The Roman Emperor Aurelian: Restorer of the World
John F White
Pen & Sword
220pp, 26 black & white illustrations, 10 maps
Hardback, £20

The Sybilline prophecies foretold that the Roman Empire would last 1000 years. About a thousand years later, in the 3rd century AD, the empire lapsed into chaos, with an apparently interminable series of civil wars. In AD 260, following the capture of the Emperor Valerian the Elder by the Sasanian Persian king Shapur I, the Gallic Empire in the west seceded under Postumus. In AD 270, the eastern Roman provinces fell to Zenobia, the regent queen of Palmyra.

In the same year, a 55-year-old military commander became titular head of the divided empire. John F White's Aurelian: Restorer of the World is an intriguing variation on the unreliable sources for his life. Domitius Aurelianus Augustus was born around AD 215 in the province of Pannonia (modern Serbia). His father was probably a peasant farmer who had taken his nomen from his Roman landlord, a senator of the Aurelius clan. According to legend, his mother may have been a 'priestess of the temple of the Sun god in their village'. He married Ulpia Severina, about whom little is known.

More reliably, we know that Aurelian enlisted in the army, and rose rapidly through skill and aggression. He was known as Aurelianus manu ad ferrum, 'Aurelian hand-on-sword', to distinguish him from another, less ardent tribune called Aurelian. In the AD 260s, he fought with Emperor Gallienus' cavalry against the Goths. After Gallienus' assassination in AD 268, he rose to Magister equitum, commander of the elite Dalmatian cavalry, under Emperor Claudius II. When Claudius II died on a campaign in AD 270, his brother Quintillus claimed the throne.

Aurelian, White writes, had 'probably been the author of the conspiracy that saw the murder of Gallienus and the accession of Claudius'. He claimed to be Claudius II's preferred successor, and he had the support of the army. In September AD 270, Aurelian was acclaimed emperor. Quintillus' commanders refused to enter another civil war, and Quintillus committed suicide by opening his veins in traditional Roman manner.

White characterises Aurelian as a 'deeply conservative man', a respecter of tradition and the Senate. His 'principal desire was simply to restore the Roman Empire to the golden age that had existed during his youth', the era of Severus Alexander, by attacking corruption in the metropolis and restoring discipline in the army. Before
that, however, he had to reunify the empire.

He accomplished this in successive campaigns in the first years of his rule. Defeating the Goths to Rome's north, he withdrew from Dacia, a province exposed by its location north of the Danube, and created a new Dacia south of the Danube, from the territory of the province of Moesia (modern Serbia). In AD 272 he turned east, and quickly recovered Asia Minor from Zenobia. Next, in AD 274 he completed Claudius II's conquest of the Gallic Empire.

Aurelian returned to Rome as the Senate's Restitutor Orbis, 'The Restorer of the World'. In the remaining year of his life, he reformed the coinage, passed legal reforms, and reintroduced the cult of the pagan sun god 'Sol', in an 'effort to reunite the peoples of the empire under a common religion'. He was murdered, in AD 275, while on campaign in Thrace.

In his brief reign, Aurelian reunited the empire, stabilised Roman politics, and laid the foundations for the empire's post- Diocletian recovery. If he remains obscure, it is because the chaos of the 3rd century affected historians no less than emperors. Our main sources are the unreliable collection known as the Augustan Histories.

White builds a plausible picture of Aurelian, and often lays out the evidence for confusing or unsupported issues for the reader's interpretation. He also makes a convincing argument for attributing one of five imperial bronze busts, discovered beneath the pagan temple of Brescia in 1826, as an image of Aurelian.
Dominic Green

 

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