Who Was Ambrosius Aurelianus?

Ambrosius Aurelianus, known in Welsh as Emrys Wledig and Anglicized as Ambrose Aurelian, was a prominent military leader of the Romano-British forces who achieved a significant victory against the Anglo-Saxons during the 5th century, as recounted by Gildas. He is also a figure of note in British legends, with his earliest appearances dating back to the 9th-century Historia Brittonum. Over time, his character underwent transformations, particularly by Geoffrey of Monmouth, who portrayed him as the uncle of King Arthur and the brother of Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon. Ambrosius is depicted as a ruler who precedes and succeeds both Arthur and Uther. Additionally, he is depicted in some narratives as a young prophet who encounters the tyrant Vortigern, later evolving into the iconic wizard Merlin.

References to Ambrosius Aurelianus by Gildas

Ambrosius Aurelianus holds a unique distinction among the individuals mentioned by Gildas in his sermon De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, being one of the few named figures from the 5th century. This sermon is regarded as the oldest surviving British document concerning the Arthurian period of Sub-Roman Britain. After the devastating Saxon onslaught, the survivors unite under the leadership of Ambrosius.

With their unnumbered vows they burden heaven,” that they might not be brought to utter destruction, 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, and now his progeny in these our days, although shamefully degenerated from the worthiness of their ancestors, provoke to battle their cruel conquerors, and by the goodness of our Lord obtain the victory.

Gildas: On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain (De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae)

From the passage, we can infer some key details about Ambrosius. It suggests that Ambrosius may have hailed from a noble or high-ranking background, and it is highly probable that he was a Christian, given Gildas’s mention of winning battles “with God’s help.” Ambrosius tragically lost his parents to the Saxons during their initial invasion, leaving him among the few survivors. Despite the devastating loss, Ambrosius took charge and organized the survivors into an armed force. Under his leadership, they achieved their first significant military victory over the Saxon invaders. However, the struggle against the Saxons remained ongoing and fiercely contested, with victories alternating between the Saxons and the Romano-British inhabitants. Gildas’s portrayal of Ambrosius as one of the “Last of the Romans” underscores his pivotal role in this tumultuous period of British history.

What does ‘having worn the purple’ mean?

Gildas mentions of Ambrosius’ family “having worn the purple”. In Roman society, the purple band symbolized aristocratic lineage, as worn by emperors, patricians, and military tribunes. It could also be interpreted symbolically, representing martyrdom or a bishop’s robe in Christian tradition. Moreover, in the later Roman Empire, provincial governors of consular rank also wore clothes with a purple fringe. Since two provincial governors in Roman Britain held consular rank, it is speculated that Ambrosius’ parent may have been one of them, although their names are not recorded.

Ambrosius could be related to 5th-century Romano-British usurpers Marcus or Gratian, leaning towards Marcus based on nomenclature. Ambrosius’ name “Aurelianus” may suggests descent from the Illyrian Roman emperor Aurelian, known for his conquests including the Gallic Empire. Ambrosius might have distant relations with imperial families of the late Roman Empire, such as the Theodosian dynasty, which had branches active in western Roman provinces like Hispania.

“Ambrosius” may be connected to Saint Ambrosius, a fourth-century Bishop of Milan who also served as a consular governor in parts of Roman Italy. Saint Ambrosius’ father is sometimes identified as Aurelius Ambrosius, a fourth-century Praetorian prefect of Gaul, although some modern scholars dispute this claim and instead link his father to an official named Uranius mentioned in an extract from the Theodosian Code. Ambrosius Aurelianus may have been related to these two Aurelii Ambrosii.

“Aurelianus” could indicate a Roman adoption practice. When a boy was adopted into a new gens (clan), he typically received the family names of his new family but was often additionally referred to by a cognomen indicating his descent from his original family, often in the form of “-anus”. Venning proposes that Ambrosius may have belonged to gens Aurelia but was adopted by another gens or family.

Gildas’s use of the term “avita” could signify “ancestors” in a general sense, or it could specifically refer to “grandfather,” potentially suggesting that Ambrosius lived approximately one generation before the Battle of Badon. However, due to the lack of definitive information, these questions remain open to interpretation.

What were Gildas’ Motives

Gildas may have had a deliberate motive for emphasizing Ambrosius Aurelianus. Gildas was not aiming to construct a historical biography of Ambrosius, but rather to present him as an exemplar to his contemporaries. In Gildas’s philosophical framework, it was crucial to assert that British leaders who achieved victory over the barbarians did so with divine assistance, which was only granted to those possessing superior Christian virtues. Ambrosius Aurelianus was renowned for at least one such triumph over the barbarians, and thus, according to Higham, Gildas felt compelled to portray him as a paragon of exceptional virtues and devoutness to God. Ambrosius was crafted to embody Gildas’s idealized concept of a model leader.

Gildas deliberately underscored Ambrosius’s Roman lineage for a specific purpose. By associating Ambrosius with the legitimate authority and military prowess of the Romans, Gildas aimed to contrast him with subsequent British rulers whose reigns lacked such legitimacy. This juxtaposition served to highlight Ambrosius as a figure of authority and virtue, further reinforcing Gildas’s narrative of divine assistance bestowed upon righteous leaders.

References to Ambrosius Aurelianus by Bede

Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People aligns closely with Gildas’s narrative regarding Ambrosius Aurelianus. However, in his Chronica Majora, Bede places Ambrosius’s victory during the reign of Emperor Zeno (474–491).

Bede’s depiction of 5th-century British history is not regarded as highly reliable as a historical source. Up until around 418, Bede had access to multiple historical accounts and often relied on the writings of Orosius. However, following the conclusion of Orosius’s history, Bede seemingly had limited alternative sources and heavily leaned on Gildas for information. Entries from this period in Bede’s works often closely resemble paraphrases of Gildas’s narrative, with minor stylistic alterations.

When the army of the enemy had exterminated or scattered the native peoples, they returned home and the Britons slowly began to recover strength and courage. They emerged from their hiding-places and with one accord they prayed for the help of God that they might not be completely annihilated. Their leader at that time was a certain Ambrosius Aurelianus, a discreet man, who was, as it happened, the sole member of the Roman race who had survived this storm in which his parents, who bore a royal and famous name, had perished. Under his leadership the Britons regained their strength, challenged their victors to battle, and, with God’s help, won the day.

Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of England

References to Ambrosius Aurelianus by Nennius

The Historia Brittonum, traditionally attributed to Nennius, contains various accounts regarding Ambrosius. However, the authorship and period of writing of this work remain open questions among modern historians. Several manuscript versions of the Historia Brittonum exist, differing in details, with the most significant ones dated between the 9th and 11th centuries. Some scholars propose that the work might have been a collaborative effort spanning centuries rather than the work of a single author or compiler, though this theory remains inconclusive.

Ambrosius is mentioned for the first time, where it is stated that Vortigern ruled with apprehension in the face of Ambrosius.

Vortigern then reigned in Britain. In his time, the natives had cause of dread, not only from the inroads of the Scots and Picts, but also from the Romans, and their apprehensions of Ambrosius.

Nennius’ Historia Brittonum

This indicates Ambrosius’s considerable influence, as Vortigern perceived him as a greater threat than northern invaders and efforts to reinstate Roman authority in Britain.

Later on Nennius narrates the story of Ambrosius, Vortigern, and the two dragons beneath Dinas Emrys, known as the “Fortress of Ambrosius”. In this tale, Ambrosius, though still young, possesses supernatural abilities that intimidate Vortigern and his royal magicians.

There are,” said he, “two serpents, one white and the other red; unfold the tent;” […] At length the red one, apparently the weaker of the two, recovering his strength, expelled the white one from the tent; and the latter being pursued through the pool by the red one, disappeared. […] The pool is the emblem of this world, and the tent that of your kingdom: the two serpents are two dragons; the red serpent is your dragon, but the white serpent is the dragon of the people who occupy several provinces and districts of Britain, even almost from sea to sea: at length, however, our people shall rise and drive away; the Saxon race from beyond the sea, whence they originally came.

Nennius’ Historia Brittonum, Chapter 42

Upon learning that Ambrosius is the son of a Roman consul, Vortigern concedes the castle of Dinas Emrys and the kingdoms in western Britain to Ambrosius. Vortigern then retreats to the north, to an area known as Gwynessi. This story was later expanded upon by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his fictionalized Historia Regum Britanniae, conflating Ambrosius with the Welsh tradition of Myrddin the visionary.

“What is your name?” asked the king; “I am called Ambrose (in British Embresguletic),” returned the boy; and in answer to the king’s question, “What is your origin?” he replied, “A Roman consul was my father.” Then the king assigned him that city, with all the western provinces of Britain; and departing with his wise men to the sinistral district, he arrived in the region named Gueneri, where he build a city which, according to his name was called Cair Guorthegirn.

Nennius’ Historia Brittonum, Chapter 42

In Chapter 48, Ambrosius Aurelianus is depicted as the “king among all the kings of the British nation”, and Pascent, Vortigern’s son, is granted rule over Buellt and Gwrtheyrnion by Ambrosius. Chapter 66 dates various events from the Battle of Guoloph, believed to have been fought between Ambrosius and Vitolinus, twelve years into Vortigern’s reign.

Who was Ambrosius’s father?

The text presents several accounts of Ambrosius, leaving uncertainties about their relationship to each other and whether they pertain to the same individual. Some scholars note that all these men are referred to as “Ambrosius”/”Emrys” in the texts, with the name “Aurelianus” never being used. Additionally, the text does not identify Ambrosius’s father, merely referring to him as a Roman consul. The exact age of Ambrosius during his encounter with Vortigern is also unspecified, though some speculate that he may have been as young as thirteen.

Were Ambrosius and Vortigern adversaries?

The extent of Ambrosius’s political power and influence over a particular area remains unclear. The Historia Brittonum portrays Ambrosius and Vortigern as adversaries, leading some historians to suggest that this reflects a historical conflict between two opposing factions. J. N. L. Myres proposed that Vortigern represented the Pelagian party, while Ambrosius led the Catholic one, based on their purported theological stances. However, alternative interpretations propose that the Historia Brittonum may have been biased against Vortigern’s descendants, who were the ruling house in Powys at the time. The identity of Ambrosius’s last mentioned adversary, Vitalinus, is also uncertain, with various manuscripts presenting different renderings of his name. Some theories suggest that Vitalinus may have been associated with a pro-Vortigern or anti-Roman faction, but this is complicated by the fact that his name appears to be Romano-British. Overall, the narratives surrounding Ambrosius in the Historia Brittonum offer glimpses into a complex and uncertain period of British history.

References to Ambrosius Aurelianus by William of Malmesbury

Ambrosius makes a brief appearance in “Gesta Regum Anglorum” (“Deeds of the Kings of the English”) by William of Malmesbury. Although focusing on the kings of England, the work seeks to piece together the broader history of Britain by integrating narratives from Gildas, Bede, Nennius, and other chroniclers. It portrays Ambrosius as the figure who, following Vortimer’s death, saves the Britons from collapse by utilizing the military prowess of the illustrious Arthur:

When he [Vortimer] died, the British strength decayed, and all hope fled from them; and they would soon have perished altogether, had not Ambrosius, the sole survivor of the Romans, who became monarch after Vortigern, quelled the presumptuous barbarians by the powerful aid of warlike Arthur.

William Of Malmesbury: Chronicle Of The Kings Of England

William quickly transitions from Ambrosius to Arthur, detailing Arthur’s alleged triumph at the Battle of Badon. This account is possibly the first to link Ambrosius with Arthur. William navigated through the historical ambiguities presented by Gildas and Bede, who suggested Ambrosius’s involvement in the battle, and Nennius, who attributed the victory to Arthur. He reconciled these differences by associating both figures with the battle, casting Ambrosius as the monarch of the Britons and Arthur as his leading general and the decisive victor of the confrontation.

References to Ambrosius Aurelianus by Geoffrey of Monmouth

In the later pseudo-historical narratives that start with Geoffrey of Monmouth’s “Historia Regum Britanniae,” Ambrosius Aurelianus is introduced under the altered name Aurelius Ambrosius and portrayed as a son of King Constantine. Following the assassination of Constantine’s eldest son, Constans, purportedly orchestrated by Vortigern, Ambrosius and his brother Uther, then just youths, are swiftly sent into exile in Brittany. (This version diverges from Gildas’s depiction, where Ambrosius’s family falls victim to the chaos caused by Saxon revolts.) Eventually, the brothers return from their exile with a formidable force at a time when Vortigern’s influence wanes. They overthrow Vortigern, ally themselves with Merlin, and secure victories over the Saxon chief Hengist in battles at Maisbeli (likely modern Ballifield, close to Sheffield) and Cunengeburg. After Hengist’s execution, Ambrosius ascends to the British throne, only to later be assassinated via poisoning by adversaries, paving the way for Uther’s reign. The narrative points to Eopa as the one who administers the poison.

Geoffrey of Monmouth altered “Aurelianus” to “Aurelius,” adopting the name from a Roman family line, or gens. He incorporates the tale of Emrys and the dragons, originally from Nennius, but associates this character with Merlin. In Geoffrey’s rendition, Merlin represents a historical figure known as Myrddin Wyllt, who is briefly mentioned in the Annales Cambriae with a single entry dated to 573. Merlin’s Latinized name, Ambrosius Merlinus, suggests that “Merlinus” might have been envisioned as a surname fitting for a Roman or Romano-British individual akin to Ambrosius.