In this seven part blog I want to explore if an historical 5th century Arthur could have been (not was) some equivalent of a Late Roman commander or a general, and what this might have meant. Of course, it was the late, great R G Collingwood who put forward the possibility of Arthur being a comes (‘count’) with his own field army back in the 1930s, but I want this to be more of an exploration of the possibility of this and other Late Roman military positions; there can be no certainties. Of course, the question of someone in these positions applies whether Arthur existed or not. (For those new to my blogs, it might be worth you reading ‘In Search Of The ‘Original’ King Arthur’, ‘Valentia – The Fifth Romano-British Province’, and ‘Arthur – King or Commander’ blogs first).
There is no way of knowing what a Late (or Mid) 5th century Arthur was, if he ever existed, but there is always the possibility that, if he did, he could have been a provincial comes, dux or tribunus. This might sound odd and not seem possible to some who think of British Britannia as a fragmented, old Roman diocese ruled by ‘Celtic’ kings and petty kings (which it must have been in parts), but there are some eminent scholars, such as Ken Dark, Roger White, David Dumville and Nick Higham, who think that there could have been at least two of the five the British provinces still in existence, in some form, in the late 5th century and beyond. (Higham and Dark actually wonder if the whole diocese survived intact up until the mid-5th century at least, but with the former scholar thinking the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ were in charge in at least two of them with a third paying tribute to them). If it was the case that they existed, then these provinces may have had some kind of provincial army, and this would probably have needed some kind of commander or general as their military leader, and not one of the kings … if it had them.
However, we should also keep in mind the thoughts of Neil Faulkner (The Decline and Fall of Roman Britain, 2004) and Chris Wickham (Framing the Early Middle Ages, 2006), whose interpretation of the evidence is that Britain almost completely fell apart c.375-425 and had to build itself backup again from scratch. Also Stuart Laycock in Britannia The Failed State: Tribal Conflict and the End of Roman Britain (2008) and UnRoman Britain: Exposing the Great Myth of Britannia (2010), written with Russell Miles, comes to a similar conclusion. This doesn’t mean Britannia couldn’t have built back up again, although not in a Roman material way, or re-united when needed. Also keep in mind Nick Higham’s theory, which may make the scenario I will explore here impossible.
RANKS & TITLES
First, a look at what these Late Roman military positions were. I’m very grateful to Robert Vermaat for letting me quote directly from his Fectio Late Roman reenactment website: (http://www.fectio.org.uk/articles/ranks.htm )
When Constantine segregated the civil and military functions, the military commanders ceased to be civil governors (although in some cases there were exceptions). Provinces were henceforth commanded by praeses [governors] without military functions, while the troops were commanded by duces. There seems to have been no sharp distinction between comites and duces.
The comes (title) was originally a title (lit. meaning ‘companion’) for members of the entourage of the Emperor, not a rank. Later the title became known for several functions, both military as well as civilian. These functions were formalised by Constantine, by creating titles such as the comes sacrarum largitionum (finance minister), the comes domesticorum (commander of the protectores domestici).The military version of the title was the comes rei militaris, a vague title without a description of rank or importance, which could describe commands varying from minor frontiers to overall army command of a magister militum.
The comitatenses or field armies of a certain region [was] always commanded by a comes (such as the comes Britanniarum) and was therefore possibly higher in status than a dux. A comes, however could, like a dux, also command a regional army group, indeed like the comes Litoris saxonicum per Britannias (count of the Saxon shore) or even frontier sections (law codes prove the existence of a comes limitis). Comites could also command vexillationes of the mobile field army in the field.
The dux (rank) was originally a title (lit. meaning ‘leader’) of an officer acting in a temporary capacity above his rank, commanding a collection of troops in transit or in temporary command of a single unit. From the third century, a dux became a regular officer. After Constantine, the dux commanded the provincial troops (the comitatenses and palatini falling under the command of the magistri or comites). Such a command could encompass a (part of a) province (styled after the name of that province, such as the dux Aegypti) or even several provinces (such as the dux Britanniarum (duke of the Britains), who commanded the regions straddled by Hadrian’s Wall). Another name could be dux limitis, but these names were not standardised.
The dux ranked directly below the magister militum (but could appeal to the Emperor) and was responsible for the military protection of his own sector, including the military infrastructure, the collection and distribution of provisions and the military legal system. Valentinian I raised the duces from equestrian to senatorial status, which also reflects the ‘inflation’ of some military commands, which saw the replacement of several duces with comites during the fifth century. A dux probably received fifty annonae plus fifty capitus.
The tribunus (rank) was the commanding officer of a new-style unit, which could be a regiment of auxilia palatina or a numerus or anything in between. Tribuni of the scholae were commanded by the magister officiorum, but tribuni also commanded cavalry vexillationes, new-style auxilia regiments as well as the new-style legions of the field army, but also the old-style cohorts of the limitanei. By the mid-fifth century a tribunus might also be styled a comes, under the debasement of Roman military titles. By the sixth century a papyrus describes an old-style cohort commanded by a tribunus, eight senior officers including the adiutor (regimental clerk), the primicerius, six ordinarii and six others, probably the centuriones.
A so-called tribunus vacans was an officer temporarily without unit serving as a staff officer. These tribuni vacantes could also serve on special duties – when Ammianus was on a mission from Ursicinus to relieve the magister peditum Silvanus of his command (read “arrest him”), he and his nine fellow domestici were accompanied by several tribuni vacantes. And in Egypt, a tribunus civitatis might combine military and civilian duties, acting like a governor. Tribuni could also be in charge of barbarian groups, as the example of the Tribunus gentis Marcomannorum shows. We know of one Agilo who was a tribunus stabuli in 357. These men (later comes stabuli) were responsible for gathering levies of horses for the army. A tribunus probably received eight annonae (plus four capitus if cavalry).
(This latter position could, apparently, become a governor (as well as a comes), which we’ll discuss in Part Three. The bold type is by me, to indicate that even a civitas could have a tribunus/governor).
Now, I am not suggesting that any position in Late (or Mid) 5th century Britain would be exactly the same as that found in the late empire, but that it may have been something similar, using the Roman military names; just as 6th century inscribed stones in Wales have given us ‘protictor’ (protector), another Roman military rank, magister (magistrate or ruler), presbyter (priest) and medici (doctor), but the first two may have had a very differing meaning in Britain at the time. The genealogy of Demetia (Dyfed) also gives us a Triphun (Harleian MS 3859), which could be the Brittonic form of tribunus, although there is some doubt to this as it could be from the Welsh word tryffun, meaning “panting”. (My thanks to Christopher Gwinn via the Facebook King Arthur Group for that information). It is interesting that protictor (Dyfed), magister (Gwynedd), medici (Gwynedd) and Triphun (Dyfed) all occur in regions that were the least Romanised, especially Gwynedd, but would become more Romanise – or Latinised – after the Romans had left.
(For more information on inscribed stones of Wales: http://ads.ahds.ac.uk/catalogue/adsdata/arch-769-1/ahds/dissemination/pdf/vol45/45_015_039.pdf )
The Life of St Germanus also tells us that on his visit to Britain in 429, to tackle the Pelagian heresy, there was a man of tribunus rank and, as Nick Higham points out (The English Conquest: Gildas and Britain in the Fifth Century, 1994), Gildas in the De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (DEB) mentions duces (the plural of dux) and he seems to imply that they could be both kings (tyranni or rex) and none-royal. Of course, Higham places Badon much earlier than others, 430×440 and, therefore, Gildas writing the DEB to 479×484. He also believes the ‘Saxons’ to have been the overall victors, and not the Britons and his conclusions leads him to deny the possibility of a figure of Arthur ever existing. Personally, I think, even under Higham’s theory, it doesn’t mean Arthur couldn’t have existed, he was just made into more than maybe he was. Most scholars, however, do not agree with Higham’s assessment of the evidence.
In Part Two we’ll look at what structure a British provincial army could have taken.
Thanks for reading and I look forward to any comments, thoughts … and correction,