See York... and Die

As Hadrian showed us, the Roman Empire and its many associated bureaucracies and administrations could be a moveable feast, not stuck fast in the city of Rome; Rome could be and was governed by proxy from wherever the emperor happened to be at any one time. And the emperor of the day happened to be in York three times in the early empire, making York the de facto beating heart of the Roman Empire three times. Astonishingly, on two of those occasions, the emperor died in the city and both times the death sparked a battle for succession. This first death came when Septimius Severus resided in York between 208 and 211.

Septimius Severus chose York as his base for his north country campaigns against the Caledonii and the Maeatae. This was no ordinary unaccompanied posting – he brought with him his empress, Julia Domna, his sons (the disputatious Caracalla and Geta) and an impressive entourage, including the crack Praetorian Guard, the likes of which would never have been seen in York before. York, then, was temporarily the true epicentre of the Roman Empire because where the emperor was so was government of the empire. Indeed, an imperial edict dated 5 May 210 headed ‘Eboraci’ confirms this.

In 1818, William Hargrove, local newspaper proprietor, published his History of York in which he gushed, ‘it was during this residence of Severus that our city shone in its full splendour.’ Some 130 years later in 1956, Peter Wenham in his Short Guide to Roman York asserted in relation to the funeral of Severus: ‘In some sense that vivid spectacle marked a turning point in the history of the civilised world and York was its setting.’

Septimius Severus and Clodius Albinus

Pescennius Niger was proclaimed emperor by the legions in Syria; Septimius Severus by the troops in Illyricum and Pannonia; and Albinus by the armies in Britain and Gaul.

In pursuit of this, Albinus virtually stripped Britannia of its garrison to fight his corner on the continent leaving the troublesome tribes in the north to wreak havoc and vengeance as far south as York.

In the autumn of 196, Albinus heard that Severus had appointed his elder son Caracalla as his successor and had convinced the senate to declare him, Albinus, an enemy of Rome. Now with nothing to lose, Albinus mobilised his legions in Britannia, proclaimed himself emperor (Imperator Caesar Decimus Clodius Septimius Albinus Augustus) and crossed from Britain to Gaul, bringing the best part of the British garrison with him. He defeated Severus’ legate Virius Lupus, and laid claim to the military resources of Gaul making Lugdunum his headquarters; he was, however, unable to win over the Rhine legions.

On 19 February 197, Albinus confronted Severus’ army at the hard-fought Battle of Lugdunum with 150,000 troops on each side, according to Dio Cassius. Albinus was defeated and fell on his sword, or was captured and executed on the orders of Severus. Severus had his naked body splayed out on the ground before him, so that he could ride his trampling horse over it in a final act of humiliation. Albinus’ wife and sons were initially pardoned by Severus, but he appeared to change his mind almost immediately afterwards: they were beheaded just as Albinus’ corpse had been. Albinus’ headless body was thrown into the Rhône, together with the corpses of his murdered family. Severus sent his enemy’s head to Rome as a bloody warning to his supporters, mocking the senate for their loyalty to Albinus.

Albinus had clearly demonstrated the major problem that Britannia posed. In order to be secure the island needed a garrison of at least three legions, but these legions constituted a very tempting power base for ambitious rivals. Deploying those legions elsewhere would obviously leave the province defenceless against revolts by the native Celtic tribes and against incursions by the Picts and Scots.

It seems probable that northern Britain, led by York, slumped into anarchy while Albinus battled in Gaul: Dio records that the new governor, Virius Lupus, had to buy peace from the fractious Maeatae. The succession of militarily distinguished governors who were subsequently appointed suggests that the natives generally were posing an intractable challenge. Lucius Alfenus Senecio restored many of the installations at Hadrian’s Wall, which had been decommissioned following the uprisings of earlier years. Dio also writes of victories in Britain in 206 and it is therefore likely that he finished the re-occupation of the province and its frontiers. Troubles from the Maeatae and the Caledonian Confederacy necessitated expeditions north of the wall. Senecio seems to have been initially successful as attested by a victory monument he erected at Benwell (CIL 7, 513). His report to Rome in 207 describes barbarians ‘rebelling, over-running the land, taking loot and creating destruction.’ Senecio requested either reinforcements or an imperial expedition, the latter perhaps on an ‘if you don’t ask you don’t get’ basis; the emperor, perhaps surprisingly to Senecio, chose the latter, despite being 62 years old and in failing health. As noted, Severus then moved lock, stock and barrel to York with family and hangers-on, making the fortress the centre of operations for a retaliatory campaign further north and, effectively, the seat of Roman power for a time.

Severus’ arrival in Britain in 208 awed the enemy tribes; the Caledonians soon sued for peace when they surrendered to the emperor after he personally led a military expedition north of Hadrian’s Wall. But the emperor had not come all that way to leave without a victory, and he probably also wished to inculcate in his quarrelsome teenage sons Caracalla and Geta, not just first-hand experience of conflict in a hostile barbarian land, but also the vagaries of provincial administration.

Severus established York as his Imperial capital and centre of operations. He was joined here by Legio VI Victrix already incumbent, Legio II Augusta from Caerleon and Legio XX Valeria Victrix from Chester – together with the auxiliary units based in Britain. He had also brought with him (not unwisely) a reformed Praetorian Guard having replaced the regular guard with 15,000 of his own troops. One of their number was Septimius Lupianus whose sarcophagus reveals that he was recently promoted to legionary centurion. As well as the Praetorians, he was also accompanied by the Imperial Guard Cavalry and his new Roman legion, the Legio II Parthica. This gave him a force totalling 50,000 men, together with the 7,000 sailors and marines of the regional fleet. These units arrived in Britain at the great estuary (Orwell) in East Anglia, Brough-on-Humber, South Shields and Wallsend.

To support it all, the fort, harbour and supply base at South Shields (Arbeia) became the main supply depot. The existing site was extended, with huge new granaries being built that could hold 2,500 tonnes of grain. This was enough to feed the whole army for two months.

South Shields (Arbeia)

Overlooking the River Tyne, the fort was founded in 120 to guard the main sea route to Hadrian’s Wall; later, it was to become a huge maritime supply base providing logistical support for the wall and, to that end, contains the only permanent stone-built granaries found in Britain. Over 600 troops were stationed there.

The first garrison was the First Wing of Sabinus’ Pannonians (Ala Primae Pannoniorum Sabiniana), a 500-strong cavalry regiment traditionally recruited from what is now Hungary. The fort here was expanded with the addition of a further seven new granaries between 222 and 235 and remained occupied during the rest of the third and fourth centuries, with the garrison changing to the Company of Bargemen from the Tigris (Numerus Barcariorum Tigrisiensium) towards the end of the latter. This unit was traditionally recruited from around the Tigris and it is possible that this is how South Shields got its Latin name, the Aramaic Arbeia, which translates as ‘place of the Arabs’.

Arbeia is as good a place as any to illustrate the thoroughly cosmopolitan and fluid nature of the Roman world. One epigraph commemorates Regina, a British woman of the Catuvellauni tribe, who was first the slave, then the freedwoman and wife of Barates, a merchant from Palmyra (now part of Syria) who set up a gravestone after she died at the age of 30. Barates himself is buried at the nearby fort of Coria (Corbridge).

Another commemorates Victor, also a former slave, freed by Numerianus of the Ala I Asturum, who also arranged his funeral (‘piantissime’, with all devotion) when Victor died at the age of 20. The stone records that Victor was ‘of the Moorish nation’.

Two more altar stones are of interest:


To the sacred goddess Brigantia. Congenniccus willingly and deservedly fulfilled his vow. (RIB 1053)

Brigantia was the patron deity of the local British tribe in the area of the wall, who was worshipped throughout the iron-age world as Brigit. She was the tripartite goddess of wisdom, also known as the Mother of Memory, a daughter of Dana the iron-age Mother Goddess.

Altar to the ‘Spirits of Conservation’:


To the gods the Preservers for the welfare of the Emperor Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, Most Great Conqueror of Britain, [and of the Emperor Caesar Publius Septimius Geta Augustus, conqueror of Britain], the military unit at Lugudunum paid its vow for their safe return. (RIB 1054, AD 211)

From South Shields the ships of the Classis Britannica used the Tyne and eastern coastal routes to get, and keep, the army on the move once the campaign began. Meanwhile, the fort at Corbridge on Dere Street, just south of Hadrian’s Wall, was also upgraded, again for use as a major supply base. When all was ready in the spring of 209, Severus launched the first of his two assaults against the Maeatae and Caledonians in the far north of the province.

He was joined by Caracalla, leaving Geta behind in York to look after the imperial administration with the support of Julia Domna, the empress. The immense force marched north along Dere Street, crossing Hadrian’s Wall and then smashing through the Scottish Borders, destroying all before it. Any opposition was eradicated.

Severus moved north with 20,000 men in 208–209; Dio records, and exaggerates, that the Caledonians inflicted 50,000 Roman casualties through their guerrilla warfare tactics which prevented the Roman legions from fighting on an open battlefield. Severus was rapidly running out of patience and, his health worsening, ordered his troops to kill everyone (Dio 76, 13-15). The emperor’s forces pushed north as far as the River Tay, but for little gain, as peace treaties were signed with the Caledonians. By 210, Severus had returned to York, and the frontier once again reverted to Hadrian’s Wall. Colin Martin has suggested that Severus did not seek a battle but instead sought to destroy the fertile agricultural land of eastern Scotland and thereby bring about genocide of the Caledonians through starvation.

The Hand of God

In 2018, archaeologists discovered a hand-shaped Roman artefact described as the ‘hand of God’ near Hadrian’s Wall. It is made of 2.3 kilos of solid bronze and is believed to be associated with Severus’ campaign as a tribute to a god of war. The bronze hand may well have been buried in a boggy area close to Vindolanda shortly after the end of the conflict. Archaeologists said the child-sized hand was probably buried as part of a religious ritual to mark the completion of a temple dedicated to the god close by. The hand is associated with a Roman god of Middle Eastern origin called Jupiter Dolichenus – popular with the Roman military. Such hands were often mounted on the top of a pole – and used to bless worshippers during religious rituals. The 4 inch hand originally had an attachment, now missing, that was inserted into the palm. Jupiter Dolichenus was typically depicted holding a thunderbolt in his hand with upraised arm signifying his destructive power. The open hand also symbolises protection and well-being.

‘The discovery of Jupiter Dolichenus’ bronze hand, deposited as a thanksgiving offering, demonstrates just how serious the conflict was and how relieved the Roman soldiers were that it had ended,’ says Andrew Birley, director of the Vindolanda excavations. ‘It is further evidence illustrating how deeply religious they were and how seriously they took their relationship with their god.’

Of the nineteen Dolichenus temples discovered so far around the empire, only the two in Rome are not sited at frontier settlements such as Vindolanda.

Severus immediately proclaimed a famous victory, with himself, Caracalla and Geta awarded the (rather premature as it turned out) title ‘Britannicus’, and with celebratory coins being struck rather hastily to commemorate the event. The emperor, his sons and the armies wintered in York. Next year, in 210, the Maeatae revolted again, joined by the Caledonians. Severus was having none of it and decided to return north again to settle matters once and for all; his orders were unequivocal, as Dio records, with its echoes of the Iliad: ‘Let no-one escape annihilation at our hands, not even the baby in its mother’s womb, let it not escape destruction. The whole people must be wiped out of existence, with none to shed a tear for them, leaving no trace.’ (Epitome of Book 76, 15)

Ethnic cleansing was on the cards.

This second campaign was an exact re-enactment of that in 209 although it was conducted by Caracalla as Severus was now too ill. What it lacked in good old Roman mercy (remember the paradigm in the Aeneid? ‘Spare spare the defeated’), it more than made up for with savage atrocities resulting in a peace along the northern border lasting for an unprecedented four generations. The ‘Severan surge’ then headed south again to winter once more at York, leaving large garrisons in place. Policy had to be reassessed, though, when Severus died in York in February 211.

Severus’ immense force of 50,000 men returned to their own bases around the province. The northern border was once more re-established on Hadrian’s Wall.

Caledonians, Picts and the Maeatae

Throughout the second century, two major tribal confederations had emerged in the region of modern Scotland by 180. These were the Maeatae based in the central Midland Valley either side of the Clyde-Firth of Forth line and the Caledonians to their north. The Caledonians, or the Caledonian Confederacy, were a Celtic tribal confederacy; the Greek form of the name, Καληδῶνες, gave them their name. Dio gossips that they lived naked in tents and had their women in common. We first met them in 83 or 84 at the battle of Mons Graupius under Calgacus, as described by Tacitus. Presumably Calgacus was leader of a confederacy of tribes rather than just the Caledonians.

In 180 they took part in that invasion of Britannia, breached Hadrian’s Wall and were on the rampage for several years, eventually signing peace treaties with the governor Ulpius Marcellus. Confusingly, Roman historians use ‘Caledonius’ not only to refer to the Caledones themselves, but also to any of the other tribes both Pictish or Brythonic living north of Hadrian’s Wall.

In 197, Dio records that the Caledonians supported a further attack on the Roman frontier led by the Maeatae and the Brigantes, probably spurred on by the withdrawal of garrisons on Hadrian’s Wall by Clodius Albinus. Dio adds that the Caledonians broke the treaties they had made with Marcellus a few years earlier (Dio 72, 12). Virius Lupus, the next governor, was obliged to buy peace from the Maeatae rather than fight them.

As shown above the Caledonians re-emerged in 209, when they surrendered to Septimius Severus during his personally led military expedition north of Hadrian’s Wall, in search of that glorious military victory.

By 210 however, the Caledonians had resumed their alliance with the Maeatae and joined a fresh offensive. Caracalla was dispatched, slaughtering all and sundry from any of the northern tribes. When Severus died at Eboracum in 211, Caracalla made an unsuccessful bid to take over command, but when his troops refused to recognise him as emperor he made peace with the Caledonians and retreated south of Hadrian’s Wall; Caracalla had much bigger fish to fry with his claim for the imperial title. The Caledonians did regain their territory and pushed the Romans back to Hadrian’s Wall.

It is not until 305 that we hear anything significant again: Constantius Chlorus re-invaded the northern lands of Britain and a great victory over the ‘Caledones and others’ is mentioned (Panegyrici Latini Vetares, 6 (7) 7, 2), incidentally giving us the first recorded use, in 297, of the Latin word Picti (painted people) to describe the tribes of the area.

As far as we know, the Maeatae were settled in lands north of the Antonine Wall; currently, the thinking is that they were centred between Dumyat Hill above Stirling and Myot Hill near Fankerton, Falkirk.

In 360, together with the Gaels from Ireland, the Picts launched a concerted incursion over Hadrian’s Wall. The emperor Julian dispatched legions to deal with them but to no avail. The Pictish raids were cutting deeper and ever deeper into the south.

Before the 65-year-old Severus died, he did three things: the first was to order himself a cremation urn. When he got it, he hubristically told it: ‘You will hold a man that the world could not hold.’ In the second he made sure of his reputation for posterity when, as Dio says, he declared on his deathbed: ‘When I took over the state chaos reigned everywhere; I am leaving it at peace, even Britain . . . the empire which I am leaving my sons is a strong one.’ The third parting shot had considerably wider repercussions: he was astute enough to set in train a momentous foreign policy decision which was to change the course of history, not just of York but of Roman Britain generally. To neutralise the endless and damaging stream of powerful and rebellious governors in Britain, he proposed dividing the province into Britannia Superior and Britannia Inferior. Eboracum was to be the capital of Inferior. This inspired plan was brought to fruition by Caracalla; it checked rebellion in the province for almost a century, ushering in the Long Peace. Nevertheless, the number of buried hoards found from this period rose significantly, suggesting some ongoing panic and unrest.

Dio describes a scene in which the emperor utters the following wise words to his two sons on his deathbed: ‘Agree with each other, make the soldiers rich, and ignore everyone else.’ (Dio, Historia Romana 76, 15, 2). Before his death, Severus was afflicted by nightmares while the all-important omens were less than promising. William Combe in The History and Antiquities of the City of York (1785), and referenced by Drake in Eboracum (1788), suggests that Aelius Spartianus reported that a temple to Bellona, a goddess of war, existed just outside Micklegate Bar in the context of Severus’ return from Scotland in 221. Aelius Spartianus was a historian who wrote the biographies of Hadrian, Didius Julianus, Severus, Niger, Caracalla and Geta for the notoriously unreliable Historia Augusta.

Severus visited the shrine to perform a sacrifice in thanks for his victories, but the soothsayer on duty (an ‘ignorant Augur’) supplied black instead of white animals. This terrible gaffe could only mean bad luck. Severus was horrified and distraught and returned to his palace while, piling one calamity on another, the black beasts were carelessly allowed to follow close behind to the very doors of the palace. A very bad and unpropitious day for the emperor – he died soon after. Bellona was often recognisable by her helmet along with other accoutrements of conflict: sword, spear, or shield, frequently brandishing a bloody torch or whip as she hurtled into battle in a four-horse war chariot. Bellona’s priests were known as Bellonarii; they ritually self-harmed, wounding their own arms or legs and either offered up the blood or drank it themselves in order to become inspired with belligerent zeal.

Severus was cremated in Eboracum; Dio described what would have been a spectacular ceremony attended by the entire imperial family and anyone who was anyone in Roman York: ‘His body dressed in military uniform was placed on a pyre, and as a mark of honour the soldiers and his sons ceremoniously ran around it; the soldiers who had gifts put them on the fire while his sons set fire to it.’

The location of the cremation was not recorded, but a hill to the west of modern York, known now as Severus Hill, is associated by some historians as the site where it took place; there is no archaeological evidence to support this. His ashes were returned to Rome in a gilded porphyry. His widow and heirs reportedly hurried back to Rome with unseemly haste to pursue their claims to the imperial throne. Severus was very soon history.

Julia Domna and the Roman Head Pot

These odd pots, head pots, were all the rage in the reign of Septimius Severus. Bits of up to fifty different head pots have been found in York, first made by potters attached to the army from North Africa around 211–212; their popularity was boosted no doubt by Julia Domna’s sojourn in the city.

The example in the Yorkshire Museum is beautifully fashioned and, unusually, it is complete and intact. The hairstyle and physiognomy suggest that it is modelled on Severus’ Syrian wife Julia Domna (c. 160 –217); she was from Emesa (now Homs), and, as we know, she accompanied him to York along with most of the imperial household.

Dio tells how Domna was proficient at rhetoric and in political and philosophical discussions with the powerful and eminent men of the day. She played an important role in a salon of Roman and Greek philosophers and sophists, including Philostratus, whom she encouraged to write the Life of Apollonius of Tyana. She regularly advised her elder son Caracalla in an official capacity; he delegated to her matters of state which he could not be bothered with and her name appeared with his on correspondence with the senate (CIL 10, 6009). Among her many offices she was, in 195, made Mater invictorum castrorum – Mother of the Invincible Camps – and in 215 was put in charge of the cura epistularum Graecarum, epistularum Latinarum, and held the office of a libellis, the official in charge of receiving petitions. Gibbon says that Domna built ‘the most splendid reputation’ by applying herself to letters and philosophy.

When Severus died in 211, Julia found herself the mediator between her two fractious sons, Caracalla and Geta, who were supposed to rule as joint emperors, according to their father’s wishes as expressed in his will. However, the two young men had a disputatious relationship and Geta was murdered by Caracalla’s soldiers. Geta’s name was then removed from inscriptions and public records, and his image erased in a damnatio memoriae.

Julia Domna committed suicide in 217 in Antioch on the assassination of Caracalla during his campaign against the Parthians. Her decision will have been influenced by the knowledge that she was suffering from breast cancer. She became the first empress dowager to receive the title combination ‘Pia Felix Augusta’, which probably means she enjoyed greater powers than usual for a Roman empress mother.

The Economic and Cultural Impact of Septimius Severus

Libyan Septimius Severus from Leptis Magna, the first black citizen to hold Rome’s highest office, brought to the city a surge of cosmopolitan culture, fashion and prestige on a scale never seen before and probably never since. Before Severus’ court arrived, few residents of York would have seen a foreigner, apart from those in the army, never mind Syrians or Mesopotamians; yet almost overnight their city was buzzing with every nationality known to Rome. Severus was also keen to show off and promote his wife, Julia, who sported modish fashions and an up-to-the-minute hairstyle and cosmetics. Indeed, they were York’s, maybe Roman Britain’s, first celebrities. Different exotic foods, foreign languages also made their debuts here into a very cosmopolitan and trendy Eboracum.

The so-called Ivory Bangle Lady discovered in 2010 was confirmed as a high-status young black woman buried in York during the period Severus was in town – more evidence to contradict popular assumptions that African and other immigrants in Roman Britain were of low status, male and more than likely to have been slaves.

Dio tells us that, as you might expect, Septimius Severus’ staff brought with them truly prodigious quantities of supplies to feed and water the armies and the cavalry’s horses, the mules for transport and the beasts and birds for sacrifice and augury. Moreover, all the soldiers had to be paid, so enormous amounts of coinage would be handed out over time; this would soon find itself boosting the local economy as the 30-40,000-strong soldiery spent their salaries in the local markets, shops, taverns and brothels. Severus obviously anticipated this as he had also brought the Imperial Fiscus Treasury (the personal chest of the emperors of Rome) and key senators, turning the principia – the headquarters of the legionary fortress in York – into the Imperial Roman capital.

A large number of hoards dating to the Severan period have been found in Britain, including several from around York. The Overton Hoard (in the Yorkshire Museum) is one of the more celebrated and sheds light on how life in Roman York and its environs were impacted by the events associated with the Severan presence in the city. The latest and least worn of the coins are dated to 193–211. The earliest coins in the hoard are much older, dating to the reign of Vespasian in 69–79.

Unsurprisingly, given the sheer size of the settlement, food and drink and their provision were always hugely important in York. Archaeological evidence tells us much about food consumption and diet in the garrison, with significant signs of cereal crops and animal husbandry. A first-century warehouse fire in 39–41 on Coney Street in the vicus revealed that spelt wheat (triticum spelta) (sixty per cent of the charred grains), barley (twenty-five per cent) and rye (twenty-five per cent) were the most common cereal grains at that time. Meanwhile, the ditch at 5 Rougier Street yielded eighty-nine per cent spelt wheat and eleven per cent barley. The brewing of beer would probably have consumed the barley.

We should not forget weeds, many of which were found in grain deposits or brought in on, or in, the dung from beasts driven to York for market, or in their hay. Seeds for edible plants such as opium poppies, coriander, dill and savory, which were in use as seasoning agents, have been found on the General Accident site.

In research carried out by Terry O’Connor from the University of York, a sampling of 7,306 excavated animal bones revealed that in the late second and early third centuries, cows at sixty-nine per cent were by far the main source of meat with sheep (seventeen per cent) and pigs (fourteen per cent) providing much less. Minor sources of meat came from chicken and geese, with an insignificant quantity of wild fowl, deer and hare. O’Connor’s research also revealed evidence of marrow extraction from cattle bones and of smoking the beef. A delicacy at the more ostentatious dinner parties was the well-known glis glis; no evidence of this dormouse has been found but digging on the General Accident site has yielded what may have been a tolerable alternative – the garden dormouse eliomys quercinus, which was native to Gaul.

As for seafood and fish, we can thank the General Accident site again for evidence of crab and herring, no doubt originating from the east coast or Humber estuary. Apart from the imports of olive oil, fish sauce (garum) and wine there is evidence of olives, grapes and figs coming in.

Romano-British ‘hunt cups’ depict hunting scenes, and mortaria (mixing bowls) have been excavated from the city and large millstones have been found in rural sites outside the colonia at Heslington and Stamford Bridge. Dining scenes can be seen on the tombstones of Julia Velva, Mantinia Maercia and Aelia Aeliana to cater for their needs in the afterlife; they are shown reclining on a couch and being served food and wine. Furthermore, several inhumation burials from Trentholme Drive contained hens’ eggs placed in ceramic urns as essential grave goods for the deceased.

The Romans, military and civilian, would not have gone for long without their staples and favourites: olive oil, wine and garum would have been in high and immediate demand. This, of course, spawned the importation and local (Roman) manufacture of cooking and storage vessels, flagons and platters for such commodities and for dining. The Romans – and the Britons – enjoyed their wine as much as anyone. In York, four examples of beakers inscribed with appropriately convivial exhortations have been discovered: they urge ‘da mihi’, ‘give to me!’; ‘misce mihi’, ‘mix for me!’; ‘nolite sitire’, ‘don’t be thirsty!’, and ‘vivatis’; ‘a long life to you!’ (Eboracum Nos. 151 a–f). Olive oil and wine were imported in large amphorae – wine from south-west Gaul, oil from southern Spain; numerous sherds from amphorae found in and around York attest to this. There was locally produced pottery but it seems to have been of low quality: the Romans with their finer tastes and higher standards required something better and so the legionary potters, figuli, made their own – usually of red earthenware of a standard design. Detritus from the Aldwark, Heworth and Peaseholme Green areas attest to the existence of kilns. We call much of it Ebor Ware, the production of which flourished periodically from the late first century to the early third. Another popular brand was Samian Ware which would have come from other kilns in Britannia and from around Toulouse, Clermont-Ferrand and Trier in Gaul.

Samian Ware, or terra sigillata, is a general term for the ubiquitous fine-red Roman pottery roughly translated as ‘sealed earth’, i.e. ‘clay bearing little images’ (sigilla), much of it made in Italy and in Gaul, and used and deposited throughout the empire. A mould has been found in York.

Glass came in from Italy, Gaul and the Rhine lands, and later from London. Unusual green-glazed vessels were imported from Gaul too, while decorated colour-coated purple sheen jars and beakers flooded in from around Cologne. Wellington Row gets the prize for the largest deposit of pottery with 20,000 or so sherds excavated there; twenty-five per cent of these originated from the mid-second to early third centuries and were imported. By the time we get down to third-century layers the figure rises to thirty-six per cent.

One importer was the signifer, standard bearer, Lucius Duccius Rufinus whose tombstone was found in 1688 at Holy Trinity Church in Micklegate. He was bringing in wine from the Rhône Valley. His epitaph reads: ‘Lucius Duccius Rufinus, son of Lucius, of the Voltinian tribe, from Vienne, a standard bearer of the Ninth Legion, 28 years old. He is laid here.’

And then there was Lucius Viducius Placidus, a merchant, negotiator, from Velioccasses (Rouen) whose name we find etched onto a tablet found at Clementhorpe. This is important because it is a rare example in Britannia of a commemoration of a building erected by a private individual – ARCUM ET IANUM – an archway and doorway, probably part of a temple. We can only guess but he probably traded in olive oil, wine and pottery one way, and, as exports, jet, grain and beef the other way. His building tells us that trade was good and lucrative.

What could the Britons offer the Romans? Grain – ever an anxiety for the empire – was a critical export, which the Romans seem to have exploited to feed other parts of the empire near to Britannia. More exotic, exclusive and somewhat rarer, however, was jet.

Jet (gagates)

Jet is a black mineraloid, the compressed remains (fossilised wood) of ancestors of the monkey puzzle tree (Araucariaceae), found in abundance in the cliffs and on the moors around Whitby and used since the Bronze Age to make beads and other jewellery. Jet enjoys the greatest celebrity and has done since Roman times with copious pendants, earrings, rings hairpins and brooches unearthed, reaching its zenith 1,400 years later during the reign of Victoria after the death of Prince Albert. The jet found around Whitby is of early Jurassic (Toarcian) age, approximately 182 million years old. The hardest, purest, saltwater jet comes from a seven-and-a-half-mile stretch of coast around Whitby which yields some of the best deposits the Earth has to offer. Whitby jet is light in weight making it perfect for fashioning into jewellery; it has a hardness of 3.5-4 on the Mohs hardness scale.

Eboracum was the place to go for Whitby jet, or gagates in Latin. In Whitby it would have been harvested from the beach or cut from underwater outcrops. There are fewer than twenty-five jet pendants found so far in the entire Roman world, but six of these come from Eboracum and are held in the Yorkshire Museum.

York has also yielded up a female skeleton, the Ivory Bangle Lady, wearing two jet anklets, a jet bracelet and a bone and silver bracelet. This raises the question as to whether wearing anklets signified a woman of low morals, as actresses, singers and prostitutes were considered by the Romans. Some scholars (for example, Balsdon) suggest that anklets were synonymous with permissiveness, but the discovery of a relief showing a hairdresser with an anklet on her right ankle from Neumagen throws doubt on that particular stereotype.

Being easy to cut and polishing up well, jet was a gift to jewellery makers and to recipients as presents and heirlooms. It also has the advantage of emitting static electricity when rubbed, thus giving the magicians and witches a field day. Fashioning jet into Medusa gorgon faces and the like was popular in the daily struggle against the evil eye and similar superstitions.

Much evidence for the working and manufacture of jet from the second to the fourth century has been unearthed, although the boom in fashionability came with the third century. One of the star finds is the little bear pendant excavated at Bootham in 1845 along with a coin of Constantine dated 312–5. The Yorkshire Museum also has jet dice which would have been tossed from a dice box (fritillium). Other dice have been found in many other parts of the empire – some of them are loaded. The popularity is probably due to the proximity of the Whitby deposits and the arrival of Julia Domna, empress to Severus, in the city. York’s jet jewellery had an empire-wide market if the many articles exported to and found around Cologne are anything to go by.

In the third century, Solinus (Collectanea Rerum Memorabilium 22, 11) notes the good quality of Whitby jet but it is Pliny the Elder (AD 23–79 Natural History 36, 34) who details the geological, pseudo-medical and magical properties of gagates:

Gagates is a stone, so called from Gages, the name of a town and river in Lycia. It is said, too, that at Leucolla the sea throws it up, and that it is found over a space twelve stadia inland. It is black, smooth, light, and porous, looks like wood, is of a brittle texture, and gives off a bad smell when rubbed. You cannot rub off marks made on pottery with this stone. When burnt, it smells of sulphur; and it is a fact that it ignites when in contact with water, while oil quenches it. Its burning fumes repel snakes and dispel hysteria; it can detect symptoms of epilepsy, and is a test of virginity. A decoction of this stone in wine cures tooth-ache; and, in combination with wax, it is good for scrofula. The magicians, it is said, make use of gagates in the practice of what they call axinomancy [divination by axes] assuring us that it will be sure not to burn if the thing the client desires is about to happen.

Roman Dice and Gambling

The Romans played two games with their dice: tali and tesserae. Tali used four dice and the best score came when each die showed a different number. Tesserae was played with three dice and the best score was three sixes. Bad scores were called ‘dogs’ and the high scores were called ‘Venus’. Games such as this would have been very popular and, in the case of the military, a weapon in the war against barrack-room boredom. They threw from a cup called a fritillium and usually played on a board made of wood, bronze or marble. The well off enjoyed marble boards encrusted with jewels and had their names incised into the back of the boards. Dice, of course, engendered gambling and the ruin of many a Roman through gambling debt. This provoked the authorities to enact numerous laws such as Lex Alearia (204 BC), Lex Cornelia (81 BC), Lex Publicia, and Lex Titia de Aleatoribus which outlawed gambling with dice and in breach of which offenders could be jailed, exiled or fined up to four times the value of the bet. The Lex Talaria prohibited the gambling of dice except at mealtime and during the Saturnalia festival. The laws were policed (ineffectively) by the aediles: these laws, as today, were largely ignored. Gambling debts remained unrecoverable until the reign of Justinian when fixed odds were applied on games of skill.

Other Jewellery

After the late second century, amber became popular in Roman Britain, as elsewhere. Pliny tells us (Natural History 37, 30) that amber was expensive and had a special appeal to women. Pliny and Artemidorus (Onorocritica 2, 5) agree that when a woman dreams of amber it means good things are coming. It was even believed that women only wore amber when they were going to sleep (Artemidorus was a second-century expert on the interpretation of dreams). A grave group from Walmgate has given up a bracelet of amber and pearl beads.

A coral necklace has also been found in Walmgate. When fashioned into the shape of a phallus, coral was considered to be powerful in warding off the evil eye. In the Roman world the phallus was, therefore, a good luck and fertility charm and had none of the sexual connotations it has today in the ‘civilised world’. Variscite is a relatively rare phosphate mineral sometimes confused with turquoise; beads of variscite have been found in York.

Industry in Roman York

Excavations in Coppergate show that glass was manufactured in York from the third century: this provided the usual bowls, bottles and jars as well as phials for potions, perfumes and cosmetics. The manufacture of glass in York endured well into the twentieth century.

Smiths too would have been busy, not least in the manufacture of weapons, armour and other materiel. York has yielded a copper alloy helmet cheek piece at the Purey Cust site. Two bronze kettles (essential army equipment then as now) stamped with the century that owned them have been found. Slag, scrap and tools were unearthed on the site of the General Accident building. Scraps of uniforms and an iron sword probably in for repair have also been found there. In 1860, the grounds of the manor house at Dringhouses gave up a fine tomb relief (now in the Yorkshire Museum) showing a smith complete with protective leather apron, hammer and tongs. Bronze pins and wrought iron were worked in a workshop found in Bishophill Senior from the second century. Other craftsmen at work in York included stonemasons and carvers of bone. Nails would have been much in demand for military and civilian construction work; a horde found in Blake Street probably tells us that they were discarded when stone buildings replaced wooden.

Leather offcuts and bits of shoe confirm the presence of leather working – a trade which persisted for many years in this area, hence Tanner Row and Tanner’s Moat; a sizeable fragment from an army tent and pieces from others have also been excavated. The VIth legion centurion and graffiti artist, Marcus Sollius Julianus, must have been having a quiet day when he whiled away his time etching his name on one of the fragments; he turns up again on Hadrian’s Wall, his name scratched this time onto a stone used by his men in the construction of the wall. If ever we needed tangible evidence of Legio VI’s military and civil engineering ties between York and the wall then this is it.

Other industries include weaving and flax spinning, as evidenced by the spindle dug up at Bishophill Senior.

Britannia Inferior (Lower Britain)

Then the angry emperor [Severus] took vengeance upon Albinus’ friends at Rome. He sent the man’s head to the city and ordered that it be displayed. When he reported his victory in dispatches, he added a note stating that he had sent Albinus’ head to be put on public view so that the people might know the extent of his anger against them. After settling affairs in Britain, he divided this region into two provinces, each under its own governor.

(Herodian, History of the Empire from the Death of Marcus, 8, 1)

Severus obviously wanted to put an end to all of the turmoil caused by usurpers throughout the empire, so he made an example of Albinus by savagely desecrating his body. But this was not his only act of severance: at roughly the same time, in an act of momentous political and military significance, he split Britannia into two – another instance of dividing and ruling. At the same time he divested the governors in Londinium of their power over the legions in the north – in order to dilute their power in the wake of Clodius Albinus’ recent bid to become emperor. In doing this he focused the power on the legions stationed in the trouble spots, not least Hadrian’s Wall. Severus had set a precedent for this in Syria. The new Britannia was probably formalised around 214 by Severus’ surviving son Caracalla.

Britannia Inferior takes in much of modern northern England. Its capital, of course, was Eboracum, under the leadership of a Praetorian legate in command of a single legion and numerous auxiliaries stationed in the city. This subdivision lasted throughout the Severan dynasty until the reorganisation of the empire under Diocletian in 296 when he established the newly named Diocese of Britannia which was subdivided into four provinces, Britannia Prima (capital Cirencester) and Maxima Caesariensis (capital London) from Britannia Superior and Britannia Secunda (capital in Eboracum) and Flavia Caesariensis (capital in Lindum) from Britannia Inferior.

Eboracum as an Urban Settlement: Coloniae, Municipia, Civitates, Canabae and Vici

The Roman fortress would have exerted many varied influences on the local community and environment: at once a source of local labour and of women for conjugal relationships and prostitution, and at the same time a golden opportunity for the more enterprising and venal elements in the local population to enrich themselves by running ancillary businesses in support of the garrison, or to enhance their standing in the community with a career in local government. The spiv has always been with us. Away from the fortress, other tribes and local communities became self-governing: the Brigantes had Aldborough, the Parisi Brough-on-Humber.

The first thing the military authorities would have done after selecting their fortress site back in AD 71 would have been to requisition a tract of land on which they would construct the fortress and reserve for other military related activities. Such land was called prata or territorium and could be up to 125,000 acres. Inevitably, this would have entailed the compulsory requisitioning of native settlements (such as at Rawcliffe Moor) by the authorities. The territorium would have included an area for soldiers’ families (when these were officially permitted) in much the same way as modern barracks have a ‘patch’ for family quarters on site or nearby.


By 237 Eboracum was accorded the privilege and status of a colonia, the Roman urban settlement at the top of the hierarchy when it came to the status and importance of settlements under Rome. York was now self-governing, administratively, as with other coloniae, a mirror image of Rome itself with a council or senate (ordo) made up of up to 100 rich locals, merchants, and veteran soldiers (decurions). The honour did not come cheap: the decurions were obliged to contribute to the costs of baths and other public buildings fitting for a colonia, as well as chipping in to the treasury. What the locals lost in money they made up with in the kudos implicit in ingratiating oneself with the Romans. AD 237 was the date when Marcus Aurelius Lunaris, as Sevir Augustalis at the coloniae of both Lindum and Eboracum, dedicated his temple to the local deity Tutela Boudiga at Bordeaux. From now on this is where the governor of that province would sit. Marcus Antonius Gordianus was the first to fill that post, but he had higher honours to come when he was made emperor at the age of 81 in 238. One year later he died, not through illness or natural causes, but by taking his own life.

A Roman colonia was originally an outpost established in conquered territory as a security measure, as a kind of garrison, as a piece of Rome in a foreign land. Initially the coloniae would consist partly of Roman citizens, usually about 300, but after Augustus the number was increased and many thousands of Roman veterans were gifted lands in coloniae throughout the empire, often in recognition of military service. Augustus needed to settle over 100,000 of his veterans at the end of the civil wars, and so began a massive colonia creation programme throughout the empire.

All citizens of a colonia were automatically accorded Roman citizenship with all the apparent freedoms and benefits that brought. So, when a place became a colonia, and when land was granted nearby to veterans who had retired, the idea was that these legionnaires would start families and provide future recruits to the legions, which, in the earlier years of the empire, were only open to Roman citizens. The veterans were also responsible for the Romanisation of many territories, mainly through the spread of Latin and of Roman laws, culture and customs.

According to Livy (1, 11), Rome’s first colonies were established in about 752 BC (just after the very founding of Rome in 753 BC) at Antemnae and Crustumerium – both very close to Rome. Colonies then were always a part of Roman life and foreign policy. The first colonia in Britain was at Colonia Claudia Victricensis Camulodunum (Colchester), established around AD 49, followed by Lindum Colonia or Colonia Domitiana Lindensium (Lincoln) in AD 71 and Colonia Nervia Glevensium (Gloucester), founded in AD 97 by Nerva. As noted, each colonia was governed by an ordo (council), under the control of four quattuoviri, annually appointed magistrates. These in turn oversaw 100 decurions aged over 30 who satisfied the property qualifications. The following random list shows the spread of coloniae in place and time:


Colonia Iulia Paterna Arelatensis Sextanorum; province: Gallia Narbonensis, 45 BC established by Julius Caesar


Singidunum; province: Moesia Superior, AD 239 founded by Celts c. 279 BC, conquered by Romans in 15 BC


Aquincum; province: Pannonia, AD 41–54 Köln Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium; province: Germania Inferior, AD 50

Jerusalem (site of) Colonia Aelia Capitolina Hierosoloma; province: Judaea after Bar Kokhba’s revolt, by Hadrian


Colonia Iulia Paterna Claudius Narbo Martius Decumanorum; province: Gallia/Gallia Narbonensis 118 BC by Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus; refounded by Caesar in 45 BC


These were also often inhabited by Roman citizens but the populations were more mixed – in some respects the difference between coloniae and municipia was blurred and insignificant. Whereas the coloniae were based on the city of Rome as a template for town planning and organisation, municipia could also enjoy local laws and practices. Municipia were often settlements that may once have been tribal towns or vici. Examples of municipia include Verulamium, Leicester, Dorchester and Canterbury. It is possible that both York (if Aurelius Victor is to be believed) and London were initially municipia before becoming coloniae, York to reflect its status as capital of Britannia Inferior and to posh it up for Severus’ visit.

Civitas Capitals (civitates)

The lowest rank of town serving as administration centres for local-level government. Again, these may have originated as pre-existing Iron Age settlements or have been newly sited, but there is a suggestion that the local populace might have had some involvement in their development. They show signs of being planned and organised but not standardised across the country. Examples of civitas capitals in Britain include Wroxeter, Chichester, Carlisle, Silchester, Exeter, Ilchester and Aldborough. Most of the inhabitants would not have enjoyed Roman citizen status; the Romans called them, somewhat disparagingly, peregrini (aliens).


A canaba was originally a hut or hovel but from the time of Hadrian denoted a town that emerged as a civilian settlement (canaba legionis) in the vicinity of a Roman legionary fortress (castrum). A settlement that grew up outside a smaller Roman fort was a vicus (village). Canabae were also often divided into vici.

Permanent forts naturally were a magnet for anyone and everyone dependant on the military garrison and civilian contractors who serviced the base; these all needed housing and feeding. They included traders, artisans, sellers of food and drink, prostitutes, and also unofficial wives of soldiers and their children; hence most forts had vici or canabae. Many of these communities became towns through synoecism with other communities, some are still towns today.

Canabae at legionary fortresses include:

Deva Victrix, Chester

Isca Silurium, later Caerleon

Vindobona, later Vienna

Argentoratum, later Strasbourg



The fortress was strictly military. So what about the commercial, cultural, spiritual and social needs of the fortress soldiery when they were having a spot of rest and recuperation? On the other side of the fortress wall, civilians, as noted, from near and far were eager to take advantage of the extensive commercial opportunities brought by the garrison of usually more than 5,000 men, be they selling bread, arena tickets (panem et circenses) or their bodies. The fort was a magnet drawing in artisans, labourers, traders, wives, actors, dancers, musicians slaves, camp followers and sex workers.

A vicus could and often did, over the years, flourish and grow until it attained the status of an independent municipium in its own right; it may then even graduate to colonia status, as is the case with Eboracum. Here the ever-burgeoning civilian settlement followed the line of some of the roads leading in and out the fortress, for example at the southwest gate where the road crossed the Ouse Bridge, then on up the hill to enter the walls near Micklegate Bar. There is also vicus evidence on the north-east side of the river around Spurriergate and Nessgate. A replica of the dedication stone from a temple of Hercules is set into the wall of a building in Nessgate where the original was found; wharves have been discovered along the Foss which may have been a harbour, and a mosaic has been unearthed south of the fortress east angle. Burials have been excavated along a road along the line of Toft Green and Tanner Row; around AD 200 there was a bronze workshop at Bishophill, later replaced by two stone buildings. Clementhorpe is the site of a grand house typical of those which came complete with underfloor heating, some mosaics and frescoed walls.

Each vicus had its own board of officials who oversaw local matters.

The Imperial Crisis (AD 235–AD 284)

The Imperial Crisis exploded when the Roman Empire was rocked by a seemingly endless series of barbarian invasions, rebellions and imperial pretenders queuing up to wrestle power from the man in charge. The effect on Britain, and York, probably varied over time but essentially the province was largely immune from the turbulence.

It all began with the assassination of Severus Alexander by his own troops in 235 who then proclaimed Maximinus Thrax, commander of one of the legions, the new emperor. Maximinus (regarded as a bit of a peasant by the senate) was the first of the so-called barrack-room emperors – rulers who were elevated by their troops even though they lacked any of the traditional aristocratic Roman qualifications for the job: political experience, a supporting faction, distinguished ancestors, or a hereditary claim to the imperial throne. The assassination ignited a fifty-year period during which there were at least twenty-six claimants to the title of emperor, mostly prominent Roman army generals, who assumed imperial power over all or part of the empire.

At the heart of it all was the remuneration of the legions. The army demanded increasingly large retainers or bribes to remain loyal. Severus had raised the pay of legionaries, and gave substantial donativum (gifts of money doled out to the soldiers of the Roman legions or to the Praetorian Guard) to the soldiery. This was to cause major problems for all of his successors. His son Caracalla also raised the annual pay and lavished many benefits on the army in accordance with the death-bed advice of his father to keep them on side.

The catastrophic Year of the Six Emperors followed in 238 during which all of the original claimants (Maximinus Thrax; Gordian I; Gordian II; Pupienus, half-British Balbinus and Gordian III) were killed. Here is a summary of the imperial carnage: in 238 a revolt broke out in Africa led by Gordian I and Gordian II, supported by the senate; this was soon put down with Gordian II killed and Gordian I committing suicide. The senate raised two of their own as co-emperors, Pupienus and Balbinus with Gordian I’s grandson Gordian III as Caesar (junior emperor). Maximinus marched on Rome but was assassinated by his Legio II Parthica, and subsequently Pupienus and Balbinus were murdered by the Praetorian Guard.

By 268 the empire had splintered into three competing states: the Gallic Empire, the Palmyrene Empire (including the eastern provinces of Syria Palaestina and Aegyptus); and the Italian-centred independent Roman Empire proper. Later, Aurelian (r. 270–275) reunited the empire. The crisis ended with Diocletian and the implementation of his reforms in 284.

The Gallic Empire was a breakaway part of the Roman Empire that functioned de facto as a separate state from 260 to 274. It seemed that everything that could go wrong for the Roman Empire was going wrong: there were frequent raids across the Rhine and Danube frontiers by foreign tribes, including the Carpians, Goths, Vandals, and Alamanni, and attacks from Sassanids in the east. Climate change and a sea level rise destroyed the harvests of what is now the Low Countries, forcing tribes to pour into Roman territory. The Plague of Cyprian (probably smallpox), as already mentioned, erupted with a vengeance, causing high levels of mortality and severely weakening the empire. To make matters worse, in 260 the emperor Valerian was captured in battle by the Sassanids and later died in captivity. The civil wars continued, there were peasant revolts, political instability with multiple usurpers jousting for power, Roman dependence on and growing influence of barbarian mercenaries (foederati) and commanders nominally working for Rome but increasingly acting independently, debasement of currency, and economic depression.

The Gallic Empire was set up by Postumus in 260 in the wake of these barbarian invasions and instability in Rome; at its height it included the territories of Germania, Gaul, Britannia, and (temporarily) Hispania. After Postumus was assassinated in 268, it lost much of its territory, but continued under a number of emperors and usurpers. It was retaken by Aurelian after the Battle of Châlons in 274.

The turning point came when an invasion of Macedonia and Greece by Goths, who had been displaced from their lands on the Black Sea, was defeated by emperor Claudius II Gothicus at the Battle of Naissus in 268. Further victories by Claudius Gothicus repulsed the Alamanni and recovered Hispania from the Gallic Empire. He died of the plague in 270 and was succeeded by Aurelian, who had commanded the cavalry at Naissus. Aurelian held power through the worst of the crisis, gradually restoring the empire. He defeated the Vandals, Visigoths, Palmyrene Empire, and finally the remainder of the Gallic Empire. By late 274, the Roman Empire had been reunited into a single entity. However, Aurelian was assassinated in 275, spawning a further series of competing emperors. The situation was not to stabilise until Diocletian, himself a barrack-room emperor, took power in 284.

The Carausian Revolt

The Carausian Revolt (286–296) occurred when a somewhat dubious Roman naval commander, Carausius, declared himself emperor over Britain and northern Gaul, thus creating the Britannic Empire. In the end, his Gallic territories were retaken by Constantius Chlorus in 293 (Caesar of the West then Augustus; r. 293–306) after which Carausius was assassinated by his treasurer (rationalis) Allectus. Britain was brought back into the fold by Constantius and Asclepiodotus in 296.

Carausius, a Menapian of low birth, rose through the ranks of the Roman military and was appointed to a naval command in the Britannic fleet at Bononia-Gesoriacum (Boulogne), tasked with eradicating Frankish and Saxon raiders and pirates from the English Channel. When he got wind of the death sentence decreed on him by the emperor Maximian on charges of colluding with Frankish and Saxon pirates and embezzling recovered treasure, he responded by organising a coup, declaring himself emperor in Britain and taking control over the provinces of Britain and some in northern Gaul while Maximian was distracted with uprisings elsewhere. His not inconsiderable force comprised not only the fleet, augmented by new ships he had built, and the three legions stationed in Britain, but a legion he had appropriated in Gaul, a number of foreign auxiliary units, a levy of Gaulish merchant ships, and barbarian mercenaries attracted by the chance of booty.

An invasion in 288 to depose him failed due to bad weather, although Carausius claimed it as a military victory (Panegyrici Latini 10, 12,1; 8, 12, 2); Eutropius (Abridgement of Roman History 22) says that hostilities were in vain, thanks to Carausius’ military skill; a ceasefire was agreed and an uneasy peace ensued, with Carausius obviously warming to his new status – minting coins and bringing their value into line with Roman issues as well as acknowledging and honouring Maximian and then Diocletian. Legends on the coins included Restitutor Britanniae (Restorer of Britain) and Genius Britanniae (Spirit of Britain) to win British support. Constantius responded with a medal struck after his victory, in which he described himself as redditor lucis aeternae, ‘restorer of the eternal light’ (i.e. of Rome).

In 293 Constantius, now the western Caesar, cut Carausius off by retaking the territory he had seized in Gaul. He besieged Bononia and invaded Batavia in the Rhine delta. After seven years of power Carausius was assassinated by Allectus, who took on the command.

In 296 the reconquest of Britain began. With Maximian holding the Rhine frontier, Constantius divided his fleet into several divisions. He led one division himself from Bononia; another, sailing from Le Havre, was commanded by Asclepiodotus, prefect of the Praetorian Guard. Asclepiodotus’ ships slipped past Allectus’ fleet, stationed off the Isle of Wight, in the fog. They landed near Southampton and burned their boats. The rebels were routed at Calleva Atrebatum (Silchester); Allectus himself was killed in the battle. Constantius, it seems, did not reach Britain until it was all over but he was welcomed by the Britons as a liberator (Panegyrici Latini 8, 19).

The Diocletian reforms were introduced: Britain as a whole became the Diocese of the Britains under the administration of the Prefecture of the Gauls based in Augusta Treverorum (Trier) and was divided from two provinces into four or five.

Constantius Chlorus (c. AD 250–AD 306)

Constantius Chlorus rose from virtually nowhere to become the emperor of the western Roman Empire. Like, Carausias, his adversary, he was a soldier who had worked his way up through the ranks, but his shrewdest act came in 289 when he married Theodora, the stepdaughter of the emperor Maximian. By this time Constantius already had a son, Constantine, by Helena his first wife.

In 293 the Roman Empire had become a ‘tetrarchy’ – it was ruled by four emperors. Constantius Chlorus was elected by Maximian to be one of them – he became Caesar of the north west. This was something of a poison chalice because much of his territory had been grabbed by Carausius. Nevertheless, as noted above, Constantius won it all back ushering in nine years of relative peace which only came to an end in 305 when the Picts attacked the northern limits of the empire in Britain. York became an important strategic centre in the ensuing battle for the north of England.

Constantius was by now elevated to Augustus, the senior emperor of the west. He had his son Constantine join him in Gaul and together they made for York, winning a series of victories over the Picts but then, on 25 July 306, everything changed: Constantius became the second emperor to die in York.

Constantius’ first wife Helena was elevated to the sainthood after being credited with finding the relics of the True Cross. St Helen’s Church and St Helen’s Square in York are named after her. Their son became the next Roman emperor: Constantine the Great.

Empress Helena

Helena, Helena Augusta, and Saint Helena (c. 246–c. 330), was born of a humble background; she became the consort of Constantius Chlorus and was the mother of the future emperor Constantine the Great. She is an important figure in the history of Christianity due to her influence on her son. In her final years, she made a religious tour of Syria, Palaestina and Jerusalem, during which ancient tradition claims that she discovered the True Cross about 326. The True Cross is a significant Christian relic, reputedly the wood of the cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified. Tradition holds that when Helena met Constantius they were wearing identical silver bracelets; Constantius saw her as his soulmate sent by God.

But it did not last. Constantius divorced Helena some time before 289, when he married Theodora, Maximian’s daughter. Helena never remarried and lived for a time in obscurity, though she always remained close to her only son. After his elevation, Helena returned to public life and the imperial court in 312. She features in the Eagle Cameo portraying Constantine’s family, probably commemorating the birth of Constantine’s son Constantine II in the summer of 316. She received the title of Augusta in 325. According to Eusebius, Helena converted to Christianity when her son became emperor. Constantine awarded his mother the title of Augusta Imperatrix, and gave her unlimited access to the imperial treasury in order to locate the relics of the Christian tradition. Constantine ordered the building of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem on the site where Helena discovered the True Cross.

What is reputed to be her skull is displayed in the cathedral at Trier. Bits of her relics are found at the Basilica of Santa Maria in Ara Coeli in Rome, the Église Saint-Leu-Saint-Gilles in Paris, and at the Abbaye Saint-Pierre d’Hautvillers. The Church of Sant’Elena in Venice claims to have the complete body of the saint enshrined under the main altar.

Both Geoffrey of Monmouth and Henry of Huntingdon promoted a popular, but erroneous, tradition that Helena was a British princess and the daughter of ‘Old King Cole’, King of Britain. This led to the dedication of 135 churches in England to her, many in Yorkshire. She is the hero in Evelyn Waugh’s Helena (1950).

The Roman Emperor

By the end of the third century, the arrangement of emperors in the Roman Empire had become somewhat more complicated than the previous and original one empire one emperor. Octavius assumed the title of emperor in 27 BC, changed his name to Augustus, and closed the door on the republic taking sole command of the Roman world. This straightforward arrangement, in which there was one and only one emperor, lasted right up to the reign of Diocletian in AD 284. Augustus established the principate, which combined elements from the republican constitution with the traditional powers of a monarchy. The senate still functioned, though Augustus, as princeps, or first citizen, was in control of the government. Under Augustus, the emperor came to be looked upon as a god. Thereafter, all ‘good’ emperors were worshipped as gods after death. From Diocletian things got more complicated with emperors of the east and emperors of the west sharing the stage.

In the early days the Roman Emperor was best known simply by his name: Nero or Hadrian, for example. Later they assumed the title of Augustus or Caesar. Another title was imperator, originally a military honorific. Early emperors also used the title Princeps Civitatis (‘first citizen’).

For the life of the empire, emperors ruled in a relatively monarchic style; although the imperial succession was generally hereditary, it was only hereditary if there was a suitable candidate acceptable to the army and the state. Nevertheless, elements of the republican framework (senate, consuls, and magistrates) were preserved even after the end of the Western Empire.

The reign of Constantine the Great saw the replacement of the Caput Mundi from Rome to Constantinople. The Western Roman Empire crumbled in the late fifth century following wave after wave of invasions of imperial lands by Germanic barbarian tribes. Romulus Augustulus is often said to be the last emperor of the West after his forced abdication in 476, although Julius Nepos maintained a claim recognised by the Eastern Empire to the title until his death in 480. Following Nepos’ demise, the Eastern Emperor Zeno abolished the division of the position and proclaimed himself as the sole emperor of a reunited Roman Empire. The Eastern imperial lineage continued to rule from Constantinople (‘New Rome’); they continued to style themselves as Emperor of the Romans (later βασιλεύς Ῥωμαίων), but are often referred to as Byzantine emperors. Constantine XI Palaiologos was the last Roman emperor in Constantinople, dying in the Fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire’s Mehmed II in 1453. The Muslim rulers then claimed the title of Caesar of Rome.

Diocletian and the Tetrarchy

Gaius Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus Augustus; born Diocles (AD 244) was Roman Emperor from 284 to 305. Born to a lowly family in Dalmatia, Diocletian rose through the ranks to a cavalry commander of Emperor Carus’ army. After the deaths of Carus and his son Numerian on campaign in Persia, Diocletian was proclaimed emperor. The title was also claimed by Carus’ surviving son, Carinus, but Diocletian saw him off in the battle of the Margus.

Diocletian regarded his life work to be that of a restorer dedicated to returning the empire to peace, to recreate stability and justice where barbarian hordes and wayward pretenders had wrecked it. Diocletian literally rewrote history when he pedalled a version of the empire before the tetrarchy as a time of civil war, despotism, and as an empire collapsing in on itself. Inscriptions of the time describe Diocletian and his colleagues as ‘restorers of the whole world’, (Inscriptiones Latinae Selectae 617), and men who succeeded in ‘defeating the nations of the barbarians, and confirming the tranquillity of their world’ (Inscriptiones Latinae Selectae 641). Diocletian was nothing less than the ‘founder of eternal peace’ (Inscriptiones Latinae Selectae 618).

A new normal was cultivated, one which highlighted the distinction of the emperor from everyone else. The pseudo-republican ideals of Augustus’ primus inter pares were abandoned for all but the tetrarchs themselves. Diocletian took to wearing a gold crown and jewels, and forbade the use of purple cloth to everyone except the emperors. His subjects were required to prostrate themselves in his presence (adoratio); only the most privileged were allowed to kiss the hem of his robe (proskynesis, προσκύνησις). Circuses and basilicas were designed to keep the face of the emperor perpetually in view, and always in a prominent seat. Around 286 or 287, a new feature of the imperial collegiality emerged: Diocletian and Maximian began to use the epithets ‘Iovius’ and ‘Herculius’, thus linking themselves with Jupiter and Hercules. Shades of Caligula and Nero come to mind.

What effect did Diocletian’s ‘reforms’ have in York?

Obviously the move away from anything resembling republicanism to this autocracy would have been keenly felt around the empire: imperial government was no longer a synergistic affair between emperor, army, and senate. Diocletian’s new autocratic structure replaced the consilium principis and was known as a consistorium, the emperor’s cabinet, no more a council. To run it all Diocletian introduced a number of high-level official posts and a prodigious increase in the number of civil servants and bureaucrats. Lactantius observed that there were now more men spending tax revenue than there were paying it (De Mortibus Persecutorum 7, 3). Some historians estimate that the number of civil servants doubled from 15,000 to 30,000 or that there was 30,000 bureaucrats for an empire of 50–65 million inhabitants, which works out at approximately 1,667 or 2,167 inhabitants per imperial official. York, as everywhere else, would have been swamped by this influx of bureaucrats, physically and financially.

No one could deny that running an empire the size of Rome’s must have been a stressful job. So, to lessen and share the burdens of state, and to introduce a less painful succession, Diocletian introduced a tetrarchy – four-man rule. Also, local rebellions, be they orchestrated by truculent natives or by ambitious generals or governors, were a constant threat to all provincial administrations. To that end, in 286, Diocletian appointed Maximian, an Illyrian, the son of a peasant from around Sirmium as co-emperor. Maximian would rule from the west, Diocletian the east; Maximian would look after military matters, Diocletian administration. The two emperors would take the title Augustus. To facilitate a more streamlined system of tax collection, and to benefit from more efficient logistics and to improve law enforcement, Diocletian doubled the number of provinces from fifty to almost 100 (see the Laterculus Veronensis or Verona List,). This was effected by the appointment of two Caesares (junior emperors – one reporting to Diocletian, one to Maximian); they were Galerius and Constantius Chlorus respectively.

In addition to these ‘efficiencies’, Diocletian’s intention was that the tetrarchy – the gang of four, a quadvirate – would reduce the usurpations and incursions that a single emperor had to put up with. On the retirement or death of an Augustus, the Caesar who supported that Augustus would automatically step into his sandals to replace him. A new Caesar would then be chosen by the new Augustus with the approval of his colleague. The prospect of promotion, elevation and the binding of the relationship between the emperors with marital ties would dissuade the Caesares from rebellion, offering the Augusti a degree of security and freedom from the threat of assassination: the four emperors could, theoretically at least, between them deal with both foreign and domestic threats throughout the empire.

In 305, the senior emperors did abdicate and retire, allowing Constantius and Galerius to be elevated to Augusti. They in turn appointed two new Caesars – Flavius Valerius Severus Caesar – in the west under Constantius, and Maximinus in the east under Galerius – the second tetrarchy was thus born.

The four tetrarchs were not based at Rome but, significantly, in other cities, known as the tetrarchic capitals, strategically closer to the frontiers, intended as control headquarters for the defence of the empire against troublesome neighbours, notably Sassanian Persia. Other barbarians were mainly Germanic, swelled by an endless stream of nomadic or displaced tribes from the Eastern Steppes, at the Rhine and Danube frontiers. From this time, Rome ceased to be a functioning capital, although she continued to be nominal capital of the entire Roman Empire under its own, unique prefect of the city, praefectus urbi.

The four tetrarchic capitals were:

Nicomedia in northwestern Asia Minor (modern Izmit in Turkey), to defend against invasion from the Balkans and Persia’s Sassanids; it was Diocletian’s capital.

Sirmium (in modern Serbia, near Belgrade, on the Danube border) was the capital of Galerius, the eastern Caesar; this was to become the Balkans-Danube prefecture Illyricum.

Mediolanum (modern Milan) was the capital of Maximian Daia, the western Augustus; his remit became Italia et Africa.

Augusta Treverorum (modern Trier) was the capital of Constantius Chlorus, the western Caesar, near the strategic Rhine border; this became the prefecture Galliae.

Aquileia, a port on the Adriatic coast, and Eboracum were also significant places for Maximian and Constantius respectively.

The provinces were now grouped into twelve dioceses, a new layer of administration, each governed by an appointed official called a vicarius, or ‘deputy of the Praetorian prefects’. In Britannia, the senior vicarius was the Vicar of Britain headquartered in London (Augusta) and reporting to the prefect of the Gauls in Trier. By 314, Diocletian vicarii and governors were divested of their military responsibilities and put in charge of justice and taxation; a new class of duces (dukes), acting independently of the civil service, took over the military commands. These dukes sometimes administered two or three of the new provinces, and had forces ranging from 2,000 to more than 20,000 men. In addition to their roles as judges and tax collectors, the somewhat reduced governors were now expected to maintain the all-important postal service (cursus publicus) and ensure that town councils discharged their duties. More bureaucratic it certainly was, but it helped keep the Western Empire going for another century or so.

Civilian and military authority would no longer be exercised by one official, with rare exceptions until the mid-fifth century, when a dux (governor) was appointed for Upper Egypt. The responsibilities of the vicarii were to control and coordinate the activities of governors; monitor but not interfere with the daily functioning of the Treasury and Crown Estates, which had their own administrative infrastructure; and act as the regional quartermaster-general of the armed forces. In short, as the sole civilian official with superior authority, he had general oversight of the administration, as well as direct control, while not absolute, over governors who were part of the prefecture; the other two fiscal departments were not.

Constantius I (Chlorus)

Marcus Flavius Valerius Constantius (c. AD 250–306), ruled as Caesar from 293 to 305 and as Augustus from 305 to 306. He was the junior colleague of the Augustus Maximian under the tetrarchy and succeeded him as senior co-emperor of the western part of the empire. Constantius ruled the West while Galerius was Augustus in the East. He was the father of Constantine the Great and founder of the Constantinian dynasty.

As we have seen, in late 293, Constantius overcame Carausius in Gaul, capturing Bononia and this triggered the assassination of Carausius by his rationalis (finance officer) Allectus, who assumed command of the British provinces until his death in 296.

Constantius spent 294–295 extinguishing the threat posed by the Franks, allies of Allectus, as northern Gaul remained under the control of the British usurper until at least 295. As noted, when Maximian relieved him at the Rhine frontier he assembled two invasion fleets to cross the English Channel. The first was delegated to Asclepiodotus, Constantius’ long-serving Praetorian prefect, who sailed from the mouth of the Seine, while the other, under Constantius himself, was launched from his base at Bononia. The fleet under Asclepiodotus landed near the Isle of Wight where his army encountered the forces of Allectus, resulting in the defeat and death of the usurper. Constantius in the meantime occupied London, saving the city from an attack by Frankish mercenaries who were now roaming at liberty around the province. Constantius massacred all of them. He remained in Britannia for a few months and replaced most of Allectus’ officers while the British provinces were subdivided along the lines of Diocletian’s tetrarchy.

In 303, Constantius had to decide how to deal with the imperial edicts instituted by Diocletian relating to the persecution of Christians. The campaign against them was zealously pursued by Galerius. It had not escaped his notice that Constantius was well-disposed towards the Christians and reluctant to persecute them: Galerius thus saw an opportunity to drive a wedge between Constantius and Diocletian, seeing it as a way of advancing his career prospects with the aging Diocletian. Of the four tetrarchs, Constantius made the least effort to implement the decrees in his western provinces, limiting himself to knocking down a few churches.

Between 303 and 305, Galerius was all the while positioning himself to ensure that he succeeded Constantius after the death of Diocletian. In 304, Maximian and Galerius met to discuss the succession issue; Constantius either was not invited or was detained on the Rhine. Before 303 there was a tacit agreement among the tetrarchs that Constantius’ son Constantine and Maximian’s son Maxentius would be promoted to Caesar once Diocletian and Maximian had resigned the purple. But by the end of 304, the wheedling Galerius had convinced Diocletian, who in turn convinced Maximian, to appoint Galerius’ nominees Flavius Valerius Severus and Maximinus Daia as Caesars.

Diocletian and Maximian duly stepped down as co-emperors on 1 May 305, possibly due to Diocletian’s ever declining health. In front of the assembled armies at Milan, Maximian removed his purple cloak and handed it to Valerius Severus, the new Caesar, and proclaimed Constantius as Augustus. The same scene was played out in Nicomedia under the authority of Diocletian. Constantius, notionally the senior emperor, ruled the western provinces, while Galerius took the eastern provinces. This left a very disappointed Constantine – his hopes to become a Caesar dashed – so he fled the court of Galerius after Constantius had asked Galerius to release his son on compassionate grounds as Constantius was ill. Constantine made his way through the territories of the hostile Severus to join his father at Gesoriacum (modern Boulogne). They crossed over to Britain together.

In 305, Constantius and Constantine travelled to the north of Britannia and launched a military expedition against the Picts, claiming a victory against them and the title Britannicus Maximus II by 7 January 306. After wintering in Eboracum, Constantius had planned to continue the campaign, but on 25 July 306 he died. As he was dying, Constantius recommended his son to the army as his successor; Constantine was declared emperor by the legions at York.

York and the Tetrarchy: Britannia Secunda and the Elevation of Constantine

Britannia Secunda was one of the provinces of the Diocese of the Britains created after the defeat of the usurper Allectus by Constantius Chlorus in 296 and featured in the 312 Verona List of the Roman provinces. After the Carausian Revolt, Britain was retaken by Constantius Chlorus and the newly formed Diocese of the Britains with its vicarius at Londinium was made a part of the prefecture of Gaul. The Britains were divided among four provinces, which were called Prima, Secunda, Maxima Caesariensis (Londinium and southeastern England), and Flavia Caesariensis (southern Pennines and including the lands of the Iceni with its capital at Lindum), Colonia (Lincoln), and Valentia. All of these seem to have initially been under the control of a governor (praeses) of equestrian rank.

The untimely death of Constantius at Eboracum was the first crack in the framework of the tetrarchy. As we have just noted, rather than obligingly accept the elevation of Flavius Valerius Severus from Caesar to Augustus, the garrison at Eboracum unilaterally backed Constantius’ son, Constantine, for Augustus. They were supported in this mutiny of sorts by Crocus (fl. AD 260–306), a king of the Alamanni attached to the Roman army in Britain. Crocus’ reputation preceded him: he had something of a predilection for destruction on a grand scale and may have sent out loaded messages which deterred people from crossing him. In 260, he led an uprising of the Alamanni against the Romans, crossing the Upper Germanic Limes and advancing as far as Clermont-Ferrand and Ravenna, and he may have been present at the Alamannic conquest of the French town of Mende.

Galerius, the senior emperor, was sent a portrait of Constantine wearing a crown of laurels; by accepting this inflammatory representation, Galerius would be acknowledging Constantine’s right to be heir to his father’s throne (Lactantius, De Mortibus Persecutorum 25). Constantine was constitutionally not eligible and blamed his unlawful elevation on his army, claiming they had ‘forced it upon him’. Galerius was, predictably, apoplectic and intent on burning the portrait. His advisors, however, advised caution as a denial of Constantine’s claims would mean certain civil war. Galerius was compelled to compromise: he grudgingly granted Constantine the title Caesar rather than Augustus which went to Severus instead. Wishing to make it clear that he alone underwrote Constantine’s legitimacy, Galerius personally sent Constantine the emperor’s purple robes. Constantine accepted the decision, happy that it would eradicate further doubts about his legitimacy to the throne.

Despite all the carnage and chaos, however, these were not bad years for York. Salway (1981) records that:

the reconstruction carried out in the time of Constantius and Constantine, however, ushered in an era of spectacular prosperity, at least in so far as that can be judged by the private and public architecture of the age. Among the signs of military reconstruction pride of place must surely go to York.

Much of Salway’s enthusiasm is predicated on the erroneous belief that the walls and particularly the Multangular Tower were constructed at this time, when most of the stone tower was built between 209 and 211 by Septimius Severus. Nevertheless, other infrastructure and defence projects no doubt benefitted and beautified the city.

The Verona List

The Laterculus Veronensis or Verona List is a list of Roman provinces during the reigns of Diocletian and Constantine I. The list comes to us only in a seventh-century manuscript now in the Chapter House Library (Biblioteca Capitolare) in Verona. It is a list of the names of the 100 or so provinces of the empire as organised in the twelve newly created regional dioceses in two separate eastern and western groups, the eastern group (Oriens, Pontica, Asiana, Thraciae, Moesiae, Pannoniae) preceding the western (Britannia, Galliae, Viennensis, Italiae, Hispaniae, Africa).

The dates of the listings are currently thought to be 314–324 for the eastern half and 303–314 for the western half of the empire. As noted, Britannia’s four provinces were Britannia Prima; Britannia Secunda; Maxima Caesariensis; and Flavia Caesariensis.

The Notitia Dignitatum: the British Section

The Notitia Dignitatum (List of Offices) details the administrative organisation of the Eastern and Western empires. As one of very few surviving documents of Roman government it is unique, and describes several thousand offices from the imperial court to provincial governments, diplomatic missions, and army units, military commanders, comites rei militaris, and duces, providing the full titles and stations of their regiments. It is probably accurate for the Western Roman Empire in the 420s and for the Eastern or Byzantine Empire in the 390s. However, the text itself is without date or author.

For Britannia, we get lists for three military commands: the Dux Britanniarum, the Comes litoris Saxonici per Britannias, and the Comes Britanniarum, the governors of the four British provinces and the staff of the vicarius in London. Dux Britanniarum was a limitaneus or frontier command which comprised the region along Hadrian’s Wall and the coast from Cumbria, perhaps as far south as today’s Welsh border. It presumably consisted of three parts: one containing the forts of the wall (per lineam valli) and the Cumbrian coast, the other the units in Yorkshire and the third, presumably the units and forts in Wales, but this is now lost.

The Notitia is the only historical source for the Saxon Shore, Comes litoris Saxonici per Britannias: nine forts– including Dubris (Dover), Lemannis (Lympne), Regulbium (Reculver), Rutupiae (Richborough) and Anderida (Pevensey) – built around south-east Britain in the later third and fourth centuries, possibly to defend against the Saxons, or be defended by the Saxons.

The Revolts of Maxentius and Maximian

Soon after Constantine became Caesar, Maxentius, son of Maximian, usurped power in Rome. When Severus set out to defeat the usurper, his troops defected and he was imprisoned by Maxentius. Maximian, brought out of retirement to support his son, tried to buy Constantine’s support with his daughter’s hand and the title of Augustus. Constantine accepted the title but continued to spend his time defending the borders rather than becoming embroiled in the usurpation. Not unsurprisingly, Galerius rejected the claims of Maximian, Maxentius and Constantine and convened a council at Carnuntum to resolve the crisis. There, with the support of his predecessor Diocletian, he appointed another Augustus, Licinius, demoted Constantine to Caesar of the West and stripped Maxentius and Maximian of their titles. However, by 310, Maximian had returned once more and Galerius was willing to refer and defer to both Maxentius and Constantine as Augusti.

In 310, Maximian rebelled against Constantine while the emperor was campaigning against the Franks. Maximian had been sent south to Arles with part of Constantine’s army to defend against attacks by Maxentius in southern Gaul. In Arles, Maximian resorted to fake news: outrageously he announced that Constantine was dead and took up the imperial purple. Despite offering bribes to any who would support him as emperor, Maximian would have been disappointed to find that most of Constantine’s army remained loyal; Maximian was compelled to flee. When Constantine heard of the rebellion, he abandoned his campaign against the Franks, and moved quickly to southern Gaul, where he confronted the fleeing Maximian at Massilia (Marseille). The town was better able to withstand a longer siege than Arles, but it made little difference as loyal citizens opened the back gates to Constantine. Maximian was captured, reproved for his crimes, and stripped of his title for the third and last time. Constantine granted Maximian some clemency but strongly encouraged his suicide. In July 310, Maximian hanged himself.

Maxentius was now prepared to go to war to avenge his father. Both men looked to the east for support: here they found a situation no less fraught: following Galerius’ death in 311, his Caesar, Maximinus, and Licinius were at each other’s throats whilst dividing his provinces between themselves. Licinius and Constantine found common ground and supported one another with the promise of a marriage between Constantia (half-sister of Constantine) and Licinius. This happened in 313.

However, before that, Constantine made his move against Maxentius. In 312 he pushed forward through Italy, sweeping aside opposing forces in the north before heading for Rome. Faced with the prospect of a siege and the slow erosion of his rule, Maxentius made his stand near Saxa Rubra at the Milvian Bridge.

The tetrarchy was turning out to be something of a poison chalice. Between 309 and 313, most of the imperial college died or were killed in various civil wars. Constantine forced Maximian’s suicide in 310. Galerius died naturally in 311. Maxentius was defeated by Constantine at the battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 and subsequently slaughtered. Maximinus committed suicide at Tarsus in 313 after being defeated in battle by Licinius. So, by 313, there were only two emperors left: Constantine in the west and Licinius in the east. The tetrarchic system had run its course, although it took until 324 for Constantine to finally defeat Licinius, reunite the two halves of the Roman Empire and declare himself sole Augustus.

Setting aside his momentous reversal of Diocletian’s policy of persecution against the Christians, his world-changing contribution to the acceptance of the Christian faith and his own conversion, Constantine’s other achievements are of enormous importance: in his reign (306–337), the second-longest of any Roman emperor, Constantine succeeded in becoming the sole ruler of Rome, he made Byzantium (Constantinople, then Istanbul) his capital, and shifted imperial power away from Rome itself ensuring its long endurance in the east.

The View from the Bridge: the Vision of Constantine

The decisive Battle of the Milvian Bridge took place between Constantine I and Maxentius in 312. It takes its name from the Milvian Bridge, an important strategic crossing over the Tiber north of Rome. Constantine was victorious: the battle enabled him to become the sole ruler of the Roman Empire. Maxentius drowned in the Tiber during the battle; his body was later fished out and decapitated, and his head was paraded through the streets of Rome the day after the battle and, for good measure, carried to Carthage as a warning to the Carthaginians to keep the corn supply coming to Rome.

Constantine’s army came to the battle with strange symbols depicted on their standards and their shields. Lactantius states that, on the eve of the battle, Constantine was told in a dream to ‘depict the heavenly sign on the shields of his soldiers.’ So, ‘he marked on their shields the letter X, with a perpendicular line drawn through it and turned round thus at the top, being the cipher of Christ.’ This was the ‘heavenly divine symbol’ (coeleste signum dei). Eusebius of Caesarea (d. 339) says that Constantine was marching somewhere when he looked up to the sun and saw a cross of light above it, and with it the Greek words Ἐν Τούτῳ Νίκα. The Latin translation is in hoc signo vinces – literally ‘In this sign, you will conquer’ or ‘By this, conquer!’ (Historia Ecclesiastica lines 28-32).

At first Constantine was baffled, unsure of the meaning of the apparition, but the following night he had a dream in which Christ explained to him that he should use the sign (the labarum) against his enemies.

The labarum (λάβαρον) was a vexillum or military standard that displayed the ‘Chi-Rho’ symbol ☧, a christogram formed from the first two Greek letters of the word ‘Christ’ (ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ, or Χριστός) – Chi (χ) and Rho (ρ). Since the vexillum consisted of a flag suspended from the crossbar of a cross, it was ideally suited to symbolise the crucifixion of Christ .

Throughout his later life, Constantine ascribed his success to this new religious allegiance, his conversion to Christianity and the support of the Christian god. The famous triumphal arch erected in his honour at Rome after the defeat of Maxentius ascribed the victory to the ‘inspiration of the Divinity’ as well as to Constantine’s own genius (although it does not feature the powerful chi rho symbol). A contemporary statue showed Constantine himself holding aloft a cross and the legend, ‘By this saving sign I have delivered your city from the tyrant and restored liberty to the Senate and people of Rome.’

As he entered Rome as sole ruler of the West, Constantine was once again hailed as Augustus, but one man still stood between him and control over the entire Roman Empire. Licinius defeated Maximinus the following year and peace was to reign within the empire for two years before the inevitable conflict broke out in 316. After a brief war, Constantine was content to allow his rival to remain as emperor as long as two of his sons were made Caesares. However, seven years later, a dispute over boundaries and the authority of each Augustus once again led to war. This time, Licinius was not to retain his power and in 324 Constantine established his rule over the entire empire.

After his victory over Licinius, Constantine wrote that he had come from the farthest shores of Britannia as God’s chosen instrument for the suppression of impiety, and in a letter to the Persian king Shāpūr II he proclaimed that, aided by the divine power of God, he had come to bring peace and prosperity to all lands.

Constantine’s victory gave him total control of the Western Roman Empire paving the way for Christianity to become the dominant religion for the Roman Empire and ultimately for Europe.

The Diocletian Persecution, AD 303, and the Edict of Milan, AD 313

The Edict of Milan of AD 313 or Edictum Mediolanense, one year after the Milvian Bridge battle, is attributed to Constantine and Licinius; it was the agreement to treat Christians benevolently within the Roman Empire. The two emperors agreed to change radically Roman policy towards Christians following the Edict of Toleration issued by Galerius, as Caesar, two years earlier in Serdica. The Edict of Milan gave Christianity a legal status, but did not make Christianity the state church of the Roman Empire; this only took place under Theodosius I in 380 with the Edict of Thessalonica. The document survives in Lactantius’ De Mortibus Persecutorum and in Eusebius of Caesarea’s History of the Church with significant differences between the two, prompting some to question whether or not there was a formal ‘Edict of Milan’.

On 23 February 303, on the Terminalia feast, Diocletian issued a persecutory edict. It prescribed ‘destroying of churches and burning of the Holy Scriptures; confiscation of church property; banning Christians from undertaking collective legal action; loss of privileges for Christians of high rank who refused to recant; the arrest of some Christian state officials.’

In 305 Diocletian abdicated; Galerius, his successor, carried on with the persecution in the East until 311 when the Edict of Serdica, the Edict of Toleration, was issued in Serdica (modern Sofia), officially ending the Diocletianic persecution of Christianity. It implicitly granted Christianity the status of religio licita, a worship recognised and accepted by the Roman Empire. It was the first edict legalising Christianity.

In any event it is an important document which guaranteed freedom of religion in the Roman world and particularly liberated Christians from the systematic oppression that Diocletian and some of his predecessors had presided over. The Edict of Milan required that the wrong done to the Christians be righted as speedily and thoroughly as possible; it claimed ‘it has pleased us to remove all conditions whatsoever.’ The edict further demanded that individual Romans right any wrongs towards Christians, claiming that ‘the same shall be restored to the Christians without payment or any claim of recompense and without any kind of fraud or deception.’ It was never just an act or expression of religious tolerance and understanding though. The edict states that righting the wrongs should be done so that ‘public order may be secured’. It was not implemented for the intrinsic value of justice or the glory of God, reflecting the leaders’ anxiety to avoid unfavourable consequences, which in this case included social unrest and further conquests; the sooner this balance was restored by the Romans, the sooner the state would become stable. Nevertheless, religious tolerance, of a sort, had arrived.

At the time only around ten per cent of the Roman Empire’s population was Christian. The majority of the ruling elite worshipped the old Olympian gods of ancient Rome and, from time to time, followed a number of oriental and mystery religions imported from Egypt and other points east. Constantine was the first emperor to allow Christians and others to worship freely, helping to unite and promote the faith. He went on to instigate the celebration of the birth of Christ we call Christmas.

The Council of Arles, AD 315

Constantine called this meeting of thirty to forty Catholic bishops in order to settle a divisive spat that had been running for three years: namely the question of the Bishopric of Carthage, disputed between Cyprian and Donatus. According to Constantine’s own letter, the bishops came from ‘a great many different places’ to the palace in Arles. Among the bishops from ‘the Gauls’ present at the council was Eborius episcopus de civitate Eboracensi, provincia Britanniæ – Eborius, bishop of the city of York in the province of Britannia. Eborius was a bishop and a deacon who had assumed a name homonymous with his see. This, of course, proves that Christianity had a following in the city in the fourth century.

The other two British bishops at Arles were Restitutus, episcopus de civitate Londinensi (London) and Adelfius episcopus de civitate colonia Londinensium – a mistake for Lindumensium so Lindum (Lincoln). A presbyter and a deacon, Sacerdos presbyter and Arminius diaconus, also attended the council with Adelfius.

The council settled the dispute by confirming the appointment of the Bishop of Carthage. The assembled bishops affirmed a number of other miscellaneous new church laws, or canons, including:

Actors were to be excluded if they continued to act; young women who married unbelievers should be excluded; deacons should be discouraged from conducting services in too many places; conscientious objectors would be excommunicated; Easter should be held on the same day throughout the world, rather than being set by each local church.

Donatism (a schism which argued that Christian clergy must be faultless for their ministry to be effective and their prayers and sacraments to be valid) was condemned as a heresy and Donatus Magnus was excommunicated. This had begun as an appeal by the Donatists to Constantine the Great against the decision of the Council of Rome in 313 at the Lateran under Pope Miltiades. The appeal had turned out unfavourably to the Donatists who afterwards became enemies of the Roman authorities.

In addition, those who participated in races and gladiatorial fights were to be excommunicated; the rebaptism of heretics to be forbidden; clergymen proven to have handed over copies of the scriptures to be destroyed by the authorities during persecution, (the traditores), should be deposed, but their official acts were to be held valid. Ordination required the assistance of at least three bishops.

The Council of Nicaea, AD 325

The First Council of Nicaea was held in Nicaea in Bithynia (Iznik in modern Turkey); it was the first ecumenical conference of bishops of the Christian Church, and most significantly resulted in the Nicene Creed – the first uniform Christian doctrine. By 325, Arianism, a school of Christology which contended that Christ did not possess the divine essence of the Father but was rather a primordial creation and an entity subordinate to God, had become sufficiently widespread and controversial in early Christianity that Constantine called the Council of Nicaea in an attempt to end the controversy by establishing an empire-wide, or ecumenical, orthodoxy. The council came up with the original text of the Nicene Creed, which rejected the Arian confession and upheld that Christ is ‘true God’ and ‘of one essence with the Father’.

Additionally, the council promulgated twenty new church laws (canons), that is, unchanging rules of discipline. Here are some of them.

Prohibition of self-castration; establishment of a minimum term for catechumen (a young Christian preparing for confirmation); prohibition of the presence in the house of a cleric of a younger woman who might bring him under suspicion; prohibition of usury among the clergy; prohibition of kneeling during the liturgy, on Sundays and in the fifty days of Eastertide (the Pentecost).

Standing was the usual posture for prayer at this time, as it still is among the Eastern Orthodox. Eventually, Western Christianity adopted the term Pentecost to refer to the last Sunday of Eastertide, the fiftieth day.

For the first time, the emperor played a role, by convening the bishops under his authority, and using the power of the state to give the council’s orders effect. This was the start of the Constantinian shift.

The Edict of Thessalonica (also known as Cunctos populos), jointly issued on 27 February 380 by emperors Theodosius I, Gratian, and Valentinian II, made Nicene Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire. It condemned other Christian creeds such as Arianism as heresies of madmen, and authorised their persecution. It re-affirmed a single expression of the Apostolic faith as legitimate in the Roman Empire, ‘catholic’ (that is, universal) and ‘orthodox’ (that is, correct in teaching).

Constantine died in York in 337 – he was the first emperor to embrace the Christian faith, beginning the ending of the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire in what was later known as the Triumph of the Church, the Peace of the Church or the Constantinian Shift.

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