Marcus Aurelius Valerius Maxentius († October 28, 312) was a usurper Roman emperor. The son of Emperor Maximian had himself proclaimed emperor in Rome on October 28, 306, and ruled Italy and North Africa, and at times Spain, until October 28, 312. He was not recognized as emperor by the highest-ranking Augustus Galerius and therefore waged a permanent civil war. At the same time he cared intensively for Italy, his power base, and had great buildings erected in the city of Rome, his residence. He died in the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, fighting against Constantine the Great.
Maxentius was born around 278, the exact year is unknown. He was the son of the later emperor Maximian, who came from Lower Pannonia, and Eutropia, who came from Syria.
Maximian was elevated to emperor by Diocletian in 285 and entrusted with the administration of the western half of the Roman Empire. Constantius I and Galerius, as “junior emperors” (Caesares), completed Diocletian”s system of a reign of four emperors, the so-called tetrarchy, from 293.
Whether Maxentius was considered heir to the throne at this time is uncertain. This is supported by the fact that he was addressed as successor in a eulogy from the year 289, and that he married Valeria Maximilla, the daughter of the emperor Galerius, at an early age (probably around 293), thus further strengthening the kinship connection to the emperors. On the other hand, we do not know of any higher civil or military offices held by Maxentius, and Diocletian apparently rejected succession in the tetrarchy on principle at an early stage. With Valeria Maximilla, Maxentius had two sons, Valerius Romulus (c. 293-309) and a younger one with an unknown name.
In 305, Diocletian abdicated and forced Maximian to take this step as well. The previous junior emperors Constantius and Galerius thus advanced to become “supreme emperors” (Augusti). Although there were two adult sons of emperors available in Maxentius and Constantine, Constantius” son, they were both passed over under the tetrarchic system (which, as noted, did not provide for dynastic succession) and instead Severus and Maximinus Daia were named Caesares. The Christian and historian Lactantius (de mortibus pers. 18) attributed this choice to the fact that Galerius had hated Maxentius and preferred candidates whom he could better influence; however, Lactantius” statements in this regard are not very reliable, since he detested Galerius in particular. More plausible would be that Diocletian, as mentioned, did not want to allow a succession, or that he considered Maxentius unsuitable for the military tasks of an emperor.
However, when Constantius died already in 306, the army in Britain raised his son Constantine to emperor on July 25. Galerius confirmed him as Caesar over Britain, Gaul and Hispania shortly thereafter. This set the precedent for Maxentius” elevation a few months later.
The elevation to emperor
Already since the so-called imperial crisis of the 3rd century, the city of Rome had lost much of its former importance as capital, and this trend had continued under the Tetrarchy. Nominally, it was still the center of the empire, but cities more convenient to the borders, such as Trier, Milan, Thessalonica, Nicomedia or Antioch, served as the emperors” permanent residence. Rome itself they visited only rarely.
After Diocletian had already greatly reduced the imperial guard stationed in Rome, the Praetorians, news reached Rome in 306 that the Praetorians were now to be withdrawn completely and, in addition, that Rome was to be subjected to the normal poll tax and thus placed on an equal footing with the other cities of the empire. As a result, there was unrest among the population and among the remaining troops. Some officers turned to Maxentius, who at that time was living on an estate near Rome, and offered him the emperorship. Obviously, they reckoned that Galerius, having confirmed Constantine in office, could not refuse to recognize Maxentius, the emperor”s son, either. Maxentius accepted, promised monetary gifts to the troops in the city, and was publicly proclaimed emperor on October 28, 306.
The usurpation apparently proceeded without major bloodshed (Zosimos mentions only one victim). The city prefect defected to Maxentius and retained his office. Presumably the conspirators also turned to Maximian, who had retired to a resting place in Lucania, to convince him to return to active politics as emperor. Maximian, however, refused for the time being.
Maxentius was recognized in central and southern Italy, in the African provinces and on the islands of Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica. Northern Italy, on the other hand, initially remained under the rule of Augustus Severus, who resided in Milan at the time. At first, Maxentius avoided the title Augustus and called himself princeps invictus, “unconquered ruler”, apparently in the hope that Galerius would recognize him as he had previously recognized Constantine (in Africa, Maxentius had himself dubbed Caesar on coins). Galerius, however, refused: he wanted to avoid that the elevations to the throne of Constantine and Maxentius were followed by further usurpations. Constantine controlled his father”s territories unchallenged and thus also the Rhine army, one of the great army groups of the empire, and Galerius could pretend in his case that it was the normal succession arrangement of the tetrarchy: the Augustus (“chief emperor”) Constantius died, the previous Caesar (“sub-emperor”) Severus succeeded him, and Constantine became the new Caesar. With Maxentius, neither was the case: There was no deceased emperor to replace, so he would be the fifth, and he had little military power. So it seemed that Maxentius” usurpation could be suppressed relatively easily. In the spring of 307, therefore, Augustus Severus marched on Rome with an army.
Most of this army, however, consisted of soldiers who had previously served for years under Maxentius” father Maximian. The latter had meanwhile been persuaded by Maxentius to don the imperial purple again; presumably, however, Maximian had secretly been dissatisfied with his forced resignation anyway, at least this is suggested by his later actions. When Severus reached Rome, a large part of his forces defected to Maximian, who reminded the soldiers of his past as a successful general, and Maxentius, who followed up with large sums of money. Severus retreated with the rest of his army to Ravenna, where he surrendered to Maximian shortly thereafter. Maxentius now also took possession of northern Italy as far as the Alps and in the east as far as the Istrian peninsula and now also called himself Augustus, since a reconciliation with Galerius was obviously no longer possible.
Already in the summer of 307 Galerius personally tried to suppress the usurpation and also came to Italy with an army. Maxentius entrenched himself in Rome, which Galerius did not have the means to besiege and, moreover, could not rely on his troops. During the negotiations, Maxentius repeated what he had already succeeded in doing with Severus” army: with high bribes and the authority of the former emperor Maximian behind him, he persuaded many of Galerius” soldiers to defect to him. Galerius had to retreat as a result. Probably in connection with Galerius” invasion, Severus was killed by Maxentius, although the circumstances of his death are not completely certain. After that, Maxentius” rule over Italy and Africa was firmly established.
In 307, Maxentius still tried to establish good relations with Constantine, probably also in order to receive support from him in the fight against Galerius. To this end, Maximian traveled to Gaul in the summer to marry Constantine to his daughter Fausta, Maxentius” sister. Despite (or because of) the kinship relations established in this way, Constantine remained neutral in the conflict between Galerius and Maxentius.
After Maximian”s return from Gaul, there was a break between father and son in April 308; however, Maxentius had already not been mentioned in the wedding speech. At an army meeting in Rome, Maximian tried to depose his son, snatching the purple mantle from him. However, the soldiers present sided with Maxentius, so Maximian had to leave Italy. He fled to his son-in-law Constantine in Gaul.
At the Carnuntum Emperor”s Conference in the fall of the same year, which Diocletian also attended, the absent Maxentius was again denied recognition as a legitimate emperor. In place of Severus, Licinius was appointed Augustus with the task of taking action against Maxentius.
At the end of 308, the troops of the African provinces rebelled and elevated Domitius Alexander to emperor in Carthage. The loss of North Africa put Maxentius in a difficult position, as his capital Rome was dependent on grain supplies from these provinces. Nevertheless, it was not until 310 that Maxentius succeeded in sending an army under the command of his praetorian prefect Rufius Volusianus, which defeated Domitius Alexander and put down the revolt; the renegade provinces were severely punished. In return, Maxentius lost Istria to Licinius in the same year, but he could not continue the campaign because he had to take over the defense of the Danube frontier from the terminally ill Galerius. Hispania was lost to Constantine, as coin finds from the first half of 310 prove.
Maxentius” son Valerius Romulus, whom he had intended as his successor, died in 309 at the age of about 14. Maxentius had him elevated to god (divus) and buried in a mausoleum on the grounds of Maxentius” villa on the Via Appia.
After Maximian”s renewed attempt to regain the imperial dignity, for which he had schemed against Constantine, and his subsequent death in 310, Maxentius” relations with Constantine quickly deteriorated. The latter had entered into an alliance with Licinius after the death of Galerius in 311, and it seemed only a matter of time before either emperor would again move against Maxentius. Maxentius tried to protect himself by forming an alliance with Maximinus Daia, who was the highest-ranking Augustus at the time. Although this finally gave Maxentius, who had been ostracized as a usurper until then, de facto recognition within the tetrarchic system as co-emperor in the West, it no longer had any military effect.
In the spring of 312, Constantine crossed the Alps with an army of about 40,000 men; it was somewhat outnumbered by Maxentius” troops, but in return was much more battle-hardened. In several battles, especially at Turin and Verona, Constantine defeated Maxentius” army stationed in northern Italy; Maxentius” praetorian prefect, Ruricius Pompeianus, also fell at Verona. By the end of October, Constantine”s army reached the outskirts of Rome. Maxentius could be expected to entrench himself in Rome and sit out the siege, which would become significantly more costly and costly in terms of losses for the attacker; he had thus been successful against both Severus and Galerius. Surprisingly, however, perhaps due to pressure from the urban Roman population who did not want to endure a long siege, he decided to confront Constantine at Milvian Bridge on October 28, 312, in an open battle (Battle of Milvian Bridge). Ancient sources generally attribute this decision to omens, Maxentius” superstition, or divine providence. A major role may have been played by the fact that the day of the battle was also his dies imperii, the auspicious day of his inauguration as emperor: he had been proclaimed emperor on October 28, 306.
The battle took place in the north of the city, a few kilometers outside the walls and on the far bank of the Tiber along the Via Flaminia. Possibly Maxentius wanted to destroy the enemy army in a cauldron battle; but if this was the plan, he failed, as the attackers were able to break through his lines. According to Lactantius, Constantine fought under the sign of the Christian cross, which had previously appeared to him in a dream. He defeated Maxentius” troops, who retreated towards the city. While trying to cross the Tiber, Maxentius fell into the river and drowned. His body was found and the head was carried the next day at Constantine”s entry into Rome as proof of his death. The Praetorian Guard, which had remained loyal to Maxentius until the end, was disbanded.
In 2005, during excavations at the Palatine, the insignia of rule of Maxentius were discovered, apparently buried almost 1700 years earlier. A connection with the emperor”s death in battle is very likely; apparently his insignia of rule were to be hidden from the victors. Although the insignia of Roman rulers are well known from written and pictorial sources, this is the only case so far in which the originals are now actually available.
We are poorly informed about the internal conditions of Maxentius”s reign, since no source gives a detailed account of it and most are strongly influenced by the later propaganda of the victor Constantine.
Maxentius” position was based, on the one hand, on the nimbus of the city of Rome, which was still recognized as the real capital of the Empire and as its conservator (and finally, at the beginning of his reign, on the authority of his father Maximian, that is, on the dynastic principle.
Initially, he had only a few troops, mainly the Imperial Guards (Praetorians) and city militias stationed in Rome. After the campaigns of Severus and Galerius, however, his army had increased quite a bit through defections, and eventually he also withdrew troops from North Africa after its reconquest to protect Italy. Compared to his rivals, however, Maxentius” military power was never particularly great. The reason for this was that he did not have access to any of the three major deployment areas of the Roman army on the Rhine, lower Danube, and Euphrates, but ruled over an area that traditionally had only a small concentration of troops and did not include any of the important recruiting areas.
One reason for Maxentius” elevation to emperor had been the planned taxation of Rome; accordingly, the population of the capital probably remained privileged. Nevertheless, Maxentius needed large sums of money to finance the generous donations to the soldiers (especially the bribes to the troops of Severus and Galerius), his representation, the extensive building program in Rome, and finally the general defense of his domain. In particular, the initially good relationship with the Senate seems to have been strained by “voluntary” levies from this estate. A number of prominent senators, including the aforementioned praetorian prefect Volusianus, continued their careers unhindered under Constantine after Maxentius” death, which has been interpreted in various ways as an indication that parts of the Senate supported Constantine. The minting of numerous coins of inferior metal content, which the emperor began as early as the crisis year 307, also served to raise money. The loss of Africa and the resulting restrictions on the supply of grain led to a famine in Rome and riots in the city (neither of which contributed to Maxentius” popularity).
Extensive, especially in view of the short reign, was the building program of Maxentius. In Rome, he restored the Temple of Venus and Roma opposite the Colosseum, built the Maxentius Villa complex on the Via Appia with the circus and mausoleum, and began construction of the Maxentius Basilica at the Roman Forum, which was then completed by Constantine. Outside the capital, an extensive road-building program in Italy is particularly noteworthy.
In his religious policy, Maxentius showed himself to be a worshipper of traditional gods that recalled the ancient greatness of Rome; particularly prominent are Hercules and Mars, his father”s patron gods. Towards Christianity he nevertheless showed himself tolerant and ended any persecution in his part of the empire. During his reign, as an aftermath of the Diocletianic persecution, there were sometimes bloody conflicts within the Christian community, so that Maxentius was forced to expel two Roman bishops in succession, Marcellus I and Eusebius, in 309. However, he did not hinder the actual practice of religion; on the contrary, he even returned parts of the expropriated property to the church and allowed bishop elections again. The accusations of hostile tradition (especially Eusebius of Caesarea) that he was a brutal persecutor of Christians are demonstrably false and were intended to justify the actions of the later victor Constantine.
After Constantine”s victory, Maxentius was consistently demonized and portrayed as a cruel, bloodthirsty and incompetent tyrant. This influence of official propaganda also led to his being counted among the persecutors by later Christian tradition, although contemporary sources such as Lactantius report nothing about it. This defamation left its mark on all surviving sources, Christian and pagan, and determined the image of Maxentius until the 20th century. Only a more extensive use of non-literary sources such as coins and inscriptions and a more critical approach to the written news about Maxentius” reign have led to a revision of the assessment of this emperor.
Monographs and essays