Roman Britain was no backwater: it was prosperous and civilised, and its people were critical of Rome’s bungled wars in the East and porous borders in Europe. In fact, her people felt ready to govern themselves, making Britannia a good place to start for would-be Emperors.
IN 286, Carausius was appointed to command the ‘Britannic Fleet’, patrolling the English Channel to keep Franks and Saxons from raiding Britain’s southern coasts. Rumour had it, however, that he let some raiders through so he could pocket their plunder for himself, and Emperor Maximian summoned him for a court martial.
Faced with likely execution, Carausius gambled. Since Rome already had two co-emperors, Maximian and Diocletian,* Carausius proclaimed himself their equal in London, naming himself ‘Restorer of Britain’ and ‘Spirit of Britain’ – not as if returning to Celtic barbarianism, but as if in Britain Rome was being reborn. “The Golden Ages return,” his imperial coinage proclaimed, quoting Rome’s national poet, Virgil, “a new generation is sent from heaven above.”*
For seven years not even Maximian could dislodge Carausius, but in 293 new Roman co-emperor Constantius stripped the rebel of his possessions in Gaul.* Support at home faltered, and Carausius was assassinated by his Treasurer, Allectus, who was defeated at Silchester three years later by Constantius.
* That year, 286, the Emperor Diocletian had created Maximian his co-emperor with responsibility for the western provinces, so Diocletian could concentrate on battle-campaigns in the Balkans, Asia Minor and the east. Both had the rank of ‘Augustus’, though Diocletian was senior.
* From Eclogue IV: ‘Redeunt Saturnia regna, / iam nova progenies caelo demittitur alto.’ Literally, ‘The reign of Saturn returns, now a new generation is sent down from high heaven’. The Age of Saturn was the Romans’ ‘Golden Age’ of innocence and equality, commemorated yearly in the Saturnalia of December, when certain social conventions and laws were temporarily suspended. The long line was fitted onto a coin by reducing it to ‘RSR INPCDA’, the first letter of each word in sequence.
* In 293, Diocletian instituted the ‘Tetrarchy’, adding two additional and more junior ‘Caesars’, Galerius in Illyricum (the Balkans, including Greece) and Constantius Chlorus in Britain, Gaul and Spain. When Constantius died at York in 306, his son Constantine was proclaimed Emperor at his bedside, and after facing down his rivals became sole ruler in 324, until his death in 337.