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A split Empire

The Roman Empire was split into east and west. The eastern part is not on this map. Its capital was Constantinople.

The western Empire was further split into the Gaul Praefectura (beige) and Italian Praefectura (blue). Britain belonged to the Gaul Praefectura. Both praefecturas had in theory an emperor, but the Italian emperor was considered higher in rank.

The two praefecturas were merely an administrative measure: most often it was the emperor in Rome who ruled both.


We have coins of every emperor, even every usurper. Why? Because the easiest way to let people know that there is a new master, was to mint new coins. The people could then literally touch and feel the new regime. The mint was the proof.


[1] Gildas wrote:

"A legion is forthwith prepared, with no remembrance of past evil [= Maximus Magnus, the usurper], and fully equipped. Having crossed over the sea in ships to Britain, it came into close engagement with the oppressive enemies; it killed a great number of them and drove all over the borders, and freed the humiliated inhabitants from so fierce a violence and threatening bondage."

Saxon was at the time a generic name for all continental northeners.




The events before the 5th century


Roman Empire

The Roman Empire in AD 395


Constantine the Great was proclaimed emperor in York in AD 305. He managed to re-unite the whole Empire. His brilliant career must have inspired the British upper class. During the reign of their emperor the British economy enjoyed a strong revival. At his death, the two sections of the western half of the Empire went to two of his three sons. One section included Hispania, Gaul, Belgium and Britain, was ruled by Constantinus II in AD 337 and his brother Constans was made emperor of Italy and North-Africa (see antique map). The third son obtained the eastern Empire with Byzantium as its capital.

In AD 383 Maximus Clemens Magnus, a Spaniard related to a Welsh family, was proclaimed emperor by his troops over the Gaul Preafectura, while serving with the army in Britain. Later legend made him King of the Britons; he handed the 'throne' over to Caradocus when he went to Gaul to pursue his imperial ambitions.


Maximus Magnus

Maximus went out to meet his main opponent, Gratianus, whom he defeated near Paris. Gratianus, after fleeing, was killed at Lyons on August 25, 383. Soon after, Maximus managed to force Valentinian II out of Rome after which Valentian fled to Theodosius I, the Eastern Roman Emperor.

Maximus made his capital at Augusta Treverorum (Trier) near the west shore of the Rhine. He became a popular emperor, although also a stern persecutor of heretics.

Theodosius I and Valentinian II campaigned against Magnus Maximus in July-August 388 AD. Maximus was defeated in the Battle of the Save, near Emona, and retreated to Aquileia. Andragathius, magister equitum (general) of Maximus and killer of Gratian, was defeated near Siscia, his brother Marcellinus again at Poetovio. Maximus surrendered in Aquileia and although he pleaded for mercy, he was executed. However, his wife and two daughters (one was called Sevira) were spared. Maximus' son, Victor, was defeated and executed by Valentinian's magister peditum Arbogast in the fall of the same year.

In Brittany (Gaul) Maximus had appointed one of his loyal friends Conan as 'administrator'. Conan’s successors would bear the title of king. This appointment suggests that many of the high-ranking officers in Maximus' army were of Welsh origin, and that the Welsh had supported his ambition financially. The link between Britanny and the Welsh is known. The tradition in the Roman army was that many high-ranking officers were senators. They often contributed to the finances.

After the demise of Maximus, Roman rule slowly returned in Britain. The east of Britain was upset by the waste of money Maximus’ wars had cost. Rome sent some legions. However, the legions could not stay and urged the British to defend themselves (Gildas). In other words: find the necessary money and create a local militia. Britain had to organize a local defense system.

Gildas mentions that the British built a local defense force, and that it had some success. But instead of pursuing, the money was wasted on luxury instead of defence.

In 397 a Roman commander, Stilicho, came to Britain to restore law and order. He is said to have successfully fought Picts, Irish and Saxon [1] raiders. Gildas (not naming Stilicho) also mentions (earlier) a famine which suggests that the real reason why Stilicho intervened could be a local rebellion. This tells us something about the quality of the local British defenses. This time, Rome maintained legions in the unlucky province for a while.

The western Empire remained unstable, affecting British exports and profits. The Empire also suffered from income shortages (taxes).