FROM GENERAL TO GOVERNOR OR KING?
Many great military leaders have gone on to political position, either by force or being elevated to them. If Britain’s provinces did survive and tried to keep some form of Roman structure (even if not law), it is not inconceivable that someone who was once a general of some kind went on to be, or was given, the position as a rectores (governor) or even king. As noted, the tribuni of the province of Egypt also held a military position. If the chronological gap between the subduing of the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ (unless Nick Higham’s theory is right and they subdued the Britons) and Arthur’s supposed death at Camlan, twenty-one years after Badon, have any bases in truth (and it may not) then it could have been that he fulfilled this position for at least some of this time. Or, he could have been elevated to a king … and not necessarily an over-king. Or, perhaps Camlan could have been him trying to rise to a military position again, and failing? We’ll never know. (I’m I’m going to explore this question of the supposed gap between Badon and Camlan at a later date).
Gildas seems to indicate that the five kings he chastises were led by a ‘Pharaoh’, and some have wondered if he is referring to a provincial governor or military commander. Here’s what Gildas says:
“I will briefly set down the threatenings which are denounced against these five aforesaid lascivious horses, the frantic followers of Pharaoh […]” (DEB §37)
He is obviously being metaphorical but how literal? He has already compared the Proud Tyrant * to the Pharaoh of Isaiah 19. The above is a bit of a strange sentence, as the ‘five aforesaid lascivious horses’ should, perhaps, be leading the Pharaoh as metaphorical horses, not the other way around. If it were this way around it might mean they were leading their governor (or over-king) down the wrong path, and he couldn’t do anything about it; but this appears to mean they were following his lead … if he was a ‘he’. Gildas, unfortunately, says nothing more on the matter. Was there someone above these kings even Gildas wouldn’t dare to chastise? Possibly. The alternative is Gildas simply meant that they where led by the example of the Proud Tyrant; that is, they were carrying on in his manner. Nick Higham takes this to mean that they behaved in exactly the same way as the council that ill advised (in his eyes) the Proud Tyrant to bring in ‘Saxon’ federates.
*The Proud Tyrant is generally thought to have been (the over-king or equivalent?) Vortigern, and Bede certainly names him as this figure, (as does a later version of the DEB) but there are some scholars who believe it could be referring to either of the usurping emperors from Britannia, Magnus Maximus or Constantine III. If it were one of these, I’d say the latter.
There is one more character worth looking at and that is the one Gildas says is the kings’ “father the devil” (pater diabolus). This Higham takes to be the over-king of the ’Anglo-Saxon’ (Aelle?) but he translates it as ‘father-devil“. It’s an excellent observation given that Gildas refers to the ‘Saxons’ as devils. (It’s not one David Dumville agrees on). Gildas also calls Constantine of Dumnonia an “instrument of the devil” and he appears to mean the devil in the Biblical sense. So, as far as my none-academic, none Latin literate mind can tell, Gildas could simply mean … well, “their father the devil“. Unless this ‘father-devil’ could be an over-king/over-lord of Britannia Prima? I will have to bow to those of superior knowledge in all things Gildasian and Latin.
There are two questions to be answered here:
1. Could there have been provincial duces, comes and/or tribunus?
2. If Arthur existed, could he have been one of these?
If my reading of the evidence is right (and it may not be!) there where duces (military leaders) even in Gildas’s time (early to mid 6th century), but there’s no mention (unless that ‘Pharaoh‘ is he) of an overal dux (but see below). Gildas doesn’t appear to mention the north, however, so we can’t say for this region., (Although there are arguers for Maglocunus being of the north and not (just?) North Wales).
Gildas is more than a generation away from Badon, so things could have been different then. In the west and those regions that had kings, they too could be the duces, and Gildas seems to say as much. Only areas that still retain some semblance of a division of civil and military rule may have had duces who weren’t kings (per se). Those kings in the west and north who weren’t perhaps so war-like, or had visions of old Imperial grandeur, could also have used duces to lead their warbands. It might be more correct to say these war leaders were tribunus: generals, but given the name duces in later (Gildasian) times? Christopher Gidlow in his book The Reign of King Arthur (2004) also points out that the term duces could be used in all manner of ways in Late Antiquity (pp.41-44).
The Dux of Britannia Prima?
There’s a very good conclusion to Gildas’s use of these five kings of Britannia Prima (?) made by Professor Higham, and that is that Gildas is berating them not just because of their lapsed moral ways, but because he knows they are the province’s (or Britannia’s) only military hope and is trying to scare them into doing something about the ‘Saxon’ problem. Higham also points out that Gildas spends more time on Maglocunus than on all the other kings put together, and this was because, in Gildas’s eyes at least, he was the most powerful amongst them or, perhaps, held some kind of sway over them, or some of them. Gildas says this king is “higher than almost all duces of Britannia in both royalty and physique“. Not “all” but “almost all”, so there was another. In Higham’s eyes this is the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ over-king, in GIdlow’s it’s Outigern. Whether Higham is right is another matter, and his conclusions fits with his ‘Anglo-Saxon’ dominance of even eastern Britannia Prima, so it might be coloured by this. (But who am I to argue?).
Could this mean Maglocunus was the Dux Britannia Prima at the time of Gildas, and so he as an over-king held this ‘military’ position? If Higham is wrong, then who is the dux who is higher than him? Someone of the north, if Maglocunus wasn’t from there or held power over it? It doesn’t seems to be one of the other kings mentioned. Gidlow wonders if this figure was Outigern.
If there were other positions active before Gildas’s time he wasn’t aware of them, or didn’t mention them, but it would seem that the LIfe of St Germanus mentions a tribuni, but this was over a hundred years before Gildas. However, we have got a ‘protector‘ in western Britannia. I’ve mentioned this title before, but here’s a quote, again from Robert Vermaat’s Fectio website, to tell you what one was:
The protector (title) was originally a member of the select corps that Gallienus created as a group of loyal men around him. This group changed into a kind of school for officers, making men who were promoted from the ranks to become a protector before they were posted to their new ranks and duties. Some of these protectores were posted to the staff of field commanders (deputati) to gain experience, and performed a great number of duties. They could be sent to round up recruits and vagrants, or act as border guards controlling exported goods. Their more military duties could include the arrest of important persons, as related by Ammianus Marcellinus, who himself was a member of the ten protectores domestici in the staff of the general Ursicinus.This group was named domestici (men serving in the entourage of the Emperor, although also dispersed over the lower army staffs) to distinguish them from ordinary protectores, who succeeded to a command of a unit after serving for a number of years as protector. Other military tasks included special missions, such as preparing temporary forts on campaign, or the arrest of officers.
When a soldier reached this stage of cadet officer, it finally meant a break from his original unit, because only the Emperor could decide to transfer men from one unit to another. Promotion was therefore very slow and it is not surprising that higher officers used their influence to get instant commissions for their sons. Bribery was rife in the Roman army, but men appointed thus instead of rising through the ranks had to pay certain fees and charges. When during the fifth century the flexibility of the promotion system decreased, the domestici and protectores became a static body.
I doubt very much that this is what Vortiporix (the gentleman who held this title in Demetia) was, but old Imperial ranks and titles (such as rectores, magister and speculatores) were being used, even if their role wasn’t the same. Counter to Collingwood’s theory, a comes (companion or count) with a field army may be the one position that didn’t survive, but a dux of the time may have fulfilled that role also.
With all this in mind, it seems that it it is entirely possible that an historical Arthur (if he existed) fulfilled some kind of none-royal military position … someone did! This could have been any of the three ranks, but with more likely that of tribuni or dux. If there was a a military provincial dux I would favour there being one of the north, as Ken Dark suggests, because of its Roman military past and the forts that were reused, but other regions having one (or several) is not out of the question. In fact, if we are reading Gildas right, they did have several, we just don’t know their exact military function. It’s something we may never be able to answer as we may never know the political situation and structure of late 5th century Britannia, unless there is some miraculous literary find.
Arthur in such a position could make sense of two things: why the name was only used by later Hiberno-Britannians (or regions) or Hiberno-Britons (see THIS blog) and why he, like Ambrosius Aurelianus, left no (reliable) lineage. The first reason could have been because he was, indeed, from one of the several British regions of a Gaelic speaking/British mix (and this could even include what is now part of Cornwall) and was chosen as a military leader because of his past military deeds, because it was felt he was someone they could trust … or because of his wealth. He could have been from within a province or brought in from another one … or, even from outside of the diocese.
The second reason for an Arthur of Badon not appearing in any (reliable) regional genealogies would be because he wouldn’t be of a kingdom’s royal line, or an over-king, so no genealogy would survive. But that only may apply to the west and north. If he was from the east he may not leave any genealogy even if he was a great king because of the ‘Saxon’ conquest. (Yet Wales preserved even northern kings’ lineages). Whatever he was and wherever he was from, (if he existed!) he would, however, had to have still been a ‘wealthy’ and powerful man.
This blog has explored only one possibility for what Arthur might have been, and it certainly helps makes sense of him being in charge of kings and their warbands in battle as per the H.B., but not being a king (or major king) himself if he was in a military position. However, there are always other options, which I’ll explore at a later date.
Thanks for taking the time to read the lengthy ramblings of a layman, and, once again I look forward to your comments, thoughts and corrections,