Tony Sullivan, The Roman King Arthur? (Pen & Sword, 2022)
The theory that the legendary King Arthur was based on a Roman soldier, Lucius Artorius Castus, goes back to 1924 and was revived in the 1970s. It appears here again in Tony Sullivan’s forensic analysis of the evidence for and against Artorius. If proven correct, that would settle a lot of arguments formulated over centuries of curiosity. But that isn’t Sullivan’s mission in this interesting and thoughtful book.
Sullivan introduces the central character in this story. Lucius Artorius Castus, a Roman equestrian officer who comes to us through two inscriptions and a signet ring, and from those we can trace his military career. Sullivan works his way through the interpretations of this evidence and how it has become linked to contextual evidence supporting the Arthurian legend. He finds it wanting. Sullivan also presents the evidence for the King Arthur legend. Agan, the author can find no connection to Artorius. Sullivan then digs into the wider context of Roman history from 150 CE to 250 CE, asking if the case can be made for Artorius having an extraordinary career worthy of the Arthurian legend. At the end of that lengthy chapter, Sullivan summarises the case for Artorius so far, and it does not look good for the Roman Arthur. Sullivan turns to the all-important Sarmatian connection: did Artorius command Sarmatians in Britain? As with all his chapters, Sullivan works his way carefully through the evidence, and he finds nothing to support the theory. The author notes that we do not even have concrete evidence for Artorius’ timeline that would coincide with Sarmatians in Britain. Sullivan returns to the Arthurian legend to see if there is a connection looking backwards. We move into post-Roman Britain then into the legend itself. That leads into Sullivan’s conclusion, which should be crystal clear by this point.
It is not often that a book is written to demolish a theory, they usually promote one. But Sullivan clearly has a bee in his bonnet about the Artorius-Arthur connection, and he goes after it like a dog with a bone. I think it is unfortunate that Sullivan chose the straw man of a 2004 movie to test his argument against because he has enough evidence from the historical record to play with. Nevertheless, Sullivan forensically dismantles the Artorius theory in an engaging and well-organised text. Students of King Arthur will want to read Sullivan’s conclusions and take note, while the rest of us will just enjoy a thought-provoking read.