The Savior of Rome, Forgotten by History, or What Emperor Aurelian Was Glorified for
The Savior of Rome, Forgotten by History, or What Emperor Aurelian Was Glorified for

Although his reign lasted only five years (270-275), Emperor Aurelian achieved amazing results in this short period of time. He stabilized the Danube border by defeating the barbarians who threatened the Empire. He surrounded Rome with massive ramparts that still stand today. Most importantly, Aurelian restored the unity of the Roman Empire by defeating and uniting the breakaway states in both the east and the west.

In addition to being a battle-hardened soldier, Aurelian was also a reformer. It was during his short reign that the long-overdue monetary reform was carried out in order to restore people's confidence in imperial coinage. Inspired by his many victories, Aurelian proclaimed himself a god and laid the foundation for the autocratic empire of the later Empire. He also introduced Sol Invictus into the Roman pantheon (indirectly), paving the way for the rise of Christianity. However, his reign was abruptly interrupted by the assassination of the emperor on his way to Persia. Ironically, one of the most prolific and capable Roman emperors, the savior of Rome, is now almost forgotten outside of academia.

Bust of the Roman emperor, probably Aurelian, c. A.D. 275 NS. \ Photo:

On a cold autumn day in 235 A.D. NS. in a military camp near the city of Byzantium (modern Istanbul), Emperor Aurelian planned his next step. Like many Roman leaders before him, he looked eastward, attracted by the wealth and splendor of Persia. The military glory gained in the East will neatly complement his continuous line of victories and confirm Aurelian's status as an invincible emperor. Alas, this was not destined to come true. Later that day, the emperor was killed by his own people. Aurelian's brilliant career came to an untimely end.

Coins of the emperors Gallienus and Claudius II of Gotha, 265 and 269 n. NS. \ Photo:

Like most third-century rulers, Aurelian began his career as a professional soldier. The third century was a chaotic period for the Roman Empire, and only the soldier-emperor could prevent the collapse of the empire. Born in 214/215 near Sirmia (present-day Sremska Mitrovica), Aurelian joined the army at an early age, and it was the army that shaped his life and rule. His tall stature, physical strength, asceticism and strict discipline (up to cruelty) earned him the nickname "manu ad ferrum" (sword in hand). According to the original source, The Stories of Augustus, the young Aurelian was a born warrior who quickly moved up the ranks. His talents did not go unnoticed, and he was chosen as the commander of the elite cavalry of Emperor Gallienus.

Sarcophagus of Ludovisi or Large Sarcophagus of Ludovisi with Romans fighting barbarians, mid 3rd century AD NS. \ Photo:

Despite his privileged status in the circle of the emperor, Aurelian took part in a conspiracy organized by several high-ranking officers to assassinate Gallienus in 268. He was a strong contender for the vacant throne, but the army chose another officer, Claudius. Instead, Aurelian was made commander of all cavalry, becoming the most powerful military figure after the emperor. He lived up to expectations, spending the entire short reign of Claudius fighting side by side with the emperor.

Shot from the game "Rome II: Total War": Emperor Aurelian. \ Photo: shogun-2-total-war

It is said that Aurelian played a decisive role in the most famous battle of the time, in which the Roman troops inflicted a crushing defeat on the Goths, earning Claudius the nickname "Gothic" (Conqueror of the Goths). Before Claudius could celebrate this victory, he died of plague in early 270 (the first in a long time who did not fall by the sword). The army appointed Aurelian as the next emperor.The only other claimant, the brother of Claudius Quintillus, was either killed by his troops or committed suicide. No one dared to challenge the most respected and fearsome figure in the empire, and in the fall of 270, the Senate recognized Aurelian as Emperor of Rome.

Walls of Aurelius (two fifth century addition towers built by the emperor Honorius), Rome. \ Photo:

At the time of Aurelian's accession to the throne, the life expectancy of the Roman emperor was short. If the emperor is not killed on the battlefield, he may be killed in his own camp. The Roman people did not know it would be different this time. Aurelian was exactly what the empire needed: a professional soldier, a capable commander, and a good emperor who knew how to turn the chaos of Rome into order.

Ardeatinsky gate (Porta Ardeatina) - the gate of the wall of Aurelian in ancient Rome (top view). \ Photo:

Already in the first months of his reign, Aurelian had to deal with the violation of the Danube border. However, the biggest problem for the new emperor came in 271 when the Jutungs invaded northern Italy. This time, the German invaders crossed the Po River and inflicted a crushing defeat on the imperial legions sent to stop them. With no army to protect them, the citizens of Rome began to panic. For the first time since the time of Hannibal, the possibility of the capture of the city by the enemy appeared. But Aurelian was a seasoned battle commander. He was able to take advantage of the fragmentation of the barbarian forces and inflict a decisive defeat on the enemy.

The Walls of Aurelius is a line of city walls built between 271 and 275 AD in Rome, Italy. \ Photo:

However, he could not achieve this, because his presence was urgently required in Rome, where a riot broke out, led by disgruntled workers of the imperial mint. Aurelian's answer was cruel. Thousands were killed and the ringleaders, including several senators, were executed. The emperor's message was clear. He will not allow further confusion. Always on the move, Aurelian spent the end of the year on the Danube, defeating several more barbarian raids.

Walls of Aurelian and the Papal Basilica of Saint John in Lateran. \ Photo:

The border was pacified and Italy was safe again. The barbarians would not invade the peninsula for more than a century, but Aurelian could not have known this. However, he knew that the traditional defensive policy of facing the enemy on the Limes was wrong, and that the heart of the empire needed protection. Thus, Aurelian decided to fortify Rome with massive walls. The so-called walls turned Rome into a real fortress.

Nineteen kilometers long and six meters high, the perimeter covered all seven hills of Rome, the Champ de Mars and on the right bank of the Tiber, the Trastevere region. It was an enormous feat of engineering - the largest in a century. The walls remained the main perimeter of Rome until the 19th century. They remain in place to this day, almost intact, having stood the test of time.

Aurelian's gold coin depicting the emperor in full military attire on the reverse, 270-275. n. NS. \ Photo:

Aurelian's experience in the battles on the Danube led to another decisive act that strengthened the empire's defenses. By the middle of the third century, it became apparent that the provinces located on the other side of the great river were being attacked by barbarians. Under Gallienus, the Romans evacuated the Agri Decumates. In 272, Emperor Aurelian decided to abandon the equally unprotected Dacia.

To preserve the idea of ​​Roman invincibility, he ordered the creation of two new provinces with the same name. Dacia was not abandoned and forgotten. She was simply moved to the south of the Danube along with her romanized population and legions. However, Aurelian's rejection of Dacia marked the end of Roman expansion.

Zenobia's last look at Palmyra, Herbert Gustav Schmalz, 1888. \ Photo:

The Danube border was restored and new walls were added to Rome. All that remained was to put an end to the last pockets of instability that threatened the very existence of the Empire. Ten years before Aurelian came to power, the Roman Empire disintegrated into several politically divided regions. In addition to the legitimate emperor in Rome, in the West there was an independent Gallic Empire, and in the East, the Palmyrian Empire was ruled by Queen Zenobia.

First, Aurelian turned his legions eastward. Palmyra was a powerful city that drew its wealth from numerous trade caravans moving along the Silk Road, linking Persia with the Mediterranean. Once part of the Empire, Palmyra split from Rome in 260 after the imperial disaster in Persia.As a regional power, Palmyra remained friendly to Rome. But when Queen Zenobia ascended the throne in 267, everything changed.

Great Emperor Aurelian. \ Photo:

Taking advantage of the chaos in the Roman Empire, Zenobia was able to take control of the entire Roman East, including Egypt. The queen now controlled the richest Roman province and the empire's granary. She had a strong and well-trained army, partly composed of the Syrian and Egyptian legions formerly loyal to Rome. Palmyra was on its way to becoming a powerful empire. Aurelian could not let this happen. In early 272, a naval task force led by General Aurelian (and future emperor) Probus was able to reconquer Egypt, restoring grain shipments to Rome.

Meanwhile, Aurelian moved to Asia Minor. Intending to become a liberator rather than a conqueror, he spared Tiana, the only city to resist. Such mercy proved to be a wise strategy, and the rest of Anatolia surrendered without a fight. Now Aurelian was ready to tear to pieces the heart of the enemy. The Roman legions defeated Palmyra troops twice and finally laid siege to Palmyra itself. The city surrendered and Zenobia was taken prisoner. Palmyra revolted again in 273 when Aurelian fought the barbarians on the Danube. This time the city was taken and destroyed. Palmyra will never recover from disaster, remaining just another provincial border town until the Arab conquest in the 7th century.

A fresco from Julia Felix's house in Pompeii depicting the distribution of bread. \ Photo:

After his triumph in the east, Emperor Aurelian turned to the last remaining territory beyond the reach of the empire. In 274, his forces defeated the Gallic army after the desertion of their leader, Emperor Tetricus. The Gallic Empire, which had defied Rome for a decade, was gone. Aurelianus celebrated his victory with an impressive triumph in Rome. The crowd that filled the streets could see Zenobia and Tetrica, both in gold chains. According to The Story of Augustus, there were so many trophies and carts that the procession only reached the Capitol in the evening. Here Aurelian, riding in a luxurious chariot, was greeted by the fully assembled Senate, who bestowed upon him the title of Restitutor Orbis - "Restorer of the World." This title was well deserved, since Aurelian achieved the impossible. In less than five years, he stabilized the borders of Rome and reunited the empire on the brink of collapse.

Coin of Aurelian with the image of the Invincible Sun on the reverse, 270-275. n. NS. \ Photo:

Finally, Aurelian could rule his empire, and not fight for it. The gold confiscated in Palmyra and throughout the East, together with the revenues of the conquered provinces, opened the way for important economic reforms. The first was food reform. The Emperor was determined to avoid the urban unrest that had spoiled the beginning of his reign, and the best way to do this was to make people happy. Aurelian thus increased the amount of free food distributed to the inhabitants of Rome. Aware of the problems with grain supplies, the emperor ordered the distribution of bread instead of grain. He took it one step further by adding pork, salt and oil to the free diet. There was even a short period when the citizens of Rome received free wine. It was a smart move because it revitalized the wine industry in Italy and ensured the reuse of abandoned land. However, already during his reign, wine was sold again, albeit at a reduced price. A stern administrator, Aurelian delved deeper into logistics, reorganizing the transportation and distribution system.

Disc with silver leaves, dedicated to the sun god Sol the Rebellious, 3rd century AD NS. \ Photo:

The emperor also tried to restore confidence in the imperial monetary system. A Roman silver coin was destroyed in large quantities in the third century. Under Augustus, the coin contained ninety-eight percent silver, during the reign of Septimius Severus, fifty percent, and when Aurelian came to power, the coin contained only one and a half percent. To combat rampant inflation, the emperor intended to mint coins with guaranteed silver up to five percent.

In addition, by issuing new coins and removing old ones from circulation, Aurelian wanted to remove the images of all the old emperors throughout the empire and replace them with his own. However, the reform met with limited success.While he managed to remove bad coinage from Rome and all of Italy, Aurelian was less successful in the provinces, and virtually no low-quality coins were exported from Gaul or Britain. However, the most notable and longest lasting of his financial reforms was the strategic relocation of mints away from Rome, to strategic locations near the border where payment could easily reach armies such as Milan or Sisac.

Aurelian's gold coin depicting victory with a wreath on the reverse, 270-275 n.\ Photo:

Aurelian introduced a new deity into the pantheon, the sun god - Sol Invictus, the Invincible Sun. This eastern deity, the patron saint of soldiers, was now associated with the emperor Aurelian and appeared on his coins. Finally, he demanded to be called dominus et deus, lord and god. To top it all off, his divinity was retroactive to his birth, so people could not question Aurelian's godlike status. This was a controversial move, given the failed attempt of Elagabalus (Heliogabalus) half a century ago. But it was also an attempt to restore the dignity of the imperial office, which has held so many people over the past few decades that it has almost lost its significance.

Emperor Aurelian was the undisputed master of Rome, the commander loved by his army, the emperor adored by his people. Even the elites, who turned out to be the objects of increased taxation, could not refute the role of Aurelian in the reunification of the empire. It seemed that Rome was waiting for a new golden age.

Triumph of Aurelian or Queen Zenobia before Aurelian, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1717. \ Photo:

Emperor Aurelian had everything. But the soldier-emperor had to cross the last border. From the Late Republic onwards, the leaders and emperors of Rome were drawn to the call of the East. Wealth and glory could be gained in battles against the Sassanid empire, the only power that Rome recognized as equal. For Aurelian, this victory would be the crown of his career, clear and undeniable proof that he really was a living god. True, all past expeditions promised the death of their commanders from Crassus's stupidity to the recent death of Emperor Valerian. But this time it will be different. At least that's what Aurelian thought. In 275, the emperor set out on his Persian expedition.

Christ as the Sun God, in the tomb of Julius in the Vatican necropolis, 3rd century AD NS. \ Photo:

Kenofrurius was a small staging post on the road to Byzantium, the place where Aurelian's army set up camp, awaiting a crossing to Asia Minor. The exact course of events is unknown. It seems that Aurelian fell victim to his own difficult temperament. He was known for ruthlessly punishing corrupt officials and soldiers. Caught up in gross abuses and threatened with punishment, the emperor's personal secretary forged a list of suspects, which contained the names of senior commanders whom the emperor allegedly intended to purge. Fearing for their lives, the officers decided to act first and killed Aurelian. When they realized their mistake, it was already too late. The culprit was punished, Aurelian was deified, and the empire remained in the hands of his widow, Empress Ulpia Severina. Six months later, the Senate took the initiative and elected the wealthy and old Senator Claudius Tacitus.

A year later, Tacitus died, and in the next decade, the empire, which Aurelian united with great efforts, again plunged into chaos. The mission of Aurelian will be continued by Diocletian in 284, who completed the consolidation of the Roman Empire. Ironically, it is Diocletian who will be remembered by history as the great emperor, while Aurelian will disappear into relative obscurity.

Empress Ulpia Severina. \ Photo:

Aurelian was a unique emperor. Born at a time when the Roman Empire was on the brink of collapse, he spent his entire career and life fighting wars to preserve Rome. In this he succeeded in an impressive way. In less than five years, he defeated the barbarians who threatened the Empire, fortified the defenses of the borders, fortified Rome with the walls of Aurelius, and put an end to the breakaway Gallic and Palmyrian empires. If anyone deserved the title of restorer of the world, it was the Emperor Aurelian. His achievements were so noticeable that in the fifth year of his reign, he was able to launch a campaign against Persia. Unfortunately, the vaunted East remained out of the reach of the soldier-emperor, since he was killed by his own people while on the move.

Lucius Domitius Aurelian (shot from the game "Total War: Rome II"). \ Photo:

Aurelian's deeds are little known outside of academia.But the invincible emperor left a legacy that is not easy to erase. Aurelian's relentless campaigns extended the life of the Roman Empire, allowing Diocletian and Constantine to lay the foundation for the survival of the empire in the east, also known as the Byzantine Empire. Aurelian's successors continued his work, surrounding the imperial office with pomp and ceremonies, turning the ruler into an autocrat. The monumental walls of Rome, built under Aurelian, will play a vital role in its history and protect the eternal city from countless waves of invaders. They are still intact. However, Aurelian's greatest achievement is something he was completely unaware of. The introduction of the monotheistic Eastern cult of the Defiant Sun paved the way for Christianity to emerge as the official religion decades later. The birthday of the invincible god Aurelian is December 25, the same day that billions of people today celebrate the birth of another: Christmas.

And in continuation of the topic, read also about how Queen Zenobia became the ruler of the East and a captive of Rome, leaving an indelible mark on history.

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