In Roman times, a decree of  Damnatio memoriae  was the chief way of obliterating the memory, nearly always posthumous, of those perceived as having transgressed in some way, as was the case of Emperor Magnus Maximus, in 389 AD. Virtually erased from public consciousness in the Roman Empire, his memory nevertheless later cast a very long shadow across the Roman diocese of Britain, from whence he had emerged some years earlier as a self-proclaimed emperor – an usurper, or in Latin  tyrannus – which is what he is nearly always referred to in Roman history, past and present. Nevertheless, he was acknowledged by the Eastern Emperor Theodosius I in 384 AD, and by the Roman senate either then or in 387 AD, which effectively lifts from his name the stigma of usurpation. The fact that, in the end, he was deposed and killed, meant that cancellation followed as a natural consequence. Nobody called Emperors Vespasian, Septimius Severus or Diocletian a usurper, despite each having come to power through a coup: they were successful and avoided deposition. No-one cancelled them. 

Ancient Roman copper coin of Emperor Magnus Maximus (Eduardo Estellez / Adobe Stock)

Ancient Roman copper coin of Emperor Magnus Maximus  (Eduardo Estellez  / Adobe Stock )

Magnus Maximus was claimed as a relation of Theodosius I, and the lengths to which the latter’s senatorial panegyricist, Pacatus, went to rubbish this, without ever quite denying it, goes a long way to confirming its essential veracity. It is not for nothing that both Maximus and the young Theodosius were fighting as brothers-in-arms under the command of the latter’s father, Count Theodosius (the Elder), in Britain in the aftermath of the so-called Barbarian Conspiracy (367-368), and probably previously in Germany under Valentinian I. Many of the people who later served them, after both had become emperors themselves, were also drawn from a similar background.

Missing Maximus

Maximus disappears for a while after 368, but it seems highly likely both men transferred with Theodosius the Elder to Africa to help suppress the rebellion of Firmus (371-375). It is known that Theodosius I was there, but it cannot be proved that Maximus was there as well, but circumstantial evidence strongly supports it.  One of the outcomes of this long campaign and its subsequent settlement was that the frontier tribes were re-settled with enhanced status – almost like mini client states – under the general oversight of a Roman prefect, with a mandate to defend the frontier, thus freeing up troops for more urgent matters, an arrangement noted a generation later as still in place by St. Jerome.


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Maxwell Craven  MBE, FSA, AMA took a degree in history and education at the University of Nottingham followed by further qualifications, in Roman history and museum studies at Leicester, embarking on a 25 year career at Derby Museum. He is the author of several books, the latest being  Magnus Maximus: The Neglected Roman Emperor and his British Legacy

Top Image A Roman soldier keeping a lookout over the misty hills of Britannia.  (Justinas / Adobe Stock )

By: Maxwell Craven


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