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The Oxford Dictionary of Late Antiquity
David GwynnDavid Gwynn

Maxentius Emperor 306–12. 

Marcus Aurelius Valerius Maxentius, son of the Augustus Maximian, exercised power from the City of Rome from his usurpation in 306 till he was defeated and killed by Constantine I at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge outside Rome on 28 October 312.

Maxentius was born c.283, the son of Maximian, Diocletian’s colleague as Augustus in the original Tetrarchy, and his wife Eutropia. When Diocletian and Maximian abdicated in 305, both Maxentius and the future Constantine I were passed over for promotion to imperial rank. On the death in 306 of Constantius I (one of the Augusti since the abdication of Diocletian and Maximian), his son Constantine was acclaimed by troops at York. Maxentius followed Constantine’s example and was hailed emperor at Rome by the Praetorian Guard with popular support. He initially styled himself Princeps Invictus, but in 307 took the title Augustus.

Maxentius failed to receive recognition from members of the new Tetrarchy, led by the Augustus Galerius (called Maximianus in most ancient sources). In 307 Galerius launched an attack on Italy, in an attempt to reinstate Severus the Tetrarch, but was repelled by Maxentius. In November 308, Maxentius was declared a public enemy by a conference of surviving emperors held at Carnuntum. Seeking legitimacy and support, Maxentius restored the title Augustus to his father Maximian in 307, but father and son soon fell out, and in 308 Maximian fled to join Constantine in Gaul. Despite such uncertainties, Maxentius (residing at Rome) was widely acknowledged as emperor over Italy, Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica; in 308/9 he temporarily lost Africa to the usurper, Domitius Alexander, but he regained these provinces after a brutal campaign waged by Rufius Volusianus, his Praefectus Praetorio (Aurelius Victor, 40, 18; Zosimus, II, 14, 2).

Throughout his reign Maxentius was based in Rome and promoted a revival of the old imperial city. His building programme included the Temple of Romulus in the Roman Forum, and the Basilica Nova which was completed with modifications by Constantine. He also built a circus and mausoleum on the Via Appia south of the city. Contrary to his later reputation, Maxentius also tolerated Roman Christians and called a halt to the Great Persecution in his dominions (Eusebius, HE VIII, 14, 1).

In 312 Constantine invaded Italy from the north-west and found troops loyal to Maxentius mostly concentrated in north-eastern Italy; he therefore secured mastery of the Po Valley before turning south to meet Maxentius unusually late in the campaigning season (PanLat XII [IX], 5–14; Nazarius, PanLat IV [X], 19–26; Eusebius, HE IX, 9, 3). Maxentius himself remained in Rome, but at the last moment advanced into battle just across the Tiber from the city gates, reportedly following the advice of the Sibylline Books (Lactantius, Mort. 44). On the sixth anniversary of his acclamation as emperor, Maxentius’ army was crushed and Maxentius himself drowned in the river. Constantine retrieved his body and had his head paraded around Rome and Africa. The victory was depicted on the Arch of Constantine dedicated to the victor by the Roman Senate in 315. The panegyrics of Constantine (PanLat XII [IX] and IV[X]) which celebrated these events are the earliest suriving texts to represent Maxentius as a tyrant—Lactantius’ On the Deaths of the Persecutors (44) is altogether milder in his depiction of Constantine’s enemy. The Church History (HE IX, 9) and Life of Constantine by Eusebius (especially VCon I, 33–6) were to cement Maxentius’ unsavoury reputation as usurper and persecutor in history and legend.

David Gwynn


PLRE I, Maxentius 5.

NEDC 12–13.

T. D. Barnes, Constantine: Dynasty, Religion and Power in the Later Roman Empire (2014).Find this resource:

    M. Cullhed, Conservator Urbis Suae: Studies in the Politics and Propaganda of the Emperor Maxentius (1994).Find this resource:

      R. Van Dam, Remembering Constantine at the Milvian Bridge (2011).Find this resource: