In the late third century A.D., the Roman Empire was especially
vulnerable to barbarian invasion and to rebellion within the army. The
western provinces became increasingly vulnerable as the focus of
emperors shifted eastward to the Balkans and Asia. Once-prosperous
Gaul, Spain and Romanized Germany became dangerous regions, guarded by
a fraction of the soldiers such a vast area required.
Such was the backdrop for one of the most interesting revolts in
Roman history — that of the naval commander Carausius. He was a man of
great talent and humble origins, as were so many emperors of the era.
He came from Menapia, a seafaring region between the Waal and the
Scheldt rivers, which comprises the coastal regions of modern-day
Netherlands, Belgium and northern France.
Menapia was a vulnerable region on the fringe of the Romanized
world, and was subject to invasion by Germanic peoples. To make
matters worse, a rise in the temperature of the ocean during the 270s
caused flooding along much of the coastal plain, rendering it uninhabitable.
Carausius was trained as a sailor, and was apparently skilled in
land warfare. He came to the attention of the emperor Maximian (286 to
circa 310), who at that time co-ruled the Roman Empire with the senior
emperor, Diocletian (284 to 305). Maximian immediately put Carausius
to work fighting the Bagaudae (“the fighters”) — Gaulish peasants,
army deserters and veterans who had banded together and turned to marauding.
After the defeat of the Bagaudae in early 286, Carausius likely
remained in the emperor’s army or navy to help repel an invasion by
the Alemanni and Burgundians, to defend the Rhine frontier, or to make
punitive expeditions into Germany. In any case, Carausius’ performance
was so good that Maximian soon promoted him to commander of the
Channel Fleet with the mission of stopping Frankish and Saxon pirates
from raiding the shores of Gaul and Britain.
The honeymoon ended in late 286 or early 287, when word reached
Carausius that he would soon be arrested for engaging in the very
piratic acts that Maximian had entrusted him to oppose. Whether
Carausius was allowing pirates to make raids so he could claim a share
of their booty upon capture, or this was an unjust charge from an
enemy will never be known — all that mattered is that Maximian
considered the charges true and acted accordingly.
Facing execution if captured, Carausius decided to use his fleet
and his allies to stage a revolt that he would base in Britain, with
heavily defended ports on the Gaulish coast. He immediately sailed to
Britain and forged agreements with the Scots and the Picts, and even
defeated an army fielded by the Roman governor Quintus Bassianus. This
rebel had an outstanding knowledge of the English Channel, a network
of allies, and would have command of a string of new fortresses along
Britain’s Saxon shore. Best of all, Maximian would be bogged down with
persistent, seasonal warfare on the Rhine.
Carausius soon began to strike coins to pay soldiers, procure
supplies, support commerce and otherwise promote his fledgling regime.
His coins were largely inspired by the current coins of the empire,
though they displayed a distinctive style of die engraving and some
innovative designs, and they bore the rebel’s name, titles and portrait.
Carausius used coinage to promote many of his ideas, including his
desires to restore the former grandeur of Rome and forge a partnership
with his rivals. However, Maximian and Diocletian had no interest in
tolerating the rebel state, and they made efforts to undermine
Carausius, including a failed invasion of Britain in 289, and perhaps
another in 291.
In the spring of 293, the two emperors appointed deputy emperors.
Maximian’s choice was Constantius I “Chlorus,” who bore the
subordinate rank of Caesar and devoted himself to defeating Carausius.
That very summer, he besieged and took control of Bolougne, Carausius’
stronghold on the mainland.
With the rebel state now restricted to the British Isles, the
equation was changed. Upon escaping the siege, Carausius was murdered
in Britain by his successor, Allectus, who proclaimed himself emperor.
Precious little is known of the reign of Allectus (293 to 296) except
that he issued a large coinage in his own name and subsequently died
in battle against the forces of Constantius, who led an invasion of
Britain in late 295 or early 296 by which he restored it to the Roman Empire.
The coinage of these two rebels is avidly collected and is of
great interest from both the historical and numismatic points of view.
Carausius struck his coins at several mints which, in the current
view, include at least London (Londinium), Colchester (Camulondunum)
and Rouen (Rotomagus).
Some of the most extraordinary coins reflect Carausius’ attempt to
solicit a union with Diocletian and Maximian (or perhaps to deceive
his own subjects into believing that such a union existed). Some of
these coins actually bear the names and portraits of his rival
emperors. Only some technical points, including the use of reverse
inscriptions ending avggg (indicating three emperors: Carausius,
Diocletian and Maximian), distinguish these coins from the official
issues of those two emperors.
Even more remarkable is an issue that shows the busts of all three
emperors. The obverse inscription caravsivs et fratres svi (“Carausius
and his brothers”) reinforces the message of the three portraits, as
do the reverse inscriptions, all of which end in avggg to indicate
three emperors reigned.
The variety and historical interest of the coin types issued from
286/7 to 295/6 in the Romano-British Empire is impressive. With this
brief survey we have merely scraped the surface of a subject that for
centuries has been a source of great satisfaction to scholars and
collectors, and no doubt will provide the same for future generations. ■