Ahead of his time: Carausius was a pirate, a rebel and the first ruler of a unified Britain

The discovery of a hoard of ancient coins has called attention to a forgotten emperor

One afternoon earlier this summer, in a Somerset meadow, David Crisp stumbled upon 52,000 Romano-British coins, the second-largest such hoard of its kind ever unearthed – and presently on exhibit in the British Museum. Almost 800 of these were minted during the reign of Carausius, which lasted from around AD286 until AD293, the first ruler since the conquest in AD43 to govern Britain without the authority of Rome – and a much-overlooked historical figure. As Roger Bland, the museum's head of portable antiquities, says, "This find presents us with the opportunity to put Carausius on the map. Schoolchildren across the country have been studying Roman Britain for decades, but have never been taught about Carausius – our lost emperor."

For nigh on 10 years prior to its recapture, Britain enjoyed the best of both worlds as a unified and isolationist nation-state that could still claim affinity with the greater dominion of Rome across the Straits of Dover. Indeed, some of the coins that activated Crisp's metal detector are embossed with the motif "AUGGG" (the three 'g's denoting three augusti, or Roman emperors), stressing that Carausius was on equal terms with the other two emperors – one in Constantinople, one in Rome itself – of an increasingly more fragmented federation, riven with incessant warfare.

Regarded, nevertheless, as a glorified squatter, Carausius was recognised only under official sufferance – and, with his passing, his rule was shrugged off in contemporary records as a triviality, just one of around 50 similar territorial uprisings. As a result, an important episode in our island story remained shrouded in distortion and obscurity. There's no mention of Carausius in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and what might be described as the sole major biography is P H Webb's The Reign and Coinage of Carausius, which is 88 pages in length and was published in 1908.

The raw facts are that Mausaeus Carausius was born of a humble family dwelling in what was to smoulder into modern Belgium. On the strength of the coins he minted, he was burly, multi-chinned and unshaven – with the intimation that beneath layers of fat, the muscle was rock-hard, and that, if slighted, he could inflict red-fisted reprisal.

He began his working life as a common sailor, serving eventually as a steersman aboard a merchant vessel. His career took off when Rome, attempting to bolster its supremacy by employing the skills of conquered people, sought parochial bruisers to assist in the crushing of revolt in north-eastern Gaul. Emerging as a natural rabble-rouser, Carausius distinguished himself during these expeditions on land, but, a mariner by instinct, he was better placed to rise through the ranks of the newly reconstituted Classis Britannica – the British fleet – being promoted to high admiral after visiting Rome for what amounted to a job interview.

Unaware of any hidden agenda, the Senate commissioned Carausius to patrol the waters of northern Europe for buccaneers, mostly from Baltic and Scandinavian regions. Based in Gesoriacum (Boulogne), Carausius seemed to undertake this task with ruthless competence – according to Eutropius's Epitome of Roman History, penned a century later – until bureaucratic diligence brought to the ears of Rome that not only was he apprehending these nascent Vikings, but was appropriating their stolen goods. It was hinted that he was actually in league with them.

Maximianus, the latest in a line of emperors embroiled in a perpetual turmoil of back-stabbing – literally – and jockeying for position, suspecting the surfacing of a rebel or, worse, rival, made a cursory appeal to Carausius's honour by requesting him to report to the Senate for court martial and, in all likelihood, execution. Ignored, Maximianus then ordered an unsuccessful hunting-down of this bluffly popular naval commander, who, with the means to buy loyalty if necessary, withdrew the fleet into Britain and proclaimed himself the third emperor. Believing might was right and that the gods were on his side, Carausius made a stand behind the moat that was the misty Channel, and defied the continental Goliath.

The extent of the land's acceptance of the takeover is exemplified by the carving of "Carausius" on a tall milestone in distant Carlisle. Thus we had our own sovereign – albeit a probable hybrid of Al Capone, Idi Amin and Long John Silver – and a quasi-imperial insularity that obliged Rome to make a brittle peace, particularly after the defeat of a flotilla hastily assembled by Maximianus. Next came Carausius's subjugating tour of the north and an agreement with the Picts, who, vowing cheerful assistance against Rome, carried on as normal, looting, butchering and raping across the frontier marked by Hadrian's Wall.

More enduring was Carausius's creation of 10 forts from Brancaster to Porchester along the south-eastern coast. This came to be known as the Saxon Shore for the mercenary crews who, purportedly, earned a fearsome reputation in its taverns, and contained a preponderance of the first Germanic inhabitants of this sceptr'd isle. Ruffians they may have been, but here was a shadowy and guttural-accented link to what was to mutate into England – initially, seven kingdoms under a Carausius-like "bretwalda" – within five generations. The seed had taken hold, but the screams of the newborn Anglo-Saxon child were unimaginable when Carausius was short-listing candidates for what was a Chancellor of the Exchequer by any other name.



The ultimate choice was a certain Allectus, a model of quiet efficiency throughout the prosperity that characterised the Carausian usurpation. While most of the other bullion in the Somerset treasure – the equivalent of four years' pay for a legionary officer – was of the debased mixture of metals in use beyond Britain too, that of Carausius is pure silver. He and Allectus also struck bronze and gold. As much instruments of propaganda as currency, most bore symbols and slogans of triumph and bids for legitimacy. On some, the female figure of, presumably, Britannia, clasps a laureate Carausius by the hand. Others sport the legends "Genius Britanniae" ("Spirit of Britain") and "Restitutor Britanniae" ("Restorer of Britain"), in keeping with perceived native disenchantment with Roman rule. Later engravings even suggest Messianic qualities in Carausius – as instanced by "Expectate veni" ("Come, o long-awaited one") – and promise of not so much a rose-tinted future as the recovery of a wondrous past in "Redeunt Saturnia regna", abbreviated to "RSR" and meaning "The golden age is back!"

Polite society, if not the proletariat in Carausius's kingdom, would appreciate this as an explicit reference to lines from Virgil. High office had bred fine sensibilities, and Carausius appeared to be reneging on his upbringing by aligning with Roman rather than provincial culture, and styled himself as the imperial Marcus Aurelius Mausaeus Valerius Carausius. He also considered it politic to adopt the religion of the Eternal City – or at least, have Roman names for the deities that had informed his neo-barbarian youth.

To Allectus and other intimates, these new sophistications and pretensions were regrettable maybe, but harmless. Far more worrying was Carausius's growing certainty about everything he did and said, manifested most dangerously in his choice not to leave strategic initiative to his foes, but to front exploratory invasions of the mainland with eyes fixed on the ultimate prize of Rome. These proved to be exercises in futility, mainly because significant support could not be guaranteed, even within the area in and around Gesoriacum, the toehold on the continent – which was, in any case, to have its harbour blocked to Britain after a siege instigated by Constantius, Maximianus's junior partner.

Causing further anxiety was the non-commitment of scattered tribes and the incumbent and supposedly defected Roman militia. Despite regularly renewed treaties, the Pictish raiders were becoming bolder, and a vague but discernible general disorder and a constant flux of alliances and factions were fuelling the notion that Carausius, once the subject of terrified admiration, was not merely fallible but out of control.

Concentrating on the possible, Allectus arranged – through, possibly, doubtful collusion with Rome – the assassination of his master, shortly after the undermining loss of Gesoriacum. Assuming Carausius's titles and dignities – though content to be "AUG" rather than "AUGGG" on the coinage – the relatively uncharismatic Allectus was in command for only the three more years it took for the Empire to strike back.

Nosing from the mouth of the Seine during an untimely fog and in autumn – at the close of the campaigning season, just as William of Normandy would in 1066 – an armada won a decisive battle somewhere between Chichester and the Isle of Wight. A march inland by troops under the aegis of the Praetorian Guard and the slaying of a routed Allectus spelt the end of a short-lived but independent British Empire. Yet a crucial precedent had been established: that Britain could be a self-sufficient and autonomous realm under a local overlord. The impact rippled across the millennia – and to Mausaeus Carausius, pirate and self-aggrandising chancer though he certainly was, we owe much.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Ashdown Group: Marketing & Sales Manager

    £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A reputable organisation within the leisure i...

    Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

    £90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

    Recruitment Genius: Doctors - Dubai - High "Tax Free" Earnings

    £96000 - £200000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Looking for a better earning p...

    Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer

    £32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly expanding company in ...

    Day In a Page

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
    World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

    Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

    The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
    Why the league system no longer measures up

    League system no longer measures up

    Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
    Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

    Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

    Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
    Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert