Search Britannia

BRITANNIA GATEWAYS
History | Travel
EBK | British Life
 Shop Britannia

History Quicklist

Pitkin Guides



Discussion of the Sub-Roman Character of Ambrosius, Part 1
by Michael Veprauskas


GENERATIONS OF
AMBROSIUS
Who was Ambrosius?

Except for the great Arthur himself, more uncertainties surround the mysterious figure of Ambrosius Aurelianus than perhaps any other British Dark Age notable. This has given rise to centuries of speculations, learned opinions and theories. In his monumental Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbons notes:

"By the unanimous, though doubtful, conjecture of our antiquarians, Ambrosius is confounded with Natanleod, who (AD 508) lost his own life and five thousand of his subjects in a battle against Cerdic, the West Saxon."1

J.A. Giles, in his 19th century translation of Nennius' Historia Brittonum, comments in a footnote that:

"... and Ambrosius son to a King of the Damnonii. The latter (Ambrosius) was half a Roman by descent, and naturally supported the Roman interest ..."2

The much earlier Geoffrey of Monmouth, in his History of the Kings of Britain, makes Ambrosius and Uther Pendragon the younger sons and heirs of Constantine Fendigaid, brother of Aldroenus, King of Brittany.3

*               *               *

The earliest reference to Ambrosius is in a tract called De Excidio Brittaniae, by the 6th century cleric Gildas, writing circa AD 540. As has often been pointed out, this is not history per se, but an extended sermon concerning the evils of his time. In order to bring to light the circumstances of the current evils, Gildas gives a general gloss of "British History" for the benefit of his readers. His prime value lies in being the closest thing we have to a contemporary voice, to helping us fill the void of knowledge regarding 5th century events in Britain. What does he say regarding Ambrosius? Recalling events following the aftermath of the Saxon revolt, and the desperate plight of the Britons:

"that they might not be brought to utter destruction, took arms under the conduct of Ambrosius Aurelianus, a modest man, who of all the Roman nation was then alone in the confusion of this troubled period by chance left alive. His parents, who for their merit were adorned with the purple, had been slain in these same broils, and now his progeny in these our days, although shamefully degenerated from the worthiness of their ancestors, provoke to battle their cruel conquerors, and by the goodness of our Lord obtain the victory."4

Another translation of this passage of Gildas, which seems to more accurately reflect the intent of the author, gives the last part as:

"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."5

In a literary work where Gildas has very few kind words for anybody, the above becomes all the more remarkable. In these few sentences, Gildas not only names the initial leader of the British counter offensive, but sketches some four generations of Ambrosii! These four generations cover some 100 years, the first two forming the conflated figure of "Ambrosius" that we have received in our day.

Next: Generations of Ambrosius Part Two

Footnotes:

  1. Edward Gibbons, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. IV, p.363 (note).
  2. J.A. Giles, Historia Brittonum, note to section #31.
  3. Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain, vi.4 - vi.5.
  4. Gildas, De Excidio Brittaniae, section #25, translation by J.A. Giles.
  5. Gildas, De Excidio Brittaniae, section #25, translation by M. Winterbottom.

  Britannia.com    Copyright 1998 Britannia.com, LLC