Saturday, 21 October 2006

Would the real King Arthur ...

Clive Owen makes a splendid Roman officer, don't you think?

Last week, I watched King Arthur again. Now, I would be the first to admit that there's precious little historical fact in that movie. But I do appreciate a rip-roaring action movie, competently acted and well directed.

Imagine my surprise when I found that some people believe King Arthur to be less of a movie and more of a documentary. In particular, a certain Dr. Linda Malcor (her Doctorate is in folklore and mythology) has posted an on-line article on why she believes that a second-century Roman officer named Lucius Artorius Castus is really the King Arthur of legend.

The most glaring problem would appear to be chronology: for the historical Arthur is mentioned in the later 5th century, whereas the Roman Artorius lived 300 years earlier. This is the least of the movie's historical problems. Others have provided detailed criticism, but it was Dr. Malcor's misrepresentation of Artorius's career ("... a brilliant cavalry officer" !) that I found striking.

A Roman inscription that seems to be the tombstone of Artorius Castus was published in 1873 (as CIL III 1919) by the great German scholar Theodor Mommsen. Thought to date from the AD 180s, it reads as follows:

D(is) [M(anibus)]
L(ucius) ARTORI[us Ca?]STUS
(centurio) LEG(ionis)
[(centurio) le]G(ionis) VI FERRA-
(centurio) LEG(ionis) II ADI(utricis) [i]TEM
(centurio) LEG(ionis) V M[a]-
C(edonicae) ITEM P(rimus)P(ilus) EIUSDEM PRAEPOSITO
VICTRICIS DUCI(!) LEGG(ionum) [alaru]M BRITAN(n)IC{I}-
NARIO(!) PROVINCIAE LI[burniae iure] GLADI(i) VI-

The man was clearly a career centurion, one of these courageous, highly paid officers (each one in charge of 80 men) who moved from unit to unit (legion III Gallica, legion VI Ferrata, legion II Adiutrix, legion V Macedonica) until finally attaining the coveted position of primus pilus, the chief centurion of a legion. In that post, he had the regiment's 59 other centurions under his authority, and was one of the legionary commander's closest advisors. A secondment as praepositus classis Misenatium (commander of the fleet at Misenum) occurs at this point. But the next step in the ambitious centurion's career was the post of praefectus castrorum (gradually becoming known as praefectus legionis, "prefect of the legion"), which recognised the man's years of experience by charging him with the smooth running of the legionary fortress for a year before his honorable discharge. At this point in Artorius's career, he was entrusted with the command of an army drawn from the legions and cavalry of Britain, in an expedition against the Armoricans of northern France. (His temporary command gave him the grand title of Dux legionum et alarum Britannicarum.) This was a perfectly standard assignment for a man of his seniority, to command detached troops in a war zone; we find numerous examples of chief centurions and legionary prefects in the same role.

As an ex-chief centurion, Artorius had earned the status of a primipilaris, and thus qualified for entry into Rome's equestrian order, a level of nobility second only to the senators themselves. Equestrian status gave Artorius access to the well-paid procuratorships. The inscription proudly announces that he was procurator centenarius (meaning "with a salary of 100,000 sesterces") of Liburnia in Illyricum (modern Croatia), where the inscription was discovered. Many procurators were simply finance officers, assisting the regular military governors (who, as senators, outranked them on the social scale). But Artorius tells us that he had "the right of the sword" (ius gladii), meaning that he had ultimate jurisdiction over Roman citizens, so he was clearly governing the region of Liburnia. This was Artorius's crowning achievement, after which he no doubt retired.

Beyond his prolonged career as a centurion -- which may well have been fraught with danger if it occurred during the lengthy wars of Marcus Aurelius (although the inscription is not precisely dated) -- there is no particular sign of derring-do here. No knights of the round table, Sarmatian or otherwise. And no expeditions against Britain's enemies. No sign, in fact, that Lucius Artorius Castus was King Arthur.


  1. You are missing a crucial link here, partially because the movie gets just enough of the very real "Sarmatian Connection" Arthurian theory to be confusing.

    It has been noticed for some time that certain portions of the Arthurian legend have close parallels in known Sarmatian mythology, and that certain non-Celtic names of the legend can be explained as Sarmatian, as well. The Sarmatian colony in Britain associated with Lucius Artorius Castus and established by Marcus Aurelius lasted for some centuries, and, as cataphracts, may well have become the nucleus of the forces commanded by the real Arthur in the 5th century.

    It is thought that the association of the names "Artorius" and "Arthur" may be more than coincidence. One possibility is that "Artorius" may have become a title in the Sarmatian colony, comparable to "Caesar".

  2. Thanks for that, John. Of course, we should remember that the career of Lucius Artorius Castus is essentially undated, so any link with Marcus Aurelius is simply speculation. A link with Sarmatians is then a hypothesis, teetering on top of this speculation.

    We do know that, in AD 175, Marcus Aurelius shipped 5,500 Iazyges (one of the Sarmatian tribes) to Britain (Cassius Dio 71.16), and the archaeologist Sir Ian Richmond believed that the families of some had persisted into the 4th century in the neighbourhood of Ribchester in Lancashire.

    But -- remember -- there is no demonstrable link with Lucius Artorius Castus.

    (Of course, it does make a good story!)

  3. Lol, the only excuse for that King Arthur movie is Clive Owen. I would have enjoyed it more had Bruckheimer not blown that 'It's the True History'-horn.

    I'm not sure the 'Sarmatian colony' lasted beyond the death of the last of the 5000 men. They merged with locals and adoped Roman and British customs. I very much doubt there would have been any Sarmatian identity some 250-300 years later. Maybe a few stories about great-great-grandfather and his big Nesean horse who came all the way from the Danube. :)

    Similarities between the Sarmatian mythology and Arthur legends? Even if there are (and we know almost nothing about the Sarmatians mythology, and what we know comes from Greek sources), the Arthur legends are basically Welsh, not from the area where the Sarmatians in Britain lived, so I can't see a connection between both.

  4. The battle cry in the movie (RUS) lacks any historical credibility.

    Rus where a scandinavian tribe that established their rule over the slavic tribes (and ultimately gave them the name RUSsians )only after the year 862

  5. Thanks, Anonymous. But I think that's perhaps the least of the movie's historical problems! :-)

  6. Dear friend, the inscription of Artorius is surely dated after 185 AC, because there is a "C" for Constans after V Macedonica, as you can read in the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum; Constans was attributed to V Mac. after the revolt in the Cmmodus'time. The Sarmatians were sent to Britain in 175, so when Castus was "dux legionum alarum Britanniarum" he surely led some Sarmatian in battle. The title "dux", in that time (see Treccani encyclopedia, "duce") was given to senatorial people, as the governors of provinces: so, Castus was the highest roman authority in Britain during some time.
    Furthermore, the link of Arthur with Saxon's invasion was made by pseudo-Nennius in IX century: the real Arthur could well belong to another age
    Antonio Trinchese

  7. You make two interesting points, Antonio.

    (1) However, Commodus awarded legion V Macedonica the titles Pia Constans (not just Constans), so it would appear as V MAC P C (or similar) on inscriptions. Here, the MAC is simply split across two lines, with no sign of the Pia Constans (imho). (This, in itself, is not significant -- legions often omitted these extra titles in their inscriptions.)

    (2) As for the title of Dux, this was used, from time to time, to indicate that a non-senator was in charge of some military operation. If he had been a senator, he could simply have been called legatus, as normal. But Artorius was following a centurial career, which led ultimately to equestrian (as opposed to senatorial) status.

    So, unfortunately, neither point helps us to pin the inscription down chronologically.

  8. Hello sir.

    I am a student doing research on the legend of King Arthur. I was wondering about two things:

    1. May I please cite part of your analysis in my report?

    2. Lucius Artorius Castus seems to be an interesting figure, but what was the initial link that people thought he was King Arthur? Was it something he did, some random battle he fought? Perhaps a holy orb of antioch thrown somewhere?

    Thank you.

  9. 1. Of course, Raistlin.
    2. The idea seems to have been hatched by Linda Malcor (perhaps for the movie?).

  10. Is it true that there are common elements, not only between the names but details of Artorius's life and Arthur's? Can you give us your thoughts on Dr. Malcor's analysis of the sources she quoted?

  11. I agree with you ,on the Sarmatian battle cry of "RUS!" This is not a true battle cry,since it is what the slavic Ukrainians called the Varangians ( vikings)..

    1. Rus means country or land in Latin.... they are roman legionaires. They ultimately are fighting for freedom. Having a home is a part of freedom and artorius ultimately chooses Britian and his home, country and people. Their battle cry means "for home"

  12. The Sarmatian Battle cry of "Rus!" doesn't belong in the movie at all!..Since, Rus wasn't used until threehundred years after The questionable King Arthur...
    Rus is what the slavic peoples of Traditional Russia( the ukraine) called the Varangians ( Vikings)

  13. Has Anyone noticed How the use of archery( bows&arrows) doesn't belong in the movie either?
    Since, the use of bows& arrows as weapons wasn't known in the celtic days of briton,wales,scotland& Ireland until the Vikings started raiding in the area...Almost four hundred years later

  14. The reflex bow doesn'tbelong in the movie either! Since,it was infact invented by the HUns. And the Huns never got as far as England

  15. Good people please remember the old saying, "if the legion is bigger then the man print the legion"

  16. I have seen the Film and read the Comments with interest and agree that there are probably many unsubstatiated assertions made by the Film-makers about its authenticity.

    This doesn't write it off though as completly inaccurate as there are also other things to consider in the Debate. Many Historian agree that an 'Arthur' - a Romanocelt Title meaning 'Bear' - existed in the 5th/6th Centuries and did fight Battles with Saxons called Cerdic and Cynric. These happened not at Hadrians Wall but somewhere slightly north of Dorset in Wilshire. The 'Arthur' of this and other Battles was descended from Votadini Tribes People who lived in the Area now known as Lanarkshire in East-Central Scotland. These were requested by Ordovician Tribes in North Wales to defend against the continuing and growing Threat from Ireland and as they (the Votadini) arrived they migrated/settled eastwards to the Kingdom of Powys - now east Wales and Shropshire. As the Romans withdrew they consolidated in powerful Towns like Veraconium (Wroxeter) in defiance against the gradual concurrence of Saxon Invasion. By the 5th Century an 'Arthur' was based in Veraconium and would certainly have been Brythonic-Celt with possible Romano Lineage too. The Sarmation Cavalry stationed in Britain 350 Years before this were very often north of Hadrians Wall and it is entirely feasable that they worked with both Votadini and Roman Elements in the Region. What this implies is that when Votadini began arriving in what is now Gwynedd they were very much linked with, and maybe even had Sarmations fighting for them and it was from these that later Cavalrymen descended - including those based in what is now Shropshire - while there were Sarmations stationed further north in Chester (Diva) during the peak period of the Roman Occupation. The Culture of the Sramations might have dissipated in time but their prowess as Cavalry certainly hadn't - which wouldn't be un-noticed by Roman and celt alike.

    So although the Film does have some conspicuous inaccuracies it also has a few truisms that begin a journey in the right direction for when someone makes the definative Film about the Arthurian Legend.

  17. The battle cry of the Saxons in the movie, what was it and was it correct for the Saxons of the time period?

  18. I suppose the only way to ascertain that would be to visit Schleswig Holstein - listen for the Accent of any of the older Families and consult the 'Land' Archive!

  19. If you have the DVD watch the Documentary and you'll see how Excalibur is inscribed in Viking Runes. This is inaccurate as neither a Latin Speaking Roman, Sarmation Cavalryman or Celtic Warrior Chieftain would use the Norse Alphabet which wouldn't have appeared in any significance until the 8th Century. As for the Pictish-Celt spoken by Merlin and the other Woads you'll have to ask someone fluent in the Welsh about its authenticity. Considering how little is known about the Picts whatever they were speaking in the Film could be rather spurious.

  20. You ought to watch this Film - and then the 1986 Film Highlander!

    The Film Highlander is codified..........

    When it was made - 1986 - the world was still governed by the Cold War - and the Media and Film Industry was very much part of this. Everything was politicised by the Cold War Doctrine of everything to the East was bad - to the West good, even Archeology and History. Very few Archeologists of the time would have the courage to say that some of the People defending Britain against the Barbarians that swept over most of the rest of Europe were from the Area now called the Ukraine and Russia. The Sarmation Cavalrymen made a huge contribution to the Defence of the Celto-romano World and particularly here.

    Although they might have been somewhat muted about this in the Lecture Rooms and Museums of Reagan Era Capitalism the Archeologist Community - even then - were aware of the Sarmations used as Auxilaries by the Romans - who in turn had become part of the Lives of most of Britain. In the Highlander you have Connor McCleod - a Scot, Ramirez (Connery) - and McCleods Nemesis - the Kurgan. This could well be a reference to the Mameyev Kurgan in Volgograd - but also is very evocative of that part of the East where the Sarmations came from - the Steppe. Although they are part of the same group of People - the Immortals - McCleod and the Kurgan are Enemies in the typical Style of Cold War Era Propaganda so the Film Makers dutifully fulfill their Role in continuing it. McCleod = Good. the West, Capitalism etc (although somewhat misunderstood), the Kurgan = Bad, the East, Communism. A point made poignant by having James Bond play Ramirez - another Good Guy - as Svengali to McCleod.

    After the Cold War the Politicization of Archeology stops and the Community of Historians can then assert what they've know for Years without the Fear of any undue Interference by Reagan or our Governments of the time so the once unpalettable Truth becomes acceptable. This filters through into the Film Industry so - by 2007 - you get the Bruckheimer Film where the Sarmation Knights - no longer depicted as Kurganesque Monsters from the Steppe - first fight for the Celto-Romano Arturius against the Woads, then with Arturius and the Woads against the real threat of the time which were the Saxons. During the time and location it is set - the Border Regions of England and Scotland the Votadini Peoples probably occasionally fought with and against such People - and as the Film progresses you get a gradual Synthesis of the Historical Reality as opposed to the unreality forced by 1980s Politics. The 'Immortals' turn out to be that Alliance of Sarmation, Roman, Briton - and in the end - Celto-Pictish Peoples. So Connor McCleod and the Kurgan are actually one and the same. Bors says to Gawain and Galahad "Everyone I know back home is dead and buried" - which refers directly to the Mameyev Kurgan as the ancient Burial Mound on the Volga while Lancelot describes the Steppe to a Tee in his Conversation with Gwynhafar.

    In Highlander McCleod protects Rachel from the Nazis - while in a sort of continu'um - Arturius and his Sarmation Knights rescue Gwynhafar and the Boy from Torture, escort Alecto and his Mother to safety and protect Briton from the Saxons. So once the Politicals are no longer dictating the Terms instead of fighting each other these powerful forces fight together - as they did for 100s of Years in the early Centuries of Anno Domini.

  21. "The Film Highlander is codified ..."
    And I thought it was just a movie. Actually, your analysis seems fairly naive. I'm sure even children watching Highlander will realise that McCloud = Good, West, while Kurgan = Evil, East. I'm struggling to find a link with Arthur, though.

  22. It is just a Movie - but one that has at least tried to be rather more real than others based on Malory or Chretien. Despite this it does have its Inaccuracies as mentioned - while any Incursions in the Region it is set could be as much from Scandinavians as Saxons (the latter were originally brought in as Mercenaries to defend against the former until Cerdic decided to invade and began the War). The Region would have been that of the Celtic Votadini or Gododdin Tribe who were brought to North Wales by a King Vortigern to defend against the Danes and the Irish so you have an Amalgam of Regions, Charecters and Events that synthesise into the later Legends. Gwalchmai or Hawk of May appears along with Peredur and Bedywr in the 6th Century Poem by Aneurin - while it is Bedivere who throws Excalibur in the Lake in Malory (called a Votive Rite).

    As for the Highlander and this Film I'm pointing out just how politicised History and Infotainment was during the Cold War and how - after it - that all begins to change. Highlander is a pre-1989 Representation of a similar Theme where a mythical Charecter from the mysterious Caledonia defends People from Evil and subsequently another Representation of Chivalry!As for the Immortals Ioan Gryfudds/Lancelots Narrative explains some of that at the end of the Bruckheimer Film.

  23. Martin Williams22/12/11 2:02 am

    Considering the genetic research done by Stephen Oppenheimer and his conclusion that only 3 per cent of living Britons have German (Saxon) ancestors and that the Angles only made an incursion (genetic) into Cumbria, all this talk about Saxon invasions and supremacy over the Britons seems to be a load of nonsense.

    Add to this that Simon Sharma thinks that Bedes work is a joke considering the man never left his monastery and that he was put up to it by Church and other factions the to write his history.

    Add again that tooth enamel studies of buried peoples (circa 5th and 6th century) in South East England, the home of the so called Saxon shore show that most were born there and the remaining ones were females from Scandinavia.

    Digs in London through ancient trash have revealed only a handful of Saxon fish hooks and nothing else, hardly evidence for a domineering Saxon legacy.

    It seems the British people are the victims of an early age re-write of history, that was given to an ignorant and illiterate population that could not know any better.

  24. << Bedes work is a joke >>
    Not a very funny one. ;-) But he must have been a sterling chap, because he had a copy of Vegetius.

  25. Geoffrey of Monmouth makes clear the existence of the Roman connection, in his own way. However, when it comes to considering the syncretic aspect of Celtic culture, we tend to forget the pagan Roman component in it. Same thing with "gallo-romaine" civilization: medievalists concentrate on "gallo" and forget "romaine".

  26. The Saxons are shouting "Schlacht uns Veind" or literally "kill the foe" or "fight the enemy". It's a bit of a nod to the Germanic roots of the Seaxssons, I suppose. "Veind" is the Germanic root for enemy (English "fiend") and "schlacht" has roots for fight or kill (English "slaughter"). "Uns" means "our" or "us".

  27. I personally believe he was real, maybe not in the way that the stories say, but I believe non the less. I mean we believe in dieties, yet we have never seen them so why can't we believe in a man.

  28. When the authur parents were murdered. Authurs uncle, seizes the crown.

    The young authur runs the back passages of londonium with his fellows