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The Tetrarchy

To keep the vast empire from disintegration, the emperor Diocletian divided the territory between himself and co-emperor Maximian, who was given the title of Augustus after one year from his appointment. They also designated two junior emperors (Caesars) named Constantine Chlorus (the Pale) and Galerius into an arrangement which turned into a Tetrarchy. Maximian received the Western Roman Empire with Constantius as a junior emperor of the territory, while Diocletian focused on the Eastern Empire with Galerius as junior emperor. This eventually led to the reign of Maxentius as recorded on the Biblical Timeline with World History around 325 AD.

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Early Life

Maxentius was the son of Emperor Maximian and his wife, Eutropia. His father became an emperor when Maxentius was only a young child. Years after his father’s accession as emperor, the alliance between Galerius and Maximian’s family was cemented with the marriage between Galerius’ daughter Valeria Maximilla and Maximian’s son Maxentius. The couple had two sons, Valerius Romulus and an unnamed younger child.

Constantine, Constantius Chlorus’ son and Maxentius lifelong rival, were also linked to the Tetrarchy in a complicated way. He married Maximian’s daughter Fausta and became the brother-in-law of Maxentius. Maxentius was passed over when his father, along with Diocletian, voluntarily abdicated in favor of their junior emperors. However, Constantius died in 306 AD, which compelled his troops to instil his popular son Constantine. Two more Caesars, Severus and Maximinus Daia, were appointed to replace Constantius Chlorus and Galerius who now held most of the power after the death of his co-emperor.

“The Basilica of Maxentius in the Roman Forum. Completed by his enemy Constantine, it was one of the most impressive edifices of ancient times.”

The Emperor

Severus’ plan of getting rid of the Praetorian Guard and the imposition of taxes on the Romans who were previously exempted pushed Maxentius out of his dark past and into the spotlight. To prevent those things from happening, three officials convinced Maxentius to accept the role of emperor. He was proclaimed Augustus on October 28, 306 AD (although he preferred the title princeps at first). He asked his father-in-law for recognition, but it was not given as he supported Severus as consul and Maxentius pushed back with the rejection of Severus as consul for the year 307.

Maxentius needed money to gain the support he needed from the Senate and the army—something he sorely lacked. He decided to raise the taxes imposed on the Romans to strengthen his own army; a move that made him more unpopular among the people. Galerius was forced to intervene by sending Severus, plus his troops against Maxentius. Unfortunately for Severus, Maxentius bribed his officers (which included his Praetorian Prefect) to desert him, and he was forced to flee to Ravenna. Severus was killed or committed suicide after Maxentius tracked him in the city.

Maximian and Maxentius later sought the support of Constantine with an offer of marriage between him and Maxentius’ sister, Fausta. Minervina. Constantine’s first wife and mother of his first son Crispus, was either conveniently dead or divorced from him so he accepted this offer. After their marriage in 307 AD, Constantine recognised the rule of his brother-in-law but did not openly support him.

Maxentius versus Constantine

The year 308 AD was the start of Maxentius’ decline after he was publicly opposed by his own father when he attempted to turn the troops against him. Surprisingly, the troops refused to side with Maximian, and he fled to Constantine to ask for support. Maxentius was passed over for the role of Augustus when Licinius was appointed. He was proclaimed by the Carthaginians of Domitius Alexander as emperor. Not only had Maxentius lost an important ally in North Africa, but he also lost Rome’s primary source of grain.

Civil Wars and Death

The death of his son Valerius Romulus in 309 AD was a painful blow to Maxentius. In the same year, Licinius wrested the control of Istria from him. Galerius died shortly and at this point, the Tetrarchy was on the brink of dissolution. The empire was nothing more than a free-for-all for the remaining rulers, and each one wanted to grab a piece. At first, Maxentius was supported by Christians but by 312 AD, his popularity went down after his imposition of high taxes to support his army and to fund his construction projects.

The people now switched sides to the more popular Constantine. To strengthen his rule, Constantine offered his young sister Constantia in marriage to the much-older Licinius to form an alliance. Maxentius, meanwhile, formed an alliance with Maximinus Daia. This escalated into a full-scale civil war. Licinius eagerly went up against Maximinus Daia to show Constantine his loyalty. He defeated Maximinus at the Battle of Tzirallum. He fled and died some time later in the city of Tarsus after he ingested poison. Meanwhile, the rivalry between Constantine and Maxentius culminated in the Battle of Milvian Bridge, where the latter died after the pontoon bridge he used in his attempt to escape gave way and sank in the Tiber River. Maxentius drowned in the river along with many of his soldiers, and his body was publicly displayed in the city the next day. After the death of Maxentius, nothing stood in the way of Constantine’s domination of Rome.

Public Domain,
Syvanne, Ilkka. Military History of Late Rome 284-361. Pen and Sword, 2015.
Bauer, S. Wise. The History of the Ancient World: From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome. New York: W.W. Norton, 2007.
Lenski, Noel Emmanuel. The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Constantine. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
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