"The Dream of Maxen Wledig": The Medieval Topics of "The Loss of Britain" And "The Loss of Spain"

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Abstract: The tale of "The Dream of Maxen Wledig" depicts the life of Magnus Maximus, a Roman emperor from Hispania whose memory and legacy were forgotten in medieval Christendom but kept strongly alive in Welsh history. A source of legitimacy and prestige for the Welsh kings, this tale is an idealized reformulation of the Roman past of Britain, built in the Middle Ages as a link between a lost "Golden Age" and the idea of the right of the Welsh people to recover the hegemony of Britannia. After reviewing its historical sources and fictional elements, this paper finishes with a brief comparative study between the themes of the "Loss of Britain" and the "Loss of Spain."


§1. A medieval tale known as "The Dream of Maxen Wledig" (Breuddwyd Macsen Wledig) is preserved and included in two of the most important codices of the Welsh imaginarium or Cyfarwyddyd (McMullen 2011, 225): the "White Book of Rhydderch" and the "Red Book of Hergest."2 The former is considered to have been written in c. 1350, and the latter between 1382 and c. 1410 (Huws 2000, 58; Davies 2007, i; Rodway 2007, 59). But, as these codices were written in Middle Welsh, their accessibility and knowledge were restricted until nineteenth century, when Lady Charlotte Guest translated eleven prose tales of these manuscripts into English, and published them under the title of Mabinogion between 1838 and 1849. More recent translations by John Bollard (2006), Sinoed Davies (2007) or Patrick Ford (2008) have opened up the Mabinogion to wider audiences.

§2. Technically speaking, the only mabinogi is composed by four interrelated tales known as "The Four Branches" (Davies 2007, ix–x). "The Dream of Maxen Wledig" is one of the independent stories included by Lady Charlotte Guest in her Mabinogion ("Breuddwyd Rhonabwy," "Lludd and Llefelys" and "Culhwch ac Olwen"). Although the main source and authorship of these tales is still on debate between oral and literary tradition, "The Dream" is particularly linked to historical sources. This does not mean that "The Dream" was created in the fourteenth century: there is evidence of a tradition that kept alive the memory of a Roman emperor (Roberts 1976, 30 and 34; Matthews 1982, 433–434; Rodway 2007, 55–66; Guy 2018, 382–383). In fact, one of the main characters, Maxen, is considered to have been inspired by Emperor Magnus Maximus, who "usurped" the Roman throne between c. 383 and 388, as a source of legitimacy and prestige for the Welsh kings (Brewer 1975, 28; Bromwich 2006, 442; Guy 2018, 384).

§3. This article analyses a medieval interpretation of an episode located in the last moments of the Roman rule in Britain and how it was strongly influenced by the local perspective of the last independent Welsh kingdom. For that, we do a comparative study with the case of the "Loss of Spain," in which we can find a parallel example which followed the same patterns of legitimation discourse: in Britain, against a barbarian "Other"; and in Spain, against the "Saracens." I suggest, as many authors have asserted, that it was an effort to revitalize the memory of a prosperous past in order to give hope and to recover the splendor of a lost and idealized Roman "Golden Age."

Magnus Maximus

§4. Not much is known about the historical Magnus Maximus, and most of the information is related to his victory over Gratian in Gaul and his defeat by Theodosius the Great in August of 388 (Balil 1965; Lomas 2006). The first reference to Magnus Maximus is in Ammianus Marcellinus, who states that he fought under the orders of Count Theodosius in Africa c. 373 (Res Gestae 29.5.6, 29.5.21 and 31.4.9), and later in Britannia during the barbarica conspiratio of 367–368 (Res Gestae 27.8.1; Tomlin 1974; Matthews 1982, 435), with the son of Theodosius the Elder: the future Emperor Theodosius I.3 Nevertheless, we know little about his family, although it is probable that the family of Count Theodosius the Elder and his son Theodosius I had some kind of relationship with Magnus Maximus. In fact, when Pacatus compares the modest origins of Maximus" family with the higher ones of the Theodosian family, he uses the words "client," "affinity" and "favor" (Panegyrici Latini 12.24.1 and 31.1), which suggests some kind of familiar close relationship (Balil 1965, 110).

§5. After having defeated an incursion of Picts and Scots, Magnus Maximus was proclaimed emperor between autumn of 382 and spring of 383 (Balil 1965, 112). He took control of the western provinces of the Roman Empire (Britania, Galia and Hispania) after the desertion of the troops of Gratian in Paris and his death in Lyon in August of 383. Then, Bishop Ambrose of Milan mediated between Magnus Maximus, Theodosius and Valentinian II, and after the "Pact of Verona" (in which the prefecture of Gaul was given to Maximus, Italia and Illyricum to Valentinian II and the East to Theodosius), Maximus entered Italy by the end of 386, also expanding his influence to Africa. In Rome, he even had the support of the pagan senators. Symmachus read a panegyric in Maximus" honor in the Senate. Some Christians as Ambrosius, bishop of Milan, were favorable to him (Lomas 2006, 504–505). Under his rule Priscillian was executed, making Magnus Maximus the first emperor who executed a heretic Christian leader (Matthews 1982, 431).4 In 388, Theodosius marched west in support of the rights of Valentinian II over Italy against Maximus. After leaving the defense of the frontier in the hands of his son Victor as augustus in Trier, Magnus Maximus took made his way to the Illyricum but at the battle of Save (modern Siscia) his army was defeated and he was later killed in Aquileia by the rebellion of some of his own troops. In consequence, Valentinian II recovered the control of Rome and the western part of the Roman Empire, and Theodosius reinforced his hegemony.

Magnus Maximus in the historiographical sources

§6. Nothing is said in the tale about the death of Maxen Wledig. Historically, after his defeat and death, Magnus Maximus suffered the usual delegitimation: he was presented as a usurper and tyrant, and he suffered damnatio memoriae (Matthews 1982, 431). When Paulus Orosius wrote some decades later (c. 417) his Historia Adversos Paganos, the triumph of Theodosius is presented as providential (7.34.9 and 7.35.10), and although at first he considered Maximus as a "honest, strong and capable augustus," Theodosius defeated him only because of his piety and faith in God. Later Orosius contradicts his own words, saying that Maximus was a "cruel enemy." The same description is given by Ammianus Marcellinus, who considered him in his Res Gestae 31.4.9 as exitiosus ("criminal").

§7. This is the basis for the negative perspective that is found in the Latin histories and chronicles. Even in Britain we find a negative view of Magnus Maximus, from Gildas and his famous sixth Century De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae to the twelfth century History of the Kings of Britain of Geoffrey of Monmouth, through the anonymous Historia Brittonum attributed to Nennius (c. 830). For them, Maximus was considered responsible of having left Britannia at the mercy of the "barbarians" without any troops to protect it, as he took them in order to fight in support of his own ambitions. Consequently, in the medieval period in Wales, Magnus Maximus was considered responsible for "The Loss of Britain," although nowadays historians highlight Constantine III for having left Britannia to its own devices, between 407 and 411.5 He was the last usurper known for having been proclaimed emperor in the province and the last one to have taken control of the troops stationed there.

§8. However, the negative memory of Magnus Maximus is not the only perspective. We can find a more positive presentation in Bede. In the eighth century, influenced by Gildas and Isidore, Bede followed the positive descriptions of Orosius in composing his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, ignoring the negative depiction of Gildas, a writer who he used as a source elsewhere in the text (Ecclesiastical History 1.9.2; Scully 2005). Another less negative judgement can be seen in Gregory of Tours" Ten Books of History: although he is still considered a "tyrant" (usurper), Magnus Maximus is depicted as a triumphant emperor among the Britons and Gregory describes how Maximus met Saint Martin of Tours, one of Gregory"s heroes, in Trier (History 1.43). We must also keep in mind the possibility that sources that depict Magnus Maximus in a more positive way may have been lost, leaving behind a partial record.6

The Welsh Tradition

§9. The earliest copy of "The Dream of Maxen Wledig" is included in Perniarth 16 part iii (according to Huws 2000, 58, or part "v" according to Guy 2018, 398), dated to the second half of thirteenth century, before the composition of the "White Book of Rhydderch" and the "Red Book of Hergest."The elements shown by Geoffrey of Monmouth are different than the ones included in "The Dream," so some scholars have considered the possibility of considering the triad 35, of Trioedd Ynis Prydain, as a terminus ante quem, dating the "The Dream" in the second half of the twelfth century (Roberts 1976, 30; Huws 2000, 58; Roberts 2005b, xi-xxv; Bromwich 2006, xci–xcvii; Rodway 2007, 57–59; McKenna 2012, 142; Guy 2018, 383–385 and 399–402). In the tale the Roman past, and especially the period of Magnus Maximus, is regarded as a period of prosperity. Maxen Wledig occupied a privileged place among the rulers of Britain in the memory of the Welsh. This is supported by the elements of an oral tradition that are present in the historical sources used for "The Dream," Gildas, De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae and Geoffrey of Monmouth"s History of the Kings of Britain (Roberts 1976, 30–31; Kay 2006/2007, 73 and 98–99; Davies 2007, xix; Guy 2018, 383–385). Archaeology has also given us the "Pillar of Eliseg" ("Croes Elisedd," recently studied by the Project Eliseg), the inscription of which is now lost but most of its content has survived thanks to Edward Lhuyd, who copied it twice in 1696. A Latin inscription marks the date of the remains of this cross, which demonstrates that it was erected by Cyngen ap Cadell, a king who ruled the Welsh kingdom of Powys in the first half of the ninth century. He dedicated this cross to his great-grandfather Elisedd ap Gwylog and included a genealogy that incorporated the name "Maximus Brittanniae" and daughter, Se[v]ira filia Maximi / [re]gis qui occidit regem Romano/rum … (Matthews 1982, 444; Edwards 2009; Charles-Edwards 2013, 201 and 448; Guy 2018, 386–387).7

§10. The significance of Magnus Maximus in the royal genealogies of the Welsh kingdoms is known from other examples in Dyfed, Powys and Man since the ninth Century (Bartrum 1966; Bromwich 2006, 442; Guy 2018, 386–390). The dynasty of the southern Welsh kingdom of Dyfed refers to him as "Maxim Guletic" in the tenth Century (Guy 2018, 390; McKenna 2012, 142). This suggests that Maxen was seen not only as a Roman emperor, but also as a gwledig ("ruler"): this denomination is also seen in rulers such as "Embrys Wledic" (Ambrosius Aurelianus, a Briton and Roman king who protected the island against the invaders, as is shown in Gildas's De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae 25 and Historia Brittonum 42 and 48; Bromwich 2006, 444). There are similar cases of other "Welsh" kings, for example, as the grandfather of Arthur, "Anlawdd Wledig," or "Cunedda Wledig," considered the founder of the kingdom of Gwynedd (Castleden 2003, 124). Later genealogies are reviewed by Ben Guy: in the ninth-tenth centuries, when Maxen, Helen and Constantine are considered ancestors of the Welsh dynasties (Guy 2018, 389–390); twelfth century, when Maxen and Cynan are present in different genealogies (Guy 2018, 390–397); and the focus in Maxen and Elen in thirteenth century, when the character of Maxen is more frequently shown in literature (Guy 2018, 397–401).

§11. The name of "Maxen" is given to an emperor that was called "Magnus Maximus" through the form of "Maxim." The confusion was possibly made by Historia Brittonum and Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History, when he describes the life of Magnus Maximus as if he were called Maximian (Brewer 1975, 28; Roberts 1976, 30; Bromwich 2006, 442; Guy 2018, 387). The multiple identities combined in the fictional character of Maxen Wledig can be also considered as a mixture of the different usurpers who tried to control the Empire after being acclaimed emperors by their troops in Britannia. Britain had a long tradition in this regard. Jerome considered Britannia "a province fertile in tyrants" in his Epistola 133.9 (Matthews 1982, 438). Alectus and Carausius in the third century, Magnus Maximus in the fourth century, Gratian and Constantine III in the fifth century, and of course, Constantine the Great, who was acclaimed emperor at York in 306 (Sanz 2005). It is also possible that the elements of the lives of Maxentius, Magnentius and Maximian were merged in Maxen.

§12. The traditional image of Magnus Maximus in the Roman world differs from depictions in British and Welsh medieval sources. Magnus Maximus is considered a tyrant by the Roman writers and, since Gildas, is made responsible of the "Loss of Britain." But, in contrast, in the tale this "sin" of Maxen is not the center of the narrative: the author of "The Dream" changed the perspective of the written tradition and used Maximus to give legitimacy to the rule of Elen"s (his wife) family in Britannia at a crucial moment of its history (Guy 2018, 385 and 388).

§13. Three issues are particularly relevant to understanding the depiction of Maximus in "The Dream." First, Roman legitimacy is transferred to the Britons. The question now is if we can consider that the profile and image of Maxen Wledig in the tale is, actually, a sort of personification of the lost Roman period, or if it is the crystallization of Roman continuity (in the sense that he is a link with a past considered old and splendorous and the fight with the invaders of Britannia). The relation between Maxen and Elen is cordial, as is Maxen who travels to WalesᾹthe tale gives a detailed list of Welsh places and cities, revealing its likely origins in Gwynedd (Roberts 2005a, 305–308; Davies 2007, xx and 107; Rodway 2007, 59; Guy 2018, 388). And, from this point onwards, the principal context is Britain, not Rome, especially the area where the kingdom of Gwynedd will later be established. The marriage of the kings in Arfon (Caernarfon) references a contract which recognizes the right of Elen"s family to rule Britain and the "Three Adjacent Islands" (Davies 2007, 108–109).8 There is an alliance of two traditions, materialized in the marriage of a Roman emperor and a British queen (Roberts 1976, 37). Furthermore, the relation is so strong that Elen is not referred as "queen" in the tale: she is called "Empress of Rome" by the emperor himself—when Maxen met her for the first time in the castle in his dream, he exclaimed "Empress of Rome, Greetings!" (Davies 2007, 108). The local perspective on the Roman past, and its hegemony, is the element that changed Britain (Roberts 1976, 33–34; McKenna 2012, 142). Then, late Roman period is shown rather as a "Golden Age," when the text quotes after the marriage that "the men of the Island of Britain would never have assembled those large armies but for her" (Davies 2007, 108). The prosperity and power of Britain (Wales), after the arrival of Maxen, is shown when the tale describes the roads the empress ordered to build—a remembrance of the Roman roads, but also, the reason why Elen is called in the tale as "Elen Llwyddawc," "Luyddog," or "Llydaw," Elen of the Hosts (Guy 2018, 388, 392 and 402). And it is also described how as soon as Maxen arrived to Wales, he built three fortresses: in Arfon, Caerllion and Caerfyrddin, as a reminiscence of the Roman urbanization process but also three cities with special significance in the Mabinogion and the Arthurian legenda (Davies 2007, 108).

§14. The second issue is the importance of providence in the development of the tale. The story starts with the emperor Maxen falling asleep while hunting with his court, dreaming about his arrival to Caernarfon and marrying Elen. This dream showed him the way he had to act, providentially and orienting the whole plot. We cannot forget the ties between Constantine and Maxen, as his wife Elen has something in common with the mother of the former, Saint Helena (Matthews 1982, 439; Guy 2018). After the dream Maxen falls ill, until the ambassadors he sent to find the unknown place that he dreamt about discover Caernarfon. The importance of the court of Wales is so great, that the emperor travelled there as soon as he realized that it was the place he saw in his dream (Davies 2007, 103–105). Probably the character of "Elen Llwyddawc" is, like Maxen, a syncretism of various women (Matthews 1982, 445–447; Guy 2018). The image of Eudaf Hen, the father of Elen, is eclipsed by the marriage between her and the Roman emperor.

§15. "The Dream" states that Elen built the Sarn Helen: the road which crosses and connects Wales from the north to the south and still known nowadays by that name (Matthews 1982, 438). We have here to add another issue linked to the character of Elen. In the tale there is a moment in which Maxen has to return to Rome to claim his throne.9 The brothers of Elen, Cynan and Gadeon, follow him to Rome and, after a long siege, break the blockade by an ingenious stratagem. After that, Maxen, owing them his throne, gives them the right to conquer and own wherever territory they choose.10 This point, almost at the end of the tale, is the interpretation the tale gives to explain the connection between the Britons and the Bretons of the Armorican Peninsula.11 It is taken from Geoffrey of Monmouth's History, but is also redolent of the legend of "The Donation of Constantine" to Pope Sylvester as a means of transmitting the legitimacy and inheritance of Rome, as equals, although Cynan and Gadeon decided to return to their homeland and, in the case of Cynan, he decides to settle in the Armorica.12

§16. The third point that we want to highlight is the instrumentalisation of the past and memory as a means of providing a new sense or meaning to contemporaries. This short story is entitled with the name of a Roman emperor, Magnus Maximus, considered king of the Britons, Maxen Wledig. This represents not only a legal concession to the Britons to rule Britain on their own after the marriage of Maxen and Elen. It is not a coincidence that this image and tradition were written into a coherent narrative in the thirteenth-fourteenth century (Roberts 1976, 30; Huws 2000, 58; Roberts 2005b, lxi–lxxxvi; Rodway 2007, 57–59; Carr 2017, 201–202; Guy 2018, 385). And, as Ben Guy says:

the divergences between contemporary historical accounts, genealogies, triads, Geoffrey of Monmouth and Breudwyt Maxen are not the result of "confusion" or "contamination," as some are wont to suggest; rather, the differences are, for the most part, the products of conscious decisions by individual textual agents, whose work was not necessarily predicated on a conditional ability to access the cultural frame of reference known as "Welsh tradition," and who may or indeed may not have decided to incorporate into their work every traditional element with which they came into contact, orally or textually" (Guy 2018, 385).

In other words, "the author has created a clever pastiche of the Roman period in Britain by telescoping some of its best-known episodes into a single coherent story" (Guy 2018, 401).

§17. Historical accuracy is not the priority in a literary text. "In rewriting history as story, the author> [of 'The Dream of Maxen Wledig'] enters into a space between history and legend where the past can be retranslated through new origin stories which entwine the meaning of an event with tradition. In 'Some Function of Origin Stories in Early Medieval Wales,' Patrick Sims-Williams describes how, in medieval Wales, history was mythopoetic and, indeed, that myth or lore could be more powerful than history" (McMullen 2011, 240–241).

§18. The tale's origin lies in the efforts of the kingdom of Gwynedd to resist Anglo-Norman expansion (Davies 2000, 45–51 and 333–354; Roberts 2005a, 305–308; Roberts 2005b, lxxxv; Davies 2007, xx; Rodway 2007, 59; McMullen 2011, 239–240; Guy 2018, 398–399). In the process of the conquest of Wales, the struggle was not only for political influence and military expansion, but also for a legitimation through the attempt to manipulate cultural identity: for example, the finding of the grave of King Arthur in Glastonbury in the late twelfth century and the revival of the Arthurian topic linked to the Plantagenet court (Chauou 2001; Sire 2014, 106–108; Berard 2019). Anglo-Norman instrumentalisation of the past (as propaganda to establish legitimacy as rulers of Britain, and linking to King Arthur as a perfect paradigm of a "Roman-British king"), is mirrored in Wales. In fact, for Wales, Maxen Wledig is an alternative "Roman king" of Britain: a source of legitimacy, as Maxen is shown as the first ruler of an independent roman Britannia by the Welsh perspective of twelfth century (Matthews 1982, 432; Roberts 2005a, 303; McMullen 2011, 225).

§19. This is clearly shown in another part of "The Dream:" when Maxen built the castle for Elen in Arfon, the tale says that "soil from Rome was brought there, so it would be healthier for the emperor to sleep and sit and walk around" (Davies 2007, 108). A fragment that we can consider that is a way to legitimate the new ruler with the transmission of royal soil from the capital of the Empire to Maxen's new court. And this episode can remind us to the "Stone of Scone," taken to London by Edward I after the conquest of Scotland.

§20. This local perspective and interpretation of the past, in a tale "consciously set in the past" as it usually happens in the tales of the mabinogi (Rodway 2007, 58), keeps alive the memory of a "Spanish" and "British" usurper of the Roman throne, a memory that was forgotten or denigrated in many historiographical sources. If Gildas considered Magnus Maximus as responsible for the "Loss of Britain," "The Dream" positions him far more positively, considering Maxen as the real founder of the "last" splendor of Britain with empress Elen.

The loss of Hispania and the loss of Britannia: Comparing two "Roman" topics

§21. We can consider this tale an example of how local communities that felt and saw themselves as heirs of the Roman past made particular versions of the collapse, ruin, crisis, or simply the political fragmentation of the Roman Empire and the disappearance of its political suprastructure in late antiquity. In medieval literature we can find it in the themes of "The Matter of Britain," "The Matter of Rome," "The Matter of France," and even the topic of "The loss of Hispania" or "Spain."13

§22. Here it is worth briefly considering the "Loss of Spain" for comparative purposes. In both provinces of the former Empire, Britannia and Hispania, some sources express "shock" at the loss of an idealized Roman province. The theme of the "Loss of Britain" begins in the sixth century, with Gildas and the famous "Groans of the Britons" and proceeds through the medieval period (Gildas De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae 25). In fact, the idea of crisis and loss of the Roman "Golden Age" is shown in other poems and tales related to the topic of the "ruin." Roman ruins were still seen in the twelfth century with respect and admiration, as Giraldus Cambrensis wrote about Carmarthen and Caerleon, and we can find this topic even in the Anglo-Saxon literature (related to the idea of decadence) in The Ruin or in The Wanderer of the Exeter Book, Elene and The Dream of the Rood in the Vercelli Book, or in The Lament of Deor (Matthews 1982, 437 and 447–448; and its significance in "The Dream of Maxen," Roberts 2005a, 307).

§23.  In the case of Hispania, the settlement of Suebi, Alans, Vandals and Goths in the fifth and sixth centuries was seen as a "loss" by local writers such as Hydatius and Orosius. Nevertheless, the assimilation of the Visigoths into Roman culture and the evolving collaboration of the Gothic and Roman elites, meant that apologists for the Visigothic kingdom emphasised continuity of the Roman rule in Hispania (Isidore's History can be considered the best example of this continuity, with its epitome "De Laude Spaniae").

§24. Then, in Hispania we have to wait until the eighth Century for the emergence of the theme of the "Loss of Spain," and it is strongly linked to the theme or cycle of Count Julian. It is a legend whose first testimony comes from the Arabic sources as a means of explaining the dramatic conquest of Hispania.14 Hispania, as presented in the De Laude Spaniae of Isidore of Seville, continued to be a sort of Paradise that was lost by the Visigoths and earned by the Saracens because their King Rodericus dishonored Count Julian by taking his daughter against her will. As vengeance, Count Julian let the Muslim troops disembark in Hispania from the city that he governed in north Africa: Ceuta. This legend was later translated and incorporated into the Latin sources of the Christian kingdoms, and in the High and Late Middle Ages it had a strong revival.15 Even the grave of the last Visigothic king, Rodericus, was supposed to be found in Viseu according to the "Chronicle of Alfonso III,"16 which reminds us of the finding of King Arthur's grave in Glastonbury (c. 1191). The way the Christian kingdoms of Spain took and assimilated an originally Arabic legend resembles the way the Arthurian legends were naturalized by the Anglo-Norman kings and the Plantagenet court. The relevance of the "sin" in the discourse of the "Loss of Spain" is clear. Furthermore, in Wales, we have seen the importance of the moral perspective in the "Loss of Britain," since Gildas attributed it to the "British perfidy and laxity" and, in both former Roman territories, "the predominant element here is the loss of sovereignty, not simply the loss of unity" (Roberts 1976, 34).

§25. The legend of Count Julian is not the only way in which the "Loss of Spain" is presented. Shortly after it occurred, the Islamic conquest is depicted as a complete disaster for Hispania in the "Mozarabic Chronicle" of 754, when the author refers to the conquerors as "barbarians" (Chronica Muzarabica 54–55). The chronicle also incorporates the Lament of Spain, a clear contrast to the De Laude Spaniae of Isidore.17 The idea of a catastrophic loss of "Spain" can be also seen in the Chronicle of 741 (36) when it describes the recently lost kingdom of the Visigoths as a "strong and powerful" one.18

§26. Nevertheless, there is a message of "hope" for the population of these two former Roman territories. This message is given in two ways: the first one is the appropriation of the past. After the "Loss of Spain," the Christian kingdoms of the north tried to advocate the continuity of the Visigothic Kingdom, as they reflected in the chronicles the image of being the heirs of that Roman and Christian legacy, keeping not only the political independence, but also the culture of the lost Visigothic Kingdom. This is the second way: the use of Latin, and the protection of the Christian monks and Christian people from al-Andalus, helping and resettling them in their lands ("muzarabs," as they were called in the chronicles later on). An example is the ninth century Codex Albeldensis or Vigilanus, where kings Sancho II of Navarra, Urraca and Ramiro are portrayed as heir and continuators the lost Visigothic Kingdom in the collection of conciliar acts from Late Antiquity to tenth century. This codex also includes a continuation of the Historia Gothorum of Isidore of Seville: the "Albelda Chronicle," which was continued in the versions of the "Crónica de Alfonso III" of Asturias, and later examples like the Estoria de Espanna of Alfonso X "the Wise" in the thirteenth century.

§27. We can find another parallel between Wales and Spain in the titles that are given to some kings: Sancho III of Navarra was considered "rex ibericus" in the primary sources (Martín Duque 2005), as other Spanish kings from ninth to eleventh centuries were considered rex of imperator "totius Hispaniae," like Alfonso III of Asturias, Sancha I, Alfonso VI and Alfonso VII of Castilla (Sirantoine 2013). In Wales, King Arthur is called "rex totius maioris Britanniae" or "rex universalis Britanniae" (Roberts 2005a, 32). In "The Dream of Maxen," Helen's family should be considered in the same way. Also, in the early tenth century, King Athelstan minted his coins with the title of "Rex totius Britanniae." He was confronted from Wales with prophecies like the famous "Great Prophecy of Britain" ("Armes Prydein Vawr"). In this prophecy Cynan and Cadwaladr were returning to Britain, to drive the Saxons out (Roberts 1976, 35–36).

§28. So, we find interesting not only the political parallels between Spain and Wales about the legitimacy to recover a "lost Kingdom" linked to the Roman past and its Christian tradition. It is also fascinating the importance of prophetic literature in these two areas. Codex Albeldensis contains not only the chronicle and the conciliar acts we have mentioned before: in its wide collection, it includes a brief biography of Muhammad and a small chronicle called "Crónica Profética." This "Prophetic Chronicle" gave hope to the population to resist until the Visigothic Kingdom—the Christian kingdom which "continued" the Roman legacy—is restored in Hispania. More prophecies are strongly linked to the idea of recovering the lost Roman-Christian past and fighting against the "Saracen invader" to "restore Hispania": thirteenth century "Poem of Fernán Gonzalez" (verses 226–250) tells us how this count of Castile, while he was hunting with his court, got lost following a wild boar. The boar led him to an eremite, called Pelayo, who prophesied his victory over Almanzor, the most powerful general of the "Saracens."

§29. This prophetic atmosphere (obviously linked with the struggle of the Christian kingdoms and its efforts in constructing a legitimation discourse) includes the finding of the grave of Santiago in the ninth century by Alfonso II of Asturias, in "Campus Stellae" (today, Santiago de Compostela). A political and a propagandistic fact that, from the political and popular perspective, it was a way of giving hope and keeping the struggle until the recovery of the lost Christian kingdom.19 In Britain, this fighting was against the "Anglo-Saxons" and the "Anglo-Normans," who were perceived as "invaders" by the Welsh kingdoms, as we have reviewed.

§30. The importance of the prophecies in Wales and Britain is clear with the famous Vita Merlini and many others (Roberts 1976, 35–36 and 39; Kay 2006/2007).20 "The Dream of Maxen Wledig" is linked to this topic (Kay 2006/2007, 90–91). In fact, "The Dream" has parallels with other "Dreams," like "The Dream of Oengus" (Brewer 1975, 23–24) or "The Dream of Rhonabwy" (Matthews 1982, 436). The topic of "The Returning Hero" is clear in the examples we have seen (Kay 2006/2007, 77–79), and it is not only circumscribed to Wales or Spain, because it is a Roman topic which connects with the "Adventus Augusti" and the idea of "Good Government," which brings prosperity ("Prosperitas") and abundance ("Abundantia"). That is why we can find it in other places with strong Roman tradition: the case of the "Sebastianism," in the 1sixth century Portugal, or in the idealization of Constantine XI after the fall of Constantinople, which reminds us to the prophecies of Henry Tudor in Wales or to the "House of Trastamara" in Spain (Olivera 2005, 419).


§31. In both former Roman provinces (Britannia and Hispania), therefore, we find that the Roman period is regarded in some medieval sources as a "Golden Age," lost by the irruption of new populations that were considered invaders by the local ones. Local people tried to find reasons for that loss: in the case of Britain, the decision of Maxen of bringing the troops to the continent; and in Hispania, the legend of Count Julian and his vengeance.

§32. Analysis of the Mabinogion tale of "The Dream of Maxen Wledig" demonstrates how the local populations of the former Roman Empire regarded the Roman past and tried to use it to maintain and define their own identities. They continued to identify with the Romans, to a certain extent, even after the disappearance of the empire in the West. The memory of Magnus Maximus was forgotten in Hispania, his "homeland," probably because he was eclipsed by another "Spaniard," Theodosius the Great. It was not until nineteenth century that there were some brief references to his person in Spanish sources.21 Paradoxically, his memory in Wales was kept alive throughout the medieval centuries, and it is alive still nowadays alive (and sometimes even referred as the founder of the Welsh nation, as in the song Yma o Hyd in 1981).22 However, although in Spain Magnus Maximus is almost completely unknown, there is another different link between Wales and Spain: the curious case of the medieval cycle of "Amadis de Gaula," related to the Arthurian legend, and made in Spain, was saved symbolically from the fire by Cervantes in El Quijote. The cycle of "Amadis de Gaula" was disseminated across Europe in the sixteenth century, from England to Germany. A knight whose birthplace, Gaula, has been identified with Wales by some scholars (Place 1955).

§33. At the base of both of these literary themes about the "Loss," we find the paradigm of a splendorous past represented by the Roman period (as it was considered in the Middle Ages). These examples demonstrate how local communities of the former provinces of the Roman Empire interpreted their own past on their terms, and how they understood their place in the world of the sixth century and afterwards, a world politically broken into a mosaic of kingdoms and counties. The loss of Roman political rule was considered as a shock, in part as it was to the Roman legitimacy irrespective of their historical accuracy.


1. This paper is based on the conference given in the "Fifth International Conference about New Perspectives on Late Antiquity: The Loss of Hispanias. Ideology, Power and Conflict" (February 3–6, 2016 – Universidad Complutense de Madrid), and I would like to thank the efforts of Rosa Sanz Serrano and Jerónimo Sánchez Velasco, and Jamie Wood for having reviewed the first draft of this paper. [Back]

2. Llyfr Gwyn Rhydderch: Aberystwyth, National Library of Wales, Peniarth MS. 4–5; and Llyfr Coch Hergest: Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Jesus College 111. [Back]

3. Μαξιμος Ἲβηρ το γένος, Θεοδοσιω τω βασιλει κατα την Βρεττανιαν συστρατευσαμενος (Zosimos Nea Historia 4.35.3). The general description of the reign of Magnus Maximus is included from 4.35 to 4.50. [Back]

4. The polemic about Priscillian of Avila and his teachings started in the Synod of Caesaraugusta (380) and ended in the Synod of Bordeaux (384). Priscillian received the support of Martin of Tours and John Chrysostom, but finally he was executed in Trier (385). Priscillianism is still present in the Council of Braga I, in 563 (Marcos 2006, 674–675). [Back]

5. Snyder (2003, 79–80); Charles-Edwards (2013, 38–44); Balil (1965, 110–122); Davies (2007, xviii; and footnote 103 in page 249); Matthews (1982, 407, 438 and 442). [Back]

6. Sources like the panegyric that Symmachus dedicated to Magnus Maximus. [Back]

7. While this article was printing, Ben Guy published a new book about Welsh genealogies (April 2020) which supplants other citations of his work from 2018. [Back]

8. In fact, as Simon Rodway notes, "Caswallon son of Beli’s usurpation of the throne of Britain in Branwen, the Second Branch of the Mabinogi, is reversed in Breuddwyd Macsen with Macsen’s defeat of Beli and his sons and his restoration of the throne to a descendant of Bendigeidfran" (Rodway 2007, 53). And, as Ben Guy says, "Beli son of Manogan and his sons, who are known usually as the opponents of Julius Caesar" (Guy 2018, 401). [Back]

9. "It was a custom of the Romans at that time that whenever an emperor stayed in other countries conquering for seven years, he should stay in the conquered territory and not be allowed to return to Rome" (Davies 2007, 108). We suggest that this explanation was given by the author to understand why there were different usurpers, and maybe also the fragmentation of the political power of Rome, known as the partitio imperii. [Back]

10. "I am greatly surprised, lady," he said, "that it is not for me that your brothers have conquered this city." […] Then, the emperor said to Cynan and Adeon, "Noblemen," he said, "I have gained possession of all my empire. And I will give you this host to conquer whatever part of the world you wish" (Davies 2007, 109). [Back]

11. Gadeon "decided to return to his own country, along with many others. But Cynan and another group stayed on to settle there" (Davies 2007, 110). [Back]

12. We can find another character called "Conon," probably a Briton or Breton because of his name, also fighting with the Romans ("Byzantines") in the "Gothic War" (Procopius History of the Wars 6.5.1, 6.5.3, 6.11.5 and 6.13.8). [Back]

13. For a general review, H. Bouget (2017, 20) and D.H. Green for the "Matière of Rome" (2002, 153–167) and the "Matière de Bretagne" (2002, 168–186). [Back]

14. Ibn "Abd al-Ḥakam represents in his Futūḥ Ifrīqiya wa-l-Andalus the central elements of this legend in the ninth century (Menéndez Pidal 1924; Martínez Carrasco 2014, 11–13; Letelier Widow 2008). [Back]

15. From the Pseudo-Isidorian Chronicle in the twelfth century; De Rebus Hispaniae of Ximenez de Rada, or the Primera Crónica General of the king Alfonso X "the Wise" and the Poem of Fernan González in the thirteenth century, to find in the fifteenth century, for example, the Crónica Sarracina. In the sixteenth century the Crónica del Rey don Rodrigo is the coronation of this legend and its long tradition. [Back]

16. Hic requiescit Rudericus ultimus rex Gothorum (Ubieto 1971, 29). [Back]

17. See the fragment, trans. Cristóbal Rodríguez Alonso (1975, 169). [Back]

18. See the translation of Rafael Blanco Silva (1999, 165). [Back]

19. This is related to the ideology of "Reconquista," and the long historiographical debate about its use and meaning (for example, see Ayala Martínez 2020). [Back]

20. About the influence of Merlin as a "prophet" in Spain, we have to mention the case of the Crónica del Rey don Pedro (late fourteenth century), where "Benalhatib"/"Benahatin" (Ibn al-Jatib) gives advice to the Castilian King Pedro I using the prophecies of "Merlin," with the approval of the Nasrid King of Granada (García 1999, 26–31). [Back]

21. We have to wait until the nineteenth century to find a short study of his reign by Juan Francisco de Masdeu, who regarded briefly at the historical character of Magnus Maximus, while he was studying the reign of Theodosius I (Masdeau 1807, 2.7.255). [Back]

22. Cofiwn i Facsen Wledig / Adael ein gwlad yn un darn ("We remember that Macsen the Emperor left our country in one whole piece"). [Back]

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