Saturday, 16 June 2007

Arthur iterum

In a previous post, I drew attention to the bizarre theory that the King Arthur of legend was actually a 2nd century Roman officer named Lucius Artorius Castus.

An anonymous visitor to that post recently asked, "Is it true that there are common elements, not only between the names but details of Artorius's life and Arthur's?" The short answer is: No, it's not true. But I know you'd prefer the long answer.

The folklorist and doyenne of Arthurian mythology, Linda Malcor, has published an article in The Heroic Age (a web-based "Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe") entitled Lucius Artorius Castus: The Battles in Britain. Here, she alleges that "certain details of Castus's military career in Britain correspond to details in the traditional biography of the legendary King Arthur". It is worth taking a closer look at those alleged parallels.

Artorius and the Sarmatians?

Roman cavalry near Ribchester / (c) Lancashire County Council

Dr Malcor writes that "Arthur's men were armored cavalry who fought with swords, lances and shields; while in Britain, Castus commanded Sarmatian numerii [sic] from fort Bremetennacum". She claims that this proves that they were one and the same man. But I have already demolished the Sarmatian link. The facts are these: in AD 175, the emperor Marcus Aurelius (of Gladiator fame) transported 5,500 Sarmatian horsemen to Britain. For 65 years, they disappeared from history, and were perhaps dispersed across the province to reinforce other garrisons; but around AD 240 a numerus equitum Sarmatarum (or "unit of Sarmatian horse") made their presence known at the fort of Ribchester, ancient Bremetennacum (pictured). It was the opinion of the eminent archaeologist Professor Sir Ian Richmond that Sarmatian tribesmen had settled in the area, but definite proof is lacking.

Of course, Dr Malcor is quite wrong to claim that "Castus commanded Sarmatian numerii". In fact, Artorius Castus held a succession of legionary centurionates, culminating in the post of praefectus legionis VI Victricis ("prefect of the Victorious Sixth Legion"), after which he commanded a battle group in northern France drawn from the legions and cavalry regiments of Britain. At no stage was he a cavalry prefect (which would have required an entirely different career path).

Artorius in Northern England?

British Museum manuscript Harley 3859 (folio 187A)

Dr Malcor's main argument states that "the second-century dux Lucius Artorius Castus most likely fought a series of battles that does happen to fit the battle list [of King Arthur]". But again, she is quite wrong. (This battle list appears in an early medieval manuscript [pictured] of the Historia Brittonum or "History of the Britons" usually attributed to Nennius; it constitutes a series of 12 vague locations for Arthurian battles, apparently translated from Old Welsh into Latin.) Remember: all we know about Artorius Castus' time in Britain is that he was attached to the VIth Legion at York, probably for a year, and led a battle group across the Channel adversus Armoricanos, "against the Armoricans".

However, Dr Malcor embarks on the narrative of a "Caledonian invasion", which should be classified as historical fiction: "In 183 the Caledonii breached the Antonine Wall and flooded south", she writes; "the Roman forts -Trimontium, Habitancum, Cappuck, and Bremenium - collapsed along the road that became known as Dere Street", and the invaders "attacked Eboracum (York), where they killed a Roman general".

The facts, ma'am.

Let's consider the facts: the Roman historian Cassius Dio records that, during the reign of Commodus, "the tribes in the island crossed the wall that separated them from the Roman forts, doing much damage and killing a general and the troops he had with him; Commodus in alarm sent Ulpius Marcellus against them". Not Artorius Castus, but Ulpius Marcellus, the senatorial governor who is known to have been in the province by 23 March AD 178. The Romans had evacuated the Antonine Wall almost twenty years earlier, along with the Scottish forts listed by Dr Malcor, so the wall that the barbarians crossed must be Hadrian's Wall. But the tribes are not identified (so we don't know if they were "Caledonian"), and there is no reason to suppose that the Roman general was killed in York.

However, Dr Malcor is not constrained by the evidence. "By the time Marcellus arrived," she continues, "the fighting was no longer south of Hadrian's Wall but in southern Scotland, north of the Forth-Clyde Isthmus, and he ordered the successful commander to pursue a punitive campaign against the invaders, that is, if possible, to exterminate them all." This is pure fantasy. Firstly, it seems that Marcellus was already in the province; he probably moved swiftly to the northern frontier from the provincial capital at London, gathering troops as he went. Secondly, the resulting warfare may well have taken place in southern Scotland (which is south of the Forth-Clyde isthmus!), but Cassius Dio doesn't tell us. And thirdly, the "successful commander" was Marcellus himself.

The fantasy.

In her summing up, Dr Malcor's theory can be seen to have no basis in fact. "In 185 Lucius Artorius Castus was promoted to the rank of dux," -- actually, we don't know when he was promoted as the inscription remains undated -- "a position that very few equestrians held prior to the time of Diocletian" -- actually, during the Principate (the period prior to Diocletian), dux was a temporary command or function, not a rank, and was invented to give non-senators the temporary authority of a senatorial legate -- "... the pattern of destruction from 183 to 185, attested by archaeological finds suggests that Castus was the victorious commander who reversed the disaster for the Romans," -- no, we've already seen that it was Ulpius Marcellus who was sent to deal with the problem -- "and the troops he used were the Sarmatian cavalry of Bremetennacum". Hold on, there! Where did that last bit suddenly come from? Nobody, but nobody, has mentioned anything about Sarmatian cavalry! (See Artorius and the Sarmatians?, above.)

It seems that Dr Malcor has erected a teetering edifice of half-truths: "Castus's campaign, like Arthur's, consolidated Britain following a period of infighting (in Castus's case, this involved the mutinee of the VI Victrix)" -- mutiny?! -- "the victorious campaign conducted by Castus with the Sarmatians of Bremetennacum (Ribchester) preserved Britain for the Romans" -- again with the Sarmatians! -- "and certainly sky-rocketed Castus's career into realms rarely seen by an equestrian of his day."

Remember one thing: the career of Lucius Artorius Castus remains undated, so he may not even have been in Britain in AD 180. And if he had any connection whatsoever with Sarmatians, he certainly didn't tell anyone about it!


  1. Indeed so. I had a go at Malcor in the course of this piece, and in the comments. I seem to have ended up using Malcor's version of the Latin text of Artorius' memorial, rather than that of CIL, to which I didn't have access at the time, but since even if it says what she thinks it says, it doesn't mean what she thinks it means, it hardly makes a difference. The central problem, for her, is that far from supporting her proposition that Artorius was in command of the ala Sarmatarum, it almost certainly demonstrates that he didn't.

  2. Thanks for the link, Tony. I particularly liked this BBC report, where one Arthurian scholar is quoted as saying "Make no mistake, I'm not saying there is little evidence for it, I'm saying there is no evidence." Quite so.

  3. Thank you for posting details on this. I really appreciate it. I am not that knowledgeable about this period. My main area of research is in the first century AD. But when this idea started popping up it was used in that movie and also there was something on the history channel about it. The timeline bothered me right away as it’s completely off with the Saxon invasion and the second was that I, like most people, recognize the man, whoever he may be, whom the legend of Arthur is based on as being a Celtic hero. He may have been born in what is now Wales or what is now Scotland but I am not going to believe he was a Roman without a lot of hard evidence.

  4. Glad to be of service, Cornelia.
    Happy Christmas!

  5. Is there any question here but that we are dealing with myth as opposed to history? Arthur, even in the earliest surviving accounts, is meant to be allegorical, not historic. It appears to me that the arguments should be made from the perspective of literature and not history (especially military chronicle). I for one don't believe that the purveyors of literature from Marcus Aurelius to the end of the Roman Empire would have chosen to emulate Sarmatian or even Alanic oral traditions. However, it does not seem to me impossible that an actual man named Lucius Artorius Castus could have become the focus for a confluence of mythic traditions. My concern is that too much energy has been spent on the military "profile" of Lucius Artorius Castus, and too little on the connections that may have existed between the literature of the Late Roman Empire and the Arthur myth as it was passed down by Chrétien de Troyes.

  6. You make an interesting point, Thomasius. My goal was to demonstrate how extremely unlikely it is that King Arthur was based upon the relatively unremarkable career of Lucius Artorius Castus. To pursue the more likely genesis of the mythical character is (as you say) a task for scholars of literature, not scholars of archaeology.

  7. Actually, I have evidence that Sarmatians did settle in the area. When researching my family tree I got in touch with someone who was carrying out DNA research in a one-name study. As a result, my father had his DNA tested and his roots (and the family's) are Sarmatian. Interestingly the family are from the area around Ribchester. So, based on my experience there may be other familes who have lived in the area a long time who have Sarmatian ancestors!

  8. my father had his DNA tested and his roots (and the family's) are Sarmatian ...
    Sounds fantastic. How exactly do you prove Sarmatian DNA, though?

    Interestingly the family are from the area around Ribchester.
    But how long have they lived near Ribchester? Seventeen-hundred-and-seventy years?!

  9. When I visited the Hole in the Wall Pub at Eboracum some twenty years ago or so, there was a DNA project which came up with much the same results...there was Iranian (Sarmatian?) DNA in the families around Ribchester. The important point was the surprising lack of Italian DNA. This was just a conversation over a half pint of bitter before wandering off to Grape Lane and the damsels there.
    Perhaps there has been more on the subject.
    Ancestry dot com has this site....

  10. Hmmmm.....string of consciousnous!!! Oh me! Oh my! Perhaps if I were to re-write the above...grin!
    When I visited the Hole in the Wall Pub at Eboracum some twenty years ago, I fell into conversation with a school teacher who told me that there was Iranian DNA, etc etc. etc.

    I blame the bottle in front of me, not the frontal lobotomy I seemed to demonstrate!!!

  11. Hello, as I have read all your comments Arthurian legend or myth is clearly an impossible endeavour. I'd like to add my two penneths worth, I believe that there was a need for an Arthur, a christian king for the Romano britains to centralise and rally behind, with the loss of civilised ways of life and loss of Christianity due to the approaching Saxons. I believe Gildas may have somewhat created or at least been a catalyst for Arthurian legend, blending different myths together, the waring dragons red and white, uther pen dragon, ( terrible head or high dragon) from which the welsh were known, ( I know Gildas doesnt mention this) but by their standard, yes there are some parallels between theries, could Gildas have known something of castas? Does his location in Chester add to the vercinity in between Wales and Mercia add more to the tale, what are you thoughts about another so called plausible explanation that of Owain ddgantwyn or "bear " that Gildas mentions chariot or something like that as a possibility ?

  12. I am the Admin for the Farrar DNA project, most of the members of the project (over 40 such) belong to haplogroup R1a1a1b2, and descend from either Henry Ferror of Ewood Hall, Mytholmroyd/Midgley, Halifax Parish, WRY or from either Non Paternal Events (NPE's) or persons who were given or adopted surnames different than Ferror during the poll tax of 1377 (aka subsidy rolls).

    Outside of the project, there are no other persons with our DNA in Great Britain of western Europe, as such it is a puzzle as to how we came to England, earliest record of the surname was in the subsidy roll of 1379 for York, Morley Wapentake, Halifax Parish, Elland, a ferror and wife were living as tenants of Johannes Helistones.

    Spelling of surnames, and words, were phonetic until the mid 19th Century, I have documentation that our family spelled it Ferror, Ferrour, Fareher, Farher, Fairer, then subsequently Ferrar, then Farrar and Farrer. Sometimes Farrow.

    There were Farrows, Farrars in Norfolk county, England but to date their descendants test out as haplogroup R1b1.. hence not related to us, but owe their name, as we do, to the occupation of their original ancestor at the time of the poll tax of 1377 when surnames become permanent or hereditary.

    Our haplogroup is Eurasian, and found mostly in west Russia,and East Europe.
    There are other Z93's in Turkey and Arab but unless they test Z94 negative as we do, there ancestor was born long after my R1a1a1b2 ancestor.

    I've explored many options as regards the arrival of our DNA into northern Britain and Scotland (one member traces his ancestry to an Alexander Douglass of Perth 1730)

    I am left only with possibilities of a hanger on in the court of Edgar Edwarson (the Aetheling) and his sister Margaret (St. Margaret and wife of Malcom III), a Iazyge, an Alani descendant of one who settle in Armorica and accompanied Duke William in 1066 (Henry de Ferrers, son of Walkeline).

    I even considered Romanichal (gypsy) but Hungarian gypsies are Z94+ and we are Z94-. Some bones dug up of Sarmatian graves yield Z94, one yielded R1a1a with no SNP's identified.

    Jasz people in Hungary is believed they descend from the former Alans. Their haplogroups are particularly R1a and I. Also present is G1.

    Ossetians are G2, and claim to be descended from Alans, but they descend from a handful of survivors of one clan or tribe, More likely the Massagetes.

    I would certainly be interested in any information you obtained vis a vis DNA of Iazyge.

    farrardna at yahoo dot com