The Famous and Infamous Rulers of Rome – Part 40

The Famous and Infamous Rulers of Rome series explores the most famous – and infamous – dictators, leaders and emperors of Rome. This week we focus on Emperor Carausius.

Emperor Carausius


Mausaeus Carausius was born to a humble family in Menapia, a region of seafarers in what is today the southern part of the Netherlands.

After playing a vital part in Emperor Maximian’s campaign in 286 against the uprising in Gaul, Carausius was granted command of the North Sea Fleet based at Gesoriacum. His new role was to rid the sea of Frankish pirates who were harassing at the shores of Gaul along the English Channel. Using his fleet, he succeeded in mastering the pirate menace with a string of naval engagements. But it was not long before allegations emerged of the plunder which had been captured from the pirates, that it was being misused. Carausius apparently kept it and used it as pay for those pirates which he recruited into the fleet.

This appears to not only have substantially enlarged his fleet, but also provided him with good relations with the Franks. If this should have been good news, then Emperor Maximian saw the possibility of a rebellion by his powerful fleet commander. If Carausius was really intending to stage a revolt is not known, but Maximian sent orders for his execution.

Carausius, however, heard of these orders and chose to act. In late 286 or early 287, he proclaimed himself Emperor and moved his fleet to Britain.

Britain (which welcomed his rule, preferring it over Maximian’s) fell under Carausius’ control, so too did he retain control of parts of the northern coastline of Gaul. Also, he had the support of the Franks.

In 289, Maximian launched an attempt to rid himself of the usurper. But his fleet did not possess any pilots with experience in the strait and the notoriously bad weather wrought havoc on such plans, forcing Maximian to accept Carausius’ independence, for the time being.

The fact that Britain was hard to conquer was due largely to the fortifications of the shoreline which Rome had undertaken throughout the third century in order to guard the British provinces from seaborne Germanic raiders. These fortresses, garrisoned by Carausius’ troops, now, could of course, protect Britain just as well from Roman invaders as from barbarians.

Carausius made strenuous efforts to come to terms with Maximian and Diocletian, even adopting their names Marcus Aurelius Valerius, adding them to his own. He also issued coins which were to show them as a trinity of emperors; the coins bearing the portraits of all three of them and the inscription, “Carausius and his brothers.”

Yet, while trying to endear himself to the two emperors on the continent, Carausius also went about defending the island against the barbarians. For this purpose he repaired Hadrian’s Wall in the north to shield his provinces from the Picts. But, just as with his earlier actions against the Frankish pirates, Carausius also set about establishing friendly relations with the barbarians. And so there is the belief that Carausius’ defense of the northern border was achieved as much by diplomatic as by military means.

With the creation of the tetrarchy by Diocletian, the territory of Britain was allocated to the domain of Caesar Constantius Chlorus, who was expected to go and reconquer that part of his realm.

Constantius Chlorus (Constantius I), now the western Caesar, marched into Gaul and reclaimed it for the Empire. He isolated Carausius by besieging the port of Gesoriacum and invading Batavia in the Rhine delta, securing his rear against Carausius’ Frankish allies. He could not yet mount an invasion of Britain until a suitable fleet could be built. Nevertheless, Carausius’s grip on power was fatally undermined.

In 293, Carausius was assassinated by his finance minister Allectus, who now took to the throne instead. Though the fortunes of the breakaway state were now in decline, it appears that after the loss of the vitally important port of Gesoriacum, it could not hold out for much longer.

Contstantius Chlorus took his time on the other side of the English Channel carefully preparing his invasion. He divided his army into two squadrons, one led by Constantius Chlorus himself, the other by his praetorian prefect Asclepiodotus. It was the force under Asclepiodotus which met up with Allectus near today’s town of Farnham. The army of Asclepiodotus won and Allectus was killed in battle. This was the end of the break-away Empire established some ten years earlier by Carausius.

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