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Victor Magnus Maximus Perpetuus Trimphator semper Augustus Siricio Parenti

Magnus Maximus

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Sources from the 4th-century Roman Empire are scarce, and first-hand documents from the time are nearly nonexistent. It is rare for us to have direct quotes from many of the Emperors of this period. This is why I had to investigate when I heard that two letters of Magnus Maximus had been preserved in a Church codex. The Letters are the 39th, and 40th letters of the codex called the Collectio Avellana. The first letter, 39, seems to have been modified slightly based on its title reading "LETTER OF THE TYRANT MAXIMUS TO VALENTINIAN THE YOUNGER, AGAINST THE ARIANS AND THE MANICHEANS." A Roman Emperor would never address himself or his college as a "tyrant," so the title was likely changed after Maximus's defeat in 388. Letter 39 likely dates to A.D. 386 and has Maximus discussing with Emperor Valentinian II the conflicts that arose in Milan between the Arian and Nicene Christians. It should be known that by the time the letter reached the Court of Valentinian at Milian, the actual conflict between the factions of Christians would have been resolved. The letter was likely intended to bolster Maximus's support of the Nicene Christians in Italy against the Arian-dominated court of Valentinian II. My main takeaway from reading this letter is that Maximus was a sly politician who knew how to exploit division in Valentinian's court. Maximus likey saw Valentinian II for what he was; a 14-year-old boy who a barbarian general, Flavius Bauto, was propping up and who was under the thumb of an Arian mother.  To a military man whose career spanned back at least to the 360s, this situation was seen as intolerable.

Letter 40 dates to 384-386 and likely is preserved in its entirety. Maximus here is addressing himself to Pope Sircius as "Victor Magnus Maximus Perpetuus Triumphator Augustus." The letter gives us an exciting snapshot of the developments of the Roman state and Church during this period. What stands out to me is how Christianity had ingrained itself in the Empire relatively quickly. Maximus himself states, "I confess that the more that I experience the special verdict from the divinity in my favour, the greater concern I have for this faith. For indeed I have ascended to imperial rule directly from the font of salvation itself, and God has been with me as my patron in all my undertakings and successes and thinks it fitting to be today and, I hope, in perpetuity my protector and guardian, my dearest father." Maximus was born in the early to mid 330s when about 40% of the Empire was of the Christian faith, and by the time this letter had been composed, the number was likely approaching 90%. The logarithmic increase in Christianity within the Empire was an organic process that could not be reversed once it started. Maximus ends letter 40 with "AND BY THE HAND OF THE EMPEROR: May the Divinity keep you safe for many years," which I find fascinating as it likely means that the Emperor himself signed this document before it was sent to Pope Sircius. The fact that we have two documents from a defeated Emperor is a miracle in and of itself, as most men who lost civil wars usually had their memories censured and letters destroyed. However, from these letters and other scattered commentaries, we can tell that Maximus was talked fondly of by many writers, even after his defeat and death in 388 at the hands of Theodosius I. 

Despite being a defeated Emperor, Maximus was still spoken of fondly by many writers, even after his death in 388 at the hands of Theodosius I. Dr. Adrastos Omissi of the University of Glasgow has written an excellent paper on the subject of the two letters, which includes the English translations of the letters and his commentary. In his paper, he notes that:

"Sulpicius Severus' accounts are not so much their historical detail as the generally positive assessment they provide of Maximus' character. He writes in the Dialogi that, 'The emperor Maximus then ruled the state, a man whose whole life was worthy of praise, if only he had been permitted to refuse the diadem illegitimately thrust upon him by the tumultuous soldiery, or to avoid civil war.' Notably, Sulpicius' very next sentence, in many ways, exculpates Maximus for his crimes, for, 'a great Empire cannot be refused without danger, nor preserved without recourse to arms', and he stresses that Maximus routinely summoned Sulpicius' hero, Martin of Tours, to the court at Trier and discoursed with him on pious subjects, whilst Maximus' wife—concerning whom Sulpicius cannot contain his acclamation 'blessed woman!' (beata mulier) —waited personally on the saint at his table and washed his feet with her tears."

Additionally, Orosius, a firm Theodosian partisan, admits that Maximus was "an active and honest man, worthy of the name of Augustus had he not taken that title as a tyrant against the bonds of faith" (Oros. 7.34.9). It is highly unusual for a defeated usurper to be remembered as a ruler possessed of good qualities, but a memory of Maximus as such appears to have been preserved in the written record in Rome, Spain, Gaul, and perhaps even in the East in the decades immediately following his downfall.

In conclusion, the two letters preserved in the Collectio Avellana provide valuable insights into the political and religious climate of the late Roman Empire. While sources from this period are scarce, these letters demonstrate Maximus's political acumen and his support of the Nicene Christians in Italy against the Arian-dominated court of Valentinian II. The letters also highlight the rapid spread of Christianity within the Empire during this period, with Maximus himself acknowledging the faith's importance in his life. Despite his defeat, Maximus was remembered by some writers as a ruler possessed of good qualities, a very unusual thing to happen. Maximus seemed to have given the populace of the Western Empire what they needed most at the time, stability and a sense of hope. Despite the contested nature of his ascension to the throne, Maximus was able to maintain a relatively stable period of rule in the Western Empire, which had been in a state of turmoil for some time. His reputation as a just and pious ruler earned him the admiration of many, and he was able to effectively utilize his Christian faith to gain support from the populace. Although his reign was relatively short-lived, lasting only a few years, Maximus left a lasting impact on the Empire, and his legacy continued to be remembered and celebrated long after his death.

My most recent coin is a siliqua of Magnus Maximus struck at Trier from 383-388. The coin has a rather serious portrait of the Emperor on it, which contrasts with some other coin portraits I have of him.


Magnus Maximus AR Siliqua 

Trier Mint 

A.D. 383-388 

2.00 grams 

A map of the Roman world at the time the letters were written.



263793.pdf (gla.ac.uk)

Peace of Acilisene | Historical Atlas of Europe (early 387) | Omniatlas


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