Constantine III (Western Roman Emperor)

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Constantine III
Co-emperor of the Western Roman Empire with Honorius
Coin of Constantine III.
Emperor of the Roman Empire
Reign Usurper 407–409 (against Emperor Honorius)
Co-emperor 409–411 (with Honorius and Constans II)
Predecessor Gratian
Successor Honorius
Died 411 (before 18 September)
  • name unknown
Issue Constans II
Ambrosius Aurelianus (legend)
Full name
Flavius Claudius Constantinus
Regnal name
Imperator Caesar Flavius Claudius Constantius Augustus
Religion Nicene Christianity

Flavius Claudius Constantinus,[2] known in English as Constantine III (died shortly before 18 September 411) was a Roman general who declared himself Western Roman Emperor in Britannia in 407 and established himself in Gaul. He was co-emperor from 409 until 411.

Constantine rose to power during a bloody power struggle in Roman Britain and was acclaimed emperor by the local legions in 407. He promptly moved to Gaul, taking all of the mobile troops from Britain, to confront the various Germanic invaders which had crossed the Rhine the previous winter. After several battles with the forces of the Western Roman Emperor Honorius, Constantine gained the upper hand. As a result Honorius recognised Constantine as co-emperor in 409. The activities of the invading tribes, raids by Saxons on near-defenseless Britain and desertions by some of his top commanders led to a collapse of support. After further military setbacks he abdicated in 411. He was captured and executed shortly afterwards.


Roman Gaul prior to the crossing of the Rhine

In 406 the provinces of Roman Britain were in revolt. The garrisons had not been paid and had determined to choose their own leader.[3] Their first two choices, Marcus and Gratian, did not meet their expectations and were killed. Their third choice was Constantine and early in 407 they acclaimed him as emperor.[4][2] Fearful of a Germanic invasion and desperate for some sense of security in a world rapidly falling apart, the Roman military in Britain chose as their leader a man named after the famed emperor of the early fourth century, Constantine the Great, who had himself risen to power through a military coup in Britain.[5] A common soldier, but one of some ability,[6] Constantine moved quickly. He crossed the Channel to the continent at Bononia (Boulogne) and (historians have assumed) took with him all of the mobile troops left in Britain, thus denuding the province of any first line military protection and explaining the disappearance of the legions from Britannia in the early fifth century.[7] The Roman forces in Gaul (modern France) declared for him, followed by most of those in Hispania (modern Spain). On 31 December 406 several tribes of barbarian invaders, including the Vandals, the Burgundians, the Alans and the Sueves had crossed the Rhine, perhaps near Mainz, and overrun the Roman defensive works in a successful invasion of the Western Roman Empire.[8]

Constantine's forces won several confrontations with the Vandals and secured the line of the Rhine. and soon as far as the Alps. The sitting Western emperor, Honorius, ordered Stilicho, his leading general, or magister militum, to expel Constantine. Two of Constantine's generals, Iustinianus and the Frank Nebiogastes, leading the vanguard of his forces, were defeated by Sarus the Goth,[9] Stilicho's lieutenant; Nebiogastes was first trapped in, then killed outside, Valence.[10] Constantine sent another army headed by Edobichus and Gerontius, and Sarus was forced to retreat into Italy, needing to buy his passage through the Alpine passes from the brigand Bagaudae, who controlled them.[11] Constantine now controlled all of Gaul and garrisoned the Alpine passes into Italy.[12] By May 408 he had made Arles his capital,[13] where he appointed Apollinaris, the grandfather of Sidonius Apollinaris, as prefect.[14]

Recognition as co-emperor

In the summer of 408, as the Roman forces in Italy assembled to counterattack, Constantine had his own plans. Hispania was a stronghold of the House of Theodosius[13] and loyal to the ineffectual emperor. Constantine feared that several cousins of Emperor Honorius would organise an attack from that direction while troops under Sarus and Stilicho attacked him from Italy in a pincer manoeuvre. So he struck first at Hispania.[15] He summoned his eldest son, Constans, from the monastery where he was dwelling, elevated him to Caesar,[16] and sent him with the general Gerontius towards Hispania.[7] The cousins of Honorius were defeated without much difficulty and two – Didymus and Verinianus – were captured, while two others — Lagodius and Theodosiolus — managed to escape. Lagodius escaped to Rome while Theodosiolus escaped to Constantinople.[17]

Constans left his wife and household at Saragossa under the care of Gerontius and returned to Arles to report.[18] Meanwhile, the loyalist Roman army mutinied at Ticinum (Pavia) on 13 August, which was followed by the execution of Homorius' general Stilicho on 22 August.[19] These events were the result of an intrigue within the Imperial court and caused the general Sarus to abandon the western army, followed by his men. This left Honorius in Ravenna without any significant military power, while facing the problem of a Gothic army under Alaric roaming unchecked in northern Italy. So, when Constantine's envoys arrived to parley, the fearful Honorius recognised Constantine as co-emperor, and the two were joint consuls for the year 409.[18]

March on Italy

That year was Constantine's high-water mark. His forces had several successes against the tribes that had overrun the Rhine defences, but by September they had spent the intervening two years and eight months burning and plundering their way through Gaul. They reached the Pyrenees, where they broke through Constantine's garrisons and entered Hispania.[7] While Constantine prepared to send his son Constans back to deal with this crisis, word came that his general Gerontius had rebelled, raising his relative, Maximus of Hispania, as co-emperor.[9] Despite Constantine's best efforts, the feared attack from Hispania come the following year, when Gerontius advanced with the support of his barbarian allies.[20][21]

At about the same time Saxon pirates raided Britain, which Constantine had left defenceless.[22] Distressed that Constantine had neglected them in his efforts to establish his own empire and had failed to defend them against the assaults they had hoped he would prevent, the Roman inhabitants of Britain and Armorica (Brittany) rebelled against Constantine's authority and expelled his officials.[16][23]

Constantine's response to this tightening circle of enemies was a final desperate gamble: he marched on Italy with the troops left to him.[21] He was encouraged in this by the entreaties of officials of the western court who wanted to replace Honorius with a more capable ruler.[7] But the invasion ended in defeat, and Constantine forced to retreat into Gaul in the late spring of 410.[7]

Constantine's position grew untenable; his forces facing the rebel Gerontius were defeated at Vienne in 411 where his son Constans was captured and executed.[9] Constantine's praetorian prefect Decimus Rusticus, who had replaced Apollinaris a year earlier, abandoned Constantine to be caught up in the new rebellion of Jovinus in the Rhineland. Gerontius trapped Constantine inside Arles and besieged him.[7]

Surrender and execution

Constantine III portrayed on a siliqua. The reverse celebrates the victories of the Augusti.

At the same time a new general was found to support Honorius, the future Constantius III. He arrived at Arles and put Gerontius to flight. Gerontius committed suicide and many of his troops deserted to Constantius, who took over the siege.[21] Constantine held out, hoping for the return of Edobichus who was raising troops in northern Gaul amongst the Franks.[22] But on his arrival Edobichus was defeated in an ambush.[24] Constantine's hopes faded when his troops guarding the Rhine abandoned him to support Jovinus and he was forced to surrender. Despite the promise of safe passage, and Constantine's assumption of clerical office, Constantius imprisoned the former soldier and had him beheaded on his way to Ravenna[25] in either August or September 411.[26] His head, on a pole, was presented to Emperor Honorius on September 18. It was later displayed outside Carthage.[27]

Athaulf the Visigoth later suppressed the revolt of Jovinus.[28] Roman rule never returned to Britain after the death of Constantine III. As the historian Procopius later explained, "from that time onwards it remained under [the rule] of tyrants."[29]


Constantine III is also known as Constantine II of Britain. He was remembered as a King of the Britons in the Welsh chronicles and Geoffrey of Monmouth's highly popular and imaginative Historia Regum Britanniae, where he comes to power following Gracianus Municeps' reign. In this version the Britons ask the ruler of Armorica, Aldroenus, to be their ruler due to their lack of a ruler who can defend them against the barbarions. Aldroenus refuses, believing the country to have diminished, but sends his brother Constantine to rule instead. Constantine becomes King and has three sons, Constans, Aurelius and Uther[30], but is stabbed to death by a Pict.

Geoffrey seems to have conflated the historical Constantine III with an unrelated Cornish king of the same name, Custennin Gorneu.[31] This has led to confusion among modern scholars, but beyond their names Geoffrey's fictional Constantine does not resemble the historical one.[32]

See also


  1. ^ Jones, pg. 638
  2. ^ a b Jones, pg. 316
  3. ^ Zosimus, 6:1:2
  4. ^ Snyder 1998:19, Age of Tyrants.
  5. ^ Zosimus, 7:40:5
  6. ^ Orosius, 7:40:4
  7. ^ a b c d e f Elton, Constantine III (407–411 A.D.)
  8. ^ Bury, pg. 138
  9. ^ a b c Birley, pg. 460
  10. ^ Zosimus, 6:2:3
  11. ^ Zosimus, 6:2:4
  12. ^ Birley, pgs. 458–459
  13. ^ a b Bury, pg. 140
  14. ^ Jones, pg. 113
  15. ^ Zosimus, 6:2:5
  16. ^ a b Birley, pg. 459
  17. ^ Gibbon, Ch. 30
  18. ^ a b Bury, pg. 141
  19. ^ Gibbon, Ch. 30
  20. ^ Bury, pg.142
  21. ^ a b c Canduci, pg. 152
  22. ^ a b Bury, pg. 143
  23. ^ Higham 1992:71–72, Rome, Britain and the Anglo-Saxons, "Britain Without Rome".
  24. ^ Bury, pg. 144
  25. ^ Canduci, pg. 153
  26. ^ Jones, pg. 316
  27. ^ Heather, pg. 237
  28. ^ Canduci, pg. 155
  29. ^ Birley, pg. 160
  30. ^ Monmouth, Historia Regum Britanniae, 6:5
  31. ^ David Nash Ford's Early British Kingdoms: Constantine Corneu
  32. ^ Peter Bartrum, A Welsh Classical Dictionary, National Library of Wales, 1993, pp. 157–158.


Primary sources

Secondary sources

  • Birley, Anthony (2005), The Roman Government in Britain, Oxford: Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-925237-4 
  • Bury, J. B., A History of the Later Roman Empire from Arcadius to Irene, Vol. I (1889) London; New York: Macmillan OCLC 22138662
  • Canduci, Alexander (2010), Triumph & Tragedy: The Rise and Fall of Rome's Immortal Emperors, Millers Point, N.S.W.: Pier 9, ISBN 978-1-74196-598-8 
  • Gibbon, Edward, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1888) Philadelphia : J.B. Lippincott OCLC 692266633
  • Heather, Peter(2005) The Fall of the Roman Empire, Basingstoke and Oxford: Pan Macmillan ISBN 0-333-98914-7
  • Higham, Nicholas (1992), Rome, Britain and the Anglo-Saxons, London: B. A. Seaby, ISBN 1-85264-022-7 
  • Jones, Arnold Hugh Martin, John Robert Martindale, John Morris, The Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire, volume 2, Cambridge University Press, 1992, ISBN 0-521-20159-4
  • Elton, Hugh, Constantine III (407–411 A.D.), D.I.R.
  • Snyder, Christopher A. (1998), An Age of Tyrants: Britain and the Britons A.D. 400–600, University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, ISBN 0-271-01780-5 
  • C.E. Stevens, "Marcus, Gratian, Constantine", Athenaeum, 35 (1957), pp. 316–47
  • E.A. Thompson, "Britain, A.D. 406–410", Britannia, 8 (1977), pp. 303–318.

External links

Political offices
Preceded by
Anicius Auchenius Bassus,
Flavius Philippus
Consul of the Roman Empire
with Honorius and Theodosius II
Succeeded by
Legendary titles
Title last held by
Gracianus Municeps
King of Britain
Succeeded by
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