Forgotten Figures: Aurelian

Lucius Domitius Aurelianus—Aurelian to modern scholars—is one of the most famous men you’ve never heard of.  What I mean by that is he is remembered as an absolutely amazing Emperor within Roman history, but the average person has never, ever heard of him.  That’s a shame because as you’ll see, Aurelian deserves to be put up there with the more recognizable Augustus, Trajan and Hadrian.

Source: Ancient History Encyclopedia

A bust of Aurelian.

Background

Aurelian is not as familiar to our modern ears because he ascended to the throne during what’s known as the Crisis of the Third Century.  This crisis of political, economic and social factors is a confusing mess of events for modern historians trying to piece together a coherent narrative and not much is actually known about it.  What is known, however, is that during this period, the Roman Empire split into three distinct areas ruled by different emperors and pseudo-emperors.

This period is not the high point of Roman culture, believe me.  The written word was rarer, there were severe manpower shortages throughout the empire as the plague made its rounds and emperors rose and fell with alarming frequency.  In the so-called Middle Empire of the time, the Emperor Gallienus ruled until he was assassinated by a military coup led by Claudius, who would later earn the title Gothicus for his campaigns against the Goths.  Unfortunately, Claudius Gothicus likely succumbed to the plague killing his men, leaving no clear successor and a bunch of ambitious, seasoned military officers behind.

In the western Gallic Empire consisting mainly of Britain and Gaul, a man named Postumus had been ruling wisely and justly.  He was beloved by his troops and the people he ruled over because the Western provinces had been neglected by the emperors in the central Empire.  And when Gallienus, the current central emperor tried to launch a military campaign to retake the provinces, Postumus repulsed him twice.  He was no dummy and managed to maintain his hold over the Gallic Empire for around nine good years.

In the East, a man named Odaenathus had been the de facto ruler for years.  His main strength was that he was keeping the Sassanids in Persia from retaking territory they had lost to Rome centuries ago.  Odaenathus was also no dummy and had a sphere of influence over most of the eastern provinces, including Syria, Egypt and Asia Minor.  He ruled from the trade city of Palmyra, which had grown influential as it was one of the last main stops along the silk road before traders entered Persia.  As such, it could charge taxes and create protection rackets that made the city obscenely wealthy.  When Rome’s influence was degrading in the East, Odaenathus seized his opportunity to extend Palmyra’s influence over the surrounding provinces and although he officially had the approval of Gallienus, Gallienus couldn’t have dislodged him if he tried.  Odaenathus was too smart and too powerful.

A map of the three different 'empires' that had split from Rome during the crisis years.

A map of the three different ’empires’ that had split from Rome during the crisis years.

Early Life and Ascension

Now into this chaotic mess comes an older military officer named Aurelian.  When Claudius Gothicus succumbed to his illness, Gothicus’ brother Quintillus tried to seize power with the support of the Senate (which had long since become irrelevant) but was defeated by Aurelian’s legions.  Aurelian had declared himself emperor the day Claudius died, so he could make it out that Quintillus was an usurper and thus legitimately claim power.  Or at least maintain the illusion of legitimacy, something that was in short supply in a time when emperors were dying like flies.

Aurelian came from what is very likely peasant stock before he joined the army around 235, when he was about 20 years old (his exact age is not known).  In the Republic and during the early days of the Empire, his low birth would have precluded his fast rise up the military ranks, but in a chaotic time when men were in short supply, there was no time for old prejudices.  He was a good soldier and a stern but effective leader of men, so up to the upper echelons of the military he went.

Under Gallienus, he had his own little detachment of cavalry troops and along with Claudius Gothicus, acquitted himself well in the Battle of Naissus against some marauding Goths.  When Gallienus went to fight the usurper Aureolus, he unfortunately met his end while laying seige to a city where Aureolus was holed up in.  Claudius Gothicus and Aurelian were also part of the siege and may have been involved in the conspiracy that killed him and led to Claudius’ ascension.  Or they may not have; the Crisis of the Third Century took its toll on whatever reliable primary sources were writing at the time.

So Gallienus died, Claudius Gothicus became emperor and campaigned against the Goths for a while, then he died.  Aurelian had been magister equitim, the effective head of the army under Claudius when he died so in the logic of the third century where might made right, he was the natural successor.  His reign officially begins in 270 AD, when he was hailed as emperor by the troops in Sirmium.  Most observers of the time probably thought he would be just like Claudius Gothicus: he’d ‘rule’ the middle empire for a few years before being killed by plague or assassins without making much of a lasting impact.

Aurelian had other plans, though.  The first thing he did was secure the territory he did command by campaigning in Italy against the various ‘barbarian’ tribes who had taken advantage of Rome’s distraction: the Vandals, Juthungi, Sarmatians and the Alamanni.  And shockingly, he concluded his campaigns quickly and successfully before moving onto bigger and better things: the reunification of the Roman Empire.

One of Aurelian's lasting architectural achievements were the walls that encircled all seven hills of Rome and the Campus Martius to protect it from invaders.

One of Aurelian’s lasting architectural achievements were the walls that encircled all seven hills of Rome and the Campus Martius to protect it from invaders.

Opportunity and Luck

So how was one man supposed to accomplish such a great feat, reuniting an empire that had been fractured for over a decade?  Well, as it turns out, Aurelian did have several things working in his favour.

The first was that in the Gallic Empire, Postumus had been assassinated by an idiotic but ambitious man named Victorinus.  (I call him idiotic because he had just killed the one man who might have been able to permanently keep the Gallic Empire out of Aurelian’s hands.)  Victorinus reigned for two years, coinciding with the very early part of Aurelian’s reign when he was battling against the various tribes, but then was assassinated as well.  Supposedly he had seduced an underling’s wife and said underling then did him in, but that story is such a common one in Roman history that you can’t help but doubt its veracity.

Again, supposedly with the help of Victorinus’ wicked mother (also a common and likely untrue trope in Roman history) Tetricus ascended to the throne in 271 AD.  Sadly for the Gallic Empire, Tetricus was not Postumus.  He spent most of his reign battling against Germanic tribes who had decided to start plundering the empire they had formerly been a part of.  So Tetricus was in a weak position and he wasn’t nearly as popular with the people as Postumus had been.

The second reason why things were going in Aurelian’s favour was that the powerful Odaenathus had been assassinated by his own nephew in the East, leaving his young son Vaballathus and his widow Zenobia to rule the Palmyrene Empire.  Zenobia was an incredible woman, one so incredible that she impressed even Edward Gibbon, who wrote of her in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in absolutely glowing terms.  Very few people seem to earn Gibbon’s praise throughout the book, so you can get a taste of just how awesome she was.  One memorable passage reads:

Modern Europe has produced several illustrious women who have sustained with glory the weight of empire; nor is our own age destitute of such distinguished characters.  But if we except the doubtful achievements of Semiramis, Zenobia is perhaps the only female whose superior genius broke through the servile indolence imposed on her sex by the climate and manners of Asia.[…]She claimed her descent from the Macedonian kings of Egypt, equalled in beauty her ancestor Cleopatra, and far surpassed that princess in chastity and valour.

Whether Zenobia really was descended from Cleopatra is up for debate and I for one find it highly unlikely.  But whether or not it was true, Zenobia herself certainly believed it and styled herself after her supposed ancestor.  In many ways, she was a better Cleopatra but if I talk too much about her I’m going to get off track.

Zenobia extended Palmyra’s influence into provinces that were further west than those her husband had commanded.  She even took over Egypt and began styling herself as an Augusta (the traditional title of Roman empresses) and turned her attention to military conquests.  She had expelled the governor of Egypt and took over vital trade routes in the area, making Palmyra even wealthier.  But she had two things going against her: a) being a woman in the ancient world and, b) expanding her empire.  Once she began cutting the crucial grain supply in Egypt that had fed the Roman Empire for centuries, there was no turning back.  She had officially claimed the power that her husband had held unofficially and such an arrangement was unacceptable to the Romans, particularly Aurelian—he had no intention of ceding the Eastern Empire to some woman styling herself as a neo-Cleopatra.

Queen Zenobia's Last Look Upon Palmyra by by Herbert Gustave Schmalz.

Queen Zenobia’s Last Look Upon Palmyra by by Herbert Gustave Schmalz.

Parthicus Maximus, Restitutor Orientus  (Defeater of Parthians, Restorer of the East)

Aurelian marched on the East and recaptured much of Asia Minor without a fight.  Unfortunately for Aurelian, he had a reputation as a humorless, ruthless commander who would sack your city even if you surrendered.  When the city of Tyana held out against him but was then taken anyway, they were ready to endure the usual series of events that followed the sack of a city: murder, rape and then being plundered for all their wealth.  But Aurelian was a lot more politically savvy than most gave him credit for and he ordered his soldiers not to harm a hair on the head of any of the people in Tyana.  Since he had shown himself to be merciful, more and more cities closer to Palmyra began throwing open their gates and begging to be let back into the Roman Empire.  It was clear that Aurelian was likely to defeat Palmyra and since he was being so lenient, they saw no benefit in holding out against him.

Zenobia, for all of her brilliance and her apparent military and political genius, was no match for Aurelian.  Her armies were defeated first in the Battle of Immae and then decisively in the second battle at Emesa.  She tried to flee to Persia when Aurelian began his final march to Palmyra, but his light cavalry caught up to her and took her prisoner.  Zenobia was a strong woman who deserves an article all on her own, but Aurelian was determined to bring the entire Roman empire back under his fold and nothing would stop him.

As he marched back to the west, intending on conquering the Gallic Empire next, his governor in Palmyra sent him a note saying that the leadership in the city (who he had mercifully left alive) were planning a second rebellion.  You get the feeling that Aurelian was royally pissed off about this treachery as he turned his army around to go back to Palmyra.  The second time he took the city, his mercy extended to human beings only.  He took all of Palmyra’s wealth, tore down its walls and rerouted all of the trade roads that had once led into the city.  Palmyra was defeated, never to rise again.  Although you can still see the major religious buildings in the desert there to this day, the only buildings Aurelian deigned to leave standing.

Resitutor Orbis

Coin bearing the grandiose (but not undeserved) title Resitutor Orbis.

Restitutor Orbis

Where accounts start to get really confusing during Aurelian’s reign is his subsequent conquest of the Gallic Empire.  There seems to be some sort of plot between Aurelian and Tetricus that allowed Tetricus to save face by not surrendering openly to the other emperor.  The idea was that the two armies would fight, of course Aurelian’s forces would prevail and Tetricus could surrender honourably.  The problem with this idea is that (as Mike Duncan points out in his The History of Rome podcast) Rome could not spare the men that would be killed in the battle.  Aurelian was pragmatic; he wouldn’t waste the lives of his highly effective veteran soldiers so some puffed up pretend emperor could save face.

However, despite this counter-intuitive narrative, most historians seem to think that there was in fact a battle at the place where Tetricus decided to muster: Châlons-en-Champagne in Gaul (modern day France).  Tetricus was defeated easily by Aurelian’s more disciplined veteran legions and he too was captured to be brought back to Rome for a good old-fashioned triumph.  And as Edward Gibbon puts it: “Since the foundation of Rome no general had more nobly deserved a triumph than Aurelian”.  He received the title Restitutor Orbis, or The Restorer of the World, from the grateful Senate and celebrated things in fine style.  It seemed that he could do no wrong and everyone loved him.

But Aurelian was at heart a reformer and he set out to rationalize the empire.  He made the free grain allotments for the poor of Rome more sustainable, oversaw the construction on the walls around Rome that he had started before his Palmyrene campaign and tried to take on inflation by prosecuting mint workers who had been devaluing the coins so they could steal extra precious metals for themselves.  That last item led to the only uprising of the mint workers in Roman history and it was not pretty at all.  Rome was plunged into chaos for a few days until Aurelian got a handle on things and then executed the leaders of the rebellion.  It was because of that uprising that Aurelian created new mints throughout the empire, closer to the troops on the frontier so they would be paid on time.  And as you guys probably know, minting more coins did not help the inflation problem at all.

Sassanid Cataphracts (the heavily armoured mounted archers) were some of the most feared in the ancient world.

Sassanid Cataphracts (the heavily armoured mounted archers) were some of the most feared in the ancient world.

Sassanids and Assassins

Once Aurelian put down the mint worker’s strike and felt that his borders were secure, he turned his attention to the East once more.  Not on the now deserted city of Palmyra, but on the boogeyman that had haunted Roman dreams for decades: the Sassanid Empire.  The Sassanid Empire, like the old Parthian Empire, was strong force to be reckoned with when it was united, but it frequently was not.  It underwent so many dynastic struggles it makes historians who try to piece together a coherent narrative of the empire want to cry.  And in 275 AD, when Aurelian turned his eyes to the East, the Sassanids were undergoing yet another dynastic crisis when Bahram I took the throne after his predecessor died suddenly.

Aurelian got his troops organized and set off at a steady march, intending to peel off some territory from the distracted empire and maybe earn himself the title of ‘Greatest Roman Who Ever Lived’ for defeating their old rivals.  Alas, it was not to be.  While on the march, a secretary who had been punished for a minor lie to the emperor fabricated a hit list supposedly signed by Aurelian himself.  He presented it to the officers in Aurelian’s army, who saw their own names on the long list and decided to kill Aurelian before he killed them.

They immediately regretted murdering their commander, the man who had reunited the Roman Empire and restored order to the world, but of course regret can’t bring back the dead.  Aurelian was murdered in September 275, just five years after ascending to the throne and the empire was plunged into chaos not so long after clawing its way back from the previous time of chaos.

Aurelian’s Legacy

Aurelian was the epitome of the phrase “the right man for the time”.  He was an experienced military commander with a reputation for severity, earning the nickname manu ad ferrum or ‘hand on iron’ (his sword).  He showed that this nickname and reputation was not totally deserved when his political savvy won out over his desire to to teach the Eastern cities who held out against him a lesson.  Coming from peasant stock, he never would have had a chance to rise much beyond the rank of centurion in the previous centuries, but in third century Rome, he rose all the way up to the rank of emperor.

Even though he had some lucky breaks when Odaenathus and Postumus were murdered, it was no guarantee that Aurelian could have taken back the Gallic and Palmyrene Empires.  It was his combination of military talent and political savvy that brought them back under the Roman fold.  I didn’t have time to mention this, but he also built enormous walls around Rome that are still standing today and would help Rome defend itself against the numerous ‘barbarian’ incursions into Italy.  Rome did eventually fall, but it certainly would have fallen far, far sooner without the genius of Aurelian.

Aurelian may not have permanently ended the Crisis of the Third Century, but he laid the groundwork for Diocletian to do so twenty years later.  Yet when Roman historians list their five best/favourite emperors, he very rarely makes the list!  For me, he will always be #2 (after Augustus) because in terms of peak career value, the man was a force to be reckoned with and he was exactly what the empire needed.  In so many ways, he truly was restitutor orbis.


Sources:

(All pictures are linked back to their source sites.)

1.  The History of Rome podcast by Mike Duncan:

  • Episode 117: Aurelian’s Walls
  • Episode 118: The Palmyrene Wars
  • Episode 119: Restitutor Orbis
  • Episode 120: Interregnum

2.  The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon.  Abridged Volume 1, edited by D. M. Low.

3.  Wikipedia (limited and for cross-referencing purposes only)

4.  Improbable Women: Five Who Explored the Middle East by William Woods Cotterman

6 comments

  1. Don Maker

    My novel, “Zenobia”, is currently on a FREE coupon offer at Smashwords. The novel prominently features Aurelian, although I took some license regarding his relationship with Zenobia. If you care to read it, use Coupon Code: PX99V at this link: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/363786. Good or bad, I would appreciate a review on Amazon, Goodreads and Smashwords. Cheers, Don

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