Carausius (286-93)

Rebel Emperor of Roman Britain, by Guy de la Bédoyère

Carausius, as depicted on a bronze radiate coin. From a painting by the author.

 

 Back to the  Home Page or look at another page about Carausius by Ken Elks with some good pictures of coins, or try Ancient Coin Forum

My article about the Carausian coins is downloadable in Word format from http://www.romanbritain.freeserve.co.uk/carausiusarticle.doc

 Beginnings

In the year AD 286 Roman Britain was 243 years old and the Roman Empire was under threat. Over the next few years Roman Britain would indulge in a spectacular rebellion led by the extraordinary Carausius. Imaginative, ingenious, belligerent and probably charismatic, Carausius was a man who seized his moment but what happened next was Shakespearian in its climaxes and treachery. One of the first truly historical figures in Britain's history, he had far more impact than someone like Boudica but is scarcely known today outside the numismatic world. He challenged the authority of the emperors Diocletian and Maximian and became the first British emperor in history. But this was no Celtic throw-back. Carausius was determined to restore Rome – in Britain.

For information about background and resources, go to Sources

In 284 a Roman soldier called Mausaeus Carausius participated in a war in Gaul against a body of vagrant rebels, called the Bagaudae (or Bacaudae), earning himself a considerable reputation. The forces were led by the Emperor Maximian, appointed by his imperial partner, Diocletian. Carausius had been born around the middle of the third century in Menapia, roughly equivalent to modern Belgium, and spent much of his time at sea though we have no idea whether that was in a civilian or military capacity. He spent his formative years in a region controlled by the Gallic Empire, an experience which may have had a significant effect on his ambitions. The Gallic Empire was breakaway Roman Empire in Britain, Gaul, and Germany, which lasted from about 259 to 273.

          The Bagaudae were a disparate sub-class, thrown together by experiences of landlessness, disorder, and barbarian attacks. They finally managed to operate on a cohesive and significant scale in 284, presenting a threat to civil order in Gaul and Diocletian's nascent authority. The revolt was put down by 286 but that required time, manpower, and money which were increasingly regarded as intolerable by the population bearing the impact in the forms of heavy taxation and conscription. In the same year Diocletian made Maximian joint Augustus, giving him control of the West while he took charge of the East.

Promotion

Meanwhile, problems from seaborne raiders in the Channel remained unabated. It would take an exceptional man to deal with the threat from 'Franks and Saxons'. Carausius was appointed by Maximian to lead a naval force in the Channel from Boulogne. Despite his background, there was nothing unusual about his rise to fame. In the egalitarian world of Roman military brutality, qualifications of birth had long been replaced by opportunism and ability. The growing plebeian officer class eroded the traditional conflation of Roman military and aristocratic landowning interests but Carausius appears to have cultivated an unusually productive relationship with the Romano-British.

          Carausius either planned his rebellion long in advance, or acted on impulse. Maximian came to believe that Carausius was allowing pirates to sail down the Channel to raid in Britain and Gaul first. Then he was believed to be intercepting them on the way home, pocketing a percentage of the 'takings' rather than returning the loot to the rightful owners. This, at any rate, was the story circulated by Maximian but it is equally possible that he had discovered Carausius was becoming popular in Gaul and Britain. Either way Carausius was declared an outlaw and a price put on his head.

 

Rebellion!

Carausius moved decisively so he must have known he had popular support. He declared himself Emperor in Britain and part of Gaul, immediately embarking on a sophisticated public-relations campaign. He avoided challenging the Empire in battle. Instead he presented his domain as the place in which all those neglected Roman civil, military, and religious values would be restored and cherished. Britain was to be not a new Rome but, literally, a refounded old Rome expressed in the language of the great Roman pagan tradition.

          Carausian ideology may have been cynical or genuine, but he was a propaganda genius. The civil and military situation in the late third century required little embellishment to be presented as the result of collapsing central authority, and in urgent need of a remedy. Whether or not the Bagaudae were responsible for encouraging wealthy Gallic landowners to take themselves off to Britain is an idea which can neither be proved or disproved, but it would have only enhanced the impression that Diocletian was unable to quash rebellions without considerable difficulty. This would have seemed all the more convincing if pirate raids were carrying on in the Channel.

          Carausius, as a self-declared saviour, would have been more easily perceived by the Romano-British as a natural leader than Maximian or Diocletian. With the experience of the Gallic Empire dominating the recollections of everyone over the age of fifteen there would have been little living-memory tradition of rule by a powerful and long-lived emperor based in Rome. It is also likely that a significant number of the honestiores (the wealthy ruling class) found political separation an attractive idea because of the prospects for economic self-preservation.

 

The art of coinage

Carausius knew coinage could make or break his regime. By the time he seized power in 286 the Roman state had virtually ceased to issue bullion coinage in any significant quantity. Older, better, coin had been hoarded away or melted down. Apart from gold, which played little or no part in everyday transactions, other Roman coinage since around 250 had become a motley collection of issues originating under a plethora of different regimes. The only thing they had in common was an almost total absence of silver content, something which damaged imperial credibility as much as it provoked inflation.

          Aurelian (Emperor of Rome, 270-5) had tried to restore currency stability. Instead of allowing a coin to fix its value based on the silver content, now coins would bear statements of value making them legal tender at that nominal value. Aurelian's reformed 'silver' coins bore the cryptic mark XXI, probably indicating the proportion of bronze to silver (20:1), or that the new coin was valued at twenty old sestertii. Some of the silver content was used to create a surface silver 'wash' which will have made these new coins look quite respectable. Few found their way across the Channel. Britain relied instead on Gallic Empire coinage, and the vast quantities of degenerate second- and third-generation radiate copies. These circulated (and were discarded) to such an extent that they dominate site finds to this day.

          Carausius started producing bronze radiate coinage as soon as his reign began. This guaranteed that his image and name was circulated widely and fast, though these issues lacked the five percent silver of Aurelian's reformed radiates. The work began before there had been time to manufacture coin blanks for striking. Instead, his mint-workers used coinage then in circulation, including radiates of Gallienus and barbarous radiates of the Gallic Empire. On them Carausius' image can be seen, crudely over-struck on the reused coins.

          But, knowing full well that his credibility amongst the British garrison was at stake, Carausius ordered new gold and silver coins, perhaps using the booty he had been accused of appropriating. At 90 percent purity the silver coins were prepared to a standard unknown since the reign of Nero, 220 years before. Compared to the best the legitimate Empire could produce Carausian silver was spectacular but in Britain, where the miserable coins of the Gallic Empire dominated the circulating coinage, they must have been even more impressive. The psychological impact of producing high-quality silver and gold cannot be underestimated. In the Roman world it was, literally, synonymous with legitimacy.

          The new silver was probably issued at ceremonies to soldiers or officials who had committed themselves to Carausius. The reverses depicted a variety of solid Roman virtues: Carausius was 'restorer of the Romans', the faithfulness of the army was proclaimed, and so on. In one remarkable issue he presented himself in a messianic posture, unprecedented for a Roman emperor, by adapting a line from Virgil's Aeneid. On these coins, Carausius was 'the awaited one', welcomed by Britannia (Expectate veni, 'Come, awaited one' - see picture below). This intriguing brag suggests that when Carausius seized power there was already an undercurrent of discontent.

 

AE Antoninianus of Carausius, with reverse legend Expectate Veni, ‘Come, awaited one’, and mintmark RSR, for Redeunt Saturnia Regna, ‘the Golden Age is Back!’ Bronze RSR coins are even rarer than the silver ones.

 

The Virgil coins

But the most sophisticated element was confined to the bottom part of the reverses, the 'exergue'. Here the letters RSR were placed on most of the silver, some of the gold, and a very few bronze radiates. This is where normally an abbreviated form of the mint city was located, for example ML for Moneta Londinii (a mint founded by Carausius), or one of the Aurelianic statements of value. So, it was assumed until recently that RSR stood either for a mint, which was unidentifiable, or perhaps a financial official, the Rationalis Summae Rei. The latter made better sense because Carausius had an official called Allectus described as holding a similar, but not identical, title.

          The letters RSR happen also to correspond with the initial letters of Redeunt Saturnia Regna, a line from Virgil's profound, and messianic, poem known as the Fourth Eclogue (see Sources). It means literally 'The Saturnian Reigns return' (equivalent to 'The Golden Age is back') based on a colloquial expression, derived from the myth that the earliest days of the world had been a peaceful bucolic paradise ruled by Saturn. This convenient association of the letters might very well be regarded as coincidence. But two unique medallions, in bronze, of Carausius have survived. One bears RSR on the bottom of the reverse. The other bears the letters INPCDA in the same place. The latter have defied interpretation until recently. But, the line following Redeunt Saturnia Regna in Virgil's Fourth Eclogue reads Iam Nova Progenies Caelo Demittitur Alto. This means, 'Now a new generation is let down from Heaven above'. Not only do the letters correspond but the meaning is precisely appropriate to Carausius' more explicit and conventional messages on the coins. The chances against this being coincidence are astronomical. Moreover, reducing stock phrases and formulae to initial form was customary in the Roman world. The phrases were almost certainly used in Carausian panegyrics which, of course, do not survive. Similar literary allusions can be found in the extant panegyrics for legitimate emperors of the period.

 

The reverse of the INPCDA medallion (see text)

          There is no other such verbal reference to Virgil's works on any other Latin Roman coin (as opposed to those struck in the Greek-speaking cities of the eastern part of the Empire). Virgil wrote the Eclogues in the latter part of the first century BC, more than 300 years before. He supported Augustus and had been an integral part of developing the legendary origins of the Empire founded in an unequivocal association of empire with traditional pagan Roman religion and myth. His works had since become standard Latin school fare and were drilled into every child who attended school in the Roman Empire.

          Carausius was utilizing a popular theme which had conveniently wide and subliminal associations in literature and general contemporary religious belief. It was a means by which he could link himself with more elevated feelings than shameless military opportunism. Carausius, or at any rate his supporters, realized that by subtly appealing to this knowledge he could associate himself with ancient Roman tradition. Identifying emperors with mythical figures was routine in the Roman world but in the third and fourth centuries this became more pronounced. Diocletian and Maximian were presented as Jupiter and Hercules on coins, and associated with them in the panegyrics, for example; but, no other usurper of this, or any other period in antiquity, showed himself to be so in command of an ideological base as Carausius.

          That Carausius felt able to exploit this seam of traditional belief in Britain, an outpost of the Empire, tells us much about what Britain had become. When Virgil wrote, his works would have been incomprehensible to the illiterate, Celtic-speaking, Britons. If knowledge of Virgil could be exploited in the late third century then Roman Britain now had an educated, latinized, elite who measured themselves by their appreciation of traditional Roman values. This has implications for our understanding of Britain in the fourth century and in many ways this is the first real signpost to the nature of the maturing province. However, there is an important distinction to be made here. Stating that the Romano-British elite were familiar with classical literature and imagery is not the same as saying that they indulged their lives in esoteric philosophical detachment from the world around them. But it does mean saying that the slogans, metaphors, allegories and images they utilised to decorate their environment, speech and thoughts were drawn from the classical canon.

   Now, it has been said, for example on one website (here) that what I’ve said above is ‘contentious’. So far as I know the only person to raise any objections to this interpretation is Hugh Williams who originally disputed my expansion of the letters. He has since recanted this and accepted in his 2004 book (which you can read about here: BAR 378) that the expansion to these lines of Virgil is probably correct. However, he has now resorted to disputing the authenticity of the Carausian medallions on the grounds of their curious provenances (neither come from excavated contexts and were found respectively in a private collection and in a street market), and the inherent unlikelihood that a Belgian sailor would know any lines of Virgil and have them put on his coins for ordinary soldiers. Well, this is how I would respond to that:

1. Virgilian lines are known in a number of quite ordinary contexts from Roman Britain, for example as writing exercises on a tile from Silchester and a writing tablet from Vindolanda (where ordinary soldiers spent their lives). St Augustine describes how Virgil was a routine part of basic Roman education.

2. Suetonius (Nero 47.2) cites an example of a centurion using a Virgilian line as an expletive

3. The authenticity or otherwise of the medals is not something I can comment on apart from the fact that I quizzed British Museum staff about them. According to them to date examination of neither of the medals has generated any reason to doubt their authenticity.

4. Carausian coinage is utterly unique for its remarkable degree of unusual types, creative use of imagery and variations. This proves nothing about the medallions except to say that if ANY reign of a Roman emperor was going to produce unusual coins, then this is the one that would.

So until a provenanced piece emerges from the ground my interpretation will remain less than 100% confirmed. But disputing it on the grounds that have been suggested by Hugh Williams strikes me as exhibiting a less than comprehensive knowledge of the period and the cultural import that Virgil had. His phrases had simply entered everyday speech, even if they were sometimes used by people who had no idea of their origin, just as so many of us use words and phrases from Shakespeare without knowing it either.

*** Please email me (see Home Page) if you would like to read the original Numsimatic Chronicle publication which I wrote ***

When his reign began Carausius was striking coins at Rouen, indicating that he controlled northern Gaul as well as Britain, though the Rouen issues may have come before taking power in Britain. Even the biased official accounts fail to mention any hostility to him in Britain itself. An impression must have circulated amongst some of the garrison of Roman Britain in their run-down forts that the Empire was unconcerned with them. Low morale and the prospect of excitement probably stimulated their support, while the troops who had been sent to Britain as prisoners-of-war under Probus are unlikely to have taken much persuading. Good silver would have guaranteed allegiance. One clue comes from the fact that although he issued bronze coins in the names of some of the legions in Britain and northern Europe, he omitted the VI Victrix, the legion based at York and under the command of the governor who controlled Britannia Inferior. Perhaps the governor and legion had not transferred their allegiance to Carausius. But the only inscription which mentions Carausius is a milestone from near Carlisle, an important town within the northern region, presumably therefore under Carausius' control. It is extremely unlikely that the milestone was unusual at the time, and its survival reflects the remoteness of the region.

          Most Carausian bronze radiate coins have reverses depicting Pax ('Peace') with the simple legend PAX AVG ('Imperial Peace'). Many have no mint-mark and those which do came from the London mint, or the 'C' mint which may be either Camulodunum (Colchester) or Corinium (Cirencester), though there are other possibilities. It is remarkable that his name is almost never blundered, even on coins where the reverse legend is garbled. The coins suggest that London was Carausius' administrative base. Die-links (coins struck from the same dies) show that some coins bearing the RSR mark on the reverse, had obverses struck from dies also used on coins with the London mint-mark on the reverse. The 'C' mint coins are different in style, suggesting a different location. Colchester would have been attractive to Carausius, particularly given its origins as the first major town of Roman Britain. But it is impossible to extrapolate beyond this to associate him with the physical remains of Roman Britain. Many of the Saxon Shore forts, like Portchester, have produced enough coins of the reign to suggest that building activity there continued unabated. We cannot say in any instance that he was responsible for initiating construction, though it would clearly have been in his interests to maintain building work.

          Support for Carausius must have come from those who had most to lose by remaining in the legitimate Empire. From around the 270s onwards villas began to increase and a small number were enlarged and embellished in a spurt of growth which extended well on into the fourth century. There was a pattern of revolts in the fourth century which invariably involved Romano-British support of some sort and the literary records occasionally imply that the honestiores of Britain had participated. Perhaps a trend had emerged in which some of the Romano-British elite saw their best chances in political detachment from the Roman world, but had no desire for cultural or economic severance.

          An analogy from a different time and place shows us how significant the economic and social self-interest of a minority can be. In the southern states of the USA in the early 1800s the economic and political interest in maintaining slavery, dressed up as a defence of state liberty and the maintenance of a balance of power in the Union government, led to the secession, state by state, of a region from the greater whole. The dominant members of city and state governments were, in many cases, the minority large-scale landowners who had most to lose from remaining in a union in a progressively anti-slavery climate. They had the support of the majority of the mostly very-poor white population who depended on them. Despite the secession, the Confederate government, far from doing away with the offices and institutions of the very system which had been rejected, proceeded to ape many of them. Their world was also characterized by a reactionary admiration for European, especially English, culture.

          The parallels with Roman Britain are interesting. Perhaps rural development, the growing wealth of a few, and the emergence of usurpers were symptoms of the same trend. As Britain grew richer so she became worth attacking and, at the same time, she became a viable independent political domain. Her elite would have found the idea of sacrificing their wealth to pay taxes which funded military campaigns on the continent unacceptable. Carausius emerged as the man best-placed to protect them both from taxes and the privations of barbarians. Their wealth, and relative insulation from military disasters on the continent, may also have created a desire to secede from a system which threatened their status. It is unlikely that Carausius, or his associates, had not recognized in advance that his appealing conjunction of rhetoric and economic interest would be welcomed.

          Whether Carausius succeeded in creating an efficient process of government or whether the regime operated on an ad-hoc basis is unknown. That his successor, Allectus, was described as a high official, connected probably with financial affairs, suggests there was a formal administration. Carausian panegyrics, probably alluded to by the Virgilian slogans on the RSR and INPCDA coins, would have been read out to troops, or perhaps in public places. Some of his coins have reverses depicting the emperor on horseback with the legend Adventus Aug[usti], 'the coming of the Emperor'. This was a standard theme, issued to record imperial visits. Carausian versions, as normal, do not specify the location but it would be very unlikely that they did not record real visits by him to major towns or military bases in Britain to reinforce his rule. The Adventus types also appear on some of the silver RSR coins and had perhaps been handed out on such occasions.

 

Treachery

The importance of sustaining military support may have led Carausius to neglect civilian government. With only the Carlisle milestone to work from it is impossible to judge. The unique medallions, and some coinage, depict Carausius as a consul. Numismatists believe that Carausius awarded himself consulships in 287 and 289, based on detailed studies of the coin legends. The consulship, the most important magistracy which any Roman could hold, was not to be treated lightly. Carausius was posing as the ultimate legitimate Roman ruler in a context which will have outraged Diocletian and Maximian. He even adopted the forenames Marcus Aurelius, a convention devised by Caracalla in the early third century to claim pseudo-descent from the house of the deified Emperor Marcus Aurelius.

          Around 289 an invasion of Britain was prepared, recorded in a panegyric to Maximian. It describes how promising weather conditions were followed by catastrophic storms which destroyed the campaign before it had begun. Carausius remained in power, and a subsequent panegyric of 291 makes no mention of the aborted invasion. Maximian was obliged to negotiate a peace. For the moment Carausius enjoyed naval supremacy in the Channel.

          In 293 Diocletian and Maximian appointed assistants and heirs. This system was known as the Tetrarchy. In the west Maximian was joined by Constantius Chlorus, who was ordered to recover Britain. Carausius was aware of the plans. He issued an extraordinary series of bronze coins bearing his bust alongside those of Diocletian and Maximian with the optimistically-conciliatory legend Carausius et Fratres Sui ('Carausius and his Brothers'). He also issued coins in their sole names, but with reverse legends ending AVGGG, a convention indicating three Augusti. Carausius had evidently decided to pose as a legitimate member of Diocletian's multi-ruler system, in spite of flaunting himself as a consul. But Carausius had presented Diocletian and Maximian with no choice. Tolerating him would be an admission of weakness which would destroy their prestige and threaten their reforms.

          In 293 Constantius blockaded Boulogne harbour and retook the city. The setback might have destroyed Carausius' reputation. If the Fratres conciliation coins were part of change in policy, that new strategy might have contributed to a power struggle within Carausius' command. He was murdered by, or on the orders of, Allectus who then became emperor in Britain. Carausius disappears from our picture of history instantly. This raises the possibility that Carausius and Allectus were just the visible faces of a cabal, something implied in a panegyric recording the eventual defeat of the regime, now riven by internal disputes. Allectus issued his own coins but the allusions to classical literature and the conciliation coins were never revived. Silver was not issued (at least, none has ever been found), but Allectus maintained an output of good-quality gold and even introduced a smaller bronze coin, known as a quinarius.

          This points to dogmatic maintenance of an independent Britain and a rejection of assumed membership of the imperial college. The mint-marks on Allectan coinage continued the sequences begun by Carausius, showing that London and the 'C' mint remained in use. Allectus kept up a programme of public appearances, recorded on gold coins with the legend Adventus Aug[usti]. Some of the bronze coins indicate that he also appointed himself to a consulship, but any hints of a messianic coming or a revival of a mythical pagan paradise were abandoned. Carausian coins are distinguished by a careless but ebullient style, depicting the hero as a flamboyant thug. Allectan coins are, by contrast, conventional and better made. The revolt may have endured for the moment but it had lost its spirit.

          In London a monumental building was begun using timber now said to have been felled in 294. It has been suggested that this might have been Allectus' headquarters. The idea seems reasonable enough; after all, Allectus struck coins at London and was probably based there. But such an attractive association is untenable and ultimately pointless, given the limitations of the current evidence. The wood may have been allowed to season for several years before it was used, so it may not have been contemporary. Allectus must have had powerful supporters, any of whom (or none) might have been responsible. The best evidence for an association with the regime is the fact that it was abandoned before completion.

          Even if Allectus was still able to count on Romano-British support he must have been aware of the impending invasion. Allectan coinage is found in Gaul which proves that there was some traffic, probably commercial, but he may have retained a power base of sorts. The subsequent restoration of Hadrian's Wall forts might suggest that troops had been pulled en masse to bolster his defences. However, an inscription of 296_305 at Birdoswald describes a fort ruined by natural decay (see below). The dislocated central authority of the late third century make a more plausible background to long-term decay.

          Once Constantius had been able to quash barbarians in the Rhineland he was able to begin the campaign against Britain. The panegyric of 297 describes Britain as a startlingly fertile and mineral-rich province, going on to describe how it had been the Romans who had brought civilisation to this outpost of the known world. Of course Britain was inevitably going to be described as immensely valuable. Even if Britain was in reality a liability, no self-respecting panegyricist was going to say so. As Florus pronounced so many years before, Britain and its romanization was a trophy. It could not be abandoned because of the damage to prestige.

 

The last battle

The assault on Allectan Britain was launched in two waves, despite bad weather. Constantius sailed from Boulogne and Asclepiodotus, the praetorian prefect, from the Seine. Hidden by fog, Asclepiodotus and his force were able to pass the Isle of Wight without being spotted by the Allectan navy. He landed, presumably in the Southampton area, burnt his fleet and marched inland. Thanks either to the surprise or disorganization Allectus had failed to gather his forces. He fled inland, abandoning another fleet under his command, with whatever units he was able to amass at a moment's notice. These seem to have been mainly mercenaries. Asclepiodotus caught up with Allectus and they fought a battle in which Allectus was defeated and killed.

          Afterwards, Constantius' half of the force eventually reached Britain and seized London. This was presented as a triumphal entry on a well-known gold medallion struck to commemorate the event, and very likely awarded to a participant in the campaign. Constantius is depicted in adventus mode, but this time with the legend redditor lucis aeternae, 'restorer of the eternal light'. The mounted Constantius and a war galley alongside are welcomed by a figure standing outside a city gate. The letters LON make it clear that London is meant. The defeat had been total. Britain's first experiment at empire was over, but the honestiores remained in control of the Romano-British landscape.

 

Sources

This passage is taken from The Golden Age, just published by Tempus, see Roman Britain. A more detailed record is published in my paper 'Carausius and the Marks RSR and INPCDA' in The Numismatic Chronicle 158 (1998), pp.79-88.

The Carausian coins are at The British Museum, London, Room 69a (open daily, Sundays afternoons only). Tel: 0207 636 1555

John Casey's Carausius and Allectus: The British Usurpers (Batsford 1994, but now distributed by Routledge) came too soon for this discovery but it is still the fullest account of the events of the reigns. ISBN 0 7134 7170 0

You can find the complete texts of Virgil's Eclogues,. Georgics, and Aeneid as well as other classical texts at http://patriot.net/~lillard/cp/latlib

 Back to the  Home Page or look at another page about Carausius by Ken Elks with some good pictures of coins, or try Ancient Coin Forum

My article about the Carausian coins is downloadable in Word format from http://www.romanbritain.freeserve.co.uk/carausiusarticle.doc

 

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