Who was Roman Emperor Maximian and what did he do?

From humble beginnings to the height of power, Maximian stood tall amidst a tempest of political intrigue and barbarian threats. A paradoxical figure, he fortified the empire with his military prowess, while his relentless ambition and dark persecution of Christians cast a long shadow on his storied legacy. Here’s the captivating tale of Marcus Aurelius Valerius Maximianus.

History Rulers
13 May 2023

Armed with Herculean strength and a fierce determination, Emperor Maximian rose to power, commanding the Western Roman Empire with an iron grip. A skilled warrior and strategist, he navigated a world riddled with barbarian invasions and political intrigue, leaving a lasting, albeit complex, legacy on the pages of Roman history.

When Diocletian came to the throne in 284 AD, he realised very quickly the empire was too big and the issues it faced too complex for one man to rule effectively. In 293 AD, he established the Tetrarchy, splitting the Roman Empire into regions ruled by two emperors (Augusti) and their juniors – and probable successors – known as Caesares. The first two emperors were Diocletian and Maximian.

The Crisis of the Third Century had a profoundly negative effect on the empire and the Tetrarchy helped to restore stability to Rome, ease the process of succession, and to deal with the constant threat of barbarian invasion. While it was meant to last for centuries, in fact it only lasted until the mid-320s and the beginning of the age of Constantine the Great.

Let’s discover the astonishing life and times of the man nicknamed Maximianus Herculius and we’ll find out what happened to Maximian.

The Early Life & Career of Emperor Maximian

Diocletian rejects Maximian (Credit: mikroman6 via Getty Image)

Almost nothing is known of Maximian’s early life, including his name. It’s believed he was born into a poor family around 250 AD. It’s unlikely he had any type of formal schooling and while historical sources allude to his homeland – possibly in modern-day Serbia, Hungary or somewhere along the Danube – facts are scarce.

Like many rulers before and after him, he joined the army. He served with distinction, notably under emperors Aurelian, Probus and Carus, and may have fought alongside Diocletian when both were young men.

When the latter came to power in 284 AD, he named Marcus Aurelius Valerius Maximianus as Caesar the following year and, in 286 AD, Augustus, granting him control over the western provinces of the Roman Empire. In theory they were co-emperors but history suggests Maximian was always subordinate to Diocletian, the ruler in the east.

Aurelius Victor, a historian writing a century later described Maximian as ‘a colleague trustworthy in friendship, if somewhat boorish, and of great military talents.’

He was given the epithet Maximianus Herculius, ‘the Herculean one’ due to his physical strength and military prowess. His first military conquest was over the summer and autumn of 285 AD against an obscure band of Gaulish peasants known as the Bagaudae. The rag-tag militia was no match for the might of the Roman army and the revolt was quickly crushed.

A Germanic reaction ensued and again, Maximian quelled the attacks from the Burgundians and Alemanni in Germany.

Maximianus & Carausius

Carausius seizing the Roman fleet (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

In 286 AD, Maximian appointed a naval commander named Carausius to rid the English Channel of Saxon and Frankish pirates. While Carausius proved effective at this task, he was also accused of keeping the plunder for himself rather than returning it to the coffers of Rome.

In response to these accusations and the threat of execution, Carausius declared himself emperor of Britain and parts of northern Gaul, effectively seceding from the Roman Empire. He established a separate administration, struck his own coinage, and sought to legitimise his rule by presenting himself as a restorer of Britain’s liberty and prosperity.

This dramatically undermined Maximian’s authority and he moved to appoint Constantius Chlorus, the father of Constantine the Great, as his Caesar in 293 AD. Constantius launched a successful campaign against Carausius’ forces in Gaul, which eventually led to the assassination of Carausius.

Maximianus Herculius The Soldier

Maximian (Photo by Icas94 / De Agostini Picture Library via Getty Images)

Between 286 AD and around 302 AD, Maximian spent much of his time campaigning around Europe and Africa. He first targeted tribes along the Rhine including the powerful Burgundians and Alemanni and then the weaker Heruli and Chaibones. By the winter of 287 AD, one historian wrote ‘all I see beyond the Rhone is Roman.’

In 288 AD, emperor Maximian attacked a region covering much of southwest Germany known as Agri Decumates which added large tracts of land under Roman control.

Maximian later turned his attentions to North Africa. He dealt with a rebellion by a Mauretanian tribe known as the Quinquegentiani and while he was there he took the time to solidify the empire’s African borders. By 299 AD, Marcus Aurelius Valerius Maximianus had returned to Rome and getting on in years, he left much of the fighting to his junior colleague Constantius.

Retirement & Re-Election: What Happened to Maximian?

Constantius (Photo by: Pictures From History/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

In 303 AD Diocletian celebrated his twentieth anniversary on the throne, his vicennalia. Two years later, both men retired and the titles of Augusti went to the incumbent Caesares Constantius and Galerius. It was assumed that the new Caesares would include Maximian’s son Maxentius, but he was ignored in favour of an army comrade and a nephew of Galerius. Incensed, Maxentius staged a coup d’etat in October 306 AD and was declared Augustus.

After Maxentius was crowned as emperor in 306 AD, Maximianus Herculius returned from retirement to support his son’s rule, reclaiming the title of Augustus. However, Maximian’s ambition led him to attempt a coup against his son-in-law, Constantine the Great, in 308 AD, which ended in failure and resulted in his exile.

In 310 AD, Maximian was implicated in a plot against Constantine and was either executed on Constantine’s orders or forced to commit suicide. Consequently, Maximian’s death marked the end of a tumultuous career, defined by both military prowess and a relentless thirst for power.


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