By Natasha Sheldon
The rebel emperor of Britain and Gaul for eight years, Carausius's story is one of piracy, betrayal and political intrigue during the third century AD.
Rising through the ranks to become an admiral, Marcus Aurelius Mausaeus Carausius declared himself emperor of Britain and later north east Gaul after being sentenced to death for embezzlement. Although his reign ended in assassination in 293AD, it was successful enough to last for 7 years. It was one of a series of revolts that led to an overhaul in the administration of the Roman Empire.
The Political Situation in the Third Century AD
From the mid third century onwards, the empire was troubled by a series of wars across the various eastern and western frontiers of the empire. This situation continued until stability was restored late century by the Emperor Diocletian and his colleague Maximian.
Most of these revolts involved barbarian tribes and client nations who were beginning to challenge the authority of Rome. However, there were also instances of Roman officials setting up mini empires in trouble spots. In 260AD, a general Postumus declared himself emperor of Gaul in 260, ostensibly to repel barbarian Germans and Franks from the border. Then, in 286 AD, came the miniature empire of Carausius.
The Career of Britain’s Rebel Emperor
One of the Belgium tribe of the Menapii, Carausius reputably began life as a helmsman. In the 280s, he was promoted by Diocletian’s colleague Maximian to commander of the Classis Britannica or British fleet. His mission was to protect the seas and coast from Frankish and Saxon pirates. Using Boulogne as he base, he had great success.
However, he was accused of embezzling the pirate’s spoils. Under sentence of death, he fled to Britain and declared himself emperor. Here, he consolidated his hold on the island using the Frankish mercenaries he had previously been sent to repel.
Diocletian and Maximian's Co-Emperor
Maximian was occupied by the German wars until spring 288AD.However, a respite in the fighting allowed him to turn his attention to Carausius. He began to build a fleet to use to cross the channel to deal with the rebellion. In the meantime, he sent Constantius Chlorus, (father and grandfather of the future emperors Constantine and Julian) to defeat Carausius’s Frankish allies. He succeeded, severely weakening the rebel emperor’s position. However, the campaign failed when Maximian’s fleet was destroyed in its crossing of the channel in 289 AD.
Unable to defeat him and still preoccupied with Germany, Maximian and Diocletian had no choice but to recognise Carausius as a co emperor to secure at least part of the western frontier. In addition to Britain, he was also given responsibility for north eastern Gaul.
It seemed that Carausius had achieved legitimacy at last. He even had his own currency minted in Rouen, part of his newly acquired Gaulish province. Using images of peace and concord, they expressed Carausius’s belief in the stability of his reign.
However, for Maximian, the situation with Carausius was nothing more than a convenient truce. In order to prevent wrangling over the succession and at the same time create a stable power base, in 293AD Diocletian reformed the administrative system of the empire. He instigated a division of power between two emperors, the Augusti and their deputies, the Caesars, who were effectively emperors in waiting. He and Maximian were Augusti with Galerius as Caesar in the east and Constantius Chlorus the Caesar in the west.
In 293AD, Maximian sent Constantius Chlorus to overthrow Carauscius. This time, he was successful. Boulogne, Carausius’s base, was besieged Boulogne and surrendered. However, Chlorus never captured the rebel emperor. He was instead murdered by his finance minister Allectus who subsequently escaped to Britain to take his former master’s place.
Aftermath of Carausius's Revolt
Allectus did not enjoy his power for long. In 296AD, Maximian overthrew Allectus and reabsorbed Britain into the empire. Diocletian’s administrative reorganisation was successful and the tetrarchy slowly began to stabilise the empire's frontiers, ensuring that an empire within an empire would not occur again.
Current archaeology Issue 217
Who’s Who in the Roman World by John Hazel. 2001. Routledge.
picture credit: Victuallers (wikimedia commons)