6 – Aurelian (270 – 275 AD)
Aurelian is probably the least well-known ruler on this list, but he achieved a great deal during his brief reign. He was born in 214/215 AD in the province of Moesia, but relatively little is known about his early life. Ancient sources suggest he joined the army in around 235 AD and unlike other emperors; he probably began in the ranks of the legions and was forced to work his way up. His stint in the army came during the Third Century Crisis, and he seemingly developed a good military reputation.
Aurelian first became part of Emperor Gallienus’ entourage and later, he served under General Claudius who ultimately became the leader of Rome upon the assassination of Gallienus. Aurelian enjoyed a rapid rise under Claudius and soon became the head of the Roman army behind the emperor. Although Quintillus was named emperor after the death of Claudius, the military refused to recognize him as the leader. Aurelian was declared emperor a few months later and defeated Quintillus in battle.
He took over a splintered empire and attempted to stitch it back together. Aurelian had to deal with the threat of the Vandals and the Juthungi immediately and was successful in doing so. When he returned to Rome, there was a revolt by workers of the mint in the city. The emperor crushed the resistance and closed the mint. Then he curried favor with the public by canceling debts to the Treasury and burning the records in a public bonfire.
Aurelian barely had time to pause for breath before tackling the problem of the breakaway Palmyra Empire which was taking the empire’s eastern possessions. By 273 AD, he had the situation under control and turned his attention to another breakaway empire; this time it was the Gallic empire in the west. Aurelian won a decisive victory at the Battle of Catalunian Fields and planned to launch a campaign against the Sassanid Empire in 275 AD.
However, he was assassinated in this year in a plot hatched by high ranking members of the Praetorian Guard. During his five-year reign, Aurelian kept the empire together while saving Rome from barbarian invasions that threatened to take the city. With a less able ruler, perhaps the empire would have collapsed by the end of the third century and the Byzantine Empire may never have been formed.