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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1 comment:

zoetropo said...

Observe that the Italian references to Arthur occur after the Normans and their allies the Bretons (and others) occupied southern Italy. According to A.E. Freeman, Brian of Brittany, who had fought in England circa 1066-1069, joined the forces of Robert Giscard and of his son Bohemond and held Kastoria in Thrace in 1083 until issues in Italy made this untenable. He returned to Brittany by 1084.

Brian's brother Count Alan Rufus is the model used by Geoffrey of Monmouth to recast Arthur as the king we all know and admire. Geoffrey was quite bold (or lazy) in reusing Alan's family for Arthur's:

Ambrosius Aurelianus (an historic figure about which we know a little from the sixth century writer Gildas), in legend died of poisoning = Alan III Duke of Brittany and Guardian of Normandy, died from poisoned riding gloves.

Uther Pendragon = Eudon Penteur, younger brother of Alan III, fought for control of the duchy into his seventies.

Igraine of Cornwall = Orgwen of Cornouaille, mother of Eudon's seven legitimate sons called exceptional by Orderic Vitalis.

Hoel, Duke of Brittany, relative of Arthur = Hoel, Duke of Brittany, brother of Orgwen.

Arthur, dux bellorum, in one early story carried a representation of the Virgin Mary on his shoulders = Alan Rufus, dux, identified by his epitaph with the star Arcturus as protector of the two Bears, William I and II; he wore Brittany's symbolic ermine on his coat-of-arms, an emblem of the honour and purity of the Virgin Mary whose mother Anne is a patron saint of the Duchy.

Guinevere = Gunhildr, daughter of Harold Godwinson, who lived among the nuns of Wilton abbey but left them presumably because of her love for Alan Rufus, which she expressed in two letters to Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury.