The late centuries of Rome witness many a rebellious general but the smart money in a civil war rarely fancied the guy whose power base was distant Britannia. With his bombastic name and balls to back it, Magnus bigly bucked those odds, defeating and murdering the western Augustus Gratian in Gaul in 383. From there he bossed Africa, Britain, and his native Spain for several years.
The departure from Britain of this local chancer made good would prove to correspond approximately with the empire’s crumbling foothold on on the island, with the sandal-shorn Roman feet in ancient times last walking upon England’s mountains green in 410. As the last, most scintillating representative of Roman Britain, Magnus Maximus has survived into legend — extolled for example by Geoffrey of Monmouth as the title hero of “The Dream of Macsen Wledig”. In it, “Macsen”/Maximus weds a Welsh princess and sires a native dynasty, granting Brittany to the Britons in gratitude for their aid as he conquers Rome.
But forget living in legend. The real Magnus Maximus, like every aspirant to the dangerous purple, mostly just worried about living out the next campaign season.
He had a spell of tense peace with his eastern opposite number, during which time Maximus — a staunch Nicene Christian — had the distinction in 385 of decreeing the trial on trumped-up sorcery charges of the dissident bishop Priscillian. It’s widely, if loosely, accounted the very first intra-Christian heresy execution. (Saint Ambrose of Milan and St. Martin of Tours both intervened strongly to oppose this precedent which has spawned so very many imitations.)
Meanwhile Maximus and Theodosius maneuvered toward inevitable civil war and it is obvious from his presence on this here blog that Maximus on this occasion did not rise to his nomens. As Zosimus describes,
Theodosius, having passed through Pannonia [routing Maximus in the process -ed.] and the defiles of the Appennines, attacked unawares the forces of Maximus before they were prepared for him. A part of his army, having pursued them with the utmost speed, forced their way through the gates of Aquileia, the guards being too few to resist them. Maximus was torn from his imperial throne while in the act of distributing money to his soldiers, and being stripped of his imperial robes, was brought to Theodosius, who, having in reproach enumerated some of his crimes against the commonwealth, delivered him to the common executioner to receive due punishment.
Such was the end of Maximus and of his usurpation.*
The poet Pacatus thereafter paid the conquering Theodosius homage for this victory in one of antiquity’s great panegyrics. (Enjoy it in the original Latin here.) Sure he lost the war, but how many figures are both magnus and maximus in fields as disparate as Celtic mythology and classical rhetoric?
* After the post-Maximus arrangements Theodosius made in the west also went pear-shaped, necessitating yet another conquest and execution, Theodosius established himself as the emperor of both the eastern and western halves of the Roman world in 392. He was last man ever destined to enjoy that distinction.