Ambrosius Aurelianus, Welsh: Emrys Wledig; called Aurelius Ambrosius in the Historia Regum Britanniae and elsewhere, was a war leader of the Romano-British who won an important battle against the Anglo-Saxons in the 5th century, according to Gildas. He also appeared independently in the legends of the Britons, beginning with the 9th-century Historia Brittonum.
According to Gildas
Ambrosius Aurelianus is one of the few people that Gildas identifies by name in his sermon De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, and the only one named from the 5th century. Following the destructive assault of the Saxons, the survivors gather together under the leadership of Ambrosius, who is described as:
- "... a gentleman who, perhaps alone of the Romans, had survived the shock of this notable storm. Certainly his parents, who had worn the purple, were slain by it. His descendants in our day have become greatly inferior to their grandfather's [avita] excellence."
We know from Gildas that he was of high birth, and had Roman ancestry; he was presumably a Romano-Briton, rather than a Roman from elsewhere in the empire, though it is impossible to be sure. It also appears that Ambrosius was a Christian: Gildas says that he won his battles "with God's help". According to Gildas, Ambrosius organised the survivors into an armed force and achieved the first military victory over the Saxon invaders. However, this victory was not decisive: "Sometimes the Saxons and sometimes the citizens [meaning the Romano-British inhabitants] were victorious."
Two points in this brief description have attracted much scholarly commentary. The first is what Gildas meant by saying Ambrosius' family "had worn the purple". Roman Emperors and Roman males of the senatorial class wore clothes with a purple band to denote their class so the reference to purple may be to an aristocratic heritage. Roman military tribunes (tribuni militum), senior officers in Roman legions, wore a similar purple band so the reference may be to a family background of military leadership. In the church "the purple" is a euphemism for blood and therefore "wearing the purple" may be a reference to martyrdom or a bishop's robe.
The second question is the meaning of the word avita: Gildas could have meant "ancestors", or intended it to mean more specifically "grandfather" — thus indicating Ambrosius lived about a generation before the Battle of Mons Badonicus. Lack of information prevents sure answers to these questions.
The Historia Brittonum preserves several snippets of lore about Ambrosius. The most significant of these is the story about Ambrosius, Vortigern, and the two dragons beneath Dinas Emrys, "Fortress of Ambrosius" in Chapters 40–42. This story was later retold with more detail by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his fictionalized Historia Regum Britanniae, conflating the personage of Ambrosius with the Welsh tradition of Merlin the visionary, known for oracular utterances that foretold the coming victories of the native Celtic inhabitants of Britain over the Saxons and the Normans. Geoffrey also names him as one of three sons of Constantine III, along with Constans II and Uther Pendragon.
But there are smaller snippets of tradition preserved in the Historia Brittonum: in Chapter 31, we are told that Vortigern ruled in fear of Ambrosius; later, in Chapter 66, various events are dated from a Battle of Guoloph (often identified with Wallop, 15 km (9.3 mi) ESE of Amesbury near Salisbury), which is said to have been between Ambrosius and Vitolinus; lastly, in Chapter 48, it is said that Pascent, the son of Vortigern, was granted rule over the regions of Buellt and Gwrtheyrnion by Ambrosius. It is not clear how these various traditions relate to each other, or whether they come from the same tradition; it is very possible that these references are to different men with the same name. The Historia Brittonum dates the battle of Guoloph to "the twelfth year of Vortigern", by which 437 seems to be meant. This is perhaps a generation before the battle that Gildas says was commanded by Ambrosius Aurelianus.
At the end of the story in Chapters 40–42, Vortigern hands over to Ambrosius "the fortress, with all of the kingdoms of the western part of Britain." In Chapter 48 Ambrosius Aurelianus is described as "king among all the kings of the British nation". It is impossible to know to what degree he actually wielded political power, and over what area, but it is certainly possible that he ruled some part of England. Léon Fleuriot has suggested Ambrosius is identical to Riothamus, a Brythonic leader who fought a major battle against the Goths in France around the year 470. Fleuriot argues that Ambrosius led the Britons in the battle, in which he was defeated and forced to retreat to Burgundy. He then returned to Britain to continue the war against the Saxons.
Because Ambrosius and Vortigern are shown in the Historia Brittonum as being in conflict, some historians have suspected that this preserves a historical core of the existence of two parties in opposition to one another, one headed by Ambrosius and the other by Vortigern. J. N. L. Myres built upon this suspicion and speculated that belief in Pelagianism reflected an actively provincial outlook in Britain and that Vortigern represented the Pelagian party, while Ambrosius led the Catholic one. Subsequent historians accepted Myers' speculation as fact, creating a narrative of events in 5th century Britain with various degrees of elaborate detail. Yet a simpler alternative interpretation of the conflict between these two figures is that the Historia Brittonum is preserving traditions hostile to the purported descendants of Vortigern, who at this time were a ruling house in Powys. This interpretation is supported by the negative character of all of the stories retold about Vortigern in the Historia Brittonum, which include his alleged practice of incest.
Ambrosius Aurelianus appears in later pseudo-chronicle tradition beginning with Geoffrey's Historiae Regum Britanniae with the slightly garbled name Aurelius Ambrosius, now presented as son of a King Constantine. When King Constantine's eldest son Constans is murdered at Vortigern's instigation, the two remaining sons, Ambrosius and Uther, still very young, are quickly hustled into exile in Brittany. (This does not fit with Gildas' account, in which Ambrosius' family perished in the turmoil of the Saxon uprisings.) Later, when Vortigern's power has faded, the two brothers return from exile with a large army, destroy Vortigern and become friends with Merlin.
In Welsh, Ambrosius appears as Emrys Wledig (Emperor Ambrose). In Robert de Boron's Merlin he is called simply Pendragon and his younger brother is named Uter, which he changes to Uterpendragon after the death of the elder sibling. This is probably a confusion that entered oral tradition from Wace's Roman de Brut. Wace usually only refers to li roi ("the king") without naming him, and someone has taken an early mention of Uther's epithet Pendragon as the name of his brother.
S. Appelbaum has suggested that Amesbury in Wiltshire might preserve in it the name of Ambrosius, and perhaps Amesbury was the seat of his power base in the later fifth century. Place name scholars have found a number of place names through the Midland dialect regions of Britain that incorporate the ambre- element: examples include Ombersley in Worcestershire, Ambrosden in Oxfordshire, Amberley in Herefordshire, Amberley in Gloucestershire and Amberley in West Sussex. These scholars have claimed this element represents an Old English word amor, the name of a woodland bird. However, Amesbury in Wiltshire is in a different dialect region and does not easily fit into the pattern of the Midland dialect place names. If this etymology is combined with the tradition reported by Geoffrey of Monmouth stating that Ambrosius Aurelianus ordered the building of Stonehenge – which is located within the parish of Amesbury (and where Ambrosius was supposedly buried) – and with the presence of an Iron Age hill fort also in that parish, then it may be tempting to connect Ambrosius with Amesbury.
In popular culture
The novel Coalescent by Stephen Baxter depicts Aurelianus as a general to Artorius, Briton and basis for the legend of King Arthur. In Baxter's novel, Aurelianus is a minor character who interacts with the book's main Roman-era protagonist, Regina, founder of an (literally) underground matriarchal society. In the text, he is credited with winning the battle of Mount Badon.
In Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon, Aurelianus is depicted as the aging High King of Britain, a "too-ambitious" son of a Western Roman Emperor. His sister's son is Uther Pendragon, but Uther is described as not having any Roman blood. Aurelianus is unable to gather the leadership of the native Celts, who refuse to follow any but their own race.
In Alfred Duggan's Conscience of the King, a historical novel about Cerdic, founder of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex, Ambrosius Aurelianus is a Romano-British general who rose independently to military power, forming alliances with various British kings and setting out to drive the invading Saxons from Britain. Cerdic, who is of both Germanic and British descent and raised as a Roman citizen, served in his army as a young man. In the novel Ambrosius is a separate character from Arthur, or Artorius, who appears much later as a foe of Cerdic.
In Stephen R. Lawhead's Pendragon Cycle, Aurelianus (most often referred to as "Aurelius") figures prominently, along with his brother Uther, in the second book of the series, Merlin. He is poisoned soon after becoming High King of Britain, and Uther succeeds him. Lawhead alters the standard Arthurian story somewhat, in that he has Aurelius marry Igraine and become the true father of King Arthur (Uther does marry his brother's widow, though).
In Valerio Massimo Manfredi's The Last Legion, Aurelianus (here called "Aurelianus Ambrosius Ventidius") is a major character and is shown as one of the last loyal Romans, going to enormous lengths for his boy emperor Romulus Augustus, whose power has been wrested by the barbarian Odoacer. In this story, Romulus Augustus marries Igraine, and King Arthur is their son, and the sword of Julius Caesar becomes the legendary Excalibur in Britain. In the 2007 film version of the novel, he is played by Colin Firth and his name becomes "Aurelianus Caius Antonius". In both he is called "Aurelius" for short.
Mary Stewart's The Crystal Cave follows Geoffrey of Monmouth in calling him Aurelius Ambrosius and portrays him as the father of Merlin, the elder brother of Uther (hence uncle of Arthur), an initiate of Mithras, and generally admired by everyone except the Saxons. Much of the book is set at his court in Brittany or during the campaign to retake his throne from Vortigern. Later books in the series show that Merlin's attitude toward Arthur is influenced by his belief that Arthur is a reincarnation of Ambrosius, who is seen through Merlin's eyes as a model of good kingship.
In Rosemary Sutcliff's The Lantern Bearers Prince Ambrosius Aurelianus of Arfon drives out the Saxons by training his British army with Roman techniques and making effective use of cavalry. By the end of the novel, the elite cavalry wing is led by a dashing young warrior prince named Artos, whom Sutcliff postulates to be the real Arthur.
In Parke Godwin's Firelord, Ambrosius is the elderly tribune of the diminished, dispirited and politically fractured Legio VI Victrix garrisoning Hadrian's Wall. Near his death, he names Artorius Pendragon (Arthur) as his successor, encourages him to convert the legion to alae (heavy cavalry) and allows the legionnaires to renounce their loyalty to Rome and take personal oaths of fealty to Artorius in order to help unify Brittania politically and to create a military force with the ability to quickly redeploy to meet differing threats.
In Stargate SG-1, Ambrosius and Arthur are one and the same. Merlin was an Ancient, fleeing from Atlantis and later Ascends, then comes back in order build the Sangraal, or Holy Grail, to defeat the Ori. Daniel Jackson also comments that it would mean that Ambrosius was 74 at the Battle of Mount Badon.
|Wikisource has the text of the 1885–1900 Dictionary of National Biography's article about Ambrosius Aurelianus.|
- Fletcher, Richard (1989). Who's Who in Roman Britain and Anglo-Saxon England. Shepheard-Walwyn. pp. 15–16. ISBN 0-85683-089-5.
- Gidlow, Christopher (2004). The Reign of Arthur: From History to Legend. Sutton Publishing. p. 80. ISBN 0-7509-3418-2.
- Léon Fleuriot, Les origines de la Bretagne: l’émigration, Paris,Payot, 1980, p. 170
- As argued by Nora K. Chadwick, "A Note on the Name Vortigern" in Studies in Early British History (Cambridge: University Press, 1954), p. 41
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