Restorer of the World: 5 Things You Didn’t Know About Aurelian, Rome’s Least Appreciated Emperor

Restorer of the World: 5 Things You Didn’t Know About Aurelian, Rome’s Least Appreciated Emperor

Patrick Lynch - June 30, 2017

Aurelian was the Emperor of Rome from 270 and 275 and is arguably one of the most underrated rulers of the Empire; at least amongst casual history lovers. By the time he came to power, the Empire was on the brink of collapse. Its economy was in ruins, it was still recovering from the Plague of Cyprian and the quick turnover of emperors throughout the Third Century Crisis meant there was no one strong enough to form a stable government.

Restorer of the World: 5 Things You Didn’t Know About Aurelian, Rome’s Least Appreciated Emperor
How the Roman Empire Looked Before Aurelian’s Victories.

To make matters worse, the Romans were under attack from all sides as barbarian enemies’ sensed weakness and moved in for the kill. Had Rome been led by yet another weak emperor at this time, it may well have lost its empire forever. Instead, Aurelian seized the throne, quelled the outside threats and initiated reforms he never got to complete. In this article, I look at 5 interesting facts about one of Rome’s greatest rulers.

1 – He Destroyed All of Rome’s Immediate Threats within a Few Years

Above all else, Aurelian was an outstanding general and is best known for his numerous successes against a variety of tribes bent on Rome’s destruction. Aurelian quickly rose through the ranks of the army and became known for his exploits as a soldier on the Danube frontier. In 268 AD, when Aureolas rebelled against Emperor Gallienus, Aurelian was in command of cavalry in northern Italy. He was involved in the Siege of Mediolanum and is said to have raised the alarm at night; an act that caused Gallienus to leave his tent. The emperor was assassinated.

He was a main contender for the throne, but it was awarded to Claudius II Gothicus. The new emperor appointed Aurelian as Master of the Horse which effectively made him the second most powerful man in the empire as he had command of the military. Claudius died suddenly in 270 and his brother, Quintillus, became the new emperor. Aurelian believed the title was his and claimed it at Sirmium in August 270. Quintillus fled and, realizing he had no support; he committed suicide in Aquileia.

Aurelian was the undisputed ruler of the Empire, but he had no time to rest on his laurels as there were multiple threats to deal with. His first order of business was to deal with the Juthungi who had invaded Northern Italy. The Roman army caught up with the enemy and defeated them before they could flee back beyond the Danube. Aurelian marched to Rome and was officially declared Emperor by the Senate.

Almost immediately, he had to return north to fight the Vandals and Sarmatians who had crossed the Danube. Aurelian’s army arrived and crushed the enemy; he even asked his men if the Vandals should be allowed to return home before granting them safe passage. He also took 2,000 cavalry from them. Even before the Vandals had withdrawn, a combination of the Juthungi, Marcomanni, and Alemanni descended on Northern Italy from the Alps. Aurelian then suffered a rare defeat at Placentia in 271. Back in Rome, riots began once the news filtered through although the violence may have started due to a combination of other factors.

The barbarians made the mistake of dividing their large army into numerous smaller forces so they could move faster and plunder more. Aurelian seized the opportunity by finding every one of the smaller armies and defeating them. There was no time to waste because he had to return to Rome to handle the riots. His men suppressed the riots, and thousands of people died including several senators who were executed on the orders of the emperor. Knowing that the riots were partly due to fear of invasion, the Emperor ordered the construction of the Aurelian Walls to keep barbarians at bay long enough for an army to return to save the day if necessary.

While there were a couple of pretenders to the throne, the real threat was the Gallic Empire in the West and the Palmyrene Empire in the East which had split from the Roman Empire. He knew that Palmyra, ruled by Queen Zenobia, was a greater threat, so he attacked it first. It controlled Egypt and Rome’s grain supply, so it was essential to destroy the independent state. Aurelian marched east but defeated the Goths in several large battles en route in 272. Meanwhile, the emperor also decided to withdraw from Dacia and ordered the evacuation of Romans from the region.

Aurelian continued east and had few problems in Asia Minor as only the city of Tyana resisted. He captured it easily but forbade his men from sacking it. This was an excellent decision because it led to several cities in Greek and the whole of Egypt returning to the Empire without any kind of a fight. Later in 272, Aurelian defeated the Palmyrene army at Immae and Emesa. The enemy surrendered, and the Romans captured Queen Zenobia. As soon as he left, the Palmyrenes staged an uprising. He returned immediately and brutally suppressed it, allowing his men to rape, pillage and plunder.

Only the Gallic Empire stood between Aurelian and the completion of his mission. In 274 AD, he defeated the Gallic leader Tetricus at Chalons-sur-Marne and restored the Empire. He paraded the beaten enemy leaders in his triumph in Rome but spared both their lives. In the space of a few years, Aurelian had foiled multiple invasion attempts, re-established the Empire, oversaw a return to Roman control on the frontiers and ensured he was the undisputed leader after decades of uncertainty. He truly earned the name restitutor orbis, Restorer of the World.

Restorer of the World: 5 Things You Didn’t Know About Aurelian, Rome’s Least Appreciated Emperor
Sol Invictus. Wikimedia

2 – He Was Proclaimed a God on Earth

Aurelian had achieved remarkable success, and he was certainly in no mood for humility. Not content with being the Restorer of the World, he was known by a variety of superlatives. His military successes ensured that Rome’s frontiers were almost unrecognizable from the chaos of the previous decades. By now, Aurelian was known as the ‘most victorious,’ Victoriosissimus and the ‘most glorious,’ Gloriosissimus.

As emperor, Aurelian managed to see off the Carpi, the Arabians, the Germans, the Palmyrenes and the Persians. Inscriptions initially marked him out as eternal and invincible then graduated to referring to him as the personification of Hercules. Finally, he became known as Imperator Deus et dominus, a god. To top it off, his divinity was ‘backdated’ to his birth, so the people were in no doubt as to Aurelian’s god-like status.

Aurelian was not shy in showing off his new found status as he began wearing a diadem and a cloth made of gold. In one sense, you could say that power went to his head, but perhaps there was a method to his madness. Over the previous few decades, the role of ‘emperor’ was assumed by so many people that it almost lost its significance. No one was able to command the respect of the people, the Senate, and the army. Aurelian changed all that and demanded obedience and loyalty. For his part, he displayed an air of leadership, power, majesty and immortality, things that the title of emperor had recently lost. Diocletian followed Aurelian’s lead when he became emperor under a decade later.

Aurelian was also keen to remove the ‘soldier-Emperor’ designation and achieved it by refusing to share meals with the soldiers or marching amongst them. He wanted to be isolated from them, to set himself apart. Given the outcomes of his many campaigns, there is little doubt that it was a successful strategy up to a point.

Aside from being seen as a god, Aurelian introduced religious reform during his brief tenure as emperor. He made Sol Invictus (Sun God) an official cult; his goal was to unite the people of the Empire under one God without forcing them to betray their chosen deities. A new temple to Sol Invictus was built and dedicated on December 25, 274 AD. The historian Lactantius claimed that Aurelian would have persecuted other religions if he survived longer and Christian historians suggest he ordered persecutions of Christians during his reign.

Restorer of the World: 5 Things You Didn’t Know About Aurelian, Rome’s Least Appreciated Emperor
Roman fresco from the Praedia of Julia Felix Depicting the sale of bread at a Roman stall. Pinterest

3 – He Introduced Food Reform

One of Aurelian’s most important domestic reforms was his total overhaul of the urban food ration system. The problem with such a vast empire was that even the city of Rome hadn’t been able to support its food requirements from Italian agriculture. Once Emperor Augustus had annexed Egypt, the empire was able to take enormous quantities of grain grown in the fertile flood plains of the Nile. The city also continued to receive huge supplies of grain from North Africa.

A portion of this grain was given to a sector of the population for free (the dole) and the rest was milled and sold to bakers who then sold their freshly baked bread at controlled prices. Although emperors such as Severus Alexander and Septimius Severus had made some changes to the dole, no previous ruler of Rome attempted such a wholesale change. While Aurelian probably eliminated the alimenta (introduced by Trajan) to help the children of Italy, he had bigger plans for a reform of the food dole.

Ever since the days of Alexander Severus, the supply of grain to the people of Rome was unpredictable, so Aurelian decided to distribute bread to the people instead of grain. He levied the grain that came from Egypt and made it part of Rome’s taxation system. The grain was delivered to the bakers for free, and they created loaves of bread at a fixed weight of two pounds; much larger than they were previously.

Emperor Aurelian went one step further by adding pork, salt, and oil to the rations. There was even a brief period where the citizens of Rome received free wine. It was a clever move because it revitalized the winemaking industry in Italy and ensured abandoned land was used once again. Alas, he did not stick to his guns for very long. Eventually, Aurelian ordered the wine to be sold, albeit it at a reduced cost.

Aurelian didn’t stop there. He also instituted new arrangements for the collection and transport of all goods to the city. There were new jobs for officials on the Tiber and Nile, and they were charged with overseeing the projects. Shipping was reorganized to make the transportation of goods more efficient. There is also evidence to suggest that Aurelian helped other cities in the Empire. For example, he reportedly helped a city named Cremna after it suffered from a terrible famine.

Admittedly, Aurelian’s food reforms were not entirely derived from his love of his fellow man. He loved bringing order to things and enjoyed rooting out fraud. Like his other domestic reforms, Aurelian changed the way food was distributed and transported because the existing system was chaotic. In 271, at the start of his reign, there were severe urban riots, and the emperor did not want a repeat. As a result, he knew that reform was necessary to keep the peace and ensure his armies were well paid, well fed and ready to fight when needed. During Aurelian’s reign, the soldiers of the Roman Empire certainly earned their money.

Restorer of the World: 5 Things You Didn’t Know About Aurelian, Rome’s Least Appreciated Emperor
Coin Depicting Aurelian.

4 – He Tried & Failed To Solve the Roman Coinage Crisis

One of Aurelian’s failures was unquestionably his attempt to reform the silver coinage. The Roman silver coin had been massively debased in the previous 40 or so years. When Septimius Severus was emperor, the coin contained 50% silver compared to the 98% silver coins during Octavian’s reign. Successive emperors further debased the coinage, and when Aurelian came to power, the coin contained just 1.5% silver.

The most predictable outcome of this debasement was high inflation and a complete loss of confidence in the entire Roman monetary system. Another consequence of this debasement was the utter collapse of copper-based coinage in Rome. The issue of lower denomination coinage in copper, bronze, and orichalc practically came to a halt. The workers in the mint in Rome were also engaged in fraud, and this was probably a major reason for the riots of 271.

After the riots, Aurelian immediately introduced a minor reform of the coinage to put a stop to the worst excesses of debasement, but the numerous threats on the Roman frontier meant he didn’t have time to implement a longer-term plan. However, he tried again in 274 once he had defeated most of his enemies. The improved situation of the Empire meant there was an increase in revenues. Aurelian also raised taxes on the wealthy which naturally drew their ire. In reality, he had little choice because the Empire’s treasury was empty because of mismanagement and war along with the temporary loss of control of certain parts of the Empire until Aurelian recovered them.

In late 273 or early 274, Aurelian began the biggest overhaul of Rome’s monetary system since the reign of Octavian. He had tried to adhere to the three metal system of gold, silver, and bronze at the start of his reign but no bronze coins were issued until the great reform of 273/74. The precious metal content of gold and silver coins was increased; the latter was probably up to 5% silver. While he managed to remove the ‘bad’ coinage from Rome and the whole of Italy, he was less successful in the provinces, and practically no low-quality coins were removed from Gaul or Britain.

It is important to note that by issuing new coins and removing the old ones from circulation, Aurelian wanted to remove the images of old emperors across the Empire and substitute them with his own. Ultimately, his attempts at coinage reform were unsuccessful because, by the beginning of the Fourth Century AD, the price of goods in Rome had escalated to an incredible level. Diocletian issued an edict on maximum prices, but that too was a failure as prices continued to rise.

Restorer of the World: 5 Things You Didn’t Know About Aurelian, Rome’s Least Appreciated Emperor
Aurelian Wall. The History of Rome

5 – He Was Assassinated Because of a Forged Letter

For centuries, Roman generals and emperors knew that successful subjugation of Parthia was almost a guarantee of eternal glory. From Crassus’ folly in 53 BC to the defeat and death of Valerian in 260 AD, the Roman Empire often encountered problems when they tried to invade the east. In 274, Vahram became the new king of the Persian Empire, and he had to deal with internal problems of his own. As such, he was in no position to invade Rome.

Aurelian felt that he had everything in hand back home, so he chose to invade Persia while it was weak instead of waiting and being forced to defend the Eastern provinces at a later date. He assembled his army in Illyricum and declared war on Persia in the summer of 275. Previous Roman generals were often diverted from the path when marching east, and Aurelian was no different as he seemingly had to deal with trouble near the Danube. It was there that he met his death via assassination.

The details surrounding his death vary depending on the source you read. For example, Zosimus wrote that a court official named Eros came up with the plot. Eros had made a blunder and was frightened that Aurelian would punish him severely. He forged a so-called hit list which was filled with names of people that the emperor was allegedly going to purge. The army officers that were ‘marked for death’ decided to act first and kill Aurelian. Aurelius Victor blames an unnamed secretary for the plot while the Historia Augusta suggests that a man named Mucapor was the perpetrator.

The reasons why Aurelian was assassinated are probably a bit more complex. If there was really a hit list and the officers quickly accepted that it was genuine and moved to kill their ruler, it suggests that they all carried secrets. Aurelian had a reputation for quickly and decisively eliminating perceived threats, so no one on the list was prepared to take chances. It is also noteworthy that his assassination was a hastily carried out plot. This is obvious because there was no immediate successor.

Aurelian was probably murdered in September or October 275. We will never know if he would have continued his legacy with a victory over the Persians or ruined it with defeat. The army apparently tore his assassin to pieces, and all the other plotters supposedly died soon after. The army asked the Senate to name Aurelian’s successor, but the Senate passed the buck by telling the soldiers to name someone. They refused to comply, and the result was an interregnum of around eight months before the Senate finally named Tacitus as the new emperor.

Overall, there is an element of unfinished business about Aurelian’s reign. He was only the Emperor of Rome for around five years, but he achieved an extraordinary amount in that period. He earned his name ‘Restorer of the World’ as he saved the Empire from destruction and helped end the Third Century Crisis. Critics of Diocletian suggest that he took credit for the achievements of Aurelian and other emperors such as Probus and Gallienus. Aurelian’s funeral was arranged in Thrace which ensured he was the first Roman Emperor not to be interred in Rome. Aurelian was deified by the Senate soon after his death, possibly at the behest of Tacitus.