Historical King Arthur: Riothamus?

In an in-depth examination of the limited historical texts available, Geoffrey Ashe, a historian renowned for his collaborative work with archaeologists, identified a remarkable parallel between the legendary deeds of Arthur in Gaul and the recorded military campaign of Riothamus. Known for leading a force of Britons in an ultimately futile attempt to oust the Gothic invaders from the pro-Roman territory of Burgundy, Riothamus’ campaign mirrored Arthur’s narrative in several ways: both ventured into Burgundy, were betrayed by a confidant, displayed valor in battle but ultimately faced defeat, and vanished from the annals of history around the year 470. Further investigation led Ashe to believe that Arthur and Riothamus might indeed be the same person. Independently, he and Leon Fleuriot, a Celtic expert from the Sorbonne in Paris, uncovered that “Riothamus” was actually a title meaning “high king,” rather than a personal name. Given the absence of any other designation for this king in historical records, Ashe, after extensive research in what he terms “manuscript archaeology,” concluded that he had likely unearthed the real identity of Arthur.

After initially proposing a possible connection between Riothamus and Arthur, Geoffrey Ashe discovered that a historian from 1799, Sharon Turner, had entertained a similar hypothesis but hadn’t explored it in depth. In a footnote within “History of the Anglo-Saxons,” Turner speculated, “Either this Riothamus was Arthur, or the account of his campaign served as the inspiration for Geoffrey of Monmouth, or the Breton bards, in their portrayal of Arthur’s military campaigns in Gaul.”

The Tale of King Arthur

The tale of King Arthur was catapulted into the annals of popular culture in the 12th century through Geoffrey of Monmouth’s work, “Historia Regum Brittaniae.” This text, initially regarded as a factual history of Britain’s leaders, has over time been recognized for its creative liberties, with much of its content now viewed as largely fictional, despite its initial acceptance as historical truth. Among the narratives, the saga of King Arthur stood out, gaining further traction through Thomas Malory’s 15th-century dramatized rendition, “Le Mort D’Arthur.”

Yet, the roots of the Arthurian legend predate Monmouth’s compilation, tracing back to the Celtic-speaking regions of Britain, such as Wales, where earlier accounts of Arthur exist. Notably, the ninth-century “Historia Brittonum,” penned by Nennius, introduces us to a commendable figure, Arthur, who rallied his people against the Saxon invaders in the sixth century. The accuracy of Nennius’ account is debated, largely due to the murky historical period it originates from, known as the Dark Ages. This was a time marked by the decline of society following the Roman exit from Britain, characterized by widespread illiteracy and the rule of despotic kings. It is against this backdrop of turmoil that the enduring legend of Arthur, a beacon of hope and valour, was born.

Riothamus, The High King

“Riothamus” is understood not as a personal name but as a title, signifying “high king,” a designation indicating considerable esteem and authority. This interpretation suggests that his actual name has faded from historical record, leaving behind a legacy encapsulated by a prestigious title. It’s a common occurrence in medieval history for leaders to be recognized by their titles rather than their birth names, a practice illustrated by the notable figure of Genghis Khan, who is more widely known by his title than his birth name, Temujin. Scholars drawing parallels between Riothamus and the legendary King Arthur have found noteworthy similarities in the historical accounts of both figures.

One significant point of comparison is the military campaign across the sea to Gaul, modern-day France, a feat attributed to both King Arthur and Riothamus. Such an expedition aligns with the oldest narratives surrounding King Arthur, laying a foundation for the legendary aspects that would be amplified in subsequent stories. The resonance of a heroic figure leading a campaign during a tumultuous period in British history undoubtedly contributed to the enduring appeal of Arthur’s legend among the populace. While the identity of Riothamus as King Arthur cannot be definitively established, the existing evidence linking their stories presents a compelling case for further investigation.

The Records of Jordanes

The fifth century marked a period of upheaval and decline in Europe as the established order crumbled under the weight of external pressures. The Roman Empire, despite being the era’s dominant force, faced severe challenges, particularly from the Visigoths, who posed a significant threat and would eventually capture Rome, signalling the downfall of the Western Roman Empire. This period saw Rome prioritizing its defences against the Visigoths, leading to strategic retreats, including the withdrawal of Roman forces from Britain. The absence of Roman administration and military support in Britain had immediate and catastrophic effects, with the economy collapsing, public infrastructure deteriorating rapidly, and the region becoming embroiled in violent confrontations with Saxon invaders.

In this context of chaos and fragmentation, the Roman Empire, under Emperor Anthemius, found itself in dire need of assistance to fend off Gothic invasions in Gaul. A call for aid was extended to the Britons, specifically to a King named Riothamus, who despite the prevailing circumstances, demonstrated allegiance to Rome. As recounted by the sixth-century historian Jordanus in “The Origin and Deeds of the Goths,” Riothamus mobilized his forces in response to the Roman plea. Unfortunately, his army was ambushed by the Goths en route to join the Roman forces, leading to a devastating defeat for Riothamus. This episode illustrates the complex allegiances and turbulent dynamics of the time, highlighting the challenges faced by leaders in navigating the shifting landscape of power and loyalty in a disintegrating Roman world.

King Arthurs Campaign in Gaul

Arthur’s journey to Gaul is a key highlight in “Historia Regum Britanniae,” portraying him as a nearly invincible hero whose forces wreaked havoc in the region. Contrastingly, the real-life campaign of Riothamus against the Visigoths, as described by Jordanes in “The Origin and Deeds of the Goths,” ended less gloriously, despite a valiant effort. Riothamus and his forces faced a massive Visigothic army, ultimately suffering a significant defeat and retreating to Burgundy, an area loyal to Rome during a time of conflict that would see the demise of Emperor Anthemius.

The parallel between Arthur’s legendary campaign and Riothamus’s actual military endeavor is striking, underscoring the tendency of post-event narratives to cast figures in a more heroic light. The act of undertaking a Gallic campaign itself, a feat attributed to Arthur in his earliest tales and historically recorded only of Riothamus, underscores their similarities.

King Arthur’s Betrayal

In “Historia Regum Britanniae,” Arthur’s narrative concludes with his betrayal by Mordred, a twist absent from some traditional Welsh accounts yet pivotal in later Arthurian legends. A similar betrayal struck Riothamus, as indicated by Sidonius Apollinaris, a contemporary Roman civil servant, who documented Riothamus being undermined by Arvandi’s collusion with the Goths. This act of treachery, paralleling Mordred’s betrayal of Arthur, might have sealed Riothamus’s fate.

Sidonius Apollinaris, possibly a friend of Riothamus, provides a unique insight into this period, including the intrigue of Bretons luring Roman slaves to Brittany, indicating the complexities of loyalty and survival during the era. Riothamus’s leadership, evidenced by his command of a significant force, challenges the notion of him as a minor leader, suggesting a legacy of considerable influence and authority.

History remains silent on Riothamus’s final destiny after his retreat to Burgundy, while Arthurian legend speaks of Arthur being taken to the Isle of Avalon. Intriguingly, the town of Avallon in Burgundy presents a tantalizing link to Avalon, despite the absence of historical evidence connecting Riothamus to this location or validating it as Arthur’s Avalon.

Before his campaign in Gaul, Riothamus was believed to have commanded territories in Southwest Britain, aligning with Arthur’s legendary connections to Cornwall and the historical Tintagel, further intertwining their stories. The quest for Camelot’s location continues, with Cadbury Castle among the contenders, reflecting ongoing debates over Arthur’s historical basis and the truth behind Camelot.

Amidst various historical figures suggested as the real King Arthur, the legend’s origins remain elusive, potentially an amalgamation of multiple heroes’ deeds or entirely a myth. Regardless of the historical accuracy, King Arthur’s greatest legacy lies in the inspiration and fascination his story has sparked across generations, immortalizing him as a symbol of heroism and noble endeavor.

Sidonius Apollinaris & Riothamus

Sidonius Apollinaris provides a unique perspective on Riothamus, not only as a historical source but as someone who appears to have had a personal connection with him. Their friendship, evidenced by Apollinaris’ letter addressed to “his friend Riothamus,” gives us insight into the dynamics of the time, such as the movement of Roman slaves to Brittany—a region beyond the immediate control of a preoccupied Rome. The fate of these slaves, whether integrated into Riothamus’ forces or given asylum, remains unrecorded in Apollinaris’ writings.

During this period, Riothamus commanded a significant force north of the Loire, an army of approximately 12,000 troops, a sizeable contingent that underscores his leadership and influence. This figure is particularly striking when compared to the scale of Roman legions in the first century, which numbered between 5,000 and 6,000 soldiers according to historian James Grout. Such a comparison not only highlights Riothamus’ military capacity but also suggests a level of respect and authority that challenges any notion of him as merely a peripheral figure in history. Despite the scarcity of records, Riothamus’ ability to lead a force equivalent to two Roman legions positions him as a prominent leader of his time, far from the minor role some historians might attribute to him based on the available evidence.

The Isle of Avalon

Historical accounts lose track of Riothamus after AD 470, following his retreat to Burgundy, leaving his ultimate fate shrouded in mystery. This enigmatic end mirrors the legend of King Arthur, who, according to “Historia Regum Britanniae,” was gravely injured in his final battle and taken to the Isle of Avalon, marking the conclusion of his legendary tale. The location of Avalon remains ambiguous, though it has often been associated with Glastonbury in Southwest England, a site rich in Arthurian legend and mystique.

Interestingly, the town of Avallon in Burgundy presents a curious parallel, given its name’s Gaulish origins and its suggestive link to the Arthurian Avalon. This connection, highlighted in “The Discovery of King Arthur,” proposes Avallon as a potential final resting place for Riothamus. However, the term “isle” in its name might not denote an actual island, similar to the regional designation in modern France, adding layers to the Avalon mythos. Yet, the lack of historical evidence placing Riothamus in Avallon, coupled with the absence of the name in writings predating Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th-century work, casts doubt on this theory. Despite the intriguing coincidences, the absence of solid historical or ancient textual references leaves the connection between Riothamus’s last known whereabouts and the legendary Avalon open to skepticism among scholars.

Arthur’s Birthplace

The theory that Riothamus may have been the historical figure behind some aspects of the King Arthur legend is indeed an intriguing one. The connections between Riothamus and the region of Southwest Britain, particularly Cornwall and its ties to Tintagel Castle, provide fertile ground for speculation and further investigation.

Tintagel Castle’s association with King Arthur in folklore, especially as the birthplace of the legendary king according to Geoffrey of Monmouth, adds another layer of interest to this theory. The castle’s strategic coastal location and historical significance as a trading hub during the 5th century CE make it a plausible setting for a ruler of considerable power and influence, such as Riothamus, to have resided.

The notion that Tintagel thrived while the rest of Britain was facing turmoil adds to the allure of its potential role in shaping the King Arthur narrative. The prosperity of Tintagel at the time could have contributed to the embellishment of its ruler’s deeds and elevated his status to that of a legendary figure like King Arthur.