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In that section of the Historia Brittonum dealing with the very beginning of Vortigern's reign, we find:
"Vortigern then ruled in Britain and during his reign he was under pressure, from fear of the Picts and Scots (Irish), and of a Roman invasion, and not least, from dread of Ambrosius."
Note that this section precedes the account of Hengist and Horsa, and Vortigern's enlistment of Germanic foederati. These four concerns appear to carry roughly equal weight except for an apparent "dread" of Ambrosius. Raiding and colonization of British territory by the Picts and Scots was an old problem, usually contained, but not eliminated during Roman rule. After Rome finally abandoned the diocese of Britain, it became a "British" problem. Fear of a Roman invasion was obviously a more recent concern in the context of post 410 independent Britain.
The most probable period during which Vortigern would have had to fear a Roman invasion, as part of an attempt to re-establish authority in Britain, was between 425-429. Gaul was then relatively stable and under the resourceful leadership of Aetius. According to the Historia Brittonum's own chronology, these dates coincide precisely with the beginning of Vortigern's reign (c.425), when he would have been most vulnerable. (see Adventus Saxonum) His rule most likely involved some form of High-Kingship over a significant portion of Britain. In view of this testimony from the Historia Brittonum, it is plausible that the posting of foederati in Kent (c.428) by Vortigern, served a dual purpose - to discourage both barbarian raids and any thought of Roman return.
The "dread of Ambrosius", however, takes on another dimension. According to other information found in the Historia Brittonum, and the earlier account of Gildas, Ambrosius resided in Britain. He was not some distant invading force against whom Vortigern could rally both general population and the influential, whether they personally agreed with his policies or not, but one of their own. He was evidently powerful and influential, with suffient resources at his disposal to cause Vortigern "dread".
This particular Ambrosius, an adult with influence enough to challenge Vortigern's authority, is not the same individual to whom Gildas alluded. The Ambrosius Aurelianus who was active in the 460's and beyond, would clearly be too old if he were the Ambrosius who caused Vortigern "dread" in 425. The Ambrosius mentioned by Nennius, however, is consistent with the father of Ambrosius Aurelianus recorded by Gildas. For simplicity sake, we shall refer to him for now as Ambrosius the Elder. The memories of the two Ambrosii became confused and merged in legend.
Another indication that the memories of two separate individuals named Ambrosius became conflated, in the materials collected for compiling the Historia Brittonum, is found within the Historia Brittonum itself. In sections 40-42 of the work, Vortigern is attempting to construct a fortress, secure from his many enemies. Circumstances dictate that he must obtain the assistance of a "boy without a father" to complete this task. The boy brought to his attention turns out to be Ambrosius. This youth cannot have been the Ambrosius whom Vortigern "dread" in section 37 of the Historia Brittonum. But, again, he is consistent with the son of Ambrosius the Elder.
The earliest account of Ambrosius, by Gildas, informs us that his parents were "Romans" and that his father, "had worn the purple". The implications presented by the term "Roman" do not present a problem to modern thinking. It implies Roman citizenship, a sense of belonging, a political outlook, etc. However, what did the use of the term imply to the British of the 5th century?
Even a casual review of De Excidio or the Historia Brittonum reveals that a definite dichotomy existed in the minds of the British, consisting of a "them" and "us" when dealing with matters Roman. The Romans were invariably viewed as "them", the British as "us" or "citizens". There are numerous examples of this concept in both works.
In De Excidio, Magnus Maximus is referred to as, "that bitter scion of her own (i.e. British) planting", usurping "Roman" authority. But, not as a Roman or even a Roman citizen. Ambrosius himself is referred to as, "a gentleman who, perhaps alone of the Romans, had survived the shock of this notable storm...". While this translation is literally correct, ammending it to: "perhaps alone of the Roman nation", or "Roman race" would more accurately reflect Gildas' intent. His use of the phrase, "Romanae gentis" and the genitive case strongly supports this interpretation. Certainly, Gildas was not implying that Ambrosius was the last former citizen of the Roman Empire left within Britain? Evidently, he is trying to state that Ambrosius' status within Britain was unique. In the British fifth century world view, "Roman" was invariably someone who originated from outside the British Dioceses, usually a government official, or member of the military; an individual who represented the Roman Empire in some official capacity. The Historia Brittonum, though written much later in time, continues this same fundamental dichotomy.
Wearing of "the purple" is another matter entirely, and most likely refers to the source of Ambrosius' unique status in the eyes of Gildas. Purple was the Imperial color, typified by the Toga Purpurea and Toga Picta, worn by Roman Emperors. It was both difficult to obtain and extremely expensive. Regarding this matter various theories have been proposed.
The oldest explanation is by Geoffrey of Monmouth. In his History of the Kings of Britain, he informs us that Ambrosius, whom he always calls Aurelius Ambrosius, was the second eldest of the three sons of Constantine II, King of Britain. Along with Uther Pendragon his younger brother, he was hidden away in Brittany after the betrayals and deaths of his father and older brother Constans. (see Ambrosius Aurelianus) This story is based on actual historical characters, the usurper Emperor Constantine III and his sons Constans and Julian. In the course of four years (407-411) they held Britain, most of Gaul and Spain. For a brief time Constantine was tacitly acknowledged by the legitimate Western Roman Emperor, Honorius, as co-Emperor in the West. If in actuality Ambrosius was Constantine's young son, it would conveniently explain Gildas' reference to Ambrosius' father as "wearing the purple". According to history, Constantine III renamed his sons Constans and Julian to take advantage of the inherent prestige associated with these names in Roman tradition. There is no direct evidence that either were originally named "Ambrosius" or "Uther". History further records the death of Constans as preceeding his father, and that of Julian with his father. Fortunately, however, the definitive solution to this question does not depend on unraveling the mind of Geoffrey, but is found in the words of Gildas himself. In reference to another usurper 25 years before the time of Constantine III, Gildas states:
"At length also, new races of tyrants sprang up, in terrific numbers, and the island, still bearing its Roman name, but casting off her institutes and laws, sent forth among the Gauls that bitter scion of her own planting Maximus, with a great number of followers, and the ensigns of royalty, which he bore without decency and without lawful right, but in a tyrannical manner, and amid the disturbances of the seditious soldiery ... attaching to his rule ... all the neighboring towns and provinces against the Roman state, extending one of his wings to Spain, the other to Italy ..."
The careers of Magnus Maximus and Constantine III are quite parallel; their rise to power by the acclamation of Roman soldiers in Britain, their subsequent invasion of Gaul, the extent of their domains, their acknowledgment as co-Emperors by the legitimate Emperors out of political expediency. Even their inglorious ends are remarkably similar. Gildas, who does not even mention Constantine III or his effect on Britain, would certainly have held him in the same esteem as Maximus! Constantine is certainly not the one Gildas had in mind as father of Ambrosius! In addition, Armorica, where Ambrosius and Uther were supposed to have been raised in exile, was among the provinces that rebelled from Constantine III and ejected his officials.
A more recent theory, proposed in King Arthur, the True Story is that Ambrosius' father, i.e. the Elder, was the Comes Britanniarum sent to reassert Imperial authority in Britain after usurpation by Constantine III. However, by this point in the history of the Empire, a clear distinction was made between civilian government and military commands. Both branches of government were staffed by career people. Where a military unit went, so did its commander. Such an individual would not have left his family behind in Britain. The authors also suggest that this Comes Britanniarum may have been a relative of Constantine III. This is also very unlikely because once his authority was more or less secured, Emperor Honorius carried out a ruthless purge of all those involved in the recent usurpations of Constantine III, Jovinus, and others. This included families, collaborators, and sympathizers.
Another popular theory, is that Ambrosius the Elder may have been a King or Emperor in a clearly British context; a High Kingship in Britain,
either before or concurrently as a possible rival to Vortigern. Some statements from Nennius' Historia Brittonum seem to bear out this point. Again, the principle objection is the same as that leveled against Constantine III. There is no imparting of "lawful" authority here, but an assumption of power by a "tyrant". It would certainly not be lawful (but perhaps Roman!) to proclaim oneself Emperor or High-King, when the legitimate one still resided in Ravenna. As demonstrated by John Morris and others, Gildas was both careful and precise in his use of Latin terms describing rulers, kings, governors, and matters Roman. By Roman, he meant authority and lineage deriving from the legitimate Emperor in Italy. Nor would Honorius, as the lawful Roman Emperor, appoint someone as "Emperor" or "High-King" in a clearly British context.
Others speculate that Ambrosius may have been a former member of the Roman Senate or held some other important post. This would satisfy the criteria for Ambrosius being Roman, but not explain the wearing of "the purple" described by Gildas.
To what was Gildas alluding when he stated that the parents of Ambrosius Aurelianus, "had worn the purple"? Concerning this matter, the Historia Brittonum gives further testimony.
In a section of Nennius previously cited, Vortigern attempts to build a fortress, but is frustrated and requires the assistance of a "boy without a father". When all is said and done, Vortigern asks: "What is your name?", the boy replies "I am called Ambrose". When further asked: "What is your origin?", Ambrosius replies "A Roman Consul was my father."This is clearly Ambrosius the Younger, or Ambrosius Aurelianus speaking. Such an individual as his father, a Roman Consul, would certainly meet all the requirements of Gildas to be "Roman". Also of interest is the fact that in late Roman times, Consuls as well as Emperors were permitted to wear the Imperial Purple. Originally, consuls were the chief executive officers in the Roman Republic and two of them were elected on an annual basis. Among their other duties, the Roman senate assigned them each a province to rule, the remaining provinces were ruled by governors called Praetors. In the time of the Empire, the tradition of appointing Consuls continued, but their power was largely assumed by the Emperor. He was usually one of the consuls, at least in his first year of office, and also appointed them in conjunction with the Roman senate. At any period in the history of Rome, it was an extremely prestigious position. These consuls were referred to as Consul Ordinarius, ordinary Consuls. It is extremely unlikely that an individual holding such an esteemed position would be stranded, so to speak, in such an outpost of the empire as Britannia. Yet, along this same line of thought, one additional possibility must be considered.
Late Roman Administration
The rise of Constantine the Great marked a new era for the Roman Empire. Reform minded, he initiated a series of measures that helped to invigorate the Empire, eliminate some of the worst abuses, and place government on a sounder footing. With his ascent in 324 as the sole Emperor, he was uniquely placed to propagate his reforms throughout the Empire.
To stabilize government and improve its efficiency, he separated the duties of the provincial governors and the military command. The director of provincial finances also became a separate entity, responsible directly to the Emperor. These steps not only implemented checks and balances, but were specificly targeted at discouraging rebellion in the provinces.
Constantine also desired to increase the involvement of the Roman nobility in the government of the empire and took steps to make it happen. He not only allowed, but encouraged those of senatorial rank to fill the important position of imperial governor, a position from which they had been excluded since the 3rd century. By filling important positions with the most educated and cultured men of his time, he hoped to bring greater justice and acceptance of imperial authority in the provinces to which they were appointed. Appointments were based on the personal merit of individuals, and that of their houses. From the time of Constantine the Great, many governors were both well received and respected in the provinces they served. Many of these individuals came from Gaul, especially the Aquitaine region and from the civitates of northern Italy.
A major impediment to these reforms was the resistance of the Roman upper class and nobility to the new religion of Christianity, supported by Constantine and most of the later Roman Emperors. Constantine's religious policy greatly offended the Roman upper class. He, and later Emperors, overcame this to some extent through careful overtures to the upper class, but also by greatly enlarging the pool of potential candidates. In his History of Roman Britain, Peter Salway states:
"Constantine was, it is true, extending the pool of experienced men that could be drawn on by substantially increasing the number of successful members of the imperial service who were admitted to the senate. The enormous funds at his disposal as the result of confiscations in the civil wars, new taxation, and seizure of (pagan) temple property enabled him to raise the private fortunes of these men to the level of capital required for eligibility for senatorial rank."
This process was continued by subsequent emperors. In its later days, the imperial senate was comprised of some 2,000 individuals. Many of the new members were of Christian belief or at least tolerant of the new religion.
Another of Constantine's measures accelerated a process that had been ongoing within the Empire - the subdivision of provinces. Over the centuries, successive reorganizations of the Roman Provinces resulted in each becoming smaller and more subdivided. This decreased management concerns and prevented too much power from resting in the hands of one individual, the traditional formula for rebellion and usurpation.
The late Western Empire saw Britain divided into five provinces, each with its own governor. The governors reported to the Vicarius for the whole of the British Diocese, at his headquarters in London. He in turn, reported to the Praetorian Prefect of Gaul, at Arles. The names of many of the late Vicarii for Britain are known, and do not include an Ambrosius. But, for this same period, the names of those who held office as provincial governors in Britain are nonexistent. As a direct result of Constantine's reforms, the position of governor was now filled both by those designated Praeses (the majority, drawn from the equestrian class) and a special few who were designated Consularis. The latter position was more prestigious and required senatorial status to qualify.
This was part of Constantine's effort to bring the upper nobility and senate back into public life after decades of disenfranchisement. Hence, the number of those with consular powers greatly increased in the later Roman period. In a resource of the late Roman Empire, the Notitia Dignitatum, two provinces of Britain are designated as being governed by Consular governors. The first was that of Maxima Caesariensis, centered at London, and comprised roughly the eastern half of Britain below the Wash. The other, was the otherwise obscure British province of Valentia, which was probably the result of a late 4th century division of Britannia Secunda.
Both tradition and placenames firmly place the sphere of Ambrosius' activities in the southern half of Britain. Which leads to the question: Could the last regularly appointed Roman governor of Maxima Caesariensis, either immediately before or somewhat after the usurpation of Constantine III, have been Ambrosius the Elder? As both a senator and consularis, he undoubtably would have continued to profess loyalty to Rome and the Western Empire.
A good example of one figure who rose through the successive civil ranks, attained the important post of provincial governor, and later became the Bishop of Milan is St. Ambrose. An important figure in both the civil and religious institutions of the empire, advisor and confident to emperors, he influenced many policies in late Roman times. At the age of 30, St. Ambrose became the consular governor of Aemilia-Liguria in northern Italy, which included the royal city of Milan. Government service was a tradition in this family. His father came from an old senatorial family and was the Prefect of Gaul. The territory he administered included Gaul, Spain, Britain and Tingitana in Africa.
St. Ambrose attracted a following, known as the circle of Ambrose, and one wonders if the Ambrosii of Nennius and Gildas were initially part of this circle, or perhaps even related? Gibbons points out the Roman practice of adopting the name of one's patron, "which had always prevailed among the freedmenand clients of illustrious families.",In light of our current knowledge, however, these possible connections can be no more than suggestive. (but see What's in a Name).
Activities of Ambrosius
The Elder Ambrosius appears to have initially abided with the decisions of the council majority and they with Vortigern. He needed the military backup that only a strong figure, such as a High-King could provide. Initially working with Vortigern, he continued to exercise authority in his old province, especially in and about London. Vortigern, however, clearly viewed him as a threat, both due to his influence within the council, and his perceived connections and leanings towards Rome. They may have both been biding their time, awaiting future developments within Britain and the Roman Empire in general. In the meantime, they sought to consolidate and strengthen their positions. Ambrosius continued his contacts within the Roman Empire and the pro-roman faction of Britain, Vortigern continued to extend his influence through positioning of his relatives and friends in key positions and the hiring of Saxon mercenaries. As previously noted, the positioning of germanic troops in Kent and the south-east may have served to discourage both returning Romans and raiding Saxons alike! Especially when, according to the Historia Brittonum, the main threat to British security was from the Picts and Scots.
A previous paper (The Problem of Caer Vortigern) addressed some of the possible interactions between Vortigern and the Elder Ambrosius, and mentioned the rift that occurred between them. The presence of large bodies of Saxon mercenaries certainly aggravated this situation, but what led to the final break? We cannot know for sure, but, there is one major incident that occurred, preserved for us by Nennius, that clearly was important enough to initiate events:
"And now the Saxon chief prepared an entertainment, to which he invited the king, his officers, and Ceretic, his interpreter, having previously enjoined his daughter to serve them so profusely with wine and ale, that they might soon become intoxicated... and enamoured with the beauty of the damsel, demanded her, through the medium of his interpreter, of the father, promising to give for her what ever he should ask. Then Hengist... demanded for his daughter the province, called in English, Centland, in British Ceint (Kent). This cession was made without the knowledge of the king, Guoyrancgonus, who then reigned in Kent..."
The shock waves from such back room politics must have been enormous! All this merely to please the avarice of their High-King, a man who by no means fits Gildas' description of a Roman gentleman or "a modest man"! Ambrosius' reaction must have been especially severe. Not only was Kent adjoining his province, but it was part of old Maxima Caesariensis and possibly still nominally under his oversight. The name of the British "king" of Kent, Guoyrancgonus, takes several forms in its retelling. It is thought to be derived from "Guorong" and supposed to mean a governor or viceroy, implying he was subject to another's over-rule. It was shortly after this incident that we have Ambrosius apparently consolidating his support, and observe the events that lead to the battle of Wallop, in Hampshire.
"And from the reign of Vortigern to the quarrel between Guitolinus and Ambrosius, are twelve years, which is Guoloppum, that is Catgwaloph." 
This took place in the year 437/438 (see Adventus Saxonum) and thus clearly refers to the Elder Ambrosius and not Ambrosius Aurelianus, the leader of the Saxon counter offensive in the 60's. The name of Ambrosius' adversary, Guitolin, is the same as that of two of Vortigern's ancestors and so he is probably either a relative or it may possibly be the true name of Vortigern himself. Vortigern itself is probably a title, meaning overlord or over-king. Wallop, in Hampshire, was contiguous to a major Roman road from London, between Silchester and Old Sarnum. It lies near what is thought to be the old boundary of the Roman provinces of Maxima Caesariensis, centered on London, and Britannia Prima further to the west, centered at Cirencester. Amesbury, with its Ambrosian connections, is also nearby.
At stake was one of the most important villa districts in Britain, and the economic wealth that went with it. Villas and the civitates they provided for, were an essential part of the Roman way of life. Although the villa society had been in decline throughout the Roman world for some time, these cultivated areas remained economically important. These same districts also provided for the monthly provisions supplied to Vortigern's Saxon mercenaries.
Could a refusal to supply increased provisions to the Saxon foederati, by Ambrosius and his faction, have contributed to this friction? Both Nennius and Gildas report such a refusal by the British, but it does not seem to have been Vortigern's position. Vortigern first gives Kent to his Saxons. Ambrosius and his party are shocked. Additional Saxons arrive in Kent, with Ambrosius and others refusing to contribute additional provisions for them. Vortigern intervenes, the battle of Wallop. The choice of Wallop, in Hampshire, as the site of such a battle makes perfect sense if one is either intercepting an invasion of Maxima from the west or of western Britain by Maxima. We do not know which of these two objectives Ambrosius was attempting to achieve, but it is evident that his main threat was from Vortigern and his supporters in the western provinces and not from the small groups of Saxon foederati to the east.
Who was the victor at Wallop? Vortigern remained firmly on the throne, but the only matter that is clear is that the real losers were the British themselves. Any history of Ambrosius, must of necessity, be as much about Vortigern as about Ambrosius the Elder himself. Their fates were intertwined. The aftermath of Wallop was a general weakening of the whole foundation of the High-Kingship in Britain, civil war, and the calling in of additional Saxon reinforcements to bolster Vortigern's regime. This later led to the Saxon revolt and the downfall of Vortigern. During all this, Ambrosius the Elder died and his family apparently went into hiding. This is reflected both in the legends of Geoffrey of Monmouth and of Nennius. The former places Ambrosius in Brittany, the latter "the boy without a father" in south Wales. Ambrosius the Elder, his wife, and possibly most of his family "had been slain in these same broils" to quote Gildas. This statement can refer to either a period of civil war that resulted in Wallop, the Saxon revolt that occurred shortly thereafter, or both. It is most probable that Vortigern carried out a purge of Ambrosius' surviving followers, and did not limit his revenge to immediate family.
Did this Ambrosius the Elder have a more specific name, in good Roman style? It may have survived in conflated legend with that of his son, Ambrosius Aurelianus, and resurfaced in Geoffrey of Monmouth's History. Here he refers to Ambrosius as "found in the book which Gildas wrote about the victory of Aurelius Ambrosius." (see What's in a Name?) He always refers to him by this name, although both Gildas and Bede render it as "Ambrosius Aurelianus". Could a tradition so strong have existed, of an "Aurelius Ambrosius", that Geoffrey used it despite the apparent inconsistency with Gildas and Bede?
While the office of Consular governor, in Britain, would certainly place into perspective the known facts regarding Ambrosius Aurelianus' father, such a solution must remain tentative.
He was considered "Roman" and apparently very well respected in certain quarters. As a senator and consular governor, he would have earned such a position through personal merit as did his namesake, Ambrose of Milan. He would be required to wear the Roman Toga Praetexta, with its purple hem, in public and was perhaps entitled to wear an imperial toga if he so chose. As the memory of Rome and its institutions grew distant, a confusion between the terms Consul and Consularis may have developed, contributing to the belief that Ambrosius the Elder was "a Roman Consul", in the tradition of Roman Emperors. Contemporary references to Ambrosius as, "vir Consularis" may have contributed to this belief.
That he was a Christian is almost certain, further accounting for his position in the later Western Empire and his praise by Gildas. He was certainly considered unique and an outsider, as all high level provincial appointments to Britain were filled by outsiders during this time. Educated and refined, his origins and moderate disposition earned him the respect of his peers and endeared him to the populace. His moderate disposition carried over to his son Ambrosius Aurelianus. This, coupled with his origins, earned him the title of respect "last of the Romans" given by Gildas.
Though it is evident that an individual of Ambrosius' standing could have emigrated to the continent, he apparently elected to remain in Britain after the final Roman withdrawal. His reasons for so doing may have included a British wife and new family ties, lands and properties, and an official appointment. Undoubtably, his position and respect would have earned him a seat in the provincial council of Britain, which appears to have carried on after the final withdrawal from the south and south-east of Britain. Seen as the de facto representative to the Emperor, he may have presided over the provincial council in the early years after Constantine III. Did he maintain his title of Consularis and continue to exercise authority in parts of the former province of Maxima Caesariensis after the withdrawal? This could be better answered if it were conclusively know that a brief period of Roman reoccupation occurred in the south-east of Britain after Constantine III.
Part 3: Ambrosius Aurelianus
The Generations of Ambrosius part 2: Ambrosius, the Elder is Copyright © 2003, Michael Veprauskas. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
Comments to: Michael Veprauskas
 Nennius, Historia Brittonum,
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