King Arthur’s Roman War campaign? Most people have never heard of it.
Almost everyone is familiar with the major plot outlines of the Arthurian story—a birth engendered by lust and magic, Merlin’s mentoring of Arthur, the iconic sword-and-the-stone episode, the Knights of the Round Table questing for the elusive Holy Grail. There is the Lancelot-Guinevere-Arthur love triangle, the treachery of Arthur’s illegitimate son Mordred, and the demise of the shining idealism of Camelot. And the beguiling promise of a return: “Here lies Arthur, the once and future king.”
Those lines became the title of T. H. White’s 1958 novel and the basis for the Kennedy-beloved Broadway play, Camelot. Some may be familiar with the late 19th century poet, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and his Malory-inspired poem sequence The Idylls of the King. And then there is Monty Python and the myriad of witty one-liners and coconut sound effects. There have been film versions too: Camelot, Excalibur, Lancelot, First Knight, King Arthur, Tristan and Isolde, Indiana Jones, Disney’s Sword and the Stone, and plenty more.
But in all of that, who has ever heard mention of Arthur’s Roman War campaign?
The context of the story remains elusive, but the story was well-known to the English, probably savored, for hundreds of years. It may have its mythic roots in the exploits of Roman legionnaire Magnus Maximus (a Mohammad Ali-like moniker—“the greatest of the great”). Gordon Brooks recently gave a paper on this very connection at the recent International Arthurian Congress.
It’s first full integration with the story of King Arthur, however, appears in the late 12th century Latin narrative Historia Regum Britannia (History of the Kings of Britain) written by the Welsh cleric Geoffrey of Monmouth. Roman occupation of England was by then a distant memory but the power, glory, and ultimate demise of the Roman Empire remained a strong cultural metaphor and cautionary tale. English courtly audiences were thrilled by the inversion of the historic subjugation of Britain to Rome.
The popularity of the Roman War account continued right up until the time of Henry VIII and his famed struggle against Roman Catholicism. Arthur’s Roman War campaign had particular appeal to Henry, especially as he went toe-to-toe with the pope. In fact, at the height of his lust/frustration, he even considered sacking Rome. He had read that very scenario in the tale of Arthur’s Roman War campaign. Instead, Henry settled for wresting the English church and all its wealth and property away from the Roman papacy.
But in the 19th and 20th century, the story of Arthur’s Roman War was the first tale to hit the cutting-room floor. In fact, the move to sideline this particular Arthurian adventure started in the late 15th century. William Caxton, first printer of Le Morte Darthur, shortened the account by at least a third. In the 20th century, C. S. Lewis remarked that Malory’s Roman War account was “a dreary business.” In a recent retelling of Malory’s ‘grete boke’ in modern English (The Death of King Arthur), Peter Ackyroyd drops the Roman War tale altogether.
But a few factors contribute to recent interest in the tale nonetheless.
- In 1938, a manuscript version of Malory’s Le Morte Darthur was identified. Textual scholars have poured over the differences between the longer manuscript version and the Caxton printed book for the past 50 years (I am one of them).
- The current interest in maps and geography, both literal and imaginative, has piqued (at least my) attention in this literary itinerary — it reveals what writers and readers of the 12th through 15th centuries understood and imagined about the geography between England and Rome, an epic journey for pilgrims, warriors, and armchair geographers.
- With our current love of all things map-like, comes a concomitant interest in what I have come to call “Itinerary Lit.”
- And lastly, there is the enduring mystique of ancient Rome, the Eternal City.
And that is why I followed the itinerary of Arthur’s Roman War, a journey of over 3,500 miles.