A coin from the Britannic Empire of Carausius – Wth thanks to Wikipedia

In Gaul, early in the reign of Diocletian the peasants rose in revolt.  Hang on, peasants?  In the Roman Empire?
We haven’t come across those yet.  Up until now internal dissension has been common enough in the empire, but a widespread insurrection by the workers in the fields hasn’t figured.  They were known as the bagaudae and their rebellion was a savage one.  The wealthy had to take refuge in the towns that had been fortified against the barbarians.  Meanwhile the countryside was destroyed by the men who would normally be working it.

It is a pity that we have so few details of the events.  It would be fascinating to consider what changes in the empire it indicated.  What we do know that by this time the currency was almost without value.  And the region had been overrun by barbarians on more than one occasion.  If, as seems likely, people were pushed back towards barter and relying on local strongmen for protection then we would have a set up not that different to the feudalism of a few centuries later.  How far had the process proceeded?  Were the leaders genuine peasants or were they the former elites driven by desperation?

I read a paper recently that calculated that at the time of the five good emperors the government absorbed about 5% of the total economy.  The wealthiest 1.5% shared between them a further 20%.  The bulk of the population lived by subsistence farming.  During the crisis of the Third Century the population had fallen and at least some of the wealthy would have ceased to be wealthy.  But there was as much if not more need of military spending as there had ever been, so the burden must have fallen on a smaller tax base.

But whatever the precise stresses that caused it, the rebellion was crushed with ease by the disciplined legions of Maximian.  Peasant revolts have a low success rate and the army had no trouble mopping this one up.  One of the officers in the army of Maximian on this campaign was Carausius.  He was a man of enterprise and ability.  He came from a region of Belgium and was a skilled seaman.  The coasts of Gaul and Britain were troubled by raids from the sea by the Franks.  The Franks had taken to piracy in a big way since the return of the party of them who, you will remember, had got all the way home from the Black Sea during the reign of Probus.

The best way to combat the threat posed by these Frankish pirates was to build a fleet to intercept them. Carausius was put in charge of the project and a fleet assembled at Boulogne.  As a native of the region, Carausius would have approved of the geographical choice.  He would know that the English Channel narrows at this point allowing an observer on a hill in England to see all the way to France on a clear day.  With good organisation, it would be possible to spot the Franks and order the navy to intercept them. 

It was a straight forward enough plan. But Carausius added a creative twist of his own.  If rather than stopping them on the way out, you waited for the Franks to come back with their treasure the whole business could be a lot more lucrative.   In fact you could improve it further.  Talk to the Franks directly and you could persuade them to simply hand over a reasonable portion without any particular need for any of that unpleasant fighting which lets face it, can be quite dangerous at sea.  As a local, Carausius knew the Franks.  It wasn’t hard to come to an agreement.  It was pretty much a win win situation.
But it wasn’t going to be possible to keep it going for long.  The emperor was going to notice that he was paying for a fleet that was not having any effect on piracy levels.  He was also going to notice that Carausius was getting rich. 

And so it proved.    Even Maximian eventually worked out what was going on and being Maximian he did the most obvious thing imaginable and passed a death sentence on Carausius.  But Caruasius had anticipated this.  He did the least obvious thing imaginable.  He simply set off in his fleet to Britain.  He won over the legions stationed there, and set himself up as an emperor himself.

Carausius now had an army and a fleet.  He also had an alliance with the Franks.  On top of that, he managed to keep control of the port of Boulogne, thus denying Maximian the most convenient point from which to make an expedition against him.  The long suffering inhabitants of coastal regions now had to watch out for both Frankish pirates and raids from the fleet of the breakaway province of Britain.
Carausius had done Maximian up like a kipper.  He seems to have been one jump ahead of his one time boss throughout.  His rule in Britain was to be impressive too.  He styled himself as an Augustus and minted coins of very high quality.  His coins had a much higher silver content than the imperial ones.  This may simply have reflected the fact that his years of successful piracy he had all the silver.  But the possession of a sound currency would have been highly advantageous diplomatically. Nothing helps seal an effective alliance like the promise of hard cash.

Gibbon is impressed by this early version of Britain as a financial and maritime power.  The parallels with the Britain of his own time were too obvious to need to be laboured.  He also takes an opportunity to have a dig at the Romans’ poor sailing skills.

  So imperfect in those times was the art of navigation, that orators have celebrated the daring courage of the Romans, who ventured to set sail with a side-wind, and on a stormy day.

The contrast with the naval reputation of Gibbon’s Britain didn’t need stating.

But whatever their shortcomings as seamen, the Romans were not going to give up.  They were anxious to end the piracy, restore the revenues and most importantly remove the risk to the flank of their defences against the Germans.  The project to reconquer Britain showed the tetrarchy working just as its creator intended.  The Caesar Constantius was able to give his full attention to the matter.
An earlier attempt by Maximian had failed because he couldn’t find enough skilled pilots, allowing the fleet of Carausius to easily defeat him.  Maximian was a courageous enough soldier but seems to have struggled with the hard work of planning the logistics of a naval campaign.  Constantius approached the task with dogged determination and meticulous attention to detail.  Boulogne was besieged.  A mole placed across the harbour mouth prevented supply from Britain.  After bitter fighting it was taken depriving Carausius of easy communications with his Frankish allies.  It also provided an ideal base for the coming attack.

Constantius then put together a substantial invasion force, and maximised his advantage in numbers by a two pronged attack.   The British fleet was too small to intercept both, and in the event failed to intercept either. 

As has often been the case in British history, defence at sea  had been the main hope and once an enemy had landed it was difficult to oppose them.  One of the assaults was led by Asclepiodatus.  He showed his confidence in their success by burning his ships after landing.  It was victory or nothing, he had no intention of retreating.  You can interpret that as the act of an heroic man with the courage to risk all, as a skilful bit of propaganda to dishearten the enemy or the grandiose gesture of a melodramatic tart as suits your taste.  A single battle, near Farnham, was enough.  With another Roman force approaching London led by Constantius himself, resistance collapsed immediately.

Carausius himself escaped the wrath of the emperors, but only because he was murdered first.  He had tried to create a small version  of the Roman Empire in a single island.  He succeeded only too well in one feature. The palace politics were as deadly as those in Rome itself, and he ended up being killed in a coup by his finance chief Allectus.  It did Allectus little good – he was killed in the single battle of the invasion.

The short lived Britannic Empire had lasted ten years. Gibbon has, like many British historians,  given in to the temptation to see it as a sort of British Empire 1.0.  It was certainly an impressive achievement and it did sort of show what you could do with sea power.  The fleet of Carausius raided as far afield as the Mediterranean and for a while gave the island the illusion of security.

Using ships to acquire other people’s property was to become a bit of a theme in the history of the island of Britain.  In that sense Carausius can be seen as a forerunner.  He was also the only person from Belgium ever to rule Britain.  It is intriguing to think of what it might have turned into had it maintained its independence.  A pagan state maintaining the traditions of the classical world defended by the sea would have been a fascinating development, especially if it had lasted into the Dark Ages.  But on the whole, the story of Carausius is an interesting and colourful sideshow.   The fate of the empire was being decided elsewhere.

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