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In popular culture King Arthur is usually depicted as sovereign of some medieval never-never land, where Knights of the Round Table and their ladies speak perfect English and live by an idyllic code of chivalry, troubled by little more than an occasional combat, palace intrigue or bit of magic. The reality was much more brutal. The time was the fifth century, and the Dark Ages were descending over Europe.
For four centuries Britain was part of the Roman Empire and received the benefits of its civilization. One could safely travel from the North Sea to the Nile on well maintained roads, speaking the same language, subject to uniform laws and using a common currency, enjoying the amenities of a comfortable town or city each night. Hadrian’s Wall protected the northern frontier from the barbarian Picts, and the fleet kept the coast safe from the depredations of pirates from Ireland. Entire cities such as London were built, complete with never before seen wonders like paved streets, clean water supplies, sanitary sewers, baths and adequate housing.
On a more mundane level, the Romans introduced kilts, bagpipes and the predecessor of the game of golf. Wealthy families from Italy established villas and married into the local nobility; army veterans were given land to farm and took local women for wives. The Romanized Britons could send their children to Rome itself to be educated and advance in the world; the daughter of one, Helena, was the mother of the Emperor Constantine.
Even as the Empire declined this remote province was held on to and protected, but a cataclysm in 410 AD changed that, the sack of Rome. It was decided to recall the troops from the remoter provinces to protect Italy, so the next year the army was withdrawn from Britain. A special delegation went to the emperor to beg for their return, but that was impossible. Villas were fortified or abandoned, and local troops raised for protection from the attacks of the Picts and Irish; still things grew more desperate.
Three tribes of barbarians from Germany, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, were recruited as allies, but they soon turned against the Britons.
In the midst of the chaos a dux bellorum (warlord) arose, Ambrosius Aurelianus, also called Aurelius Ambrosius, who, as his name suggests, was of Roman origin, related to the emperors themselves; he was the historical King Arthur. What little we know of him is gleaned from the sixth century writings of Gildas the Wise, contemporary accounts being nonexistent. He united the Britons and recruited a corps of cavalry (equites cataphractarii). Being from the upper classes they spoke Latin and considered themselves Romans by both ancestry and culture.
They engaged in a series of conflicts and won a great victory over the barbarians at the Battle of Badon Hill (Mons Badonicus), which occurred towards the end of the fifth century, and brought peace for a while. However, the outcome was not decisive, and between internal dissension and the ongoing depredations of the Anglo-Saxons, the Britons were eventually pushed back to the north and west. Some fled to what is now France, with the region taking the name Brittany from them. Ambrosius Aurelianus disappeared into the mists of history, but his legend lived on.
Later writers identified him as King Arthur, and the equites cataphractarii became the Knights of the Round Table. Weaving together folktales, myths and such from various sources they created the characters we are familiar with. One of the few historical facts to survive in these legends is his imperial Roman origin. Modern science has also revealed another vindication. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries people of English descent were often referred to as Anglo-Saxons, but DNA analysis has revealed they are mostly descended from the ancient Britons, a people saved by old Roman valor.