Meet Magnus Maximus, the Roman Usurper-Turned-Welsh Hero Who Inspired King Arthur
Fourteen hundred years before Britain voted to leave the European Union, it tried (and failed) to Brexit the Roman Empire. Under the leadership of Spanish-born soldier Magnus Maximus, a chunk of the Western Roman Empire rebelled against its Italian overlords, but ultimately failed to stay independent for too long. Maximus, though, inspired fascinating Welsh myths that turned him into a King Arthur- esque epic hero.
First, let’s deal with the historic Maximus. One of a series of usurper-emperors that came out of Britain in late antiquity, Maximus started his career as a humble soldier from Spain, serving in various campaigns across the Empire. Throughout the 360s and 370 AD, he fought everywhere from Britain to Africa in service of his emperor. He rose through the ranks and marked the pinnacle of his military career by returning to Britain and striking a major victory against the Picts and Scots in 382.
Acclaimed as a war hero, Maximus was proclaimed emperor by his troops in 383 in place of their then-overlord, Western Roman Emperor Gratian. The revolution didn’t take place across all of Rome’s vast territories, but primarily in the west. Once he was named emperor, Maximus didn’t rest on his laurels, but invaded Gaul and moved against Gratian.
Gratian Solidus (CC BY-SA 3.0)
At the time, Maximus was eager to consolidate his newly found power while Gratian was fighting the Germans, according to Church historian Sozomen. Luckily for Maximus, he had a very loyal general named Andragathos, who tricked Gratian into thinking the latter’s wife was meeting him; under the pretext, Gratian left his camp, but he fell into Andragathos’s hands and was murdered.
- The Thirteen Legendary Treasures of Britain
- The Grail Cypher: A radical reassessment of Arthurian history
After eliminating Gratian, Maximus established a court at Trier, located in modern Germany, and was baptized. This firmly established himself as Western Roman Emperor to his counterpart Theodosius I’s Eastern Roman Emperor. At the time, Theodosius had other problems to worry about in his Eastern territories, so he didn’t bother with Maximus. That is, until 388, when Maximus invaded Italy and took the city of Milan, ousting Gratian’s brother, Valentinian II. Maximus had raised an army of “Britons, Gauls, Celts, and other nations,” Sozomen says, under the pretext of protecting Christianity, but really did it to consolidate his power.
Magnus Maximus strikes a pose. Image via Panairjdde/Classical Numismatic Group (CC BY-SA 3.0)
While Maximus raised his profile, Theodosius cannily consolidated his own power by marrying Galla, Gratian’s half-sister. Finally, he marched against Maximus, who’d given his little brother so much grief, in July 388. When Theodosius engaged Maximus in battle in August, theologian Paulus Orosius claims that “he surrounded, captured, and killed his great enemy, Maximus, a brutal man, who had exacted tribute and taxes from the most savage German tribes merely through the terror of his reputation.” Orosius portrays Theodosius triumphing over Maximus because of his Christian piety. After the battle, Maximus was executed; his son Victor was killed, and Andragathos drowned himself.
Despite his failure to liberate the Western Roman Empire from Theodosius’s yoke, Maximus, or at least the memory of him, survived in an unusual place—Wales. The medieval chronicler Nennius placed Maximus in a semi-fictional lineage of legitimate rulers of Britain, also claiming that he brought Britons over to Brittany and resettled the area. Nennius’s Historia Brittonum named Maximus as the final Roman emperor to rule in Britain (whether or not that was historically accurate), and this popular text helped popularize the idea that Maximus was somehow associated with the final days of Rome in the British Isles.
Thought to be a depiction of Magnus Maximus from a 14th Century Welsh manuscript. (CC0 1.0)
By the Middle Ages, legend had transformed Maximus from a post-Roman leader to one of the founders of Welsh history. He supposedly married Elen, one of the matriarchs of post-Roman Britain, and fathered a number of Welsh dynasties. By marrying Elen, the daughter of legendary King Eudaf, Macsen enmeshed himself in Welsh pseudo-history. He wound up a national hero, to the extent that the medieval kings of Powys and Dyfed, among others, claimed him as their ancestor.
Perhaps the most famous character associated with Maximus was King Arthur himself. According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, Arthur, when asked why Rome should submit to him, justified his dominion by claiming close kinship with Maximus and Elen’s sons. Admittedly, there were several mythological figures named Elen, whom Geoffrey conflated, but naming himself as the direct heir of a former emperor and his royal British wife, Arthur laid claim to rulership of Britain and even Rome!
Macsen Wledig in a fifteenth-century copy of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s manuscript. Image via (National Library of Wales/CC0 1.0)
In the Mabinogion, Maximus is called “Macsen Wledig” (Lord Macsen). He was “emperor of Rome, and he was a comelier man, and a better and a wiser than any emperor that had been before him.” While on a hunt near Rome, he fell asleep and had a dream about the most beautiful young woman in the world; when he woke up, he was determined to find her. Unfortunately, Macsen could finx neither hide nor hair of her, so he got depressed; when he consulted the “sages of Rome,” they recommended he send messengers far and wide all over the world to track her down.
- Mystery of the Knights Templars: Protectors or Treasure Hunters on a Secret Mission?
- British Police Join Search for Legendary Holy Grail
One year later, nothing had changed, so Macsen returned to the place where he’d had the dream. Following the map laid out to him while he was asleep, his messengers made his way all the way from Rome to Wales. Lo and behold, the castle he’d dreamt of appeared, and in it was the pretty girl he’d imagined. The woman didn’t believe Macsen’s men wanted her to marry the emperor, so she said that, if he really loved her, he’d come to get her himself—which, of course, he did, and hailed his crush as “Empress of Rome.” That very day, they got married; absolutely smitten, Macsen gave his new bride, Elen, all the British Isles as her dowry.
Macsen spent seven years in Britain. After that time, he was overthrown because, if the emperor remained out of Rome for more than seven years, his time was up. Enraged, Macsen went home, conquered Western Europe, and besieged Rome for a year, but it was only when Elen’s British soldiers came that he was able to take the city. One of the British generals decided to stay in Europe with his men, and they cut out their wives’ tongues so their British speech wouldn’t be corrupted. They settled in Brittany, which was where the true language of the Britons still survived…or so said the Mabinogion.
Top image: The Boy's King Arthur: Sir Thomas Malory's History of King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table, Edited for Boys by Sidney Lanier (New York, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1922). (Public Domain)
By Carly Silver
Harbus, Antonia. Helena of Britain in Medieval Legend. Cambridge, UK: D.S. Brewer, 2002. Online.
Holum, Kenneth G. Theodosian Empresses: Women and Imperial Dominion in Late Antiquity. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1982. Online.
Hornblower, Simon, and Anthony Spawforth, eds. The Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization. New York: Oxford, 2014. Online.
The Mabinogion. Trans. Lady Charlotte Guest. London: Bernard Quaritch, 1877. Online.
The Mabinogion. Trans. Sinead Davies. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. Online.
“Magnus Maximus.” The Encyclopædia Britannica. Online. 28 July, 2009. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Magnus-Maximus
McKenna, Catherine. “Inventing Wales.” Visions of Community in the Post-Roman World: The West, Byzantium and the Islamic World,
300–1100. Ed. Walter Pohl, Clemens Gantner, and Richard Payne. New York: Routledge, 2016. 137-154. Online.
Orosius, Paulus. Seven Books of History against the Pagans. Trans. A.T. Fear. Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press, 2010.
Rohrbacher, David. The Historians of Late Antiquity. Routledge: New York, 2002.
Snyder, Christopher A. An Age of Tyrants Britain and the Britons, A.D. 400–600. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University, 2003.
Sozomen. The Ecclesiastical History of Sozomenus. Trans. Edward Walford. London: John Childs and Sons, 1855. Online.