On coins, this emperor is uniformly styled L. Domitius Aurelianus, but in some fasti and inscriptions he appears as Valerius or Valerianus Aurelianus, the name Valerius being confirmed by a letter addressed to him by his predecessor, Claudius. (Vopisc. 100.17.)
He was of such humble origin, that nothing certain is known of his family, nor of the time or place of his nativity.
According to the account commonly received, he was born about the year A. D. 212, at Sirmium in Pannonia, or, as others assert, in Dacia, or in Moesia. His father is said to have been a farm servant on the property of Aurelius, a senator, his mother to have officiated as priestess of Sol in the village where she dwelt.
It is certain that her son, in after-life, regarded that deity as his tutelary god, and erected for his worship at Rome a magnificent temple, decorated with a profusion of the most costly ornaments.
In early youth, Aurelian was remarkable for vivacity of disposition, for bodily strength, and for an enthusiastic love of all military exercises.
After entering upon the career of arms, he seems to have served in every grade and in every quarter of the world, and became so renowned for promptness in the use of weapons, and for individual prowess, that his comrades distinguished him as "Hand-on-sword" (Aurelianus manu ad ferrum
In a war against the Sarmatians, he was believed to have slain forty-eight of the enemy in one day, and nearly a thousand in the course of a single campaign. When tribune of the sixth legion in Gaul, he repelled a predatory incursion of the Franks, who had crossed the Rhine near Mayence, and now for the first time appear in history. His fame as a soldier, an officer, and a general, gradually rose so high, that Valerian compared him to the Corvini and Scipios of the olden time, and, declaring that no reward was adequate to his merits, bestowed on him the titles of Liberator of Illyria and Restorer of Gaul. Having been appointed lieutenant to Ulpius Crinitus, captain-general of Illyria and Thrace, he expelled the Goths front these provinces; and so important was this service deemed, that Valerian, in a solemn assembly held at Byzantium, publicly returned thanks to Aurelian for having averted the dangers by which the state was menaced, and after presenting him with a multitude of military decorations, proclaimed him consul elect.
At the same time, he was adopted by Ulpius Crinitus, declared his heir, and probably received his daughter in marriage.
He is marked in the Fasti as consul suffectus on the 22nd of May, 257.
We hear nothing of Aurelian during the reign of the indolent and feeble Gallienus; but great successes were achieved by him under Clandius, by whom he was appointed to the command previously held by his adopted father, and was entrusted with the defence of the frontier against the Goths, and nominated commander-in-chief of the cavalry of the empire.
Upon the death of Claudius, which took place at Sirmium in 270, Aurelian was at once hailed as his successor by the legions. Quintillus, the brother of Claudius, at the same time asserted his own claims at Aquileia; but, being abandoned by his soldiers, put himself to death within less than three weeks from the time when he assumed the purple.
The reign of Aurelian, which lasted for about four years and a half, from the end of August, 270, until the middle of March, 275, presents a succession of brilliant exploits, which restored for a while their ancient lustre to the arms of Rome.
As soon as his authority had been formally recognised in the metropolis, he directed his first efforts against a numerous host of Goths and Vandals, who, led by two kings and many powerful chiefs, had crossed the Danube, and were ravaging, Pannonia.
These, after sustaining a decisive defeat, were forced to submit, and were permitted to retire upon leaving the sons of the two kings, and other noble youths, as hostages, and furnishing a contingent of two thousand auxiliaries.
A great victory was next gained over the Alemanni and other German tribes, which was followed by a serious reverse. For, while the emperor was employing every exertion to cut off their retreat, he failed to watch them in front.
The barbarians, taking advantage of this; oversight, pressed boldly forwards, outstripped their heavy-armed pursuers, and bursting into Italy wasted all Cisalpine Gaul. When at length overtaken near Placentia, they avoided a battle and sought shelter in a thick forest. Issuing from thence under cloud of night, they attacked and dispersed the Romans with great slaughter, and, advancing into Umbria, threatened the dissolution of the empire. Aurelian, however, having rallied his army, defeated the invaders near Fano, and in two subsequent engagements.
During the panic caused by the first alarm of this inroad, a formidable sedition had arisen in the city. Aurelian, upon his return from the pursuit, giving way to his natural violence of temper, executed bloody vengeance upon the authors of the plot, and upon all to whom the slightest suspicion attached. Numbers suffered death, and many noble senators were sacrificed upon the most frivolous charges. Ammianus distinctly asserts, that the wealthiest were selected as victims, in order that their confiscated fortunes might replenish an exhausted treasury.
Aurelian next turned his arms against the farfamed Zenobia [ZENOBIA], queen of Palmyra, the widow of Odenathus [ODENATHUS], who had been permitted by Gallienus to participate in the title of Augustus, and had extended his sway over a large portion of Asia Minor, Syria, and Egypt. The Romans on their march vanquished various barbarous tribes on the Thracian border, who opposed their progress. Passing over the Bosporus, they continued their triumphant course through Bithynia, which yielded without resistance, stormed Tyana, which had closed its gates at their approach, and at length encountered the forces of Zenobia on the banks of the Orontes, not far from Antioch. The Palmyrenians, being driven from their position, retreated to Emesa, where they were a second time overpowered in a bloody battle and forced to retire upon their capital. Aurelian pursued them across the desert, which he passed in safety, although harassed by the constant attacks of the Bedouins, and proceeded at once to invest Palmyra, which surrendered after a long and obstinate defence, the queen herself having been previously captured in an attempt to effect her escape to Persia.
A profound sensation was produced by these events, and embassies poured in from all the most powerful nations beyond the Euphrates, bearing gifts and seeking friendship.
The affairs of these regions having been fully arranged, the emperor set out on his return to Italy. At Byzantium he was overtaken by the intelligence that the inhabitants of Palmyra had revolted, had murdered the governor and Roman garrison, and proclaimed a relation of Zenobia Augustus.
He immediately turned back, marched direct to Palmyra, which he entered unopposed, massacred the whole population, and razed the city to the ground, leaving orders, however, to restore the temple of the Sun, which had been pillaged by the soldiers. While yet in Mesopotamia, it became known that Egypt had risen in rebellion, and acknowledged a certain Firmus as their prince. Aurelian instantly hurried to Alexandria, put to death the usurper, and then returned to Rome.
But Aurelian's labours were not yet over. All the provinces of the East, Greece, Italy, Illyria, and Thrace, now owned his sway; but Gaul, Britain, and Spain were still in the hands of Tetricus [TETRICUS], who had been declared emperor a short time before the death of Gallienus, and had been left in undisturbed possession by Claudius, who was fully occupied in resisting the Germans and Goths on the Upper and Lower Danube. Tetricus, however, finding that disaffection prevailed among his legions, is said to have privately entered into negotiations with Aurelian.
A battle was fought near Chalons, during the heat of which Tetricus surrendered himself, and his soldiers, being then left without a commander, were cut to pieces. Thus the Roman empire, which had been dismembered for more than thirteen years, was now once more restored to its former integrity.
In honour of the long series of victories by which this result had been obtained, a magnificent triumph was celebrated at Rome, such as had never been witnessed since the days of Pompey and Julius Caesar. Among the long procession of captives which defiled along the Sacred Way, three might be seen, who engrossed the attention of all--Zenobia, Tetricus, and his son--a queen, an Augustus, and a Caesar.
For a brief period, the emperor was enabled to devote his attention to domestic improvements and reforms. Several laws were passed to restrain profusion and luxury.
The poor were relieved by a liberal distribution of the necessaries of life; quays were erected along the river, and many works of public utility commenced.
The most important of all was the erection of a new line of strongly fortified walls, embracing a much more ample circuit than the old ones, which had long since fallen into ruin; but this vast plan was not completed until the reign of Probus.
About this time, a formidable disturbance arose among the persons entrusted with the management of the mint, who had been detected in extensive frauds, and, to escape the punishment of their crimes, had incited to insurrection a great multitude. So fierce was the outbreak, that seven thousand soldiers are said to have been slain in a fight upon the Coelian hill; but the riot, which almost deserves the name of a civil war, was at length suppressed.
After a short residence in the city, Aurelian repaired to Gaul, and then visited in succession the provinces on the Danube, checking by his presence the threatened aggressions of the restless tribes who were ever ready to renew their attacks.
He at this time carried into effect a measure which, although offensive to the vanity of his countrymen, was dictated by the wisest policy. Dacia, which had been first conquered by Trajan, but for a long series of years had been the seat of constant war, was entirely abandoned, and the garrisons transported to the south bank of the Danube, which was hence-forward, as in the time of Augustus, considered the boundary of the empire.
A large force was now collected in Thrace in preparation for an expedition against the Persians.
But the career of the warlike prince was drawing to a close.
A certain Mnestheus, his freedman and private secretary, had betrayed his trust, and, conscious of guilt, contrived by means of forged documents to organise a conspiracy among some of the chief leaders of the army. While Aurelian was on the march between Heracleia and Byzantium, he was suddenly assailed, and fell by the hands of an officer of high rank, named Mucapor.
The treachery of Mnestheus was discovered when it was too late.
He was seized and condemned to be cast to wild beasts.
It will be seen from the above sketch that Aurelian was a soldier of fortune; that he possessed military talents of the highest order; and that to these alone he was indebted for his elevation. One of his most conspicuous virtues as a commander was the rigid discipline which he enforced among legions long accustomed to unbounded license. His rigour, however, was free from caprice, and tempered by stern and inflexible justice; for we find that his soldiers submitted to his rule without a murmur while he was still in a private station, raised him to the throne, served him with fidelity during the period of his dominion, and after his death displayed the most enthusiastic devotion to his memory. His great faults as a statesman were the harshness of his disposition, and the impetuous violence of his passions, which frequently betrayed him into acts of sanguinary cruelty. Diocletian was wont to say, that Aurelian was better fitted to command an army than to govern a state.
The wife of Aurelian, we learn from coins and inscriptions, was Ulpia Severina, and, as was remarked above, is supposed to have been the daughter of his adopted father, Ulpius Crinitus.
He had a daughter whose descendants were living at Rome when Vopiscus wrote. (100.42.)
It is worthy of observation, that this humble Pannonian peasant was the first of the Roman princes who openly assumed the regal diadem; and now for the first time we read upon medals struck during the lifetime of an emperor the arrogant and impious titles of Lord and God (Deo et Domino nostro Aureliano Aug.
Our chief authorities for the life of Aurelian are an elaborate biography by Vopiscus, founded, as he himself informs us, upon Greek memoirs, and especially upon certain journals kept by the order of the emperor, and deposited in the Ulpian library. We find also some important information in the other writers of the Augustan history, in the minor historians, and in the works of Dexippus and Zosimus.
But the chronology is involved in inextricable confusion. Coins, which are usually our surest guides, here afford no aid. Thus we cannot decide whether the expedition against Zenobia preceded or followed the submission of Tetricus; the invasion of the Goths and Vandals, described above as the first event after his accession, is by Tillemont divided into two distinct inroads, one before and the other after the Alemannic war; so also the evacuation of Dacia is placed by Gibbon among the earliest acts of his reign, and represented as having exercised a material influence upon the treaty concluded with the Goths, while others refer it to the very close of his life. Although these and all the other events may be regarded as certain, the time when they occurred, and consequently their relation to each other, are altogether doubtful.