Ambrosius Aurelianus

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Ambrosius Aurelianus (incorrectly referred to in the Historia Regum Britanniae as Aurelius Ambrosius ) was a leader of the Romano-British, who won important battles against the Anglo-Saxons in the 5th century, according to Gildas and to the legends preserved in the Historia Britonum. According to the Annal Chronicon Maiora Ambrosius came to power in 479. Some scholars have speculated that he was the leader of the Romano-British at the Battle of Mons Badonicus and as such may have become a historical basis for King Arthur.

Aurelianus according to Gildas

Ambrosius Aurelianus is one of the few people Gildas identifies by name in his sermon De Excidio Britonum. 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 in it. His descendants in our day have become greatly inferior to their grandfather's [avita] excellence." 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' parents "had worn the purple": does this mean that Ambrosius was related to one of the Roman Emperors, perhaps the House of Theodosius or a usurper like Constantine III? The second question is the meaning of the word avita: does it mean "ancestors", or did Gildas intend it to mean more specifically "grandfather" -- thus indicating Ambrosius lived about a generation before the Battle of Mons Badonicus? The lack of information for this period prevents us from decisively answerering these questions.

Other accounts of Aurelianus

The Historia Britonum 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 Historia Regum Britanniae, conflating the personage of Ambrosius with the Welsh tradition of Merlin the visonary, known for oracular utterances that foretold the coming victories of the native Celtic inhabitants of Britain over the Saxons and the Normans.

But there are smaller snippets of tradition preserved in 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, 15km 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 kingdoms of Buellt and Gwrtheyrion. It is not clear how these various traditions relate to each other or that they come from the same tradition, and it is very possible that these references are to a different Ambrosius. The Historia Brittonum dates the battle of Guoloph to 439, forty to fifty years before the battles that Gildas says were commanded by Ambrosius Aurelianus.

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 put forth the hypothesis that belief in Pelagianism reflected an actively provincial outlook in Britain, and that Vortigern represented the Pelagian party, while Ambrosius led the Catholic one. Some later historians accepted this hypothesis as fact, and have created a narrative of events in fifth-century Britain with various degrees of elaborate detail. Yet a simpler alternative interpretation of this 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 parctice of incest.

Ambrosius Aurelianus appears in later pseudo-chronicle tradition beginning with Geoffrey of Monmouth'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. (Note that 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. The Welsh possibly had traditions of two different Ambrosianii, whom Geoffrey of Monmouth confused.

In Welsh Ambrosius appears as Emrys Wledig. In Robert de Boron's Merlin he is called simply Pendragon and his younger brother is named Uter, a name which Uter changes after the death of Pendragon to Uterpendragon. This is probably a confusion that entered oral tradition from Wace's 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 with placenames incorporating the ambre- element: Ombersley in Worcestershire, Ambrosden in Oxfordshire, Amberley in Herefordshire, and Amberley in Gloucestershire. These scholars have claimed this element rerpresents 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. This makes Appelbaum's suggestion more likely. If we combine this etymology with the tradition reported by Geoffrey of Monmouth stating Ambrosius Aurelianus ordered the building 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 is extremely tempting to connect this shadowy figure with Amesbury.

Aurelianus in fiction

In Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon, Aurelianus is depitced as the aging High King of Britain, a "too-ambitious" son of a Western Roman Emperor. His sister's son is Uther Pendragon, but somehow, Uther is described as not having any Roman blood in him. Strangely, Aurelianus is unable to gather the leadership of the native Celts, who refuse to follow any but their own race.

In the Pendragon Cycle by Stephen R. Lawhead, Ambrosius Aurelianus (referred to as "Aurelius") is a minor character, being assassinated soon after becoming High King of Prydein. Lawhead alters the standard Arthurian story somewhat, in that he has Aurelius marry Igraine and become the true father of King Arthur.

In Valerio Massimo Manfredi's The Last Legion Aurelianus is a major character that is shown as the last loyal Roman that goes 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 the Caliban sword of Julius Caesar becomes the legendary excalibur in Britain,

Judging by his situation (a Romano-British living in post-Roman Britain and fighting Mons Badonicus), the titular character from the 2004 movie King Arthur was based on Aurelianus, despite the fact that his name (Artorius Castus) comes from another historical source for the Arthur.


Preceded by:
Vortigern
Mythical British Kings
Succeeded by:
Uther Pendragon

Template:End boxde:Ambrosius Aurelianus nl:Aurelius Ambrosius fr:Ambrosius Aurelianus

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