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Back from the Brink – Aurelian by Joseph Kleinman

Most of us who have a knowledge of ancient history hold to the concept of divisions. That is to say that we believe that historical events fall within definite epochs. For example, when considering the history of the Roman Empire we tend to believe that the Western Empire fell in the fifth century followed by the “Dark Ages” and that the Eastern Empire continued on until the mid fifteenth century when it was conquered by The Turks.

I hold to a different concept.

Most historians would agree that the Western Empire didn’t fall in the same sense that the Soviet Union did but that it was broken up after a long period of corruption and decay. That the fall was not an event taking place at a point in time, but a breakup as the result of a process. The breakup that we shall look at in this opus didn’t occur in the fifth century but in the third.

The mid third century was a time of deep crisis for the Roman Empire. The emperors were concerned mainly with maintaining the loyalty of the armies whom they had to placate with ever larger donatives which put a tremendous burden on the already overtaxed citizens. At the same time, the frontiers were constantly being threatened by barbarian tribes who were steadily gaining strength as the empire became ever weaker. On or around AD 260 the empire faced a double threat. While the armies were contending with the German tribes on the Rhine / Danube frontier, the Persians attacked. This was during the joint reign of Valerian and his son Gallienus. Both emperors took the field and led their armies against Rome’s enemies. It was Valerian that went east to meet the Persians. After some initial success the army of Valerian was trapped and the emperor captured alive and later killed. This event sent shockwaves throughout the entire Roman world. Very soon after that, provinces began to break away in order to form separate states that might better provide for their own defense. Spain was lost, Britain and Gaul were lost and in the East, Egypt and Syria were controlled by Queen Zenobia of Palmyra who intended to carve out an empire of her own. Without the resources of the lost provinces and with a greatly reduced territory from which to recruit troops for the legions, the empire was doomed.

Although Gallienus was successful in repelling further barbarian invasions into Roman territory, try as he might, he could not recover the lost provinces. In AD 268 he was assassinated by a group of officers one of whom was the future emperor, Aurelian. In AD 270 Aurelian became emperor and began the campaigns that would restore the Roman world to a condition resembling its former greatness. One after another the barbarian tribes were routed, the usurpers that had broken away surrendered and their provinces brought back under the rule of Rome. The short lived Empire of Palmyra was defeated and Queen Zenobia was brought back as a captive to Rome where wearing golden chains she rode in the Triumph accorded to Aurelian by the Roman Senate.

In domestic affairs, Aurelian reformed the coinage and established a new state religion that was monotheistic in character. The cult of the unconquered son.

As is so true of the events of the third century, the story ends in tragedy and death. It was the intention of Aurelian to wage war against Persia in order to re-establish the province of Mesopotamia. Had he been successful, think of how that would have changed history. Unfortunately, he too was the victim of a plot hatched by his own secretary who had angered him. He forged a list of officers who were to be purged by the emperor and in their fear, struck first and killed him. When they discovered the deception they executed the secretary and appealed to the Senate to appoint a new emperor. Thus ended the career of one of the most competent rulers of a troubled age.

The coin is a double Denarius or Antoninianus as they are called. The reverse shows the figure of the SOL INVICTVS (the unconquered son) standing over a Persian captive.


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