Saturday 27 February 2016

Who was Ambrosius Aurelianus? Arthurian Legend.

King Arthur is often confused with Ambrosius Aurelianus. I have fleetingly mentioned Ambrosius several times before, but I think he deserves a post of his own.
Ambrosius was a war leader of Roman-British decent. Surprisingly the earliest mention of him is in the 6th Century by Gildas. Gildas named very few people in his sermon De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, but he does name Ambrosius. This is what he had to say...

"... 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 excellence. Under him our people regained their strength, and challenged the victors to battle. The Lord assented, and the battle went their way."

Although this is very brief, we can deduce a fair amount from it.

Ambrosius was of Roman descent.

"...his parents had worn the purple..."

Purple was a really important colour. It was worn by the Emperors of Rome. It was the colour worn by those of noble heritage as well as senators. Senior officers in the Roman legions also wore a purple band. Maybe his father held a high rank in the army, or maybe he was  a governor of a provenance in England.

The passage also describes his parents being slain by the Saxons and yet he survived.

 Roman men wearing togae praetextae with reddish-purple stripes during a religious procession.

Ambrosius was a Chrisitan.
"...The Lord assented..."

He went into battle with God's help - so from that we can assume he was a Christian.

Ambrosius fought the Saxons.

"Sometimes the Saxons and sometimes the citizens were victorious."

I guess things did not always go the way Ambrosius wanted, but it does tell us that he was a great war-leader.

I always found this line very interesting.

"His descendants in our day have become greatly inferior to their grandfather's excellence."

Who was his Grandfather? He was obviously an important person. There has been a fair few name thrown forward as to who Gildas had been talking about, but it is all speculation.

 Bede mentions Ambrosius in his great work, Ecclesiastical History of the English People

"...Their leader at that time was a certain Ambrosius Aurelianus, a discreet man, who was, as it happened, the sole member of the Roman race who had survived this storm in which his parents, who bore a royal and famous name, had perished. Under his leadership the Britons regained their strength, challenged their victors to battle, and, with God's help, won the day."
It seemed that Bede took his account from Gildas..dare I say Bede had a better way with words?!

Ambrosius's story is picked up by Nennius.

Nennius suggests that Ambrosius was a very influential warlord. Vortigern, another great powerful warlord, feared the return of Roman rule and he saw Ambrosius as more of a threat to his throne than that of the northern invaders. You may recall a story I wrote in an earlier post about Ambrosius, Vortigern, two dragons and a tower that kept falling down. If you missed it, you can read it here.

By the time Monmouth came to talk about him - his story, like many others of the time, had become fictitious and his connection with Arthurian legend was forever cemented. His name is changed to Pendragon - and he becomes High King Arthur's, uncle. Merlin even builds a memorial for him at Stonehenge.

Sometimes it is argued that Ambrosius is Arthur. Both fought at Badon Hill, both were powerful warlords.

Whether Ambrosius was King Arthur, I don't think we will ever know. Whoever he was, he certainly had a very fascinating life.


  1. Never heard of this guy - thanks for sharing.

  2. When Gildas writes, "His descendants in our day have become greatly inferior to their grandfather's excellence," I believe he is referring to the grandchildren of Ambrosius, not introducing someone new (Ambrosius's grandfather).

    The Roman "nomen" (family name) Aurelius is a famous one: Marcus Aurelius was one of five emperors who were not raving megalomaniacs, and Antoninus (Aurelius) Pius was the emperor (another amazingly stable one) who ordered the building of the Antonine Wall. In my Arthurian series I tap into this Aurelius - Aurelianus association to identify Ambrosius (and his nephew Arturus, aka Arthur) as being born of =that= color of purple. :D

  3. The Hypogeum of the Aurelii in Rome provides information about the gens's naming conventions. Both arrangements, e.g. "Aurelius Ambrosius" (as in Geoffrey of Monmouth) and "Ambrosius Aurelius", were standard usage.

    The epitaph of Alan Rufus (c1040-c1093), a renowned member of the Breton House of Rennes (formerly the House of Vannes), alludes to descent from the maternal grandparents of Julius Caesar. The grandfather was one of the brothers Lucius or Marcus Aurelius Cotta. The grandmother was Rutilia of the sept Rutilius Rufus. The Aurelii and Rutilii belonged to the Equestrian order.

    The FitzRandolph family have long claimed male-line descent from the House of Rennes. Analysis of FitzRandolph Y-DNA reveals an origin in ancient central Italy, their haplogroup being R-FGC41936 which has the following mutational descent:

    R-P312/S116 > Z40481 > ZZ11 > U152/S28 > Z56 > BY3548 > Z43/S366 > Z144 > BY28794 > PF6582 > PF6577 > BY3953 > FGC36897 > FGC36895 > A8380 > FGC41936.

    The sequence from Z56 to Z144 is from central Italy and thought to coincide with the original speakers of Latin. Its parent haplogroup U152 were Alpine Celts of the Bell Beaker, Urnfield and Hallstatt cultures. Other descendants of U152 include the Habsburgs and the Somerset/Beaufort line of the House of Plantagenet.

  4. The renowned modesty of Ambrosius Aurelianus is paralleled by the 'readiness to blush for the faults of others' of his contemporary Riothamus ('High King of the Britons') who is known for his activities (circa 468-471) in Gaul, where he was a friend of the eminent jurist Sidonius Apollinaris and an ally of the Western Emperor Anthemius.

    According to a Breton king list, 'Riotham' reigned from about 455 to 505.


See you on your next coffee break!
Take Care,
Mary Anne xxx