Aurelian and the Third Century (Roman Imperial Biographies)

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As an erstwhile historian I have many misgivings about how this parallel history works out. Rome had no sun worshipers. Why would they parallel Rome in every way but that? As a symbol of power, prosperity, virtue and all good things, the sun has always been an important part of Indo-European mythologies. Among the traditional gods, Apollo and Helios Sol were solar deities. The Emperor Elagabalus aka, Heliogabalus was high priest of a Syrian solar cult. And the subject of this review attempted to reinvigorate the state cult by focusing worship on the Unconquered Sun Sol Invictus.

What has this digression to do with Aurelian? Not much but I always think of him when I watch the episode, and inevitably am reminded of the show when I read about the emperor. In AD , the empire looked to have reached the nadir of its fortunes.

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A century of invasion and civil war had reduced the institutions established by Augustus three centuries before to chaos. A rival emperor ruled in the West, and Odenathus and Zenobia had created a separate state around Palmyra in the East. Appearances were deceiving: By , when Aurelian was assassinated, the empire was reunited, the armies for the most part were disciplined and loyal, the currency was in the process of recovering its value, and reforms had begun that would restore fiscal health to the imperial treasury. Due in large part to Aurelian.

The first part of this book is a narrative of the political and military events of the reign, the bulk of which revolve around the so-called Palmyrene Wars against Zenobia. Part two, focuses on the religious and economic reforms Aurelian undertook.

Only in religion did Aurelian clearly fail. The image of Aurelian has suffered much because our sources particularly the notorious Historia Augusta , the Fox News Corp of its day were written by members of the fading senatorial class, whose influence was being extinguished by the professional military and mandarin classes emerging in the third century.

Consequently, they present Aurelian as a bloody-handed tyrant. While, admittedly, Aurelian was not a gentle soul, he showed surprising for the times forbearance to most of his enemies. Tetricus, his Western rival, held important posts in the imperial bureaucracy after his defeat; and Zenobia married a Roman senator and comfortably retired to an Italian estate.

In , a disgruntled eunuch forged documents purporting to show that Aurelian was preparing to move against certain generals. In a pre-emptive strike, they moved and murdered him at Caenophrurium. As a kid, at the beginning of my love affair with history and Rome in particular, Aurelian quickly became my favorite emperor, bar none. One reason was the name. I really like the name — it sounds and looks good. View all 9 comments.

Feb 12, Andrew Dockrill rated it really liked it. Arguably one of the most important Roman emperors to have come onto the scene in the 3rd century when the Roman empire was trying to keep the Gauls and Germanic tribes at bay. As we shall see in a moment, the militarization of the northern frontier had for many years had a profound effect on the barbarian societies beyond the Rhine and Danube, but at the start of the third century, a more acute transformation took place on the eastern frontier, again as a result of Roman military intervention.

Caracalla is the pivotal figure here as well. In he invaded the Parthian empire, the creation of the central Asian dynasty that had displaced the Hellenistic Seleucids as the rulers of Iran and Mesopotamia during the last centuries B. Since the defeat of the Republican general Crassus at Carrhae in 53 B. A Parthian war might be a significant ideological goal for a Roman emperor — it avenged Crassus, imitated Augustus, and followed in the heroic footsteps of Alexander the Great — but victories in Parthia could actually be quite easy to win.

The Parthian empire was fractious, and its kings faced almost continuous revolts in their far-flung eastern provinces. Thus when Caracalla determined to luxuriate in the easy triumph of a Parthian victory, he unwittingly destroyed the Parthian monarchy. It was replaced by a much more dangerous foe, a new Persian dynasty known as the Sassanians. A Persian nobleman, Ardashir r. Caracalla was murdered in while still on his Parthian campaign, but the new Sassanian Persia became the chief focus of his imperial successors.

Not only was there the continued lure of a prestigious Persian victory, there were sound strategic reasons for the imperial focus on the East: Persian raids on the eastern provinces — unlike barbarian attacks on other frontiers — threatened the permanent annexation and removal of the provinces from imperial control. When, as had not been the case a hundred years earlier, a claim on the imperial throne could be contemplated by any powerful Roman and not just the great senatorial generals who had dominated the politics of the second century, then even a minor local crisis — a mutiny, say, or a Persian or barbarian raid — might prompt the local population or the local troops to proclaim a handy leader as emperor to meet the crisis.

Having accepted the imperial purple, the new emperor had no choice but to defeat and replace whoever was presently claiming the title. Civil war was inevitable in those circumstances, and the pressures of civil war left pockets of weakness on the frontiers which neighbours could exploit. In consequence, for almost fifty years, a vicious cycle of invasion, usurpation and civil war became entrenched, as even the briefest survey of the mid third century will suggest.

When Alexander Severus was killed in , rival candidates sprang up in the Balkans, in North Africa and in Italy, the latter promoted by a Roman senate insistent on its prerogatives. Civil war ensued for much of the next decade, and that in turn inspired the major barbarian invasions at which we have already looked, among them the attack by the Gothic king Cniva that ended in the death of Decius at Abrittus in This is clearly demonstrated in the reign of Valerian r.

Military history

Our sources present their reigns as an almost featureless catalogue of disastrous invasions which modern scholars have a very hard time putting in precise chronological order. Similarly, every time Gallienus dealt with a threat to the frontiers — raids across the Rhine into Gaul, across the Danube into the Balkans, or Black Sea piracy into Asia Minor and Greece — he was simultaneously confronted by the rebellion of a usurper somewhere else in the empire. Thus Gallienus had to follow up a campaign against Marcomanni on the middle Danube by suppressing the usurper Ingenuus, while the successful defence of Raetia against the Iuthungi by the general Postumus allowed him to seize the imperial purple and inaugurate a separate imperial succession which lasted in Gaul for over a decade.

Again, a full list of invaders and usurpers is an arid exercise and one unnecessary here. The successors of Gallienus — Claudius, Aurelian, Probus, and their many short-lived challengers — faced the same succession of problems as their predecessor had done. Claudius successfully defeated an invading army of Scythians twice, at Naissus and in the Haemus mountains, and won for himself the victory title Gothicus which assures us that those Scythians were Goths.

Aurelian fell to assassins, and so too did his immediate successor Tacitus, the latter struck down while in hot pursuit of Scythian — perhaps Gothic — raiders deep in the heart of Asia Minor. We get our first indication that authors of the fourth century had come to understand the connection between internal Roman dissension and barbarian invasion with reference to the death of Probus.

The latter had restored the Rhine frontier in , but by marching east to face Diocletian he allowed new barbarian raids on the Gallic coast. Carinus was defeated and killed at the battle of the Margus in , and in that same year, the victorious Diocletian campaigned against the Sarmatians on the Danube. He also appointed a colleague in the imperial office, a fellow soldier named Maximian, who campaigned on the Rhine. By appointing a co-emperor with whom he was on good terms and who would regard him as his benefactor, Diocletian hoped to give himself the breathing space needed to secure his hold on the throne and prevent rival usurpers appearing in parts of the empire where he could not be himself.

The plan worked to a degree, although it took time. Only the appointment in of two caesars, or junior emperors, allowed Diocletian and Maximian to suppress several provincial revolts and secure the frontiers. The evidence of these efforts is visible all along the imperial frontiers, for instance in the so-called Saxon shore forts along the Channel and North Sea coasts of what are now England, France, Belgium and the Netherlands.

More important for the history of Roman relations with the Goths is the Diocletianic programme of fortification along the Danube. This consisted both of brand new constructions, as at Iatrus, and also of enlarged and refurbished early imperial fortifications, as at Augustae and Oescus. Such improvements were not simply measures of passive self-defence — they were also bases from which imperial campaigns could be supplied and supported.

Meanwhile, Diocletian campaigned on the Danube against Tervingi and Taifali, winning victories in and again in That campaign is significant for us because it marks the first appearance of the Tervingian name in Greek or Latin writing. Our source is a panegyric — a speech in praise of the emperor Maximian, delivered in Gaul in — and it refers to the Tervingi as pars Gothorum , which is to say, a section of the Goths. They were the Gothic group with which the Roman empire had the most regular dealings, and for that reason they are the one about which we know the most.

It was the Tervingi with whom the emperor Constantine would conclude a lasting peace in the s; descendants of these same Tervingi made up the majority of the Goths who crossed the Danube into the Roman empire in , eventually taking part in the Balkan settlements from which Alaric himself would emerge.

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Crisis of the Third Century

We cannot, unfortunately, tell just how important these third-century Tervingi were at the time, particularly as they are mentioned in the same breath as the Taifali, a group of barbarians who often appear together with the Goths in later sources, but always in an inferior position. What is more, this couple of lines in the panegyric of is the last we hear of the Tervingi or any other Goths for more than a decade. By that point, the internal politics of the empire had changed dramatically yet again.

As we shall see, the joint reign of Diocletian and Maximian broke the vicious political cycle of the preceding half century. In the process of doing so, they reinvented the governmental system of the Roman empire, strengthening the central government and laying the foundations of a political system that lasted for several hundred years. Just as important, by finally establishing a secure hold on the imperial office, Diocletian and his colleagues were also able to secure more stable relations with barbarian groups along the frontiers.

We will return to the government of Diocletian and to the imperial frontiers in chapter four, paying particular attention to the lower Danube. There, by the s, the Goths were unquestionably the dominant political force immediately beyond the frontiers, a position they had achieved partly because the emperors wanted them to. In the meantime, however, we must turn to an important interpretative question which is raised by our discussion of third-century invasion and civil war. If, as we have suggested, the middle of the third century can be defined by this constant cycle of internal and external violence, we are still left to ask why it was that barbarian groups along the northern frontiers could exploit imperial weakness, and particularly imperial rivalry, so successfully and widely.

After all, this ability was something quite new, unknown in the early empire, when imperial generals could rampage at will through the land beyond the imperial frontiers.


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Then, the central European lands beyond the Rhine and Danube were a patchwork of very small political units that could be brought together for coordinated action only for very short periods of time, if at all. The later second and the third centuries stand in very sharp contrast to this early imperial picture. Possibly this palace was quickly replaced by another in which lived 3. Lanciani entertains no doubt of it.

The " latest additions" to the Palatine group of buildings was made, he alleges, under Julia Mamaea and Heliogabalus ; and while he judges these to be of no special importance in themselves, he asserts that the Palatine group of buildings as a whole can be understood only by studying the late palace of Julia as well as of Augustus, realizing " Although a palace on the Palatine can be identified with Severus, such palace can not be identified with either those pavements of Alexandrine mosaic 6 already mentioned as more or.

Richter, and Mau both apparently not only postulate the actual existence of such apartments as these Diaetae, but even go so far as to describe their form, nature, extent, etc. Now although Domaszewski's attitude of regarding them " as a mere invention " 3 would seem rather too hasty a conclusion in the opposite direction, there certainly seems at present to be no really firm evidence for anything except a suspended judgment, not concerning connection with a Palatine Palace, but concerning its appear-.

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Their evidence, it will be remembered, probably traces in some way to an common source if not to each other in more direct manner. Although there is lack of evidence concerning these Diaetae Mammaeae, there is, however, much evidence for Mamaea's with other buildings during Alexander's reign. To the south of Rome, Alexander Alex. Neither Jung nor Richter, nor, in fact, any of the standard guides 2 offers any material upon either these stagna or the palace at Baiae. Williams, however, in a more recent work, apparently accepts both, and with some reason ; she asserts that this palace and pool retained the name of Mamaea even longer than the fourth century.

A name somewhat similar has been definite-. The piscine here is called Grotta Mammo- sa x. No other honorary building for Mamaea or construction by Mamaea are commemorated : among the coins of Alexander and of Julia Mamaea not even these latter are " featured" upon any occasional medals. Forum of Trajan : Decorative statues. Item 26, 4 if the Vita Alexandri credits Alexander with adorning the forum of Trajan that is, the quarter near the south-west corner of the Esquiline 2 with statues of the great brought from many other quarters 3.

Although Richter' s discussion of the Trajan forum attributes no ornamentation of it specifically to Alexander, it concedes that, despite the ravaging of this forum for building after the sixth century, there still remain some of the bases of statues with inscriptions from the period of second to fifth century 5.

Nor is Alexander credited by his biographer or biographers 6 with decorating solely the form of Trajan, one of the emperors whose work Alexander frequently restored or extended.