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Thu 5 December 2019
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The Count of the Saxon Shore recalls some of the post Roman pirates and renegades who promised to ‘Make Britain Great Again’

‘Britain is a land fertile with tyrants,’ wrote St Jerome at the beginning of the 5th Century AD.


Carausius coin from Londinium mint. On the reverse, the lion, symbol of Legio IV Flavia Felix.

He was referring to a succession of usurpers who used this island as a power base to challenge the centralised authority of Rome, whilst ruthlessly pursuing their own ambitions. Each engineered a Brexit from the empire that would end in disaster and the first of these began on the Saxon Shore.

Taking Back Control

Carausius was in charge of the Classis Britannicus, a fleet based in the English Channel tasked with protecting its coasts from Saxon and Frankish pirates.

By 286 AD, his operation against piracy had achieved some success but, when it was discovered that he was keeping much of the recovered loot for himself, his arrest was ordered. Fearing that he would be executed as a traitor, Carausius acted swiftly, declaring himself emperor of an independent Britain.

How he managed to win support for this from the army remains a mystery, but given his corrupt practices they might well have been bought off. And his actions could have gained local popular support as a reaction against taxation and the movement of resources from the province. One thing is certain: he used money as propaganda.

The new coinage minted for his regime was stamped with bold slogans declaring him restitutor Britanniae (‘restorer of Britain’) and genius Britanniae (‘spirit of Britain’). He even used populist poetics in his campaign to ‘Make Britannia Great Again’ with the acronym RSR, referring to the phrase redeunt Saturnia regna (‘the reign of Saturn is back’) –in other words ‘the golden age has returned’ –from the forth Ecologue of Virgil. To use this much loved poet was a cunning ploy, to promise a new beginning with the reassurance that order and tradition remain secure.

A Bloody Remain Campaign

Of course, Carausius knew that Britain could not survive very long without a deal with the European superstate. He vainly hoped that he might rule as a co-emperor with Diocletian and Maximian who jointly ran the Continent.  So he produced other coins picturing the three of them together with the rather craven legend Carausius et frates sui (‘Carausius and his brothers’)

Such compliments remained unreciprocated and as the Empire began to strike back his own cabinet turned on him. He was overthrown and assassinated by his own finance minister, Allectus.

The brief reign of Allectus ended in chaos in 296 AD. His Frankish mercenaries routed by invading Romans threatened to pillage London as they retreated in disarray. The city was saved and another coin was minted to commemorate the triumph of Constantius, who led the invasion force.

Here he is welcomed by a kneeling figure representing London, hoping to be back in the European fold. An image that, depending on your viewpoint, could represent the worst fears that contemporary Leavers have of our capital, or a vision of how current Londoners actually might feel after ten years of Brexit.

They’ll be more about the usurpers of Britain next week. In the meantime I note that very icon of Englishness, Paul Weller, has spoken out against Brexit in an interview with The Sunday Times. He cites the danger of racism, of ‘whipping up hysteria and fear, which drags us back into the Dark Ages again.’

Has he been reading this column?

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