Attempts to Pinpoint a Historical Arthur

We can catch a glimpse of what a historical Arthur would have been like. Far from the chivalrous, courtly figure of romance, the real Arthur would have been a local warlord, or perhaps a high king in an age of barbarity and chaos. It would not be unrealistic to picture him as an uncivilized ruffian, a barbaric tyrant who ruled over his land with an iron fist, but was remembered in history as a symbol of sophistication because of the hope he brought to the people of Britain for a time.

But what more can we learn of him? Probably nothing, without knowing who he was. Countless historians have tried to identify a historical Arthur, but none of them has presented a case which has been considered convincing by the majority of scholars. Nevertheless, it is worth considering a few of the most popular attempts that have been made.

When looking for a historical Arthur, it makes sense to look for people on record who were named 'Arthur.' The problem is that there are no Arthurs on record who match the description given to him in our oldest sources. The only Roman military commander who is on record as having that name is Lucius Artorius Castus, who lived in the second century, two centuries too early. He is on record as being stationed in Britain for at least part of his career, and he may have led mounted troops during his command. But Rome still had a strong control over Britain during his time, and there were no invading Saxons. Still, some historians believe his legend was remembered, and grew into something phenomenal during Britain's time of need. Another suggestion has been that tales of him caused his name, 'Artorius,' to be remembered as an honorific, which was later given to a war hero who performed the deeds now associated with Arthur.

Another possibility is that Lucius or another figure was confused with Prince Arthur of Scotland, who lived during the late sixth and early seventh centuries. Opposite to Lucius, this Prince Arthur lived a century or two too late, and was active in a different region of Britain than King Arthur is said to have been. Yet his wife's name was Gwenhwyfar, the original Welsh form of the Latinized "Guinevere." It is possible that tales of him became intertwined with the King Arthur of legend.

Some candidates do not share Arthur's name. One is a figure we have already seen, Ambrosius Aurelianus. As has been noted, he is on record as having helped organize the Britons against the Saxon invasion, and he is the only war leader named by our firsthand witness to the events, the monk Gildas. Gildas writes about him just before discussing the Battle of Badon, which suggests that Ambrosius may have played a role in the battle. It is possible that through some confusion, Ambrosius came to be remembered as "King Arthur" somewhere down the line.

One final theory which deserves mentioning is that a king or war chief named Arthur may have existed, but historic documents may have recorded him under his title, rather than the name Arthur. It would not be the first time this has happened. Other historic figures have gone down in history under honorary titles, rather than their real names. "Genghis Khan," for instance, is an honorary title. The emperor's real name was Tem├╝jin.

This theory was popularized in the 1980s by Geoffrey Ashe, who suggested that a king who is on record under the name Riothamus may have been the historical Arthur. He is recorded as having been a "king of the Britons," and the name Riothamus is thought to be a Latinization of the Old Welsh word Rigotamos, meaning "king-most," or "supreme king." Interestingly, he is recorded as having good manners. The notion of Arthur as a savage brute may be wrong after all. He lived at about the right time, and as Ashe points out, he is also on record as marching towards Rome, as in Geoffrey of Monmouth's account. Unlike in Geoffrey, however, Riothamus did so as an ally, rather than an attacker.

Some historians prefer not to seek out a historical Arthur at all. They point out that even if we do find a figure who can be positively identified as Arthur, he will not be the King Arthur of legend. The Arthur of legend is a product of the imagination, and of centuries of literary development. He is a character who is the end result of shaping by countless societies and generations, each one adding their own, unique elements to the tale. And perhaps that is where the real Quest for Arthur lies, not in the search for a historical figure who will never resemble the king whose legend has stood the test of time, but in the discovery of the legend we have before us. The real King Arthur never drew a sword from a stone, or sought out the Holy Grail. His birth wasn't orchestrated by magic, and his sword didn't come from a magical lake. These are elements available to us only in a legend which has been shaped over the course of more than one thousand years. And perhaps that is the point, not searching for a history which is sure to be mundane by comparison, but discovering the magnificent tapestry of legends which has been woven alongside the development of Western civilization, each culture adding a small piece of itself to the mix.