British Museum

Carausius was a pirate, a rebel and the first ruler of a unified Britain

By Alan Clayson - The Independant


One afternoon earlier this summer, in a Somerset meadow, David Crisp stumbled upon 52,000 Romano-British coins, the second-largest such hoard of its kind ever unearthed – and presently on exhibit in the British Museum.

Almost 800 of these were minted during the reign of Carausius, which lasted from around AD286 until AD293, the first ruler since the conquest in AD43 to govern Britain without the authority of Rome – and a much-overlooked historical figure.

As Roger Bland, the museum's head of portable antiquities, says, "This find presents us with the opportunity to put Carausius on the map. Schoolchildren across the country have been studying Roman Britain for decades, but have never been taught about Carausius – our lost emperor."

For nigh on 10 years prior to its recapture, Britain enjoyed the best of both worlds as a unified and isolationist nation-state that could still claim affinity with the greater dominion of Rome across the Straits of Dover.

Indeed, some of the coins that activated Crisp's metal detector are embossed with the motif "AUGGG" (the three 'g's denoting three augusti, or Roman emperors), stressing that Carausius was on equal terms with the other two emperors – one in Constantinople, one in Rome itself – of an increasingly more fragmented federation, riven with incessant warfare.

Regarded, nevertheless, as a glorified squatter, Carausius was recognised only under official sufferance – and, with his passing, his rule was shrugged off in contemporary records as a triviality, just one of around 50 similar territorial uprisings. As a result, an important episode in our island story remained shrouded in distortion and obscurity.

There's no mention of Carausius in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and what might be described as the sole major biography is P H Webb's The Reign and Coinage of Carausius, which is 88 pages in length and was published in 1908.

The raw facts are that Mausaeus Carausius was born of a humble family dwelling in what was to smoulder into modern Belgium. On the strength of the coins he minted, he was burly, multi-chinned and unshaven – with the intimation that beneath layers of fat, the muscle was rock-hard, and that, if slighted, he could inflict red-fisted reprisal.

He began his working life as a common sailor, serving eventually as a steersman aboard a merchant vessel. His career took off when Rome, attempting to bolster its supremacy by employing the skills of conquered people, sought parochial bruisers to assist in the crushing of revolt in north-eastern Gaul.

Emerging as a natural rabble-rouser, Carausius distinguished himself during these expeditions on land, but, a mariner by instinct, he was better placed to rise through the ranks of the newly reconstituted Classis Britannica – the British fleet – being promoted to high admiral after visiting Rome for what amounted to a job interview.

Unaware of any hidden agenda, the Senate commissioned Carausius to patrol the waters of northern Europe for buccaneers, mostly from Baltic and Scandinavian regions. Based in Gesoriacum (Boulogne), Carausius seemed to undertake this task with ruthless competence – according to Eutropius's Epitome of Roman History, penned a century later – until bureaucratic diligence brought to the ears of Rome that not only was he apprehending these nascent Vikings, but was appropriating their stolen goods. It was hinted that he was actually in league with them.