Magnus Maximus, Maximianus
Died 8 August 388
Magnus Maximus has been incorporated into the Arthurian legend in several ways. One of the most notable is his connection to the legendary figure of King Arthur himself.
In some versions of the Arthurian legend, Magnus Maximus is portrayed as the father of Arthur’s wife, Gwenhwyfar (also known as Guenevere). According to this tradition, Gwenhwyfar is the daughter of a Welsh king who was taken captive by Maximus during his reign as emperor. Maximus then brings Gwenhwyfar back to Rome as a hostage, where she later meets and marries Arthur.
Magnus Maximus is also sometimes depicted as a rival or enemy of Arthur. In some versions of the legend, Maximus is said to have rebelled against Rome because of its mistreatment of Britain, while Arthur is portrayed as a defender of Roman rule. This creates a conflict between the two figures, with Maximus representing a desire for independence and autonomy, and Arthur embodying the idea of loyalty and allegiance to a greater power.
Overall, Magnus Maximus’ role in the Arthurian legend is often tied to the themes of power, conflict, and cultural identity that are central to the story of King Arthur and his knights.
British and Welsh tradition
Magnus Maximus is a figure that appears in a number of British and Welsh folktales and legends. He is often depicted as a powerful and heroic figure who defends his people and fights against oppression.
In Welsh tradition, Magnus Maximus is known as Macsen Wledig and is often portrayed as a legendary figure and hero. His story is told in the Welsh prose tale The Dream of Macsen Wledig, which is part of the Mabinogion, a collection of Welsh tales and legends.
In the story Macsen Wledig is a great Roman emperor who rules over a vast empire that includes Britain. One night, he has a dream in which he sees a beautiful maiden who lives in a far-off land. He becomes obsessed with finding her and sends messengers throughout his empire to search for her.
The messengers eventually find the maiden in Segontium, Wales, and Macsen Wledig travels there to meet Elen of the Hosts. They fall in love and marry, and Macsen Wledig decides to make Wales his new home. He becomes a great king and ruler, loved by his people for his wisdom and justice. Macsen remains in Britain for seven years, after which the Roman citizens elect a new emperor. Upon hearing of this, Macsen raises an army of Britons – led by Elen’s brothers, Cynan and Afaon – travels back to Rome, and, unlike the Maximus of the chronicles, re-captures the empire.
The story of Macsen Wledig is seen by many as a symbol of the cultural and political connections between Wales and the Roman Empire. It also reflects the importance of marriage and alliances in ancient Welsh society, as well as the belief in the power of dreams and destiny.
One popular story about Macsen Wledig is the Legend of the Lady of Llyn y Fan Fach, which is set in the Brecon Beacons of Wales. In this tale, Macsen Wledig meets a beautiful maiden by a lake and falls in love with her. He asks her to marry him, and she agrees on the condition that he must promise to treat her kindly and not strike her more than three times.
The couple marries, and they have three sons together. However, over time, Macsen Wledig forgets his promise and strikes his wife more than three times. The maiden then reveals that she is a fairy and disappears into the lake, taking their sons with her.
In another legend, Macsen Wledig is said to have built a great palace in Caernarfon, Wales, known as Castell y Cidwm. The castle is said to have been built with the help of magical beings known as fairies or knockers, who worked tirelessly to help Macsen Wledig complete the construction. Some say that Macsen Wledig can still be seen wandering the ruins of the castle, searching for his lost love.
In British folklore, he married Elen (or Helen), daughter of Eudaf (or Odes, or Octavius). He is said to have been later restored as emperor with the help of Elen’s brothers Cynan and Gadeon. He had a daughter, Servia (or Severa), who were married to Vortigern, who became the high king of Britain.
In real life
Magnus Maximus was a Roman general who served the Roman Empire as Dux Britanniarum, or commander of the Roman army in Britain. He may have led a campaign against the Picts around 370.
He was born in Spain around 335 AD and rose through the ranks of the Roman army to become a senior commander. Maximus’ soldiers elevated him as their emperor, and in 383, they convinced him that he had the right to the Roman Empire itself. Maximus crossed the channel into Gaul to begin an invasion. He conquered parts of Europe, and in Italy his allies murdered Gratian, the western Roman emperor. Though he had effectively conquered Rome, he did not yet occupy the capital.
Magnus Maximus then turned his attention to the eastern part of the Roman Empire, but was ultimately defeated by the forces of Emperor Theodosius I in 388 AD. He was captured and taken to Aquileia, Italy, where he was tried and sentenced to death. He was executed by decaptiation, bringing an end to his brief reign over the Western Roman Empire.
Despite his short-lived reign, Magnus Maximus is remembered as a significant figure in Welsh history and folklore, where he is often portrayed as a hero and a champion of the Welsh people.
The chronicles style Maximus as a king of Britain. Gildas and Nennius describe his rule as tyrannical, but Geoffrey of Monmouth (who erroneously calls him Maximian) gives him certain credit for holding back the barbarian invasions. Welsh tradition, too, heroifies Maximus in the character of Macsen. The chroniclers seem to agree, however, that Maximus’ hubris led – at least partially – to the downfall of Britain. By siphoning all of Britains warriors to wars in Gaul, and by then establishing them there, Maximus effectively depopulated the island of its defense, leaving it open to invasions by Picts and continental barbarians.
Three Chief Officers of the Island of Britain | The Legend of King Arthur
De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae | Gildas, c. 540
Historia Brittonum | Probably Nennius, early 9th century
Historia Regum Britanniae | Geoffrey of Monmouth, c. 1138
Roman de Brut | Wace, c. 1155
Brut | Layamon, late 12th century to mid-13th century
Triads of the Island of Britain (Welsh ”Triads”) | 11th century to 14th century