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Generations of Ambrosius
Michael Veprauskas takes a look at 'Ambrosius the Elder'

In the section of Nennius' 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."6

Note that the Saxons had not yet been invited in as foederati soldiers by Vortigern, that this section precedes the account of the arrival of Hengist and Horsa, and that the four concerns above carry roughly equal weigh except for the apparent "dread" of Ambrosius. The most probable time in which Vortigern would have had to fear a Roman invasion to reclaim their lost diocese was between 425-429 when Gaul was under the relatively stable leadership of the great Aetius.7 This coincides precisely with the very beginning of Vortigern's High-Kingship, when he would be most vulnerable. (see Adventus Saxonum) The date is c.425.

This particular Ambrosius, an adult with influence enough to challenge Vortigern's authority, is not the same individual alluded to by Gildas. The Ambrosius Aurelianus who was active in the 460's and beyond, would clearly be too old if he were the above Ambrosius of Nennius. The Ambrosius mentioned by Nennius, however, is consistent with the father of Ambrosius Aurelianus mentioned 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.

Gildas tells us that the parents of Ambrosius Aurelianus were "Romans", and "for their merit were adorned with the purple". The Roman part is the simpler to explain, implying citizenship, a sense of belonging, a political outlook, etc. "Adorned with the purple" is another issue. Purple was the Imperial colour, typified by the Toga Purpurea and Toga Picta, worn by Roman Emperors. It was both difficult to obtain and extremely expensive. Various theories have been proposed regarding this. The oldest, that of Geoffrey of Monmouth's account in his History of the Kings of Britain, will be discussed first. In this work Geoffrey tells us that Ambrosius, to whom he always refers as Aurelius Ambrosius, was the second son of Constantine Fendigaid, 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.8  This story is based on actual historical characters, the usurper Emperor Constantine III and his son Constans. In the course of four years (407-411) they held Britain, most of Gaul, and Spain. For a brief time Constantine was recognised by the legitimate Western Roman Emperor, Honorius, as co-Emperor in the West. If in actuality he was Constantine's young son, this would readily and most conveniently explain Gildas' reference to Ambrosius' father "wearing the purple". According to the historian, Zosimus, Constans was Constantine III's "eldest son". The implication is that he had more. There is no direct evidence that they were named "Ambrosius" or "Uther". Fortunately, the solution to this problem is not dependent on answering the above, but is found in the words of Gildas himself. In speaking of another usurper Emperor some 25 years before the time of Constantine III, he says:

"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 ..."9

The careers of both Magnus Maximus and Constantine III are very parallel; their rise to power by the acclamation of Roman soldiers in Britain, their subsequent invasion of Gaul, the extent of their domains, their acknowledgement as co-Emperors by the legitimate Emperors out of political expediency, and even their inglorious ends are both 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! Nor does the phrase "for their merit" have any relevance in this context! In addition, Armorica, where Ambrosius and Uther were supposed to have been brought up 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 Story10 is that Ambrosius' father, i.e. the Elder, was the Comes Britanniarum sent to reassert Imperial authority in Britain after usurpation by Constantine III. The problem here is that by this point in the history of the Empire, a clear distinction between civilian government and military commands had been made. 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.11

Another theory, held by many, is that Ambrosius the Elder may have been a King or Emperor in a clearly British context, i.e. 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 of view. The prime objection to this, however, is the same as that levelled against Constantine III. There is no imparting of "lawful" authority here, but an assumption of power by a "tyrant". It would certainly not be "Roman" to proclaim oneself Emperor or High-King, when the legitimate one still resided in Ravenna. As shown by John Morris in his Age of Arthur,12 Gildas was both quite careful and precise in his use of Latin terms to describe rulers, kings, governors, and matters Roman. By Roman, he meant authority and lineage deriving from the legitimate Emperor in Italy. This was not only Gildas' view, but that of most late Romano-British subjects. In their world view, "Roman" was one sent in from outside the British Dioceses, usually a government official, that represented the Roman Empire in some way. Nor would Honorius, as the lawful Roman Emperor, appoint someone as "Emperor" or "High-King" in a clearly British context.

In a further section of Nennius, 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."13 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 continued but their power was largely assumed by that of 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.

Over the centuries, successive reorganisations of the Roman Provinces resulted in their becoming smaller and more subdivided. This decreased management concerns and prevented too much power from resting in the hands of one individual, which would be an open formula for rebellion and usurpation. In the late Roman period of the Western Empire, Britain was 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 in Gaul, at Arles. The names of many of the Vicarii for Britain are known, and do not include an Ambrosius in the latter Roman period, but those of the governorships is non-existent. At this time, throughout the Empire, the position of governor was filled by both those designated Praeses (the majority, drawn from the equestrian class) and a special few were designated Consularis and required senatorial status to qualify.14 This was part of an effort to bring the upper nobility and senate back into public life after decades of disenfranchisement. Hence, the number of consuls and those with consular powers greatly increased in the later Roman period. In that great resource of the late Roman Empire, the Notitia Dignitatum, one province of Britain is designated as being governed by a Consularis. That of Maxima Caesariensis, centred at London, and comprising roughly the eastern half of Britain below the Wash. Could the last regularly appointed Roman governor of Maxima Caesariensis, either immediately before or somewhat after the usurpation of Constantine III, been Ambrosius the Elder? Both a senator and consul, continuing to profess loyalty to Rome and the Western Empire, could he have been without the military means of enforcing the Roman writ?

As part of Constantine the Great's policy of reinvigorating the Roman Empire, he separated the duties of the provincial governors and the military command. The director of provincial finances was also a separate entity, responsible directly to the Emperor. These steps offered checks and balances, and were also aimed at discouraging rebellion in the provinces. In addition, Constantine greatly 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 they had been excluded from 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 they were appointed to. Appointments were based the on personal merit of individuals, and that of their houses. Many of these individuals came from Gaul, especially the Aquitaine region and from the Civitates of Northern Italy.15 From the time of Constantine the Great, many governors were well received and respected in the provinces they served in. The phrase of Gildas "for their merit" clearly comes to mind here.

A major hindrance to Constantine the Great and latter Emperors' implementation of the above reforms, was the fact that the Roman upper class and nobility were slow to accept the new religion of Christianity professed by most of the latter 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."16

This process was continued by the later emperors and in its latter days, the imperial senate comprised some 2,000 individuals. Many of these new members were of Christian belief or at least tolerant of the new religion. Near the end of the 4th century, an important example of one who rose through the civil ranks, becoming a provincial governor and later the Bishop of Milan is St. Ambrose of Milan. An important figure in both the civil and religious institutions of the empire, advisor and confidant to emperors, he influenced many policies in later roman times. He 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 a relative? Gibbons points out the Roman practice of adopting the name of ones patron, "which had always prevailed among the freedmen and clients of illustrious families."17 Furthermore, St. Ambose's 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. At the age of thirty, 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. In the light of our current knowledge, however, these possible connections can be no more than suggestive. (but see What's in a Name?).

The information we have would fit all the known facts regarding Ambrosius Aurelianus' father. 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 by his "merit" as Gildas says. He would be required to wear the Roman Toga Praetexta, with its purple hem, in public and perhaps entitled to wear an imperial toga if he so chose. That he was a Christian is almost certain, further accounting for his position in the latter empire and his praise by Gildas. He was certainly an outsider, as all high level provincial positions in Britain were at that time, educated and refined. His moderate disposition earned him the respect of his peers and endeared him to the populace. This moderate disposition carried over to his son Ambrosius Aurelianus and earned him the title of respect "last of the Romans" as given to him by Gildas. He apparently chose to stay on in Britain after the final roman withdrawal. It is quite possible that he had a young British wife. His position and respect would have earned him a seat in the provincial council of Britain, which appears to have carried on after the time of the final withdrawal of Roman forces from the south and south-east of Britain. As the Emperor's official representative he most probably presided over the provincial council, at least in the early years after Constantine III. Did he maintain his title of Consularis and continue to rule part of the old 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.

This particular Ambrosius seems to have thrown in his lot with the council 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. It is interesting to note that the positioning of Germanic troops in Kent and the south-east would serve to keep out returning Romans just as well as raiding Saxons! Especially when, at this time, the main threat to British security was in the northern parts of the isle from the Picts and Scots.

In a previous paper, The Problem of Caer Vortigern, I have 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 lead 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..."18

The shock waves from such back room politicking 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,19 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 up 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."19

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 off a major Roman road from London, between Silchester and Old Sarum. It lies close to what is thought to be the old boundary of the Roman provinces of Maxima Caesariensis, centred on London, and Britannia Prima further to the west, centred 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. Villas also provided for the monthly provisions supplied to Vortigern's Saxon mercenaries. Could a refusal by Ambrosius and his faction, to supplying increased provisions to the Saxon foederati in Kent, have contributed to the friction? Both Nennius20 and Gildas21 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.

Was Ambrosius worsened 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,22 the later "the boy without a father" in south Wales.23 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."24 (see What's in a Name?) He always refers to him by this name, even though both Gildas and Bede render it as "Ambrosius Aurelianus". Could it be that a tradition so strong existed of an "Aurelius Ambrosius" that Geoffrey used it despite the apparent inconsistency with Gildas and Bede?

Next: Generations of Ambrosius Part Three


  1. Nennius, Historia Brittonum, section #31.
  2. Peter Salway, A History of Roman Britain, p.337.
  3. Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain, vi.5 - vi.8.
  4. Gildas, De Excidio Brittaniae, section #13, translation by J.A. Giles.
  5. Phillips and Keatman, King Arthur, the True Story, chapter 11.
  6. Peter Salway, A History of Roman Britain, p.334.
  7. John Morris, The Age of Arthur, especially pp.132 - 133.
  8. Nennius, Historia Brittonum, section #40 - 42.
  9. Peter Salway, A History of Roman Britain, p.251.
  10. Peter Salway, A History of Roman Britain, chapters 13 and 14.
  11. Peter Salway, A History of Roman Britain, p.251.
  12. Edward Gibbons, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. IV, p.84.
  13. Nennius, Historia Brittonum, section #37.
  14. Nennius, Historia Brittonum, section #66.
  15. Nennius, Historia Brittonum, section #36.
  16. Gildas, De Excidio Brittaniae, section #23.
  17. Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain, vi.8.
  18. Nennius, Historia Brittonum, section #41.
  19. Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain, iv.20.


    Michael Veprauskas 2001. All Rights Reserved.