The Famous and Infamous Rulers of Rome – Part 42
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 Constantius Chlorus,
Emperor Constantius Chlorus
Flavius Julius Constantius, like the other emperors of the day, was from a poor family and had worked his way up through the ranks of the army. The famous addition of “Chlorus” to his name, came from his pale complexion, for its meaning is “the pale.”
Somewhere in the 280s, Constantius had an affair with an innkeeper’s daughter called Helena. It is unclear if the two actually married or not, but what is not is that she bore him a son. His name was Constantine.
When Diocletian created the tetrarchy in 293, Constantius was chosen as Caesar by Maximian and adopted as his son. It was due to this imperial adoption that Constantius’ family name changed from Julius to Valerius. Of the two Caesars, Constantius was the senior, just as Diocletian was the senior of the two Augusti.
The northwestern territories over which Constantius was granted rule were perhaps the most difficult area one could have been given at the time. For Britain and the Channel coast of Gaul were in the hands of Carausius’ break-away empire and his allies, the Franks.
During the summer of 293 Constantius drove out the Franks and then, after a hard-fought siege, conquered the city of Gesoriacum, which crippled the enemy and eventually brought Carausius’ downfall. Yet the break-away realm did not immediately collapse. It was Allectus, Carausius’ murderer, who now continued its rule, although since the fall of Gesoriacum, it was hopelessly debilitated.
Constantius had no plans to rashly charge into Britain and risk losing any advantage he had gained. He took no less than two years to consolidate his position in Gaul, dealing with any remaining allies of the enemy, and to prepare his invasion force. Alas, in 296 his invasion fleet left Gesoriacum. The force was divided into two squadrons, one led by Constantius himself, the other by his praetorian prefect Asclepiodotus. On that day there was thick fog across the English Channel, which acted both as a hindrance and an ally. It caused all kind of confusion in Constantius’ part of the fleet, causing it to get lost and forcing it back to Gaul. But it also helped the squadron of Asclepiodotus to slip past the enemy fleet and land his troops.
And so it was Asclepiodotus’ army which met up with that of Allectus and defeated it in battle. Allectus himself lost his life in this contest. If the bulk of Constantius’ squadron had been turned back by the fog, then a few of his ships appeared to make it across on their own. Their forces united and made their way to Londinium where they defeated what remained of the forces of Allectus. This was the excuse Constantius needed to claim the glory for reconquering Britain.
In 298 Constantius defeated an invasion by the Alemanni who crossed the Rhine and besieged the town of Andematunum. For several years thereafter Constantius enjoyed a peaceful reign.
Following the abdication of Diocletian and Maximian in 305, Constantius rose to become emperor of the west and senior Augustus. As part of his elevation Constantius had to adopt Severus II, who had been nominated by Maximian, as his son and western Caesar. However, Constantius’ senior rank as Augustus was purely theoretical, as Galerius in the east held more real power. Constantius’ realm only comprised the dioceses of Gaul, Viennensis, Britain and Spain, which were no match for Galerius’ control of the Danubian provinces and Asia Minor.
Constantius was the most moderate of the emperors of the tetrarchy of Diocletian in his treatment of the Christians. In his territories Christians suffered the least from Diocletian’s persecutions, and following the rule of the brutish Maximian, Constantius’ rule was indeed a popular one.
What worried Constantius most was that Galerius was host to his son Constantine. Galerius had virtually “inherited” Constantine from his predecessor Diocletian, giving Galerius an effective hostage by which to assure Constantius’ compliance. This, apart from the imbalance of power between the two, assured that Constantius acted as the junior of the two Augusti. Even his Caesar, Severus II, fell more under the authority of Galerius than that of Constantius.
Constantius finally found a reason to demand the return of his son when he explained that a campaign against the Picts, who were invading the British provinces, would require both his and his son’s leadership. Galerius, evidently under pressure to comply or to admit that he was holding a royal hostage, conceded and let Constantine go.
Constantine caught up with his father at Gesoriacum in early 306 and they crossed the English Channel together. Constantius went on to achieve a series of victories over the Picts, but then fell ill. He died soon after in July 306, at Ebucarum.