Aurelian, AE Antoninianus, 270-275 A.D. AE Antoninianus
IMP AVRELIANVS AVG, Radiate, cuirassed bust right
ORIENS AVG, Sol walking left, raising right hand and
globe in left, treading down one of two captives.
Q in right field, XXI in ex.
RIC V-1, 62 Rome
Aurelian (Latin: Lucius Domitius Aurelianus Augustus; 9 September 214 or
215 – September or October 275) was Roman Emperor from 270 to 275.
Born in humble circumstances, he rose through the military ranks to become
emperor. During his reign, he defeated the Alamanni after a devastating
war. He also defeated the Goths, Vandals, Juthungi, Sarmatians, and
Carpi. Aurelian restored the Empire's eastern provinces after his
conquest of the Palmyrene Empire in 273. The following year he conquered
the Gallic Empire in the west, reuniting the Empire in its entirety.
He was also responsible for the construction of the Aurelian Walls in Rome,
and the abandonment of the province of Dacia.
His successes were instrumental in ending the Roman Empire's Crisis of
the Third Century, earning him the title Restitutor Orbis or 'Restorer
of the World'. Although Domitian was the first emperor who had demanded
to be officially hailed as dominus et deus (master and god), these titles
never occurred in written form on official documents until the reign of
Aurelian was born on 9 September, most likely in 214 AD, although 215 AD
is also possible. The ancient sources are not agreed on his place
of birth, although he was generally accepted as being a native of Illyricum.
Sirmium in Pannonia Inferior (now Sremska Mitrovica, Serbia) is the preferred
location, which was created by Aurelian as Emperor when he abandoned the
old trans-Danubian territory of Dacia. The academic consensus is
that he was of humble birth and that his father was a peasant-farmer who
took his Roman nomen from his landlord, a senator of the clan Aurelius.
Saunders suggests that his family might in fact have been of Roman settler
origin and of much higher social status; however, his suggestion has not
been taken up by his more recent academic colleagues such as Southern and
Using the evidence of the ancient sources, it was at one time suggested
that Aurelian's mother was a freedwoman of a member of the clan Aurelius
and that she herself was a priestess of the Sun-God in her native village.
These two propositions, together with the tradition that the clan Aurelius
had been entrusted with the maintenance of that deity's cult in Rome, inspired
the notion that this could explain the devotion to the sun-god that Aurelian
was to manifest as Emperor - see below. However, it seems that this
pleasant extrapolation of dubious facts is now generally accepted as being
no more than just that.
It is commonly accepted that Aurelian probably joined the army in 235 AD
at around age twenty. It is also generally assumed that, as a member
of the lowest rank of society - albeit a citizen - he would have enlisted
in the ranks of the legions. Idiosyncratically, Saunders suggests
that his career is more easily understood if it is assumed that his family
was of Roman settler origins with a tradition of military service and that
he enlisted as an equestrian. This would have opened up for him the
tres militia - the three steps of the equestrian military career - one
of the routes to higher equestrian office in the Imperial Service.
This could be a more expeditious route to senior military and procuratorial
offices than that pursued by ex-rankers, although not necessarily less
laborious. However, Saunders's conjecture as to Aurelian's early
career is not supported by any evidence other than his nomen which could
indicate Italian settler ancestry - although even this is contested - and
his rise to the highest ranks which is more easily understood if he did
not have to start from the bottom. His suggestion has not been taken
up by other academic authorities.
Whatever his origins, Aurelian certainly must have built up a very solid
reputation for military competence during the tumultuous mid-decades of
the century. To be sure, the exploits detailed in the Historia Augusta
vita Divi Aureliani, while not always impossible, are not supported by
any independent evidence and one at least is demonstrably an invention
typical of that author. However, he was probably associated with
Gallienus's cavalry army and shone as an officer of that corps d'élite
because, when he finally emerged in a historically reliable context in
the early part of the reign of Claudius II, he seems to have been its commander.
Service under Gallienus:
His successes as a cavalry commander ultimately made him a member of emperor
Gallienus' entourage. In 268, Aurelian and his cavalry participated
in general Claudius' victory over the Goths at the Battle of Naissus.
Later that year Gallienus traveled to Italy and fought Aureolus, his former
general and now usurper for the throne. Driving Aureolus back into
Mediolanum, Gallienus promptly besieged his adversary in the city.
However, while the siege was ongoing the Emperor was assassinated.
One source says Aurelian, who was present at the siege, participated and
supported general Claudius for the purple – which is plausible.
Aurelian was married to Ulpia
Severina, about whom little is known. Like Aurelian she was from
Dacia. They are known to have had a daughter together.
Service under Claudius:
Claudius was acclaimed Emperor by the soldiers outside Mediolanum.
The new Emperor immediately ordered the senate to deify Gallienus.
Next, he began to distance himself from those responsible for his predecessor's
assassination, ordering the execution of those directly involved.
Aureolus was still besieged in Mediolanum and sought reconciliation with
the new emperor, but Claudius had no sympathy for a potential rival.
The emperor had Aureolus killed and one source implicates Aurelian in the
deed, perhaps even signing the warrant for his death himself.
During the reign of Claudius, Aurelian was promoted rapidly: he was given
command of the elite Dalmatian cavalry, and was soon promoted to overall
Magister equitum, effectively the head of the army after the Emperor –
the Emperor's position before his acclamation. The war against Aureolus
and the concentration of forces in Italy allowed the Alamanni to break
through the Rhaetian limes along the upper Danube. Marching through
Raetia and the Alps unhindered, they entered northern Italy and began pillaging
the area. In early 269, emperor Claudius and Aurelian marched north
to meet the Alamanni, defeating them decisively at the Battle of Lake Benacus.
While still dealing with the defeated enemy, news came from the Balkans
reporting large-scale attacks from the Heruli, Goths, Gepids, and Bastarnae.
Claudius immediately dispatched Aurelian to the Balkans to contain the
invasion as best he could until Claudius could arrive with his main army.
The Goths were besieging Thessalonica when they heard of emperor Claudius'
approach, causing them to abandon the siege and pillage north-eastern Macedonia.
Aurelian intercepted the Goths with his Dalmatian cavalry and defeated
them in a series of minor skirmishes, killing as many as three thousand
of the enemy. Aurelian continued to harass the enemy, driving them
northward into Upper Moesia where emperor Claudius had assembled his main
army. The ensuing battle was indecisive: the northward advance of
the Goths was halted but Roman losses were heavy.
Claudius could not afford another pitched battle, so he instead laid a
successful ambush, killing thousands. However, the majority of the
Goths escaped and began retreating south the way they had come. For
the rest of year, Aurelian harassed the enemy with his Dalmatian cavalry.
Now stranded in Roman territory, the Goths' lack of provisions began to
take its toll. Aurelian, sensing his enemies' desperation, attacked
them with the full force of his cavalry, killing many and driving the remainder
westward into Thrace. As winter set in, the Goths retreated into
the Haemus Mountains, only to find themselves trapped and surrounded.
The harsh conditions now exacerbated their shortage of food. However,
the Romans underestimated the Goths and let their guard down, allowing
the enemy to break through their lines and escape. Apparently emperor
Claudius ignored advice, perhaps from Aurelian, and withheld the cavalry
and sent in only the infantry to stop their break-out.
The determined Goths killed many of the oncoming infantry and were only
prevented from slaughtering them all when Aurelian finally charged in with
his Dalmatian cavalry. The Goths still managed to escape and continued
their march through Thrace. The Roman army continued to follow the
Goths during the spring and summer of 270. Meanwhile, a devastating
plague swept through the Balkans, killing many soldiers in both armies.
Emperor Claudius fell ill on the march to the battle and returned to his
regional headquarters in Sirmium, leaving Aurelian in charge of operations
against the Goths. Aurelian used his cavalry to great effect, breaking
the Goths into smaller groups which were easier to deal with. By
late summer the Goths were defeated: any survivors were stripped of their
animals and booty and were levied into the army or settled as farmers in
frontier regions. Aurelian had no time to relish his victories; in
late August news arrived from Sirmium that emperor Claudius was dead.
Opposition to Quintillus:
When Claudius died, his brother Quintillus seized power with support of
the Senate. With an act typical of the Crisis of the Third Century,
the army refused to recognize the new Emperor, preferring to support one
of its own commanders: Aurelian was proclaimed emperor in September 270
by the legions in Sirmium. Aurelian defeated Quintillus' troops,
and was recognized as Emperor by the Senate after Quintillus' death.
The claim that Aurelian was chosen by Claudius on his death bed can be
dismissed as propaganda; later, probably in 272, Aurelian put his own dies
imperii the day of Claudius' death, thus implicitly considering Quintillus
With his base of power secure, he now turned his attention to Rome's greatest
problems — recovering the vast territories lost over the previous two decades,
and reforming the res publica.
Aurelian was a military commander, and during his reign he tried to keep
legions' fidelity; this coin celebrated the CONCORDIA MILITVM, "concord
of the soldiers" – in other words, "harmony between the emperor and the
In 248, Emperor Philip the Arab had celebrated the millennium of the city
of Rome with great and expensive ceremonies and games, and the Empire had
given a tremendous proof of self-confidence. In the following years,
however, the Empire had to face a huge pressure from external enemies,
while, at the same time, dangerous civil wars threatened the empire from
within, with usurpers weakening the strength of the state. Also,
the economic substrate of the state, agriculture and commerce, suffered
from the disruption caused by the instability. On top of this an
epidemic swept through the Empire around 250, greatly diminishing manpower
both for the army and for agriculture.
The end result was that the Empire could not endure the blow of the capture
of Emperor Valerian in 260. The eastern provinces found their protectors
in the rulers of the city of Palmyra, in Syria, whose autonomy grew until
the formation of the Palmyrene Empire, which was more successful against
the Persian threat. The western provinces, those facing the limes
of the Rhine, seceded to form a third, autonomous state within the territories
of the Roman Empire, which is now known as the Gallic Empire.
In Rome, the Emperor was occupied with the internal menaces to his power
and with the defense of Italia and the Balkans. This was the situation
faced by Gallienus and Claudius, and the problems Aurelian had to deal
with at the beginning of his rule.
Reunification of the empire:
The first actions of the new Emperor were aimed at strengthening his own
position in his territories. Late in 270, Aurelian campaigned in
northern Italia against the Vandals, Juthungi, and Sarmatians, expelling
them from Roman territory. To celebrate these victories, Aurelian
was granted the title of Germanicus Maximus. The authority of the
Emperor was challenged by several usurpers — Septimius, Urbanus, Domitianus,
and the rebellion of Felicissimus — who tried to exploit the sense of insecurity
of the empire and the overwhelming influence of the armies in Roman politics.
Aurelian, being an experienced commander, was aware of the importance of
the army, and his propaganda, known through his coinage, shows he wanted
the support of the legions.
Defending Italy Against the Iuthungi:
The burden of the northern barbarians was not yet over, however.
In 271, the Alamanni moved towards Italia, entering the Po plain and sacking
the villages; they passed the Po River, occupied Placentia and moved towards
Fano. Aurelian, who was in Pannonia to control the Vandals' withdrawal,
quickly entered Italia, but his army was defeated in an ambush near Placentia
(January 271). When the news of the defeat arrived in Rome, it caused
great fear for the arrival of the barbarians. But Aurelian attacked
the Alamanni camping near the Metaurus River, defeating them in the Battle
of Fano, and forcing them to re-cross the Po river; Aurelian finally routed
them at Pavia. For this, he received the title Germanicus Maximus.
However, the menace of the Germanic people remained high as perceived by
the Romans, so Aurelian resolved to build the walls that became known as
the Aurelian Walls around Rome.
Defeat of the Goths and abandonment of Dacia:
The emperor led his legions to the Balkans, where he defeated and routed
the Goths beyond the Danube, killing the Gothic leader Cannabaudes, and
assuming the title of Gothicus Maximus. However, he decided to abandon
the province of Dacia, on the exposed north bank of the Danube, as too
difficult and expensive to defend. He reorganized a new province
of Dacia south of the Danube, inside the former Moesia, called Dacia Aureliana,
with Serdica as the capital.
The Roman Empire by 271 A.D before the reconquest of the Palmyrene
Empire and the Gallic Empire by Aurelian
Conquest of the Palmyrene Empire:
In 272, Aurelian turned his attention to the lost eastern provinces of
the empire, the so-called "Palmyrene Empire" ruled by Queen Zenobia from
the city of Palmyra. Zenobia had carved out her own empire, encompassing
Syria, Palestine, Egypt and large parts of Asia Minor. The Syrian
queen cut off Rome's shipments of grain, and in a matter of weeks, the
Romans started running low on bread. In the beginning, Aurelian had
been recognized as Emperor, while Vaballathus, the son of Zenobia, held
the title of rex and imperator ("king" and "supreme military commander"),
but Aurelian decided to invade the eastern provinces as soon as he felt
his army to be strong enough.
Asia Minor was recovered easily; every city but Byzantium and Tyana surrendered
to him with little resistance. The fall of Tyana lent itself to a
legend: Aurelian to that point had destroyed every city that resisted him,
but he spared Tyana after having a vision of the great 1st-century philosopher
Apollonius of Tyana, whom he respected greatly, in a dream.
Apollonius implored him, stating, "Aurelian, if you desire to rule, abstain
from the blood of the innocent! Aurelian, if you will conquer, be merciful!"
Whatever the reason, Aurelian spared Tyana. It paid off; many more
cities submitted to him upon seeing that the Emperor would not exact revenge
upon them. Within six months, his armies stood at the gates of Palmyra,
which surrendered when Zenobia tried to flee to the Sassanid Empire.
The "Palmyrene Empire" was no more.
Eventually Zenobia and her son were captured and made to walk on the streets
of Rome in his triumph, the woman in golden chains. With the grain
stores once again shipped to Rome, Aurelian's soldiers handed out free
bread to the citizens of the city, and the Emperor was hailed a hero by
his subjects. After a brief clash with the Persians and another in
Egypt against the usurper Firmus, Aurelian was obliged to return to Palmyra
in 273 when that city rebelled once more. This time, Aurelian allowed
his soldiers to sack the city, and Palmyra never recovered. More
honors came his way; he was now known as Parthicus Maximus and Restitutor
Orientis ("Restorer of the East").
The rich province of Egypt was also recovered by Aurelian. The Brucheion
(Royal Quarter) in Alexandria was burned to the ground. This section
of the city once contained the Library of Alexandria, although the extent
of the surviving Library in Aurelian's time is uncertain.
Conquest of the Gallic Empire:
In 274, the victorious emperor turned his attention to the west, and the
"Gallic Empire" which had already been reduced in size by Claudius II.
Aurelian won this campaign largely through diplomacy; the "Gallic Emperor"
Tetricus was willing to abandon his throne and allow Gaul and Britain to
return to the Empire, but could not openly submit to Aurelian. Instead,
the two seem to have conspired so that when the armies met at Châlons-en-Champagne
that autumn, Tetricus simply deserted to the Roman camp and Aurelian easily
defeated the Gallic army facing him. Tetricus was rewarded for his
part in the conspiracy with a high-ranking position in Italy itself.
Aurelian returned to Rome and won his last honorific from the Senate –
Restitutor Orbis ("Restorer of the World"). This title was first
assumed by Aurelian in late summer of 272, and had been carried previously
by both Valerian and Gallienus. In four years, Aurelian had secured
the frontiers of the Empire and reunified it, effectively giving the Empire
a new lease on life that lasted 200 years.
Aurelian was a reformer, and settled many important functions of the imperial
apparatus, dealing with the economy and religion. He restored many
public buildings, re-organized the management of the food reserves, set
fixed prices for the most important goods, and prosecuted misconduct by
the public officers.
Aurelian strengthened the position of the Sun god Sol Invictus as the main
divinity of the Roman pantheon. His intention was to give to all
the peoples of the Empire, civilian or soldiers, easterners or westerners,
a single god they could believe in without betraying their own gods.
The center of the cult was a new temple, built in 274 and dedicated on
December 25 of that year in the Campus Agrippae in Rome, with great decorations
financed by the spoils of the Palmyrene Empire.
During his short rule, Aurelian seemed to follow the principle of "one
faith, one empire", which would not be made official until the Edict of
Thessalonica. He appears with the title deus et dominus natus ("God
and born ruler") on some of his coins, a style also later adopted by Diocletian.
Lactantius argued that Aurelian would have outlawed all the other gods
if he had had enough time. He was recorded by Christian historians
as having organized persecutions.
Felicissimus' rebellion and coinage reform:
Aurelian's reign records the only uprising of mint workers. The rationalis
Felicissimus, a senior public financial official whose responsibilities
included supervision of the mint at Rome, revolted against Aurelian.
The revolt seems to have been caused by the fact that the mint workers,
and Felicissimus first, were accustomed to stealing the silver for the
coins and producing coins of inferior quality. Aurelian wanted to
eliminate this, and put Felicissimus on trial. The rationalis incited
the mintworkers to revolt: the rebellion spread in the streets, even if
it seems that Felicissimus was killed immediately, presumably executed.
The Palmyrene rebellion in Egypt had probably reduced the grain supply
to Rome, thus disaffecting the population to the emperor. This rebellion
also had the support of some senators, probably those who had supported
the election of Quintillus, and thus had something to fear from Aurelian.
Aurelian ordered the urban cohorts, reinforced by some regular troops of
the imperial army, to attack the rebelling mob: the resulting battle, fought
on the Caelian hill, marked the end of the revolt, even if at a high price
(some sources give the figure, probably exaggerated, of 7,000 casualties).
Many of the rebels were executed; also some of the supporting senators
were put to death. The mint of Rome was closed temporarily, and the
institution of several other mints caused the main mint of the empire to
lose its hegemony.
His monetary reformation included the introduction of antoniniani containing
5% silver. They bore the mark XXI (or its Greek numerals form KA),
which meant that twenty of such coins would contain the same silver quantity
of an old silver denarius. Considering that this was an improvement
over the previous situation gives an idea of the severity of the economic
situation Aurelian faced. The Emperor struggled to introduce the
new "good" coin by recalling all the old "bad" coins prior to their introduction.
In 275, Aurelian marched towards Asia Minor, preparing another campaign
against the Sassanids: the deaths of Kings Shapur I (272) and Hormizd I
(273) in quick succession, and the rise to power of a weakened ruler (Bahram
I), set the possibility to attack the Sassanid Empire.
On his way, the Emperor suppressed a revolt in Gaul — possibly against
Faustinus, an officer or usurper of Tetricus — and defeated barbarian marauders
in Vindelicia (Germany).
However, Aurelian never reached Persia, as he was murdered while waiting
in Thrace to cross into Asia Minor. As an administrator, Aurelian
had been very strict and handed out severe punishments to corrupt officials
or soldiers. A secretary of Aurelian (called Eros by Zosimus) had
told a lie on a minor issue. In fear of what the Emperor might do,
he forged a document listing the names of high officials marked by the
emperor for execution and showed it to collaborators. The notarius
Mucapor and other high-ranking officers of the Praetorian Guard, fearing
punishment from the Emperor, murdered him in September 275, in Caenophrurium,
Thrace (modern Turkey).
Aurelian's enemies in the Senate briefly succeeded in passing damnatio
memoriae on the Emperor, but this was reversed before the end of the year
and Aurelian, like his predecessor Claudius II, was deified as Divus Aurelianus.
There is substantial evidence that Aurelian's wife Ulpia Severina, who
had been declared Augusta in 274, may have ruled the Empire by her own
power for some time after his death. The sources indicate that there
was an interregnum between Aurelian's death and the election of Marcus
Claudius Tacitus as his successor. Additionally, some of Ulpia's
coins appear to have been minted after Aurelian's death.
Aurelian's short reign reunited a fragmented Empire while saving Rome from
barbarian invasions that had reached Italy itself. His death prevented
a full restoration of political stability and a lasting dynasty that could
end the cycle of assassination of emperors and civil war that marked this
period. Even so, he brought the Empire through a very critical period
in its history, and without Aurelian it never would have survived the invasions
and fragmentation of the decade in which he reigned. Much hard fighting
remained for his successors before the Empire finally regained the initiative
against the Persians and the northern barbarian peoples, and it would be
another twenty years or more before Diocletian fully restored stability
and ended the Crisis of the third century. However, after that the
Western half of the Empire would survive another two hundred years, while
the East would last another millennium, and for that Aurelian must be allowed
much of the credit.
The city of Orléans in France is named after Aurelian. Originally
named Cenabum, Aurelian rebuilt and named it Aurelianum or Aureliana Civitas
("city of Aurelian", cité d'Aurélien), which evolved into
Orléans. The city of New Orleans (in French, La Nouvelle-Orléans),
in Louisiana, United States is named after the commune of Orléans,
and therefore by extension, Aurelian.
Information was taken from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
at this URL: