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The Generations of Ambrosius
part 1: Introduction

Michael Veprauskas

 

This long overdue revised edition, was completed March 30, 2003. I would like to thank both Robert Vermaat of Vortigern Studies for the opportunity to revise these articles and David Nash Ford of Britannia.com (formerly of the Early British Kingdoms) for initial encouragement.

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Except for the legendary Arthur himself, more questions revolve around the mysterious figure of Ambrosius Aurelianus than perhaps any other British Dark Age notable. His enigma has given rise to centuries of speculations, learned opinions and theories. In the monumental Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbon notes:

"By the unanimous, though doubtful, conjecture of our antiquarians, Ambrosius is confounded with Natanleod, who (AD 508) lost his own life and five thousand of his subjects in a battle against Cerdic, the West Saxon." [1]

J.A. Giles, in his 19th century translation of Historia Brittonum, comments in a footnote:

"... and Ambrosius son to a king of the Damnonii. The latter (Ambrosius) was half a Roman by descent, and naturally supported the Roman interest ..." [2]

The much earlier Geoffrey of Monmouth makes Ambrosius and Uther Pendragon the younger sons and heirs of Constantine II, brother of Aldroenus, King of Brittany. [3]

Who was Ambrosius?

The earliest reference to Ambrosius is in a tract called De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, written by a 6th century cleric named Gildas. Writing circa 540, Gildas's intent was not history per se, but delivery of an extended sermon concerning the evils of his time. To shed light on the events which brought Britain to this point, Gildas presents his readers with a summary of "British history". Composed near in time to those sections dealing with 5th century events, the historical summary takes on additional significance. It is one of the few contemporary voices of 5th century Britain. What does Gildas say about Ambrosius? Recalling events that followed the aftermath of the Saxon revolt, and the desperate plight of the Britons:

"After a time, when the cruel plunderers had gone home, God gave strength to the survivors. Wretched people fled to them from all directions, as eagerly as bees to the beehive when a storm threatens, and begged whole-heartedly, 'burdening heaven with unnumbered prayers', that they should not be altogether destroyed. Their leader was Ambrosius Aurelianus, a gentleman who, perhaps alone of the Romans, had survived the shock of this notable storm: certainly his parents, who had worn the purple, were slain in it. His descendants in our day, have become greatly inferior to their grandfather's excellence. Under him our people regained their strength, and challanged the victors to battle. The Lord assented, the battle went their way." [4]

In a literary work that has very few kind words for anyone, the above quote is all the more remarkable. In these few sentences, Gildas not only names the initial leader of the British counter offensive, but sketches some four generations of Ambrosii! These four generations spanned over a century. The initial task will be to demonstrate that the first and second generations of Ambrosii were merged, forming the conflated figure of "Ambrosius" preserved by tradition.

Part 2: Ambrosius, the Elder

The Generations of Ambrosius part 1: Introduction is Copyright 2003, Michael Veprauskas. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Comments to: Michael Veprauskas

Notes

[1] Edward Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. IV, p. 363 (note).
[2] Nennius, Historia Brittonum, translated by J.A. Giles. Note to section #31.
[3] Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain, vi.4 - vi.5.
[4] Gildas, De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, section #25.


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