Coin Portraying Emperor Aurelian

Aurelian: The Man Who Single-Handedly Saved The Roman Empire

With the prosperous times of the Pax Romana a distant memory, by the middle of the 200s, the Crisis of the Third Century was in full swing. This period of unprecedented chaos and destruction should have destroyed the Roman Empire two hundred years before it actually fell. Plagued with corruption, lawlessness, rebellion, civil wars, a failing economy, and invasions on all fronts, it is nothing short of a miracle that Rome was able to hang on. Hindered by a series of short-lived and incompetent emperors, Rome was unable to find its footing and properly deal with these threats. Barbarian invasions penetrated deep into the Roman heartland, and entire regions of the empire were breaking off and declaring their independence. The responsibility to shoulder the monumental and near-impossible task of restoring Rome to its original borders would fall to one man alone -Emperor Aurelian. 

Just Another Soldier

A bust of Gallienus at the Capitoline Museums in Rome, Italy
A bust of Gallienus at the Capitoline Museums in Rome, Italy. Image credit: Sergey Sosnovskiy via Wikimedia Commons.

Not a lot is known about the early life of Aurelian. He was born in what today would be considered Bulgaria and Romania around 217 AD. He was raised by his father, a simple tenant farmer, and Aurelian likely joined the military at a young age to escape the bleak economic opportunities he faced at home. Aurelian's time in the military is not clear either, but it is obvious that he thrived as a soldier and quickly moved up the ranks. In 268 AD, Aurelian and another group of conspirators played a crucial role in overthrowing the emperor Gallienus, whom Claudius II then replaced. As a reward for playing a part in his rise to power, Aurelian was given the prestigious title of cavalry commander. 

Claudius II's reign would not last long, however. Claudius died in 270 AD from an illness, and the imperial throne was vacant once again. Quintillus, the brother of Claudius II, was quick to jump at the opportunity to become emperor, but Aurelian thwarted his plans. Using his support in the military and experience as a commander, Aurelian marched an army from the Balkans into Italy and deposed Quintillus in short order. In only two short years, Aurelian went from just another military man serving on the frontiers to emperor of the Roman Empire. As cushy as the title might seem, Aurelian's position was far from favorable. He was going to need to move fast and decisively if he was going to have any hope of pulling Rome back from the brink of destruction. 

The Barbarian Problem

The Ludovisi Battle sarcophagus depicting a battle between the Romans and the Barbarians.
The Ludovisi Battle sarcophagus depicting a battle between the Romans and the Barbarians.

The most pressing issue that Aurelian had to contend with was the frequent Barbarian invasions ravaging large parts of the empire. The tribe of the Juthungi had just launched an enormous raid deep into Italy only a few months before he became emperor and were currently ravaging the northern part of the province. Aurelian marched his army against them, but they did not come to blows. Rather than fight, Aurelian made them hand over tens of thousands of their best fighters that he could use in subsequent campaigns. The Barbarians agreed and then were given safe passage back to their lands. The Roman army had now just gained the much-needed manpower it chronically lacked. 

Aurelian turned immediately to repel another invasion that was taking place in the Balkan provinces at the hands of the Vandals. Again, the newly crowned emperor did not meet them directly in the field but rather denied them the opportunity to scavenge for food and resources by burning and destroying nearby towns and farms. Deep in Roman territory and facing starvation, the Vandals surrendered. As part of the peace terms, the Vandals handed over more warriors to Aurelian and were then given food and taken back across the Danube River

Corruption In Rome

The Aurelian walls along the avenue of Porta Ardeatina in Rome.
The Aurelian walls along the avenue of Porta Ardeatina in Rome.

The emperor then returned to Rome, where he had his hands full, dealing with corrupt politicians and local officials. The workers and administrators of the Roman mint were in full revolt. It is assumed that this was caused by Aurelian's disciplinarian nature paired with the anxiety he inflicted on large segments of the Roman elite. Regardless of the cause, he swiftly put down the revolt, and coins were being made again. A handful of usurpers also sprung up during his time in the empire's capital. However, these rebellions were poorly organized and failed to gain military support. All of them were crushed without much resistance. 

Aurelian also tried to gain the public's support by forgiving debts and handing out free bread to the poor. This was not popular with many Roman aristocrats, but they could do little to stop it. Aurelian's last mission in Rome was to gift the city a new set of walls. Now known as the Aurelian Walls, these protective measures ensured that the newly formed parts of the city that had extended the old wall's boundaries were also protected. The construction of these walls also served as a wake-up call to average Romans that their city was not as untouchable as it might have been in previous centuries. 

Breakaway Empires

Aurelian now had to contend with the two largest threats facing Rome: the Gallic Empire and the Palmyrene Empire. Both of these breakaway states had formed in the last few years and took large swaths of Roman land, power, wealth, and citizens with them. The Gallic Empire, led by Tetricus, consisted of the provinces of Gaul and Britannia. These parts of the empire were important but by no means crucial to the survival of Rome. Their military power was tied up in internal fighting and civil wars of their own and posed no immediate threat of invasion. 

The Palmyrene Empire, on the other hand, was much more pressing. Queen Zenobia, the de facto ruler of the empire, was the wife of the previous Roman governor of Syria, who pounced at the first whiff of weakness in imperial authority. Ironically, Zenobia's husband, Odaenathus, was fiercely loyal to Rome and even single-handedly staved off an invasion from the Sassanid Persians years in the past. 

Queen Zenobia's Last Look Upon Palmyra.
Queen Zenobia's Last Look Upon Palmyra.

After the death of Odaenathus, who was likely killed on the orders of Zenobia, she took control of the province and declared independence. Seizing the initiative, Zenobia marched her armies into the rest of the Levant and Egypt and declared the lands liberated. Losing the rich provinces of the East was something that Aurelian could not ignore. But more critically, Egypt, the empire's breadbasket, was now cut off from delivering much-needed monthly shipments of grain to a Roman population in the midst of a famine. To Aurelian, what he needed to do first was clear. He assembled his army and marched toward Palmyra. 

Triumph In The East

In 272 AD, Aurelian arrived in Anatolia with a large army at his back. He made short work of the cities along the frontier of Zenobia's empire after promising clemency to those cities who surrendered without a fight and swore allegiance to Rome once again. This tactic worked wonderfully and resulted in a largely bloodless initial push into Syria. Roman forces did clash with Zenobia's armies at the Battles of Immae and at Emesa, but the rebels were tossed aside without much difficulty. Within six months, Aurelian was outside of Palmyra, and the city promptly surrendered. Zenobia and her son Vaballathus were both captured and taken back to Rome in chains. 

Aurelian left Syria to repel another Barbarian invasion in the Balkans. While he was occupied, Palmyra rebelled once again. Aurelian returned in 273 AD, but this time, he was not so forgiving. The entire city of Palmyra was destroyed, along with many of its inhabitants. The survivors were sold into slavery, and the city was left a ruin. With no other usurpers in the Eastern portion of the empire that could challenge Rome's rule, it was finally time for Aurelian to march back West and finally deal with Tetricus in Gaul. 

Triumph In The West

Triumphal Procession of Emperor Aurelian in 274, Bernard Picart
Triumphal procession of Emperor Aurelian in 274 by Bernard Picart.

The Gallic Empire consisted of considerably poorer and underdeveloped provinces than those in the East. It lacked large population centers and struggled to muster effective armies. Infighting was common within the Gallic military, and it was not uncommon for generals and commanders to turn on one another, even during war. Regardless, Tectricus knew that Aurelian was on his way to reincorporate his lands and mustered a sizable army to meet him in the field. 

Arriving in 274 AD, Aurelian and his legions crushed the Gallic resistance at the Battle of Châlons (not to be confused with the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains that also took place in the same area). Tetricus was not delusional; he knew he could not win. He abandoned his own army during the battle and surrendered to Aurelian. The Roman Emperor returned to Rome that year and held a massive triumph in his honor. Both Tectricus and Zenobia were marched along the streets for the masses to gawk at, along with long baggage trains of loot that had been obtained while away on campaign. At the ceremony, Aurelian was given the title of restitutor Orbis, meaning "The Restorer of the World."

Aurelian's Death and the End of the Crisis

An ancient coin depicting Aurelian.
An ancient coin depicting Aurelian. Image credit: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc via Wikimedia Commons.

In just five years between 270 AD and 275 AD, Aurelian was able to stave off countless Barbarian invasions, stem the rampant corruption and ineffectiveness of the Roman government, put an end to the lawless and banditry that had overrun the countryside, and decisively crush two breakaway regions on either side of the empire. It is no wonder why they called Aurelian "The Restorer of the World." Sadly, Aurelian's time as emperor would be cut short. In 275 AD, during preparation for a campaign against the Sassanids in Persia, the soldier-turned-emperor was murdered by his own servant while he was relieving himself in the woods.

It is not clear why he was exactly killed, but some historians think that his assassination was revenge for a savage beating that the servant received at the hands of Aurelian. Considering how infamously harsh and heavy-handed he could be, this would not be out of the question. Tragically, the man who had saved the Roman Empire from the external threats of the Crisis of the Third Century would fall victim to the self-destructive behavior that caused it in the first place. In the wake of his death, more civil wars erupted, and further chaos ensued. This age of anarchy would not fully end until Diocletian's rule in 284 AD. 

Despite ruling only for five short years, Aurelian remains simultaneously one of the most important and overlooked Roman Emperors who ever lived. It is very rare in history that a single "great man" can be credited with such an achievement, but this is one of those exceptional cases. Aurelian's actions single-handedly saved the Roman Empire and ensured that it would live on for another two centuries until its eventual collapse in the West in 476 AD. 


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