In the time of the great Roman, Julius Caesar, about five hundred years before King Arthur was born, the people of Rome conquered Britain. They made many improvements in the land, building roads and walls, the remains of which may be seen to this day. But they also forced the Britons to pay them much money. All the kings did this up to the time of Arthur. He, however, considered that England was his own. He had conquered the lesser kings, and made one realm of all the land, over which he ruled with wise government. So he refused to send any money to Rome.
Once King Arthur’s knights were all together in the great hall. It was a time of peace, and they spent the days in riding and hunting. On this day, while the king was sitting on his throne, twelve old men entered, each bearing a branch of olive, as a sign that they came in peace. They were the messengers of the emperor of Rome, and, after bowing to the king, they said:
“Sir, our mighty emperor sends you greeting, and commands you to acknowledge him as lord, and to send him the money due him from your realm. Your father and his predecessors did this, and so must you. If you refuse, the emperor will make such war against you that it will be an example to all the world.”
At this the young knights laid their hands to their swords, but the older knights, who had self-control enough to hide their feelings, waited to see what the king would do.
Arthur bowed courteously to the messengers, and told them that he would soon give them an answer. He commanded a knight to take them to a lodging, and to see that they had all they needed, and he ordered that no harm should be done them. Then he called a council of his great lords and asked their advice.
Sir Lancelot, Arthur’s favorite lord, spoke first, saying:
“My lord, we have rested for many weeks, and can make sharp war now. In days gone by, we should not have dared attack the Romans, and indeed, our attempt will make the world wonder. But of a truth, we ought to fight.”
Then spoke King Angus of Scotland:
“My lord Arthur, you are the greatest lord on earth. You have made all of us lesser kings your subjects, and bound the kingdom together, and stopped our civil wars. We love you and we will help you. We pray you to make war on these Romans. When they ruled our elders, they demanded much gold and made our people very poor. If you will fight, I will furnish you with twenty thousand men, and will bear all the cost of them myself.”
Then all the other lords promised to furnish men and arms. When Arthur heard this, he was glad of their courage and good will. He called in the messengers and said to them:
“Return to your emperor. Tell him that I refuse his command, for I owe him nothing. I have won this kingdom by my own strength. Tell him that I shall come with all my army to Rome and make him acknowledge me as lord.”
Then Arthur told his treasurer to give the messengers gifts, and to take them safely out of the country. Sir Lancelot conducted them to the sea, where they took ship and sailed to France. On they journeyed over the Alps and into Italy. When they told the emperor of Rome their message, he said:
“I had thought Arthur would yield.”
But the messengers said:
“Sir, his face would have told you, if you had seen it, that he would never yield. In truth, there is need of fear, for he is a great king and surrounded by great knights.”
“This is foolish talk,” the emperor said. “Remember that we are Romans. We have ruled the world for centuries, and a little king of little England shall not make us fear. You say that he is coming to fight with us. We will take a few troops and go forthwith to France to meet him.”
The messengers begged the emperor to take many troops.
“My lord emperor,” they said, “these men of Arthur are very numerous and very brave.”
So at last the emperor brought all his men to France, and there, whenever he found people who were loyal to Arthur, he killed and laid waste.
Meanwhile, Arthur had gathered together all his troops. He bade farewell to Queen Guinevere, who was so grieved that she fell in a swoon. Then he rode off at the head of his men till they came to the sea, and there they embarked in ten thousand boats and sailed to France.
They marched till they came near to the troops of the emperor of Rome, where they rested for the night. In the morning they rose at dawn and looked at the Roman legions. These were encamped in a green field which glittered with the gold on their tents and armor. The emperor’s tent was of purple silk and bore on the top a golden eagle, the emblem of Rome.
Two of Arthur’s knights, Sir Lancelot and Sir Gawain, rode out to the emperor, and told him that their king had come.
“That I see,” said the emperor laughing, “and he shall soon return.”
The two knights made no answer, but rode back to Arthur. Soon all the soldiers on each side made ready for fighting. The preparation was careful, for they knew that the contest was to be great one. The emperor of Rome addressed his soldiers:
“Romans, remember that Rome is the chief city of the world. I do not say fight as men; I say to you, fight as Romans. Then you will surely conquer these Britons.”
King Arthur galloped up and down before the front rank of his men, looking at them carefully. He was on a beautiful white horse whose mane rose and fell in the wind like a wave of the sea. His soldiers cheered lustily for their beloved commander. Then King Arthur raised his hand for silence, and spoke in a loud clear voice:
“My knights and men whom I love, remember that you are fighting to-day for your rights and for the independence of Britain. Strike well, and do not forget that great courage is as powerful as great numbers.”
With that, he gave the signal for attack. The Romans stood in full battle array with their emperor in front. Beside him were sixteen kings with gold helmets and silver armor. The English approached, shouting a battle-cry.
Then the Romans, at the call of the trumpet, rushed forward, and in a moment the two great armies clashed together. Clouds of dust arose through which could be seen at intervals the heads of horses and the helmets of men. The few poor shepherds and women who stood on the outside did not know that the greatest battle of the time was going on under that cloud of dust.
Inside the cloud there was great confusion. Britains and Romans were fighting side by side, so closely packed that sometimes it was hard to strike. All fought bravely, but no one did so well as Arthur and Sir Lancelot. The battle did not cease until it was dark. Each side had lost many men. King Arthur wept as he rode over the field and counted his dead knights, and even his beautiful horse drooped its head as if it, also, understood.
But the next day the two armies began to fight again, and when the emperor finally saw that his men were losing and that most of the kings who were helping him were dead, he said:
“This Arthur is a demon and not a man. I will fight with him myself and end this battle.” And before any one could stop him, he spurred up to King Arthur and said:
“You on the white horse who refuse to pay me tribute, come out that I may kill you.”
Then Arthur rode quickly towards the emperor. The two men began to fight and Arthur soon saw that he was contending with a powerful man. He gave the emperor many a stroke with Excalibur, but he himself received deep blows. At last the emperor pierced Arthur’s helmet, and wounded him deeply in the cheek.
King Arthur raised his good Excalibur with a last effort and struck his enemy with it so fiercely on the head that the blow cleft the helmet and pierced to the emperor’s chin. He fell from his horse without a moan. When the Romans near by saw that their ruler was dead, they gave a great cry of grief and rushed upon Arthur, but his good knights protected him.
At last, seeing themselves conquered, the Romans surrendered. Arthur found among his prisoners three senators, and among the dead, sixty senators, the sixteen kings, and the emperor.
He was sorrowful, for he knew that they were great men. So he had them embalmed and laid in chests of lead. Around each chest flags were wound, and the shields of the dead warriors placed on top. Then he said to the three surviving senators:
“Take these noble dead bodies back to Rome. When the Romans see them they will never again dare ask tax or tribute of me. I shall not go to Rome and take the city from you, but if ever you send to me for gold, I shall invade your land and never rest till all Italy is mine.”
The senators bowed their head. Then they laid the body of the emperor on a car, all alone, with the gold eagle above him. They laid the bodies of the kings and the senators two by two on chariots, and so went slowly towards Rome. And never again did the kings of Britain have to pay a tax to the Romans.