Aurelian (full name: Imperator Caesar Lucius Domitius Aurelianus Augustus) was Roman Emperor from AD 270 to AD 275. He is best known for his role in stabilizing the Roman Empire near the end of the third-century crisis.
Aurelian was born in the city of Sirmium on September 9, probably in the year AD 214 or AD 215. He came from a humble background, his father was working in a farm for a senator name Aurelius and his mother was a priestess of a temple of Sol Invictus in her village. He joined the Roman Army at a young age and rose through the ranks. He was distinguished for his military prowess. It is claimed that he served in a garrison of 300 men and they intercepted a raid by the Sarmatians when they crossed into the region of Illyricum and it is alleged that he killed hundreds of barbarians over several days. He is then said to have served as a military Tribune of a legion in Gaul and he participated in the destruction of the Franks during their invasions in the 250s.
As a Tribune, he was first known for his harsh discipline to his legionaries. Then he was made an envoy to the Sassanid Persians where he is said to have received gifts from the Persian King. Emperor Valerian promoted Aurelian to 'Inspector of the Military Camps'. A man doubted by modern historians to have existed, Ulpius Crinitus was said to have been the Dux (leader) of the Illyrian and Thracian Border under Valerian. Aurelian was made his deputy. Crinitus supposedly adopted him after Aurelian was proved to have been a good deputy by crushing raids by the Goths and enriching the provinces with the spoils of war. He announced his adoption of Aurelian and the Emperor gave his blessing. Ulpius Crinitus was of the Ulpia gens, the family of which the emperor Trajan came from.
After the death of Valerian, he served the Emperors Gallienus and Claudius II. He was in command of the wars against the Goths and the Herculi. He was then put in charge of a large and elite Cavalry force and then was put in charge of mopping up operations in the Balkans against the Goths who were defeated by Claudius II. After the death of Claudius II, Aurelian was declared Emperor by the Danubian Legions. The Roman Senate chose Quintillus, the brother of Claudius II to succeed him. However, Quintillus was soon killed or he committed suicide. Aurelian arrived in Rome and he eventually ordered the construction of a wall to protect the city of Rome from potential barbarian invasions. Since he was going to be away from Rome for some time on campaign. The construction of the wall started in AD 271 and these set of walls are known as the wall of Aurelian. They incorporated many monuments into the design such as the mausoleum of Hadrian to save resources and time. The Emperor Maxentius upgraded the walls and doubled it's height to protect Rome from the forces of his rival, Constantine I.
Defeating the Palmyrene Empire
In AD 272, Aurelian marched with his legions to defeat the Palmyrene Empire under Zenobia and Vaballathus. The Palmyrene Empire had invaded parts of Asia Minor, the Levant and Egypt. They met fierce resistance from a Roman Admiral, Tenagino Probus who had been conducting operations in the Mediterranean sea against Gothic pirates. He came back to Egypt after the Palmyrenes left a garrison of 5,000 men. He ejected the garrison from the province. The Palmyrenes came back and he defeated them. He pursued them but the Roman force was surprise attacked near Babylon, a Roman garrison fort and he was captured. Probus committed suicide. In the province of Arabia, they also met resistance from Trassus, the commander of a Roman Legion but he was defeated near Bostra. Aurelian met little resistance in Asia minor, many cities and towns were not in support of Zenobia's conquest of the region.
The city of Antioch fell to Aurelian after the Palmyrenes under a general name Zabdas were defeated in Immae on the route to Antioch. The Palmyrenes wanted to prevent Aurelian from capturing Antioch since it was a very important city in the Roman East. The Palmyrene forces reorganized and were stationed in the walled Roman colony of Emesa. The two sides met in the fields of Emesa. The Romans were outnumbered but Aurelian's forces prevailed and the Palmyrenes lost the battle of Emesa. Aurelian was welcomed into the city and he built a local temple. The Palmyrenes fled and went back to Palmyra. The siege of Palmyra in AD 272 ended the campaign and Zenobia was captured. Aurelian probably spared Zenobia and Vaballathus. However, he killed Zenobia's chief advisers.
Settling a dispute in the Church
There was a man by the name of Paul of Samosata, he had been elected Bishop by the Christian community at Antioch in AD 260. He replaced Demetrius, the former Bishop of Antioch who had died. Some of Paul's beliefs of the church were seen as heretical by some. An early church historian by the name of Eusebius said that Paul believed that Christ was a mere man on earth. A synod was held in Antioch in AD 264 but Paul managed to hide his heresy. The experienced and senior Bishop of Alexandria, Dionysius was too sick to attend. Zenobia apparently became a patron of Paul and power went over to Paul's head. It resulted in a new investigation.
A new synod was held in Antioch in either AD 268 or AD 269 and a man by the name of Malchion was able to nail down Paul's excuses and explanations. Paul was removed from his position as Bishop of Antioch and excommunicated. A letter was sent to the local provinces explaining why they removed him. The Synod declared that they might have been able to overlook and forgive his ambition, arrogance, him being a terrible example to pagan worshipers and other scandalous sins and vices but his heresy was not to be tolerated. A man by the name of Domnus, the son of Demetrius replaced him as the Bishop of Antioch according to Jerome. But Paul refused to leave the church and was supported by Zenobia.
Only after Aurelian came to Antoch with his legions, were the citizens able to appeal to the Emperor. So that they could remove the heretical formal Bishop. They begged him and the Emperor replied. The building is to be given to those to whom the bishops of Italy and of the city of Rome should adjudge it. Paul now abandoned the church and left.
Defeating the Gallic Roman Empire
Then he focused his attention to the provinces of west. He defeated the Gallic Roman Empire under Tetricus I and his Caesar, Tetricus II in AD 274, in the battle of Chalons. Tetricus, his son and his close staff defected to Aurelian probably as part of a prearranged plan to surrender when the Rhine and Danubian legions met. Tetricus defected when the two sides met so that the generals couldn't pick one of their own to command the Rhine legions. The battle of Chalons was a bloody battle that apparently saw the Rhine Legions massacred. It probably was not part of Aurelian's plan since he needed those legions to defend Gaul from invasion from Germanic tribes. Through that, he reunited the whole Empire under one Emperor.
He was murdered in AD 275 while marching to campaign against the Persian Sassanids by high-ranking officials who were tricked by a Secretary of Aurelian name Eros into believing that Aurelian was going to murder or punish them. He was succeeded by Marcus Claudius Tacitus, an old Senator. The army was so shocked at his murder that they did not want to appoint an Emperor after they found out members of their own murdered Aurelian. So they consulted the Roman Senate and eventually they chose Tacitus as Emperor of the Roman Empire.
Aurelian was a conservative Roman from farming stock who simply wanted to restore the Roman Empire to greatness before the third-century crisis that devastated the Empire with barbarian invasions, the Sassanid Persian Empire, civil wars and near economic collapse. He made a lot of effort to reward loyalty and maintain friendly relationships with the Roman Senate. His supporters were very loyal to him. He was strict and harsh towards corruption and military discipline.
- White, John. The Roman Emperor Aurelian Restorer of the World. New Revised Edition., Pen and Sword Military, 2015.
- Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Aurelian.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 15 Oct. 2009, www.britannica.com/biography/Aurelian.
- Mark, Joshua J. “The Crisis of the Third Century.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, Ancient History Encyclopedia, 9 Nov. 2017, www.ancient.eu/Crisis_of_the_Third_Century/.