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100: King Arthur

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Note: This transcript is automatically generated. There will be mistakes, so please don’t use them for quotes. It is provided for reference use to find things better in the audio.

Our movie today doesn’t quite start with those five words—based on a true story—but it might as well. The first thing we see is some text that says historians agree that the 15th century tale of King Arthur and his knights was born out of a real person. That hero lived a thousand years earlier, in the Dark Ages.

That is…well, let’s say that’s mostly true.

By that, what I mean is that it might be an oversimplification to say that historians agree on who King Arthur was. When you boil it all down, we just don’t know.

That’s important to state up front and keep in mind throughout the entire episode.

With that said, though, legends start somewhere. And, if the movie is correct, that would mean the legend of King Arthur started a thousand years before the 15th century in the Dark Ages.

So that would be in the 5th century, somewhere between the years 401 and 500 CE. The period known as the Dark Ages ranged from around 476 CE to 1000 CE, depending on who you ask. In fact, a lot of historians don’t even like to use the term Dark Ages anymore because it has a negative connotation. The original reason for that name was simply because it was a period where we don’t have a lot of documented history during that time because it was between the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of the Middle Ages.

And that lack of documentation is one of the reasons why we don’t know a lot about who the real King Arthur was—or, honestly, if his name was Arthur. Or if he even existed.

What we do have are a series of clues that can start to paint a picture of who he might’ve been.

One of those clues comes right away with the final bit of text on the opening screen in the movie. It says there’s some recently discovered archaeological evidence that sheds like on Arthur’s true identity.

First, we need to keep in mind the movie was released in 2004, so the recently discovered archaeological evidence doesn’t mean this year, but relatively speaking it’s still recent.

But that’s true. Of course, there’s been a lot of archaeological evidence that have helped piece together the puzzle Arthurian legend.

While the movie doesn’t specifically state which piece of evidence they’re referring to, if I had to guess they’re probably talking about a rather massive find in 1998 at Tintagel in Cornwall, which is a region on the southwestern side of the United Kingdom. At an archaeological dig there, an 8″ x 14″ slate was found. That’s about 20 cm x 35 cm.

On the slate was an engraving. The actual writing wasn’t in modern-day English, of course, but translated it means: Artognou, father of a descendant of Coll, has had this built.

Cornwall is a location that many have associated with the Arthurian legend for centuries, so a lot of people immediately took this to mean that Artognou was referring to the person we know of today as King Arthur.

Back in the movie, we get more setup to our story through some voiceover from Ioan Gruffudd’s version of Lancelot. According to him, by the year 300, the Roman Empire extended from Arabia to Britain—but that wasn’t enough. They kept growing far to the east. On the map we see in the movie there’s an area called Sarmatia, home of the Sarmatians.

Today, that’d be a region north of the Black Sea in western Ukraine or eastern Moldova. Although some evidence suggests the Sarmatian territory might’ve stretched as far west as the Vistula River, which is in modern-day Poland.

But the overall plot point in the movie about the Roman Empire extending into Sarmatian lands around the year 300 CE is true.

The movie doesn’t mention this at all, but it was also around this time that the Roman Empire started a diarchy, or the rule of two. More specifically it was in 285 CE when Maximian became co-emperor with Diocletian.

Maximian ruled the western regions of the Roman Empire while Diocletian took care of the eastern regions.

Of course, this ended up splitting into a tetrarchy when two more Caesars were appointed a few years later, but for the purposes of our story today it was Diocletian who was in charge of Rome’s military expansion to the east.

It was around 285 when Diocletian first ran into the Sarmatians, breaking into war around 289. Well, at least a scattering of battles. Most historians agree the Sarmatians were an Iranian nomadic people.

Going back to the movie, still during the opening sequence setting up the story, we see text on screen that says it’s the year 452 now as the voiceover continues to explain that after defeating the Sarmatians, the Romans were so impressed with their cavalry, that they spared their lives in exchange for incorporating them into the Roman military.

That’s sort of true.

By that, what I mean is that like we just learned, it’s not like the Sarmatians and Romans were the only ones in the region. The movie makes it seem like the Romans were the ones who wiped out the Sarmatians, but in truth that was only part of the reason for their decline.

Another big factor was the Huns, who began their own expansion and conquered large portions of Sarmatians and Germanic tribes in the region—all peoples that ended up meeting the Romans on the battlefield at some point.

Even though the movie mentions a date of 452 CE, that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s when the first Sarmatians were recruited into the Roman military.

While Rome was definitely the largest Empire at the time, the Sarmatian tribes, which most historians agree were a nomadic people, as we just learned, were also attacked by Goths and Huns. That’s important because at one point, in the early 4th century, the Sarmatians armed their slaves in an attempt to drive off the raiding Goths.

That didn’t really work because the slaves turned on their masters. So the Sarmatians asked the Romans for help. Constantine, who was emperor at the time, obliged while drafting Sarmatians from Roman provinces. So that’s a bit different than the wiping out of the Sarmatians the movie seems to imply was the cause for recruiting them into the Roman military. Even if that did happen later, the movie seems to imply the Sarmatians were defeated after one big battle when the Romans and Sarmatians meet for the first time, but as we just learned, that’s not the case.

The opening sequence continues, talking about how a part of the agreement, if it can be called that when the alternative is death, between the Sarmatians and Romans was that the sons of each generation would indebted to serve as knights for the Roman Empire. We hear the voiceover explain that as we see a younger Lancelot, who’s played by Elliot Henderson-Boyle, get taken from his home by Roman soldiers. At one point, he asks a soldier how long he’ll be gone.

Fifteen years is the reply, not including the months of travel it’ll take to get to your post.

The final bit of the opening sequence then explains that Lancelot was assigned to serve in the southern half of Britain. He makes mention of a 73-mile wall built three centuries earlier to protect the Roman Empire from native fighters of the north, then finally he mentions his Roman commander in Britain—Artorius, or, Arthur.

From this bit, it’s clear the movie is suggesting that Lancelot and the rest of the legendary knights are Sarmatians. Even though the movie doesn’t say it here, we can clearly see Clive Owen’s version of Arthur long to return home like his other knights.

Maybe it’s just me, but the implication I got from that was that Arthur, too, is Sarmatian. At least, according to the movie.

So is it true that Arthur and his legendary knights were Sarmatians?

Well, maybe.

As we learned earlier, we don’t even really know if Arthur was real. The same goes for his knights. With that said, though, there is a theory that he could’ve been a Sarmatian who made his way to Britain thanks to the Roman Empire.

The case for that theory is made in a great book by C. Scott Littleton and Linda Malcor called From Scythia to Camelot.

I would highly recommend you picking up a copy of that book to dig deeper because there’s no way we can cover everything in this episode, but it’s worth pointing out that that book was published in 1994. That means it could be part of that recent evidence the movie mentions in the beginning, the authors suggest that perhaps we’ve been misinterpreting the Arthurian legend all this time. Perhaps, just perhaps, Arthur was, as the title of the book suggests, Scythian.

Now in case you’re not familiar with the Scythians, they’re somewhat similar to the Sarmatians in that they were an Iranian nomadic people who lived near the Black Sea from somewhere around the 8th century BCE to the 4th century BCE. The Sarmatians, then, date back to somewhere around the 5th century BCE until the 4th century CE.

So many historians tie together the Scythians, the Sarmatians and another group of nomadic people living in the steppe region called the Alans lived throughout the plains of Central Asia and Eastern Europe—modern-day Hungary, China, Ukraine and so on.

Of course, I’m speaking in very large, overarching generalizations. While there is a lot we know, the truth is that there’s also a lot we don’t know about either of these groups.

And it’s important to point out that while the Scythians, Sarmatians and Alans were Iranian nomads, they’re nothing like the Iranians we think of today that descend from the Medes and the Persians.

Circling this back to King Arthur, the concept we clearly see the movie follow is one that perhaps the person we know of today as King Arthur started from a man named Lucius Artorius Castus, who’s successful military career helped him win numerous battles between 183 and 185 CE that could very well by the battles tied to Arthur over the centuries.

Going back to the movie, after this introduction to the movie we get to meet all of Arthur’s knights.

Of course there’s Ioan Gruffudd’s version of Lancelot. Then there’s Mads Mikkelsen playing Tristan, Joel Edgerton as Gawain, Hugh Dancy as Galahad, Ray Stevenson as Dagonet and Ray Winstone as Bors.

Surprisingly, not in the movie are some other knights you might be familiar with if you’ve studied Arthurian legend—names like Percival, Kay and Bedivere. But then again, there’s a lot of knights that have been associated with Arthurian legend over the centuries.

So what of those knights we see in the movie?

Well, despite their legend, just like Arthur himself, it’s really hard to prove if they’re real.

For example, Lancelot first popped up in early literature around 1170, in the 12th century. If the real King Arthur really was Lucius Artorius Castus who lived in the 2nd century, that would mean Lancelot would’ve been effectively lost to history for a thousand years.

The same sort of thing is true for some of the other knights, too. Like Tristan, who you might be familiar with from the romantic story told in Richard Wagner’s opera from 1859, Tristan and Isolde. Wagner wasn’t the first one to come up with the story, though. The legend of Tristan dates back to a similar time as Lancelot in the 12th century.

So again, we’re roughly a thousand years after the real Arthur lived—assuming, of course, that Arthur lived in the 2nd century. But even if the real Arthur was from the 5th or 6th century like a lot of other legends suggest, the 12th century is a long time afterward for new characters in the tale to show up.

That brings me to another point that’s really important to keep in mind: Many of the authors who have contributed to Arthurian legend over the centuries have made up sources.

By that, what I mean is that it was fairly common for authors to write works of fiction but claim them to be based on some real source to add to their authenticity.

One example of this is the 12th century author who is credited with perhaps the greatest contribution to Arthurian legend: Geoffrey of Monmouth.

In 1136, Geoffrey wrote The History of the Kings of Britain and as part of it, he chronicled many of the things we now consider to be a part of the legend of King Arthur. But Geoffrey started his book off with a dedication, claiming that his book was merely a translation of an earlier book—one that has never been found or proven to have ever existed.

I can’t help but notice the common theme here between a movie that claims to be ‘based on a true story’ and a book that claims to be based on another source to lend authenticity to the story inside. Does that mean the story is true?

Well, I think we’ve proven that the results may vary.

The next major plot point in the movie happens when Bishop Germanus doesn’t give Arthur and his knights the papers they need for their freedom. Threatening Arthur that he’d have to travel across the Roman Empire to return home and he’d be caught without the papers, the Bishop sends Arthur and his knights on one more quest before they earn their freedom—they must rescue a Roman citizen on the north side of the wall.

That wall is the one we heard about in the beginning of the movie when Lancelot talks about how they built a 73 mile long wall to keep out the native fighters from the north.

Oh, and Bishop Germanus is played by as Ivano Marescotti in the film. Well, he’s actually cast as Germanius, but that’s a minor detail.

That whole plot is made up.

But there’s just enough in that’s real to give it the sense that it might’ve been real.

By that, what I mean is that, geographically, it is true that Arthur would’ve needed to travel across the Roman Empire to go from British isle to Sarmathia.

The wall they mentioned is also true.

It’s called Hadrian’s Wall after the Hadrian, Roman emperor who built it around the year 122 CE. As for the purpose of the wall, that’s something historians have debated the specifics of, but generally speaking most agree it was, as the movie implies, to keep out the Picts north of the wall.

The only source we have to give us an idea of the purpose comes from an ancient biographer of Hadrian who wrote a couple hundred years after Hadrian was alive that he was, “the first to build a Wall 80 miles long from sea to sea to separate the Romans from the barbarians.”

That’d be 80 miles according to the ancient Roman measurement. Today it’s about 73 miles or 117.5 kilometers.

With that in mind, that the whole purpose behind Hadrian’s Wall was to separate the Romans from the people north of the wall—the movie’s plot of there being a Roman family north of the wall that needs to be rescued doesn’t really seem to hold up to that.

And that’s not the only part of the plot for Arthur’s quest in the movie that doesn’t hold up to history.

For example, we have the scrolls that Bishop Germanus possesses. According to the movie, those will offer Arthur and his knights safe passage across the Roman Empire to their homes in Sarmathia. Well, not really their homes. They were taken from their homeland at the age of 15, remember? So it’s not like they have homes there anymore.

But that’s not the most unrealistic part of the plot here. According to the Associate Professor of English and Medieval Literature at Purdue University, Dr. Dorsey Armstrong, as she mentioned in her fantastic lecture on The Great Courses Plus, probably the most unbelievable part of this, though, is that there were enough people who could read the papers to make it worthwhile. Or that the ancient Romans had enough checkpoints along the way to catch them.

Long story short, even if scrolls like Bishop Germanus held in the movie did exist, they wouldn’t have held some sort of a magical power over Arthur and his knights.

Oh, and even though we don’t even know if Lucius Artorius Castus was actually the person that the legend of King Arthur was based on. But since the movie is using that theory as the basis for its story, I think it’s important to point out something about Bishop Germanus himself.

Yes, that was a real, historical person. But he lived somewhere around 378 to 448 CE.

Do you remember when Lucius Artorius Castus lived? That would be the 2nd century—around 180 CE. Well over a hundred years, at least, before Bishop Germanus. Although, in the movie’s defense, I guess it does say it’s 452 CE. I just wanted to point out that discrepancy…and it won’t be the last time we’ll come across it.

Speaking of characters that are out of place in the timeline of history, if we bounce back to the movie, after Arthur makes it to the Roman family’s home he runs into Keira Knightley’s character, Guinevere, as she’s locked in a secret prison cell there.

The Roman is Marius Honorius, and he’s played by Ken Stott in the film. He’s a fictional character, and we’ve already talked about unlikely it would be for someone living north of the wall so that gives you an idea of how accurate this part of the story is.

But it’s important because it introduces us to the character of Guinevere.

Like Arthur, we don’t know much about the real Guinevere. We don’t know if she actually existed. There’s even some versions of Arthur’s legend that suggest Arthur had two wives, both of whom were named Guinevere.

What we do know is that there’s not a lot of connections between her and Lucius Artorius Castus.

If Guinevere was around in the 2nd or 3rd century when Artorius was, she disappeared from history for a long time because her first appearance in historical records came in 1136 in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s book, The History of the Kings of Britain.

But I think we can give the movie a little bit of a pass here, because how can you have a movie about King Arthur without Guinevere? In fact, we can say the same thing for many of the characters in the movie.

For example, in the movie we see the character of Merlin isn’t Arthur’s right-hand man but rather the leader of a band of Celtic Britons called the Woads.

That name, Woads, is probably a reference to the blue paint that we see many of them wearing. And as you can probably guess, whether or not that happened is up for debate. For example, in the book written by Julius Caesar—yes, that Julius Caesar— called Seven Commentaries on The Gallic War, he mentions woad, the blue paint, being used. But there’s not really any other proof of this, and even that mention is rather vague.

As for Merlin himself, that’s another character in the story that we just don’t know much about. Was he real? Maybe.

Like Guinevere, Merlin really becomes a part of Arthurian legend in 1136 through Geoffrey of Monmouth’s book. Many historians believe Geoffrey created Merlin the wizard out of stories of the time about a man named Myrddin Wyllt—or Myrddin the Wild.

He wasn’t associated with Arthur at all until Geoffrey’s book, but there was a mention of him in another ancient text that placed Myrddin Wyllt at the Battle of Arfderydd. That battle happened in 573 AD, and afterward Myrddin was said to have gone crazy and disappeared into the forest. That’s when and where he received the gift of prophecy, living among the forest.

So again, the timeline wouldn’t match at all to fit with Lucius Artorius Castus, the character we see in the movie as Arthur. But then again, as we learned earlier, the movie did set the time period as being 452 CE. I guess it was easier to transport Lucius Artorius Castus through time than it would be to take everyone else back in time.

And that brings us to Lancelot. We mentioned him earlier, briefly, but Lancelot as we know him was first introduced by Chrétien de Troyes, who was another 12th century writer that contributed a lot to Arthurian legend. In fact, it was a later work by Chrétien de Troyes that introduced the idea that Lancelot and Guinevere had an affair outside of her marriage to King Arthur.

But that storyline doesn’t make its way into this movie.

Speaking of which, I know we haven’t really gone scene by scene with this film the way we do for a lot of movies. That’s because, well, as we’ve learned there’s a lot of threads of history that have been pieced together to make up the storyline.

By that, what I mean is…yes, it is true that there was a Roman named Lucius Artorius Castus. And yes, it is very possible that he was the one who was behind the legends we now know as King Arthur.

But if he was, that would be in the 2nd century and not in the 5th or 6th century where most of the other Arthurian legends and characters show up. So that would mean if he was Arthur, he didn’t have Guinevere, Lancelot, or any of his other knights.

Oh, and by the way, that term “knights” wasn’t really used until around the year 1100 CE, so it’s not likely that if there was an Arthur in the 2nd century or even the 5th or 6th that he would’ve had knights. Warriors, perhaps, but not knights in shining armor.

Much of that part of the legend was added as stories of King Arthur exploded around the Middle Ages. For example, Sir Thomas Malory’s book, Le Morte d’Arthur, or The Death of Arthur, which was published in 1485 and, like the stories of Arthur that came before, continued to add to the tale. Then other authors take that work and add to it, like Alfred Lord Tennyson and T.H. White, who more recently, in the 19th century, wrote books based on Malory’s that reignited the public’s interest in King Arthur.

T.H. White’s book, The Once and Future King, plays off the part of the Arthurian legend that says King Arthur will return one day—something that many people have likened to the story of Jesus Christ and his return to save the world.

In fact, it was this idea that King Arthur would one day return to save Britain during its darkest hour that made some believe he would come back during one of the two World Wars.

In the end, if there is one thing we know for sure about King Arthur, it’s that the world has been fascinated by him for thousands of years.

Even though we just don’t know a lot about the real Arthur, or if he even really existed, that hasn’t stopped authors to write about him, historians to study him and archaeologists to search for the real locations from those stories.

Each time a new book is written, a new movie released or a new archaeological find is linked to Arthur, his story pops back up into the forefront of the public eye. Each time, a new layer gets added to the legend of King Arthur. There are very few stories that have continued on for so long.

You might say that, even with today’s movies about King Arthur, we are continuing to add to history that is thousands of years old. We are continuing to add to the story of King Arthur that, perhaps, people will talk about after us for thousands of years.

For as long as his story keeps spreading from generation to generation, King Arthur will never die.



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