One of the primary sources of propaganda in the ancient world was the minting of coins, and nowhere was this more apparent than in the Roman Empire. Minting a Roman coin would celebrate the accession and reign of emperors, military victories, and honor successful generals. In times of civil war or rebellion, opposing sides would mint coins, attempting to lay claim to the mantle of the legitimate government of the Empire.
One of the men who would mint his own coins when he attempted to lay claim to the position of emperor was Marcus Aurelius Mausaeus Valerius Carausius, a notable Roman general who lived in the 3rd century. Unlike many famous Roman officers, Carausius was a naval commander of the British fleet and placed in charge of suppressing piracy around Britain. Carausius ran afoul of his rulers who ordered his arrest, believing that he was collaborating with the pirates. Rather than submitting, Carausius revolted and declared himself emperor in 286 A.D., securing Roman Britain and parts of Gaul.
Until recently, little has been known about this episode in Roman history. The greatest finds involving his short reign have involved examples of the Roman coins he minted during this period. These coins not only speak of Carausius’ reign, but of the nature of the political and military actions he took to remain in power. As only one inscription bearing his name survives in Britain, it is plain that the Roman coin is the primary source of contemporary information about this remarkable Roman general. However, it was not until 2010, when a huge horde of at least 52,000 coins was recovered near Somerset, that the full extent of Carausius’ activities became known.
One Roman coin showed Carausius along with Diocletion and Maxinian, and spoke to a possible attempt to avoid a complete breach with the legitimate rulers of the empire. A Roman coin minted in 289 A.D. showed a different relationship, celebrating Carausius’ victory over Maximianus’s fleet during the latter’s attempted invasion of Britain. Other coins celebrated those legions that were loyal to Carausius as well as attempting to prove his legitimacy by minting silver coins—the only pure silver coins minted in the empire during that period.
Perhaps the most unusual aspect of these coins was how Carausius attempted to present himself as a savior of the British people during this era. A Roman coin that declared him the “Long Awaited One,” indicated that Carausius was capable of engaging in sophisticated propaganda moves, comparing himself to Hector from the Aeneid. Clearly a move to secure the loyalty of the British, it was this political skill, no less than his military acumen, which explained why he was capable of standing off the rest of the Roman Empire for so long.
Eventually the might of the Empire proved too great for its wayward general. After the defeat of Carausius’ forces in modern-day France, he was murdered by Allectus. Allectus’s reign only lasted a few more years after 293 A.D., being killed in the invasion of 296 A.D. that restored Britain to the empire.
Ironically, when one considers the use Carausius made of coins in maintaining his reign’s legitimacy, the final defeat of the regime he founded was also celebrated by a Roman coin, this one showing Constantius Chlorus entering the now subjugated London at the head of his army. Without the aid of the coins minted by both sides, it is likely that these events in history would remain effectively unknown to modern historians.
Bédoyère, Guy de la “Carausius and the marks RSR and I.N.P.C.D.A.” The Numismatic Chronicle 158 (1998), pp.79-88.
Eutropius, Abridgement of Roman History trans. Rev. John Selby Watson.
Carausius Coins: http://time-lines.co.uk/carausius-coins-22963-0.html