Who was Aurelian?
Aurelian, or Lucius Domitius Aurelianus Augustus, was a Roman emperor who ruled from 270 to 275 A.D. He was born into an average family and managed to rise through the military ranks to become an emperor. His reign saw him defeat the Alamanni. He also won in battles against the Goths, the Juthungi, the Vandals, the Carpi, and the Sarmatians. He conquered the Palmyrene Empire in 273 and thus restored the kingdom’s Eastern provinces. He then conquered the Gallic Empire of the West, thereby reuniting the empire. He built the Aurelian Walls in Rome and abandoned the province of Dacia. He managed to end the Roman Empire's Crisis of the Third Century and thus earned the title “Restitutor Orbis,” or "Restorer of the World.” Although Domitian was the first emperor to have demanded the titled of “dominus et dues” (“master and god”), such titles were not found in official documents till Aurelian’s reign.
Childhood & Early Life
Lucius Domitius Aurelianus was born on September 9, 214/215 C.E. His birthplace is believed to be either Serdica or Sirmium, in the province of Moesia (later Dacia Ripensis), near the Danube River (present-day regions of Serbia, Romania, and Bulgaria). Not much is known about his early life, except that he was from an average family. His father was a “colonus” (or “tenant”) of a senator named Aurelius.
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Several sources that mention Aurelian’s reign were written about a hundred years later, in the second half of the fourth century.
Aurelian began his career as the “dux equitum” (commander of the cavalry). He was part of the conspiracy against Emperor Gallienus in 268 A.D. and supported the new ruler, Claudius II Gothicus. He continued his military career under Claudius II, eventually becoming the supreme commander of the entire cavalry of the Roman army. In 269, Claudius II and Aurelian defeated the Alamanni at the Battle of Lake Benacus.
After Claudius II’s death due to plague in September 270 A.D., his brother, Quintillus, ascended to the throne. However, the soldiers in Sirmium revolted. They declared Aurelian the emperor in May or September that year. Aurelian defeated Quintillus. The senate accepted him as the new ruler after Quintillus died under mysterious circumstances. It is also believed by some that Claudius II had, on his deathbed, chosen Aurelian as his successor. Quintillus was declared an usurper.
Fight against Major Tribes
Aurelian spent the winters of 270/271 in Rome. Back then, he fought against tribes such as the Vandals, the Sarmatians, and the Juthungi in Northern Italy and in the Danube ragion. The Roman Empire faced many rebellions for these battles. Some such revolts were by Septiminus (or Septimius), Domitianus, and Urbanus.
Aurelian earned the title “Germanicus Maximus” in 271 A.D. and thus joined his first consulate. He went back to Rome in the winters of 271/272 and started building the ‘Aurelian Wall.’ He fortified several other Italian cities, such as Pisaurum and Fanum Fortunae. The coins of this phase showcase that he promoted the army.
In 272 A.D., he fought against the Goths. He thus earned the title “Gothicus Maximus.” He abandoned the province of Dacia in north of the Danube. He created a new province instead, on the southern bank of the Danube, in the territories of Moesia and Thracia. This was a compensatory measure for the inhabitants who had to leave the abandoned province and also a damage-control initiative for abandoning a Roman territory. Serdica (present-day Sofia) was declared the capital of this new province. He also established a mint there, in 272 A.D.
The Palmyrene War
Aurelian then set out to reunite the Eastern provinces with the Roman Empire. Queen Zenobia of Palmyra and her son, Wahballat, or Vaballathus, had established the Palmyrene Empire from Egypt to Asia Minor. After Aurelian ascended to the throne in 270 A.D., he made an agreement with the Palmyrenes, as he was not strong enough to fight them. Vaballathus recognized Aurelian as an emperor but also called himself “rex” and “imperator” ("king" and "supreme military commander").
When Aurelian regained his strength as an emperor, he started his campaign against the Palmyrene Empire. As he marched into Asia Minor, he did not face much resistance, except in the city of Tyana. In 272 A.D., Aurelian defeated the Palmyrene army near Antiochia (at Immae). Zenobia and her general, Zabdas, fled to Emesa. There, Aurelian defeated their army again. Later, he conquered Palmyra in the Syrian desert. Zenobia tried to run away to the Persian kingdom, as the Persians had supported her earlier, but was captured at the Euphrates. Aurelian did not kill her, but philosopher Longinus and her other friends were executed. Following this, Aurelian assumed the titles “Parthicus Maximus” and “Persicus Maximus.” He was also declared the “Restitutor Orientis,” or the “Restorer of the East.”
He then returned to the West and defeated the Carpi in the Danube region (273 A.D.), thus gaining the title “Carpicus Maximus.” Meanwhile, the Palmyrenes began a revolt under Apsaeus. They initially tried to convince Marcellinus, the governor of the province of Mesopotamia, to become their emperor. However, Marcellinus rejected the offer and informed Aurelian about the rebellion instead. The Palmyrenes then made Antiochus their emperor. Antiochus was perhaps Septimius Antiochus, who has been mentioned as the son of Zenobia in an inscription.
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Following this, Aurelian conquered their city again and destroyed it. He also managed to suppress the revolt of Firmus in Egypt. The East was now completely under the Roman Empire.
The War against the Gallic Empire
Aurelian entered his second consulate in 274 A.D. and then moved toward the West, where the Gallic provinces had built an empire in 260 A.D. A battle followed, at the Catalaunian fields (Châlons-sur-Marne). Esuvius Tetricus, the emperor of the Gallic Empire, abandoned his troops and joined Aurelian. Aurelian then defeated Tetricus's army. Following this, Gallia and Britannia were reunited with the Roman Empire. Aurelian celebrated this win by presenting Zenobia and Tetricus and declaring himself the “Restitutor Orbis,” or the “Restorer of the World.” Tetricus was later made the corrector of Lucania, while Zenobia possibly lived near Rome.
After the Gallic and the Palmyrene conquests, the Roman rule seemed concrete. Aurelian introduced many domestic reforms, including a monetary reform. The value of the main currency, antoninianus, had been debased earlier. Aurelian's main aim was to re-strengthen the antoninianus.
The emperor also declared Sol Invictus as the supreme god of the Roman Empire. This was done to achieve unity across the empire. A priesthood titled "priests of the Sun-god" was created. On December 25, 274 A.D. (Sol's birthday), he inaugurated a temple of the Sun god in Rome. The annual festivals of ludi and agon Solis were held in honor of the Sun god. The emperor also instilled discipline in the army. He tried to end the corruption rampant among the provincial governors and the revenue officers.
Personal Life & Death
Aurelian was believed to be married to Ulpia Severina. Her name appears only in inscriptions and on coins. They had a daughter.
In 274 A.D., Ulpia earned the title “Augusta.” She was also known as the “mater castrorum et senatus et patriae.”
It is assumed that Ulpia was perhaps the daughter of Ulpius Crinitus, whose mention is found in the ‘Historia Augusta.’ Ulpius Crinitus is said to have been a descendant of Trajan and was also believed to have adopted Aurelian. However, this appears to be a tale invented to connect Aurelian with the "good emperor" Trajan.
In 275 A.D., Aurelian crushed the revolts in Gaul and fought against the invading barbarians in Vindelicia (present-day southern Germany) He then planned to march against the Persians. He was murdered in September or October 275, at Caenophrurium (located between Perinthus and Byzantium), while he was on his way to Byzantium. His secretary had planned a conspiracy and had lied to the officers of the ‘Praetorian Guard,’ saying that Aurelian had planned to kill them. As a result, the troops murdered Aurelian.
The government functioned under Ulpia Severina for a while. After 6 months, the ‘Senate’ appointed Marcus Claudius Tacitus as the successor. However, the chaos surrounding the throne continued till Diocletian’s ascension in 284 A.D.
The French city of Orléans has been named after Aurelian. Originally known as “Cenabum,” the city was rebuilt by Aurelian, who renamed it “Aurelianum,” or “Aureliana Civitas” ("city of Aurelian"), which eventually became “Orléans.”