King Arthur (2004, dir. Antoine Fuqua, screenplay by David Franzoni) opens with a prologue text, narrated, we eventually learn, by one of Arthur’s knights.
“By 300 AD, the Roman Empire extended from Arabia to Britain. But they wanted more. More land, more peoples loyal and subservient to Rome. But no people so important as the powerful Sarmatians to the east. Thousands died on that field and when the smoke cleared on the fourth day, the only Sarmatian soldiers left alive were members of the decimated but legendary cavalry. The Romans, impressed by their bravery and horsemanship spared their lives. In exchange, these warriors were incorporated into the Roman military. Better they had died that day. For the second part of the bargain they struck indebted not only themselves but also their sons and their sons and so on, to serve the empire as knights. I was such a son. Our post was Britain, or at least the southern half. For the land was divided by a 73-mile wall, built three centuries before us to protect the Empire from the native fighters of the North. So as our forefathers had done, we made our way in the cortege of the Roman commander in Britain, ancestrally named for the first Artorius, or Arthur.”
This opening signals that the film is drawing off the so-called Sarmatian Theory about King Arthur. This theory has two parts, one focused on Lucius Artorius Castus and the other involving an ancient people called the Sarmatians.
Lucius Artorius Castus
Artorius is primarily known from two large fragments of a late 2nd or early 3rd century sarcophagus that were used in building a wall of a church in Croatia at some point prior to the late 19th century. (This is less strange than it sounds; pre-modern peoples frequently re-used stonework like this.) The two surviving fragments commemorate Lucius Artorius Castus by describing his military career. According to the inscription, Artorius served in Syria, Judea, the region around modern Budapest and Romania, Italy, either in Armorica (modern Brittany) or more probably Armenia, and most importantly (for this theory) in northern England, before eventually being named governor of modern Croatia. The inscription does not explicitly say he served in Britain; rather it says that he served as Prefect of the Sixth Legion Victrix, a legion that during the period in question was stationed at Eboracum (modern York). The exact dating of his career is unclear; dates range from the mid-2nd century (with his governorship occurring sometime between 167 and 185) to the period between 215 to 232 AD.
In 1924, a medieval scholar named Kemp Malone pointed out that a man with the name of Artorius serving in northern England could in theory have inspired the character of King Arthur. As we saw in my last post, if Arthur was a historical person at all, he probably acted as a general in at least one major battle in southwestern England around 495 AD. Artorius, however, is at least 250 years too early to be that man, and as Prefect of the Sixth Legion Victrix would not actually have participated in battles, since a Legion’s Prefect was an administrative officer and usually an older man rather than a leader of troops.
So What About the Sarmatians?
The Sarmatians were a confederation of Iranian peoples who initially occupied Sarmatia, the region north of the Black Sea, but who gradually migrated westward during the Roman period. They were primarily known as cavalry warriors. In 175 AD, the emperor Marcus Aurelius stationed 5,500 Sarmatians in Britain. This unit may have remained there for generations; a 5th century Roman document mentions a ‘Sarmatian formation’ serving in northern Britain, although by that point it may well have been manned by men with no ethnic connection to the Sarmatians who founded the unit.
In 1975, Helmut Nickel floated a theory that perhaps Artorius led a unit of Sarmatians and somehow formed the basis for the stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. In 1994, two scholars of folklore, C. Scott Littleton and Linda Malcor, proposed an entirely hypothetical reconstruction of Artorius’ career, apparently independently of Nickel’s ideas. They proposed that Artorius had fought against the Sarmatians during his time in eastern Europe and that because he had experience with Sarmatians, the emperor assigned him to command a unit of Sarmatians that fought a campaign around Hadrian’s Wall against a group of invading Caledonians. His unit being destroyed, he then returned to Eboracum and was subsequently sent with a cavalry unit to Armorica.
The primary evidence Littleton and Malcor offer in support of this hypothesis is that certain elements of the late medieval Arthurian legend have parallels in legends that derive from the Caucasus region, not far to the east of Sarmatia. These ‘Nart Sagas’ are of uncertain dating, being only recorded in the 19th century AD, although elements of them seem to go a long way back into the Ancient period. The most interesting parallels include
- A Nart warrior’s sword must be thrown into the sea when he dies. One particular character asks a friend to undertake this task for him, but the friend twice lies about doing it before finally throwing it into the sea. This same scenario occurs in Thomas Malory’s 15th century description of the death of Arthur at the battle of Camelot, in which Bedivere is ordered to throw Excalibur into a lake.
- Two Nart heroes collect the beards of their foes to make into cloaks. Different versions of the Arthurian legends describe him fighting an enemy who does the same thing.
- The Cup of the Narts appears at feasts and grants each person what they most like to eat. It can only be touched by a warrior without a flaw. The Holy Grail does this when it appears at Camelot. It is finally attained by the pure Sir Galahad.
- A magical woman dressed in white and associated with water appears both in the Nart Sagas and in Arthurian legend (where she is called the Lady of the Lake).
- The Sarmatians are closely related to the Alans. Various names containing ‘alan’ occur in various Arthurian stories, including Alain le Gros, Elaine, and most importantly Lancelot, which according to Littleton and Malcor could be a corruption of Alanas a Lot (“Alan of Lot River’).
- The Sarmatians were noted cavalry warriors, and so too were Arthur’s knights.
So here essentially is the Sarmatian Theory. Artorius led a group of Sarmatians in northern Britain briefly. At some point after his death, he was fused with various Sarmatian heroes and acquired a collection of stories and characters around him that ultimately evolved into the character of King Arthur. And that’s basically what King Arthur claims is the historical truth behind Arthur.
So Does the Sarmatian Theory Actually Work?
No. It’s riddled with problems. The biggest problem is that Littleton and Malcor offer literally no evidence connecting Artorius to the Sarmatians sent to Britain. It’s unlikely that Artorius commanded Sarmatian troops in battle, since by the time he was stationed with the Sixth Legion Victrix he was old enough to not be leading troops in battle, and they would have been with a different unit anyway.
In addition to not offering any actual evidence to connect Artorius and the Sarmatians, they also don’t explain why Artorius should have become the focus of an enduring legend. In their hypothetical reconstruction of Artorius’ career, the Sarmatians are eventually destroyed, so if he did lead them, he wasn’t a successful general. Nor did he die in Britain. He died years later in Croatia. Nor do they explain why his legend would have been passed down for centuries from Romanized Sarmatians to Romanized Celts to Anglo-Saxons and eventually to Norman English, other than a general tendency of people to repeat old stories.
Additionally, this theory ignores the story about Arthur leading troops at the battle of Mt. Badon. Why would a long-dead unsuccessful commander from the 3rd century become attached to a battle fought two centuries later in an entirely different region of Britain?
Another huge problem is that the various motifs Littleton and Malcor cite are comparatively late additions to the Arthurian legends. Arthurian stories were circulating in Wales at least by the 8th or 9th century, and they remained Welsh story-matter until the mid-12th century when Geoffrey of Monmouth incorporated Arthur into his History of the Kings of Britain, thus bringing Arthur to the attention of the Anglo-Norman nobility. Since the Anglo-Normans were Frenchmen who had conquered England in 1066, this meant that the ‘Matter of Britain’ crossed over to France and began to circulate there, and French stories about these characters eventually crossed back to England and embedded themselves definitively in the corpus of Arthurian stories.
Most of the details that Littleton and Malcor cite as supposed evidence of Sarmatian influence don’t occur in the Welsh stories or in Geoffrey’s History. Instead, they trace back to late 12th century French stories or later English works. The Grail first appears in the late 12th century in a work by the French author Chretien de Troyes, where it is a serving platter, not a cup at all. “Elaine” is a French variant on “Helen”, and it traces back to ancient Greece (Helen of Troy, y’all). Lancelot first appears in another of Chretien de Troyes’s French works. The stories about Excalibur being thrown into a lake at the end of Arthur’s life and the various characters called the Lady of the Lake are 13th and 14th century additions. The first appearance of the beard-collecting foe is Geoffrey’s Historia, where he’s a giant. The Sarmatian Theory claims that these details are part of the core Arthurian story, but doesn’t explain why the earliest stories about Arthur don’t make any mention of these details, nor does it do a very good job of explaining how they eventually got folded back into the Arthurian legends after being absent for the better part of a thousand years. It makes far more sense to see these elements as having been independently created in the 12th through 15th centuries, as scholars traditionally think.
Early Welsh warfare emphasized fighting on foot far more than fighting on horseback, since Wales is quite hilly terrain, which would make things like cavalry charges extremely difficult. And the Welsh Arthur seems to be fighting more on foot than on horseback. It’s only when the cavalry-using Anglo-Normans conquered England that Arthur and his ‘knights’ begin using horses. But the Sarmatian Theory holds that all the emphasis on cavalry warriors is an echo of Sarmatian cavalry warfare a millennium earlier rather than a reflection of the cavalry warfare employed by the culture in which the stories were being written down and favored by the men who were the patron of those authors. This is sort of like saying that the popularity of Cop Films in American culture is due to medieval stories of law enforcement; after all, the Sheriff of Nottingham is a famous late medieval character, so he was obviously the inspiration for 20th century Buddy Cop pictures.
Finally, the Nart Sagas were only written down in the 19th century. Exactly how old they are is unprovable. While some parts of them do seem to draw on ancient Iranian material, there’s no way to be certain that the stories were actually composed during the Roman period; 19th century nationalists were definitely not above fabricating supposedly old texts to support their claims of cultural identity. One could, in fact, argue that any similarities between the Nart Sagas and Arthurian legend are because whoever composed them borrowed from Arthurian literature. And the Nart stories aren’t actually Sarmatian or from Sarmatia; they’re from Ossetia, on the eastern side of the Black Sea.
As for ‘Lancelot’ originating from ‘Alanas a Lot River’…excuse me, I can’t actually type that with a straight face. Malcor and Littleton demolish a fringe theory that ‘Lancelot’ is a Welsh name, but ignore the far more common theory that it is a French diminutive of ‘Lanzo’. Their evidence that it might actually be from ‘Alanus’ is, and I AM NOT JOKING, an email from somebody who suggested it to them.
So the Sarmatian Theory suffers from a complete lack of genuine evidence; it’s entirely speculation. It fails to explain why this obscure career military officers would have become the focal point of a group of legends borrowed from an ethnically unrelated people and why those stories would have managed to survive for a thousand years. It takes fairly obvious facts (like the idea that Chretien de Troyes invented both Lancelot and the Holy Grail) and replaces them with far more complex scenarios in violation of Occam’s Razor, and it relies on an undatable collection of stories being almost 2000 years older than their first actual documentation and being used by a people only indirectly connected to those stories.
The Sarmatian Theory in the Film
In Fuqua’s King Arthur, the main characters are descendants of the original 3rd century Sarmatians (although no effort is made to make them look ethnically different from the Romans and Romanized Celts around them). The opening narration says that after their defeat, the Sarmatians agreed to bind their descendants to perpetual military service to the Roman Empire, so that they are sort of hereditary military serfs, of a type that actually never existed in Roman society. But, in true Hollywood fashion, these last Sarmatians are due to get their discharge papers, ending their centuries of servitude, until the asshole bishop Germanus (Ivano Marescotti) tells them that they have to go (say it with me now) on One Last Mission to rescue some Roman citizens inexplicably living north of Hadrian’s Wall. This is sort of like a Cop Film where the cop is on his last day of service, only he’s actually a vampire who’s been serving on the force since the American Revolution; you just know he’s going to get staked by the villain early in the film so his buddy can avenge him. (Spoiler: don’t expect all of Arthur’s men to make it to the closing credits.)
Arthur (Clive Owen, looking very Clive Oweny) is not the original Artorius Castus. Rather, he is the descendant of the original Artorius Castus “ancestrally named for the first Artorius or Arthur”. Like every other time Hollywood tries to use Roman names, this film doesn’t understand Roman naming conventions, because it thinks that ‘Artorius’ is a given name and ‘Castus’ is a family name, when in reality ‘Artorius Castus’ is a pair of inherited family names and Owen’s character’s given name is never mentioned. But it’s the 5th century and the whole damn Empire is breaking down, so it’s ok that people are forgetting how to name their children. If I had to spend my time frantically trying to rescue Roman citizens living in other countries while my entire government was falling into the hands of douchebag clergymen, I’d probably forget my given name too.
Arthur and his men have become world-famous, or at least world-famous in Britain, because Guinevere (Kiera Knightley), living to the north of Hadrian’s Wall and not even being part of Roman society, has heard stories of Arthur and his men. So these Sarmatian troops are real bad-asses, even though they never actually fight from horseback the way that Sarmatians are supposed to.
So the film has nicely solved one of the Sarmatian Theory’s problems. The famous Artorius Castus is not the 3rd century Roman but his 5th century Sarmatian descendant, and it’s the distorted events of his life that we remember today. It’s a sign that your scholarly theory isn’t very strong when a Hollywood film can actually improve on it.
But that’s pretty much the only thing this film manages to do right. The rest of the film, as we’ll see next time, is just a mess.
Want to Know More?
King Arthuris available on Amazon.
If you really want to dig into the Sarmatian Theory, you’ll find it in From Scythia to Camelot: A Radical Reassessment of the Legends of King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, and the Holy Grail (Arthurian Characters and Themes). I don’t recommend it, unless you’re especially interested in alternative theories about the Matter of Britain.