The Revolt of 407

Between 405 and the end of 406, the Western Roman provinces faced increased pressures from barbarian invasions on multiple fronts. The most significant of these incursions occurred when diverse barbarian groups unexpectedly crossed the Rhine River, leading to the sacking of numerous Roman cities. This period saw entire regions falling into the hands of these invaders, with widespread chaos and destruction in Gaul, Northern Italy, and the Balkans. The contemporary witness, Orientius of Auch, lamented the universal scene of death, destruction, and despair that prevailed across all localities, highlighting the scale of the catastrophe. The Roman military’s attempts to stem the tide of barbarian advances were crippled by a lack of resources and the Eastern Empire’s reluctance to provide support. The inability of Emperor Honorius’ government to effectively respond to these existential threats became glaringly apparent. The primary responsibility for managing this crisis fell to Honorius’ chief military officer, Stilicho, whose inability to counter the barbarian menace contributed to his removal in 408.

By February 406, the military predicament in the West had become so critical that the imperial authorities were compelled to issue a widespread conscription call for the defense of the empire. This call to arms was articulated through two edicts aimed at the provincial populations, highlighting the desperate circumstances of the Western Empire. In an unprecedented move, even slaves were called upon to defend the realm, with an edict dated 15 February 406 offering freedom to those who enlisted, underlining the extreme measures the empire was forced to adopt.

Emperors Arcadius, Honorius and Theodosius Augusti to the Provincials: In the matter of defence against hostile attacks, We order that consideration be given not only to the legal status of soldiers, but also to their physical strength. Although We believe that freeborn persons are aroused by love of country, We exhort slaves also, by the authority of this edict, that as soon as possible they shall offer themselves for the labours of war, and if they receive their arms as men fit for military service, they shall obtain the reward of freedom, and they shall also receive two solidi each for travel money. Especially, of course, do We urge this service upon the slaves of those persons who are retained in the armed imperial service, and likewise upon the slaves of federated allies and of conquered peoples, since it is evident that they are making war also along with their masters. Given on the fifteenth day before the kalends of May at Ravenna in the year of the sixth consulship of Arcadius Augustus and the consulship of the Most Noble Probus.

Codex Theodosianus, Book 7, Title13, Law 16

Historically, slaves were excluded from serving in the military, but in early 406, during a crucial time, they were actively encouraged to join the armed forces. This practice was previously only adopted in Rome during severe national emergencies, such as under the leadership of Augustus and Marcus Aurelius (AD 161-180). In these instances, recruited slaves were segregated from the standard military formations, received substandard training, were equipped with inferior weaponry, and were often positioned at the forefront of battles. Rome’s longstanding distrust towards its enslaved population, fueled by numerous slave uprisings over the years, reinforced the perception of slaves as an internal threat. It was even considered a capital crime for slaves to join the Roman military without explicit authorization. Concurrently with the call for slave enlistment, Honorius issued his second decree, on February 15, 406, addressed to his freeborn citizens in the provinces, reflecting the dire circumstances necessitating such measures.

The same Augusti (Arcadius, Honorius and Theodosius II) to the Provincials: On account of Our imminent necessities, by this edict We summon to military service all men who are aroused by the innate spirit of freedom. Freeborn persons, therefore, who take arms under the auspices of military service for love of peace and of country, shall know that they will receive ten solidi each from Our imperial treasure when affairs have been adjusted; however, We order that three of the aforesaid sum be paid each man now. For We believe that the best soldiers will be those whose courage and concern for the public welfare have brought them forward for the present needs. Given on the thirteenth day before the kalends of May at Ravenna in the year of the sixth consulship of Arcadius Augustus and the consulship of Probus.

Codex Theodosianus, Book 7, Title13, Law 17

The decree offered a preliminary payment of three solidi to freeborn individuals who volunteered for military service and were accepted. Brian Ward-Perkins has theorized that the decision to provide three solidi upfront with the promise of additional payment after the restoration of peace suggests a financial strain on the Western Roman government, preventing it from paying new recruits in full. However, the edict specifies that the initial three solidi were intended for covering travel expenses (viaticum), a practice in military recruitment that dates back to the late first century. This measure came at a time when Honorius was urgently rallying for recruits, despite the presence of a professional standing army in Britain. The question arises: why weren’t these professional soldiers in Britain dispatched to Gaul, especially when a portion could have been mobilized for the pressing needs (inminentibus necessitatibus) as outlined above.

Zosimus suggests that military revolts in Britain were driven by the soldiers’ intention to protect the state from foreign invasion.

[Alaric’s forces] became so formidable even to the armies in Britain, that they were compelled, through fear of their proceeding as far as that country, to choose several usurpers, as Marcus, Gratian, and after them Constantine.

New History, Book 6, by Zosimus

Yet, one could speculate that Honorius’ call to arms, extending to civilians and slaves with an incentive of gold, might have ignited dissatisfaction among the professional troops, especially given the irregularity of military payments to Britain in the years leading up to 406. Another angle considers the possibility of the British army’s ambition for greater influence. Olympiodorus mentions their support for Constantine as emperor, attracted by his renowned name and the prospects of his success across the empire. This phase of Constantine’s rise to power is further explored in the discussion on his refusal of the empire (recusatio imperii) in section 5.7.

Jerome criticized Britain for being notably prone to power grabs, and there’s merit to his claim. The region saw the establishment of an independent Gallo-Roman Empire by Postumus in the 260s, which encompassed Britain. Shortly thereafter, Britain fell under the rule of the self-installed leaders Carausius and Allectus. Then, in 306, Constantine I was declared Augustus by legions faithful to his father, Constantius I, in York. Later, in 383, Magnus Maximus, having been elevated to power in Britain, moved into Gaul. There, he seized control of most of the western territories and was momentarily acknowledged by Theodosius I. In these episodes of usurpation, each pretender produced coins featuring their own name, image, and messages, a crucial step for financing their military endeavors.

Constantine III found himself in a precarious position, needing to secure the loyalty of his troops to avoid the fate of his predecessors. To consolidate his power, it was imperative for Constantine to commence the issuance of his own currency swiftly. Traditionally, new rulers, whether through legitimate succession or usurpation, were expected to grant donatives to their soldiers, symbolizing goodwill. These gifts were more impactful when adorned with the emperor’s name and likeness. The production of currency served dual purposes: it was a means to disseminate imperial propaganda and assert legitimacy, and it was essential for the logistical support of the military and the sustenance of public institutions. Therefore, gaining access to mints was crucial for Constantine’s ability to fund his regime effectively.

Since Britain had been without a mint since Magnus Maximus’ rule ended in 388, Constantine’s immediate strategic goal upon seizing power was to gain control of continental mints. This move would not only facilitate the financing of his military endeavors but also enable him to distribute propaganda, casting himself as a figure of stability and authority in regions of Gaul recently devastated by barbarian invasions. In the spring of 407, Constantine ventured to Gaul to establish his presence. However, Gaul, like Britain, lacked operational mints at the time, with facilities in Arles, Trier, and Lyons having ceased operations around 394/5. Reactivating these mints became a priority for supporting his campaign and governance.

Early numismatic propaganda, 407-08

Lyons was the initial city Constantine III captured in Gaul. Despite its mint being inactive for over a decade, essential minting equipment and personnel likely remained. It was here that Constantine issued his inaugural gold coins, the Restitutor Reipublicae series, branding himself as the restorer of the republic. These coins, rare and primarily found in mainland Europe, suggest a focus on the western provinces rather than Britain. His swift loss of Britain in 409 might be linked to the scarcity of his coinage there, indicating neglected military payments.

Constantine III’s numismatic strategy mirrors that of Magnus Maximus, another British usurper. Both utilized Restitutor Reipublicae coins for propaganda, positioning themselves as saviors of the state amidst external threats. This approach aimed at both the military, by acknowledging their role in his ascension, and the civilians, by promising restoration.

The use of the name Flavius Claudius Constantinus on his coins, unique to Constantine III, reflects a departure from traditional imperial titulature, possibly indicating his lower origin and a strategic appeal to a wider audience. However, by mid-408, he shifted to the more standard “Dominus Noster,” aligning with contemporary imperial convention. The VICTORIA-AAAVGGGG legend on his coins was an attempt to associate himself with the reigning emperors, though this claim was not reciprocated by his contemporaries, highlighting the unilateral nature of his claim to legitimacy.

Later numismatic propaganda, 408-11

After the death of Arcadius in May 408, Constantine III updated his coinage to align with the evolving political landscape, shifting from a four “G” VICTORIA-AAAVGGGG legend to a three “G” version, VICTORIA-AAVGGG, indicative of the reigning emperors Constantine, Honorius, and Theodosius II. This change, evident in coins minted in Trier and Arles, marked a new era in Constantine’s rule, one that also saw his eldest son, Constans, elevated to co-Augustus by late 409 or early 410. Despite Constans’ promotion, issues arise in the numismatic narrative: Constans’ own coinage, rare and limited to silver siliquae from Trier, also carried the three “G” legend, sparking debate about the representation of the imperial collegia on Constantine’s coins.

The situation is further complicated by the absence of direct reference in historical sources to Constantine III renaming his sons upon their elevation, along with the unclear inclusion of Constans on his father’s coinage. The numismatic evidence suggests a selective representation of the imperial hierarchy, possibly reflecting the complexities of power dynamics between the western and eastern Roman empires. This scenario mirrors late antique consular inscriptions, where the names of consuls could be omitted for various reasons, including appointments by usurpers or strained relations between the eastern and western courts.

Thus, the coinage of Constantine III and his son Constans raises questions about the visual and political strategies used to assert authority, the relationship between the western and eastern empires, and the role of usurpers in the broader imperial narrative. The numismatic records, while offering invaluable insights into the period, also highlight the challenges in interpreting the historical and political context of the late Roman Empire.

Recusatio imperii and the ‘consulship’ of 409

Olympiodorus and Zosimus recount that Constantine justified his usurpation to Honorius by blaming it on the army’s insistence in Britain, mirroring Julian the Apostate’s plea to Constantius II for understanding. Unlike Julian, who sought guidance as an already-appointed Caesar and relative of Constantius II, Constantine, lacking both rank and familial connection to Honorius, audaciously requested to be recognized as co-Augustus. Honorius, facing multiple pressures including the Visigothic threat under Alaric and the absence of a capable general like Stilicho, begrudgingly conceded to Constantine’s demands. This decision was influenced by the capture and subsequent execution of Honorius’ cousins by Constantine’s forces in Spain, an act that later justified the usurper’s execution after his 411 surrender.

Despite acknowledging Constantine as an imperial colleague by sending him an imperial robe, there is no record of him sharing the consulship of 409 with Honorius and Theodosius II, although a disputed funerary inscription from Trier suggests otherwise. This inscription’s authenticity is debated, with some considering it a forgery, while others propose it indicated an “honorary consulship.” The absence of Theodosius II from the inscription might not imply political scheming by Constantine, as Late Antique consular inscriptions often omitted one consul for various reasons. Importantly, Constantine’s coinage did represent all legitimate emperors, projecting an image of unity absent in reciprocal recognition from the legitimate emperors.

Speculation about how Constantine could afford the consulship in 409 raises questions about his financial management. The considerable expenses associated with the consulship, as seen in the case of the future emperor Constantius III in 414, highlight the challenge Constantine faced in balancing the costs of governance, military campaigns, and maintaining soldier loyalty with limited resources compared to Honorius’ vast imperial wealth. This financial balancing act underscores the complex interplay of legitimacy, military support, and economic capacity in the maintenance of usurped power.

Sanctuary, surrender and severed heads

From late 409 to the autumn of 411, Constantine’s hold over Gaul steadily weakened. Despite initial support in Spain, he lost control there early in 410, largely due to a mutiny led by his former general, Gerontius. During this period, Britain also withdrew its allegiance from Constantine. The loss of Spanish and British territories—and their tax revenues—significantly limited Constantine’s financial capacity to sustain his military forces, severely undermining his status and authority. Concurrently, Honorius adapted his military strategy to confront internal threats aggressively, employing the capable general Constantius, who swiftly moved against Constantine in Gaul.

In 411, Gerontius decisively defeated Constans’ army in south-eastern Gaul, leading to the young Augustus’s execution at Vienne. There’s no record of Constans seeking sanctuary in Vienne or of any public display of his head post-execution. Constantine, finding himself besieged in Arles, awaited reinforcements from Edobich that never came; Edobich was betrayed and killed by Ecdicius, who sought to gain favor from Constantius by presenting Edobich’s head. Constantius, however, disdained Ecdicius’s treachery and dismissed him.

This period illustrates the brutal and treacherous nature of late Roman political and military life. Eventually, Constantine sought sanctuary in a church in Arles, renouncing his imperial claims and donning holy orders in a desperate bid for protection—marking the first known instance of an emperor taking clergy vows. Despite receiving a safe passage oath from Constantius, Constantine was later executed on Honorius’s orders. The execution did not breach sanctuary rights directly; it underscored Honorius’s overriding authority.

Constantine and his son Julian’s heads were sent on a macabre tour of the Western Roman Empire, serving as a stark warning against treason. This event highlights the grim fate of usurpers in the Roman world, where political ambitions often culminated in violent downfall and posthumous disgrace, starkly contrasting with the imperial grandeur once represented by their coinage.

The Ambiguous Damnatio of Constantine III

While the Roman tradition often condemned defeated usurpers to damnatio memoriae, erasing their legacy from public memory, there’s no explicit record of such a fate for Constantine III, his sons, or their affiliates. However, given the typical Roman response to usurpation, it’s plausible that they underwent a posthumous condemnation. Constantine III embodies the Late Antique definition of a tyrannus, having seized power illegally with military backing, thus posing a direct threat to the established order. This, combined with his establishment of a rival government and issuance of propaganda through coinage, would traditionally merit the state’s censure.

The absence of an explicit record of damnatio for Constantine might be attributed to the tumultuous state of the Western Empire at the time the Codex Theodosianus was compiled in 438. By then, vast regions, including Britain where Constantine’s rebellion originated, were beyond imperial control or under barbarian dominance, potentially leading to the loss or destruction of records.

Constantine’s power base in cities like Trier, Lyons, and Arles, significant sites of his numismatic propaganda, faced sackings and warfare, which could explain the scarcity of his coins today. These coins, likely collected and melted down to create new currency, symbolize the only surviving material evidence of his reign due to the damnatio process.

Despite the historical silence, it’s improbable that an official like the grandfather of Sidonius Apollinaris, who served under Constantine, would leave no written, epigraphic, or numismatic evidence of Constantine’s governance. This suggests that while a damnatio memoriae might have aimed to obliterate Constantine’s legacy, the survival of his coinage indicates that complete erasure was unsuccessful. This selective preservation of material evidence underscores the complexity of Late Antique political and memorial practices, where even condemned figures like Constantine III leave traces for posterity through their coinage.