Emperor Aurelian: “Restorer of the World”

Whilst Emperor Aurelian only ruled for five years as leader of the Roman world, his importance to its history is immense. Born in relative obscurity, somewhere in the Balkans (possibly near modern Sofia) in September 215, to a peasant family, Aurelian was in some ways a typical “soldier emperor” of the third century.

However, unlike many of these military emperors whose reigns were characterized by little of note in the tempestuous period known as The Crisis of the Third Century, Aurelian stands out amongst them as a very prominent stabilizing force.

 At a juncture where it seemed the empire was about to fall apart, Aurelian brought it back from the brink of destruction, with a catalog of impressive military victories against enemies both domestic and external.

READ MORE: The Roman Empire

What Role Did Aurelian Play in the Crisis of the Third Century?

Emperor Aurelian

By the time he had risen to the throne, large portions of the empire in the west and east had splintered off into the Gallic Empire and Palmyrene Empire, respectively.

In response to developing issues endemic to the empire at this time, including an intensification of barbarian invasions, spiraling inflation, and recurrent infighting and civil war, it made a lot of sense for these regions to splinter off and rely upon themselves for effective defense.

For too long and on too many occasions they had found help from Rome lacking. Between 270 and 275 however, Aurelian went about winning these regions back and securing the borders of the empire, in order to ensure that the Roman Empire could endure.

READ MORE: The Complete Roman Empire Timeline: Dates of Battles, Emperors, and Events

The Background to Aurelian’s Ascendancy

Aurelian’s rise to power must be placed in the context of the Third Century Crisis and the climate of that turbulent period. Between 235-284 AD, more than 60 individuals declared themselves “emperor” and many of them had very short reigns, the vast majority of which were ended by assassination.

What was the Crisis?

In short, the Crisis was a period wherein the issues faced by the Roman Empire, really throughout its history reached somewhat of a crescendo. In particular, this involved incessant invasions along the frontier by barbarian tribes (many of which joined with others to form larger “confederations”), recurring civil wars, assassinations, and internal revolts, as well as severe economic issues.

To the east as well, whilst Germanic tribes had coalesced into the Alamannic, Frankish, and Heruli confederations, the Sassanid Empire arose out of the ashes of the Parthian Empire. This new eastern foe was much more aggressive in its confrontations with Rome, especially under Shapur I.

This concoction of external and internal threats was made worse by a long series of generals-turned-emperors who were not capable administrators of a vast empire, and themselves ruled very precariously, always at risk of assassination.

Shapur I captures the Roman emperor Valerian

Aurelian’s Rise to Prominence under his Predecessors

Like many provincial Romans from the Balkans during this period, Aurelian joined the army when he was young and must have risen up the ranks whilst Rome was constantly at war with its enemies.

It is believed he was with the emperor Gallienus when he rushed to the Balkans to address an invasion of the Heruli and Goths in 267 AD. By this point, Aurelian would have been in his 50s and was no doubt quite a senior and experienced officer, familiar with the demands of war and the dynamics of the army.

A truce was reached, after which Gallienus was murdered by his troops and prefects, in a rather typical fashion for the time. His successor Claudius II, who was likely involved in his assassination, publicly honored the memory of his predecessor and went about ingratiating himself with the senate as he reached Rome.

It was at this time that the Heruli and Goths broke the truce and began invading the Balkans again. Additionally, after recurrent invasions along the Rhine that Gallienus and then Claudius ii were unable to address, soldiers declared their general Postumus as emperor, establishing the Gallic Empire.

Aurelian’s Acclamation as Emperor

It was at this particularly messy point of Roman history that Aurelian rose to the throne. Accompanying Claudius II in the Balkans, the emperor and his now trusted general, defeated the barbarians and harried them slowly into submission as they tried to retreat and evade decisive extermination.

In the midst of this campaign, Claudius II fell ill from a plague that was sweeping through the region. Aurelian was left in charge of the army as it continued to mop up things and force the barbarians out of the Roman territory.

During this operation, Claudius died and the soldiers proclaimed Aurelian their emperor, whilst the senate declared Claudius II’s brother Quintillus emperor as well. Wasting no time, Aurelian marched towards Rome to confront Quintillus, who was actually murdered by his troops before Aurelian could reach him.

The Early Stages of Aurelian as Emperor

Aurelian was therefore left as the sole emperor, although both the Gallic Empire and Palmyrene Empires had established themselves by this point. Furthermore, the Gothic problem remained unresolved and was compounded by the threat of other Germanic peoples eager to invade the Roman territory.

To “restore the Roman world”, Aurelian had a lot to do.

The Roman Empire with the break away Gallic Empire in the West and the break away Palmyrene Empire in the East.

How Had the Palmyrene and Gallic Empires Formed?

Both the Gallic Empire in Northwestern Europe (in control of Gaul, Britain, Raetia, and Spain for a time) and the Palmyrene (controlling much of the Eastern parts of the Empire), had been formed out of a combination of opportunism and necessity.

After repeated invasions across the Rhine and Danube that devastated frontier provinces in Gaul, the local population had grown tired and scared. It seemed clear that the frontiers could not be properly managed by one emperor, often away campaigning somewhere else.

As such, it became necessary and even preferable to have an emperor “on the spot.” Therefore, when the opportunity arose, the general Postumus, who had successfully repelled and defeated a large confederation of Franks, was proclaimed emperor by his troops in 260 AD.

A similar story played out in the East as the Sassanid Empire continued to invade and plunder Roman territory in Syria and Asia Minor, taking territory from Rome in Arabia as well. By this time the prosperous city of Palmyra had become the “jewel of the east” and held considerable sway over the region.

Under one of its leading figures Odenanthus, it began a slow and gradual breakaway from Roman control and administration. At first, Odenanthus was granted significant power and autonomy in the region and after his death, his wife Zenobia cemented such control to the point that it had effectively become its own state, separate from Rome.

Aurelian’s First Steps as Emperor

Like much of Aurelian’s short reign, the first phases of it were dictated by military affairs as a large army of Vandals began invading Roman territory near modern-day Budapest. Before setting off he had ordered the imperial mints to begin issuing his new coinage (as was standard for every new emperor), and some more will be said about that below.

He also honored the memory of his predecessor and preached his intentions of fostering a good relationship with the senate, as Claudius II had. He then set off to face the Vandal threat and set up his headquarters in Siscia, where he quite unusually took up his consulship (whereas this was normally done in Rome).

The Vandals soon crossed the Danube and attacked, after which Aurelian ordered the towns and cities in the region to bring their supplies within their walls, knowing that the Vandals were not prepared for siege warfare.

This was a very effective strategy as the Vandals soon became tired and starved, after which Aurelian attacked and decisively defeated them.

READ MORE: Roman Emperors

Emperor Aurelian: "Restorer of the World" 2
Vandalic biconical pottery

The Juthungi Threat

Whilst Aurelian was in the region of Pannonia having dealt with the Vandal threat, a large number of Juthungi crossed over into Roman territory and began laying waste to Raetia, after which they turned south into Italy.

To face this new and acute threat, Aurelian had to rapidly march most of his forces back toward Italy. By the time they got to Italy, his army was exhausted and was consequently defeated by the Germans, although not decisively.

This allowed Aurelian time to regroup, but the Juthingi began to march towards Rome, creating panic in the city. Close to Fanum however (not far from Rome), Aurelian managed to engage them with a replenished and rejuvenated army. This time, Aurelian was victorious, although again, not decisively.

The Juthungi attempted to make a deal with the Romans, hoping for generous terms. Aurelian was not to be persuaded and offered no terms whatsoever to them. As a result, they began to head back empty-handed, whilst Aurelian followed them ready to strike. At Pavia, on an open stretch of land, Aurelian and his army struck, wiping out the Juthungi army definitively.

Internal Rebellions and the Revolt of Rome

Just as Aurelian was addressing this very serious threat on Italian soil, the empire was shaken by some internal rebellions. One occurred in Dalmatia and may have happened as a result of news reaching this region of Aurelian’s difficulties in Italy, whilst the other occurred somewhere in southern Gaul.

Both fell apart quite quickly, no doubt aided by the fact that Aurelian had taken control of events in Italy. However, a far more serious issue arose when a revolt broke out in the city of Rome, causing widespread destruction and panic.

The revolt started in the imperial mint in the city, apparently because they had been caught debasing the coinage against Aurelian’s orders. Anticipating their fate, they decided to take matters into their own hands and create an uproar across the city.

In doing so, a considerable amount of the city was damaged and many people were killed. Moreover, the sources suggest that the ringleaders of the revolt were aligned with a certain element of the senate, as many of them seemed to have gotten involved.

Aurelian acted swiftly to quell the violence, executing a large number of its ringleaders, including the head of the imperial mint Felicissimus. Those that were executed also included a large group of senators, much to the consternation of contemporary and later writers. Finally, Aurelian closed the mint as well for a time, ensuring that nothing like this would happen again.

Mosaic with a torch, a crown and a whip, a detail from Felicissimus

Aurelian Faces the Palmyrene Empire

When at Rome, and trying to address some of the logistical and economic problems of the empire, the threat of Palmyra appeared much more acute for Aurelian. Not only had the new administration in Palmyra, under Zenobia, taken much of Rome’s eastern provinces, but these provinces themselves were also some of the most productive and lucrative for the empire.

Aurelian knew that for the empire to recover properly, it needed Asia Minor and Egypt back under its control. As such, Aurelian decided in 271 to move eastwards.

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Addressing Another Gothic Invasion in the Balkans

Before Aurelian could move against Zenobia and her empire properly, he had to deal with a new invasion of Goths that were laying waste to large swathes of the Balkans. Reflecting a continuing trend for Aurelian, he was very successful in defeating the Goths, first on Roman territory and then harrying them into complete submission across the frontier.

Following this, Aurelian weighed up the risk of marching further east to confront the Palmyrenes and leaving the Danube frontier exposed again. Recognizing that the excessive length of this frontier was a major weakness of it, he boldly decided to push the frontier backward and effectively get rid of the province of Dacia.

This expedient solution made the frontier much shorter in length and easier to manage than it had previously been, allowing him to use more soldiers for his campaign against Zenobia.

Defeating Zenobia and Turning Towards the Gallic Empire

In 272, after having assembled an impressive force of infantry, cavalry, and ships, Aurelian marched to the east, stopping initially in Bithynia which had stayed loyal to him. From here he marched through Asia Minor meeting little resistance for the most part, whilst he sent his fleet and one of his generals to Egypt to capture that province.

Egypt was captured quite quickly, just as Aurelian took each city remarkably easily throughout Asia Minor, with Tyana the only city to offer much resistance. Even when the city was captured, Aurelian ensured that his soldiers did not loot its temples and residences, which seemed to massively help his cause in prompting other cities to open their gates to him.

Aurelian first met Zenobia’s forces, under her general Zabdas, outside Antioch. After goading Zabdas’s heavy infantry to attack his troops, they were subsequently counterattacked and surrounded, already exhausted from chasing Aurelian’s troops in the hot Syrian heat.

This resulted in another impressive victory for Aurelian, after which the city of Antioch was captured and again, spared any looting or punishment. As a result, village after village and town after town welcomed Aurelian as a hero, before the two armies met again outside Emesa.

Here again, Aurelian was victorious, although only just, as he played a similar trick to last time that only narrowly achieved success. Demoralized by this series of defeats and setbacks, Zenobia and her remaining forces and advisers locked themselves away in Palmyra itself.

Whilst the city was besieged, Zenobia attempted to escape to Persia and ask for assistance from the Sassanid ruler. However, she was discovered and captured en route by forces loyal to Aurelian and soon handed over to him, with the siege ending soon after.

This time Aurelian exercised both restraint and revenge, allowing his soldiers to loot the riches of Antioch and Emesa, but keeping Zenobia and some of her advisors alive.

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo – Queen Zenobia Addressing Her Soldiers

Defeating the Gallic Empire

After defeating Zenobia, Aurelian returned to Rome (in 273 AD), to a hero’s welcome and was given the title of “restorer of the world.” After enjoying such praise, he began to implement and build on various initiatives around coinage, food supply, and city administration.

Then, at the beginning of 274, he took up the consulship for that year, before preparing to face the final major threat of his principate, the Gallic Empire. By now they had gone through a succession of emperors, from Postumus to M. Aurelius Marius, to Victorinus, and finally to Tetricus.

All this time an uneasy stand-off had persisted, where neither had really engaged the other militarily. Just as Aurelian and his predecessors had been busy with repelling invasions or putting down rebellions, the Gallic emperors had been preoccupied with defending the Rhine frontier.

In late 274 AD Aurelian marched towards the Gallic powerbase of Trier, taking the city of Lyon on the way with ease. The two armies then met at the Catalaunian fields and in a bloody, brutal battle the forces of Tetricus were defeated.

Aurelian then returned to Rome victorious again and celebrated a long overdue triumph, where Zenobia and thousands of other captives from the emperor’s impressive victories were showcased for the Roman viewer.

Death and Legacy

Aurelian’s final year is poorly documented in the sources and can only be partly molded together by contradictory claims. We believe that he was campaigning somewhere in the Balkans, when he was assassinated close to Byzantium, seemingly to the shock of the whole empire.

A successor was picked from the crop of his prefects and a level of turbulence returned for some time until Diocletian and the Tetrarchy reestablished control. However, Aurelian had, for the time being, saved the empire from total destruction, resetting the foundation of strength that others could build on.

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Aurelian’s Reputation

For the most part, Aurelian has been harshly treated in the sources and subsequent histories, mostly because many of the senators who wrote the original accounts of his reign resented his success as a “soldier emperor.” 

He had restored the Roman world without the assistance of the senate to any degree and had executed a large number of the aristocratic body after the revolt in Rome.

As such, he was labeled as a bloodthirsty and vengeful dictator, even though there were many examples where he showed great restraint and leniency to those he defeated. In modern historiography, the reputation has in part stuck but has also been revised in areas too.

Not only did he manage the seemingly impossible feat of reuniting the Roman empire again, but he was also the source behind many important initiatives. These include the Aurelian walls that he built around the city of Rome (which still stand in part today) and a wholesale reorganization of the coinage and imperial mint, in an attempt to curb spiraling inflation and widespread fraud.

He is also famous for building a new temple to the sun god Sol in the city of Rome, with whom he expressed a very close affinity. In this vein, he also moved further towards presenting himself as a divine ruler than any Roman emperor had done previously (in his coinage and titles).

Whilst this initiative does grant some credence to the criticisms made by the senate, his ability to bring the empire back from the brink of destruction and win victory after victory against his enemies, makes him a remarkable Roman emperor and an integral figure in the history of the Roman empire.

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