The Money of King Arthur Pt. I: A Numismatic Prologue

To begin, I should probably define what (or who) I mean by “King Arthur”. Let’s forget about the standard English form of the Arthurian legends. This popular collection of romances was completed by Sir Thomas Malory around 1469 but has nothing to contribute to our quest for the coinage that would have been familiar to the historical “Arthur”.

To make the case for this historical figure, we can start with one of Malory’s earlier sources, Geoffrey of Monmouth. Sometime around 1136 Geoffrey finished his “History of the Kings of Britain”. Now the word “history” in the title should be taken lightly since this History includes early Britain being populated by giants, Trojans, and Saxon eating dragons. But once again we are led to an even earlier source, and here is where things get very interesting.

His name was Sidonius Apollinaris, an aristocrat who lived in south-central Gaul in the 5th century A.D. As luck would have it, Sidonius wrote many letters to prominent Britons and much of his correspondence has survived. It is from these letters that we discover the historical source of Malory’s Arthur.

Remember that Sidonius was alive during the time period he was writing about, unlike Geoffrey or Malory who were writing 700 to 1000 years after the events had occurred. With that in mind, Sidonius tells us that in 467 the Roman Emperor in Constantinople, Leo I, appointed Anthemius the Roman Emperor of the West.  After Valentinian III was murdered in 455, western rulers tended to have short life spans and turnover was frequent. Avitus ruled less than a year. Majorian was assassinated 3 years into his reign. And Majorian’s successor Severus III was poisoned 4 years later in 465.

Euric, king of the Visigoths in Spain, took note of this instability and set his sights on the western Roman territory of Gaul.

In 468 Anthemius sought a British alliance to thwart Euric’s plans of conquest. We have an account from a book by Jordanes, who was writing in 551, less than 100 years after these events. Here is a portion of his account, which I am quoting from Geoffrey Ashe’s 1987 book “The Discovery of King Arthur”:

“Now Euric, King of the Visigoths, perceived the frequent changes of Roman emperors and strove to hold Gaul in his own right. The emperor Anthemius heard of it and asked the Britons 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.”

Here is our Arthur, not in name but in title. Many scholars, past and present, feel that this man is the source. 1000 years of elaboration resulted in the ultimate publication of Malory’s “Le Morte d’Arthur”. And if this is so, we need only look to the Western Roman coinage of the period, roughly 425 to 470 A.D., to imagine what the High King of the Britons carried in his pockets.

See the results of my imagination in my next post!

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