I’ve just been reading Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, which to my shame I have to admit I’d never read in full before.
Which is a pity, for while it is a work of fiction, it was treated in Medieval times as at least being partly true, and was used by Shakespeare as a source for Lear (and probably some others)
The interesting thing about the book is that while some of it is clearly made up Geoffrey repeats stories known from Nennius and Gildas, suggesting that he had done some research and possibly had access to other, now lost accounts. This does not mean that he had access to some books now lost, but he may have heard tellings and retellings of older stories and blended them in.
About two thirds through the Arthur stories Geoffrey introduces the character of Lucius Hiberius (or in some texts Lucius Tiberius), Procurator of the Senate of Rome who writes to Arthur, King of the Britons, in quite rude terms requesting that he pay fealty to him.
There are things about the story that are clearly wrong, for example there could have been no king of Iceland as Iceland was unknown to Europeans at the time, and the king of Spain has a Muslim name, Ali Fatima, which predates the Muslim conquest of Spain by around two hundred years.
But other aspects of the story are puzzling. Some of the Senators have proper sounding Roman names, including ‘proper’ triple names such as Gaius Metellus Cocta, and Lucius Hiberius, when initially defeated is counselled to wait for reinforcements from the Emperor Leo, and of course Lucius Tiberius is identified as Procurator of the Senate, and in his letter refers to the Republic, which was a Roman fiction used to describe the state in even late Imperial times, suggesting someone had some familiarity with the organisation of both the late Roman state and the Byzantine exarchate in Italy.
Some researchers have identified Lucius Hiberius with Tiberius Constantine who reinforced Ravenna, intervened in Frankish affairs, allied himself with the Visigothic kings of Spain and generally attempted to assert the authority of Byzantium over the post Roman west.
The reign of Tiberius Constantine also roughly coincides with the presumed time of the historical Arthur – which is also kind of interesting.
Tiberius was also heavily involved in wars against Parthia and in Mesopotamia – all even more interesting given Geoffrey’s inclusion of various middle eastern rulers among Lucius’s allies.
The use of the term Procurator is also interesting – suggesting a letter from a senior state official and not from the Emperor himself – again what might happen if the letter was sent by the Exarch or on orders from Byzantium.
The story itself is clearly fiction. But enough of the details sound right to suggest that perhaps there was once a Byzantine embassy to the Romano British ruler or rulers of Britain requesting them to pledge allegiance, and perhaps also at the same time there was an expeditionary force from the Exarchate that tried to push north into Gaul and extend its boundaries.
We will obviously never know. Reconstructing history from Geoffrey of Monmouth is a bit like reconstructing the history of the Russian 1917 revolution from Dr Zhivago and Mikail Bulgakov’s ‘White Guard’ – we would be able to identify some events as real, some as probable, and some as fictional, and we would never be quite sure as to which of the latter two were which.
Or for a more modern analogy, trying to reconstruct the story of the Viking incursions into Northern Europe from the screenplay of Vikings but with no access to the sagas or the Anglo Saxon Chronicle.
So is the case of Lucius Hiberius – some of the story is fictional, but some also sounds true, feels true ….