References for Magnus Maximus

Magnus Maximus in Historical Accounts

Magnus Maximus, also known as Macsen Wledig in Welsh tradition, lived from around 335 AD to August 388. Initially seizing power as a usurper in the Western Roman Empire from 383 to August 31, 384, he later gained recognition as a legitimate co-emperor in the West, ruling until his execution by Emperor Theodosius I in 388.

Originating from Galicia in Spain, Magnus Maximus’s military career possibly began as a junior officer in Britain, involved in suppressing the Great Conspiracy of 367, a rebellion that saw participation from various groups including Picts, Attacotti, Scotti, Saxons, and Franks. His military prowess was further established through his service in Africa in 373 and along the Danube under Theodosius the Elder in 376. By 380, he had risen to the command in Britain, securing victories over the Picts and Scots in 381.

During 383, the Roman Empire was divided among three emperors: Theodosius I in the East, Gratian in the West, and Valentinian II in Italy, with Theodosius being the dominant figure. Valentinian II, merely 12 years old, ruled under his mother’s guidance, while Gratian’s popularity was waning. It was against this backdrop that Magnus Maximus’s troops declared him emperor in 383.

To solidify his claim, Maximus mobilized an army from Britain and local forces, crossing into Gaul and successfully battling Gratian’s Frankish allies. He then pursued Gratian, eventually defeating and killing him near Lyon on August 25, 383, gaining control over territories spanning from Spain to Britain. Initially, the other emperors refrained from confronting him directly. However, his march towards Italy prompted Theodosius I to act in support of Valentinian II, leading to a standstill between the forces.

After a year of deliberation, a peaceful agreement was reached, and Magnus Maximus was recognized as the Western Emperor in Beroea, Thrace, on August 31, 384. Establishing his capital in Augusta Trevorum (Trier), he ruled provinces including Africa, Spain, Gaul, and Britain, and aimed to secure a dynastic line by naming his son Flavius Victor as Caesar.

Magnus Maximus’s reign was marked by administrative reforms in Gaul and a strict stance against non-orthodox Christian sects like Priscilianism. By 387, aiming to expand his territories, he invaded Italy, forcing Valentinian II to seek refuge with Theodosius I. This led to a confrontation, culminating in Magnus Maximus’s defeat and execution in 388.

His tenure as emperor is documented in historical sources like Zosimus and insular Latin sources such as Bede the Venerable. Despite his historical significance, aspects of his lineage, his influence in Welsh society, and the fate of his descendants remain speculative, further complicated by his role in Welsh mythology and legend.

Macsen Wledig in folk lore and pseudo-historical accounts

Throughout history, numerous figures have transitioned from historical characters to folk heroes, blending the lines between fact and folklore. This phenomenon is particularly pronounced in cultures with scarce written records, such as post-Roman Britain, making it challenging to discern historical facts from mythical narratives. These pseudo-historical tales and folklore should not be dismissed as mere fantasies, nor accepted unquestioningly as historical truths. It’s important to understand that such stories are dynamic, evolving over time to meet the societal needs and perceptions of their audience. The real value of these tales lies not in their factual accuracy but in their cultural significance and the role they play in fulfilling collective needs, shaping societal values, and providing a sense of identity.

Macsen Wledig, or Magnus Maximus, features prominently in Welsh pseudo-history and folklore, often portrayed as the progenitor of several medieval Welsh royal dynasties, including those of Powys and Gwent. His virtues as a leader and warrior were set as standards for judging future kings, with subsequent royal and noble families seeking to enhance their legitimacy and honor by claiming descent from him. These claims, rather than serving as historical documentation, act as political and legal assertions of legitimacy.

The appropriation of figures like Macsen Wledig, who embody Roman, British, and Christian characteristics, is common in the narratives of the time. Constantine the Great, another emperor with extensive campaigns in Britain and connections to Caernarvon similar to Macsen Wledig, is frequently claimed as an ancestor, thanks to the prevalence of his name. The blending of historical and mythical elements is also seen in tales of Macsen Wledig’s wife, Elen, with those of Saint Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, further underscoring their symbolic roles as foundational figures of the nation and its nobility.

These narratives can be seen as crucial to the construction of Welsh national identity in a time marked by a search for continuity and connection to a storied past. This approach to history and folklore underscores the importance of mythical narratives in shaping cultural identity and collective memory, serving as a bridge between the past and the present, and reflecting the evolving needs and values of society.

The Welsh people, in the face of retreat and diminishing territories, held steadfast to the belief that they were the original inhabitants of the British Isles, tracing the origins of their governance and noble families to Roman and Imperial roots. Magnus Maximus, known as Macsen Wledig in Welsh, is celebrated in this tradition, identified as an ancestor of the Welsh king Cyngen ap Cadell on the Pillar of Eliseg, and is also mentioned in the lineage of The Five Royal Tribes of Wales and The Fifteen Tribes of Gwynedd. While some sources link his ancestry to Constantius Chlorus, portraying him as a son or relative of a younger son of Constantine, others suggest ties to Theodosius or propose a more humble background for him.

Geoffrey of Monmouth’s “Historia Regum Britanniae” presents Macsen Wledig as the ruler of the Britons following Octavius’s death, with narratives highlighting his marriage to a noble Welsh woman, Elen Luyddog, daughter of a chief in Segontium (modern-day Caernarfon) named Eudaf, as pivotal for his ascension to the British throne. This union is central to both Geoffrey’s account and the tale “Breuddwyd Macsen” (The Dream of Macsen Wledig), framing Macsen as integrating into Welsh nobility and laying the groundwork for several royal Welsh houses.

As king, Macsen Wledig led a grand campaign to Gaul with a formidable force, leaving Britain under Caradocus’s stewardship. His conquests in Armorica (later Brittany) culminated in appointing Octavius’s nephew, Conanus, as the region’s governor, setting the stage for a Welsh presence in Brittany marked by a peculiar tale of preserving the Welsh language by ensuring the silence of their brides.

The historical trace of Macsen’s descendants post-mortem remains murky, with the exception of his son Flavius Victor. Notable among his possible descendants are Sevira, who may have married King Vortigern as per the Pillar of Eliseg, and potentially another daughter who wed Ennodius, Proconsul of Africa. This lineage seemingly extends to Petronius Maximus, a briefly reigning Roman Emperor, and possibly to Anicius Olybrius, Emperor in 472.

In Welsh lore, the union of Vortigern and Sevira birthed children that led to the foundation of the Powys royal dynasty. However, Vortigern’s alliance with Anglo-Saxon mercenaries Hengist and Horsa, meant to counter Pictish and Scottish threats, disastrously enabled an Anglo-Saxon takeover of Britain. Vortigern’s flight to Wales ended with his assassination by Ambrosianus, yet his progeny perpetuated the early kingship of Powys. This complex interweaving of history, myth, and legend exemplifies the profound role Macsen Wledig and his descendants play in the cultural and royal heritage of Wales.

An overview of sources for Magnus Maximus

The Pillar of Eliseg, known in Welsh as Croes Elisedd, is situated near Valle Crucis Abbey in Denbighshire, Wales. Erected in the ninth century by Cyngen ap Cadell, the monarch of Powys, this monument pays tribute to his great-grandfather, Elisedd ap Gwylog. The pillar features a Latin inscription that outlines Cyngen’s lineage, connecting him to notable figures such as Macsen Wledig and Vortigern, with several mentioned individuals corroborated by the “Historia Brittonum.” While the inscription has suffered extensive damage over the centuries, its contents were fortunately preserved by Edward Lhuyd, who documented them in 1696.

Pillar_of_Eliseg - Pillar of Eliseg

Concenn son of Cattell, Cattell son of Brochmail, Brochmail son of Eliseg, Eliseg son of Guoillauc.
And that Concenn, great-grandson of Eliseg, erected this stone for his great-grandfather Eliseg.
The same Eliseg, who joined together the inheritance of Powys … throughout nine (years?) out of the power of the Angles with his sword and with fire.
Whosoever shall read this hand-inscribed stone, let him give a blessing on the soul of Eliseg.
This is that Concenn who … with his hand … to his kingdom of Powys … and which … the mountain
[the column is broken here. One line, possibly more, lost]
… the monarchy … Maximus … of Britain … Concenn, Pascent, Maun, Annan … Britu son of Vortigern, whom Germanus blessed, and whom Sevira bore to him, daughter of Maximus the king, who killed the king of the Romans.
Conmarch painted this writing at the request of king Concenn.
The blessing of the Lord be upon Concenn and upon his entire household, and upon the entire region of Powys until …

Concenn filius Cattell Cattell / filius Brohcmail Brohcmal filius / Eliseg Eliseg filius Guoillauc Concenn itaque pronepos Eliseg / edificauit hunc lapidem proauo / suo Eliseg Ipse est Eliseg qui nec/xit(?) hereditatem Pouos … mort / c autem(?) per uim …e potestate Anglo/[rum]…in gladio suo parta in igne / Quicu]mque recit(a)uerit manescr[i]p/[tum] … m det benedictionem supe/[r animam] Eliseg Ipse est Concenn /……… … manu / ……… e ad regnum suum Pouos / …… …… et quod / …… … …… / …… …… montem /… ………… /……… … monarchiam / … … ail Maximus Brittanniae / … nn Pascen[t] … Mau[n] Annan / … Britu a[u]t[e]m filius Guarthi/[girn] que(m) bened[ixit] Germanus que(m) / … peperit ei Se[v]ira filia Maximi / [re]gis qui occidit regem Romano/rum Conmarch pinxit hoc / chirografu(m) rege suo poscente / Concenn Benedictio d(omi)ni in Con/cenn et s(imilite)r(?) i(n) tota familia eius / et in(?) tota ragione(m?) Pouois / usque in …

Historia Nova, Book IV, Zosimus c. 500

Zosimus, a historian from the Byzantine era, resided in Constantinople throughout the rule of Emperor Anastasius I. His work, “Historia Nova,” spanning six volumes, chronicles the Roman empire’s history from the reign of Augustus up to the year 410. For the historical segment between 270 and 404, it appears he mainly drew upon the writings of Eunapius, a Greek sophist and historian active in the late fourth century.

Zosimus tell us that, Emperor Gratian’s situation was deteriorating due to poor counsel from his courtiers. He made the controversial decision to incorporate Alani fugitives into his army, bestowing upon them significant honors and trusting them with crucial secrets, much to the dismay of his own troops. This decision fostered deep resentment among his soldiers, especially those stationed in Britain, who were already primed for rebellion. Encouraged by Maximus, a Spaniard and former comrade of Theodosius in Britain, who was discontent with not receiving recognition comparable to Theodosius, the soldiers’ animosity towards Gratian intensified. Viewing Maximus as a more suitable leader, they revolted, proclaimed him emperor, and advanced towards the Rhine, where their decision found support. As Gratian’s forces dwindled due to defections, he fled towards the Alps, hoping to find refuge but was eventually caught and killed by Andragathius, a loyalist to Maximus. This act solidified Maximus’ claim to the throne.

While the affairs of Thrace were thus situated, those of Gratian were in great perplexity. Having accepted the counsel of those courtiers who usually corrupt the manners of princes, he gave a reception to some fugitives called Alani, whom he not only introduced into his army, but honoured with valuable presents, and confided to them his most important secrets, esteeming his own soldiers of little value. This produced among his soldiers a violent hatred against him, which being gradually inflamed and augmented incited in them a disposition for innovation, and most particularly in that part of them which was in Britain, since they were the most resolute and vindictive. In this spirit they were encouraged by Maximus, a Spaniard, who had been the fellow-soldier of Theodosius in Britain. He was offended that Theodosius should be thought worthy of being made emperor, while he himself had no honourable employment. He therefore cherished the animosity of the soldiers towards the emperor. They were thus easily induced to revolt and to declare Maximus emperor. Having presented to him the purple robe and the diadem, they sailed to the mouth of the Rhine. As the German army, and all who were in that quarter approved of the election, Gratian prepared to contend against Maximus, with a considerable part of the army which still adhered to him. When the armies met, there were only slight skirmishes for five days; until Gratian, perceiving that the Mauritanian cavalry first deserted from him and declared Maximus Augustus, and afterwards that the remainder of his troops by degrees espoused the cause of his antagonist, relinquished all hope, and fled with three hundred horse to the Alps. Finding those regions without defence, he proceeded towards Rhaetia, Noricum, Pannonia, and the Upper Moesia. When Maximus was informed of his route, he was not negligent of the opportunity, but detached Andragathius, commander of the cavalry, who was his faithful adherent, in pursuit of Gratian. This officer followed him with so great speed, that he overtook him when he was passing the bridge at Sigidunus, and put him to death. By which exploit he confirmed the authority of Maximus.

New History, Book 4

Following the end of Gratian’s reign, Maximus solidified his position in the empire and approached Emperor Theodosius not with apologies for his actions against Gratian but with a bold proposal. He sent a trusted imperial chamberlain with an offer of alliance against any enemies of Rome, coupled with a threat of war should Theodosius refuse. Theodosius responded by acknowledging Maximus as a co-emperor, honoring him with statues and the imperial title, while secretly preparing for conflict and attempting to mislead Maximus with flattery. He instructed Cynegius, the prefect sent to Egypt to end pagan worship, to publicly display Maximus’ statue in Alexandria as a symbol of their shared rule. This act was part of Theodosius’ broader effort to close pagan temples and end traditional sacrifices throughout the East, Egypt, and Alexandria, actions that had significant repercussions for the Roman Empire.

The reign of Gratian being thus terminated, Maximus, who now considered himself firmly fixed in the empire, sent an embassy to the emperor Theodosius, not to intreat pardon for his treatment of Gratian, but rather to increase his provocations. The person employed in this mission was the imperial chamberlain (for Maximus would not suffer an eunuch to preside in his court), a prudent person, with whom he had been familiarly acquainted from his infancy. The purport of his mission was to propose to Theodosius a treaty of amity, and of alliance, against all enemies who should make war on the Romans, and on refusal, to declare against him open hostility. Upon this, Theodosius admitted Maximus to a share in the empire, and in the honour of his statues and his imperial title. Nevertheless, he was at the same time privately preparing for war, and endeavouring to deceive Maximus by every species of flattery and observance. He gave instructions to Cynegius, the prefect of his court, whom he had sent into Egypt in order to prohibit there all worship of the gods, and to shut up their temples, that he should shew the statue of Maximus to the Alexandrians, and erect it in some public place, declaring to the people, that he was associated to himself in the empire. In this Cynegius obeyed his commands, closing up the doors of the temples throughout the east, Egypt, and Alexandria, and prohibited all their ancient sacrifices and customary observances. As to the calamities which the Roman empire suffered from that period, a distinct account of the facts themselves will be the best demonstration.

New History, Book 4

He goes on to tell of Maximus’ machinations against Emperor Valentinian, harbouring ambitions that surpass his current standing and eyeing the entirety of the empire. His overtures to Theodosius, hidden under a façade of diplomacy, belie a preparation for war. Theodosius’ response, a blend of strategic patience and covert mobilization, culminates in a marital alliance with Justina’s daughter, Galla, propelled by both affection and political calculus.

Maximus’ audacious move through formidable terrain into Italy brings Valentinian to a desperate flight to Thessalonica, seeking Theodosius’ intervention. The narrative intricately details the machinations, betrayals, and naval pursuits that precede the decisive confrontation between Theodosius and Maximus. The outcome is Maximus’ execution, the restoration of Valentinian to power, and the consolidation of Theodosius’ authority, marking a significant reordering of power dynamics within the empire. The aftermath sees strategic reassignments, the integration of Maximus’ forces, and the tragic end of Andragathius, highlighting the complex interplay of ambition, loyalty, and the relentless pursuit of power.

De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, Gildas c. 540

“De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae” (“On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain”), penned by the 6th-century British cleric St Gildas, stands as a pivotal early document detailing the condition of Britain during the post-Roman era. Cast in the form of a sermon, it sharply criticizes the era’s leaders for Britain’s dire circumstances. Notably, it casts Magnus Maximus in a negative light, accusing him of stripping Britain of its most promising young leaders and warriors.

Chapter 13: The tyranni, particularly Maximus.

[13] At length also, new races of tyrants sprang up, in terrific numbers, and the island, still bearing its Roman name, but casting off her institutes and laws, sent forth among the Gauls that bitter scion of her own planting Maximus, with a great number of followers, and the ensigns of royalty, which he bore without decency and without lawful right, but in a tyrannical manner, and amid the disturbances of the seditious soldiery. He, by cunning arts rather than by valour, attaching to his rule, by perjury and falsehood, all the neighbouring towns and provinces, against the Roman state, extended one of his wings to Spain, the other to Italy, fixed the seat of his unholy government at Treves, and so furiously pushed his rebellion against his lawful emperors that he drove one of them out of Rome, and caused the other to terminate his most holy life. Trusting to these successful attempts, he not long after lost his accursed head before the walls of Aquileia, whereas he had before cut off the crowned heads of almost all the world.

Chapter 14: Picts and Scots.

[14] After this, Britain is left deprived of all her soldiery and armed bands, of her cruel governors, and of the flower of her youth, who went with Maximus, but never again returned; and utterly ignorant as she was of the art of war, groaned in amazement for many years under the cruelty of two foreign nations—the Scots from the north-west, and the Picts from the north.

Gildas: On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain (De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae)

Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, Bede, c. 731

Bede the Venerable, an English monk renowned for his contributions to science, history, and theology, mentions Magnus Maximus in his most famous work, “Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum.”

In the year of our Lord’s incarnation, 377, Gratian, the fortieth from Augustus, held the empire six years after the death of Valens; though he had long before reigned with his uncle Valens, and his brother Valentinian. Finding the state of the commonwealth much impaired, and almost gone to ruin, he looked around for some one whose abilities might remedy the existing evils; and his choice fell on Theodosius, a Spaniard. Him he invested at Sirmium with the royal robes, and made him emperor of Thrace and the Eastern provinces. At which time, Maximus, a man of valour and probity, and worthy to be an emperor, if he had not broken the oath of allegiance which he had taken, was made emperor by the army, passed over into Gaul, and there by treachery slew the Emperor Gratian, who was in a consternation at his sudden invasion, and attempting to escape into Italy. His brother, Valentinian, expelled from Italy, fled into the East, where he was entertained by Theodosius with fatherly affection, and soon restored to the empire. Maximus the tyrant, being shut up in Aquileia, was there taken and put to death.

Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of England, Chapter IX

Historia Brittonum, Nennius, c.828

“The Historia Brittonum,” often attributed to the Welsh monk Nennius, chronicles the history of the British Isles from its legendary founding by Trojan warriors. Alongside mentions of Magnus Maximus, it contains the earliest known reference to King Arthur.

27. The seventh emperor was Maximus. He withdrew from Britain with all his military force, slew Gratian, the king of the Romans, and obtained the sovereignty of all Europe. Unwilling to send back his warlike companions to their wives, children and possessions in Britain, he conferred upon them numerous districts from the lake on the summit of Mons Jovis, to the city called Cant Guic, and to the western Tumulus, that is, to Cruc Occident. These are the Armoric Britons, and they remain there to the present day. In consequence of their absence, Britain being overcome by foreign nations, the lawful heirs were cast out, till God interposed with his assistance. We are informed by the tradition of our ancestors that seven emperors went into Britain, though the Romans affirm there were nine.

Nennius’ Historia Brittonum

29. We must now return to the tyrant Maximus. Gratian, with his brother Valentinian, reigned seven years. Ambrose, bishop of Milan, was then eminent for his skill in the dogmata of the Catholics. Valentinianus and Theodosius reigned eight years. At that time a synod was held at Constantinople, attended by three hundred and fifty of the fathers, and in which all heresies were condemned. Jerome, the presbyter of Bethlehem, was then universally celebrated. Whilst Gratian exercised supreme dominion over the world, Maximus, in a sedition of the soldiers, was saluted emperor in Britain, and soon after crossed the sea to Gaul. At Paris, by the treachery of Mellobaudes, his master of the horse, Gratian was defeated, and fleeing to Lyons, was taken and put to death; Maximus afterwards associated his son Victor in the government.

Martin, distinguished for his great virtues, was at this period bishop of Tours. After a considerable space of time, Maximus was divested of royal power by the consuls Valentinianus and Theodosius, and sentenced to be beheaded at the third mile-stone from Aquileia; in the same year also his son Victor was killed in Gaul by Arbogastes, five thousand six hundred and ninety years from the creation of the world.

Nennius’ Historia Brittonum

Breuddwyd Macsen, The dream of Macsen Wledig, 11th century

In the story, Emperor Macsen Wledig of Rome is haunted by visions of a strikingly beautiful woman. Compelled to find her, he dispatches emissaries across the globe. They eventually discover her in a British castle, the daughter of a chieftain from Segontium (present-day Caernarvon). Her name is Helen. Her father is granted rulership over Britain as part of the marriage agreement. During this time, Rome falls under new leadership. To reclaim his throne, Macsen assembles an army, including Helen’s brother Conanus, from Britain. They journey through Gaul and Italy, successfully overthrowing the usurper and reinstating Macsen. In gratitude, Macsen endows his British allies with territories in Gaul, which come to be known as Brittany. See The Dream of Macsen Wledig.

Historia regum Britanniae, Geoffroy de Monmouth, c. 1136

Geoffrey of Monmouth’s “Historia Regum Britanniae” (“The History of the Kings of Britain”), penned around 1136, spins a narrative spanning two millennia of British history, from the Trojans’ establishment of Britain to the 7th century. Although it references events corroborated by more credible sources, the text is largely considered inaccurate. It includes seven chapters on Magnus Maximus (misidentified as Maximianus) and features tales of King Lear and King Arthur.

King Octavius of Britain, who, lacking a male heir and only having a daughter, sought counsel on his successor. Duke Caradoc of Cornwall proposed marrying her to Maximian, a senator with British and Roman royal lineage, offering a path to lasting peace due to his connections.

While these things were in agitation among them, there came Caradoc, duke of Cornwall, and gave his advice to invite over Maximian the senator, and to bestow the lady with the kingdom upon him, which would be a means of securing to them a lasting peace.

Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, Chap.IX

Maximus comes to the island to marry the king’s daughter and subsequently inherit the kingdom. Maximus, who had a notable military career and was in contention with Roman emperors Gratian and Valentinian, saw this as an opportunity to strengthen his claim to power. Upon arriving in Britain, Maximus was initially perceived as an invader by Octavius, leading to preparations for war. However, through strategic diplomacy and showcasing his connection to the Roman emperors, Maximus was able to secure peace and proceed to London, where he met with King Octavius and was eventually granted the kingdom and the king’s daughter in marriage.

The Five Royal Tribes of Wales and The Fifteen Tribes of Gwynedd, 15th Century

In the mid-15th century, Welsh bards compiled genealogical lists known as “The five royal tribes of Wales” and “The fifteen tribes of Gwynedd.” These lists aimed to connect the prominent Welsh families of that era to their prestigious ancestors, tracing their lineage to either the five royal tribes or the fifteen noble tribes of Gwynedd. The notion of these tribes was further popularized by Philip Yorke in his work “The Royal Tribes of Wales” published in 1799. This classification served as a framework to highlight the noble lineages within Welsh society, emphasizing their historical significance and royal connections