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Riothamus: Wikis


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Riothamus (also spelled Riotimus, Rigothamus, Rigotamos), was a Romano-British military leader, who was active circa 470. He fought against the Goths in alliance with the declining Roman Empire. He is called "King of the Britons" by the chronicler Jordanes, but the extent of his realm is unclear. Some modern authors consider his life to have been one of the sources for the myth of King Arthur.



The name is a Latinization of Brythonic *Rigotamos, meaning 'king-most', 'supreme king' or 'highest king'. Some scholars have argued that Riothamus was actually a title, and not a personal name[1] but there is little evidence to support such a claim; similar personal names are attested elsewhere in the Celtic-speaking world. It is not clear whether Jordanes' "Britons" refers to the Britons of Great Britain itself, or of Armorica, which was developing such a numerous British colony at the time that it was beginning to be known as Brittany, retaining strong links to the British realms of Cornwall (Cornouaille) and Devon (Dumnonia), both of which had territory in Britain and Brittany. The distinction between insular and continental Britons may not have had very much meaning at the time, as ecclesiastics such as St. Winwaloe were associated with Brittany and the island of Britain alike, and King Mark apparently ruled Britons/Bretons on both sides of the English Channel.

The name "Riatam" appears in Breton records as one of the Princes of Domnonée, the Breton coastal region named for Dumnonia, being mentioned in the early biographies of Breton saints. He is identified as a son of Deroch II. It has been suggested that "Riatam" is a contraction of Riothamus. If true, this would be a different individual from Jordanes' Riothamus, who lived earlier. To resolve this contradiction it has been speculated that the name Deroch II may be an error for the earlier Deroch I, which would make "Riatam" contemporary with Jordanes' Riothamus.[2] The "Riatam" of Domnonée is said to have been exiled in Britain after his father's death, apparently during a civil war. According to chronicles, he returned to kill the usurper.[3]

More secure information is provided by a letter which has survived that was written to Riothamus from Sidonius Apollinaris, bishop of Clermont, who requested his judgment for "an obscure and humble person" who has had his slaves enticed away by a group of armed Bretons. [4] According to C.E.V. Nixon, the letter is evidence that Armorica at this time was becoming "like a magnet to peasants, coloni, slaves and the hard-pressed" as Roman power weakened. Poorer subjects of Rome with no stake in land ownership found Breton territory to be a safe-haven from the Goths.[5]

War with the Goths

Jordanes states that Riothamus supported the Romans against the Visigoths led by Euric. In The Origin and Deeds of the Goths he states that Riothamus brought a British army to supplement Roman forces, but was defeated fighting overwhelming odds when the Goths intercepted his force:

(XLV.237) Now Euric, king of the Visigoths, perceived the frequent change of Roman Emperors and strove to hold Gaul by his own right. The Emperor Anthemius heard of it and asked the Brittones for aid. Their King Riotimus came with twelve thousand men into the state of the Bituriges by the way of Ocean, and was received as he disembarked from his ships. (238) Euric, king of the Visigoths, came against them with an innumerable army, and after a long fight he routed Riotimus, King of the Britons, before the Romans could join him. So when he had lost a great part of his army, he fled with all the men he could gather together, and came to the Burgundians, a neighboring tribe then allied to the Romans. But Euric, king of the Visigoths, seized the Gallic city of Arverna[6]; for the Emperor Anthemius was now dead.

Riothamus appears to have been betrayed by the Praetorian Prefect of Gaul, Arvandus. Another letter from Sidonius Apollinaris records that Arvandus told the Gothic king Euric that "the Britons stationed beyond the Loire should be attacked". This letter does not mention Riothamus by name, but if Riothamus was the leader of these British settled on the continent, then he would have been connected to these events. When this was discovered, the emperor banished Arvandus.

King Arthur

Riothamus has been identified as a candidate for the historical King Arthur by some recent scholars (notably Geoffrey Ashe[7] and Léon Fleuriot). They further note that Riothamus' last known position was near the Burgundian town of Avallon, which might have been the basis for the Arthurian connection to Avalon. In any case, Riothamus' activities in Gaul may be the seed whence grew the tradition (first recorded by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Historia Regum Britanniae) that Arthur crossed the English Channel from Britain and attacked Rome. Geoffrey Ashe has also suggested a link between Riothamus' betrayal by Arvandus and Arthur's betrayal by Mordred in the Historia Regum Britanniae.[8]

Léon Fleuriot argued that Riothamus is identical to Ambrosius Aurelianus, a figure in early narratives about the period when Arthur is supposed to have lived. He suggests that "Riothamus" was Aurelianus' title as overlord of all Brythonic territories. He noted that "Riothamus" and Aurelianus are contemporaneous and that Aurelianus is the only British leader of the time who is identified as ruling both Brythons and Franks, which could only be the case if he ruled territory in Brittany. He also suggested that the name "Amros" in Breton genealogies is a contraction of "Ambrosius" and that Nennius refers to Aurelianus as supreme ruler of the Britons, which would translate as "Riothamus".[9] Fleuriot argued that Ambrosius led the Britons in the battle against the Goths, but then returned to Britain to continue the war against the Saxons.[9]


  1. ^ Reno, Frank D. (September 1996). The Historic King Arthur: Authenticating the Celtic Hero of Post-Roman Britain. McFarland & Company. pp. 329. ISBN 978-0786402663.  
  2. ^ Rulers of Domnonée
  3. ^ Early British Kingdoms
  4. ^ Letter to Riothamus from Sidonius Apollinaris, introduction and text from
  5. ^ C.E.V. Nixon, "Relations Between Visigoths and Romans in Fifth Century Gaul", in John Drinkwater, Hugh Elton (eds) Fifth-Century Gaul: A Crisis of Identity?, Cambridge University Press, 2002, p. 69
  6. ^ See Arverni
  7. ^ The Discovery of King Arthur, Guild Publishing, London, 1985
  8. ^ Ashe, Geoffrey. "A Certain Very Ancient Book: Traces of an Arthurian Source in Geoffrey of Monmouth's History", Speculum. 1981
  9. ^ a b Léon Fleuriot, Les origines de la Bretagne: l’émigration, Paris, Payot, 1980, p. 170




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