Roman Emperor Aurelian: The Underrated Emperor Who United a Fractured Rome

During one of the most tumultuous times in the history of Rome, Lucius Domitius Aurelianus achieved in five short years what many of his predecessors failed to do in decades on the throne. He united a fractured empire. Here is the astonishing story of Aurelian, emperor of Rome, and we’ll also answer the question ‘how did Aurelian die.’

History Rulers
10 May 2023

Emperor Aurelian, a formidable general and astute leader, emerged from the chaos of the Roman Empire’s Crisis of the Third Century as its saviour and unifier. Ascending the throne in 270 CE, Aurelian’s unwavering determination and military prowess would prove instrumental in restoring stability and reuniting the fractured realm under a single banner.

Aurelian ruled Rome towards the end of one of the most fractious and chaotic periods in its long and complex history. Indeed the five decades between 235 and 284 threatened the very existence of the empire itself. The Crisis of the Third Century was a period of political instability, empire-wide corruption, economic chaos, external threats, massive social unrest and unprecedented internecine struggles. In the anarchic fifty years from 235, over twenty-five emperors sat on the throne, some for just a matter of weeks.

When Aurelian succeeded the brief reign of Quintillus, he rebuilt Rome literally and metaphorically. He was a successful general, re-establishing Roman control over territory in the east and west. He fortified both the borders of the empire and, with the construction of the Aurelian Walls which can still be seen today, he fortified Rome itself.

The man who brought Rome back from the edge of extinction was known as Aurelian, restorer of the world. Despite his undeniable success, Aurelian was killed by his own men, meeting this ignominious end just five years into his reign.

Aurelian’s Rise

Aurelian in battle (Photo by: Bildagentur-online/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Lucius Domitius Aurelianus was quickly promoted to head of the army. In late 268 or early 269, he commanded his first major victory over the Germanic Alemanni tribes at the Battle of Lake Benacus on the banks of Lake Garda in northern Italy.

Further victories against the Goths in the Balkans in 270 cemented his reputation as an exceptional battlefield tactician.

Claudius died in early 270, probably from the plague that had swept its way through the Roman empire – and with Senate support, his brother Quintillus was proclaimed emperor. He may have reigned for as little as seventeen days or as long as two-and-a-half months. However, the army refused to recognise him, instead putting their support behind Aurelian.

When Quintillus was killed – either by his own troops, by his own hand, or in battle against Aurelian – Lucius Domitius Aurelianus became Aurelian, emperor of Rome.

The Emperor who Restored the World

Queen Zenobia before Emperor Aurelian (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

As soon as he came to power, emperor Aurelian needed to re-establish authority and control over lands lost by his predecessors. Relatively quickly, he expelled the Vandals and Sarmatians from Roman territory.

In 271, the Juthungi launched an invasion into Italy, managing to score a victory against Aurelian’s forces at the Battle of Placentia. However, their success was short-lived, as Aurelian led a counteroffensive against the invaders. He first confronted the Juthungi at the Battle of Fano, where his forces overran the enemy, halting their progress towards Rome. Subsequently, Aurelian continued to pursue the now-retreating enemy and engaged them in the Battle of Pavia. The Roman forces, under Aurelian’s skillful leadership, emerged victorious once again, driving the Juthungi out of Italy and effectively putting an end to their incursion.

Similarly in Pannonia, which is now part of modern-day Hungary, the Vandals were starved after a scorched earth policy. The Goths were defeated somewhere beyond the Danube. Despite his victory, the Emperor decided to withdraw, and abandone the Roman territories north of the Danube – seeing them as a drain on the Empire’s limited resources.

Aurelian now turned east to recover the lost provinces ruled by Queen Zenobia of the Palmyrene Empire. Within six months, almost the entire empire was back under Roman control.

Despite this string of swift and decisive victories, Aurelian wasn’t done. Next, he turned his attention to the Gallic Empire – modern-day France, Spain and what was to become England. At the bloody and decisive Battle of Châlons, Aurelian defeated the Gallic forces, and Gallic Roman Emperor Tetricus I surrendered. This victory reunited the Roman Empire, bringing the Gallic Empire back under central control.

It was a startling achievement.

In just four years, the frontiers of the empire were secured and reunified, and the lost territories were back under Roman control. On his return to Rome, the triumphant emperor was named by the Senate Restitutor Orbis. Aurelian, Restorer of the World.

More than Just a Soldier

St Paul's Gate, Aurelian Walls, Cestius Pyramid (Photo by Icas94 / De Agostini via Getty Images)

Aurelian, emperor of Rome, was not just a warrior. He restored a great number of public buildings and built the Aurelian Walls which enclosed Rome and helped repel barbarian invasions. Indeed they were so well built they were used as a defence of the city for almost 1,600 years.

Aurelian didn’t shirk his responsibilities on the home front. He reorganised the system of coinage to try and curb spiralling inflation, and his currency reforms helped stabilise the economy, which was crucial for the recovery of the empire. He also relocated the imperial mints so the army could receive their pay more easily. He ensured free food was distributed, and included pork, salt and oil to the rations.

How did Aurelian Die?

Emperor Aurelian riding his chariot (Photo by: Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

In 275, emperor Aurelian was preparing to advance on the Sassanid Empire, then ruled by a weak leader in Bahram I. On his way he won battles against the Gauls in France and barbarians in Vindelicia.

Yet the Emperor who had defeated so many enemies in such a short time would never make his destination. In fact, he would meet his end not at the point of an enemy sword, but from the very people who marched alongside him.

On his route east, Aurelian was betrayed by his own men. It’s alleged that some of his most loyal followers were misled into believing they themselves were marked for execution. To save themselves from this fate, they resolved to kill the Emperor. Aurelian was murdered by his own soldiers in Caenophrurium, near the city of Byzantium, in 275.

The man born Lucius Domitius Aurelianus left a mixed legacy, and sadly has faded into relative obscurity. He was the most successful emperor in decades and spent his reign tirelessly defending the glory of Rome. His efforts paved the way for the later reforms of emperors like Diocletian and Constantine the Great, who further strengthened the empire after the Crisis of the Third Century.


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