The following brief essay is an attempt to “think outside the box” regarding some important legendary (or semi-historical) figures of Dark Age Britain.
I believe some important points have been missed in previous analyses of Vortigern as well as the son of Constantine in British tradition, i.e. Uther Pendragon.
In the past, I have sought to show a connection between the Vortigern of Gildas and Nennius and the various Irish Foirtcherns. Evidence from the Irish sources strongly suggest Vortigern was half Irish and half British.
But in the pseudo-history of Geoffrey of Monmouth, the Irish element is decidedly absent. Geoffrey tells us two important things: 1) it is Vortigern who kills Constantine III’s son, Constans, and 2) it is Vortigern who is burned to death in his castle. [Never mind the perpetuator of this deed is Ambrosius; I have shown in prior works that he is a reflection of the 4th century prefect of Gaul. In Geoffrey’s predecessor Nennius, St. Germanus calls fire down from heaven to burn up Vortigern in his palace.]
Why are these two motifs so important? Because HISTORICALLY SPEAKING, Constans was killed by Gerontius, the British Magister Militum of Constantine III. Furthermore, Gerontius was burnt to death in his own house by his own mutinous Spanish troops.
While someone at some point must have noticed this direct correlation, I have not been privy to such a treatment of the Vortigern story. Gerontius became known as Geraint in Dumnonian and Welsh story. He is probably the basis for Geraint son of Erbin son of Constantine, who lies at the beginning of the Cornish genealogy.
As we all know, Vortigern was blamed for inviting in the Saxons and bringing ruin upon Britain. This fits to a remarkable degree what we know of Gerontius. The following passage is from Zosimus:
"Constans was afterwards a second time sent into Spain, and took with him Justus as his general. Gerontius being dissatisfied at this, and having conciliated the favour of the soldiers in that quarter, incited the barbarians who were in Gallia Celtica to revolt against Constantine. Constantine being unable to withstand these, the greater part of his army being in Spain, the barbarians beyond the Rhine made such unbounded incursions over every province, as to reduce not only the Britons, but some of the Celtic nations also to the necessity of revolting from the empire, and living no longer under the Roman laws but as they themselves pleased. The Britons therefore took up arms, and incurred many dangerous enterprises for their own protection, until they had freed their cities from the barbarians who besieged them. In a similar manner, the whole of Armorica, with other provinces of Gaul, delivered themselves by the same means; expelling the Roman magistrates or officers, and erecting a government, such as they pleased, of their own."
This account makes it plain THAT IS WAS THE FAULT OF GERONTIUS that Britain found itself unprotected and at the mercy of an incursion of “barbarians” (read ‘Saxons”, in this particular context). It also shows us that the Britons not only threw off Roman rule at this time, but that they launched a major defensive action against the invading barbarians and managed, for a time, to repulse them.
[I've elsewhere shown that the Welsh tradition which places Ambrosius and Vortigern at Dinas Emrys - itself a relocation for Amesbury near Stonehenge - may echo the encounter of St. Ambrose, son of the Ambrosius who was Prefect of Gaul, with the British-proclaimed emperor Magnus Maximus. Dinas Emrys is in Eryri, from the word for eagle, and Ambrose and Maximus were both present at Aquilea. Whatever the actual etymology of Aquilea, it may well have been fancifully linked to Latin aquila, eagle. Thus tradition may have brought Vortigern into connection with yet another famous early figure. As an aside, I would mention that Gerontius put up a pretender named Maximus, perhaps his own son.]
Now, according to Gildas, it was under Ambrosius that the Britons rallied to repulse the Saxons. But, once again, Ambrosius has been displaced chronologically, as can be easily demonstrated (and I have done so in my book THE ARTHUR OF HISTORY). He does not belong to the 5th century, but to the 4th. Many have postulated a descendent of the Gallic prefect. This is scarcely possible. It may be that a British chieftain gave the name of the Gallic prefect to one of his sons in the 5th century. But if he did, we cannot possibly know this. Evidence in Nennius clearly demonstrates that Ambrosius not only belongs to the 4th century as a historical personage, but that because his name means ‘the divine or immortal one’, he was identified with the god Lleu/Mabon of Gwynedd in the folktale of Dinas Emrys.
In my most recent revision of THE ARTHUR OF HISTORY, I identified Uther Pendragon with Ambrosius. There were several reasons for my doing so. First, Vortigern was in dread of Ambrosius, which seemed to account for the Uther (‘Terrible’) name. Second, in Nennius Ambrosius is called the ‘great king’ among the Britons, and this seemed like it would translate well into the Welsh poetic paraphrasis Pendragon, ‘Chief leader or warrior’. Finally, Ambrosius is brought into close connection with the worms or dragons of Dinas Emrys. In other words, Uther Pendragon was merely a title for Ambrosius, a sort of doublet.
Only recently, however, I happened to recall that the second son of Constantine III was named Julian. This is interesting, for the Emperor Julian the Apostate of the 4th century is referred to in the work of Gregory of Nazianus’s ‘First Invective Against Julian’ as ‘the Dragon’ (of Revelations). In the same work, we are told:
“Moreover he shows his audacity against the great symbol [the Chi-Ro of Constantine the Great], which marches in procession along with the Cross, and leads the army, elevated on high, being both a solace to toil, and so named in the Roman language, and king (as one may express it) over all the other standards, whatever are adorned with imperial portraits, and expanded webs in divers dyes and pictures, and whatever, breathing through the fearful gaping mouths of dragons, raised on high on the tops of spears, and filled with wind throughout their hollow bodies, spotted over with woven scales, present to the eye a most agreeable and at the same time terrible show.”
In this last, Gregory in speaking out against the Roman draco or ‘dragon’ standard, which according to Geoffrey of Monmouth Uther Pendragon carried in his wars. The draco is described as “fearful” and “terrible.”
Twice in the historical work of Ammianus Marcellinus Julian the Apostate is associated with the draco standard (passages cited are from http://www.fectio.org.uk/articles/draco.htm#_ednref8):
Eoque adfirmante primis auspiciis non congruere aptari muliebri mundo, equi phalerae quaerebantur, uti coronatus speciem saltem obscuram superioris praetenderet potestatis sed cum id quoque turpe esse adseveraret, Maurus nomine quidam, postea comes, qui rem male gessit apud Succorum angustias, Petulantium tunc hastatus, abstractum sibi torquem, quo ut draconarius utebatur, capiti Iuliani inposuit confidenter, qui trusus ad necessitatem extremam iamque periculum praesens vitare non posse advertens, si reniti perseverasset, quinos omnibus aureos argentique singula pondo, promisit.
'But since he insisted that at the time of his first auspices it was not fitting for him to wear a woman's adornment, they looked about for a horse's trapping, so that being crowned with it he might display at least some obscure token of a loftier station. But when he declared that this also was shameful, a man called Maurus, afterwards a count and defeated at the pass of Succi, but then a standard-bearer of the Petulantes, took off the neck-chain which he wore as carrier of the dragon and boldly placed it on Julian's head. He, driven to the extremity of compulsion, and perceiving that he could not avoid imminent danger if he persisted in his resistance, promised each man five gold pieces and a pound of silver.'
Quo agnito per purpureum signum draconis, summitati hastae longioris aptatum velut senectutis pendentis exuvias, stetit unius turmae tribunus et pallore timoreque perculsus ad aciem integrandam recurrit.
'On recognising him by the purple ensign of a dragon, fitted to the top of a very long lance and spreading out like the slough of a serpent, the tribune of one of the squadrons stopped, and pale and struck with fear rode back to renew the battle.'
Is it possible, then, that Geoffrey of Monmouth associated Uther Pendragon with Julian, son of Constantine III, a name that had become confused with that of the previous Julian, the emperor who was a “Dragon” and who bore with him the standard of the Draco?
If so, then at least as far as Geoffrey was concerned, Uther Pendragon = Julian son of Constantine III, while Vortigern = Gerontius.
What does this tell us – if anything – about Arthur, son of Uther?
The only thing we know about Julian is that he was executed with his father Constantine III somewhere between Arles and Ravenna in 411 A.D. This means that it is impossible for Arthur to have been Julian’s son. Arthur fought the Battle of Badon (supposedly) around 516 A.D. He died at Camlann c. 537 A.D.
We cannot say, though, that Arthur might not have descended from Julian or that he did not CLAIM descent from Julian. Constantine III modelled himself after Constantine the Great. Both had declared themselves emperors while in Britian, and both had sons named Constans. Emperor Julian the Apostate was the son of Julius Constantius, who was a half-brother of Constantine the Great. Constantine the Great had declared himself emperor while at York, the place where the 2nd or 3rd century Lucius Artorius Castus had been camp prefect. It is wholly conceivable that Constantine III declared himself emperor in the exact same place. If so, his son Julian may have taken a British wife and produced a line that eventually yielded the Arthur of the 5th-6th centuries.
Of course, this is all dependent on the ever-unreliable fiction of Geoffrey of Monmouth. The fact that Vortigern in all other early sources would appear to be Irish or at least half-Irish does not lend itself well to seeing him as Gerontius. And it is much more reasonable to connect Uther the Terrible Dragon with Ambrosius, rather than with a Julian who was wrongly linked to the earlier emperor of that name. Arthur’s direct descent from either Ambrosius or Julian cannot be reconciled chronologically. My conclusion can only be that Geoffrey utilized early Continental sources to concoct his story, and that motifs belonging properly to these last great Roman figures of the West were “borrowed” so that he could flesh out the “histories” of his own heroes.