The early years of the reign of Gratian, who came to the throne at the age of 19 were very promising. He defeated the Lentienses at the battle of Colmar freeing Gaul from the threat of German invasion. He also solved the problem of who should rule the Eastern empire by the canny appointment of the very able Theodosius. If that was the measure of the youthful Gratian,things seemed set for a glorious reign as he matured. But it soon turned out that the early successes were down to good advice from the people placed around him by his father. They didn’t reflect the character of Gratian himself.
In fact he turned out to be a bit of a playboy. He neglected imperial duties to spend his time hunting and riding. Rather than developing his skills as a ruler he became an expert bowman and thrower of spears. Of course, indulging yourself isn’t in itself a problem if you are an emperor. The key to maintaining power isn’t impressing people with your statesmanship. All you have to do is keep the army on board. But somehow Gratian managed to fatally alienate support among the troops.
How he did this isn’t recorded. But it may well have had something to do with his fondness for his Alan guards. These steppe nomads with their riding and shooting skills must have impressed the young man with a passion for hunting. But he outraged polite society by dressing up in their garb, complete with furs and carrying a bow. Maybe like a lot of young people he just enjoyed thumbing his nose at convention. Wearing the gear of people who looked a lot like the empire’s greatest enemies must have been a lot like punk rockers dressing up in Nazi uniforms. Another possibility was that he diverted too many resources away from the army and towards his friends in the church, including St Ambrose of Milan with whom he had a close relationship. But we don’t know for sure.
Unpopularity is only a problem to an absolute ruler if there is an alternative leader around. And as it happened, there was. The province of Britain was under the control of a successful and popular general called Maximus Magnus. He was about the same age as Theodosius and like him came from Spain. He might well have been jealous of the apparently effortless rise of someone with such a similar background. But there are good accounts of his character that suggest he was a bit more noble than that, so maybe not.
Certainly as Maximus later told the story, he was obliged to rebel against his will by the clamours of his soldiers. The legions of Britain had a reputation for being up for mischief and so it wasn’t too surprising to find them ready to proclaim their local chief as emperor, and it would have been suicidal for Maximus to resist. The exact circumstances that triggered it all off aren’t known, but Maximus rapidly took control of Britain.
Once this had happened there were only two possible outcomes. Either Maximus would conquer enough of the empire to provide enough resources to defend himself, or he would be defeated and killed. Britain alone could not stand up to the combined strength of the rest of the empire, so he had to act quickly. He pulled together all the Roman troops available to him, and may well have raised extra levies from the local population as well. This was no doubt intended to create the impression that he was unstoppable. The routine was by now well established. In the event of rival claimants to the throne, the big factor governing the level of support for a particular candidate was naked self interest. The position you really didn’t want to be in was being a supporter of the losing side. The trick then was to create the impression that you were a winner. Pull that off and the impression would soon become the reality.
And this was exactly what happened. As the substantial army of Maximus landed in Gaul it was met with near universal welcome. Gratian seems to have been abandoned by everybody. He found himself fleeing Paris and heading south to the safety of Italy where his brother was in charge and had strong forces under his control. As he travelled south he found all gates barred against him. It was a rational calculation. Showing favour to the loser was likely to get you into trouble. He finally found refuge at Lyons. But he was betrayed. The governor handed him over to one of the cavalry officers supporting Maximus, who cut his head off.
So it became a text book coup. Power changed hands quickly, and relatively bloodlessly. Some supporters of Gratian were executed, but there were no pitched battles. By the standards of the time it was a rapid and clean break. The speed of events presented Theodosius with a bit of headache. On the one hand he was basically the protegé of Gratian and to treat with his murderer showed ingratitude at the very least. The precedent of an emperor being replaced with his troops was also an uncomfortable one if you were yourself an emperor. On top of that, Gratian may not have been the darling of his soldiers, but he was popular with the church. Theodosius relied heavily on the church for support, so it wasn’t comfortable appearing powerless to avenge a blow struck against a friend of the church.
It would have been very understandable if Theodosius had refused to recognise the new ruler of the West and immediately set out to depose him. It was probably what he ideally would have done. But he was still tied up with dealing with the Goths. A full scale civil war was hardly in the interests of the empire. When a delegation arrived from Maximus it was received and peace between the East and the West was maintained. Maximus was confirmed as emperor of Britain and Gaul. Rebellions of this sort had been a regular feature of Roman life for centuries now, and there didn’t seem to be anything much to distinguish this particular one other than it being carried out rather quickly and efficiently. Perhaps even this wasn’t so surpising. They had, by this time, had a lot of practice.
But this was to be the last rebellion to be launched from the Roman province of Britannia. At the time, the withdrawl of the legions from the island can’t have seemed all that ground breaking an event. Troops had left Britain to play their part in imperial power struggles often enough. Everyone no doubt expected them back once the dust had settled. Many of the soldiers themselves must have anticipated returning. In England, stashes of Roman coins are found fairly often including from this period. They are usually interpreted as being deliberately hidden by their owners who presumably intended to come back for them at some point. It didn’t look at all like anything much had changed.
Maximus himself probably intended to at the very least continue to derive revenues from Britain even if he aimed to rule it from elsewhere. Later Welsh tradition has it that he married a British princess and handed over the running of the province to local tribal leaders. There is no independent confirmation of this, but it seems like a perfectly reasonable and sensible thing for him to have done. It would have made perfect sense given the situation. The Romans had ruled the island for nearly four hundred years and it was thoroughly romanised. It could be safely left in the hands of the locals. Marrying into a leading provincial family would have been quite in order and just the kind of thing someone in the position Maximus was in would do. In the event the legions were never to return. Without troops, the province was simply a plum waiting to be picked up by anybody who could muster the forces to invade. But in the meantime the inhabitants carried on as part of the Roman world culturally, and even to some extent politically. And this was to continue for several decades. They probably didn’t realise that the old status quo was gone forever and continued to expect that the empire would soon return to bring things back to normal.
As it was, the Romans ended up losing a large and prosperous province almost by accident. It isn’t a very emotionally satisfying end to the history of Roman Britain. You feel the event that made the legions leave britain ought to have been something a bit more dramatic than a troop redeployment. It also offends the pride of a modern inhabitant of the island that so little trouble was taken to keep hold of it. But that is how it happened. The story that Maximus took a large number of the natives with him is quite likely and supporting evidence can be seen on the map. The expats were settled in the north west region of France, which was the origin of Brittany. This Celtic enclave jutting out into the Atlantic is a distinctive and unusual thread in the tapestry of European culture. The Bretons have just about clung on to their language over the years. It is related to the now extinct Cornish language just over the Channel. Centuries of lack of support from the French state eroded it, but television has probably sealed its fate though the survival of Welsh under similar circumstances suggests it may not be completely doomed. Even so, in many ways Brittany, unlike Britain itself, preserved the culture of Roman Britain. Incidentally, if you have ever wondered why Britain is called Great Britain, this period is the origin. Brittany is called Bretagne in French, and Britain is called Grande Bretagne to distinguish it from the smaller one.
So the rebellion and short reign of Maximus was to have a big effect on the history of the north western corner of Europe, even if nobody at the time thought it was anything out of the ordinary. Maximus is not one of the best known characters from this period of history, but some people have identified him as the origin of the story of King Arthur. I don’t have an opinion about that, but he is certainly the last man to have ruled both France and Britain at the same time, so he does seem to fit the bill.