Emperor Aurelian: Rome’s Savior Whom History Forgot

Although he ruled for less than five years, Emperor Aurelian achieved great success in restoring and reuniting the fledgling Roman Empire.

Jun 7, 2021By Vedran Bileta, MA in Late Antique, Byzantine, and Early Modern History, BA in History
emperor aurelian roman empire history forgotten
The Triumph of Aurelian or Queen Zenobia in front of Aurelian, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1717, Museo del Prado, Madrid; Gold coin of Aurelian, 270-275 CE, The British Museum, London


Although his reign lasted only five years (270-275), emperor Aurelian achieved amazing results during that short time period. He stabilized the Danube frontier, defeating the barbarians who threatened the Empire. He encircled Rome with massive ramparts that stand until today. Most importantly, Aurelian restored the unity of the Roman Empire, defeating and incorporating breakaway states in both east and west. 


Besides being a battle-hardened soldier, Aurelian was also a reformer. It was during his brief reign that a long-overdue monetary reform took place with the aim to restore people’s confidence in the imperial coinage. Inspired by his many victories, Aurelian declared himself a god and laid the foundation for the autocratic emperorship of the late Empire. Aurelian also introduced Sol Invictus in the Roman pantheon (indirectly) paving the way for the rise of Christianity. His reign, however, was abruptly cut by the emperor’s assassination on his way to Persia. Ironically, one of the most prolific and capable Roman emperors, the savior of Rome, is nowadays almost forgotten outside academic circles.


Aurelian: The Soldier-Emperor

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Bust of a Roman emperor, probably Aurelian, ca. 275 CE, Museo di Santa Giulia, Brescia, via Wikimedia Commons


On a cold autumn day of 235 CE, in an army camp near the town of Byzantium (present-day Istanbul), emperor Aurelian was planning his next move. Like many Roman leaders before him, Aurelian looked eastwards, attracted by the wealth and splendor of Persia. The military glory gained in the East would neatly complement his unbroken line of victories and confirm Aurelian’s status as an “unconquerable emperor.” Alas, it was not to be. Later that day, the emperor was assassinated by his own men. Aurelian’s brilliant career came to an untimely end.


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 a soldier-emperor could prevent the empire’s collapse. Born in either 214/215, near Sirmium (present-day Sremska Mitrovica), Aurelian joined the army at an early age, and it was the army that defined his life and his reign. His tall stature, physical strength, austerity, and strict discipline (to the point of cruelty) earned him the moniker “manu ad ferrum” (“sword-in-hand”). According to our primary source, Historia Augusta, young Aurelian was a natural warrior, rising quickly through the ranks. His talents had not gone unnoticed, and Aurelian was chosen as a commander of emperor Gallienus’s elite cavalry. 


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Coins of the emperors Gallienus and Claudius II Gothicus, 265 and 269 CE, Kunsthistoriches Museum, Wien

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Despite his privileged status in the emperor’s entourage, Aurelian took part in the conspiracy devised by several high-ranking officers to assassinate Gallienus in 268. He was a strong contender for the vacant throne, but the army chose to elect another officer, Claudius. Instead, Aurelian was appointed as commander of all the cavalry, becoming the most powerful military figure after the emperor. He lived up to the expectations, spending the entirety of Claudius’ brief reign fighting alongside the emperor. 


Aurelian is said to have had a decisive role in the most famous battle of the time in which the Roman forces inflicted a devastating defeat on the Goths, earning Claudius the moniker “Gothicus” (conqueror over Goths). Before Claudius had a chance to celebrate this victory, he died of the plague in early 270 (the first in a long time who did not fall by the sword). The army appointed Aurelian the next emperor. The only other contender, Claudius’ brother Quintillus, was either killed by his troops, or committed suicide. Nobody dared to contest the most respected and feared figure in the empire, and in the autumn of 270, the Senate recognized Aurelian as the emperor of Rome.


Defending The Empire

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Ludovisi Battle sarcophagus with Romans fighting the barbarians, mid-3rd century CE, Museo Nazionale, Rome


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


And chaos it was. Already in the first months of his reign, Aurelian had to deal with a breach of the Danubian frontier. Yet, the biggest challenge for the new emperor appeared in 271 when the Juthungi invaded Northern Italy. This time the Germanic invaders crossed the Po river, and soundly defeated 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 Hannibal, there was a possibility of an enemy taking the city. A lesser emperor would have called a day or even lost his life, but Aurelian was a hardened battle commander. He was able to exploit the fragmentation of the barbarian force and inflict a decisive defeat on the enemy. 


However, Aurelian was unable to pursue it because his presence was urgently required in Rome where a riot broke out, led by the dissatisfied workers of the imperial mint. Aurelian’s response was brutal. Thousands were killed, while ringleaders, including several senators, were put to death. The emperor’s message was clear. He would not allow further disorder. Always on the move, Aurelian spent the year’s end back on the Danube, defeating several more barbarian incursions. 


The Aurelian Walls And Dacia

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The Aurelian Walls, Porta Asinaria (the two towers are fifth-century addition by emperor Honorius), Rome, via ColosseumRome


The frontier was pacified, and Italy was secure once again. Barbarians would not invade the peninsula for more than a century, but Aurelian could not know that. He knew, however, that the traditional defensive policy of meeting the enemy on the limes was flawed, and that the imperial heartland needs to be protected. Thus, Aurelian decided to fortify Rome with massive walls. The so-called Aurelian walls turned Rome into a veritable fortress. 19 kilometers long, and 6 meters tall, the perimeter enclosed all of Rome’s seven hills, Campus Martius, and on the right bank of Tiber, Trastevere district. It was a huge engineering feat – the largest in a century. The walls would remain Rome’s main perimeter up to the 19th century. They remain in place till today, almost intact, withstanding the test of time.


Aurelian’s experience of fighting along the Danube resulted in another crucial act that bolstered the empire’s defenses. By the mid-third century, it became apparent that the provinces located on the other bank of the great river were exposed to barbarian attacks. Under Gallienus, the Romans evacuated Agri Decumates. In 272, emperor Aurelian decided to abandon the similarly indefensible Dacia. The abandonment was a politically sensitive issue since it was a province that had been incorporated with great effort and pomp by emperor Trajan


To preserve the idea of Roman invincibility, Aurelian ordered the creation of two new provinces carrying the same name. Dacia was not abandoned and forgotten. It was simply transferred to the south of Danube, along with its Romanized population and legions. However, Aurelian’s abandonment of Dacia marked the end of the Roman expansion. 


Restorer Of The Roman World

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Gold coin of Aurelian, showing emperor in full military dress on the reverse, 270-275 CE, The British Museum, London


The Danubian frontier was restored and Rome had new walls. All that remained was to put the end to the last pockets of instability that threatened the very existence of the Empire. A decade before Aurelian took power, the Roman empire had disintegrated into several politically separated areas. Besides the legitimate emperor in Rome, there was an independent Gallic Empire in the West, while in the East, Queen Zenobia ruled over the Palmyrene empire. 


First, Aurelian turned his legions east. Palmyra was a powerful city that derived its wealth from the many trade caravans moving along the Silk Road, linking Persia with the Mediterranean. Once part of the Empire, Palmyra had seceded from Rome in 260, following the imperial disaster in Persia. A regional power, Palmyra remained friendly with Rome. But when queen Zenobia took the throne in 267, things changed. Exploiting the chaos in the Roman empire, Zenobia was able to take control over all of the Roman east, including Egypt. Zenobia now had control over the wealthiest Roman province and the breadbasket of the empire. She had a strong and well-trained army, partly made of the Syrian and Egyptian legions, formerly loyal to Rome. Palmyra was on the way to become a powerful empire. Aurelian could not allow that to happen.


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Zenobia’s last look on Palmyra, Herbert G Schmalz, 1888, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide


At the beginning of 272, a naval task force led by Aurelian’s general (and the future emperor) Probus was able to retake Egypt, restoring grain transports to Rome. 


Meanwhile, Aurelian advanced on Asia Minor. Intending to be a liberator, not a conqueror, Aurelian spared Tyana, the only city that offered resistance. Such clemency proved to be a wise strategy, and the rest of Anatolia surrendered without a fight. Now, Aurelian was ready to strike the heart of the enemy. Roman legions twice defeated the Palmyrian troops, and finally laid siege to Palmyra itself. The city surrendered, and Zenobia was taken prisoner. Palmyra revolted once again, in 273, while Aurelian was engaged fighting barbarians at the Danube. This time the city was taken and destroyed. Palmyra would never recover from the disaster, remaining yet another provincial frontier town until the Arab conquest in the 7th century.


After his triumph in the east, emperor Aurelian turned to the last remaining territory out of imperial reach. In 274, his troops defeated the Gallic army, following the defection of their leader, emperor Tetricus. The Gallic Empire, which defied Rome for a decade, was no more. Aurelian celebrated his victory with a spectacular triumph in Rome. The crowd that filled the streets could see Zenobia and Tetricus, both in gold chains. According to Historia Augusta, there were so many trophies and carts that the procession reached the Capitol only in the evening. Here Aurelian, riding a luxurious chariot, was greeted by the fully assembled Senate who bestowed upon him the title of Restitutor Orbis – “Restorer of the World.” The title was well-deserved since Aurelian achieved the impossible. In less than five years, he stabilized the frontiers of Rome and reunited the empire on the verge of collapse.


Reformer And Living God

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Fresco from House of Julia Felix in Pompeii showing the distribution of bread), Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples, via imperiumromanum.pl


Finally, Aurelian could govern his empire, instead of fighting for it. The gold confiscated in Palmyra and throughout the East, together with the incomes of the reconquered provinces, offered an opportunity for important economic reforms. 


The first of them was a food reform. Aurelian was determined to avoid urban riots that tainted the beginning of his reign, and the best way to do so was to keep the people happy. Aurelian, thus, increased the amount of free food distributed to the people of Rome. Aware of the issues with grain supplies, the emperor ordered bread to be distributed instead of grain. He went one step further by adding pork, salt, and oil to the free rations. There was even a brief period where the citizens of Rome received free wine. This was a clever move because it revitalized the winemaking industry in Italy and ensured that abandoned land was used once again. However, already during his reign, the wine was sold again, albeit at a reduced cost. A stern administrator, Aurelian delved into logistics, reorganizing the system of transport and distribution.


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Coin of Aurelian, showing Sol Invictus on the reverse, 270-275 CE, The British Museum, London


The emperor also tried to restore confidence in the imperial monetary system. The Roman silver coin was massively debased during the third century. Under Augustus, the coin contained 98% silver, during the reign of Septimius Severus 50%, and when Aurelian came to power, the coin contained a mere 1.5%. To fight rampant inflation, Aurelian aimed to mint the coin with up to 5% guaranteed silver. 


In addition, by issuing new coins and withdrawing old coinage from circulation, Aurelian wanted to remove images of all old emperors across the empire and substitute them with his own. However, the reform had limited success. While he managed to remove the “bad” coinage from Rome and all of Italy, Aurelian was less successful in the provinces, and practically no low-quality coins were removed from Gaul or Britain. Most notable, and most enduring of his financial reforms, however, was the strategic relocation of mints away from Rome, to the strategic sites near the frontier, where pay could easily reach the armies, such as Milan or Siscia. 


sol invictus
Silver leaf disc dedicated to the sun-god Sol Invictus, 3rd century CE, The British Museum, London


Aurelian introduced a new deity to the pantheon, a solar god – Sol Invictus, the Invincible Sun. This oriental deity, the protector of soldiers, was now linked to emperor Aurelian and appeared on his coinage. Finally, Aurelian demanded to be called dominus et deus, master and god. To top it off, his divinity was “backdated” to his birth, so the people could not doubt Aurelian’s god-like status. This was a controversial move, considering the unfortunate attempt of Elagabalus, half a century earlier. But it was also an attempt to restore dignity to the imperial office, which over the previous few decades was assumed by so many people that it almost lost its significance. 


Emperor Aurelian was an indisputable master of Rome, a commander beloved by his army, an emperor adored by his people. Even the elites, who found themselves targets of increased taxation, could not disprove Aurelian’s role in reuniting the empire. It seemed that a new golden age awaited Rome. 


An Unexpected End

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Gold coin of Aurelian, showing victory holding wreath on reverse, 270-275 CE, The British Museum


Emperor Aurelian had it all. But the soldier-emperor had one last frontier to cross. From the Late Republic onwards, the leaders and emperors of Rome were attracted by the call of the East. Wealth and glory could be gained in battles against the Sassanid empire, the only power Rome recognized as equal. For Aurelian, this victory would have been a crowning achievement of his career, a piece of clear and unquestionable evidence that he was indeed a living god. True, all past expeditions spelled doom for their commanders – from Crassus’ folly to the recent demise of emperor Valerian. But this time it would be different. Or so Aurelian had thought. In 275, the emperor embarked on his Persian expedition.


Caenophrurium was a small waystation on a road to Byzantium, a place where Aurelian’s army set up camp waiting to cross to Asia Minor. The exact course of events is not known. It seems that Aurelian became a victim of his own difficult character. Aurelian was known for punishing corrupt officials and soldiers without mercy. Caught in flagrant abuse and threatened with punishment, the emperor’s personal secretary forged a hit list that contained the names of the senior commanders, whom the emperor was allegedly going to purge. Afraid for their lives, the officers decided to act first and killed Aurelian. When they realized their mistake, it was too late. The culprit was punished, Aurelian was deified, while the empire remained in the hands of his widow, empress Ulpia Severina. Six months later, the Senate took initiative into their heads and elected wealthy and old senator Claudius Tacitus. 


Emperor Aurelian: A Legacy Forgotten?

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The Triumph of Aurelian or Queen Zenobia in front of Aurelian, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1717, Museo del Prado, Madrid


A year later, Tacitus was dead, and in the following decade, the empire that Aurelian united with great effort, descended back into chaos. Aurelian’s mission would be continued by Diocletian in 284, who finished the consolidation of the Roman Empire. Ironically, it would be Diocletian whom history would remember as a great emperor, while Aurelian would fade into relative obscurity.


Aurelian was a unique emperor. Born in a time when the Roman Empire was on the brink of collapse, Aurelian spent his entire career and life, waging wars to preserve Rome. In that, he succeeded in a spectacular fashion. In less than five years, he defeated the barbarians who threatened the Empire, strengthened the defense of the frontiers, secured Rome with the Aurelian Walls, and put an end to the breakaway Gallic and Palmyrian empires. If anyone deserved the title of the “restorer of the world,” it was emperor Aurelian. His achievements were so prominent, that in the fifth year of his reign, Aurelian could embark on a campaign against Persia. Unfortunately, the vaunted East remained out of the soldier-emperor’s reach, as he was murdered by his own men while on the move. 


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Christ as the Sun God, in Tomb of Julii (Mausoleum “M”) in the Vatican necropolis, 3rd century CE, Rome, via flickr


Aurelian’s deeds are little known outside academic circles. But the “unconquerable emperor” left a legacy that cannot be easily erased. Aurelian’s tireless campaigns prolonged the life of the Roman Empire, allowing Diocletian and Constantine to lay the foundation for the survival of the empire in the east – known also as the Byzantine Empire


Aurelian’s successors continued his work, surrounding the imperial office with pomp and ceremony, turning a ruler into an autocrat. Rome’s monumental walls, built under Aurelian, would play a vital role in its history, and protect the eternal city from countless waves of invaders. They are still intact. Yet, Aurelian’s biggest achievement is the one he was completely unaware of. The introduction of the monotheistic oriental cult of Sol Invictus paved the way for the emergence of Christianity as an official religion several decades later. The day of birth of Aurelian’s invincible god is December 25th, the same day billions of people nowadays celebrate the birth of another: Christmas.

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By Vedran BiletaMA in Late Antique, Byzantine, and Early Modern History, BA in HistoryVedran is a doctoral researcher, based in Budapest. His main interest is Ancient History, in particular the Late Roman period. When not spending time with the military elites of the Late Roman West, he is sharing his passion for history with those willing to listen. In his free time, Vedran is wargaming and discussing Star Trek.