Aurelian became emperor with only some very limited opposition. The brother of Claudius made a claim, but it lasted only 17 days before he committed suicide rather than face the undoubted skill at arms of Aurelian. This averted a civil war which could easily have undone all of the good work of Claudius. Like Claudius, Aurelian was of peasant stock and had risen through the ranks on merit and ended up as the commander in chief of the cavalry. This was a post that Claudius had also held before becoming emperor. Cavalry was proving to be more and more decisive in a situation where a threat could come from any direction and a rapid response was crucial. It may well have been effective use of cavalry that gave him the edge in his military career. Whatever, Rome needed a soldier and Aurelian was the soldier that it needed.
Although Claudius had defeated the Goths the empire was still beset with problems and the early months of the reign of Aurelian cannot have looked particularly promising. He needed to keep an eye on any challenges to his position and this led him to deplete the guard on the Danube frontier. In the light of previous history it is hard to criticise this move. You might even call it wise if it avoided more internal strife.
But it did enable yet another invasion of the empire by Goths and a tribe new to the Romans, the Vandals. Aurelian reacted and met them in a bloody but indecisive battle. But in the aftermath we see another side to Aurelian. He opened up negotiations with the barbarians and offered them the province of Dacia.
This was a far sighted initiative. He had to live with being the first emperor since Hadrian to voluntarily withdraw from a substantial territory. But the advantages to the empire were worth the sacrifice. The new border was considerably shorter making it much easier to man. The river Danube provided a physical barrier that was easy to defend. And the new Gothic kingdom would contain a lot of inhabitants with close ties to the empire. It would prove to be an effective barrier to further barbarian invasions. All in all, the far sighted work of someone who was able to get beyond the day to day problems and lay foundations for the future.
But the day to day problems were still huge and could not be ignored. Italy itself was being invaded by a wave of the Alemanni. They were once again threatening the undefended city of Rome itself. Aurelian the soldier was needed again.
In his first encounter he ambushed a large party returning to Germany laden with spoils. The attack took place while the Alemanni were crossing a bridge and Aurelian succeeded in surrounding them while they were at a disadvantage. He then negotiated with them from a position of strength. The Alemanni didn’t seem to be too cowed and demanded a large subsidy in return for an alliance. This offer was rejected and Aurelian left his generals to finish off wiping out the Alemani by hunger. This is an intriguing detail. The chief problem the Romans were facing at this time was manpower. They could minimise their casualties by avoiding a pitched battle and simply bottling up the Alemanni. We have already seen Claudius doing something similar with the Goths around Mount Haemus.
Unfortunately, the desperate Alemanni managed to break out and reinvaded Italy. Presumably they could not escape through the well guarded frontiers, so they followed the path of least resistance to the region of Milan. Aurelian pulled together a force and returned to Italy to cope with this new and latest crisis in the home province. Among the troops he brought with him were cavalry from his new Gothic and Vandal allies.
Things didn’t start off well. The Alemanni ambushed the Romans at dusk as they were making camp near Placentia and inflicted a humiliating defeat upon them. In Rome there was near panic and the end of the empire seemed near at hand. In this supreme crisis the Senate ordered the Sybiline books to be consulted. These were by this time enormously ancient books of prophesy that according to legend had been bought by Tarquin the last king of Rome from one of the sybils. The sybils were an ancient order of prophetesses similar in a lot of ways to the Oracle of Delphi, but a bit more mobile.
In the time of the republic the books were kept in the hands of 15 trusted citizens appointed by the Senate who were required to keep them safe and secret. By this time they had been lost and replaced at least once and were now kept in the temple of Jupiter. They were written in Greek verse and laid out what sacred rites were appropriate to ensure maximum divine support in a crisis.
Aurelian was completely behind this initiative and promised whatever resources needed to follow the instructions, even going so far as to offer human sacrifices (from prisoners) if that was what the holy books specified. Fortunately nothing this drastic was required. All the gods required was some ceremonies and processions. A display of piety in the face of such a deadly crisis was an understandable reaction and must have fostered a sense of national unity with everyone from the emperor to the ordinary citizens taking part.
It obviously did the trick, because in the next encounter the Romans were successful. The site was an auspicious one for the Romans. During the Punic wars when Rome had been threatened by extinction by Hannibal, the scales had been turned when reinforcements led by his brother had been decisively defeated at Fano. On the same spot Aurelian met the advancing Alemanni and routed them. A small group escaped but they were finally eliminated at Pavia removing the threat.
Aurelian returned to Rome having beaten the second of the enemies that could have wiped out the empire. He was probably grateful for the aid of the Gods, and the support of his new Gothic allies must also have been a source of satisfaction. But as we have seen, Aurelian had vision beyond the current campaign or the present danger. He shortly ordered the construction of walls around the city. Religion is one defence, and diplomacy is always in the toolkit of a statesman. But masonry is the most reliable way to ensure the safety of a city in dangerous times.
But it was a telling decision. Not since the time of Hannibal had any ruler of Rome felt the need to fortify the city itself against an actual attack by a non-domestic enemy.
The walls that Aurelian started and his successor completed were 12 miles in length and continued to be used for defensive purposes for many centuries long after the fall of the empire and indeed after Gibbon’s time. Large sections of them stand to this day and it is hard to believe that they are so old as they have been kept in good order for so long. But when they were first built, it must have been a sobering thought that the emperor himself was not confident of being able to keep the barbarians away from the city.
Having dealt with external threats Aurelian turned to his internal enemies. The northern provinces of Britain and Gaul along with Spain had broken away under the leadership of Posthumus. But the inroads of the barbarians were so severe that there was no prospect of him pursuing his ambitions any further than the territory he already possessed. Indeed Posthumus himself had to watch his back. He ended up being killed by his own soldiers after he refused to allow them to plunder a city that they had captured after it had rebelled against him. He had lasted 7 years which was by the standards of the era a reasonably successful length for a term of office.
He was succeeded by his colleague Victorinus. Now Victorinus had a bit of a soft spot for the ladies. Given the grave political and military position and the constant threat to anyone in power, one wonders how he found the time, but he couldn’t help himself. He was killed by a confederacy of jealous husbands. In this era the powerful had to continually watch out for threats to their position from barbarians, from rivals and from discontented troops. It takes a certain élan to end up dead for ones gallantries in such a time.
The excessive body count of the third century is giving us rather a large cast of characters to keep track of. There is, sadly, no time to speculate on how things might have turned out if Victorinus could have kept it in his toga.
Remarkably enough, the next person to end up running the show was his mother, Victoria. The judicious use of cash was the key to her hold on this position. She ruled at first through a couple of puppets – Marius and Tetricus. But later she declared herself as Augusta and ruled in her own right until her death. Tetricus was a good choice as a figurehead as he was not at all ambitious and seems to have hated being an emperor. Who can blame him. The death of Victoria and the rise of Aurelian gave him his chance to get out of the limelight.
In yet another remarkable instant in Roman history – just when you think that nothing can surprise you – Tetricus made secret contact with Aurelian and agreed to hand the territories back to him. The problem was that the legions under the command of Tetricus would not have accepted any such arrangement. They would simply have killed him and selected a new commander. Tetricus had to arrange for Aurelian to invade, deploy his troops in such a way as to put them at a disadvantage and then desert just as the battle started leaving his men to be massacred. This took place at Chalons.
It is rather to make out who was behaving loyally and who was being treacherous in such a situation. Tetricus at least seemed to come out if it with what he wanted. Aurelian rewarded him with an estate in Italy where he lived out a quiet and uncontroversial life. Aurelian was now in charge of the whole west of the empire.