Monday, November 30, 2015

Was King Arthur Italian?

King Arthur by Albrecht Dürer
Hofkirche Innsbruck, Austria

CRK: Please note that the following article was written by my friend and co-author Stuart Laycock.

King Arthur is one of those figures who never ceases to intrigue. The list of questions is enormous. Primarily, of course, the key questions are whether the King Arthur of myth and story is based on some real person, and if so, who was he and where did he come from?

Numerous different possibilities have been raised by numerous different people and it is, therefore, at least worth asking the question ‘Was King Arthur Italian?’

At first sight, despite the large number of famous military leaders who definitely have been Italian, the answer has to be, ‘Well it seems pretty unlikely’. After all, Arthur is usually held up as an example of a Briton defending Britain against rampaging Angles and Saxons invading the island in the period after the end of Roman rule there.

However, delving deeper into the subject makes such a blanket rejection of the idea less feasible. Just because he is a major figure in, for instance, medieval Welsh story and legends about Britain doesn’t necessarily mean he actually was British. Another major figure of medieval Welsh story and legends about Britain is a figure called Macsen Wledig, Prince Macsen, who is based on the late 4th century AD Roman Emperor Magnus Maximus, who did, at one stage, operate in Britain but who had roots elsewhere in the Empire, possibly Spain.
Solidus Magnus Maximus
383 - 388 AD
Magnus Maximus rose to prominence as a general in the Roman army and then seized power in Britain before launching an expedition across the Channel to seize power in mainland Europe. Arthur, in one of the earliest references to him, a passage in the Historia Brittonum, is referred to, not as a king, but as a ‘dux bellorum’ a military commander, who fought alongside British kings. And, if he existed at all, he would have been born less than a century after Magnus Maximus seized power in Britain, and just decades after the end of Roman rule there. By the end of the Roman period in Britain, most ‘Roman’ soldiers there would have been, in fact, from other parts of the Empire apart from Italy. Many of them would have been British, but a few of them were probably still Italian. Is it possible that Arthur came from an old military family who served with the Roman army?

It’s not impossible. Certainly, Arthur, as a figure in medieval Welsh legend is not tied into British and Welsh dynastic genealogies in quite the same sense many other major figures are. This might suggest that he had an origin outside the British and Welsh dynasties. Or it might also suggest, that he never existed at all.

But this all, of course, assumes that any historical basis of King Arthur was a figure operating in Britain after the end of Roman rule. What if, in fact, the Arthur stories were somehow linked to a real figure who had operated in Britain at a much earlier stage?

As with so much with King Arthur, even the origins of his name are controversial. One popular derivations links it to the Welsh word for bear, ‘arth’. But another possibility that has been raised is that it was derived from the Roman name Artorius, and as it happens we do have evidence of a Roman military commander active in Britain who was called Artorius.
Icon Lucius Artorius Castus
The Roman Arthur
One Lucius Artorius Castus is recorded on inscriptions of the 2nd or 3rd centuries AD found at Podstrana in what is now Croatia. The inscriptions seem to suggest both that he commanded Roman troops in Britain at one stage, and that at another point he led British troops in the Roman army on an expedition somewhere else. Artorius himself may have come from an old Roman family (Podstrana is just on the other side of the Adriatic from Italy) and it has been suggested that his connection with Britain and British troops somehow provided the basis for stories that lived on in Britain long after him and somehow became mingled with stories of fighting Angles and Saxons in Britain after the Roman period, and that the two strands combined to produce the legend of King Arthur.
But, of course, the King Arthur we think of today is not just a figure (possibly) of history, he is also, a figure of myth and legend and not just of myths and legends about Britain. He also appears in stories and legends about, yes, Italy.

In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s famous medieval account of Arthur, the King sets off to invade Italy and is already in the process of crossing the Alps when news reaches him of Mordred’s rebellion against him. Arthur then returns to Britain.
Arthur in Italy
Rex Arturus, Otranto Cathedral Italy
A curious 12th century mosaic in Otranto Cathedral also shows King Arthur riding a creature that looks like a goat.

And some stories link Arthur with Sicily. For instance, Gervase of Tilbury writing in the 13th century recounts a story of how one of the Bishop of Catania’s grooms set off after a lost horse only to find himself entering a secret location on Mount Etna where he found King Arthur himself living in a palace!

So there you have it. Was King Arthur Italian? Well, we can’t say definitely that he was but we can at least say that it’s not impossible! 

Stuart Laycock is the co-author with Christopher Kelly of Italy Invades: How Italians Conquered the World ( and and also America Invades ( and  He has also written extensively about Roman Britain with titles such as Warlords: the Struggle for Power in Post-Roman Britain ( and Britannia: The Failed State (  Stuart is also the author of a volume of poetry about the war in Bosnia in the 1990s titled Zone (

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Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Thanksgiving and American Invasions

Not everyone can be home for Thanksgiving

We Americans have much to be grateful for.  Every year we gather together with friends and family to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday.  We ought also to be grateful for the service of the American military in far flung outposts.

Thousands of American servicemen stationed abroad will celebrate this Thanksgiving with turkey and televised football at bases around the world.  America is a military superpower and we have been militarily involved with almost every country on earth.

In Portugal, for example, we established air and naval bases on the Azores since World War II to contend with the Nazi U-boat menace and they are still there to this day.  Spencer Stone, the USAF serviceman that helped foil a terrorist plot in Europe this past summer was based on the Azores.

There is a surprising connection between Thanksgiving and at least one American military invasion.  It concerned a small Caribbean island called Grenada.

Ronald Reagan, Grosvenor Square, London

In 1983, Grenada was the site of America’s largest military intervention since the Vietnam War. Ronald Reagan had defeated Jimmy Carter in the election of 1980 to become our fortieth president. Reagan took a more aggressive view about confronting Communism than his Cold War predecessors. Political upheaval on the island of Grenada gave Reagan an opportunity to reverse militarily what he saw as a dangerous expansion of Cuban and Soviet influence.

On October 19, 1983, Bernard Coard, a hard-line Communist deputy prime minister, led a coup against Prime Minister Maurice Bishop, a Marxist who had assumed power after a coup in 1979. A few days later, Bishop and two other members of his cabinet were assassinated.

Even before the coup, Reagan had been agonizing about exactly what was happening on Grenada and what it meant for the United States. There were intelligence reports indicating that Russia and Cuba had been building military infrastructure, in particular a ten-thousand-foot airstrip. That summer, he had already told vice president George H W Bush to make contingency plans, and now Reagan didn’t hesitate for long in enacting them.

With the Organization of East Caribbean States calling for a military response from the United States and despite being warned that there would be “a harsh political reaction” to a US invasion, on October 22, just a few days after the coup, Reagan decided the invasion should go ahead.

Operation Urgent Fury was launched on October 25, 1983. The US Army Rapid Deployment Force, including Ranger battalions, the 82nd Airborne Division, marines, and Navy SEALs, was augmented by a few hundred troops from Jamaica and other countries. These forces engaged about fifteen hundred troops from the Grenadian Army and about a few hundred Cuban military special forces. The fighting was short (three days) and sometimes sharp, costing nineteen American lives and over one hundred total fatalities, including some civilians.

The UN General Assembly condemned the US invasion calling it “a flagrant violation of international law” and voting 108 to 9 against it.  The American intervention in Grenada was controversial at the time

US Soldier & Students from St. George's
However, there was also widespread American support for the invasion, particularly after the ABC broadcast Nightline featured an interview with American medical students from St. George’s University School of Medicine who expressed their gratitude for the invasion and towards the US Army Rangers. Americans were particularly anxious about the potential for hostage taking after the Iranian crisis of 1979, so anything that took Americans out of a potentially dangerous political situation was likely to be popular.

Soon after American forces were withdrawn form the island and new elections were held.

October 25, the day American forces arrived, is still celebrated today in Grenada as their island’s national holiday—Thanksgiving Day.

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Saturday, November 14, 2015

Our debt to France

Eiffel Tower
Paris, France

In this time of tragedy and terror it is worthwhile to look back towards history to try to comprehend our nation's very long term debt to France.  In the 20th century we fought two World wars and the Cold War together as brothers in arms.  In the 19th century the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor, a beacon of hope to freedom-loving people around the world, was given to America by the people of France.  In America Invades we wrote this...

George Washington & Count de Grasse
Yorktown, VA 
France is our oldest ally and the site of the most famous American invasion of all time. More American military cemeteries (eleven) are located in France than in any other foreign country in the world.
Musee de L'Armee, Paris, France
When the American Revolution broke out, Louis XVI saw aid to the thirteen colonies as a means of avenging England’s defeat of France in the Seven Years War, but he was reluctant to commit to the American cause until gentleman Johnny Burgoyne surrendered his force after the Battle of Saratoga in October 1777. The Marquis de Lafayette arrived in American that same year serving as a major-general in the Continental Army where he grew very close to General George Washington, who thought of him as a son. The great inventor, author, and statesman Benjamin Franklin helped to negotiate a treaty of alliance with France in 1778. The direct intervention of the French began with Rochambeau landing a force of about six thousand French soldiers in Providence, Rhode Island. These forces and, critically, the French Navy led by the Comte de Grasse helped secure the surrender of Lord Cornwallis’s army at Yorktown.
John Paul Jones
USNA, Annapolis, MD
John Paul Jones led his 1778 raid on Whitehaven from the French port of Brest. His frigate that defeated the British Serapis in 1779, the Bonhomme Richard (during which he uttered his famous “I have not yet begun to fight”) was a converted French merchant ship, the Duc de Duras.

AI van and Yorktown Victory Monument
My recent visit to the Yorktown battlefield in Virginia was a fresh reminder of our debt to France.  At Yorktown nearly half of all the troops on the Allied side were French.  In 1781 the Grand French battery helped to pound the hapless British for 8 days with about 15,000 cannonballs falling on the forces of Lord Cornwallis.  The French navy was indispensable at Yorktown when it cut off the traditional line of British retreat by sea.

Mount Vernon, VA
In George Washington's home at Mount Vernon visitors can see an object which seems to crystallize the significance of America's relationship with France.  Washington proudly displayed a gift that had been given to him by the Marquis de Lafayette -- the key to the Bastille prison.
Musee de L'Armee, Paris, France
Years later Napoleon, Emperor of the French, would sell the Louisiana territory to the United States which added about one quarter of our nation's current size.

In the 21st century French soldiers have served alongside their American allies in Afghanistan.

While some would argue that our debt to France was repaid by America intervention and support in two World Wars it is impossible to underestimate the debt that we owe to France that originated at our nation's founding.

In this time of crisis and suffering it is critical for Americans to stand again with the French people.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Veteran's Day 2016

Sherman, World War II Museum, New Orleans, LA
Now the election of 2016 is over.  A transition to a new American president has begun.

Now we must pause to acknowledge the sacrifice of American veterans over hundreds of years in many different countries.

Americans have invaded or fought in 85 different countries, representing 44 percent of all of the countries in the world.  We have been militarily involved with even more countries.  Out of 194 countries recognized by the UN, we have missed military involvement with only three—Andorra, Bhutan, and Liechtenstein.

Wendell Gugler & CRK
Wendell fought with the 10th Mountain Division in Italy in WW2
Many of these invasions have, of course, been liberations.  Just consider the D-day landings in occupied France, the annual commemoration of Liberation Day in the Netherlands, or the liberation of the Philippines from the Japanese.

Our military involvements have taken many forms.  We have never invaded Portugal, for example, but we have had bases in the Azores since World War II, when they were installed to counter the German U-boat menace.  We still have air and naval bases in the Azores today.

This year, 2015, is a particularly important year to recognize US veterans for several reasons.

First, this year we celebrated the 70th anniversary of V-J Day—the end of World War II.  This war was the costliest war in human history.  Over sixteen million Americans took part in it, and over four hundred thousand were killed.  Today less than a million of those that served are still alive.

The Peace Kiss
Eisenhower Presidential Library, Abilene, KS
Second, we also marked this year the 70th anniversary of V-E Day.  With the exception of the breakup of Yugoslavia, Europe has enjoyed a seventy-year period of general peace.  Given the blood-soaked history of Europe through two world wars, the Napoleonic wars, the Hundred Years’ War, the Thirty Years’ War, etc., this is a remarkable achievement which is under-appreciated.  This lasting peace could not have been secured without the sacrifice of the US military during World War II and in further service over many decades.

Third, we remember the shocking liberation of the Nazi death camps by American and other Allied soldiers that took place seventy years ago.  After Eisenhower visited Ohrdruf concentration camp, which had been liberated by American troops on April 4, 1945, he declared: “We are told that the American soldier does not know what he is fighting for. Now at least he will know what he is fighting against.”  The world we live in today would have been much darker had it not been for the sacrifice of young Americans at places like Anzio, Omaha Beach, and Tarawa.

Frank Matthews
USMC vet Iwo Jima
USMC Museum, Triangle, VA
Finally, we remember that a lasting peace could not be achieved without an enduring American commitment.  American military involvement succeeded the violent ending of the war as Germany and Japan were occupied.  NATO was formed to counter Soviet Communism and the Warsaw Pact.  Though we Americans first invaded Italy in 1943, we still have over 11,000 troops serving in Italy today at bases such as Aviano Air Base in Venezia and Camp Darby near Pisa.  Spencer Stone, the heroic US airman who intervened to halt a terrorist incident on a train in Europe this past August, had been based in Portugal.

In the twenty-first century, the United States faces major new challenges to its power and influence around the world (ISIS, etc.), and it will face new demands to fight in the name of justice and freedom.

We can’t know what the future holds, and we can’t predict how this generation of Americans and those yet to come will deal with that future, but we do know that they build on a solid foundation of bravery, daring, and sacrifice.

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Friday, November 6, 2015

America's First Invasion & Mount Vernon

Mount Vernon, VA
There is a surprising connection between the first significant invasion by American troops of a foreign land and George Washington's home at Mount Vernon.

Lawrence Washington, Soldier of Virginia
1718 - 1752
We tend to assume that we know all about George Washington because his legend is so familiar...chopped down the cherry tree, land surveyor, successful General, virtuous first President, father of our country with his image on the quarter and one dollar bill, etc.  But there is a little known Washington that lurks behind the legend.  Did you know, for example, that George Washington had a brother?  More precisely he had a half-brother named Lawrence Washington (1718 - 1752).  His brother played a role in the very first American invasion which did not even take place in north America.

In the Columbia chapter of America Invades we lay out the relevant history...

Admiral Edward Vernon, "Old Grog"
"Even before our nation had been founded, Colombia was the site of the very first large-scale American invasion of a foreign country. During the War of Jenkins’ Ear in 1741, the Royal Navy Admiral Edward Vernon, known as “Old Grog,” landed a party of British and about thirty-six hundred American colonial troops in an assault on Cartagena, Colombia. They failed to take the city and suffered heavy losses from disease. Lawrence Washington, George’s older half-brother, participated in the Colombia expedition. George Washington’s Virginia home, Mount Vernon, was later named after the British admiral."

George Washington, after inheriting Mount Vernon from his brother who died at age 33, chose to retain the name honoring his memory and that of his commanding officer.

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Thursday, November 5, 2015

John Paul Jones' Raid on Whitehaven

John Paul Jones
USNA Museum, Annapolis, MD

Pay a visit to the US Naval Academy chapel in Annapolis, MD and you will find the crypt that is the final resting place for John Paul Jones -- the father of the American Navy.  Jones was born the son of a gardner in Scotland.  He took to the sea at an early age.

When the American Revolution broke out he joined the Patriot cause against England.  Here is our account of the Whitehaven raid from our work, America Invades...

"In April of 1778, Captain John Paul Jones, the founding father of the American navy, and the crew of the Ranger, an 18-gun sloop, arrived in Britain and, unlike many Americans today, they weren’t there to visit Westminster Abbey or have a taste of fish and chips.

Jones selected the English fishing village of Whitehaven on the Irish Sea as his target; Whitehaven was Britain’s third busiest seaport at that time. He would attempt to destroy its shipping and to kidnap the Earl of Selkirk. The harbor of Whitehaven was protected by two small forts. In the early hours of April 23, 1778, he and about forty volunteers from his crew scaled the fortress wall. They kicked in the door of the guardhouse. The sleeping guards surrendered without a shot. Jones’s men proceeded to spike about thirty-six guns of the battery with nails driven into the cannon’s touchholes. About half of his crew then broke into a local tavern and proceeded to get drunk. This caused a commotion and roused the local townspeople. Jones beat a hasty retreat and set fire to a merchant ship, a collier (that’s a coal ship and nothing to do with Lassie) named Thompson.

John Paul Jones bust
USNA Chapel
Annapolis MD
Soon after, the Ranger sailed about twenty miles to enter the bay off St. Mary’s Isle. Jones took about a dozen men armed with cutlasses and muskets to a Georgian manor house owned by the Fourth Earl of Selkirk. Jones soon discovered that the earl was not in residence and could not be kidnapped. Instead, he demanded the silver plate be delivered up. The loot was hauled back to the Ranger. Shortly after, the 18-gun Ranger fought and captured the 20-gun Drake of the Royal Navy in an action that Jones described as “warm, close and obstinate.”

Jones’s raid on Whitehaven had succeeded in bringing the American Revolution “home to their own doors,” as he put it. The English press was incensed. The London Public Advertiser asked, “When such ravages are committed all along the coast, by one small privateer, what credit must it reflect on the First Lord of the Admiralty?” No one was killed or even injured in the Whitehaven raid, but insurance rates doubled. The Whitehaven raid lasted about two and a half hours and was an even shorter invasion than the assassination of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011. Jones had second thoughts about the silver he stole from the Earl of Selkirk and later returned most of the loot.
Herman Melville described John Paul Jones as “a mixture of gentleman and wolf.” At a critical moment in his later sea battle with the Serapis, when called upon to surrender, Jones uttered the immortal words, “I have not yet begun to fight.” 

John Paul Jones Tomb, USNA Chapel, Annapolis, MD
Jones is buried with full honors at the US Naval Academy chapel in Annapolis...

In 1999, the town of Whitehaven in Cumbria officially pardoned John Paul Jones and the Freedom of the Harbor was granted to the USN. In 2003, the USS Leyte Gulf, a missile cruiser, paid a friendly visit to Whitehaven."

Whitehaven, UK

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Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Baron von Steuben

Baron von Steuben
Valley Forge, PA

Americans did not win their independence from Britain without the assistance of foreign intervention.  The French sent an Army and a navy.  The Marquis de Lafayette became and aide de camp to General Washington.  The Dutch provided critical financial support.  The Spanish launched the siege of Pensacola and also provided financial aid to the Patriot forces.

We open the Germany chapter of America Invades as follows...

"The first military interaction between the United States and Germans saw Germans in action on our soil. The British, in fact, used Hessian troops to help fight the colonists in the American Revolution while a certain “Baron” von Steuben from Magdeburg Prussia became a major general in the Continental Army and wrote the drill book (Revolutionary War Drill Manual) that was used by the US Army until the War of 1812."

Patriot Cabin (Replica), Valley Forge, PA
Baron von Steuben (who may not really have been a "Baron") drilled the troops while at Valley Forge during the winter of 1777-78.  This paid off in June of 1778 when the American troops defeated the British at the Battle of Monmouth in New Jersey.

We Americans owe an enormous historic debt to many foreign individual and nations that chose to intervene on our behalf to fight the superpower of the 18th century.

I enjoyed my recent visit to Valley Forge, PA where history comes to life (

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Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Are Italians Lovers or Fighters?

Italian fighters
Fact and Fiction

Italians have quite a reputation as lovers (think Valentino, Sophia Loren and many more) but are they fighters too?

Sylvester Stallone's 1976 film Rocky was a story about fighting and love which suggested that the two may not really be incompatible -- "Yo Adrian".  But Rocky is Hollywood fiction.

How have real Italians been as fighters?  That is precisely the question we set out to explore in our new book Italy Invades: How Italians Conquered the World.  We uncovered many amazing facts about the impact of Italians fighting around the globe.

Italians may arguably be said to have "invaded" or fought in Montana!  It happened in 1876.

Here's what we wrote in Italy Inavdes in the USA chapter...
Where Custer fell
Little Big Horn, MT
"After the Civil War, Italians and Italian Americans would fight in the Indian wars on the western frontier. No less than six Italians were members of Custer’s 7th Cavalry at the time of the Battle of Little Bighorn. They were First Lieutenant Charles DeRudio (b. Belluno), Private Augustus DeVoto (b. Genoa), Private James John (b. Rome), Private Frank Lombard (b. Naples), and Trumpeter John Martin (b. Sola Consalino). Somewhat surprisingly, none of these men were killed with Custer at the Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876.

Giovanni Martini
Custer's trumpeter survived!
The trumpeter, John Martin—or Giovanni Martini—played a vital role in the dramatic events of that fateful day as he carried Custer’s final message to Captain Benteen. The famous message, found in the West Point Museum today (and reproduced in our photo section), reads: “Benteen, Come on. Big Village, Be quick. Bring packs. W.W. Cooke. P.S. Bring packs.” Some historians have interpreted this as a call for ammunition, while others see it as a last desperate plea for immediate reinforcement. Martin, a fortunate musician who had served as a drummer boy in the Italian Army, died in 1922 in Brooklyn."
Custer's last note
West Point Museum, NY
Giovanni Martini survived the Battle of Little Big Horn.  He was killed after being hit by a beer truck on the streets of Brooklyn.

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Monday, November 2, 2015

American Invasions, Italian Invasions & Baseball!

Americans Invade Cooperstown!
Baseball Hall of Fame, Cooperstown, NY

In America Invades we noted several of the connections between the US military and baseball, our national pastime.  (See also my earlier post...
2 out of 5 original hall of famers served in World War I
Cooperstown, NY
Pay a visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY ( and you will get a sense of how many major league baseball players served in the military.  Two out of five of the original inductees to the Hall of Fame (Ty Cobb and Christy Mathewson) served in World War I.

Stan Musial, USN Vet WW2
Many more Hall of Famers served in World War II and during the Korean war.  Stan Musial, for example, served in the US Navy during World War II.
Angels Sombrero
In the Mexico chapter we note that "Abner Doubleday, served in the Mexican-American War with the First Regiment of Artillery."  Today baseball remains very popular in Mexico.

In the Dominican Republic chapter we wrote that "The US Marines would occupy the country from 1916 to 1924. They brought a kind of peace to the country and helped bring baseball to the Dominican Republic."  Today many Dominicans play in the big leagues.

In the German chapter we discussed the American occupation that followed the end of World War II.  "Steps were immediately taken to exorcize the ghosts of fascism from Germany with a program of de-Nazification and targeting the symbols of Nazism. For instance, GIs blew up the huge stone swastika that overlooked Zeppelin Field in Nuremberg. We even converted the Hitler Youth stadium in Nuremberg into a baseball park. It was here at Soldier’s Field that the European Theatre of Operations World Series was played in September of 1945."

Italians don't play much baseball but Italian Americans have distinguished themselves on diamonds in the USA and around the world.

Joe DiMaggio shirt, Cooperstown, NY
Joe DiMaggio, the famous Yankee Clipper, joined the United States Army Air Force in 1943 but did not see combat. His parents had been classified as enemy aliens during the war. Joe’s younger brother, Dom DiMaggio, was classified as 4F but managed to enlist in the US Navy, where he played baseball for the Norfolk Naval Training Station Nine.
Dom DiMaggio Plaque

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