When we cast our gaze back through the murky waters of the Dark Ages, there is one figure that seems rather neglected by the armies of moderns historians. His name was Ambrosius Aurelianus, a Roman general who in the 5th century led Brythonic opposition to the first furious waves of Saxon invaders. Sipping now the bramble wine Ive been brewing all Autumn (tasty & natural & strong), I shall now present the most cutting edge account of his life & times. We must begin with Gildas, who celebrated the fame of Ambrosius within a couple of generations of his lifetime.
That they (The Britons) 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
From this we glean the following facts.
Ambrosius was a Roman – His surname Aurelianus means he belonged to the high-status Aureli gens. This was an ancient Pleibian family, which broke into numerous branches such as the Cottae, Oristedes & the Symmachi.
He was one of the last true Romans to remain in Britain – That some stayed behind in positions of power after the departure of the legions is confirmed by a chronicle known as the Bern Codex; ‘In the year 409, Rome was taken by the Goths, and from that time Roman rule came to an end in Britain, except for some, who were born there, and who reigned for a short time.’
His parents were members of the Roman aristocracy – they were probably of senatorial or consular rank on account of them wearing purple-bordered togas.
His parents had been slain in Britain – Gildas describes their plight; ‘The miserable remnant, being taken in the mountains, were murdered in great numbers.’
The next record of Ambrosius comes from the Historia Brittonum of the Welsh monk Nennius. The material seems to have been compiled by several historians, including Gildas, with the final pieces added in the late seventh century. It would be in the early 9th century that Nennius would transcribe his version of the text, which tells us;
“What is your name?” asked the king (Vortigern); “I am called Ambrose,” returned the boy; and in answer to the king’s question, “What is your origin?” he replied, “A Roman consul was my father.’
From this we glean the following facts;
Ambrosius was a boy after 450 (i.e he was born in the 440s) – Chronologically, the passage above occurred after the arrival of the Saxons lin 449. This connects with a passage in Roger De Hovedon; ‘In the year of grace 464, the Britons sent messengers into Brittany to Aurelius Ambrosius and his brother Uterpendragon, who had been sent there for fear of Vortigern, beseeching them to come over from the Armorican country without delay, to drive out the Saxons and king Vortigern, and take the crown themselves. As they had now arrived at man’s estate, they began to make preparations of men and ships for the expedition.’
The father of Ambrosius was a Roman consul - At this period, the Roman empire elected two consuls every year, one for the western empire based in Rome, & the other for the eastern empire in Constantinople.
The works of Gildas & Nennius are the two foundation stones of all Dark-Age research, two candles of illumination without which our knowledge of that great period in history would be as black as midnight. Yet they do offer us glimpses of truth & in the case of Ambrosius have given us enough clues as to asecrtain the identity of his father. Blending the facts we have already gathered we know we are looking for;
(i) A Roman Consul…
(ii) …from the Aureli gens…
(iii) … able to have children in the 440s.
It is time to look through the consular list of Rome, in particular the one kept by Cassiodorus. Looking through his list, there are only three consuls who bear the name Aurelianus in the 5th century. The first is far too early (Aurelianus, consul 400) & likewise the third is far too late (Quintus Aurelius Memmius Symmachus, consul 485), which leaves only one possible candidate for an Aurelian consul. His name was Quintus Aurelius Symmachus (*), a member of the Symmachi branch of the Aureli gens, & was consul for the western empire in 446 AD. Throughout my litological surveys of 2012 I have been surprised how much historical information has been missed by many centuries of serious scholars, but this particular nugget seems so obvious its perpetual non-discovery defies belief. When our oldest historians tell us that a certain man was the son of a Roman consul, common sense dictates we flick through a list of Roman consuls just as we moderns flick through a telephone directory!
It is at this point, however, that the hard evidence for Aureliius ends, & from now we must abide with pure speculation. Yet the remaining evidence contains tantalising essences of truth, such as the connection between Quintus, Britain & his fellow consul for 446, Flavius Aetius. When he took over the reigns of the eastern empire that year, Aetius was entering his third office as a consul, during which time Gildas records him receiving a desperate letter from the British; “To Aetius, now consul for the third time: the groans of the Britons… The barbarians drive us to the sea; the sea throws us back on the barbarians: thus two modes of death await us, we are either slain or drowned.”
Gildas then very curtly says that the Romans ‘could not assist them.’ However, knowing that Quintus was in Britain, slain in the Gildasian ‘broils’ which beset the native Britons, it is possible that Aetius (**) sent Quintus on some post-consular military mission to Britain c.450. Both his arrival in the islands at that time & his death are supported by Nennius.
The king (Vortigern) sent messengers throughout Britain, in search of a child born without a father. After having inquired in all the provinces, they came to the field of Aelecti, in the district of Glevesing, where a party of boys were playing at ball. And two of them quarrelling, one said to the other, “” boy without a father, no good will ever happen to you. (***)
This passage gives us several new incites. It makes apparent that Quintus was slain before the birth of his son Ambrosius. We also learn that Ambrosius lived in the kingdom of Glywysing, a coastal sub-kingdom between the modern-day cities of Swansea & Cardiff. This in turn leads us to a contemporary of Ambrosius – Saint Paul Aurelian. His Vita, written by Wrmonoc, tells us;
Saint Paul, surnamed Aurelian, the son of a certain count named Perphirius, who held a position of high rank in the world, came from a province which is in the language of the british race, because a section of it is regarded as an island, is called Penychen.
Penychen was one of the the three cantrefs of Glywysing (along with Gwynllwyg & Gorfynydd) placing another nbly-born Aurelian in the very area where the young Ambrosius grew up. With the saint dying c.575 AD, he would have been born two generations or so after Ambrosius. As both their home regions & surnames match, it is highly likely that they were related, especially when Wrmonoc tells us that Paul, ‘sprang from a family most noble in the eyes of the world.’ It is tempting to conflate Ambrosius with Count Perphirius (***), especially when the latter mean means ‘clad-in-purple.’ Indeed, the title comites/count was used for a number of different positions of power in the Roman empire, from military stations to civic seats, strongly suggesting Paul’s father was a Roman. Yet this is impossible to prove Ambrosisus & Perphirius were one & the same, especially when the name Perphirius was used elsewhere by figures such as a famous 5th century Roman charioteer.
Returning to Ambrosius Aurelianus, Nennius tells us that he was the great king among the kings of Britain, & we can see his name scattered across the country, from the Humber estuary in the north, to Amesbury in the south, which in the ninth century was know as Ambresbyrig, “the burh of Ambrosius”. (****) From these fortified poistions he would have rallied the British to the ongoing cause, as defined by Gildas;
Sometimes our countrymen, sometimes the enemy, won the field, to the end that our Lord might this land try after his accustomed manner these his Israelites, whether they loved him or not, until the year of the siege of Badon.
The era of these battles is given us by the 8th century English historian Bede, who placed the activities of Ambrosius during the 17 year reign of the eastern Roman Emperor Zeno (474-491). Medival writers such as Geoffrey of Monmouth & Roger De Hovedon gave vivid accounts of his campaigns, imposing his deeds upon the blueprint of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, but their validity as accurate sources can never be ascertained. However, both Monmouth & De Hoveden gave us information that was verifiable in other sources.
The Identity of his Mother
Geoffrey of Monmouth tells us that the boys mother was a daughter of the King of Dyfed; ‘They told them that none knew his father, but that his mother was daughter of the King of Demetia, and that she lived along with the nuns in St. Peter’s Church in that same city.’ Looking through medieval genealogies, it is tempting to see this king as Triphun, with Triphun meaning Tribune, both a military & political rank in Roman times. Indeed, Constantius of Lyon tells us of the presence of a Tribune in Britain in the 430’s;
About this time a deputation from Britain came to tell the bishops of Gaul that the heresy of Pelagius had taken hold of the people over a great part of the country and help ought to be brought to the Catholic faith as soon as possible. A large number of bishops gathered in synod to consider the matter and all turned in help to the two who in everybody’s judgement were the leading lights of religion, namely Germanus and Lupus… Suddenly a man of the rank of Tribune accompanied by his wife, stepped into the middle and put his ten-year-old daughter, who was blind, into the arms of the bishops.
The year of his death
According to Roger DeHovedon, Ambrosius died in the year 498, when;
There appeared a star of wonderful size and brightness, with a single ray, on which was a ball of fire extended like a dragon, out of whose mouth proceeded two rays, one of which seemed to extend its length beyond the regions of Gaul, and the other, verging towards the Irish Sea, terminated in seven smaller rays. Struck with terror at this sight, Uther anxiously inquired of liis wise men what this star portended. They made answer, ” The star and the fiery dragon under the star, are thyself; the ray which stretches towards the region of Gaul, portends that thou wilt have a very powerful son, who will possess the extensive territories which the star covered ; the other ray signifies thy daughter, whose sons and grandsons shall successively possess the kingdom of Britain. Hasten, therefore, most noble prince; thy brother Aurelius Ambrosius, the renowned king of Britain, is dead ; and with him has perished the military glory of the Britons.
Confirmation for this dating of the death of Ambrosius comes from the 6th century Chronicle of Edessa, which tells us that for many days during January 499, there was seen a great comet ‘like a spear.‘ By this time he had become the first great hero of post-Roman Britain, whose descendants it seems carried on the fight. Gildas tells us;
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.
Since Geoffrey of Monmouth, the ‘progeny’ of Ambrosius has been conflated with the other great Brythonic war-leader of the age, King Arthur. Monmouth made him the nephew of Ambrosius, but of this we can never be sure…
(*) Although purely conjectural, we can deduce the motivation behind Quintus’s naming of his son, for the author Macrobius Ambrosius Theodosius (mostly called Ambrosius) dedicated his work ‘De differentiis vel societatibus graeci latinique verbi’ to Quintus. Was this a literary sign of the endearing friendship that drives men to name their children after their greatest friends? Indeed, it seems Macrobius was close to the entire family, for he also wrote about Quintus’ grandfather – also called Quintus Aurelius Symmachus – in his famous ‘Saturnalia.’ This Quintus had been a loyal supporter of the British-based Roman emperor Magnus Maximus. Apart from lands in Britain, this Quintus also had estates in Italy, Sicily & Mauritania (West Africa). He was also a distinguished author, but little of his work has been translated into English. It is possible that through his connections with the British-based Magnus Maximus he may have even held lands in Britain, but this is pure speculation.
(**) In his own endeavors Aetius was much more successful, however, halting Attila & his Huns in their tracks in 451.
(***) Nennius tells us that the mother of Ambrosius at first claimed immaculate conception for Ambroisus, & it was only later that Ambrosius revealed his true identity.
(****)Geoffrey of Monmouth places Ambrosius near to Amesbury by the rather fabricated ordering the building of Stonehenge, perhaps connected to the hillfort known as Vespasian’s camp only two miles from Stonehenge. Other possible Ambrosius sites include;
Ombersley in Worcestershire,
Ambrosden in Oxfordshire,
Amberley in Herefordshire,
Amberley in Gloucestershire
Amberley in West Sussex
Emberton – Buckinghamshire
Ambleston – Pembrokeshire
Ambleside – Cumbria
Emborough – Somerset
Bede – Chronica Majora (725)
Bern Codex – MS Bern Bürgerbibliothek Codex 178, f.11 (c.860)
Cassiodorus – Chronica (519)
Constantius of Lyon – Vita Sancti Germani (480)
De Hovedon, Roger – Chronica (1192)
Geoffrey of Monmouth – History of the Kings of Britain (1130)
Gildas – De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (c550)
Nennius – Historia Brittonum (c.830)
Wrmonoc – Life of Saint Paul Aurelian (884). Taken from The Saints of Cornwall (vol.1) by Gilbert H Doble