The first British Empire

In the third century AD, Britain was the epicentre of a massive rebellion that shook the Roman empire to its core. Kevin Butcher tells the story of Britannia's usurper emperors...

Gold medallion of Constantius I, from the mint of Trier. It depicts Constantius celebrating his victory over Alectus in AD 296. Constantius is shown on a horse at the gates of London, welcomed by Britannia. (Photo by CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the June 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine 

Anyone with a scintilla of interest in Roman history knows the story. While the Roman empire was at its height, Britain was a murky, barbaric backwater – an insignificant rain-soaked outpost shivering on the edge of the known world. But in the late third century AD, at least, this well-worn cliche couldn’t have been further from the truth. For, in the 280s and 290s, two men – the brilliant tactician Carausius, and his ruthless successor, Allectus – propelled Britain to the centre of world events. Not only did they lead a breakaway empire from their power base in Britannia, they challenged the very authority of Rome itself.

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