Maximian was born near Sirmium (modern Sremska Mitrovica, Serbia) in the province of Pannonia, around 250 into the family of shopkeepers. Beyond that, the ancient sources contain vague allusions to Illyricum as his homeland, to his Pannonian virtues, and to his harsh upbringing along the war-torn Danube frontier. Maximian joined the army, serving with Diocletian under the emperors Aurelian (r. 270–275) and Probus (r. 276–282). He probably participated in the Mesopotamian campaign of Carus in 283 and attended Diocletian's election as emperor on November 20, 284 at Nicomedia. Maximian's swift appointment by Diocletian as Caesar is taken by the writer Stephen Williams and historian Timothy Barnes to mean that the two men were longterm allies, that their respective roles were pre-agreed and that Maximian had probably supported Diocletian during his campaign against Carinus (r. 283–285) but there is no direct evidence for this.
With his great energy, firm aggressive character and disinclination to rebel, Maximian was an appealing candidate for imperial office. The fourth-century historian Aurelius Victor described Maximian as "a colleague trustworthy in friendship, if somewhat boorish, and of great military talents". Despite his other qualities, Maximian was uneducated and preferred action to thought. The panegyric of 289, after comparing his actions to Scipio Africanus' victories over Hannibal during the Second Punic War, suggested that Maximian had never heard of them. His ambitions were purely military; he left politics to Diocletian. The Christian rhetor Lactantius suggested that Maximian shared Diocletian's basic attitudes but was less puritanical in his tastes, and took advantage of the sensual opportunities his position as emperor offered. Lactantius charged that Maximian defiled senators' daughters and traveled with young virgins to satisfy his unending lust, though Lactantius' credibility is undermined by his general hostility towards pagans.
Maximian had two children with his Syrian wife, Eutropia: Maxentius and Fausta. There is no direct evidence in the ancient sources for their birthdates. Modern estimates of Maxentius' birth year have varied from c. 277 to c. 287, and most date Fausta's birth to c. 298. Theodora, the wife of Constantius Chlorus, is often called Maximian's stepdaughter by ancient sources, leading to claims by Otto Seeck and Ernest Stein that she was born from an earlier marriage between Eutropia and Afranius Hannibalianus. Barnes challenges this view, saying that all "stepdaughter" sources derive their information from the partially unreliable work of history Kaisergeschichte, while other, more reliable sources, refer to her as Maximian's natural daughter. Barnes concludes that Theodora was born no later than c. 275 to an unnamed earlier wife of Maximian, possibly one of Hannibalianus' daughters.
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