Magnus Maximus

Magnus Maximus
Magnus Maximus
Emperor of the Western Roman Empire
Reign 383–384 (usurper against Gratian), 384–387 (Augustus in the west), 387 – August 28, 388 (against Valentinian II and Theodosius I)
Full name Flavius Magnus Maximus Augustus
Born ca. 335
Birthplace Hispania
Died August 28, 388(388-08-28)
Place of death Aquileia
Predecessor Gratian
Successor Theodosius I
Wife Elen (traditional)
Offspring Flavius Victor,
two daughters

Magnus Maximus (Latin: Flavius Magnus Maximus Augustus) (ca. 335 – August 28, 388), also known as Maximianus and Macsen Wledig in Welsh, was Western Roman Emperor from 383 to 388. As commander of Britain, he usurped the throne against Emperor Gratian in 383. However, through negotiation with Theodosius I the following year he was made emperor in Britannia and Gaul - while Gratian's brother Valentinian II retained Italy, Pannonia, Hispania, and Africa. Nevertheless Maximus' ambitions led him to invade Italy in 387, leading to his defeat by Theodosius at the Battle of the Save in 388. His death marked the end of real imperial activity in northern Gaul and Britain. After Maximus, no significant Roman emperor (ignoring shadowy and short-lived usurpers) ever went north of Lyons again.[1]



Maximus was a distinguished general who served under Theodosius the Elder. He had served with him in Africa in 373 and on the Danube in 376. It is likely he also may have been a a junior officer in Britain during the quelling of the Great Conspiracy in 368. Assigned to Britain in 380, he defeated an incursion of the Picts and Scots in 381. Maximus was proclaimed emperor by his troops in 383. He went to Gaul to pursue his imperial ambitions taking a large number of the British garrison troops with him.

Following his conquest of Gaul, Maximus went out to meet his main opponent, Gratian, whom he defeated near Paris. Gratian, after fleeing, was killed at Lyon on August 25, 383. Continuing his campaign into Italy Maximus was stopped from overthrowing Valentinian II, who was aged only twelve, when Theodosius I, the Eastern Roman Emperor, sent Flavius Bauto with a powerful force to stop him. Negotiations followed in 384 including the intervention of Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, leading to an accord with Valentinian II and Theodosius I in which Maximus was recognized as Augustus in the west.

Maximus made his capital at Augusta Treverorum (Treves, Trier) in Gaul and ruled Britain, Gaul, Spain, and Africa. He issued coinage and a number of edicts reorganizing Gaul's system of provinces. Some scholars believe Maximus may have founded the office of the Comes Britanniarum as well. He became a popular emperor, Quintus Aurelius Symmachus delivered a panegyric on Maximus' virtues. He used foederati forces such as the Alamanni to great effect. He was also a stern persecutor of heretics. It was on his orders that Priscillian and 6 companions became the first people in the history of Christianity to be executed for heresy, in this case of Priscillianism, by other Christians (though the civil charges were for the practice of magic), and their property was confiscated. These executions went ahead despite the wishes of prominent men such as St. Martin of Tours. Maximus' edict of 387 or 388 which censured Christians at Rome for burning down a Jewish synagogue, was condemned by Bishop Ambrose who said people exclaimed: ‘the emperor has become a Jew’ [2]

Coin of Magnus Maximus.

In 387 Maximus managed to force Valentinian II out of Rome after which he fled to Theodosius I. Theodosius I and Valentinian II then invaded from the east and campaigned against Magnus Maximus in July–August 388, their troops being led by Richomeres and other generals. Maximus was defeated in the Battle of the Save, and retreated to Aquileia. Meanwhile the Franks under Marcomer had taken the opportunity and invaded northern Gaul at the same time further weakening Maximus' position.

Andragathius, magister equitum of Maximus and the killer of Gratian, was defeated near Siscia while Maximus' brother, Marcellinus, fell in battle at Poetovio. Maximus surrendered in Aquileia and although he pleaded for mercy was executed. The Senate passed a decree of Damnatio memoriae against him. However, his mother and at least two daughters were spared. Maximus' son, Flavius Victor, was executed at Trier by Valentinian's magister militum Arbogast in the fall of the same year.

What happened to Maximus' family after his downfall is not recorded. He is known to have had a wife, who is recorded as having sought spiritual counsel from St. Martin of Tours during his time at Trier. Her ultimate fate, and even her name, have not been passed down to history. The same is true of Maximus' mother and daughters spared by Theodosius. One of these daughters might have been married to Ennodius, proconsul Africae (395). Ennodius' grandson was Petronius Maximus, another ill-fated emperor, who ruled in Rome for but 77 days before he was stoned to death while fleeing from the Vandals on May 24, 455. Other descendants of Ennodius, and thus possibly of Maximus, included Anicius Olybrius, emperor in 472, but also several consuls and bishops such as St. Magnus Felix Ennodius (Bishop of Pavia c. 514-21). We also encounter an otherwise unrecorded daughter of Magnus Maximus, Sevira, on the Pillar of Eliseg, an early medieval inscribed stone in Wales which claims her marriage to Vortigern, king of the Britons.

Role in British and Breton history

Maximus' bid for imperial power in 383 coincides with the last date for any evidence of a Roman military presence in Wales, the western Pennines, and the fortress of Deva. Coins dated later than 383 have been found in excavations along Hadrian's Wall, suggesting that troops were not stripped from it, as was once thought.[3] In the De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae written c. 540, Gildas says that Maximus left Britain not only with all of its Roman troops, but also with all of its armed bands, governors, and the flower of its youth, never to return.[4]

Having left with the troops and senior administrators, and planning to continue as the ruler of Britain in the future, his practical course was to transfer local authority to local rulers. Welsh legend supports that this happened, with stories such as Breuddwyd Macsen Wledig (English: The Dream of Emperor Maximus), where he not only marries a wondrous British woman (thus making British descendants probable), but also gives her father sovereignty over Britain (thus formally transferring authority from Rome back to the Britons themselves).

The earliest Welsh genealogies give Maximus (referred to as Macsen/Maxen Wledig, or Emperor Maximus) the role of founding father of the dynasties of several medieval Welsh kingdoms, including those of Powys and Gwent.[5][6] He is given as the ancestor of a Welsh king on the Pillar of Eliseg, erected nearly 500 years after he left Britain, and he figures in lists of the Fifteen Tribes of Wales.[7]

After he became emperor of the Western Roman Empire, Maximus would return to Britain to campaign against the Picts and Scots (i.e., Irish), probably in support of Rome's long-standing allies the Damnonii, Votadini, and Novantae (all located in modern Scotland). While there he likely made similar arrangements for a formal transfer of authority to local chiefs—the later rulers of Galloway, home to the Novantae, would claim Maximus as the founder of their line, the same as did the Welsh kings.[3]

The ninth century Historia Brittonum gives another account of Maxiumus and assigns him an important role:

The seventh emperor was Maximianus. He withdrew from Britain with all its military force, slew Gratianus the king of the Romans, and obtained the sovereignty of all Europe. Unwilling to send back his warlike companions to their wives, families, and possessions in Britain, he conferred upon them numerous districts from the lake on the summit of Mons lovis, to the city called Cant Guic, and to the western Tumulus, that is Cruc Occident. These are the Armoric Britons, and they remain there to the present day. In consequence of their absence, Britain being overcome by foreign nations, the lawful heirs were cast out, till God interposed with his assistance.

Modern historians believe that this idea of mass British troop settlement in Brittany by Maximus may very well reflect some reality, as it accords with other historical evidence and later Breton traditions.

Welsh legend

Legendary versions of Maximus' career in which he marries the Welsh princess Elen may have been in popular circulation in Welsh speaking areas from an early point. Although the story of Helen and Maximus's meeting is almost certainly fictional, there is some evidence for the basic claims. He is certainly given a prominent place in the earliest version of the Welsh Triads which are believed to date from c. 1100 and which reflect far older traditions. Macsen is also frequently referred to in Welsh poetry as a point of comparison to later Welsh leaders. These legends come down to us in two separate versions.[7]

Geoffrey of Monmouth

According to Geoffrey of Monmouth's fictional Historia Regum Britanniae (ca. 1136), basis for many English and Welsh legends, Maximianus as he calls him, was a Roman senator and nephew of Coel Hen through his brother Ioelinus and was king of the Brythons following the death of Octavius. Geoffrey tells this came about because Octavius, the king of the Britons, wanted to wed his daughter to such a powerful half-Roman, half-Briton and give the kingship of Britain as a dowry to that husband so he sent a message to Rome offering his daughter to Maximian.

Caradocus, the Duke of Cornwall, had suggested and supported the marriage between Octavius's daughter and Maximian. Maximian accepted the offer and left Rome for Britain. Geoffrey claims further that Maximian gathered an army as he sacked Frankish towns along the way. He invaded Clausentum (modern Southampton) unintentionally and nearly fought the army of the Britons under Conanus before a truce was made. Following further negotiations, Maximian was given the kingship of Britain and Octavius retired. Five years into his kingship, Magnus Maximus assembled a vast fleet and invaded Gaul, leaving Britain in the control of Caradocus. Upon reaching the kingdom of Armorica, he defeated the king and killed thousands of inhabitants. Before departing to Rome, he summoned Conanus, the rebellious nephew of Octavius, and asked him to rule as king of the land, which was renamed Brittany, or 'Little Britain'. Conan's men married native women after cutting out their tongues to preserve the purity of their language. Geoffrey of Monmouth presents this legend to explain the Welsh name for Brittany, Llydaw, as originating from lled-taw or half-silent. Given that Conan was well established in genealogies as the founder of Brittany this certainly is connected to an older tradition than Geoffrey.

Following the death of Caradocus rule of Britain as regent passed to Dionotus, who facing a foreign invasion appealed to Maximus who finally sent a man named Gracianus Municeps with two legions to stop the attack. He killed many thousands before the invaders fled to Ireland. Maximus died in Rome soon after and Dionotus became the official king of the Britons. Unfortunately, before he could begin his reign, Gracianus took hold of the crown and made himself king over Dionotus.

Preceded by
Octavius of the Britons
Mythical British Kings Succeeded by

The Dream of Macsen Wledig

Although the Mabinogion tale The Dream of Macsen Wledig is written in later manuscripts than Geoffrey's version, the two accounts are so different that scholars agree the Dream cannot be based purely on Geoffrey's version. The Dream's account also seems to accord better with details in the Triads, so it perhaps reflects an earlier tradition.

Macsen Wledig, the Emperor of Rome, dreams one night of a lovely maiden in a wonderful, far-off land. Awakening, he sends his men all over the earth in search of her. With much difficulty they find her in a rich castle in Wales, daughter of a chieftain based at Segontium (Caernarfon), and lead the Emperor to her. Everything he finds is exactly as in his dream. The maiden, whose name is Helen or Elen, accepts and loves him. Because Elen is found a virgin, Macsen gives her father sovereignty over the island of Britain and orders three castles built for his bride. In Macsen's absence, a new emperor seizes power and warns him not to return. With the help of men from Britain led by Elen's brother Conanus (Welsh: Kynan Meriadoc, Breton: Conan Meriadeg), Macsen marches across Gaul and Italy and recaptures Rome. In gratitude to his British allies, Macsen rewards them with a portion of Gaul that becomes known as Brittany.

Later literature

The prominent place of Macsen in history, Welsh legend and in the Matter of Britain means he is often a character or referred to in historical and Arthurian fiction. Such stories include Stephen R. Lawhead's Pendragon Cycle, Mary Stewart's The Hollow Hills, Nancy McKenzie's Queen of Camelot, and Rudyard Kipling's Puck of Pook's Hill. The popular Welsh folk song Yma o Hyd, recorded by Dafydd Iwan in 1981, recalls Macsen Wledig and celebrates the continued survival of the Welsh people since his days.

See also


  1. ^ "The New Cambridge Medieval History: c. 500-c. 700" by Paul Fouracre, Rosamond McKitterick (page 48)
  2. ^ Ambrose, Patrologia Latina, 16–17 (1845), nos. 40
  3. ^ a b Frere, Sheppard Sunderland (1987), "The End of Roman Britain", Britannia: A History of Roman Britain (3rd, revised ed.), London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, p. 354, ISBN 0-7102-1215-1 
  4. ^ Giles, John Allen, ed. (1841), "The Works of Gildas", The Works of Gildas and Nennius, London: James Bohn, p. 13, , The History, ch. 14.
  5. ^ Phillimore, Egerton, ed. (1887), "Pedigrees from Jesus College MS. 20", Y Cymmrodor, VIII, Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion, pp. 83 – 92, 
  6. ^ Phillimore, Egerton (1888), "The Annales Cambriae and Old Welsh Genealogies, from Harleian MS. 3859", in Phillimore, Egerton, Y Cymmrodor, IX, Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion, pp. 141 – 183, 
  7. ^ a b Rachel Bromwich, editor and translator. Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Welsh Triads. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, Third Edition, 2006. 441-444

Primary sources

Magnus Maximus is mentioned in a number of ancient and Medieval sources.

External links

Political offices
Preceded by
Valentinian II,
Consul of the Roman Empire
with Theodosius I and Maternus Cynegius
Succeeded by
Regnal titles
Preceded by
Legendary British Kings
Succeeded by

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