1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Aurelian

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AURELIAN [Lucius Domitius Aurelianus], one of the greatest of the Roman soldier emperors, was born at Sirmium in Pannonia between A.D. 212–214. He was of humble origin, but nothing definite is known of his family. He had always shown great enthusiasm for a military career, and so distinguished himself in the campaigns in which he took part that on one occasion he received a public vote of thanks. At the same time he was proclaimed consul elect, and adopted by Ulpius Crinitus, military governor of Illyria and Thrace. On the death of the emperor Claudius II. Gothicus (270), Aurelian was proclaimed his successor with the universal approval of the soldiers. His first task was to continue the war which had been begun by Claudius against the Goths. He drove them out of Moesia across the Danube, where he left them in possession of Dacia, which he did not think himself able to retain; the name was transferred to Moesia, which was then called Dacia Aureliani. The chronology, however, of Aurelian’s reign is very confused, and the abandonment of Dacia is placed by some authorities towards its close. He next entered upon campaigns against the Juthungi, Alamanni, and other Germanic tribes, over whom, after a severe defeat which was said to have imperilled the very existence of the empire, he at length obtained a complete victory. Having thus secured the Rhine and Danube frontiers, he turned his energies towards the east, and in 271 set out on his expedition against Zenobia, queen of Palmyra (q.v.). At the same time he crushed two pretenders to the throne—Firmus and Tetricus. Firmus, a wealthy merchant of Seleucia, had proclaimed himself emperor of Egypt. Aurelian, who was at the time in Mesopotamia, hastened thither, and ordered him to be seized and put to death. Tetricus, who had been proclaimed emperor in the west after the death of Gallienus, and left undisturbed by Claudius II., still ruled over Gaul, Spain and Britain. A decisive battle was fought near the modern Châlons, in which Tetricus was defeated. The restoration of the unity of the empire was thus complete. In 274 a brilliant triumph, adorned by the persons of Zenobia and Tetricus, was celebrated at Rome.

Aurelian now turned his attention to the internal affairs of the empire. He introduced sumptuary laws; relieved the poor by distributions of bread and meat, proceeded with great severity against informers and embezzlers; began the construction of various public works and buildings; and proclaimed a general amnesty for political crimes. The restoration and enlargement of the walls of Rome, commenced by him, was not completed till the reign of Probus. An attempt to restore the standard of the coinage is said to have caused a revolt of the workmen and officials connected with the mint, which was only put down with the loss of 7000 soldiers. It has been suggested that this was really an attempt at revolution incited by the senate and praetorian guards, the opportunity being found in disturbances resulting from opposition to the attempted reform, which by themselves could hardly have assumed such serious proportions. Aurelian’s restless spirit was not long able to endure a life of inaction in the city. Towards the end of 274, he started on an expedition against the Persians, halting in Thrace by the way. While on the march between Heracleia and Byzantium, at the beginning of the following year, he was assassinated through the treachery of his secretary Eros, who, in order to escape the discovery of his own irregularities, incited certain officers against the emperor by showing them a forged list, on which their names appeared as marked out for death.

Aurelian well deserved the title of restorer of the empire, and it must be remembered that he lived in an age when severity was absolutely necessary. He was a great soldier and a rigid but just disciplinarian. In more favourable circumstances he would have been a great administrator. He displayed a fondness for pomp and show on public occasions; he was the first Roman emperor to wear the diadem, and assumed the title of Lord and God on medals.

The chief authority for the events of Aurelian’s reign is his life by Vopiscus, one of the writers of the “Augustan History”; it is founded on Greek memoirs and certain journals deposited in the Ulpian library at Rome. See L. Homo, Le Règne de l’empereur Aurélien (1904), and Groag’s art. in Pauly-Wissowa, Realencyclopädie, v. 1347 foll.