Explorations in Arthurian History The Romans The placing of Arthur is a difficult task, considering that we have so very little to go on and several conflicting traditions from which to draw. Most of the early tales of Arthur are Welsh. Some of the later tales are Scottish. A great many of the tales call Arthur King of the Britons, which can be taken to mean that he was king of just Britain, excluding Wales and Scotland. Sites with Arthur’s name in them abound and, taken together, would probably cover the expanse of the isle of Britannia.
Traditions passed down from generation to generation, first orally and then written, are just as much a part of history as cold facts. Yet it is cold facts that we pursue when we study archaeology. We are looking into the distant past with this subject, so we have to rely on what was many years ago. Not much is left standing. The exceptions, of course, are many things Roman and a good number of things Welsh.
Let us begin with the Romans. Julius Caesar, of course, is given credit for “discovering” the island for Rome. He “visited” twice and deemed it fit for occupation. It wasn’t until Claudius arrived in 43 that the island was overrun with Roman influence. The Romans stayed for about 400 years and brought a kind of order not seen before. When they abandoned Britain to its own squabbles, they left behind a legacy of structures and traditions.
In the way of order they left several forts, most of them connected to the two giant walls: Hadrian’s Wall (right) and the Antonine Wall (left). Both were ordered built by emperors and named after themselves. Both, of course, were built to contain what the Romans thought of barbarians in the north. Both stand, in part, to this day. It is a testament to Roman craftsmanship and British respect for the past.
But the Romans also left structures in towns and the countryside. Prominent examples can be found still standing at Bath and Wroxeter (the Roman metropolis Viroconium). These are just two examples of the many that are available. But these two, along with the two walls, will serve as an introduction to Arthurian Archaeology. As the Romans worked their back eastward toward Rome, they left their strongholds behind.
Viroconium was once the military stronghold for the Roman conquest of Wales. In 78, this headquarters transferred to Chester. Viroconium was later turned into the military stronghold of Vortigern in Powys. Modern excavations have turned up quite an array of Roman buildings. And Vortigern, of course, is a towering figure in matters Arthurian, bringing about both the advent of Merlin as a prophet and the wishful idea that Saxons could fight side by side with Britons against Picts and Scots. Arthurian traditions holds that Arthur fought great battles against Saxons, so he might have had Vortigern to blame for this.
The Saxons and Romans mingle again at Bath (the Roman Aquae Sulis). The site of ancient hot springs was a thriving Roman town and then a target of Saxon “settlers.” Geoffrey of Monmouth, who gave us the fanciful History of the Kings of Britain, says that Arthur fought his greatest battle at Bath. Some historians have suggested that Badon Hill, which most souces list as Arthur’s greatest battle, was actually Bath-on in the British language of the time. And some historians have suggested that the hill outside Bath is Little Solsbury Hill. The presence is strong all over the island, including at such other Arthurian places as Caerleon, Carmarthen, Cadbury, Colchester, Catterick.
Let us examine each in brief: Caerleon has been called Arthur’s court since Geoffrey of Monmouth did it in the Historia regum Britannie. This is not to say that it has been called Camelot, although some have said it was so. Carmarthen has been said to be Arthur’s birthplace; it is certainly the source of much Welsh legends, as evidenced by the Black Book of Carmarthen. Cadbury (actually South Cadbury) has been called Camelot by John Leland, Leslie Alcock, Geoffrey Ashe, and other famous historians Colchester has also been called Camelot, based on its Roman name, Camulodonum. The oldest town in Britian, it was the Roman occupiers’ first capital.
Catterick is the site of the epic battle between the Angles and the Gododdin, chronicled in Y Gododdin, which gives Arthur a fleeting mention. It should be noted here that this is by no means a complete rendering of the Roman presence or the remains of such in Britain. Rather, the sites mentioned are necessary to the discussion of Arthurian Archaeology.