Rebel Emperor of Roman Britain, by Guy de la Bédoyère
Carausius, as depicted on a bronze radiate coin. From a painting by the author.
My article about the Carausian coins is downloadable in Word format from http://www.romanbritain.freeserve.co.uk/carausiusarticle.doc
In the year AD 286 Roman Britain was 243 years old and the
For information about background and resources, go to Sources
In 284 a Roman soldier called Mausaeus Carausius participated in a war
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
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
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
Carausius moved decisively so he must have known he had popular support.
He declared himself Emperor in
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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).
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
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
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
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
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
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
The importance of sustaining military support may have led Carausius to
neglect civilian government. With only the
Around 289 an invasion of
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
In 293 Constantius
points to dogmatic maintenance of an independent
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
Once Constantius had been
able to quash barbarians in the
The last battle
The assault on Allectan
half of the force eventually reached
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,
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
My article about the Carausian coins is downloadable in Word format from http://www.romanbritain.freeserve.co.uk/carausiusarticle.doc
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