Was Magnus Maximus part of the Gothic Uprising?

Magnus Maximus occupies a distinct position in Late Antiquity’s historical landscape. As the leader of an imperial army in Britain, he challenged Emperor Gratian for the throne in 383. Maximus succeeded in winning over Gratian’s forces in Gaul, leading to Gratian’s assassination, and swiftly took control over Gaul and Spain. His reign received conditional recognition from the Eastern Emperor Theodosius, provided he did not encroach upon the central territories of Gratian’s younger brother, Valentinian II. However, when Maximus advanced into Italy in 387, Valentinian sought refuge in Thessaloniki, securing military support from Theodosius. In 388, after suffering defeats in key battles, Maximus was captured and executed.

While Maximus’ five-year rule might seem unremarkable at first glance, similar to other Western challengers like Magnentius or Postumus, his legacy is notable for a few reasons. He was the final emperor to effectively govern from Trier, a city with a near-continuous imperial presence since the Tetrarchy era. The departure from Trier marked a significant moment leading to the decline of the Rhine frontier. Furthermore, Maximus was notably the first emperor to execute a Christian for heresy, showcasing his Christian convictions publicly, even in communications with the bishop of Rome, and emphasizing his early baptism. He is also credited with the possibly pioneering act of stationing barbarian auxiliaries, including Irish and Saxons, in Britain under special conditions—a practice that would spread across the continent in the fifth century. This paper revisits Maximus’ alleged involvement in the settlement of the Gothic Tervingi and Greuthungi in 376, one of Late Antiquity’s most infamous barbarian settlements on imperial territory.

Details about Maximus’ life before his ascent to power remain largely unknown, his memory and achievements largely erased after his fall, leading to the loss of Symmachus’ panegyric in his honor. It is known, however, that he was of Spanish descent and connected to the Theodosian dynasty, likely as a client. His military career included serving under Theodosius the Elder in Britain and Africa, and his leadership in Britain was likely influenced by his prior service there. There is speculation that between his time in Africa and his command in Britain, Maximus might have served along the Danube, possibly as the dux Moesiae or dux Scythiae—a role Ammianus attributes to a namesake of Maximus, criticized along with Lupicinus for poorly managing the settlement of the Greuthungi south of the Danube in 376–77.

At that time the defences of our provinces were much exposed, and the armies of barbarians spread over them like the lava of Mount Etna. The imminence of our danger manifestly called for generals already illustrious for their past achievements in war: but nevertheless, as if some unpropitious deity had made the selection, the men who were sought out for the chief military appointments were of tainted character. The chief among them were Lupicinus and Maximus, the one being Count of Thrace, the other a leader notoriously wicked—and both men of great ignorance and rashness.

And their treacherous covetousness was the cause of all our disasters. For (to pass over other matters in which the officers aforesaid, or others with their unblushing connivance, displayed the greatest profligacy in their injurious treatment of the foreigners dwelling in our territory, against whom no crime could be alleged) this one melancholy and unprecedented piece of conduct (which, even if they were to choose their own judges, must appear wholly unpardonable) must be mentioned.

When the barbarians who had been conducted across the river were in great distress from want of provisions, those detested generals conceived the idea of a most disgraceful traffic: and having collected hounds from all quarters with the most insatiable rapacity, they exchanged them for an equal number of slaves, among whom were several sons of men of noble birth.

The Roman History, Book XXXI(375-378AD).

John Matthews initially proposed the intriguing theory that the two individuals named Maximus mentioned in historical texts were, in fact, the same person. This theory has gained some traction, notably supported by Anthony Birley. The argument hinges on the career progression of Magnus Maximus as a reward for supporting Theodosius I, coupled with Ammianus’s description of him in terms reminiscent of Pacatus’s label of Maximus as a “murderous man.”

The crux of this theory is understanding how Magnus Maximus, positioned in Thrace around 377, could have found himself commanding in Britain by 383. It’s suggested that his involvement with Theodosius I’s rise to power in the East facilitated his appointment in Britain, seen as a strategic move by the new emperor. This theory also attempts to reconcile Zosimus’s observation of Maximus feeling overlooked for significant command, exacerbated by Theodosius’s elevation of his son, Arcadius, to Augustus without Gratian’s consent.

The theory posits Maximus as possibly holding the position of comes Britanniarum before his usurpation, a title likely formalized later under Stilicho. Birley suggests Maximus’s role as dux Britanniarum was solidified by a victory over the Picts and Scoti, indicating his active military leadership nearer to Hadrian’s Wall than the Channel. This move from the Danube to Britain, far from imperial centers, could be seen as a demotion due to the provinces’ disparate strategic values.

An alternative suggestion is Maximus’s promotion to comes rei militaris, a rank of significance, yet the formal title of comes Britanniarum and its historical bearers, like Gratian the Elder and Theodosius the Elder, indicate limited precedent for such a transfer, particularly under the jurisdiction of Theodosius I before 383.

The theory faces challenges, notably the prevalence of the name Maximus, making identification difficult, and differing historical accounts regarding Maximus’s character and actions. Furthermore, Ammianus, Jerome, and Orosius provide separate accounts that do not explicitly link Magnus Maximus with the dux responsible for the Gothic upheaval in Thrace.

Despite internal evidence linking Ammianus’s language to Pacatus, the lack of direct blame attributed to Maximus for the Gothic crisis in 377–82 by contemporary sources suggests that Pacatus did not view this event as solely Maximus’s fault. This absence of direct linkage, combined with the complexity of late fourth-century politics and military command, suggests it may be time to reconsider the identification of Magnus Maximus as Ammianus’s dux exitiosus, recognizing the separate roles and impacts of individuals named Maximus in this tumultuous period.