Life: AD c. 250 – 310
- Name: Marcus Aurelius Valerius Maximianus
- Born 21 July AD ca 250.
- Consul AD 287, 288, 290, 293, 297, 299, 303, 304, 307.
- Became emperor in 1 April AD 286.
- Wife: Eutropia (one son; Marcus Valerius Maxentius; one daughter; Fausta).
- Died at Massilia, July AD 310.
Maximian was born near Sirmium at around AD 250 to a poor shopkeeper’s family. He received little or no formal education at all.
He rose through the ranks of the army and served with distinction under emperor Aurelian on the frontiers of the Danube, Euphrates, Rhine and Britain.
Maximian’s military career prospered further during the reign of Probus.
He was a friend of Diocletian who, also born near Sirmium, had made a military career very similar to his.
Though it must have come as a surprise even to Maximian when Diocletian, shortly after becoming emperor, raised Maximian to the rank of Caesar in November AD 285 and granted him effective control over the western provinces.
It was at this accession that Maximian adopted the names Marcus Aurelius Valerius. His names given to him by birth, other than Maximianus, are unknown.
Had Diocletian raised Maximian in order to free his own hands to deal with urgent military matters along the Danube, this left Maximian to quell the troubles arising in the west. In Gaul the so-called bagaudae, robber bands made up of peasants driven out of their homes by invading barbarians and army deserters, rose up against Roman authority. Their two leaders, Aelianus and Amandus, may have even proclaimed themselves emperors. But by the spring of AD 286 their revolt had been crushed by Maximian in several minor engagements. Shortly after, his troops, prompted by Diocletian, hailed Maximian Augustus on 1 April AD 286.
It was a strange choice by Diocletian to make Maximian his colleague, as the accounts describe Maximian as a coarse, menacing brute with a savage temper. No doubt he was a very capable military commander, a skill of high priority for a Roman emperor. But one can’t help but feel that not merit but Maximian’s long standing friendship to the emperor and not least his origin, being born so close to Diocletian’s place of birth, will have been deciding factors.
The following years saw Maximian repeatedly campaigning along the German frontier. In AD 286 and 287 he fought off invasions by the Alemanni and the Burgundians in Upper Germany.
However, in the winter of AD 286/7 Carausius, the commander of the North Sea fleet, based at Gesoriacum (Boulogne), rebelled. Controlling the Channel fleet it wasn’t especially hard for Carausius to establish himself in Britain as emperor.
Maximian’s attempts to set across to Britain and oust the usurper met with heavy defeat. And so Carausius had to be grudgingly accepted, at least for the time being.
When Diocletian established the tetrarchy in AD 293, Maximian was allotted control of Italy, the Iberian peninsula and Africa. Maximian chose his capital to be Mediolanum (Milan).
Maximian’s praetorian prefect Constantius Chlorus was adopted as son and Caesar (junior Augustus).
Constantius, who had been given responsibility for the north west of the empire, was left to reconquer the breakaway empire of Britain (AD 296), Maximian guarded the German frontier on the Rhine and in AD 297 moved east to the Danubian provinces where he defeated the Carpi. After this, still in the same year, Maximian was called to north Africa where a nomadic Mauretanian tribe, known as the Quinquegentiani were causing trouble.
The situation back under control, Maximian then set out to reorganize and strengthen the defences of the entire frontier from Mauretania to Libya.
The year AD 303 saw a harsh persecution of the Christians throughout the empire. It was initiated by Diocletian, but executed in agreement by all four emperors. Maximian exacted it especially in north Africa.
Then, in the autumn of AD 303, both Diocletian and Maximian celebrated together in Rome. The cause for the grand festivities was Diocletian’s twentieth year in power.
Though when early in AD 304 Diocletian decided that they both should retire, Maximian was unwilling.
But he was eventually persuaded, and was obliged by Diocletian (who obviously had doubts about his imperial colleagues sincerity) to swear an oath in the temple of Jupiter that he would abdicate after celebrating his own 20th anniversary on the throne in early AD 305.
And so, on 1 May AD 305 both emperors retired from power, withdrawing from public life.
Maximian withdrew either to Lucania or to a sumptuous residence near Philophiana in Sicily.
The abdication of the two Augusti had now transferred their power to Constantius Chlorus and Galerius, who in turn promoted Severus II and Maximinus II Daia to their places as Caesars.
This arrangement however totally ignored Maximian’s son Maxentius, who then staged a coup d’état at Rome in October AD 306. Maxentius, with the senate’s approval, then immediately sent for his father to come out of retirement and rule with him as co-Augustus.
Maximian was all too glad to come back and assumed the rank of Augustus again in February AD 307.
Using a mixture of persuasion and force Maximian then successfully used his forces and influence to repel both Severus II and Galerius in their attempts to march on Rome. Next he travelled to Gaul where he created a useful ally by marrying his daughter Fausta to the son of Constantius Chlorus, Constantine.
Alas, in April AD 308, Maximian then turned on his own son Maxentius. Whatever the causes might have been for this bizarre turn of events, Maximian reappeared in Rome amidst much drama, but his attempt to win over his son’s soldiers failed, which forced him to withdraw back to Constantine in Gaul.
A council of the emperors then was called by Galerius at Carnuntum in AD 308. At the conference not only Maximian, but so too Diocletian was present. Despite his retirement, it apparently still was Diocletian who possessed greatest authority in the empire.
Maximian’s previous abdication was publicly confirmed by Diocletian who now once more forced his humiliated former imperial colleague from office. Maximian retired back to the court of Constantine in Gaul.
But there once more his ambition got the better of him and he pronounced himself emperor for the third time in AD 310, while his host was campaigning against the German on the Rhine. Though Constantine immediately wheeled his troops around and marched into Gaul. Maximian had obviously not calculated for any such swift response from Constantine. Taken by surprise, he was unable to make the necessary preparations for a defence against his new enemy. And so all he could do was flee southward, to Massilia (Marseille). But there was no stopping Constantine. He laid siege to the city and forced its garrison to surrender. Maximian was handed over the surrendering troops.
Soon after he was dead. Due to Constantine’s account, he had committed suicide. But Maximian may well have been executed.
Historian Franco Cavazzi dedicated hundreds of hours of his life to creating this website, roman-empire.net as a trove of educational material on this fascinating period of history. His work has been cited in a number of textbooks on the Roman Empire and mentioned on numerous publications such as the New York Times, PBS, The Guardian, and many more.