The Triumph of Aurelian: Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 11 Part 4

After the defeat of Zenobia, Aurelian could not return directly to Rome. He had also to deal with a revolt in Egypt. A local businessman called Firmus with a large fortune used it to raise an army and declare independence for Egypt.

You can’t help but think that Firmus just hadn’t been paying attention.  What exactly did he expect the all conquering Aurelian to do?  What happened next was pretty much a foregone conclusion.  On one side the battle hardened soldiers fresh from defeating the arms of Zenobia.  In charge a man with iron determination and proven track record of military skill.  Against them, a well healed papyrus trader with pockets deep enough to hire some mercenaries.  I know who my money would have been on.  Aurelian marched into Egypt, easily defeated Firmus, then had him tortured and killed. 

Whatever Firmus thought he was going to achieve,  all he succeeded in doing was prove to everyone who might have doubted it that the Roman emperor was back in charge.  After all this hard work, Aurelian awarded himself a triumph.  It was surely well deserved.  He had taken over when the empire was on the point of collapse and had transformed its fortunes in only a few short years.  Now he put on a show.

The parade was led by 20 elephants, 4 tigers and 200 other weird animals.  Behind them came 1600 gladiators with brightly polished armour.  There were richly dressed ambassadors from Ethiopia, Arabia, Persia, India and China.  The many presents donated by grateful cities were displayed.  Then there were prisoners from the many nations that Aurelian had fought and conquered.  Goths, Vandals, Sarmatians, Alemanni, Franks, Gauls, Syrians and Egyptians.

But pride of place among the captives was given to the Emperor of the West and the Queen of the East.  Tetricus was dressed in trousers to make him look like a Gaul, with a purple robe to show he was an emperor.   Zenobia was adorned in jewels like the eastern monarch she was, but was in golden chains walking in front of her own chariot. 

Last came Aurelian himself, in a chariot captured from a Gothic king, drawn by either four stags or four elephants depending on the account.  The whole procession took so long that it lasted from dawn to beyond dusk.  It must have been quite a sight.   It also must have made a huge impact on the spectators. They would have been well aware that it was only a matter of a couple of years before they might have expected to see not a triumphant emperor on the streets of Rome but hordes of barbarians bent on plunder and mayhem.  It was a situation like no other in the preceding centuries of Roman history, and there would never be again.

If this were a film or a novel, Aurelian would now settle down to a long and peaceful reign and would become adept in the arts of peace while his grateful subjects rebuilt the empire and restored its prosperity.

And Aurelian did show himself to be a reformer as well as a soldier, and tackled one of the empire’s serious non-military problems.  Successive emperors from the time of Nero onwards had coped with cash flow problems by the ever popular solution of debasing the coinage.  This is a practice that has many drawbacks, but has the one huge appeal that it almost always works very well in the short run. And what government has ever not been short of cash in the short run?

By this stage the coinage had become worthless and Aurelian tried to do something about it.  This triggered a revolt in Rome. Gibbon is a bit confused as to how this happened because it isn’t at all obvious who would be opposed to such a move.  Issuing extra coins is a benefit to the government and conceivably to the well off who escape having to pay so much in taxes (though even they suffer from the loss of the nominal value of their wealth).  Modern scholars have not been able to shed much more light on the matter.  But however it came about, the mint workers violently protested against Aurelian’s reforms and troops had to be deployed to calm them down.  A figure of 7000 casualties is reported – though even for a hard nut like Aurelian this sounds like a very high death toll for a riot.

Nonetheless, it was to Aurelian’s credit that he tried to solve what was one of the more intractable long term problems the empire faced.  The use of money gave the empire the ability to use its resources very effectively.  If this advantage was lost the empire became much harder to hold together.
Having dealt with the rebellious mint workers, Aurelian set out on yet another bit of unfinished business.  The Persians had not yet been punished for their humiliation of Valerian.  He put together a small but well trained and organised force and marched East.  But he was never to arrive at his destination. 

On the way one of his staff fell foul of him in some way and feared he would be punished. Aurelian wasn’t the kind of boss who you could afford to upset.  He was a strict disciplinarian and rarely forgave an error.  The only hope for the poor wretch was to get rid of Aurelian.   He forged a letter purporting to be a death list of the top officials around the emperor and leaked it to them.  They believed it, and quickly hatched a conspiracy to get rid of him before he got rid of them.  And so the great warrior fell at the hands of his own officers in the most tragic of circumstances.

He deserved a better end and a longer reign. It is hard to believe how much he achieved in such a short time.  I should say at this point that I have kept pretty closely to the story as Gibbon tells it.  Modern scholars have extensively revised the details, including such key parts as to what order the main events happened in.  It is now believed that the Alemanni were defeated before the Goths, that Zenobia was conquered before Tetricus, and that some of the battles attributed to Aurelian were in fact more likely to have been fought by Claudius or even Gallianus.  And Gallianus is no longer regarded as an effete irresponsible playboy.  But I don’t think that the essentials of the story have changed very much despite a very different chronology.   When Aurelian came to the throne the empire was on the point of collapse. When he met his untimely end the empire in most trouble was the Persians who were faced with invasion by one of the most able generals the Romans ever fielded.

I don’t think there is much doubt that without Aurelian Gibbon would not have need all six volumes.  In fact, he would not have got to the end of the first one.

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