Arthur and the Fall of Rome
by Vincent Bridges
Part Two - Roman Britain
For Britain, the year 410 was even more of a turning point than it was for the rest of the Empire. Britain had been a latecomer to the Roman system, but by the third century, Roman Britain, southern England and Wales, was an imperial province whose free male citizens were the equals of any in the empire. The upper classes received a Roman education and were bilingual, using Latin as their written and commercial language. The wealthier citizens lived in villas or luxurious country homes much like the plantation society of the pre-Civil War era in America. John C. Calhoun would have felt right at home in Roman Britain. Ironically enough, this villa rich society dominated the south of England, such as Gloucestershire.
Britain was Roman for almost three hundred years before it became officially Christian. For most of those years, it was more peaceful and prosperous than the rest of the Empire. Its population in the early fourth century was over two million. Industry and mining prospered, agriculture produced surpluses that were exported to the rest of the Empire. Peace and prosperity produced a sense of its own uniqueness. Britain was a place where powerful forces surfaced. Constantine had been proclaimed Emperor in York Catherdral, beginning his messianic career that would eventually change the nature of the Empire and create a new religion, Imperial Christianity.
Even after Constantine, Imperial Christianity was slow to catch on in Roman Britain. The Empire had only been Christian for about 70 years when the Visigoths sacked Rome, and part of those years, the reign of Julian, called the "Apostate," the Empire was officially pagan. There was even a brief revival of Celtic paganism, including a new temple to the Celtic Mercury, Nodens, near Monmouth. It took several generations before a new hybrid form of semi-orthodox Christianity emerged.
But if this new religious spirit was only loosely orthodox, it was very genuine. Its promoters were from the higher classes of the society. The people still adhered to their age old beliefs, which a Christian veneer effected only slightly. The country folk celebrated Yule and did not mind that the new priests called it the birthday of God's son. The educated upper classes could see the difference, but their formulation of the message of Christ was affected by the common pagan ground of belief, which was broad enough to have swallowed Christianity whole, leaving Jesus as just the latest way to see Lugh or Cuchulain. That this didn't occur was due more to the strength of the Saxon princes than to the vitality of Christian theology.
In that truly extravagant era, and the early fifth century seems to have more dazzling egos than any other historical period, one of the most amazing personalities was the British heretic Pelagius. A large, easy-going Scotsman, Pelagius was not dogmatic in his heresy. In fact, he was that most dangerous of all thinkers, an open-minded skeptic. He was a well-read amateur of theology and possibly a doctor, which implies some Druidic training and its possible connection with Glastonbury. Her version of Christianity credited human nature with more self-determination than the Imperial Church thought wise.
Pelagius' teachings stressed freedom and moral responsibility. In his most serious depature from the Imperial Church, Pelagius denied the doctrine of original sin, and held, like a good pagan, the notion that human beings were born untainted. This was an idea that the church thought it had squelched back in the second century. Original sin had become an effective lever of social control.
Holding that the body is not inherently evil, which is the punch-line of all original sin theology, allows for a whole new social perspective; one that seemed decidely left of center to the power elite of the Imperial Church. Pelagius even had the audacity to address the role of the layman in the religious structure of Christianity. This was too much, and left his opponents sputtering about "Scots porridge."
His ideas even drew the fire of that great and saintly Augustine, whose somber lapsed paganism guilt-trip expounded the concept of the City of God. Rome had fallen, and Augustine was replying to the accusation that it had been the falling away from the old Gods that had caused the Visigothic disaster. His answer was to equate Rome with heaven, and the age got even darker. In 418 Pelagianism was denounced as heresy, and in 421 Honorius declared that the dangerous Pelagians could come no closer to Rome than the hundreth milestone.
Pelagianism never quite disappeared. The Protestant Reformation was deepest in the Celtic west, thanks to a long-standing Pelagian attitude: free will, self-determination and lay involvement in religious practices. Even much of the New Age, or Human Potential movement can be seen as a non-ecumenical Pelagianism.
As for Pelagius himself, all we know for sure is that he died sometime after 410 in North Africa.
In Britain, it was not that black comedy of intrigue and treachery we call the Sack of Rome that made the year 410 significant, but a letter from Honorius explaining that the free holders of each civitates should look to their own defense. No more legions would be coming to the rescue. Pelagianism became the religious expression of this new and frightening independence.
Truly, the people of the province had no one to blame for the problem except themselves. It started with Magnus Clemens Maximus who tried to pull a Constantine, and in failing denuded the island of its legions. Then General Stilicho, in return for a few insignificant raids into the Pictish Highlands of Scotland, began to withdraw legions for the defense of Italy. The only positive note from this period was the formation of the mobile field army of heavy mounted calvary, led by a Count of the Britains. Then, in a sense of panic over the possible dissolution of the Empire, the province promoted three would-be usurpers in a row. After the departure of Constantine the third, Britain was at the mercy of the Picts and the Saxons. Honorius, not having control even over Gaul, was forced to let the province fend for itself.
But the Church was not so willing to let a province go. Hence, the first mission of St. Germanus of Auxerre began in 428. The mission was charged with combating the insidious heresy of Pelagianism. This was not easy, because the adherents of Pelagius were among the most wealthy and influential element in Britain. The Pelagians were the same group of influential citizens who had favored the path of native self-help, the would-be usurpers of 407-10, and would have been the main supporters of King Vortigern, a local version of an Emperor or a High King. Vortigern actually means "over-king" and probably was a title used for all the High-Kings between 410 and the final Saxon invasions.
Our main source for this era is Constantine's Life of Germanus, which was not written in the saint's lifetime, but within living memory. In addition to being a classic example of hagiography, it also contains some priceless glimpses of independent Celto-Roman Britain.
St. Germanus and his followers seem to have travelled freely around Britian, for the most part among people who were living at peace in a culture that was still civilized in a recognizably Roman sense. In 428, some form of romanized administration still existed. We are told that the saint healed the daughter of a man of "tribunal power" which is clearly recognizable as a judge of the civitates to which Honorius had remitted responsibility in 410. Since we know that the saint visited St. Albans' tomb at Verulamium, then we can surmise that these peaceful scenes represent the state of the south and west, Gloucestershire and the Salisbury Plain. But even in 428, there were signs of things to come.
A large raid by a combined force of Picts and Saxons found the Britains unprepared and panic-stricken. St. Germanus was compelled to take charge and arranged an ambush in a valley surrounded by hills.
The Life gives the romatic flavor of the scene: the deep valley in the heavily wooded hills, the quiet and disciplined Britons waiting in silence for the barbarian invaders to reach just the right place in the valley. And then, a booming, roaring and echoing Alleluia shook the superstitious pagans and they fled, plunging over the cliffs and drowning themselves in the nearby river. This bloodless victory turned an important part of the British power structure the army to the orthodox side. In all probability, this group had retained the most rigidly Romanophile cultural ethics, as shown by the preference for Roman names.
The Saxon chiefs whose war bands Vortigern hired had the unusual names of Hengist and Horsa, which is Old Saxon for "stallion" and "mare." These Saxons were successful in the short run at disposing of the Picts. They seem to have been defeated in battle, in which Horsa was killed. Later, the victorious Saxons settled down as colonists on the eastern coast. Inspired by their victory and enticed by the fertility of the island, large scale reinforcements arrived from the North Sea coast. From 428 to 449 the danger grew, year by year, until in 449 the Anglo-Saxon Revolt erupted.
(In compressing and streamlining such a complex and historically uncertain tale, I have, of course, taken the libery of making up my own mind as to dating and chronology. On some things I adhere closely to the traditional, and on others, I am traveling with the historical avant-guard. The sources are so scanty and minimal when applicable, that various dates are available for any scenario. I would encourage anyone who takes exception with my version to hit the primary sources and create one that seems more appropriate. It could be the start of a lifetime endeavor).
Traditionally, 450 is given as the year of the Saxon invasion with the arrival of Hengist and Horsa. This seems almost impossibly late given the extent of archeological evidence that has accrued since the last century. The Saxons had been in Britain at least a generation before the conflicts of the 450's. If we assume that Vortigern was a title, held first by the son-in-law of Magnus Maximus, and then by at least one other person between 410 and 450, I believe that we can discern three "overkings" within this period. Magnus Maximus' son-in-law may or may not have actually held the office associated with the title, but there was a Vortigern in 428, the time of St. Germanus' first visit.
This Vortigern was a Pelagian with strong pagan roots, a leader of the independence party, but essentially still a governor. We see him in the later sources building a castle in Wales, which would reflect the defensive position of 428, when a combined assalt of Picts and Saxons panicked the countryside. We are told that he sought a sacrifice of an orphan child to make his castle impregnable, and in the earliest version, that child is Emrys or Ambrosius, showing that he was of Roman consular rank. The child is spared because of a spectacular gift of prophecy.
This is Merlin's story from Geoffry of Monmouth, and although the original version gives a glimpse of the political situation in the fifth century, it could not be speaking of the historical Merlin, a sixth century bard who lived in the Forest of Celidon, beyond Hadrian's wall. Nennius, our ninth century original source, simply misunderstood the meaning of the events of 428, leaving it to Geoffrey to add Merlin into the mix.
Vortigern retreated to Wales, and blamed the disaster on the Dux Bellorum, the Count of the Army, Ambrosius. He demanded his execution, possibly as a sacrifice to the Celtic war goddess, Cerydwin. Ambrosius avoided this by his prophecy of the Red Dragon and the White Dragon. The meaning of his tale was: if you have to fight a Dragon (the Picts) hire another Dragon (the Saxons) to fight them for you. Vortigern followed this idea and became the villain to thousands of interpreters of English history.
The Saxons might have become a part of the British Romanitas, except that the level of Roman Culture continued to decline, without any help from the devastating Saxons. We have the evidence of St. Germanus , who visited the island for a second time in 446. In his first visit, we are told that he healed the daughter of a Roman official; on his second visit he heals the sick child of "Elafius, the leading man in the region." Note that the name is no longer Roman. Elafius is British and even though he is the leading man in the region, he has no Roman title. By this time, the Roman structure of the society had come apart, all on its own. The third Vortigern, who in all probability died fighting the Saxons and was the role model for Geoffrey's Uther Pendragon, ruled a contentious horde of vaguely Romanized Celtic Warlords.
This motley army of Celtic Kings faced the Saxon Revolt, and lost. Vortigern sent an appeal to the Master of Armies in Gaul for assistance which was not answered. Gaul at this point had its own probelms with Vandals, Visigoths and Huns as well as the Saxons. Gildas, in his half history/half sermon on the destruction of Britain, written at least a century later, tells us of various ups and downs, firmness and peaceful periods and then plague, all before the Saxon Revolt of 450. And then, in a single sentence, Gildas goes from the initial victory of Ambrosius, who would have been quite old, through a campaign of fluctuating fortunes, to the siege of Mount Badon, circa 490.
Within that single sentence, which covers forty years, is contained the bare fact of "Arthur's" existence. Gildas, the orthodox monk of the next century, passes by Camelot without even a mention, while eulogizing the two peaceful generations that it produced. "Arthur" disappeared from history, not because he lost against the Saxons -- ultimately, he didn't -- but because he was only a vaguely Christian heretical Celtic Pelagian. History, as always, was written by the victors, in this case the orthodox churchmen of subsequent centuries.
The historical Arthur is a key figure in the history of the underground stream. He takes the form of a might-have-been, but the ideal is made even more durable because of its underdog, lost-cause quality. His significance, both to history and to legend, lies in what he tried to accomplish.
First of all we must understand Arthur within his contemporary setting the fall of the Empire. It is within this context that his most knowledgeable biographer, Geoffrey of Monmouth, places him. We should think of Geoffrey's History of the Kings of Britian as historical fiction, not precise factual reportage. But he is working from fact, and some of his sources are very good indeed.
Geoffrey claimed to have access to an ancient book in the British tongue from which he took his information about Arthur. For this to be possible, given that Geoffrey is writing in the 12th century about events which happened in the fifth century, requires that we demonstrate Geoffrey's connection with any probable sources. And there are several suggestive connections available.
The closest source was near Monmouth, Geoffrey's hometown in south Wales. A temple to Nodens had been built during the brief Celtic renaissance of the fourth century. As Nodens was a form of Mercury, at least to the Roman mind, then some type of scholarship is suggested. it is not unlikey that some form of Celtic King list was preserved at the temple. Written down in the eighth or ninth century, it could have survived to become Geoffrey's source.
Geoffrey also had strong ties to Brittany, including the monastery at Rhuys, which was reputedly founded by St. Gildas himself. The monks seemed to have had historical interests, perhaps dervied from their founder, and in the tenth century, they were driven from Brittany inland to Berry to escape the Vikings. In Berry, they were protected by the Lord of Deols, which is the clue we are seeking. Deols, near Bourges, was the scene of the final battle of a real fifth century King of the Britians, and a local tradition of the battle and the events leading up to it could have gone back with the monks to Brittany and contributed, by way of Geoffrey, in the conception of Arthur.
However, there is conclusive proof of an Arthurian tradition completely different from the one Geoffrey reports in the 12th- century. The Legend of St. Goeznovius opens with a prologue that supplies a reasonably accurate picture of fifth century Britain and its struggles, one that supports Geoffrey's rather colorful rendering. This Breton work clearly mentions "the great Arthur, King of the Britains," without any fantasatic or mythological trappings. There are other mentions in European chronicles that allow us to place Arthur, or the High King Riothamus, in a sixteen year reign, from 454 to 470.
This independent determination of Arthur's dates gives even more credence to Geoffrey's story. The one thing that Geoffrey does that the earlier English sources do not is supply a chronological fix. Geoffrey says three times that the events he is describing, the conquest of Gaul and the subjugation of the Saxons occurs in the reign of Leo I. Indeed, Leo I was the Eastern Emperor in this time period. Artorius, Arthur, begins to look a lot like Riothamus' (the High King of the Britains) first name. Arthur steps out of the historical shadows and becomes a real person, one to whom Latin letters, written by the foremost Romans of the day, have survived. By finally placing Arthur in time, we can assess his true significance.
Briefly, Arthur's story goes like this:
Vortigern the Third may have provoked the Saxon Revolt by lusting after the daughter of the Chief of the Horsa clan, at least the Uther Pendragon story of Geoffrey and the earlier Welsh tales of Vortigern's lust, suggest this possibility. Then the Saxons are defeated at first by Ambrosius, who is said to be Artorius' uncle. It would be a mistake to confuse Merlin and Ambrosius as Geoffrey does. Ambrosius is the Dux Bellorum, the Master of the Army, the mobile corps of heavy cavalry that is the country's main defense against the Saxons. Geoffrey's story required a Druid. His source would have mentioned one, perhaps again simply by title: Myrdyn or Merlin. Geoffrey, reading Gildas, appropriated the story of the prophetic sacrifice, unaware of how badly Gildas has garbled his sources.
But, soon after the initial victory, the Saxons flare up again and this time Vortigern is killed, possibly along with Ambrosius, who disappears at about this point. Several years of chaos follows, until Artorius claims the High Kingship in 454, under a different version of "vortigern," the more Roman British title of Riothamus. The change, from a Celtic title to a Roman one, implies that the unifying force behind Artorius was the desire to return to the peace and prosperity of the Empire. The Celtic Kings united behind Artorius, as had their forefathers in 407 and 410 when Britain tried to put an Emperor on the throne who could stabilize the deteriorating situation. Artoriuis realized that the problems of Britain could only be solved if there were no more Saxons coming from the continent, hence the conquest of Gaul. Riothamus meant to be a World Restorer in the ancient and honored sense of Constantine himself. He aimed for nothing less than a new empire of the west, a Charlemagne three centuries too soon.
He fought twelve great battles to subdue the Saxons in Britain, and had himself crowned as High King. The coronation scene in Geoffrey is notable mostly for his mention of a group of sages, astrologers and mystics who attach themselves to his court. We will have more to say about this Invisible College later.
Around 468, Artorius departed for Gaul, and after a series of victories, was betrayed and defeated near Deols in Berry. Riothamus fades from the chronicles of Gaul at this point, his legions retreating in the direction of the Vale of the Apples, the village of Avalone on the outskirts of Bourges, where Artorius Riothamus died in the great retreat. Unlike the legions of the usurpers of the early fifth century, Arthur's men did return to Britain.
This return creates some confusion, such as the mistaken idea that Arthur fought at the battle of Mons Badonicus in 490. This reference has been ridiculed for its fantastical description of Arthur fighting 900 Saxons by himself. But if we see this as the work of Arthur's men, then the image of a private battle emerges from the absurdly mythological hero tale. After 490, Gildas tells us, the Saxons were driven back for two generations. At the time that Gildas was writing his sermon, the invasions and pillaging excursions were on the rise and would culminate in the destruction of the British in 577. There would be no Arthur to try and restore the Empire in the sixth century. The classical era was over and Charlemagne could do no more than animate a corpse centuries dead. The Holy Roman Empire lasted, officially, until 1918, but it was never again to be truly holy or Roman or even an empire.
The importance of Arthur lies in the quality of Romanitas that he embodies. Rome was civilisation. But in the sixty years between 410 and 470, Roman Britain had evolved into a new form or style of civilization. Celtic and Roman influences had blended so throughly as to become the same current. Pelagian Christianity, as we have seen, contained much of the older pagan traditions and philosophy. That Artorius was a Pelagian seems certain, given his deliberate omission by such orthodox scribes as Gildas.
We are told that Arthur went into battle with an image of the Virgin on his shield. Given Arthur's early and persistent association with Glastonbury, this clue assumes major significance. Glastonbury is the site of the original Celtic Christian compromise: Joseph of Arimathea and possibly Mary, Jesus' mother, combining primitive Christianity with the Druidic college of medicine and astrology. This early blend was lost when the Romans imposed their own civic version of classical paganism. but traces of it may have survived among the Druids and other educated Celts. Pelagius in fact seems closer in attitude to the life-embracing early Coptic Christians of the first century than he does to any of his more orthodox contemporaries. This could also be explained by a Glastonbury connection.
Given these clues, it seems that the civilization Arthur would have supported and helped to create would have been one of tolerance, with emphasis on human freedom and dignity, with a strongly pagan flavor of sensuality and encouragement of women's spirituality. It would have been Christian, on the surface, but the pagan elements would have been plainly included. The promise of the historical Camelot was the glimpse of a religious society, around which the culture of the universal civilization could have pivoted. This would have avoided the persecutions and inquisitions that the Imperial Church embraced as matters of routine policy. An empire of romanized Celts in the northwest of Europe, based on a pagan-flavored Pelagianism would have changed our subsequent society so completely that we can only look on in awe at the possibility. The loss of this possibility haunted Europe for a thousand years and has continued to haunt our collective psyche for much longer. Calling the presidency of JFK Camelot harkens to how deep our sense of loss and regret truly runs.
Arthur was the last great opportunity for wholeness in our culture, although the myth is still viable. The Matter of Britain, as the later Middle Ages would call the Arthurian tradition, contains within it the seed of both a Goddess centered theology and the cultural imperative that demands that we restore the world to some primary unity and sense of grace.
© 1995 Vincent Bridges ALL RIGHTS RESERVED