Lucius Artorius Castus: the original King Arthur?


Lucius Artorius Castus (c141-c195) was 2nd century Roman soldier whom some have argued was the original King Arthur.

Although he probably achieved a significant amount of fame in his own lifetime, Castus would likely have faded forever into the dark corners of history if not for his name. Artorius is an exceedingly rare Roman nomen, or family name, meaning "plowman." Linguists have tentatively demonstrated that the Brythonic tongue would have transmuted the Latin long "o" sound into more of a "u" sound, and there is some evidence of words normally spelled with an "o" in Latin pronounced with a "u" sound in Welsh texts. Moreover, Latin endings such as -ius and -ium were routinely dropped in the Brythonic vernacular (Londinium to "London" for example), and thus it is possible to conceive of an etymology in which "Artorius" became "Arthur."

Enter one Lucius Artorius Castus. In all of premodern history, Castus is the only "Artorius" ever recorded to have set foot on the British Isles. And even then, the evidence is slim; the entirety of our knowledge of Lucius Artorius Castus comes from two stone inscriptions found, of all places, in what is now Croatia. One is an extensive autobiographical resume on three fragments from a sarcophagus that were discovered in the ruins of a wall in Epetium (modern Strobrez in Podstrana) and the other is shorter inscription on a memorial plaque found near the chapel of St. Martin of Podstrana along the Adriatic Highway. The longer inscription reads:

Dis   L  .  Artorius Castus  .  Centurioni legionis     Manibus
     III Gallicae  .  item Centurioni legionis VI Ferra
     tae  .  item 7 leg  .  II Adiutricis  .  item 7 leg V Ma
     cedonicae  .  item primo pilo eiusdem praeposito
     classis Misenatium praefecto legionis VI
     Victricis  .  duci leg cohortium alarum Britanici
     niarum adversus Armoricanos  .  Procuratori Cente
     nario provinciae Liburniae iure gladi  .  Vi
     vus ipse sibi et suis                       H. s. est

Translation:

To the spirits of the departed: Lucius Artorius Castus, centurion of the III legion Gallica, also centurion of the VI legion Ferrata, also centurion of the II legion Adiutrix, also centurion of the V legion Macedonica, also primus pilus of the same, praepositus of the Classis Misenatium, praefectus of the VI legion Victrix, dux of the legions of cohorts of cavalry from Britain against the Armoricans, procurator centenarius of the province of Liburnia, with the power to issue death sentences. In his lifetime he himself had this made for himself and his family . . . lies buried here (this last part is a later addition).

The shorter inscription reads,

L Artorius
Castus P P
Leg V Mc Pr
aefectus . Leg
VI Victric

which translates as,

Lucius Artorius
Castus, primus pilus,
V legion Macedonica,
praefectus,
VI Legion Victrix.

As scant as they are, when these two inscriptions are combined with other sources it is possible to reconstruct and conjecture much about the life of Lucius Artorius Castus.

Life Dates

The fragments of the sarcophagus have been dated to no later than AD 200, meaning that Castus was more than likely dead by that time. Establishing his date of birth is a little more tricky. In his History of the Empire, Herodian records the expedition to Armorica as taking place in 185. Roman army service at the time was divided into "tours" of roughly four years each. The larger inscription reveals that Castus served six such tours of duty prior to becoming "dux," and if we add one year as dux prior to the Armorican expedition of 185, we get approximately a 25-year army career priotr to 185, meaning that Castus enlisted ca. 159. Assuming he was 18 at the time of enlistment, Castus might have been born in 141.

Career

Because we know the units he served in, we can roughly outline Castus's career. The III Galica was posted in Syria, the VI Ferrata was assigned to Judea, the II Adiutrix was station in Lower Pannonia at Aquincum (modern Budapest), and the V Macedonica was posted at Potaissa in Dacia (Turda in modern Transylvania). The Classis Misenatium was a naval unit stationed at Naples, and the VI Victrix was stationed in Britain.

Castus was almost certainly in Britain with VI Victrix in 184 during the Caledonian Invasion, when Picts of the Caledonii tribe breached the Antonine Wall and flooded south into the territory of the Dumnonii, Selgovae, and Votadini--tribes friendly to Rome. VI Victrix was involved in the fighting, and thus Castus probably was as well. Castus also likely played a role in the suppression of a mutiny within VI Victrix when a portion of the legion attempted to proclaim one of Castus's fellow officers, Priscus, as Emperor of Rome; while the mutineers were executed, Castus was promoted to "dux" the next year, signifying his position as one of the loyalists.

Dux

The origin of the modern English word "duke," dux is an unusual title. The only known Roman military title that included the term "dux" in Castus's lifetime was the title of dux britanniarum, a sort of regional military governor of northern Britain. This would seem to fit as Castus's probable title, as he was stationed in Britain at the time and had just concluded his involvement in heavy fighting in the north of Britain. As dux, Castus likely commanded two legions worth of troops in the expedition to Armorica. As the sarcophagal inscription indicates, they were auxiliary cavalry, and they were probably drawn largely from the remains of VI Victrix as well as from XX Valeria Victrix, which was stationed in Chester at the time. The troops were largely numeri (non-Roman conscripts), most likely Sarmatians from the Danube region.

Final Years

As the longer inscription indicates, Castus's final post of note was as procurator centenarius of the province of Liburnia, a division of Dalmatia. The rank of procurator frequently gets translated as "governor," but procurators held any number of different responsibilities. Some ran mines, some oversaw textile industries, some were in charge of mints, and still others ran imperial estates. In Castus's case, because of the addition of iure gladii to his title, we know he was a high-level magistrate with judicial powers. We have no way of knowing from these inscriptions how Castus died, but since there were no significant wars in or near Dalmatia during the remainder of his probable lifetime, it is likely he died peacefully, surrounded by family and friends.

Arthur?

Was 2nd century Roman legionaire Lucius Artorius Castus the original King Arthur? This theory has certainly had some vocal proponents since it was first proposed by Kemp Malone in 1924. In the end, however, the entire argument in favor rests upon three arguments: the resemblance in names, his presence in Britain for a few years, and the similarity between Castus's likely title of dux britanniarum and dux bellorum, the curious title given King Arthur in the Historia Brittonum. Moreover, since the Celtic sources more or less explicitly place Arthur's lifetime in the 6th century AD, for Castus to have been Arthur would have required a real historical figure from the 2nd century to have been totally absorbed into Celtic folklore and then re-historicized into an entirely different time period hundreds of years after his true lifetime. Not impossible, but perhaps rather unlikely.


Sources

Thomas Green. "The Historicity and Historicisation of Arthur." http://www.users.globalnet.co.uk/~tomgreen/arthur.htm. 1998.

Linda A. Malcor. "Lucius Artorius Castus, Part 1: An Officer and an Equestrian." The Heroic Age. Issue 1, Spring/Summer 1999. http://www.mun.ca/mst/heroicage/issues/1/halac.htm

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