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Riothamus (also spelled Riutimus or Riotimus) was a Romano-British military leader, who was active circa AD 470. He fought against the Goths in alliance with the declining Roman Empire. He is called "King of the Britons" by the 6th-century historian Jordanes, but the extent of his realm is unclear. Riothamus is a Latinization of the Brythonic personal name *Rigotamos, meaning 'king-most', 'supreme king' or 'highest king'. Though it is still a matter of debate, several scholars consider his life to have been one of the possible sources for the King Arthur legend.
It is not clear whether Jordanes' "Britons" refers to the Britons of Great Britain itself, or of Armorica, which was undergoing significant British settlement and later came to be known as Brittany. The Bretons retained strong links to Britain, as is reflected in the names Kernow (now Cornwall) and Dumnonia (now Devon) being found as Cornouaille and Domnonée in Armorica. The distinction between insular and continental Britons may not have had very much meaning at the time, as ecclesiastics such as St. Winwaloe were associated with Brittany and Great Britain alike, and King Mark ('Hound of the Sea') apparently ruled Britons/Bretons on both sides of the English Channel.
The Old Breton name Riatam, which (like Riothamus) is derived from Brittonic *Rigotamos, appears in medieval Breton records (primarily biographies of early Breton saints) as one of the Princes of Domnonée (a coastal region in Brittany which takes its name from Dumnonia in southern Britain). He is identified as a son of Deroch II. For chronological reasons, this Riatam is probably a different individual from Jordanes' Riothamus, who lived earlier. To resolve this contradiction, some scholars have speculated that the name Deroch II may be an error for the earlier Deroch I, which would make "Riatam" contemporary with Jordanes' Riothamus. The "Riatam" of Domnonée is said to have been exiled in Britain after his father's death, apparently during a civil war. According to chronicles, he returned to kill the usurper.
More secure information is provided by a letter which has survived that was written to Riothamus from Sidonius Apollinaris, bishop of Clermont, who requested his judgment for "an obscure and humble person" who had had his slaves enticed away by a group of armed Bretons. According to C.E.V. Nixon, the letter is evidence that Armorica at this time was becoming "like a magnet to peasants, coloni, slaves and the hard-pressed" as Roman power weakened. Poorer subjects of Rome with no stake in land ownership found Breton territory to be a safe haven from the Goths.
Jordanes states that Riothamus supported the Romans against the Visigoths led by Euric (who lived c. 440 – 484). In The Origin and Deeds of the Goths, he states that Riothamus brought a British army to supplement Roman forces but suffered defeat fighting against overwhelming odds when the Goths intercepted his force:
(XLV.237) "Now Euric, king of the Visigoths, perceived the frequent change of Roman Emperors and strove to hold Gaul by his own right. The Emperor Anthemius heard of it and asked the Brittones for aid. Their King Riotimus came with twelve thousand men into the state of the Bituriges by the way of Ocean, and was received as he disembarked from his ships. (238) Euric, king of the Visigoths, came against them with an innumerable army, and after a long fight he routed Riotimus, King of the Britons, before the Romans could join him. So when he had lost a great part of his army, he fled with all the men he could gather together, and came to the Burgundians, a neighboring tribe then allied to the Romans. But Euric, king of the Visigoths, seized the Gallic city of Arvernum; for the Emperor Anthemius was now dead."
A letter from Sidonius Apollinaris records that the Praetorian Prefect of Gaul Arvandus sent a message to the Gothic king Euric stating that "the Britons stationed beyond the Loire should be attacked", which has led some[who?] to suggest that Arvandus betrayed Riothamus. This letter does not mention Riothamus by name, however, and (depending on the reconstruction of the chronology of Sidonius' letters), it is possible that Riothamus and his forces were not the direct subject of Arvandus' message to Euric, as Arvandus might have already been under arrest and on his way to Rome before Riothamus had even entered the fray against the Goths.
Gregory of Tours seems to react to the outcome of the battle between the Goths and Britons: "Brittani de Bituricas a Gothis expulsi sunt, multis apud Dolesim vicum peremptis" (The Brittani were driven from Bourges by the Goths and many of them perished at the village of Déols).
Riothamus has been identified as a candidate for the historical King Arthur by some recent writers and scholars, notably the academic Léon Fleuriot and popular historian Geoffrey Ashe. These authors further note that Riothamus' last known position was near the Burgundian town of Avallon, which they suggest is the basis for the Arthurian connection to Avalon. In any case, Riothamus' activities in Gaul may be the seed whence grew the tradition (first recorded by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Historia Regum Britanniae) that Arthur crossed the English Channel from Britain and attacked Rome. Geoffrey Ashe has also suggested a link between Riothamus' betrayal by Arvandus and Arthur's betrayal by Mordred in the Historia Regum Britanniae.
Léon Fleuriot argued that Riothamus is identical to Ambrosius Aurelianus, a figure in early narratives about the period when Arthur is supposed to have lived. He suggests that "Riothamus" was Aurelianus' title as overlord of all Brythonic territories. He noted that "Riothamus" and Aurelianus are contemporaneous and that Aurelianus is the only British leader of the time who is identified as ruling both Brythons and Franks, which could only be the case if he ruled territory in Brittany. He also suggested that the name "Amros" in Breton genealogies is a contraction of "Ambrosius" and that Nennius refers to Aurelianus as supreme ruler of the Britons, which would translate as "Riothamus". Fleuriot argued that Ambrosius led the Britons in the battle against the Goths, but then returned to Britain to continue the war against the Saxons.