Lucius Domitius Aurelianus (September 9, 214 or 215 –September or October 275), known in English as Aurelian, Roman Emperor (270–275), was the second of several highly successful "soldier-emperors" who helped the Roman Empire regain its power during the latter part of the third century and the beginning of the fourth.
During his reign, the Empire was reunited in its entirety, following fifteen years of rebellion, the loss of two-thirds of its territory to break-away empires (the Palmyrene Empire in the east and the Gallic Empire in the west) and devastating barbarian invasions. His successes started the end of the empire's Crisis of the Third Century.
Aurelian was born in Dacia ripensis or Sirmium (now Sremska Mitrovica, Serbia), to an obscure provincial family; his father was tenant to a senator named Aurelius, who gave his name to the family. Aurelian served as a general in several wars, and his success ultimately made him the right-hand man and dux equitum (cavalry commander) of the army of Emperor Gallienus. In 268, his cavalry routed the powerful cavalry force of the Goths at the Battle of Naissus and broke the back of the most fearsome invasion of Roman territory since Hannibal. According to one source, Aurelian participated in the assassination of Gallienus (268), and supported Claudius II for the purple.
Two years later, 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 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 a usurper.
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.
In 248, Emperor Philip 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 a large number of usurpers weakening the strength of the state. Also the economical substrate of the state, the agriculture and the 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, a separate entity from the Roman Empire, successful against the Persian threat; the western provinces, those facing the limes of the Rhine seceded, forming a third, autonomous state within the territories of the Roman Empire, which is now known as Gallic Empire; the emperor, in Rome, was occupied with the internal menaces to his power and with the defence 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.
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.
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 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 German people remained high as perceived by the Romans, so Aurelian resolved to build the walls that became known as the Aurelian Walls around Rome.
The emperor led his legions to the Balkans, where he defeated and routed the Goths beyond the Danube, killing the Gothic king, 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 reorganised a new province of Dacia south of the Danube, inside the former Moesia, called Dacia Ripensis, with Serdica as the capital.
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. In the beginning, Aurelian had been recognized as emperor, while Vaballathus, the son of Zenobia, hold the title of rex and imperator ("king" and "supreme military commander"), but Aurelian decided to invade the eastern provinces as soon as he felt 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 forced to walk on the streets of Rome in his triumph. After a brief clash with the Persians and another in Egypt against usurper Firmus, he was forced 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 from this. More honors came his way; he was now known as Parthicus Maximus and Restitutor Orientis ("Restorer of the East").
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 fall, 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"). In four years, he had secured the frontiers of the empire and reunified it, effectively giving the empire a new lease on life that lasted 200 years
Aurelian strengthened the position of the Sun god, Sol or Oriens, 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 271 in Campus Agrippae in Rome, with great decorations financed by the spoils of the Palmyrene Empire. Aurelian did not persecute other religions. However, during his short rule, he seemed to follow the principle of "one god, one empire", that was later adopted to a full extent by Constantine. On some coins, he appears with the title deus et dominus natus ("God and born ruler"), also later adopted by Diocletian. Lactantius argued that Aurelian would have outlawed all the other gods if he had had enough time.
Aurelian's reign records the only uprising of mint workers. The rationalis Felicissimus, mintmaster 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 used for the coins and producing coins of inferior quality. Aurelian wanted to erase this practice, and put Felicissimus under trial. The rationalis incited the mintworkers to revolt: the rebellion spread in the streets, even if it seems that Felicissimus was killed immediately, possibly executed. The Palmirene rebellion in Egypt had probably reduced the grain supply to Rome, thus disaffecting the population with respect 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 an high price (some sources give the figure, probably exaggerated, of 7,000 casualties). Many of the rebels were executed; also some of the rebelling 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 in the introduction of antoninianii 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 at 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 Aurelian collaborators. The notarius Mucapor and other high-ranking officiers of the Praetorian Guard, fearing punishment from the Emperor, murdered him in September of 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.