Saturday, 18 August 2012

Was King Arthur French...part two

So there we go then, we've got Roman satirist Juvenal - the Seinfeld or Connolly of his age - writing about an Arvernian king living in Ancient Britain. Most likely his point was meant to be a matter of farce or absurdity, a fact that may have been lost on Geoffrey of Monmouth - who possibly sourced the name 'Arviragus' from Juvenal's poem. But why did Juvenal joke about an Arvenian king living in Britain? And could such a king be related to someone as real as Vercingetorix?

This is where we come up against the limitations of what we can be sure is reasonably accurate recorded history. We lose track of Vercingetorix after his surrender in early October 52BC. As the declared leader of a conquered state he would have been transported to Rome, probably via ship out of Narbo (modern day Narbonne) during November and then afforded a private villa beyond Rome's city boundary - where he would have been allowed a privileged but imprisoned life - all standard practice for death-row heads of state. After Caesar's Gallic Triumph in 45BC the King of Gaul would have then been taken to the Mamertine prison for execution. But in truth, we don't really know. We don't know if Vercingetorix was shipped to Rome, we don't know if he was imprisoned in a luxurious villa, and the few ancient historians who mention his execution do so centuries after the event. Chances were he was...but that's by no means definitive.

What we do know is Julius Caesar gave immediate clemency to all Arvernian and Aeduan soldiers and aristocrats at the end of hostilities. These two states made up a large proportion of the Gallic army's heavy infantry and cavalry - and Caesar impresses on his readers he wanted to return to good terms with these two powerful tribal states who had very much proven their mettle against him. And in describing his generous terms for their surrender, he does not mention the imprisonment of Vercingetorix. So, yes, there's a chance Vercingetorix was allowed to flee to neutral Britain rather than face the music in Rome. And if he didn't, there's a good chance a hitherto unreported relative did. Remember, we don't know Vercingetorix's real name and we don't know if he had brothers or children.

So this raises two unlikely one that Vercingetorix lived out a life of exile in Britain...eventually becoming some age old joke - a King of Gaul who had no Gaul to rule - or a dauphin existing in his father's name, achieving the same notoriety. And this infamy is something we have evidence for. Juvenal's joke about Arviragus is exhibit A. But here's exhibit B...and one most of us have heard. It is, what researchers like to say, that wonderful second independent source.

Old King Cole was a merry old soul
And a merry old soul was he;
He called for his pipe, and he called for his bowl
And he called for his fiddlers three.
Every fiddler he had a fiddle,
And a very fine fiddle had he;
Oh there's none so rare, as can compare
With King Cole and his fiddlers three

The origins of this Romano-British poem date to the same time as Juvenal...and guess what the Welsh name 'Cole' (or Coel - say Coil) phonetically resembles and may have once meant? Try saying Gaul instead of Cole and I think you'll see where I'm coming from. Hmmm...I think there might be even more to this story.

Find out if Calvus could tell a good joke