Claudius Gothicus was succeeded by his brother Quintillus. He was accepted by the Senate as Augustus, but the Senate had little real power in those days. Quintillus reigned long enough to mint coins, but the army was unhappy with the Senate’s choice and quickly presented its own candidate: Lucius Domitius Aurelianus. Aurelianus had been born in Illyricum, possibly in Sirmium in Pannonia. He was a veteran of many military campaigns and a capable cavalry commander. It is quite likely that he was among the conspirators who had orchestrated the murder of the emperor Gallienus in 268. On that occasion, the conspirators had chosen Claudius as the next emperor, but now that Claudius was dead, it was Aurelianus’ turn. Quintillus probably knew he had little chance against a candidate that had the support of the bulk of the army. After just a few months on the throne, he was either killed or committed suicide by opening his veins in the traditional Roman way.
An emperor on campaign
It was probably in the summer of 270 that Aurelianus entered Rome. He did not stay in the capital for long, for the Danube borders required his presence. As a proper barracks emperor, Aurelianus spent most of his reign on campaign. This becomes abundantly clear if we study all the inscriptions that he left behind or that were set up for him. The emperor collected an impressive list of titles (agnomina): he was ‘Germanicus Maximus’, ‘Gothicus Maximus’, ‘Carpicus Maximus’, ‘Parthicus Maximus’ and ‘Persicus Maximus’, with some inscriptions also mentioning the titles of ‘Arabicus Maximus’, ‘Sarmaticus Maximus’ and ‘Dacicus Maximus’. The often problematic Historia Augusta adds the titles of ‘Armeniacus’ and ‘Adiabenicus’. There is, however, no evidence that he ever used the former agnomen, while the latter was actually used by one of his main opponents: Imperator Caesar Lucius Julius Aurelius Septimius Vaballathus Athenodorus, ruler of the Palmyrene Empire.
His successful efforts to restore the Roman Empire also won Aurelianus the titles of restitutor and pater patriae. From a military point of view, Aurelianus was one of the most successful emperors of the third century. On the other hand, we should not be blind to the fact that titles were subject to heavy inflation in this period. Many of the emperor’s victories were no more than minor successes. His purported campaigns against the Persians and Arabs can, for instance, have been no more than punitive raids. And more importantly, Aurelianus’ greatest victories are not even reflected by the list of titles mentioned. There is a good reason for this: these victories were won over more or less Roman enemies: the ruler of the so-called ‘Gallic Empire’ and the nominal ‘Augustus’ Vaballathus of Palmyra and his mother, the ‘Augusta’ Zenobia.
As the emperor marched north towards Pannonia to fend off a ‘barbarian’ invasion, he knew his western flank was well protected. Julius Placidianus, whom Aurelianus would soon promote or had already promoted to praetorian prefect, kept a watchful eye on the crumbling Gallic Empire. There, the Gallic emperor Victorinus had probably already been succeeded by Gaius Pius Esuvius Tetricus. Victorinus was murdered in Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium (Cologne), possibly after seducing the wife of one of his officers, the actuarius (quartermaster) Attitianus. Victoria, the mother of the slain emperor, then bribed the soldiers to accept Tetricus as their new emperor. He was from a distinguished Gallo-Roman family and served as governor of Aquitania. His son, Tetricus junior, became a Caesar. The new Gallic emperor soon had to deal with Germanic tribes knocking on his door, as well as dissent within the army. Tetricus was no threat to Aurelianus; he would deal with him later.
After arriving in Pannonia, Aurelianus confronted the invaders, whom Zosimus calls ‘Scythians’, but who were most likely Vandals (Vandili). There was a brief and inconclusive fight, after which the emperor and the invaders made a deal, in late 270 or early 271. Both parties had good reason to sue for peace, the Vandals because it allowed them to settle and Aurelianus because he had received word that Italy had been invaded again. Although the notoriously unreliable Historia Augusta calls the invaders Marcomanni, they were probably Alemanni, who had been joined by groups of Juthungi. The emperor raced back to Italy, but his exhausted troops failed to take the necessary precautions and in 271 they were lured into an ambush near Placentia (modern Piacenza). The ensuing defeat was probably more humiliating than serious, but it did mean that the road to Rome lay wide open. The city was still protected by the Servian Walls from the fourth century BCE, but Rome had expanded way beyond these walls, which meant that important parts of the city were completely exposed. Aurelianus knew this very well.
As the Alemanni and Juthungi advanced along the Via Aemilia, the emperor rallied his troops and started the pursuit. He caught up with the invaders at Fanum Fortunae (modern Fano), where the Via Flaminia swung inland towards Rome. There Aurelianus inflicted a severe defeat on his opponents and chased them back to the north. There was a final confrontation near Ticinum (Pavia), in which the surviving Alemanni and Juthungi were destroyed. Italy, and especially Rome, had been saved.
Riots in Rome
The invasion had created a general scare in the Eternal City and the decision was quickly taken to have new, bigger, longer and stronger walls built. Large sections of these Aurelian Walls and their gates are still standing. However, all was not well. There was much unrest in Rome and the people began to riot. It seems unlikely that these disturbances were only caused by the Germanic invasion. It is quite plausible that the dead Quintillus still had plenty of supporters in the capital, especially among the senators.
It is probably in this context that we should place the revolt of the mint workers (monetae opifices or monetarii) during Aurelianus’ reign. These men seem to have been involved in shady practices. The silver content of coins had dropped to just 3.5 to 4 percent, compared to over 90 percent in the days of Trajanus (98-117). This large-scale debasement was largely caused by wars and recessions, which created a silver shortage, but the mint-workers had probably become corrupt as well, switching some of the silver for base metals and keeping the precious material for themselves. Aurelius Victor more specifically accused them of “filling off the coin marks”, whatever that may be. When their crime was discovered, they threw in their lot with the rioters and entrenched themselves at the imperial mint, which was located near the Caelian Hill. The remains of the building survive underneath the church of San Clemente, just behind the Colosseum, although some doubt remains whether this building was really the imperial mint.
After his victory at Ticinum, Aurelianus marched on Rome to restore order. He would give the city a demonstration of his ruthlessness. Both Aurelius Victor and the anonymous author of the Historia Augusta – who may have used Victor as a source – claim that 7.000 soldiers were killed while suppressing the rebellion of the mint workers, who were led by their rationalis auctor Felicissimus. The number of casualties among the soldiers is no doubt inflated, but there must have been some fierce fighting before the rebels were finally crushed. Aurelianus also clamped down on the other riots in the city and had the ringleaders executed. Some of those killed were senators, who may have been punished for previously supporting Quintillus.
Now that calm had returned to the streets of Rome, the emperor could prepare for a large campaign in the Roman East. In 271, Zenobia of Palmyra had followed up on her invasion and annexation of Egypt of the previous year by breaking with Rome altogether. She had given her son Vaballathus the title of Augustus and began styling herself as Augusta. This was an insult that Aurelianus could not ignore.
- Aurelius Victor, De Caesaribus 33 and 35 (translated and annotated by H.W. Bird);
- Epitome de Caesaribus 35;
- Historia Augusta, The Life of Aurelian;
- Historia Augusta, The Lives of the Thirty Pretenders;
- Zosimus, Historia Nova, Book 1.47-49.
- Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of the West, p. 118, p. 130 and p. 141;
- The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, p. 316;
- Timothy Venning, A Chronology of the Roman Empire, p. 613-615.
 For Sarmaticus and Dacicus, see ILJug-03, 02073 = AE 1925, 00057. The inscription does not explicitly mention Aurelianus, but it must be about him. Who else could be consul for the third time and pater patriae?
 The Life of Aurelian 30.
 See for instance Thomsen-1917, 00073b.
 Legio II Parthica, stationed at Castra Albana, south of Rome, may have been able to defend the capital.
 Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of the West, p. 141.
 H.W. Bird’s translation of ‘nummariam notam corrosissent’.
 The original mint of the city was attached to the temple of Juno Moneta on the Capitoline Hill, where we now find the church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli. It was moved to the Caelius by Domitianus (81-96). See The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, p. 316.
Updated 10 April 2023.