Longsword by David Pilling

Sunday, 8 June 2014

The last of the Romans

 I'm delving back into Roman/Arthurian history today, with a look at a shadowy figure who might have been the inspiration for 'King Arthur'. 

Ambrosius as he may appeared
The figure in question was one Ambrosius Aurelianus, described as 'the last of the Romans' i.e. the last of the Romans to hold any sort of power in Britain after the departure of the legions in the early 5th century. He is an obscure figure, remembered only in a few garbled tales in which he gets hopelessly mixed up with Merlin the magician, and his deeds and existence have been largely crushed under the weight of The Once and Future King. Unlike Arthur, however, we can be reasonably certain that Ambrosius existed, and played a major role in the Romano-British resistance against the Saxons.

The Dark Ages are suitably named. A blank curtain lies over British history from c.400-600 AD, between the departure of the Roman legions and the rise of the Saxon kingdoms. Modern archaeology is helping us to discover more about the period, but the sheer lack of written sources remains a crippling problem in trying to piece together events.

One of the very few surviving sources is De Excidio de Conquestu Britanniae, or ‘On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain’, written by a somewhat mysterious and irritating British cleric named Gildas. Probably written in the first quarter of the sixth century, it is intended as a sermon in three parts rather than a history. Gildas doesn’t mince his words, and uses the history of Britain from the coming of the Romans as a stick to beat the British rulers of his own day, condemning them as lazy, sinful and incompetent. 

The red dragon and the white fight over Britain
In fact, Gildas doesn’t have a good word to say about almost anyone. One of the few to escape his censure is Ambrosius, who he describes as ‘the last of the Romans’ and the man who ignited the British resistance against the marauding Saxons in the mid-5th century. 

Gildas has this to say about Ambrosius and his times:

"The poor remnants of our nation, being strengthened by God, took arms under the conduct of Ambrosius Aurelianus, a modest man, who of all the Roman nation was then alone in the confusion of this troubled period by chance left alive. His parents, who for their merit were adorned with the purple, had been slain in these same broils. Under him, our people provoked to battle their cruel conquerors, and by the goodness of our Lord obtained the victory. 

After this, sometimes our countrymen, sometimes the enemy, won the field, to the end that our Lord might in this land try after his accustomed manner these his Israelites, whether they loved him or not, until the year of the siege of Mount Badon, when took place also the last almost, though not the least slaughter of our cruel foes, which was (as I am sure) forty-four years and one month after the landing of the Saxons, and also the time of my own nativity."

The reference to Ambrosius' parents wearing the purple may indicate they enjoyed some kind of senatorial or government rank, or alternatively that they were effectively martyred during the Saxon revolt: 'clothed in scarlet' is another suggested interpretation of the phrase used to describe them, meaning their bodies were covered in blood. 

According to Gildas, following the initial shock of the Saxon revolt, the Britons fled to Ambrosius ‘as eagerly as bees to a beehive when a storm threatens’. Under his leadership, they regained their strength, and challenged the Saxons to battle. The war raged on for an uncertain length of time – Gildas is frustratingly vague on dates – with victories and defeats on either side, until the year of the ‘siege of Mons Badonicus’, where the Britons finally scored a major victory that stopped the invaders in their tracks for a generation. 

Mons Badonicus, or Mount Badon, is traditionally the career-defining victory won by Arthur, perhaps Britain’s most famous legendary hero. Strangely (or tellingly?) Gildas makes no mention of Arthur. The only British hero he names in connection with the fight against the Saxons is Ambrosius, but he stops short of also naming him the victor of Badon. The earliest feasible dating for Badon is c.482, which makes it a little late for Ambrosius, since the Saxon revolt started some thirty years earlier.

It is possible to reconcile these issues. Possibly 'Arthur' was an officer serving under Ambrosius, his Magister Equitum or similar, and assumed command of the British forces after Ambrosius died or retired. Piecing together a coherent narrative of Ambrosius' career is impossible, since the evidence is so fragmentary, but he pops up in various disparate sources. The Historia Brittonum, written by Nennius in the ninth century, talks of the High King of the Britons, Vortigern, ruling in dread of Ambrosius, and of a battle at Guoloph (Nether Wallop in Hampshire) fought between the forces of Ambrosius and one Vitalinus. 

A depiction of Merlin
The Historia also relates the tale of Ambrosius being discovered as a child by Vortigern while the latter was trying to build a fort in North Wales. The fort kept on collapsing, and the king's advisors told him the only solution was to sprinkle the foundations with the blood of a child born without a father. Ambrosius was said to be such a child, but when brought before the king, he revealed the real reason for the problem: below the foundations was a lake containing two dragons. The dragons, one red and one white, fought a battle representing the struggle between the Britons (red) and the Saxons (white), and the shockwaves of their battle was causing the fort to collapse. One day, Ambrosius prophesied, the red dragon would triumph over the white, and cast it back into the sea. 

Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, written c.1136, took this tale and altered it, giving Ambrosius the name 'Merlin Ambrosius' and conflating him with tales of a 6th century bard named Myrddin Wyllt, who was said to have run mad after witnessing the horrors of battle. Thus the figure of 'Merlin' as we know him today was partially derived from the historical Ambrosius. 

Arthurian novelists have generally been keen to skim over Ambrosius in order to get to the main event, or even omit him altogether. He has a cameo in Marion Zimmer Bradlay's The Mists of Avalon, where he limps on for a few pages before quietly expiring offstage, and doesn't appear at all in Bernard Cornwell's Warlord trilogy. Rosemary Sutcliffe and Mary Stewart did him justice, allowing Ambrosius a share of the limelight before he makes way for Arthur, but he is still a supporting character.  This seems slightly unfair on one of the few definite historical personages we know anything about from this period, and one who initiated the fight-back against his country’s enemies.















1 comment:

  1. I love the Arthurian/Ambrosius tales. Even the fact that they're unfathomable makes them fascinating. Going back to the source may not be possible, but it's worth a try. One finds the connections between things that could not have been to things that could, and truth's possibilities begin to appear.