Knights dressed in silver armor, the magic sword Excalibur — these are among the legends surrounding King Arthur. But what if he actually lived in a cold, dark time and fought barbarians dressed as a Roman?
Four hundred years after Jesus Christ, the Roman Empire reached as far west as Britain. It was the very edge of the Christian world. In the north of England, the farthest outpost of their empire, the Romans built the 75-mile-long Hadrian's Wall to keep the barbarians out — until the Roman Empire began to crumble.
If King Arthur actually lived, it was during this chaotic, dangerous time known as the Dark Ages. This presents a far different picture from the familiar Arthurian legends, where the great king reigned at Camelot with his unfaithful Queen Guinevere and Merlin the magician, and Sir Lancelot and the knights of the Round Table searched for the Holy Grail.
Is there any historical truth behind all this? Perhaps.
According to one theory, the real Arthur would have lived in the fifth century, leading a group of warriors against barbarian invaders. That is how the most recent Hollywood movie takes on the story in King Arthur, starring Clive Owen as the titular monarch and Keira Knightley as a sword-swinging Guinevere.
"This is the original King Arthur. This is where all the myths came from," said producer Jerry Bruckheimer. "Ours is the special forces of, I guess, the fifth century."
Literary Records Introduce Arthur
Finding information about the real Arthur is not easy as there is very little data emerging from the Dark Ages.
"The oldest written account of Arthur, in which Arthur's name is mentioned, is just a fragmentary mention of him in a poem, where the author says, ' So and so was a great warrior, but he was no Arthur,'" said John Matthews, a consultant on King Arthur.
Literature from the sixth century provides more clues. "There are references, from within a hundred years of his supposed death that talk about a great leader. At that point they still don't name him," said Matthews.
As Matthews describes it, when Arthur lived, Britain was part of the Roman civilization. The Romans built London and gave the Celtic Britons Christianity, running water and Roman citizenship. But in the early fifth century, Rome itself was under attack by barbarians and began withdrawing its troops from the region.
"Britain was left almost defenseless," said Matthews. "And then various people from outside began attacking … and the British people put up quite a fight."
Bruckheimer said Arthur was among the fighters. The first real reference to the leader comes from a Welsh monk in the eighth century who compiled a book about Britain, naming Arturious as the "king of battles."
The monk Nennius described Arthur as a warrior who won 12 battles, briefly defeating the Saxons, invaders from across the sea to the north whom Matthews describes as wild, "battle-hardened warriors."
The Britons were also facing tribesman called Picts, natives who swept down from the Scottish Highlands. "We've researched drawings of what Picts look like and they have these wild tattoos on them … they would fight naked and they were real savages and fierce fighters," said Bruckheimer.
Guinevere, in this version, comes from this group. Arthur's future queen, as played by Knightley is at first a fierce enemy.
The true history of Guinevere is elusive. She is not mentioned in the early tales, turning up only in poems and stories written centuries later, in which she cheats on Arthur with Lancelot and causes him to lose his kingdom.
Adding to the mystery of Arthur are the questions over what happened to his remains. According to medieval lore, Arthur goes to a place called Avalon, from which he will one day return. But in the 1100s, a group of monks claimed they had discovered his body in a coffin in an abbey in Glastonbury, England. The bones later disappeared, apparently stolen by looters in the 16th century.
An Arthur in Roman Dress
Arthur is one of the most written — about figures in history, but his reputation as a king is challenged in King Arthur..
Bruckheimer relies on the theories that speak of Arthur as a warrior and Roman officer while his knights Lancelot and Galahad were horsemen from the plains of central Russia, called Sarmations.
As history tells it, the Sarmatians were defeated by Rome and drafted into the Roman army by Emperor Marcus Aurelius. "He drafted them into the legions, and then posted them as far away as possible," said Matthews. "It was a great way to … to deal with your enemies, short of killing them."
"You'd have to imagine being taken from your home at age 11, let's say, and being forced to become a soldier," said Antoine Fuqua , the film's director. "And you were sent away and you never saw your family again probably … they were servants to Rome … they were like gladiators on horseback."
"They invented the stirrup," said Bruckheimer. "If you have the stirrup, you can control your horse, which means you're much more adept in battle at making your horse move the way you want them to move."
And Bruckheimer asserts Arthur was the leader of the Sarmatians. Among the evidence cited: The Sarmatians were stationed along Hadrian's Wall in the north of Britain and commanded by Lucius Artorius Castus. Artorius, the Roman name for Arthur, is the only prominent leader of that name known to have lived in Britain in the last centuries of the Roman Empire.
Another clue: Among the 12 Roman forts on Hadrian's Wall is Camberglanna, which is similar to the name "Camelot."
There are also parallels between Arthur's legendary sword, Excalibur, and Sarmatian folklore. "Arthur first became king by drawing a sword from a stone," said Matthews. "The Sarmatians worshipped, as a symbol of their god of war, a sword stuck point down in the earth, or in a stone."
Early references to Arthur's search for the Holy Grail, the cup Jesus used in the Last Supper, speak of a magic vessel or a cauldron, also found in Sarmatian folklore.
There are other theories about who the real king Arthur was, with clues that are equally compelling. But the fascinating possibility remains: Somewhere beneath the fantastic tales of Arthur and his knights of Camelot, there was a real man.
"Anybody could have become King Arthur, that's what's great about a great hero, is that he's in you," said Fuqua. "And if it's a righteous cause to … to fight, and you fight, then your name should ring on forever."