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                               EXPLORING THE STORY OF CARAUSIUS
                                            By Dr. John Pitts


          My research was inspired by the book "Carausius and Allectus" by P.J. (John) Casey and follow-up discussions with Darrell Wolcott of the Centre for the Study of Ancient Wales.


          The Roman empire at the time was beset with problems of revolts in many areas. Controlling and governing an area of its size was proving difficult and expensive. An era of delegation and devolution was instituted by Diocletian, who was the Roman emperor from 284 to 305 AD. Born to a family of low status in the Roman province of Dalmatia, Diocletian rose through the ranks of the military to become cavalry commander to the Emperor Carus. After the deaths of Carus and his son Numerian on campaign in Persia, Diocletian was proclaimed emperor. Diocletian’s reign stabilized the empire, and marked the end of the Crisis of the Third Century. He appointed fellow officer, Maximian, as Augustus, co-emperor, in 286AD. Diocletian delegated further in 293AD, appointing Galerius and Constantius as caesars, junior co-emperors. Under this “tetrarchy,” or “rule of four,” each emperor would rule over a quarter-division of the empire. Diocletian further secured the empire’s borders and purged it of all threats to his power.

          Maximian appointed Carausius, a skilled sailor and warrior to clear the English and Bristol Channels of pirates. In this he was successful, but when it was pointed out to Maximian that much of the captured loot was failing to get to the Roman authorities, his capture and execution was ordered.

          Casey, 1994, writes "Whatever the (other) causes behind Carausius’ revolt, and these remain obscure, it serves to highlight one of the growing contradictions in the continued existence of Rome’s empire, the increasing diversity of its constituent parts submerged beneath a thin covering of generalized romanitas" (cf Western Europe today).

What we know.

          In 286AD a revolt against the ruling Roman empire occurred, led by a man called Carausius (Mauseus Carausius Dionotus). Said to be of low birth, and a skilled sailor, he is often referred to as Menapian, from the longstanding Celtish tribe based around modern day Belgium and Holland. They were a trading nation with outposts in Ireland and Wales with a particular settlement in west Wales around the area of St. David’s, known to the Romans as Menevia. It must be said that it is generally acknowledged that his origin remains unknown (Mongan, 1995).

          A popular leader of both the army and navy, when Carausius declared himself emperor, he controlled an area that included not just England and Wales but territory in Gaul. At this time his forces comprised his existing fleet, new ships he had built, three legions stationed in Britain, one in Gaul, some foreign auxillary units, a levy of Gaulish merchant ships and barbarian mercenaries attracted by the prospect of booty (Wikipedia).

          The independence of Britain under Carausius depended on sea power, but in anticipation of Maximian’s counter attack, fortifications known as the Saxon Shore forts were either constructed (White, 1961) or previous constructions reinforced (Johnson, 1979). In 289 Maximian did indeed mount an invasion that failed catastrophically due either to natural causes or military defeat. Having lost northern Gaul to Maximian’s advance, Carausius was able to re-establish his rule. At this point, Diocletian and Maximian were forced to accept Carausius as an emperor.

          His rule ended after seven years when he was assassinated by his ‘finance minister’, Allectus who then declared himself emperor in his place. After three years of rule, he in turn was killed by Asclepiodotus, a Roman.

          Casey (1994) writes that "This whole episode made little impact in the Roman world as a whole, and by the time the Byzantine historian Zonaras completed his universal history of the world in the early twelfth century, the memory of events had become hopelessly distorted". The story seemed to rest for several hundred years.

The resurgence of interest in the 16-18th centuries.

          Britain at this period of time was at the forefront of intellectual renaissance. The Industrial Revolution was changing the world and there was a huge growth in scientific knowledge. The Arts thrived with literature, painting and the theatre. In the footsteps of the great empires of the Greeks, Persians, Romans, Vikings, the Islamic empires of the middle east and Africa, competition among European powers to create empires was intense, and the British were particularly successful. Widespread throughout previous history, slavery was abolished by the British in 1807.

          Part of this intellectual growth involved looking backwards, with the availability of printed material facilitating discussion and argument.  Contemporary accounts existed in the writings of Aurelius Victor and Eutropius, who named both Carausius and Allectus in part. Other historians and panegyricists such as Claudius Mamertinus wrote in demeaning and insulting terms such as pirate and robber, and were unusually silent when Carausius scored a major victory over Maximian in 289. In the West, Orosius paraphrased Eutropius and Bede reproduced Orosius word for word.

          Coin inscriptions suggest the full title adopted could be something like Marcus Aurelius Mauseus Carausius Augustus. Many emperors adopted the Marcus Aurelius names. Discussion of the etymological origins are inconclusive; Mauseus has genuine Roman antecedents and Carausius has been ascribed to Celtic or Germanic origins (Shiel, 1977). The only other records of the name other than the revolt itself and coinage is in an inscription on an early Christian tombstone in Penmachno, in the Celtic west of Wales (‘Carausius lies here in this cairn’) and a milestone from Gallow’s Hill, Carlisle.

Later investigations and claims.

          In this section I am going to summarise the points made by later writers and historians in rough chronological order to find what picture can be painted.

          Fifth Century. Gildas, a monk who created the first written account of Britain (De Excidio Britanniae) makes no mention, which Casey (1994) describes as a ‘startling commentary on his knowledge of Roman Britain’.

          Tenth century. Nennius created the Historia Brittonum, a miscellany created at St. David’s in West Wales. He listed in an inaccurate form a list of emperors who visited Britain, names Carausius as Caritius and credits him with slaying the emperor Severus, who died of natural causes in York in 211.

          Twelfth century. Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote the Historia Regum Britanniae, claiming various ancient texts and oral histories and drew on Gildas and Nennius. His work is regarded with scepticism, but was influential in creating stories of King Lear and Arthurian tales. His Carausius appears after the defeat of Severus’ army as petitioning Rome for command of a fleet to defend Britain. He declared himself king, killed Bassianus, Severus’ surviving son, and gave lands to the Picts. This took root in Scottish history as legitimising the territorial integrity of Scotland. Casey (1994) writes that the conjunction of Carausius and the Picts is extraordinary as the first mention of them in Roman literature postdates the demise of Carausius, appearing when Constantius arrived to campaign against them nine years after the defeat of Allectus. Geoffrey’s version of events is that Coel Hen, an overking of much of northern England and Wales rose against and killed Asclepiodotus, the killer of Allectus. Subsequently, Constantius marries Coel’s daughter Helen, and fathers Constantine I, the Great.

          Fourteenth century. John of Fordun, a chronicler of Scotland picked up the Scottish thread in Chronica Gentis Scotorum to provide an inspirational version of its history designed to support the independence of Scotland. The Carausian part follows that of Geoffrey, and Carausius, supported by Picts and Scots defeated Quintus Bassianus, (who in this account was not a son of Severus). When Carausius was killed by Allectus, the unity of the nation collapses.

          Fifteenth century. Hector Boethius continued the nationalistic theme in the Scottish Chronicle. Webb (1906) claimed that his account was “most interesting and it is difficult to regard it as purely imaginary. Its details are minute and not inconsistent with the accounts of Roman authors”. However scepticism of the account was expressed early on, bolstered by the account of a domed building near Falkirk known as Arthur’s O’on, or Oven, which was probably a mausoleum or shrine constructed during the Antonine occupation of Scotland. On the banks of the river Carron it was exploited as proof again of the involvement of Carausius in Scotland.

          Sixteenth century. Translated from the original Latin, Boethius’ work was used in Holinshed’s Chronicles. Holinshed contributes a version of the Carausius story to English history, based on Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account. Casey (1994) avers that after study of Geoffrey’s account for completeness, he “cuts the Gordian knot of three centuries of speculation to reiterate the contemporary Latin sources, sorts their evidence into order and offers a series of correct dates and events and offers an English translation of the panegyric of 297. This represents a considerable scholarly achievement from which an understanding of events might have been launched”.

          Seventeenth century. However, the influence of Geoffrey was passed on by John Speed in The History of Greate Britaine to the next generation of historians.

          The story also involved continental historians who tended to use the ancient texts. Writing primarily about Allectus, Tristan in his Commentaires Historique considers the Menapian origins and concludes that “Carausius, whose forename and family name we do not know, was Hibernian” (implying Irish). At the same time, strange claims were being made by Giacomo Zabarella in Venice, with the purpose of establishing that the Doge, Giovanni Pesaro, was descended from Carausius for reasons of political status. Using Geoffrey and his own ideas he built a family tree to connect these families. Conjecture apart, it is interesting to note that he stated that Carausius was related to King Coel, and father in law to Constantine I, and that earlier a king called Cunobeline had produced a son called Carausius who fathered a line of Carausii with the fourth being our hero here. It can be pointed out that Cunobelinus is regarded as the father of Caradog (Caratacus), one of the two contenders for the historical leader that stood against the Roman invasion in the first century; the other being Caradog ap Bran of the Ordovice of North Wales who, described by Tacitus as ‘unbeaten in battle’ has a better claim than the other who was soundly defeated in a battle in which his brother was killed.

          A comprehensive approach was taken by Claude Genebrier who included numismatic study in his sources, but the purpose was firmly partisan, designed to flatter his patron, John Carteret , Earl of Granville, who was Viceroy of Ireland and so the Irish origin was for Carausius was included.

          Eighteenth century. William Stukely became one of the most controversial figures in Carausian studies with continued disagreements with John Kennedy. Initial controversy centred around a coin found at Silchester (Roman Calleva) that had an impression of Carausius on one side and a female figure on the reverse, a figure identified to Stukely and Kennedy as Oriuna, though possibly Fortuna. Kennedy claimed that Oriuna was the patron deity of Carausius; Stukely says she was his wife. Kennedy published his ‘Dissertation upon Oriuna’ followed by Stukely’s ‘Oriuna, wife of Carausius, Emperor of Britain’ . Their arguments continued until Stukely’s ‘The Medallic History of Marcus Aurelius Carausius, Emperor in Britain’, which became established as the base for Carausian studies for the next century. He had included in his work an account given to him by Charles Bertram, who faked a chronicle that claimed to be by a fourteenth century monk, Richard of Cirencester. In it he constructed a map of Roman Britain, from which Stukely concluded that Menapia was St. David’s in Pembrokeshire, creating a Welsh Carausius to compete with the Dutch and Irish ones. James Macpherson published a set of poems based on his claim to have discovered a set of poems dating back to Roman times by Ossian but based on his own partisan ideas and old Scottish ballads.

          These public debates had some interesting spin-offs. The Oriuna story became the subject of a play by Samuel Foote at the Drury Lane Theatre in 1745; in the same year, Thomas Amory published ‘Memoirs of Several Ladies of Great Britain’ where one character claims to have found an urn containing the ashes of Carausius.

          Richard Gough raised a voice against Stukely in an anonymous publication in Camden’s Britannia but his influence continued when naval hero worship raised Carausius to a British naval one. Captain George Berkley’s Naval History of Britain elevated Carausius as teaching Britain the importance of a strong navy for both defence and offence. This work was criticised as having been assembled by John Hill, a ‘notorious literary hack’ using Berkley’s posthumous papers. However, Gibbon, in his Decline and fall of the Roman Empire wrote that "his fleets rode triumphant.......under his command, Britain destined in a future age to obtain the empire of the sea, already assumed its natural and respected station of a maritime nation". Campbell’s Lives of the British Admirals followed this line, claiming Carausius as a British hero.

          Nineteenth century. The focus here took on a numismatic slant as more Roman coinage was recovered and categorised, culminating in the publications of Percy Webb such as ‘The reign and coinage of Carausius’ and ‘The Roman Imperial Coinage’ in the following century. Finally, the American writer John Watts de Peyster, among his writings extolling the virtues and achievements of the Dutch incorporates the Carausian story firmly within this range. His suggested melodrama was never made, but we can but await Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s ‘Carausius the musical’!

Fading lights

          Casey (1994) raises the interesting question of why, in the panorama of great British heroes, Carausius is today excluded. We have Boudicca, whose revolt barely changed the course of history, Arthur, whose valiant stand against the Saxons at Mount Badon around 500AD after a long campaign of resisitance evenually failed to defeat the Saxon takeover of England, and Alfred and his grandson Athelstan who laid the foundations of a unified England.

          Perhaps, apart from the chronological separation of nearly two millenia, we are left with uncertainty as to whether he counts as a truly British hero because of controversy over his place of birth.

          A resurgence of Carausian studies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, based on speculation as much as the limited historical data, provoked vigorous discussion and outright hostility among its contributors.

          In modern times, the image of Britain going its own way after becoming unhappy with foreign rule is captured in an article titled ‘Britain’s first Brexit was in 286AD’ (Woolf, 2021). Described as a Romanised Celt, the author likens him to Sir Davos Seaworth, the naval commander in Game of Thrones played by Liam Cunningham.

          While his place of birth is uncertain, Darrell Wolcott of the Center for the Study of Ancient Wales, makes a strong case for Carausius being Welsh. I am going to use his own paper in its entirety to state this case.  (click the following link)

Britain's Royal Roman Family

Brexit – 286 and 2016.

          It is interesting to consider how and why the rebellion was successful. Carausius had the motivation as he was to be executed, but the widespread support from the army and navy needs consideration.

          The empire had problems; rule and control, periodic insurrections from eastern and western tribal groups, demands for tribute and the granting of citizenship to any and all within the boundaries of empire. As mentioned earlier, Casey (1994) identified one of the growing contradictions in the continued existence of Rome’s empire as the increasing diversity of its constituent parts submerged beneath a thin covering of generalized romanitas’.

          We can recognise that Carausius had charismatic and leadership, but the speed with which the revolt was joined was rapid. The Britons’ adoption of Roman ways was limited and often localised. Under Roman rule the tribal and regal structures of the iron age tribes were left in place, persisting after the eventual full withdrawal in 410, and it seems likely that the periodic uprisings were indicative of a degree of dissatisfaction with being a mere province of a distant empire.

          Darrell Wolcott argues that in Wales, these families were directly involved and provided leaders in these rebellions.

          Woolf (2016) draws parallels with the British democratic vote to leave the European Union in 2016 (Britain’s first Brexit was in 286AD). While news of Carausius’ revolt must have spread by word of mouth, with access to the media of newspapers, television and the internet, every stage of disillusionment with the change from a market based organisation to an expanding pan-European super-state was available to the general public. The wish for an army and establishment of diplomatic missions around the world helped people to recognise the growing problems of loss of sovereignty, the huge growth of Target 2 financial debt to Germany which had no prospect of ever being repaid, and the north-south divide over financing of the southern countries and the east-west divide over culture. Despite a veneer of democracy where the European Parliament was effectively ruled by the unelected European Commission, countries such as Germany and France ignored and broke the rules when it suited them. For Britain, demands for ever increasing financial contributions sat with the damaging of our manufacturing capacity through the issue of grants for companies to move to Eastern Europe and even beyond its borders to Turkey. The lack of border controls and free movement of people led to public services failing and suppression of wages as troubled economies exported their unemployed youth.

          De Gaulle tried to block Britain’s entry into the Common Market as our cultural and legal systems were different, and as with Rome, we did not make compatible bedfellows. Heath eventually took Britain in under the guise of a common market, although the intention of its founders such as Schuman, Monnet and Adenauer was always to create a European superstate. The loss of sovereignty that this entailed was detailed in the secret Foreign and Commonwealth Office document FCO30/1048, released finally in 2018, where Edward Heath was warned he was committing treason by signing it, as it recognised that Britain would in time become a puppet state of Brussels through ceding judicial and executive powers to what was then the European Economic Community.

Place of birth

          His place of birth is an enigma; apart from the Dutch claim on the assumption of the Menapian tribal area, which originated from the earliest writing of Aurelius Victor, who stated ‘Quo bello Carausius Menapiae’, Mongan (1995) writes in The Menapia Quest that:

          "All the writers since who have addressed the problem have mistakenly read the text as ‘Menapius civis"  .

          The difference is important, as in classic literature there is absolutely no mention of any place called ‘Menapia’. The reason why Aurelius Victor did not write it like everybody else was that this African only knew of the Menapii and Menapia in Belgic Gaul and was ignorant of the fact that this tribe had colonies elsewhere, in the Irish Sea: Monopia insula (Isle of Man). On this evidence, Janssens believed that Carausius was a native of Menapiae, the old name for the Isle of Man. Other theories have been advanced, but Mowat* cites three places with equal claim: the district of Belgium near the Scheldt estuary, the Isle of Man and the area around County Wicklow in Ireland. The number of authors who favour Carausius being an Irish-born Menapian also include two seventeenth century numismatists: Walker*, writing in London in 1672 calls Carausius an Irishman while Bergano on 1697 advances Carausius, Menapia urbe Hiberniae, orindus...’ though John Milton* writing in 1719 believed him to have been born on the North Sea coast in the original Belgic territory.

          A fourth site, St. David's in Wales, formerly known as Menapia or Menevia, was added by Stukely in the 17th century. Geoffrey of Monmouth, Fordun and Boethius all considered Carausius to be a native of Britain. To add support to this theory, Rhys* has pointed out the survival of a memory of Carausius in the name of a lake called Ceris near the Menai straits between Anglesey (formerly Mon) and the mainland. But he also provided quite convincing arguments in relation to the geographic location of ‘Manapiathe colony on the east coast of Ireland that Carausius was an Irish-born Menapian. It is interesting to note where the name survives today. It is not found in the Netherlands, Belgium or northern France, but in north Wales, carved on a cairn in Penmachno and on a milestone near Carlisle. Nennius preserves the name in his account of the wonders of Britain, mentioning a vorago Cerauus again located on the Menai Straits”. (*cited by Mongan , 1995)

          If not at the Menapian homeland, how can we reconcile the claim of Wales and the family tree making him a son of Caradog ap Einedd advanced by Wolcott and the claims for Ireland?  May I advance the notion that both could be correct? The sea-faring tribe of the Menapians, a Belgic tribe of northern Gaul of Celtic culture appears in history in the 2nd century BC and famously mounted strong resistance to Julius Caesar in 52BC. The answer may well lie in the fact that the Menapian area of Wales was ruled by descendants of Menapian settlers in Ireland, who after time had become Romanised Welsh.

          Let us consider another paper by Darrell Wolcott, Beli Mawr and Llyr Llediarth in Welsh Pedigreesin which he first suggests Carausius was a son of Caradog ap Einudd, older brother of Eudaf Hen ap Einudd.  (click this link)  .

Beli Mawr and Llyr Llediath in Welsh Pedigrees


          Who was our hero, Carausius? It seems that throughout history he has been what people chose to make of him, whether for personal, political or partisan reasons. We know little as fact apart from his existence. Low born, i.e. not Roman, associated with Menapia or its outposts, a skilled sailor, a charismatic and powerful leader of men. Consideration of this paper makes it possible to combine both Irish and Welsh origins, the first through ancestry and the second through birth.

          Therefore, it seems reasonable to claim that Carausius was indeed a British, or better still a Welsh-born Roman emperor. The identification of a second Carausius as his grandson, and Custinnen the grandson of this Carausius II, who identified as Constantine III, as later rulers is scope for further exploration.


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