Constantine III (Western Roman Emperor)

Constantine III
Co-emperor[1] of the Western Roman Empire

Coin of Constantine III.
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
Religion Nicene Christianity

Flavius Claudius Constantinus,[1] known in English as Constantine III (died 18 September 411) was a Roman general who declared himself Western Roman Emperor in Britannia in 407 and established himself in Gaul.

Recognised by the Emperor Honorius in 409, collapsing support and military setbacks saw him abdicate in 411. He was captured and executed shortly afterwards.


On 31 December 406, several tribes of Barbarian invaders, including the Vandals, the Burgundians, the Alans and the Sueves, crossed the Rhine perhaps near Mainz, and overran the Roman defensive works in a successful invasion of the Western Roman Empire.[3] This was a blow to the Western Empire from which it never recovered. The Roman authorities were never able to eject or destroy these invaders, most of whom eventually settled in Spain and North Africa, nor to face the movements of the Franks, Burgundians and Visigoths in Gaul at the same time.[4]

Also, a contributing factor of major importance was the disunity among the Romans themselves. A unified Empire with the full support of a loyal population willing to make the necessary sacrifices to overcome invaders/settlers had shown in the past it was possible to keep the Empire's borders secure.[4]

At the time of this invasion, the provinces of Britain were in revolt,[5] setting up and pulling down a series of usurpers, which ended with the elevation of Constantine early in 407.[1] 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.[6] A common soldier, but one of some ability,[7] Constantine moved quickly. He crossed the English Channel to the continent at Bononia[4] and (historians have assumed) took along with him all of the mobile troops left in Britain, thus denuding the province of any first line military protection and explaining their disappearance in the early fifth century.[8]

Constantine's two generals Iustinianus and the Frank Nebiogastes, leading the vanguard of his forces, were defeated by Sarus,[9] and Stilicho's lieutenant, with Nebiogastes being first trapped in, then killed outside, Valence.[10] However, 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 secured the Rhine frontier, and garrisoned the passes that led from Gaul 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

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

In the summer of 408, as the Roman forces in Italy assembled to counterattack, Constantine had other plans. Fearful that several cousins of the Emperor Honorius in Hispania, which was a stronghold of the House of Theodosius[13] and loyal to the ineffectual emperor, would organize an attack from that direction while troops under Sarus and Stilicho attacked him from Italy in a pincer maneuver, he struck first at Hispania.[15] He summoned his eldest son Constans from the monastery where he was dwelling, elevated him to Caesar, or co-emperor,[16] and sent him with the general Gerontius towards Hispania.[8] 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 whereas Theodosiolus escaped to Constantinople.[4]

Constans left his wife and household at Saragossa under the care of Gerontius to return to report to Arles.[17] Meanwhile, the loyalist Roman army mutinied at Ticinum (Pavia) on 13 August, which was followed by the execution of the patrician Stilicho on 22 August.[4] As a by-product of these events, the actions of an intrigue within the Imperial court, the general, Sarus, abandoned the western army followed by his men; this left the Emperor Honorius in Ravenna without any significant military power, and also facing the problem of a Gothic army under Alaric roaming unchecked in Etruria.[18] So, when Constantine's envoys arrived to parley at Ravenna, the fearful Honorius eagerly recognized Constantine as co-emperor, and the two were joint consuls for the year 409.[17]

March on Italy

That year was the high-water mark of Constantine's success. But by September, the tribes that had overrun the Rhine defenses,[19] and had spent the intervening two years and eight months burning and plundering their way through Gaul, had reached the Pyrenees, where they broke through Constantine's garrisons and entered Hispania.[8] While Constantine prepared to send his son Constans back to deal with this crisis, word came that his general Gerontius had rebelled, raising his own man and relative, Maximus of Hispania, as co-emperor.[9] Despite Constantine's best efforts, his fear of an attack from Hispania did come to pass the following year, when Gerontius advanced with the support of his barbarian allies.[20]

About the same time Saxon pirates raided Britain, which Constantine had left defenseless.[21] Obviously upset 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 rebelled against Constantine's authority and expelled his officials.[16]

Constantine's response to this tightening circle of enemies was a final desperate gamble: he marched on Italy with the remaining troops left to him,[19] encouraged by the entreaties of one Allobich who wanted to replace Honorius with a more capable ruler.[8] But this invasion ended in defeat, with Allobich losing his life and Constantine forced to retreat into Gaul in the late spring of 410.[8]

Constantine's position grew even more untenable; his forces facing the rebel Gerontius were defeated at Vienne (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.[8]

Surrender and execution

At the same time a new general was found to support Honorius. The future Constantius III, who arrived at Arles, put Gerontius to flight and then took over the siege of Constantine in Arles.[19] Constantine held out, hoping for the return of his general Edobichus who was raising troops in northern Gaul amongst the Franks,[21] but on his return Edobichus was defeated by a simple stratagem.[22]

Constantine's last slender hope faded when his last troops guarding the Rhine abandoned him to support Jovinus and he was forced to surrender.[18] Despite the promise of safe passage, and Constantine's assumption of clerical offices, Constantius imprisoned the former soldier and had him beheaded on his way to Ravenna[23] in either August or September 411.[24]

Although Gerontius committed suicide in Hispania,[25] and Athaulf the Visigoth later suppressed the revolt of Jovinus,[22][26] 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."[27]


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 legendary Historia Regum Britanniae, where he comes to power following Gracianus Municeps' reign, which had ended with his assassination. Geoffrey actually seems to have conflated the historical Constantine III with an unrelated Cornish king of the same name, Custennin Gorneu.[28] As the Welsh name Custennin is derived from Latin Constaninus, it is possible that Geoffrey picked up the name from a Welsh Arthurian genealogy resembling those found in Bonedd yr Arwyr #30a and Mostyn MS 117 #5. This has led to much confusion among modern scholars, but beyond their names, Geoffrey's fictional Constantine does not resemble the historical one.[29]

In some versions of the legend, Vortigern was Constantine's seneschal. This story was repeated in many retellings of the Arthurian cycle, including Robert de Boron's Merlin and the Lancelot-Grail Cycle, though the narrative greatly contradicts the known history of this period.

See also


Primary sources

Secondary sources


  1. 1 2 3 Jones, pg. 316
  2. Jones, pg. 638
  3. Bury, pg. 138
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 Gibbon, Ch. 30
  5. Zosimus, 6:1:2
  6. Zosimus, 7:40:5
  7. Orosius, 7:40:4
  8. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Elton, Constantine III (407-411 A.D.)
  9. 1 2 3 Birley, pg. 460
  10. Zosimus, 6:2:3
  11. Zosimus, 6:2:4
  12. Birley, pgs. 458-459
  13. 1 2 Bury, pg. 140
  14. Jones, pg. 113
  15. Zosimus, 6:2:5
  16. 1 2 Birley, pg. 459
  17. 1 2 Bury, pg. 141
  18. 1 2 Gibbon, Ch. 31
  19. 1 2 3 Canduci, pg. 152
  20. Bury, pg.142
  21. 1 2 Bury, pg. 143
  22. 1 2 Bury, pg. 144
  23. Canduci, pg. 153
  24. Jones, pg. 316 – His head reached Ravenna on September 18, 411
  25. Jones, pg. 508
  26. Canduci, pg. 155
  27. Birley, Anthony, The People of Roman Britain, University of California Press (1980), pg. 160
  28. David Nash Ford's Early British Kingdoms: Constantine Corneu
  29. Peter Bartrum, A Welsh Classical Dictionary, National Library of Wales, 1993, pp. 157-158.
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Constantine III (usurper).
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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