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Artistic License History / King Arthur

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As You Know, Celts can't build trebuchets before the Imperial Age.

The 2004 King Arthur movie's claim to be the true story behind the Arthurian Legend is best taken with a grain of salt.

  • For a start, the claim the film opens with, saying most historians agree Arthur is based on a real man, isn't true. It's highly disputed if there is any historical basis for Arthur at all, and if so, what the details were. There is also no archaeological evidence recently discovered about him.
    • It's based on the theory that the "real King Arthur" was a Roman officer named Lucius Artorius Castus who may have led cavalry in Britain and Armorica (Brittany in France) according to archeological evidence, paralleling the legends of King Arthur doing stuff in those places. The real Artorius in question lived during the 2nd century AD while this movie is set in AD 467. While it's accepted that the real Artorius was in Britain at some point, he held the post of "Camp Prefect" which was a desk job, not a battlefield commander (thus making it unlikely he ever fought battles that would pass into legend), and it's not even certain whether he even set foot in Brittany, as "Armorica" is now considered a misreading of Armenia. The real Artorius is buried in Croatia where his memorial plaque was found.
      • The movie acknowledges the large time gap by making King Arthur a descendant and namesake of the original Artorius, but it's yet another assumption that his name, let alone bloodline, was passed down in Britain. His name itself is further problematic: while there are plausible linguistic grounds for the Celtic/Welsh name Arthur to have evolved from the Latin Artorius, it could also have a Celtic origin related to the word for "bear", arto (arth in modern Welsh), and it is treated as a non-Latin name in Latin writings, left as Arthur or adapted as Arthurus, Arturus, etc. and never "corrected" or "restored" to Artorius.
      • Plus the real Lucius Artorius Castus would have actually been more commonly known as Castus instead of Artorius. According to Roman naming conventions, his first or personal name (praenomen) would have been Lucius, his clan or extended family name (nomen gentilicium, or just nomen for short) would have been Artorius and his immediate family name or surname (cognomen) would have been Castus. Think how Gaius Julius Caesar is just "Caesar" for short. If the personal name Arthur is indeed derived from the clan Artorius (or rather gens Artoria), it probably wasn't through Castus directly.
    • The movie posits that the original Knights of the Round Table were horsemen from Sarmatia - a region including modern Ukraine and southern Russia - who were conscripted into the Roman cavalry and ended up in Britain, where they were led by men of Arthur's family for generations.
      • The movie doesn't really go much into the suggested links between Sarmatian culture (and cultures of related peoples like Alans and Ossetians) and Arthurian legend, like magic swords, magic cauldrons and tales of heroes having their swords thrown into water. But these supposed connections are nigh-universally dismissed by academia, as Celtic scholars point out that these similarities can be traced back to Celtic culture already, which is much simpler. Plus some supposedly "core" elements like making cloaks out of enemies' beards aren't even in the earliest recorded versions of the Arthurian legend, so it's much simpler to chalk them up to coincidence or even a distant common Indo-European mythic source instead of one culture directly influencing the other though separated by centuries and thousands of miles. (Similarly, the earliest versions of Arthurian legend say nothing about him having adventures in Brittany and France, as mentioned above, so later writers may have simply made it up.) There is also no direct evidence linking Lucius Artorius Castus, let alone his family, to Sarmatian troops in Britain - from what is known about both, they served in different locations, and Castus was an infantry officer, not cavalry. It is yet another assumption that even if a "Sarmatian unit" survived for decades, its members would have retained their own ethnic identity and culture over the years, enough to give birth to and influence heroic legends, instead of just intermarrying with the local Romano-British population and assimilating into their culture.
      • For what it matters, the historical Sarmatians are considered to have been an Iranian people. The movie treats the supposedly Sarmatian knights as rather generically Eastern European, or even generically Eastern, with aesthetic influences from all over the place and beyond.
  • The movie combines these Artorius and Sarmatian theories with the "traditional origin" of the Arthurian legend where he leads the British against the Anglo-Saxon invasion. Historically, the British did oppose the Anglo-Saxons under a leader named Ambrosius Aurelianus, who becomes Arthur's uncle Aurelius in the legends.
  • While Arthur gets his name rendered into Artorius, the rest of the characters keep the traditional spellings of their names. The knights used in the movie are almost all inventions of the Arthurian romances from France and elsewhere with no roots in Welsh mythology and thus relations to possible British history, except Tristan and Gawain who are those guys In Name Only. (Period-appropriate versions of those names would be Drustan and Gwalchmai.) So you have characters who are supposedly Late Roman Eastern Europeans with Late Medieval French names.
  • Cerdic and Cynric did not die in the real Battle of Badon Hill (c. AD 500), and may not even have participated since there was more than one group of Anglo-Saxons expanding in Britain. Cerdic became king of Wessex after the battle, in 519. His son Cynric succeeded him in 534.
  • While Pelagius was indeed a British cleric who was branded a heretic he was not executed, only exiled. His teaching was not about political freedom (inspiring the movie's Arthur that all men are free and equal, hence the Round Table) but about religious doctrine which we don't need to get into here note . Also he died decades before 467 AD.

  • Trebuchets are one of the few Medieval siege weapons that were not known in Ancient Rome. The first models reached Europe from the east in the 6th century; they were available in Western Europe in the 8th century at the earliest and probably even later in Britain. They were always used against fortifications and not as field artillery.
  • As usual in movies, in the final battle the trebuchets fire burning projectiles and the arrows are on fire. Both were incendiary weapons used in sieges and naval combat, not open field battles.
  • Some swords are held together with screw heads.
  • Stirrups were not invented for another couple of centuries.
  • There's a castle that would have had King Edward I of England (died 1307) saying to his architect, "There! That's the sort of thing I had in mind!" The motte and bailey fortification, a considerably more primitive version of that sort of castle, would not be invented for another 500 years.
  • The Saxons use crossbows as their signature weapon. While primitive crossbows existed in the Roman Empire, they were not generalized in Europe until centuries later. And they were used in the Greco-Latin world before Germanic Europe. So, if anyone were to use them in Roman Britain, it would most likely have been the Romans.
    • This is an allusion to the Medieval controversy about crossbows. The crossbows are brought in late in the movie as a new, fearsome weapon, and they kill some of Arthur's knights effortlessly and from a distance, rendering their high training, experience, and expensive armor moot (just like knights complained crossbows did in real life). Of course, the problem here is that crossbows didn't become common in Western Europe until the 10th or 11th century. Had they been so in the 5th, the heavily armored cavalryman wouldn't have arised and become dominant in Medieval battlefields in the first place.
  • Another common anachronism in Arthurian adaptations is the usage of plate armor, despite this film's attempts to ground the legend in history. This was supposed to be a nod to the viewers' expectations for a King Arthur film, quite apparently a failed one.
  • Arthur himself wears an ahistorical mishmash of Roman armor types, most of which had been out of use for centuries anyway. By the 5th century, Roman armor would've looked much less Roman.

  • The Celtic British tribes still resisting Roman rule are meant to be the historical Picts, but they are called "Woads". The filmmakers said this was partly due to Rule of Cool and partly to denote a Fantastic Slur. Picts are well-known, accurately or not, for tattooing themselves with woad, a plant dye (but the film doesn't explain it that way).
    • Ironically, a predominant theory is that "Pict" originated as a Roman slur - the Latin Pictus, "Painted", in reference to their supposed extensive use of tattoos or bodypaint. Both the Spanish and the German dubs translate Woad as Pict.
  • The exact date of AD 467 causes more problems. The Romans actually left Britain in 410. The real Cerdic and Cynric arrived in Britain around 495. The bishop Germanius was also a real person and he went to Britain twice, the last time being 447. The climactic battle is called the Battle of Badon Hill. In the real battle, the British (led by Arthur, according to legend) defeated the Saxons, but it's dated to some time between 490 to 516.
  • The Saxons landing north of Hadrian's Wall instead of south of it. In real life the Saxons landed in the south-east of Britain, some 300 miles south of the wall. In any case, they would not have been dumb enough to land their invasion in a way that dictated that they would have to cross a large and well-known man-made obstacle in order to get to where they wanted.
    • The Saxons were most likely originally invited to Britain as mercenaries by petty post-Roman British lords fighting each other and who subsequently took over and formed their own kingdoms, rather than invading as a single force from the continent.
  • Cerdic stops a Saxon warrior from raping a British woman because he doesn't want their blood to mix. As genetic studies show, the British and the Anglo-Saxons had no problem interbreeding, and this seems to be added in for the sake of Does This Remind You of Anything? Historians note Cerdic's own name is Celtic, not Germanic, which may suggest he himself had mixed heritage.
    • Note that before the advent of genetics as a tool of historical research, this was a relatively well-known theory. This means that in this case, Artistic License involves not as much made-up stuff, as just outdated. Still, it ended up in the film, so filmmakers either didn't know of the current state of the art, or didn't care.
  • The late Roman Catholic Church is depicted more like the medieval one, punishing heretics with death. At the time however, they did not do this (though some advocated it). Thus the real Pelagius was merely exiled. Also, pagans in Britain at the time were few, as the country was heavily Christianized. Though pagans were sometimes persecuted, it was not in the systematic way we see of torture and imprisonment, again more like heretics later.