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Carausius

Emperor or Traitor,

Pirate or Last Prefect of the Classis Britannica

The main problem with Carausius, is that we know so very little about him. This

is largely due to the Roman habit of purposely forgetting the names (and other details)

of persons who had offended the Empire, especially if they were so ill advised as to win

battles against Rome.

What we do know about Carausius is contained in the writings of two 4 th century

Roman historians, Aurelius Victor and Eutropius, who lived some time after Carausius

as well as the writers of the Panegyrics on the deputy emperors, Maximian and

Constantius, who were contemporary, but extremely biased.

There are a couple of other, less frequently quoted sources, which are not used

because the information is so garbled. Into this category comes some Welsh

genealogies which suggest that Carausius was of aristocratic birth, the son of a leader of

the Menevians, that is, a people who came from South Wales. Also from Wales, in the

sixth century, came the clerical writer Gildas, who gave a version of Britain’s history

under the Romans, but who did not mention Carausius at all.

Also into this category come The History of the Kings of Britain, written by

Geoffrey of Monmouth in the twelfth century and Nennius’ History of the Britons,

written in the mid-eighth century, however, there is one fairly accurate early history,

Ecclesiastical History of the English People, by Bede, a monk from Jarrow in

Northunbria, writing at the beginning of the eighth century.


Eutropius:

Eutropius gives us the most information:

“Severus waged his last war in Britain … ; At this time too, Carausius, although

of very humble birth, had achieved an outstanding reputation in a vigorous military

career. … He had been given the responsibility throughout the Belgic and Armorican

areas of clearing the sea, which was infested by Franks and Saxons. …he failed either

to return all the booty to the provincials, or to send it to the emperor, so that the

suspicion grew up that he was letting in the barbarians on purpose, so that he could

catch them as they passed with their booty and grow rich on the proceeds. So,

Maximianus ordered him to be put to death, whereupon he declared himself emperor

and seized Britain.”. (Eutropius. IX, 21)

Aurelius Victor:

Aurelius Victor says very much the same thing, but gives a little more information

about Carausius:

“… Carausius, a Menapian, distinguished himself by his effective actions. For

this reason and because he was considered an expert gubernator (usually translated as

‘pilot’, but probably a word more correctly describing a ship’s skipper) – in his youth he

had earned his living in this capacity – he was put in charge of fitting out a fleet and

repelling the Germans who infested the seas. Carried away by this promotion, he failed

to restore the whole of the booty to the treasury, although he intercepted many of the

barbarians, and through the fear of Maximian, who, he discovered, had ordered his

death, he assumed the title of emperor and seized control of Britain.”. (Book of the

Caesars, 39, 20 & 21)

The Menapii were a people who lived on the coast of what is now Belgium and

were well known as seafarers, so it is not unlikely that Carausius might have been the

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master of a merchant ship in his younger days, or indeed, he might have been a member

of the Classis Britannica.

It is interesting however, that the Welsh make him out to have been one of their

own and an aristocrat, where both the Roman historians emphasise his humble birth,

perhaps to make him out to have been less important than he really was. Ironically, the

only known historical gravestone of a man named ‘Carausius’ dating from a couple of

hundred years after the emperor, was actually found in Wales.

Gildas:

Gildas does not mention Carausius at all. He was much more interested in the

persecution of British Christians, which occurred later on in Diocletian’s reign. It

should be remembered, though, that Gildas was a cleric lambasting his flock for

backsliding and who blamed the ruin of Britain on her leaders’ fondness for wine,

women and fighting each other, rather than the Saxons. (Gildas, On the Ruin of

Britain).

Bede:

Bede, writing in the eighth century and by far the most accurate of the early

writers, may well have read the Roman historians’ version of Carausius’ story, for he

says: “… one Carausius, of very mean birth but an expert and able soldier, being

appointed to guard the sea coasts, then infested by the Franks and Saxons, acted more to

the prejudice than the advantage of the commonwealth and from his not restoring to its

owners the booty taken from the robbers, but keeping all for himself, it was suspected

that by intentional neglect he suffered the enemy to infest the frontiers. Hearing,

therefore, that an order was sent by Maximian that he should be put to death, he took

upon himself the imperial robes and possessed himself of Britain and having most

valiantly retained it for the space of seven years, he was at length put to death by the

treachery of his associate, Allectus.”. (Bede, Chapter 6) . Nowhere else do we read of

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Carausius’ work in ‘most valiantly’ retaining his empire, unless Geoffrey of Monmouth

retains a memory of one (or more) battles, when he mentions the fight with Bassianus..

Nennius:

Nennius, writing a few years later than Bede, says only: ”The fourth (Roman

emperor to come to Britain) was the emperor and tyrant Carausius, who, incensed by

the murder of Severus, passed into Britain and attended by the leaders of the Roman

people, severely avenged ... the cause of Severus”. (History of the Britons, 24) The

translator notes that this passage is corrupt.

The twelfth century writer, Geoffrey of Monmouth gave more details, but they are

even less accurate:

“At this time, there lived in Britain a certain young man called Carausius,

He was born of humble parentage, but has shown his courage in many battles. He went

to Rome and asked permission of the senate to employ a fleet of ships to defend the

coast of Britain from invasion by the barbarians … ; Carausius soon collected some

ships together, gathered round himself a great force of young men of the country and

put out to sea, making the greatest possible upset among the inhabitants. …; In a short

time, he had so great a force under command that no local leader could resist him. …;

His head became so swollen by what he had done, that he instructed the Britons to make

him their king, promising that he would massacre the Romans and … so free the island

from that foreign race. Carausius next move was to fight Bassianus, kill him and take

over the government of his kingdom. …”. (History of the Kings of Britain, Chapter 5, 3)

The entry immediately before Geoffrey’s entry about Carausius begins:

“Severus left two sons, Bassianus and Geta … ”. (ibid, Ch 5, 2). This passage

must refer to Septimius Severus who did indeed have two sons, Antoninus, better

known as Caracalla, and Geta. This Severus died at York in 211 and Caracalla reigned

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from 211 to 217. Geoffrey appears to believe that Carausius and Caracalla were

involved in a battle with each other, despite living 70-odd years apart.

There was another historical Severus about this time, the emperor Alexander

Severus, who was murdered in 235. Nennius appears to be linking Carausius with this

second Severus. The only problem is that Carausius made himself emperor in 286, so

he would not even have been born when either of the Severi died. None the less, it does

seem that these early writers used another source, which has since been lost and which

may have linked Carausius to a Roman emperor who came to grief Certainly, since

Gildas, Nennius and Geoffrey of Monmouth were all Welsh (or linked to Wales), whilst

Bede was from Northumbria, it seems that any lost source book might have been in

Welsh, rather than in Latin.

. After Alexander Severus’ murder, there were a number of short lived emperors

and the Empire was in such a disorganised state that one of the Roman commanders in

Germany, Latinius Postumus, formed his own empire, with a capital in Trier, made up

of Gaul, part of Germany, Britain and Spain, beginning in 259. In 268, Postumus was

lynched by his own soldiers, but three or four other quasi-emperors followed in quick

succession. Eventually, this Gallic state was brought back into the Empire by the

legitimate emperor, Aurelian, in 273.. Unfortunately, Aurelian, who was an active and

effective emperor, was also murdered, in 275.

In the following eight years, there were five more emperors, before things

stabilised once more, with the accession of Diocletian, who then nominated Maximian

as his deputy emperor, the Caesar. This was the Maximianus who ordered Carausius

death.

Carausius’ formation of his own empire might not have come as a great surprise to

the Roman emperors, after all, it was less than 20 years since Postumus’ murder and his

Gallic empire had not completely collapsed until a dozen or so years before Carausius

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raised his own standard. Many of the conditions which had prompted Postumus to form

his own state were probably still in existence, certainly, barbarian raids hadn’t ceased

and this was what had brought Carausius to prominence in the first place, however,

there may have been another reason

The Christians:

There may be another reason for Carausius’ break with Rome. Christianity had

come to Britain early. Gildas said in Tiberius’ (14 – 37CE) reign, Bede said Pope

Eleutherius (161CE) and Nennius chose Pope Evaristus (79CE), although his translators

have changed this to Eleutherius. There is no reason why there couldn’t have been

several Christianising missions and any, or all, the above dates are correct.

In 250CE, one of the short-lived emperors, Decius, commanded all Christians to

abjure their faith and make sacrifice to the emperor. In 257, another emperor,

Valerianus, (253 – 260) required all Christian clergy to take part in pagan ceremonies.

A lot of dead Christians followed both these edicts. In 259, Postumous formed his

Gallic anti-empire (including Britain) and after that fell in 273, Carausius formed his

own British empire in 286CE. In 289 Diocletian’s deputy emperor, Maximian moved

against Carausius without success until Allectus was defeated in 293.

Between 303 and 311 the emperor Diocletian was responsible for the last great

persecution of Christians before his successor, Constantine, decreed toleration. Might

this persecution have been Diocletian’s attempt to bring the independent-minded

Christians of Britain, Germany and Gaul into line with the rest of the Empire?

These dates might suggest that the two separate Gallo-British states were formed,

at least in part, because a majority of the population were Christian and their leaders

were trying to avoid massacres by the Roman authorities on the grounds of treason. Of

course, the continual incursions of barbarian raiders can’t be discounted as a reason for

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going it alone. Local rulers would have had a much better appreciation of the logistics

of defence (and a far faster response time!) than an emperor based far away.

Carausius’ empire:

P. J. Casey (Casey 1995, p 101) suggests that the short lived Emperor Carinus

(283 – 85) undertook some kind of ill fated military venture in or around Britain and

that Carausius gained his military experience sailing with this expedition, although

Aurelius Victor’s comment that he had earned his living as a gubernator in his youth,

suggests that Carausius was an older man and that his sailing experience had taken

place some years previously, perhaps even, if he was in his 60’s at the time of his revolt,

he may have served in the last recorded years of the Classis Britannica (under the

emperor Phillip, 244 – 49)..

As Carausius was in control of Britain for at least seven years, it is possible to

wonder whether he left monuments. The only one known and surviving is a milestone

found just south of Carlisle (RIB 2291) at Herraby Bridge. This stone was first used for

an unknown Emperor (RIB 2290), then for Carausius, then it was turned upside down

and re-carved at the time of the Emperor Constantine (RIB 2292).

The inscription (RIB 2291) states: IMP C M AVR MAVS CARAVSIO P F

INVICTO AVG, which is restored to read: ‘Imperator Caesar Marcus Aurelius Mausaeus

Carausius Pius (Dutiful) Felix (Fortunate [or, Successful]), the Unconquered Augustus’.

It is interesting to note that, when Carausius is presumed to have been based in

Boulogne, or later, in London, the only milestone bearing his name was found near

Carlisle.

Nevertheless, if Geoffrey of Monmouth was working from a lost history, it is

possible that there was a Carausian campaign in the area garrisoned by the VIth Legion

at York and commanded by a Legate named Bassus, or Bassianus. This might well

explain a milestone found near Carlisle. The emphasis which the early writers place on

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the emperor Severus may suggest that he refurbished the Antonine Wall, north of the

better known Hadrian’s Wall and that Carausius’ land forces later encountered the Picts

nearby.

A little Latin:

Augustus was the name taken by Octavian, later first emperor of Rome. This

name was taken by most of his successor emperors as a title, so that ‘Carausius

Augustus’ is simply another way of writing ‘the emperor Carausius.’

The Roman alphabet did not have the letter ‘u’, so the name ‘Augustus’ was

written ‘Avgvstvs’ and shortened to ‘Avg’.

When they were carving inscriptions or minting coins, the Romans used a

convention that ‘AVG’ stood for ‘Augustus’, or ‘Emperor’. On coins and monuments,

‘AVGG’ stood for ‘the two Emperors’ and naturally, ‘AVGGG’ would stand for ‘the

three Emperors’.

Coins:

Carausius had coins minted in his name and it seems from the inscriptions on

some of them that he wished to be considered a co-Emperor.

The inscription on one of them reads: ‘Pietas Avggg’, meaning ‘Piety [or Duty]

of the Three Augusti’. On the other side, the coin reads: ‘Imp G. Carausius P[ius] Avg’.

Another coin reads: ‘Carausius et Fratres Sui’ (Carausius and his Brothers)

surrounding the heads of three emperors and on the other side: ‘Pax Avggg’ (Peace of

the Three Augusti).

A silver ‘antoninus’ coin minted by Carausius (courtesy Wikipedia).

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A gold coin of Maximian read: ‘Maximianus P[ius] F[elix] Avg’ on one side,

whilst on the other was the legend; ‘Salus Avggg’ (The Safety of the Three Augusti),

suggesting that Maximian had, for a short time, at least, accepted Carausius as a co-

emperor.

Panegyric on Constantius:

“… the fleeing pirate seized first the fleet which protected the coasts of Gaul, built

many more besides, in Roman fashion, seduced a Legion, cut off divisions of provincial

troops, recruited Gallic merchants to his service , won over hordes of barbarous forces

by spoils from the provinces themselves and through instruction by supporters of that

disgraceful act, he trained them all for naval duty.’.

This paragraph gives the probable reason why Carausius did not send all the

recovered stolen loot back to the administration: he was building up his Fleet and was

using the money to pay for the ships and seamen. Whether he was simply re-building

the Classis Britannica, is unknown, but it is a strong possibility.

The Legion which he ‘seduced’ was almost certainly the II Augusta, which, at a

slightly later date, was known to have been stationed at Richborough, on the coast of

Kent, right where Carausius would have needed a hard bitten legion to deal with any

land incursions by the Saxons or Franks.

Maximian appears to have made an attempt to unseat Carausius (in 289), which

seems to have met with very little success, as a Panegyric lauds Maximian’s

preparations to deal with Carausius, but then a resounding silence follows, while

Eutropius noted: ‘Eventually, however, a peace was arranged with Carausius after

military operations against this expert strategist had been attempted without success.’.

(Eutropius IX, 22, 2)

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There is no further record of any action against Carausius, until the Panegyric on

Constantius, praising Constantius Caesar’s victory over ‘the pirate’, given a good three

years later. Constantius first blockaded Boulogne and then, when Carausius retreated

to Britain, he sent the Praetorian Prefect, Asclepiodotus, against him. At this point, it

appears that Carausius’ financial officer, Allectus, murdered him and took over the

British state for a further three years.

The question remains, what were Caurausius’ motivations for declaring himself

Emperor? Defence against barbarian invasions may have been one of his motivations,

as may the possibility of protecting Christians from Roman persecution, but is this

enough to explain why he decided to form his own empire, rather than to avoid

Maximian and simply go into exile?

Further excavation in Britain may cast more light on this particularly murky area

of history and may also bring to light more information about the fate of the Classis

Britannica, which, like the majority of other Fleets, drops out of sight before the middle

of the third century, the last known dated gravestone of a member of this fleet coming

from the reign of the emperor Philip, (d. 249).

Bibliography:

Bede. The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. (Translation courtesy of Fordham University’s on-line

medieval sourcebook.).

Cary, M. History of Rome. (Macmillan & Co. London, 1960)

Casey, P. Allectus and Carausius - The British Usurpers, (Batsford Books, London, 1994).

Ireland, S. Roman Britain, a Sourcebook, (Routledge, London & New York, 1992).

Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain. Tr: Lewis Thorpe. (Penguin Classics, 1966)

Gildas, On the Ruin of Britain, Tr: J. A. Giles. (Dodo Press)

Nennius, History of the Britons Tr: J. A. Giles. (Dodo Press)

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