Letter to Riothamus, King of the Britons

Sidonius Apollinaris
Letter to Riothamus, King of the Britons, c.470

Sollius Apollinaris Sidonius (since the thirteenth century he has come to be known simply as Sidonius Apollinaris) was born in Lyons c.431 and died c.489. He was born into a senatorial family to whom, he says, high office almost seemed a hereditary right, and, in keeping with his family’s tradition, he served, for a time, as city prefect of Rome and became Bishop of Clermont-Ferrand, c.470. He had the privilege of witnessing the decay and final demise of Roman civilization in the west and the beginnings of the new medieval society that would replace it. Because of his high station, it seems that there was hardly a person of distinction who lived during this time with whom he did not have some contact, either personal or written.

One of Sidonius’ correspondents was a man named Riothamus, said by Jordanes, a sixth century historian of the period, to be “king of the Brittones.” This Riothamus has been identified by some investigators (notably G. Ashe and L. Fleuriot) as the historical original for King Arthur, and the significance of this letter is that it places this “king of the Brittones” in Gaul in the early 470’s, in the very time period when Geoffrey of Monmouth has Arthur’s Gallic campaigns taking place (1).

An important issue, here, is the meaning of the term “Brittones:” does it mean Bretons or Britons? If the word means Britons, people from the island nation of Britain, then the implication is that a British king, crossed the English Channel and was holding court in Gaul. Taken in conjunction with the sixth century testimony of Jordanes’ “Gothic History” and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s quasi-historical “History of the Kings of Britain,” a reasonably convincing case can be made that Geoffrey’s Arthur and Jordanes’ and Sidonius Apollinaris’ Riothamus are really the same person.

On the other hand, if “Brittones” means Bretons, natives of the land of Brittany, then the Arthur-Riothamus equation begins to unravel. So, which is it, Britons or Bretons? Depending on which translator you read, either meaning is possible, so we get no help, there. But, there is something in the text of Sidonius’ letter which may assist us in finding out whether Riothamus is king of the Britons or king of the Bretons.

The letter, written in the late 460’s or early 470’s, is an appeal to Riothamus, whom Sidonius apparently knows to be a fair-minded and honourable ruler, for justice for “an obscure and humble person,” who has suffered a wrong. The wrongdoers, in this case, are Bretons who are enticing the man’s slaves away, perhaps encouraged to do so by the slave-owner’s own meekness and vulnerability. The Bretons are armed, aggressive and numerous and he, unarmed and impecunious, is no match for them.

Perhaps this unfortunate man came to Sidonius for justice in his capacity as Bishop of Clermont, but, as we learn from the letter, Sidonius commends his case on to Riothamus. We get no hint that there is anything irregular or unusual in his doing so, and we are left to conclude that ordinary due process is being done. The Gothic History of Jordanes tells us that Riothamus, king of the Brittones, came at the head of a 12,000 man force at the behest of Anthemius, the Roman Emperor, to aid in combatting the Visigoths. If Riothamus had come across the Channel from Britain to Gaul, he would have had no interest or jurisdiction there and could not be expected to be a part of any normal judicial process. But, it could be argued that since Riothamus was in Gaul at the behest of the Roman Emperor, he was the Emperor’s de facto representative in that area and, as such, had full legal jurisdiction. But that view doesn’t withstand close scruting since there already was an imperial prefect in Gaul, a man named Arvandus.

Our problem of Riothamus’ presence in Gaul and questionable legal jurisdiction goes away if he is a Breton, rather than a Briton. In the late 450’s, there were mass migrations of upper-crust Britons from Britain to Brittany. Some scholars of the period have made Riothamus the leader of that wave of migrations and the founder of the dynasties of the Breton kingdom of Dumnonie (2). If a Breton, Riothamus had a perfect right to be located there, north of the Loire, and would have been the obvious person to whom Sidonius should refer a grievance involving other Bretons.


I will write once more in my usual strain, mingling compliment with grievance. Not that I at all desire to follow up the first words of greeting with disagreeable subjects, but things seem to be always happening which a man of my order and in my position can neither mention without unpleasantness, nor pass over without neglect of duty. Yet I do my best to remember the burdensome and delicate sense of honour which makes you so ready to blush for others’ faults. The bearer of this is an obscure and humble person, so harmless, insignificant, and helpless that he seems to invite his own discomfiture; his grievance is that the Bretons are secretly enticing his slaves away. Whether his indictment is a true one, I cannot say; but, if you can only confront the parties and decide the matter on its merits, I think the unfortunate man may be able to make good his charge, if indeed a stranger from the country unarmed, abject and impecunious to boot, has ever a chance of a fair or kindly hearing against adversaries with all the advantages he lacks, arms, astuteness, turbulences, and the aggressive spirit of men backed by numerous friends. Farewell.

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