Carausius – 287-293 AD

Carausius

Usurper of Britain
287 – 293 AD


Marcus Aurelius Mausaeus Carausius was a man of humble origin who came from Menapia, an area in Belgium. Nevertheless, he rose through the ranks due to a distinguished career. Carausius gained much fame for his military skills during in the campaigns under the Emperor Maximian against the Franks and the Bagaudae in 286 AD. Maximian was in need of a competent officer who could defeat the Frank and Saxon pirates that had plagued the Channel. Maximian chose Carausius for the job and appointed him commander of the British Channel Fleet.

Carausius proved himself to be a brilliant admiral, but was accused by Maximian of keeping recovered plunder for his personal use as well as pressing captured pirates into service in his own fleet. Maximian thus sentenced Carausius to death. Given his prospects for the future, Carausius set sail for Britain in late 286 or early 287 AD. Upon his arrival, Carausius, declared himself independent of imperial control.

The Britons greeted him with open arms and immediately began a campaign to consolidate his new found power. Carausius quickly seized significant portions of the Gallic coast back on the continent. He also constructed a defense fort along the English coast based upon the design above. Today, the fort at Portchester is the finest surviving Roman fort.

Carausius had several years to make preparations. However, the inevitable finally came during April of 289AD when Maximian marched against this new rebel. Carausius proved his military skill once again and delivered Maximian a crushing defeat and forced the emperor into a humiliating treaty.

The first coinage issues of Carausius were a bit irregular, often with crude designs. Die cutting was not a typical occupation in Britain. After all, London had not previously served as a major Roman mint. Early coinage was also quite crude and hastily executed quite often being over struck on coins of previous emperors. Nonetheless, when Carausius declared his triumph in typical Roman fashion, it included the minting of coinage to advertise his victory.

Carausius began to issue an imperial coinage displaying the presumptuous words: “Carausius and his brothers, Diocletian and Maximian.” The portrait of Carausius was displayed along with that of Diocletian and Maximian side-by-side. This issue, although extremely rare, must have infuriated both Diocletian and Maximian.

Carausius began acting like a Roman Emperor. He resisted the incursions of the Picts, repaired Hadrian’s Wall and kept the regions generally secure. He began to issue coinage in the name of both Diocletian and Maximian proudly displaying the “ML” mint mark for London. The above illustration represents perhaps the first gold coins minted in Britain since the birth of Christ. The Diocletian aureus is unique being the only surviving specimen.

Despite his best efforts at trying to win favor in Rome, Carausius’ administration was still viewed as nothing more than a lawless rebellion. Diocletian was determined to destroy Carausius and regain the territory particularly in the face of the humiliating treaty entered into by Maximian.

Carausius went about reforming his new empire. His monetary reform is most interesting. Carausius issued a silver denarius similar in size, weight and fineness to that of Nero. However, the antoninianus was still made of bronze. It made no sense to issue the denarius in silver unless its value was inherently higher than the antoninianus. This raises the distinct possibility that old silver denarius were in fact still used to some extent and possessed a higher “street” value within society. However, this may have been keeping in line with the monetary reform of Diocletian, which began in 286 AD.

Finally, in 293, the co-emperor Constantius I (Chlorus), Diocletian’s junior partner in the Tetrarchy, launched a major attack against Carausius’ territory in Gaul. Constantius blockaded the port of Gesoriacum (Boulogne) and prepared to lay siege. The city fell by a narrow victory. Constantius encountered great difficulty in trying to retake Gaul, but eventually the entire region was recaptured. Mean while Carausius’ main fleet remained in Britain in preparation for what he knew would be a full scale invasion of Britain itself. This humiliating loss of Gaul caused numerous political difficulties in Britain. His chief finance minister,Allectus, sought to exploit the political opportunity. Allectus plotted against his leader out of ambition and murdered Carausius in 293 AD. Allectus proclaimed himself the new Emperor, but he would eventually be killed when Constantius invaded Britain.


Monetary System

MINTS:

London – [ML] Aureus, Antoninianus
Clausentum ? – [C] Denarius, Antoninianus
Rouen ? – [RSR] Aureus, Denarius, Antoninianus

NOTE: The identity of the C (sometimes CL) mint, which struck for Carausius and Allectus, is still a matter of considerable dispute. Camulodunum (Colehester) was believed to be the most likely choice. However, on the south coast there was another stronghold of importance – Clausentum (Bitterne). Clausentum was used as a base by the Channel Fleet in defense of Britain. This lends considerable weight to this alternative attribution for the “C” mint mark given the fact that mints were normally associated with military concentrations. There does remain yet a third possibility for this mysterious mint – Glevum (Gloucester). However, if this attribution were correct, then the mint mark would most likely read “G” or “OL.” The strongest candidate is the city of Clausentum since this mint, unlike London, did not survive the defeat of the rebel state. To date, no gold coins have been discovered with this mint mark.

London mint marks are “ML” and are found on most denominations. Such mint marks thus identify coins of Carausius and Allectus as among the first British coins minted during the Roman era.

It has also been argued that “RSR” is not a mint mark but rather the mark of an official, the “Rationalis Summae Rei” who was in residence at Carausius’ capital, London (Allectus). Additional reasons for the attribution of the denarius coinage to the capital are the existence of a unique aureus with the mark RSR, and the stylistic similarity between the denani and the London billon. While an interesting argument, style may not be an important factor. It is also possible that die cutters were few and as such could have been concentrated within the capital with dies then being shipped to the other mints. It has also been argued by Guy de la Bedoyere that RSR means “Redeunt Saturnia Regna” suggesting a return to the Golden Age.


MONETARY REFORM

One of the most remarkable innovations of Carausius’ interesting coinage was the reintroduction of good quality silver denani similar to that of Diocletian’s currency reform, which began in 286 AD. The reverse legend proclaims “the Roman Revival,” implying that Carausius himself was far better suited than Maximianus to lead the Roman people into better times. However, what is much more interesting is the fact that Diocletian introduced a silver denarius and NOT a silver antoninianus. Late 3rd century hoards often contain very worn early denarii of Septimius Severus or earlier. Legal documents often still quoted specific prices in terms of denarii. Early 4th century legal documents often specifically state “silver denarii” making a distinction from the obvious debased currency of the late 3rd century period. Carausius’ introduction of the silver denarius may in fact result from a defacto two-tier monetary system, which quite possibly emerged. In other words, Gresham’s law was most likely at work during 3rd century Rome. The hoards of debased currency drove out the older silver denarii from normal daily circulation. However, these old silver denarii perhaps reentered circulation at a premium to that of the current debased issues. If this were the case, it would make sense that Carausius would attempt to strike a silver denarius equal in value to the old silver denarii. Therefore, the silver denarius issued by Carausius is a multiple denomination of the debased bronze antoninianus.


DENOMINATIONS

AU Aureus (4.59 grams)
AR Denarius (4.62-3.35 grams)
Æ Antoninianus


Monetary History of the World
©  Martin A. Armstrong