Morris argued the appearance of the name Arthur among Scottish and Welsh figures suggests the name became popular in early 6th century Britain for a short time. He proposed all such occurrences were due to the importance of another Arthur who may have ruled temporarily as Emperor of Britain, and suggested a period of Saxon advance was halted and turned back before resuming in the 570s.
Gildas and Badon
Arthur is not mentioned in Gildas's 6th century book De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae. He does mention a Briton victory against the Saxons at the "Badonic mount" (mons Badonicus), the Battle of Badon which occurred in the year of Gildas' birth and ushered in a generation of peace between the two warring peoples. He describes the battle as taking place "in our times" and being one of the "latest, if not the greatest" slaughter of the Saxons, and that a new generation born after Badon had come of age in Britain. Later Cambro-Latin sources give the Old Welsh form of the battle's location as Badon, such as in the Annales Cambriae, and this has been adopted by most modern scholars.
Gildas' Latin is somewhat opaque; he does not name Arthur or any other leader of the battle. He does discuss Ambrosius Aurelianus as a great scourge of the Saxons immediately prior, but he seems to say that some time passed between Ambrosius' victory and the battle of Badon. The date of the battle is uncertain, with most scholars accepting a date around 500. The location is also unknown, though numerous locations have been proposed throughout Britain over the years.
Arthur is not mentioned in Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People, c. 731) or any other surviving work until around 829, the date ascribed to the Historia Brittonum which is usually attributed to Nennius, a Welsh ecclesiastic. Historia Brittonum lists 12 battles fought by Arthur and gives him the title of dux bellorum (war commander or leader), saying that Arthur fought "alongside the kings of the Britons", rather than that Arthur was himself a king. Other accounts associating Arthur with the Battle of Mount Badon can be shown to be derived directly or indirectly from the Historia Brittonum. The list is inserted between the death of Hengist and the reign of Ida of Bernicia.
The earliest version of the Annales Cambriae was composed in the mid-10th century and gives the date of Badon as 516, and it lists Arthur's death as occurring in 537 at the Battle of Camlann. The annals survive in a version dating from the 10th century, and all other sources that name Arthur were written at least 400 years after the events which they describe.
Historia Regum Britanniae
Arthur was first styled as a king of the Britons in Geoffrey of Monmouth's chronicle Historia Regum Britanniae (c. 1136). Geoffrey also makes Ambrosius Aurelianus (whom he calls Aurelius Ambrosius) a king of Britain and an older brother of Uther Pendragon, father of Arthur, thus establishing the relationship of Aurelianus and Arthur. He identifies Aurelius Ambrosius as the son of Constantinus, a Breton ruler and brother of Aldroenus.
Arthur is mentioned in several 12th to 13th century saints' lives, including those of Cadoc, Carantoc, Gildas, Goeznovius, Illtud, and Paternus. The Legenda Sancti Goeznovii is a hagiography of the Breton saint Goeznovius which was formerly dated to circa 1019 but is now dated to the late 12th to early 13th century. It includes a brief segment dealing with Arthur and Vortigern.
There are a number of mentions of a legendary hero called Arthur in early Welsh and Breton poetry. These sources are preserved in High Medieval manuscripts and cannot be dated with accuracy. They are mostly placed in the 9th to 10th century, although some authors make them as early as the 7th. The earliest of these would appear to be the Old Welsh poem Y Gododdin, preserved in a 13th-century manuscript. It refers to a warrior who "glutted black ravens [i.e., killed many men] on the rampart of the stronghold, although he was no Arthur."
The Welsh poem Geraint, son of Erbin, written in the 10th or 11th century, describes a battle at a port-settlement and mentions Arthur in passing. The work is a praise-poem and elegy for King Geraint, usually presumed to be a historical king of Dumnonia, and is significant in showing that he was associated with Arthur at a relatively early date. It also provides the earliest known reference to Arthur as "emperor". Geraint son of Erbin is found in the Black Book of Carmarthen, compiled around 1250, though it may date to the 10th or 11th century. Y Gododdin was similarly copied around the same time. The two poems differ in the relative archaic quality of their language, that of Y Gododdin being the older in form. However, this could merely reflect differences in the date of the last revision of the language within the two poems, as the language would have had to have been revised for the poems to remain comprehensible.
Alternative candidates for the historical King Arthur
Some theories suggest that "Arthur" was a byname of attested historical individuals.
Lucius Artorius Castus and the Sarmatian connection
One theory suggests that Lucius Artorius Castus, a Roman military commander who served in Britain in the late 2nd century or early 3rd century, was a prototype of Arthur. Artorius is known from two inscriptions that give details about his service. After a long career as a centurion in the Roman army, he was promoted to prefect of Legio VI Victrix, a legion headquartered in Eboracum (present-day York, England). He later commanded two British legions on an expedition against either the Armoricans (in present-day Brittany) or the Armenians. He subsequently became civilian governor of Liburnia in modern Croatia, where he died.
Kemp Malone first made the connection between Artorius and King Arthur in 1924. Noting that the Welsh name Arthur plausibly derives from the Latin Artorius, Malone suggested that details of Castus' biography, in particular his possible campaign in Brittany and the fact that he was obliged to retire from the military (perhaps because of an injury), may have inspired elements of Geoffrey of Monmouth's depiction of King Arthur. Later scholars have challenged the idea, based on the fact that Artorius lived two to three centuries before the period typically associated with Arthur, and the fact that the parts of the inscriptions ostensibly similar to Arthur's story are open to interpretation.
Malone's idea attracted little attention for decades, but it was revived in the 1970s as part of a theory known as the "Sarmatian connection". In a 1975 essay, Helmut Nickel suggested that Artorius was the original Arthur, and that a group of Sarmatian cavalry serving under him in Britain inspired the Knights of the Round Table. Nickel wrote that Castus' Sarmatian unit fought under a red dragon banner and that their descendants were still in Britain in the 5th century; he also identified similarities between the Arthurian legend and traditions associated with the Sarmatians and other peoples of the Caucasus region. He suggested that the Sarmatians' descendants kept Castus' legacy alive over the centuries, and mixed it with their ancestral myths involving magical cauldrons and swords.
Independently of Nickel, C. Scott Littleton developed a more elaborate version of the Sarmatian connection. Littleton first wrote about the theory with Anne C. Thomas in 1978, and expanded on it in a 1994 book co-authored by Linda Malcor, From Scythia to Camelot. Littleton and Malcor argued that Artorius and the Sarmatian cavalry were the inspiration for King Arthur and his knights, but that many elements of Arthur's story derive from Caucasian mythology, ostensibly brought to Britain in the 2nd century by Sarmatians and Alans. They find parallels in the traditions of the Caucasus for key features of the Arthurian legend, including the Sword in the Stone, the Holy Grail, and the return of Arthur's sword to a lake, and connect Arthur and his knights to Batraz and his Narts, the heroes of the legends of the North Caucasus.
Some Arthurian scholars have given credence to the Sarmatian connection, but others have found it based on conjecture and weak evidence. Few of the Caucasian traditions cited to support the theory can be traced specifically with the Sarmatians; many are known only from orally transmitted tales that are not datable before they were first recorded in the 19th century. Additionally, many of the strongest parallels to the Arthurian legend are not found in the earliest Brittonic materials, but only appear in the later Continental romances of the 12th century or later. As such, the traditions would have had to survive in Britain for at least thousand years between the arrival of the Sarmatians in the 2nd century, and the Arthurian romances of the 12th century. Nonetheless, the Sarmatian connection continues to have popular appeal; it is the basis of the 2004 film King Arthur.
Riothamus (also spelled Riotimus) was a historical figure whom ancient sources list as "a king of the Britons". He lived in the late 5th century, and most of the stories about him were recorded in the Byzantine historian Jordanes' The Origin and Deeds of the Goths, written in the mid-6th century, only about 80 years after his presumed death.
About 460, Roman diplomat and bishop Sidonius Apollinaris sent a letter to Riothamus asking his help to quell unrest among the Brettones, British colonists living in Armorica; this letter still survives. In the year 470, Western Emperor Anthemius began a campaign against Euric, king of the Visigoths who were campaigning outside their territory in Gaul. Anthemius requested help from Riothamus, and Jordanes writes that he crossed the ocean into Gaul with 12,000 soldiers. The location of Riothamus' army was betrayed to the Visigoths by Arvandus, the jealous praetorian prefect of Gaul, and Euric defeated him in the Battle of Déols after Riothamus army was driven from Avaricum (Bourges) where he had been welcomed by the Bituriges before the fight. Riothamus was last seen retreating northward to Burgundy when Euric besieged Arvernum (Clermont-Ferrand) just south of the Bituriges territory.
Geoffrey Ashe points out that Arthur is said by Geoffrey of Monmouth to have crossed into Gaul twice, once to help a Roman emperor and once to subdue a civil war. Riothamus did both, assuming that he was a king in Britain as well as Armorica. Arthur is also said to have been betrayed by one of his advisers, and Riothamus was betrayed by one of his supposed allies. Finally, it is well known how King Arthur was carried off to Avalon (called insula Auallonis by Geoffrey of Monmouth, the first author to mention the legendary isle) before he died; Riothamus, after his defeat at Déols, was last known to have fled to the kingdom of the Germanic Burgundians, perhaps passing through a town called Avallon (though no ancient source on Riothamus mentions him being anywhere in the area of Avallon).
It is unknown whether Riothamus was a king in Britain or Armorica. Armorica was a British colony and Jordanes writes that Riothamus "crossed the ocean", so it is possible that both are correct. The name Riothamus is interpreted by Ashe and some other scholars as a title "High King", though there is no evidence for such a title being used by ancient Britons or Gauls, and the formation of the name (noun/adjective + superlative -tamo- suffix) follows a pattern found in numerous other Brittonic and Gaulish personal names. Cognates of the name Riothamus survive in Old Welsh (Riatav/Riadaf) and Old Breton (Riatam); all are derived from Common Brittonic *Rigotamos, meaning "Most Kingly", "Kingliest".
Ambrosius Aurelianus (also sometimes referred to as Aurelius Ambrosius) was a powerful Romano-British leader in Britain. He was renowned for his campaigns against the Saxons, and there is some speculation that he may have commanded the British forces at the Battle of Badon Hill. At any rate, the battle was a clear continuation of his efforts.
Scholars such as Leon Fleuriot identified Ambrosius Aurelianus with the aforementioned Riothamus figure from Jordanes, an idea which forms part of his hypothesis about the origins of the Arthurian legend. Others, such as Geoffrey Ashe, disagree, since Ambrosius is not called "king" until the somewhat-legendary Historia Brittonum.
Artúr mac Áedáin
Artúr mac Áedáin was the eldest son of Áedán mac Gabráin. He never became king of Dál Riata; his brother Eochaid Buide ruled after their father's death. However, Artúr became war leader when Áedán gave up his role and retired to monastic life, though Áedán was officially still king. Thus it was Artúr who led the Scoti of Dál Riata in a war against the Picts, separate from the later war with Northumbria.
Under this hypothesis, Artúr was predominantly active in the region between the Roman walls, the Kingdom of the Gododdin. He was ultimately killed in battle in 582 – thus, he lived far too late to have been the victor at the Battle of Badon, as mentioned by Gildas in the early 6th century. This is the solution proposed by David F. Carroll (in his book Arturius: A Quest for Camelot, 1996) and by Michael Wood.
- Historia Regum Britanniae draws from Gildas' De Excidio Britanniae, the Historia Brittonum, and Annales Cambriae, among other sources.
- Examples include: Old Breton/Welsh Cunatam/Cunotami/Condam/Cyndaf (Brittonic *Cunotamos 'Great Dog'), Old Welsh Caurdaf (Brittonic *Kawarotamos 'Great Giant'), Old Welsh/Breton Eudaf/Outham (Brittonic *Awitamos 'Great Will/Desire'), Uuoratam/Gwrdaf (Brittonic *Wortamos 'Supreme'), Old Breton Rumatam (Brittonic *Roimmotamos 'Great Band/Host'), Gwyndaf (Brittonic *Windotamos 'Fairest/Whitest/Holiest One'), Breton Uuentamau (Brittonic *Wenitamaua 'Friendliest', or *Windotamawā 'Little Fairest/Whitest/Holiest (One)').
- ^α For example, Artúr mac Conaing, who may have been named after his uncle Artúr mac Áedáin. Artúr son of Bicoir "the Briton" was another reported in this period, who slew Mongán mac Fiachnai of Ulster in 620/625 in Kintyre. A man named Feradach, apparently the grandson of one Artuir, was a signatory at the synod that enacted the Law of Adomnan in 697. Arthur ap Pedr was a prince in Dyfed, born around 570–580.
- Tom Shippey, "So Much Smoke", review of Nicholas J. Higham, , King Arthur: The Making of the Legend, 2018, London Review of Books, 40:24:23 (20 December 2018)
- Koch 2006, p. 121
- Malone 1925
- Marcella Chelotti, Vincenza Morizio, Marina Silvestrini, Le epigrafi romane di Canosa, Volume 1, Edipuglia srl, 1990, pp. 261, 264.
- Ciro Santoro, "Per la nuova iscrizione messapica di Oria", La Zagaglia, A. VII, n. 27, 1965, pp. 271–93.
- Ciro Santoro, "La Nuova Epigrafe Messapica 'IM 4. 16, I–III' di Ostuni ed nomi in Art-", Ricerche e Studi, Volume 12, 1979, pp. 45–60.
- Wilhelm Schulze, "Zur Geschichte lateinischer Eigennamen" (Volume 5, Issue 2 of Abhandlungen der Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen, Philologisch-Historische Klasse, Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften Göttingen Philologisch-Historische Klasse), 2nd Edition, Weidmann, 1966, p. 72, pp. 333–38.
- Olli Salomies: Die römischen Vornamen. Studien zur römischen Namengebung. Helsinki 1987, p. 68.
- Herbig, Gust., "Falisca", Glotta, Band II, Göttingen, 1910, p. 98.
- Zimmer 2009
- Koch, John T. (1996), "The Celtic Lands", in Lacy, Norris J. (ed.), Medieval Arthurian Literature: A Guide to Recent Research, New York, NY: Garland, p. 253, ISBN 978-0-8153-2160-6
- Morris, John (1977). The Age of Arthur: A History of the British Isles from 350 to 650. Chichester, West Sussex, England: Phillimore & Co. Ltd.
- Green, Thomas (2008). Concepts of Arthur. Stroud, England: Tempus. p. 31.
- Green 1998; Padel 1994; Green 2007, chapters five and seven.
- Fletcher, Richard (1989). Who's Who in Roman Britain and Anglo-Saxon England. Shepheard-Walwyn. p. 112. ISBN 0-85683-089-5.
- Fletcher, Richard (1989). Who's Who in Roman Britain and Anglo-Saxon England. Shepheard-Walwyn. pp. 17–19. ISBN 0-85683-089-5.
- "Christian Works : Historia regum Britanniae". Cambridge Digital Library. Retrieved 2018-11-27.
- J. S. P. Tatlock, "The Dates of the Arthurian Saints' Legends", Speculum 14. (July 1939:345–65 ).
- Bourgès, André-Yves, "Guillaume le Breton et l'hagiographie bretonne aux XIIe et XIIIe siècles", in: Annales de Bretagne et des pays de l'Ouest, 1995, 102–1, pp. 35–45.
- Ashe, Geoffrey (1991). "Legenda Sancti Goeznovii". In Norris J. Lacy (ed.). The New Arthurian Encyclopedia. New York, NY: Garland. pp. 204–05. ISBN 0-8240-4377-4.
- Bollard, John K. (1994). "Arthur in the Early Welsh Tradition". The Romance of Arthur: An Anthology of Medieval Texts in Translation. Routledge: 11–23.
- Jarman, A.O.H. (1982). Llyfr Du Caerfyrddin. Gwasg Prifysgol Cymru. ISBN 0-7083-0629-2.
- Snyder, pp. 3, 15–16.
- Mallone, Kemp (1925). "Artorius", Modern Philology 22.
- Keppie, Lawrence. Legions and Veterans: Roman Army Papers, 1971–2000, Franz Steiner Verlag, 2000, p. 168.
- Webster, Graham. The Roman Imperial Army of the First and Second Centuries A.D., University of Oklahoma Press, 1998 (3rd ed.), pp. 112–14.
- Mommsen, Theodor; Demandt, Barbara; Demandt, Alexander. A History of Rome Under the Emperors. London & New York: Routledge, 1999 (new ed.), pp. 311–12.
- Birley, Anthony. The Roman Government of Britain. Oxford U. Press, 2005, p. 355.
- Pflaum, Hans-Georg. Les carrières procuratoriennes équestres sous le Haut-Empire romain. Paris, 1960, p. 535.
- Snyder, p. 3.
- Malone, Kemp. "Artorius". Modern Philology. 23: 367–74.
- Halsall, pp. 147–48.
- Higham, Nicholas J., King Arthur: The Making of the Legend, Yale University Press, 2018, pp. 13–76
- Snyder, pp. 15–16.
- Snyder, p. 16.
- Littleton, C. Scott; Thomas, Ann C. (1978). "The Sarmatian Connection: New Light on the Origin of the Arthurian and Holy Grail Legends". Journal of American Folklore. 91: 512–27.
- Littleton, C. Scott; Malcor, Linda. From Scythia to Camelot: A Radical Reassessment of the Legends of King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table and the Holy Grail. New York: Garland, 2000.
- Greene, Caitlin R. (2009) . "The Historicity and Historicisation of Arthur". Arthuriana.co.uk. Retrieved 2018-07-06.
- Halsall, pp. 149–51.
- Lambert, Pierre-Yves; Pinault, Georges-Jean. Gaulois et celtique continental, Librairie Droz, 2007, p. 464.
- Léon Fleuriot, Les origines de la Bretagne: l'émigration, Paris, Payot, 1980.
- Geoffrey Ashe, The Discovery of King Arthur, Guild Publishing, London, 1985.
- Wood, Michael (2007). In Search of Myths and Heroes. University of California Press. p. 255. ISBN 978-0-520-25170-0.
- Senchus Fer Alban. History of the Men of Scotland .
- Bromwich 1975, pp. 163–81.
- Bromwich 1975, p. 178.
- Bromwich, Rachel (1975). "Concepts of Arthur". Studia Celtica 10/11, pp. 163–181.
- Dumville, David N. (1977). "Sub-Roman Britain: History and Legend", History 62.
- Green, Thomas (2009 ), "The Historicity and Historicisation of Arthur" (a revised version is included in Concepts of Arthur, below).
- Green, Thomas (2007), Concepts of Arthur, Stroud: Tempus, ISBN 978-0-7524-4461-1.
- Padel, O.J. (1994). "The Nature of Arthur". Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies. 27: 1–31.
- Snyder, Christopher A. (2006), "Arthurian Origins" in A History of Arthurian Scholarship, Lacy, Norris J., ed., D. S. Brewer.
- Breeze, Andrew (September 2015). "The Historical Arthur and Sixth-Century Scotland". Northern History. LII (2): 158–81. doi:10.1179/0078172x15z.00000000085.
- Breeze, Andrew (September 2016). "Arthur's Battles and the Volcanic Winter of 536-7". Northern History. LIII (2): 161–72. doi:10.1080/0078172x.2016.1195600.