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Τhe British Legend of King Arthur Conquering Greece

A fifteenth century depiction of King Arthur and his knights sitting at the Round Table
A fifteenth century depiction of King Arthur and his knights sitting at the Round Table. Credit: Public domain

According to legend, King Arthur was a powerful king ruling in Britain in the era just after the Romans left the island. One obscure tale speaks about the time when King Arthur conquered Greece. Is there any historical basis for this legend, and, if so, what is it?

King Arthur and the conquest of Greece

According to the medieval legends, Arthur was a king who ruled a powerful kingdom in Britain in the sixth century CE after the end of the Roman era. He led an alliance of kings and had numerous people in his service.

One legend related to his reign comes from a tale known as Culhwch and Olwen. In this tale, one of King Arthur’s men speaks with him and refers to the many adventures that they have had together. He mentions that he has been with Arthur in Europe, Africa, and the islands of Corsica (suggesting that Arthur engaged in conquests in those areas).

Then, there is a fascinating line in which he says that he was with Arthur when he “conquered Greece as far as the East.” Hence, according to this legend from medieval Britain, King Arthur conquered Greece. Is this just a complete fiction, or is there some historical basis for this tale?

Magnus Maximus and the conquest of Europe

Firstly, it should be noted that many scholars believe that King Arthur was a composite figure. That is, the legends of Arthur actually come from more than just one person. One of these must have been a war leader in sixth century Britain, since that is the core part of Arthur’s character in the legends.

However, it is perfectly possible that the legend of King Arthur conquering Greece comes from someone else entirely. Regarding another version of the legend that Arthur conquered parts of Europe, found in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, British historian David Dumville observed that this seems to be taken from the historical activities of Magnus Maximus.

Magnus Maximus was a Roman figure in the fourth century CE. It is possible that he was the governor of Britain. In 383, his troops proclaimed him emperor. Maximus then invaded Gaul and conquered the Western Roman Empire.

Since at least one version of the legend of King Arthur’s European conquests evidently comes from tales of Magnus Maximus, it stands to reason that the similar tale in Culhwch and Olwen has the same origin.

King Arthur and the King of Greece

In support of this, the medieval British records reveal a legendary connection between Magnus Maximus and Greece. According to genealogical documents, such as the Harleian MS 3859, Maximus had a son named Anthun. This son appears in various other records as the head of an important dynasty in South Wales.

In these records, Anthun is referred to as the “king of Greece.” This is highly significant. Notice that the names Anthun and Arthur are extremely similar. Furthermore, Anthun and Arthur appear to be the only legendary kings of Britain in medieval British records who are also recorded as ruling over Greece.

It is improbable that this can be put down to coincidence. More likely, the tradition of being king of Greece was taken from one and accidentally applied to the other, due to the similarity between their names. The only question is, was it taken from Arthur and applied to Anthun, the son of Maximus, or was it the other way around?

The conquests of Andragathius

Thessaloniki, ancient Roman agora
Ancient Roman agora of Thessaloniki. Credit: Marco Verch / Flickr CC BY 2.0

Arthur was supposedly a king who ruled in Britain in the sixth century. There is absolutely no evidence that anyone from Britain conquered anywhere near Greece in that era. On the other hand, we know that Maximus engaged in vast conquests on the continent.

Therefore, the logical conclusion is that the tradition of his son Anthun ruling Greece is original to him. This was then evidently misattributed to King Arthur, rather than the other way around.

However, Magnus Maximus did not actually conquer as far as Greece. Yet, his cavalry commander, Andragathius, did conquer in that direction. He led Maximus’ armies as far as Siscia in Croatia in 388. At that time, almost all of the Balkan peninsula was in the administrative territory called the Prefecture of Illyricum.

The capital of this prefecture was Thessaloniki in Greece. Therefore, Andragathius did conquer at least part of the territory whose capital was Greece. With these facts in mind, it is very likely that this is the origin of the tradition of Magnus Maximus’ son conquering Greece.

How Andragathius became King Arthur

The name of Magnus Maximus’ legendary son, Anthun, is very probably a corruption of the first part of ‘Andragathius,’ the name of Maximus’ cavalry commander and the leader of Maximus’ armies. There are many examples in medieval British records of individuals being recorded by just the first part of their name.

The corruption of the name ‘Arddun’ to ‘Arthur’ is attested in the medieval records, and the proposed corruption of ‘Andr’ to ‘Anthun’ is no greater. This, therefore, appears to be the answer to the mystery of King Arthur conquering Greece.

It seems that this legend originates with the historical conquest of Magnus Maximus invading Europe. His cavalry commander, Andragathius, conquered as far as the Prefecture  of Illyricum, which was ruled from Greece. This evidently led to him being remembered as having conquered Greece.

In the medieval British records, his name came to be corrupted into ‘Anthun,’ extremely close to the name ‘Arthur.’ Under that name, he was recorded as the king of Greece. Finally, the tradition of his conquering Greece was then misattributed to King Arthur.

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