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Webb Carausius Historical Summary


(See Plates I.—V.)


THE history of the short-lived British Empire which was founded by Carausius in 287, and terminated on the death of Allectus in 296, is wrapped in considerable obscurity, for the only accounts remaining to us which were written while the facts were fresh in men’s minds are those of Mamertinus in his Panegyric on Maximian Herculeus delivered in 289, and of the author, perhaps Eumenius, who panegyrized Constantius Chlorus a few years later. Britain unfortunately produced no con temporary writer. The Roman historians, Aurelius Victor and Eutropius, wrote in the reign of Julian the Apostate some seventy years after the reconquest of Britain, while Orosius Paulus flourished sixty years later. Zosimus, the Byzantine historian, was contemporary with Orosius, but his chapters relating to this period are lost, as also are those of Ammianus Marcellinus compiled in the fifth century; while Zonaras, another Byzantine whose date was about 1100, dismisses the whole subject with the words, "The prefect Asclepiodotus destroyed Crassus, who had been in possession of Britain for five years."

The next authorities are the English chroniclers—Bede, in the eighth century; Geoffrey of Monmouth, early in the twelfth century; and Robert of Gloucester, who wrote in metre a few years later. The two latter writers differ substantially from the Roman accounts, and also from the Scottish Chronicles of John of Fordun and Hector Boethius, written in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries respectively.

Genebrier and Dr. Stukeley, who wrote in the eighteenth century, allowed themselves to be so carried away by their imagination and their enthusiasm for their subject that their works are historically unreliable, as also is that of John Watts de Peyster, the American author, who dealt with the subject in the nineteenth century.

Before quoting the authors in detail, it may be worthwhile to consider for a moment what was the condition of the world during the third century of our era. Septimius Severus, who had reigned for eighteen stormy years, died at York in 211, leaving two sons, Bassianus Antoninus, known as Caracalla, - and Geta, colleagues in the Empire. Caracalla murdered Geta in the arms of their mother, Julia Domna, in 212, and received the reward of that murder, and of five subsequent years of cruelty and crime, at the hands of Macrinus in 217. Macrinus and his son Diadumenian were in their turn murdered by mutinous soldiers during the succeeding year. Elagabalus, though a boy of fourteen when he succeeded them, managed in less than four years to disgust the world with his rapacity, cruelty, and debaucheries, and found a similar fate. His young cousin, Severus Alexander, ascended the throne, and held it for thirteen years with honour and success, till he also was unfortunately slain in a military tumult.

The gigantic and brutal Maximinus and his son Maximus were similarly destroyed in 238. The Gordians, father and son, Balbinus, and Pupienus, all seized the purple, and lost it by violent deaths within the same year. Gordian III, a mere boy, proved a brave and sagacious Emperor, but was treacherously assassinated in 244. His murderer, Philip, and his son were killed in their turn in 249; and so the terrible catalogue goes on till the year 284. During these thirty-five years upwards of fifty persons, of whom there is historical or numismatic record, seized some portion of the Imperial power in one part or other of the distracted Roman Empire, and it is probable that there were many other usurpers whose very names are forgotten. Coins of thirty-three Emperors and of seven of their wives are extant, and a few of them, Claudius Gothicus, Aurelian, Probus, and some others, stand out in history as honourable and capable rulers; but, good or bad, most of their reigns were occupied in incessant warfare against rivals and barbarians, and were terminated by death on the field of battle, by accident, or most frequently by assassination, after periods varying from a few days to about five years. Gallienus managed to retain the throne for fifteen years; Postumus for about seven. Probus, though he “equaled the fame of ancient heroes, restored peace and order to every province of the Roman world,” and “by mild but steady administration confirmed the re-establishment of public tranquility,” yet lost his life in a mutiny after a reign of about six years. It is doubtful if any Emperor during this period died a natural death.

It is not difficult to imagine what must have been the misery of the people during these disturbed years. In addition to constant internecine strife, the Empire suffered from the incursions of its barbarous neighbours on every side, while the provinces groaned under the cruelties and extortions of their governors and tyrants. Faith in the old gods was fast dying, and, but for the spread of Christianity, men had little hope in this world or the next. This terrible period was at last brought to an end by the coming of the strong ruler, Cains Valerius Diocletianus, who, born of servile parents in 245, raised himself by valour and ability to the position of commander of Numerian's bodyguard, and was, on the murder of that Emperor, called to the throne by the acclamations of the soldiers. After a severe struggle with Carinus, the brother and colleague of Numerian, he found himself in undisputed power, and at once applied his energies to the restoration and consolidation of the Imperial authority throughout the Roman world. Appreciating the fact that the work was too great for one man, he soon associated with himself Marcus Aurelius Valerius Maximianus, surnamed Herculeus, a rough soldier but a very competent general, and a strong hand to execute what Diocletian’s astute brain planned. Maximian governed the West, and his first duty was to suppress the revolt of the Bagaudae (probably the peasantry of the mountain country in the east of Gaul), who had risen against local oppression. One of his lieutenants in this war was Carausius, who now appears in authentic history for the first time, though it may well be that he had, as alleged by some of his chroniclers, taken part in many previous wars, and greatly distinguished himself as a soldier.

Successful on land, Maximian took measures to guard the coasts of Gaul and clear the narrow seas of German and Frankish pirates who then infested them, and, to that end, he established a naval station at Bononia or Gesoriacum, now Boulogne, placing Carausius in command.

Carausius is described by the Roman historians as a citizen of Menapia, and, like both the Emperors, of the lowest extraction. The Menapians were a seafaring and trading people, having their home in the Low Countries between the Rhine and the Scheldt, but they had established trading colonies at many points round the British coasts and in Ireland, and given their name to the Isle of Man, so that the claim of the Chroniclers that Carausius was of British birth is not necessarily negated by the statement that he was “Menapiaecivis.”

His extraction is, however, uncertain, but the main facts of the later years of his life are clearly recorded, though with a lack of trustworthy detail. A very able man and a great military commander, he at once saw the strength of his position as Admiral of the Narrow Seas, and the possibility of his own aggrandizement. It is charged against him that instead of sweeping away the pirates, he permitted them to carry out their forays, and fell upon them on their return laden with booty. He failed to account to the provincial officials for the plunder so obtained, and was rapidly acquiring great riches, when Maximian, suspecting a rival, sent orders for his execution. Carausius, who seems to have had a capacity for acquiring the affection and support of those around him, was warned in time, took his fleet with him to Britain, won over the British nations and tribes, and rapidly consolidated a formidable power. His conduct was treacherous no doubt, but it can hardly be measured by a modern standard. He lived in a time when the world was governed on “the good old rule, the simple plan, that they should take who have the power, and they should keep who can;” and, if we can believe the legend that he was himself a British prince, he was not without excuse or even right.

Maximian fitted out a great fleet, and sent it to try its fortune against him. Of the details of the fight we know nothing, but it ended in disaster to the Romans, and Maximian, “since war was in vain attempted against a man perfectly skilled in military art,” agreed to a peace, under which Carausius was apparently accepted as a colleague in the Empire, and had Britain and some part of Northern Gaul assigned to him. This peace was made late in 289 or in 290, and was not loyally observed by the Romans. In 292 Maximian sent Constantius Chlorus against Carausius. He attacked Boulogne, and, after a severe struggle, took the town, having first cut it off from succor by constructing a dam across the entrance to the harbour, and so kept off the British fleet sent for its relief.

This was a severe blow to Carausius, and probably cost him his foothold on the Continent, but his insular power remained unbroken, and Chlorus failed to follow up his victory. However, in 293 Carausius was murdered by his lieutenant or ally Allectus, and Chlorus, encouraged by the news, commenced the preparation of a new fleet for an attempt on Britain. The attack was made in 296, and proved successful. One half of the Roman fleet, under Asclepiodotus, the Praetorian prefect of Chlorus, sailed across the Channel from the mouth of the Seine past the Isle of Wight to the Hampshire coast, eluding the British fleet in a fog. Asclepiodotus landed, burnt his ships, and marched inland. Allectus met him, and was defeated and slain, while the other part of the Roman fleet, under Chlorus himself, sailed up to London in time to preserve it from plunder by the fugitive mercenaries of the beaten army, and thus Britain, after its short freedom, fell again under the power of Rome.

Round this story some legendary detail has crystallized, and the great interest which must attach to this early grasp at power by the British race may sufficiently excuse the lengthy quotations which are here inserted.

Webb, P.H. The reign and coinage of Carausius. (London, 1908).

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