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De Re Militari | Book Reviews

Frank D. Reno

The Historic King Arthur:
Authenticating the Celtic Hero of Post-Roman Britain

([1996]; Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2003; paper 2007) 458pp. ISBN 978-0-7864-3025-3  $35.

For the last twenty or thirty years, the attempt to reclaim King Arthur from his high medieval legendary context steeped in the vocabulary of romance and chivalry and to restore him to his purely historical one of late Roman Britain has occupied the minds of scholars and historians.  It has even attracted the attention of Hollywood. The mystery surrounding this king is that for all the literature that survives, precious little speaks directly of his actual historical roots; unfortunately, this often means that any presentation of the historic King Arthur is, to some degree, still only speculative. Frank Reno offers one new interpretation in his book, The Historic King Arthur. [a reprint of the original 1996 edition - ed.]

For all the complicated date- and name-analysis that pervades every chapter of his book, Frank Reno’s thesis is simply stated and direct: Arthur, Riothamus, and Ambrosius Aurelianus are all one and the same person. Building upon earlier arguments that linked Arthur and Riothamus, most notably that by Geoffrey Ashe, Reno has taken the connection one step further by arguing that Arthur is not really a proper name, but rather another epithet like Riothamus, and that both were used to describe the person Ambrosius Aurelianus, the only one of the triad that is indeed a proper name. In this, he directly challenges earlier theories, which hesitated to identify Arthur as Ambrosius Aurelianus.

Reno’s book is well organized into twelve chapters; each provides foundational information with which to support his argument. Select chapters centerpiece a complex and systematic elucidation of the Arthurian chronology, in which he rescues from obscurity and misidentification such historical personages as Cerdic, a Saxon king with Celtic roots who is vital to Reno’s chronology; an analysis of the major places important to the Arthurian stories (e.g., Camelot, Camlann, and Mount Badon); and close studies of the literature of different provenances (e.g., Welsh, British, Saxon), in which each of the three people under investigation--Arthur, Riothamus, and Ambrosius Aurelianus--are described. In a culminating chapter, Reno lays out the key pieces of evidence that he believes indicate a single person known by all three names, and presents the best and most poignant support for his thesis.

Reno’s investigation reflects his strong command of previous scholarship and extreme comfort working with the historical literature and documents that contain the few tantalizing references to Arthur, Riothamus and Ambrosius Aurelianus: not simply the usual entries from Gildas, Nennius, Geoffrey of Monmouth, and the Mabinogion, but also lesser-known allusions in chronicles, saints’ lives, and sixth- and seventh-century poetry. Each source is scrutinized so carefully that it would seem that Reno has left no stone unturned. The resulting exhaustive information is so detailed that the reader must be inordinately diligent lest some minute detail be misunderstood and the course of Reno’s methodical argument lost.

Regardless of whether or not one finds Reno’s argument convincing, the wealth of material contained within his book, as well as the painstaking clarifications he makes to fifth- and sixth-century chronology and historical personages, is of tremendous value. Additionally, he includes a helpful composite chronology and glossary at the end. Scattered throughout the book are maps, which unfortunately could be more sophisticated with greater precision and detail. However, it is but a minor complaint for a book that overall has great merit.

Ilana Krug

York College of Pennsylvania <ikrug@chass.utoronto.ca>

Page Added: January 2008