Romme, Roume, Rume
Historically, it is known that Roman legions conquered Britain in 43 A.D. The histories proposed by Gildas, Nennius, and Geoffrey follow the same pattern: an initial invasion followed by hundreds of years of uncertain, absentee domination and constant usurpation by British natives or expatriated Romans, an eventual withdrawal, a return – at the pleading of the Britons – to drive away the Picts and Scots, a second departure, and a refusal to return again to help the Britons against the barbarians. The departure takes place in early fifth century. It leaves Britain in anarchy and paves the way for the assumption of the throne by Constantine, Arthur’s grandfather. The histories also suggest that Arthur descended from Roman stock (some histories call Ambrosius, Arthur’s uncle, a Roman senator).
Beginning with Geoffrey of Monmouth, almost all the chronicles include a war between Arthur and Rome that begins when Rome demands Arthur’s submission. Geoffrey names the Roman emperor as Leo, but the procurator, who takes charge of the campaign against Arthur, is named Lucius. Following the Romans’ demand, Arthur raised an army and met the Romans in Gaul. Both sides convened to discuss a treaty, but during the talks, Gawain became enraged at the insults of a Roman warrior and cut off his head, inciting a battle. Several skirmishes followed, culminating in the final battle at Soissons, in which Lucius was killed and Arthur was victorious. Arthur prepared to march on Rome itself, but he was recalled to Britain to deal with Mordred’s insurrection.
Geoffrey and his immediate successors thus locate the Roman War at the end of Arthur’s reign. The Vulgate Cycle changes this chronology, placing the Roman War just after Arthur’s victories against the Saxons and the rebellious British kings at the beginning of his reign. The Vulgate Merlin, in fact, names the Roman Emperor in Arthur’s time as none other than Julius Caesar! Caesar sent Roman warriors, under the command of the senator Pontius Anthony, to assist King Claudas of the Waste Land in his war against Arthur, Ban of Benoic, and Bors of Gannes. Claudas was eventually victorious, but Pontius Anthony was killed.
Later, Merlin follows Geoffrey by naming Lucius as the Roman leader, but Merlin (following a tradition begun by the chronicler Wace) eliminates Leo and calls Lucius himself the Emperor of Rome. As in Geoffrey, Arthur kills him at the battle of Soissons and returns home. In the Vulgate Mort Artu, the Romans invade Burgundy at the end of Arthur’s reign, as Arthur is fighting Lancelot in France. Arthur again slays the Roman Emperor and, as in Geoffrey, returns to Britain to deal with Mordred.
The Alliterative Morte Arthure follows Geoffrey’s chronology by placing the war against Lucius just before Mordred’s insurrection. The text adds, however, a description of Arthur’s conquest of the city of Rome itself (an idea found earlier in John Hardyng’s chronicle). Malory includes Arthur’s occupation of Rome, but reverts to the Vulgate Cycle’s chronology, and excludes the Roman invasion of Burgundy.
It is interesting to note that the western Roman Empire fell in AD 476, but the Arthurian legends, which take place in the late fifth or early sixth century, refer to Rome as if it still possessed all its glory in Arthur’s time. The author of Floriant et Florete seems to have at least some knowledge of Rome’s problems with the barbarian tribes: in the story, it is besieged by Saracens but saved by the timely arrival of the hero Floriant.