Carausius and Allectus

AD 286-296

In AD 286 Maximian, newly appointed as his co-emperor by Diocletian, was in Gaul (modern day France) suppressing a revolt by runaway slaves and peasants known as the Bacaudae. At this time the south-eastern coast of Britain and northern Gaul were being subjected to raids by Saxon pirates and it was thought necessary to create a naval force to deal with them.

Command of this fleet was given to one of Maximian's lieutenants called Carausius, who had already demonstrated his skill and valour. Soon after his appointment, however, complaints were made that instead of returning any recaptured booty, Carausius was expropriating it for his own use. Maximian ordered his arrest and execution but Carausius forestalled this by sailing off to Britain and declaring himself emperor. How this was accomplished is unknown and the literary evidence for the chronology and events of this rebellion are extremely scanty. The main sources are two panegyrics, one in honour of Maximian, delivered by Claudius Mamertinus in AD 289, and the other by Eumenius in AD 297 for Constantius I. There are also sketchy accounts by Aurelius Victor and Eutropius over half a century later, the ramblings of Geoffrey of Monmouth written circa AD 1136, reputedly based on Welsh folklore, and the medieval Scottish Chronicles of John of Fordun and Hector Boethius. Although writing a thousand years after the event, the Chroniclers add many details not found elsewhere, such as a supposed alliance with the Picts and Scots which enabled Carausius to defeat the Roman garrison and take control of the island.

In general they are in agreement, that Carausius first sailed round Britain and then, after landing in the north, defeated the Roman governor, Quintus Bassianus, in a battle fought near York. So little is known about Carausius that were it not for the famous Carlisle milestone we would not even be aware of his full name. This stone, discovered in 1875, bears the legend IMP C M AVR MAVS CARAVSIO INVICTO AVG. It had been reversed in the ground and re-used in the time of Constantius I. His name and titles were therefore Imperator Caesar Marcus Aurelius Mausaeus Carausius the Invincible (unconquered) Augustus (emperor). According to the historians he was a citizen of Menapia, part of modern Belgium, and stress that he was "vilissime natus" - of the most humble birth.

In addition to Britain, Carausius must have controlled part of northern France, because it was necessary for Constantius I, who was made Caesar of the Western provinces on 1 March AD 293 and given the immediate task of recovering Britain, first to capture the port of Gesoriacum (Boulogne). This he accomplished by building a mole across the entrance to the harbour and preventing supplies and reinforcements from being sent by Carausius. In the wave of panic that followed the loss of Gesoriacum the enemies of Carausius assassinated him and apppointed his chief minister, Allectus, emperor in his place. Meanwhile Constantius secured the rest of Gaul and made his preparations for an invasion.

The prime obstacle facing him was the "Classis Britannia", the British Fleet, already enjoying a fearsome reputation for its defeat of a previous invasion attempt by Maximian in AD 289 (explained away by Roman historians as the result of an "inclementia maris" - an inclement sea). Robbed of its main base at Gesoriacum it now fell back on Clausentum (Bitterne in Southampton Water). In addition to the fleet was the series of forts guarding all the navigable estuaries from Portchester, near Portsmouth in Hampshire, to the Wash, known as the "Litus Saxonicum", the Saxon Shore. Some of these forts were built in places with a long history, for example Richborough in Kent, while others were completely new sites, such as Pevensey in Sussex. All date from the latter part of the 3rd century and may either have been built by Carausius himself or were part of the general defensive trend inaugurated in the time of Aurelian (AD 270-275), who ordered walls to be built around Rome.

Above: Unique bronze medallion of Carausius, datable to circa AD 289
commemorating a victory, presumably the one over Maximian's fleet
Reverse: VICTORIA CARAVSI AVG with I.N.P.C.D.A in exergue
This medallion is now in the British Museum

By AD 296 Constantius had assembled two large fleets, one under his own command at Gesoriacum, the other under his Praetorian Prefect, Asclepiodotus, at Rouen. A false rumour caused this latter force to set sail and, when he heard this, Constantius hurried after it. Thanks to a thick fog Aslcepiodotus managed to avoid the British Fleet and landed near Southampton, burned his boats and marched for London. On hearing the news Allectus gathered his army and hurried to meet them, but was defeated and killed. The scattered remnant of his army fled back to London but were prevented from sacking it by the belated arrival there of Constantius.

This event was celebrated by a large gold medallion showing Constantius entering the gates of London and the legend REDDITOR LVCIS AETERNAE (Restoration of Eternal Light).

Above: Constantius I gold medallion showing him entering London
From the Arras hoard, its weight is equivalent to 10 gold coins

Study of the coinage of Carausius and Allectus has always been hampered by the uncritical amassing of many coins which are either contemporary forgeries (barbarous), and the inclusion of misreadings, and otherwise hybrid or inadequately reported pieces. The extent of the barbarous copies should not be underestimated; experience shows that more than half the so-called coins of Carausius fall into this category. As an example, of the 81 coins of Carausius in the Penard Hoard, 58 were barbarous and some of the remainder suspected of being so. When these are removed from consideration a much clearer pattern emerges.

By common consent, the earliest coins were an unmarked series of billon antoniniani, conforming approximately to the prevailing standard of Imperial coinage. They were of crude style and poorly made, which in time improved greatly. At the same time a series of silver "denarii" were struck, some bearing the mintmark RSR. These silver coins, the first issued in the Roman Empire for over a half a century, included a unique reverse type showing Britannia clasping hands with Carausius and bearing the legend EXPECTATE VENI - "Come thou long-awaited" - based on the line from the Aeneid, "Quibus Hector ab oris exspectate venis". Since most of the gold coins from this reign are somewhat later and extremely rare (Note 1), it is thought that silver was used in this initial coinage because no other bullion was immediately available. The weight of the silver coins seems to vary considerably, the range, ignoring one specimen said to weigh 5.96 gm, falling between 3 gm and 5.2 gm. Included in these are some coins which may be contemporary forgeries and tend to cloud the picture. Examination of the frequency table suggests that there were two distinct standards, the first averaging circa 4.45 gm, followed by one circa 3.4 gm. With only one exception all the observed coins weighing more than 4 gm are marked RSR; of those below 4 gm half are marked RSR, with an almost equal number without mintmark. The change to a lower standard, which was similar to that adopted by Nero in the 1st Century AD, may have been made when the first gold coins of Carausius were struck.

Above: Carausius silver "denarius" with RSR mintmark
Reverse: FELICITAS - a war galley with mast and rowers

R.A.G. Carson, in an article published in the Journal of the British Archaeological Association 1959, "The Mints and Coinage of Carausius and Allectus", further embellished in another article, part of "Mints, Dies and Currency" published in 1971, proposed that these coins, both the RSR series and others without mintmark, were minted at Gesoriacum, pointing to the fact that their distribution in British finds is almost entirely confined to the south-east of the country and grows as a proportion of the coins discovered the nearer the finds to the coast. In his view, support for this theory came from the fact that this coinage ceases after AD 293 and around the time that Gesoriacum was lost to Constantius. This view has since been challenged, not the least because the RSR coins have now been found die-linked with coins from a mint in London. Explanation of the RSR mark is not obvious and various suggestions have been made, including Rationalis Summae Rei (Aurelius Victor refers to Allectus as "cum eius permissu summi rei" ) or Rationalis Summarum Rationum (the title of an officer in charge of the mint). However, by far the most plausible (and now widely accepted) is that recently advanced by Guy de la Bedoyere who believes that it is a quote from Virgil's Fourth Eclogue, "Redeunt Saturna Regna" ("The Saturnian Age returns" - in other words a new Golden Age). If this seems far-fetched, he also points out that the letters in the exergue of the medal of Carausius shown above, I.N.P.C.D.A. are the initial letters of the very next line, "Iam Nova Progenies Caelo Demittitur Alto" ("Now a new generation is let down from heaven above"). Such sentiments would be totally in keeping with the aims of Carausius expressed elsewhere on the coins, for example ROMANO RENOV(at) ("Rome Renewed").

Another mint, almost certainly to be located in Gaul, issued antoniniani of a distinctively crude style, some of which are marked with the letter R or, occasionally, OPR and some unmarked. These are assigned to Rotomagus, modern Rouen, on the basis of a large hoard found there which consisted solely of these coins. Most of the other coins of this mint have been found in northern France, though some made their way to Britain. Gold aurei were also struck at this mint so it definitely had official status. Furthermore, although Carson dated these coins to circa AD 291, hoard evidence has since shown that they are among the earliest issues of the reign. A common reverse on the antoniniani is TVTELA (Protection), particularly apt under the circumstances. Although the workmanship on these coins improves it never reaches the standards of the coins minted in Britain, possibly because it did not remain in production long enough.

 

Carausius antoninianus - Rouen mint
Reverse: TVTELA

This still leaves open the attribution of the bulk of the unmarked antoniniani, some 35% of the coinage. That they are early in the reign is shown by hoards terminating circa AD 289 in which they form a high proportion, swelled, unfortunately, by the inclusion of many coins that were barbarous forgeries. If this mint is not to be located in France then it must have been located somewhere in Britain. The distribution pattern in hoards offers no guidance to its location and Carson's evidence that it was in the south-east does not stand up to close examination. If anything it might be located somewhere to the north-west of London. There is a suggestion that some of these coins have been die-linked to marked London issues, but the context leaves the doubt that they may have been found among barbarous coins (I have not found such links myself). If this mint too belongs in Britain a problem arises as to where it might be located, aggravating a similar issue concerning another mint.

The other two mints of Carausius and then Allectus were undoubtedly situated in Britain. The main one, responsible for about two-thirds of the marked coinage minted, used the letter L in the mintmark and must surely be London. The other used the letter C and was originally thought to be Camulodunum (modern Colchester) and usually referred to as such. This attribution was challenged by Carson, who thought that a better case could be made for Clausentum. His reason for this is that among coins found in Colchester the proportion of London mint coins is even higher than normal, where something like parity would be expected. It is also important to note that on some coins the mintmark is CL, which is not a normal mint contraction of Camulodunum - we would expect to find CM or CAM. On this basis, Clausentum does appear to have a better claim, though the distribution pattern of C mint coins in hoards tends to be ambivalent and supports neither conclusion (Note 2).

 

Early Carausius antoninianus - C mint
Reverse: PAX AVG

A number of coins bear the letters S P and S C in the field, with the exergue blank. At various times those with S P have been assigned to London, S C to the C mint, on the grounds of style. Carson, eventually opted for them all being from the C mint (Note 3). Since they are found with both types of obverse legend, they span the changeover and are therefore included with the coins from the C mint. A die-link study of this group could prove the point either way, but for the moment they are left as Carson proposed.

 

Antoniniani of Carausius

Rev: LAETITIA AVG
(no mintmark)

Rev: PAX AVG - London mint

Rev: PAX AVG - "C" mint

Rev: PAX AVG - mintmark S P
Note similarity of style to "C" mint coin above

Rev: PAX AVG - mintmark S C
Note similarity of style to unmarked coin above

 

After eliminating most of the extraneous material, it can be seen that the London mint used seven different marks for Carausius, one shared with Allectus, who added another three marks. At the C mint, there is a similar picture, eight for Carausius, two for Allectus plus the one shared. The key to dating the Carausian issues is the change from the early obverse legend IMP CARAVSIVS P F AVG to IMP C CARAVSIVS P F AVG, which, from two unmarked aurei commemorating Carausius' quinquennalia, can be dated to AD 290-291. From their style these two aurei were from the mint which signed with RSR. If, as appears to be the case, the RSR mintmark belongs to London, then there is a definite sequence for the precious metal coins, of what appear to be heavy silver "denarii" marked RSR, lighter "denarii" marked RSR and then unmarked, then a gap of maybe two years before an issue of unmarked aurei and finally the ML series.

 

SEQUENCE OF MINTMARKS

Silver and Gold

Obverse: IMP CARAVSIVS P F AVG

AD 287- 289

Silver "denarii"
(heavy standard)

  |  
RSR

Silver "denarii"
(light standard)

  |  
RSR

  |  

AD 291

Gold aurei

  |  

Obverse: VIRTVS CARAVSI

AD 291

Gold aurei

  |  

Obverse: IMP C CARAVSIVS P F AVG

AD 291

Gold aurei

  |  

Obverse: CARAVSIVS P F AVG or MAXIMIANVS P F AVG

AD 292-293

Gold aurei

  |  
ML

Obverse: IMP C ALLECTVS P F AVG

AD 293- 294

Gold aurei

  |  
ML

AD 295

Gold aurei

  |  
MSL

 

SEQUENCE OF MINTMARKS
Antoniniani

Obverse: IMP CARAVSIVS P F AVG

Date

London

C mint

Late AD 286 - AD 290

  |  
ML

  |  
C

    |  C

L |   
ML

   |   
MC

F | O
ML

    |    
SMC

L |   
XI

   |   
CXXI

    |     
MCXXI

B  |  E
MLXXI

S | C
C

S | C

S | P

Obverse: IMP C CARAVSIVS P F AVG

Date

London

C mint

AD 291 - AD 293

B  |  E
MLXXI

S  C

S  P

S  |  P
MLXXI

S | C
C

S | P
ML

S | P
C

Obverse: IMP C ALLECTVS P F AVG

Date

London

C mint

AD 293-296

S | P
ML

S | P
C

S | A
ML

S | P
C

S | A
MSL

S | P
CL

  |  
QL

  |  
QC

 

Although Carson allocated a year to each mint mark, analysis of hoards show that some of the marks were are much rarer than others, and were probably struck over a much shorter period. Nor did each mint change its marks in synchronisation with the other. One mark on Carausian antoniniani that was of particularly brief duration and probably contemporary with the previous mark MC was:

   |   
SMC

Another mark, the one attributed to London with just XI in the exergue, is almost certainly barbarous, mistakenly copied from:

L |  
ML

The letters XXI added to the mintmarks circa AD 290-292 were similar to those used on many billon antoniniani from Aurelian's reform in AD 274 onwards, and were thought to be either a value mark or an indication of the silver content.

All the London mint gold aurei of both emperors, save for one of Allectus with mintmark MSL, have the common mark ML, irrespective of issue. They conform to the late 3rd Century light aurei standard of circa 4.5 gm (1/70th of a Roman pound) set by Carus and his sons (AD 282-285). Most of these gold coins of Carausius, except those from Rotomagus, seem to be from fairly late in the reign, circa AD 290-292.

Carausius antoninianus - London mint
Reverse: SOLI INVICT - Sol in a quadriga

A feature of the early coins of Carausius was the adoption of reverse designs which were based on prototypes from previous emperors. Among these were SOLI INVICTO (quadriga) and ADVENTVS AVG (Emperor on horseback) based on coins of Probus, GERMANICVS MAX V and VICTORIA GERM from Gallienus, MONETA AVG from Postumus and HILARITAS AVG from Tetricus I. An early facing bust coin from the C mint is obviously modelled on an aureus of Postumus. This, coupled with the sub-standard style and execution of the coins, is what would be expected for a rebel without mint facilities immediately to hand who had to set everything up from scratch.

One interesting series in these early coins, are those antoniniani that listed nine different legions with their regimental emblems. As with a previous legionary series issued by Gallienus circa AD 258-259 which may have provided the inspiration, these coins were extensively copied. "Roman Imperial Coinage Vol. V Part ii" lists twenty-three different reverse legends and types, each with up to four obverse variants and several different mintmarks, most of which, where it was possible to examine them, turned out to be contemporary forgeries.

Legionary coins of Carausius - London mint
Left: LEG I MIN      Right LEG II AVG

LEGIONARY COINS OF CARAUSIUS

Mintmark: ML

Name

Badge

Normal Station

LEGI I MIN(ervia)
LEG II AVG(usta)
LEG II PARTH(ica)
LEG IIII FL(avia)
LEG VII CLA(udia)
LEG VIII AVG(usta)
LEG IIXX PRIMIG(enia)
LEG XX VV (Valeria Victrix)
LEG XXX VLPIA VI(ictrix)

Also:
COHRT PRAET

Ram
Capricorn
Centaur
Lion
Bull
Bull
Capricorn
Boar
Neptune

 
Four ensigns

Lower Rhine
Britain
Gaul
Gaul
Gaul
Upper Rhine
Upper Rhine
Britain
Lower Rhine

 
Praetorian Guard (the Emperor's bodyguard)

Mintmark: C

Name

Badge

Normal Station

LEG IIII FLAVIA
LEG VII CLA(udia)

Centaur (Note 4)
Bull

See above
See above

 

These legions appear to be the ones that provided detachments allocated to Carausius for his defence of the Channel. If, as seems to be the case, they retained their allegiance to their commander in his revolt against Rome, it helps explain why he was such a difficult opponent to dislodge. At first sight there is an obvious omission, Legio VI Victrix, which was normally stationed at Erboracum (York). This omission, coupled with the fact that the legion was omitted by Gallienus and from a series of gold coins of the Gallic Emperor Victorinus (AD 268-270), has led to speculation that it had been transferred away from Britain, especially when there is no direct proof that it was in Britain after the reign of Severus Alexander (AD 222-235). Against this is the fact that the late 4th century/early 5th Century Notitia Dignitatum still lists Legio VI Victrix in York as part of the British garrison.

The explanation may possibly lie elsewhere. It was customary for legions to operate in pairs on active service. If there were two legions in a province they would combine together in the field for operations, or if there was only one, it would be combined with another legion from an adjacent province. In the legions listed by Carausius these paired formations can be detected, two from Britain, two from Gaul (plus Legio II Parthica as the headquarters battalion), two from Lower Germany and two from Upper Germany. In this case Legio VI Victrix would be omitted as its duty was the protection of Hadrian's Wall and therefore it would not have been included, initially, in Carausius' command.

Carausius antoninianus with armoured bust
Legend: IMP CARAVSIVS A

After the widely varied initial coinage, by far the most common reverse type throughout the reigns of Carausius and Allectus was PAX AVG, in fact any other reverse is fairly scarce by comparison. Most of the variations came in the obverse design, with the use of portrait busts showing Carausius with a spear and shield (though such coins are rare), various shortening of the legend, for example using A or AV instead of AVG, omission of the letters P F, and the addition of the title INV or INVICT (Invictus) on coins after AD 289. Another variation, used on early antoniniani modelled on those of Probus, was the legend VIRTVS CARAVSI (AVG).

Allectus antoninianus - C mint
Reverse: PAX AVG

One series of note were those coins struck by Carausius in the names of the emperors Diocletian and Maximian. These include the celebrated obverse CARAVSIVS ET FRATRES SVI (Carausius and his Brothers), which shows the jugate heads of Maximian, Diocletian and Carausius. Observance of protocol meant that Diocletian was in the centre, flanked by Maximian on his left as the senior co-emperor and therefore Carausius on his right. Among the coins for Maximian were aurei of Maximian from the London mint, in itself helping to confirm the date of the gold series. It is possible that originally there were aurei struck in the name of Diocletian as well but none have survived. Coins from this period can be distinguished by the use of AVGGG to denote the three Augusti (Note 5)

 Above: CARAVSIVS ET FRATRES SVI with heads of Carausius, Diocletian and Maximian
C mint
Reverse: PAX AVG

From the sequence of marks Carson made the observation that these coins date from circa AD 292 and not, as previously supposed, after Maximan's defeat at the hands of the British Fleet in his ill-fated expedition. From this he deduced that far from being evidence of tacit acceptance of Carausius by Diocletian and Maximian, they were more likely to be a diplomatic overture by the British emperor in the face of the hostile build-up of forces in Gaul.

COINS OF CARAUSIUS ISSUED IN HIS OWN NAME,
DIOCLETIAN & MAXIMIAN

Circa AD 292

Mintmark

Reverse

Carausius

Diocletian

Maximian

Gold aurei

  |  
ML

CONSERVAT AVGGG
SALVS AVGGG

x

 

 
x

Antoniniani

S   |   P
MLXXI

COMES AVGGG
CONSERVAT AVGGG
HILARITAS AVGGG
LAETITIA AVGGG
PAX AVGGG
PROVIDENTIA AVGGG
SALVS AVGGG
VIRTVS AVGGG

x
 
x
 
x
x
x
x

 
x
  
x
x
x
x
x

 
 
x
 
x
x
x
x

S  |  C
C

COMES AVGGG
CONCORDIA AVGGG
LAETITIA AVGGG
MONETA AVGGG
PAX AVGGG
PIETAS AVGGG
PROVID AVGGG
SALVS AVGGG
SPES PVBLICA
VICTORIA AVGGG
VIRTVS AVGGG

x
x
x
x
x
x
x
x
 
 
x

 
 
x
 
x
 
x
 
x
x
x

 
 
 
x
x
x

 

The last series for Allectus were small coins retaining the radiate-crowned obverse bust of the antoninianus but only three-quarters of the previous weight. Because of the letter Q in the mintmark, this coin is often referred to as a "quinarius", though there is absolutely no reason for supposing that they were anything other than antoniniani of a reduced weight standard. By this time Diocletian's coinage reform was well underway and the adjustment in weight and size may have been in response to prevailing mainland standards. The reverse type depicts a galley, but the two mints available to Allectus mostly used different legends, VIRTVS AVG at London and LAETITIA AVG at the C mint, though some coins with VIRTVS AVG were struck at the C mint.

Above: Allectus "quinarius", C mint
Reverse: VIRTVS AVG Galley, mintmark: QC

Appendix 1

Barbarous copies of coins of Carausius and Allectus

Contemporary forgeries of Roman coins (usually referred to as "barbarous") can nearly always be associated with the introduction of a new coinage, when the forgers took advantage of public unfamiliarity with the new types, or times of upheaval and unrest. The coins of Carausius fell into this both these categories and forgers were quick to exploit the opportunities afforded by his initial antoniniani, which were of a poor style and execution, as well as the novelty of his silver coins. By contrast his later coinage, produced to a much higher standard, is hardly ever copied. This is also true of the coinage of Allectus and although barbarous coins are known they are consequently much rarer. Illustrated below are examples of barbarous copies for both emperors.

Barbarous copy of Carausius

Barbarous copy of Allectus

 

Notes:

1. Or maybe because subsequent to the restoration to Roman rule measures were taken to remove all vestiges of the usurpation, hence, for example, the treatment of the Carlisle milestone.

2. Another possibility is that C (or CL) stand for Calleva (modern Silchester), which documentary evidence seems to suggest was one of the regional capitals when the province of Britain was sub-divided. North of Southampton Water, a distribution pattern in favour of Clausentum would also fit Calleva. A recent suggestion worthy of consideration is that it might be Glevum (Gloucester), the G being rendered as a C as it sometimes was in this period.

3. In my collection, although the one with mint mark S P is of the same style as the "C" mint, there is a definite and closer affinity of style between an unmarked coin and one with mintmark S C (see photos above).

4. This coin, which I have been unable to verify, is open to suspicion as a contemporary forgery as it uses the wrong badge.

5. Reinforcing the supposition that anything to do with the usurpation was suppressed, these antoniniani in the names of Maximian and Diocletian turn up in later hoards which exclude all other coins of Carausius (and Allectus).

References:

Vergil

 

Illustrations:

Coins on a red background are in the British Museum
The Arras medallion is taken from an electrotype in my collection

 

Amendments and additions:

Page introduced 25 May 2002
Modifications made and additional photos added 2 June 2002
Two more antoniniani of Carausius added 8 August 2002
Appendix 1 and accompanying illustrations added 1 October 2002
Minor corrections and amendmenmts made 17 April 2011