Aurelianus: The Years 271-273

Drobeta in Dacia on Trajan’s column. The Romans kept the town as a bridgehead after evacuating the province.

Still in 271, while en route to the East to confront Zenobia, Aurelianus campaigned against marauding tribes that had once again broken through the Danube border. The not-so reliable Historia Augusta mentions campaigns in Illyricum (a generic term for the Balkans) and Thrace and even claims that the emperor fought against the Goths on the other side of the river, killing 5.000 enemies and their leader, one Cannabas or Cannabaudes. Although much of Aurelianus’ biography in the Historia Augusta is pure fiction, there is plenty of evidence for his campaigns in the Balkan region. Many of his titles that are well attested – for instance ‘Gothicus maximus’ and ‘Carpicus maximus’ – must have been won here. Around this time the emperor must have taken the decision to abandon Dacia Traiana or Dacia Transdanuvina, the Dacian province on the other side of the Danube created during the reign of the emperor Trajanus (98-117). The province was too vulnerable and Aurelianus did not have the manpower to defend it. The troops – probably what was left of Legio XIII Gemina – were withdrawn and the population was resettled in a new province that was created in the north of Moesia: Dacia Aureliana.

Restorer of the East

The emperor’s campaign against Zenobia got off to a good start. In late 271 or early 272, he reached Byzantium, crossed the Bosporus and entered Bithynia unopposed. The Augusta of the Palmyrene Empire had previously attempted to annex that region as well, but she and her army had been repulsed by the inhabitants. Aurelianus then marched on Ancyra in Galatia, a city under Palmyrene control, but it surrendered without a fight. It was only when the emperor reached Tyana in Cappadocia that he encountered stiff resistance. The city closed its gates to him and had to be put under siege, prompting Aurelianus to swear not to leave even a dog in Tyana alive. The city was subsequently captured when it was betrayed to the emperor by one of its citizens. Aurelianus had the traitor executed, and when his men were about to massacre the population, he ordered them to kill all the dogs in the city instead. That was, after all, what he had sworn: to leave no dog alive. According to an alternative story, the famous Pythagorean philosopher Apollonius of Tyana had appeared to the emperor in a vision and had ordered him to spare the city.

Map of Aurelianus’ campaign against Zenobia (source: Ancient World Mapping Center. “À-la-carte”; CC BY 4.0).

Eye-protector for a horse (Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden).

Whatever really happened at Tyana, the city was spared and Aurelianus swung into Cilicia, capturing all the cities between Tyana and Antiochia. Zenobia had in the meantime mobilised her army and the two forces clashed near Antiochia. The battle may have taken place at Immae, the village where Elagabalus had defeated Macrinus in 218. Aurelianus knew that the Palmyrenes relied on their heavy cavalry, the famous cataphracts. These were almost unstoppable on the attack, but the heavily armoured men and horses tired quickly and were then an easy target. The emperor ordered his light cavalry to stage a feigned retreat and let their opponents pursue them. The cataphracts took the bait and were soon exhausted because of the scorching heat and the weight of their armour. The Roman light cavalry then wheeled around, charged the Palmyrenes and easily defeated them. With the cataphracts out of the fight, the rest of the Palmyrene army soon crumbled and fled.

Aurelianus had won a decisive victory, but Zenobia’s general Septimius Zabdas tried to conceal it from the citizens of Antiochia. He had a man resembling the emperor dressed up as Aurelianus and paraded through the city, pretending he had won a great victory over the Romans and had captured their leader. The Antiochians were fooled for the moment, giving Zabdas, Zenobia and what was left of the Palmyrene army an opportunity to flee to Emesa (modern Homs) during the night. Aurelianus then entered Antiochia unopposed, where he was given a hero’s welcome. Before he could go after Zenobia, the emperor had to settle a dispute involving the city’s patriarch, Paul of Samosata. Because of his heretical teachings, Paul had been deposed by a synod some years ago, but he had enjoyed the protection of Zenobia so that he could continue to serve as the city’s patriarch. Aurelianus was anything but a Christian, but as emperor he had the power (and the duty) to settle disputes of this kind. Ruling against the patriarch, he had Paul removed from office and replaced with his rival Domnus.

Imperial Roman legionaries forming testudo with their shields (Trajan’s column, Rome).

Now that Antiochia was firmly in his hands, Aurelianus marched south in pursuit of Zenobia. The empress had left behind a rearguard, which had entrenched itself on a hill overlooking Daphne, a suburb just south of Antiochia (and the site of the famous festival held by the Seleucid king Antiochos IV Epiphanes in the summer of 166 BCE). The Palmyrenes controlled a formidable position, but the emperor ordered his infantry to form testudo and march up the hill. The overlapping shields protected the men from the missiles thrown at them, and once they had reached the top of the hill, the Romans charged and easily defeated their opponents. With this obstacle out of the way, Aurelianus advanced along the river Orontes and captured Apamea, Larissa and Arethusa without a fight. The emperor then reached Emesa, where he found the Palmyrene army drawn up in battle order.

The end of Palmyra

Zosimus claims that the Palmyrene army was 70.000 men strong. This is no doubt an exaggeration, but Zenobia’s losses during the previous engagements with the Romans seem to have been fairly light and she may have brought up reinforcements. Some of her troops must have been soldiers from the Roman legions stationed in the East, especially Syria. The Palmyrenes had moreover learned from their past mistakes and did not fall for the tactic of a feigned retreat a second time. Their cataphracts caught up with the lighter Dalmatian, Pannonian and Moesian cavalry and gradually got the better of them. Aurelianus now sent in his infantry, which defeated their opponents after a sharp fight.

Relief featuring Aglibol and Malakbel, Palmyrene deities (Capitoline Museums, Rome).

Many of the soldiers in Aurelianus’ army were regular Roman soldiers from Europe, but the emperor also made extensive use of regional auxiliaries. Some of these were Palestinians from Judaea, who fought with maces and clubs rather than swords and spears. Their blunt weapons were very effective against the heavy armour worn by the Palmyrene cataphracts. This armour offered excellent protection against edged weapons, but did not protect against the trauma inflicted by maces and clubs. In the end, the Romans won a great victory and Zenobia and Zabdas were forced to flee to Palmyra. Aurelianus entered Emesa as a hero and a liberator, and confiscated part of Zenobia’s treasures that she not been able to take with her.

The emperor lost little time and now marched on Palmyra. This desert city was large and well defended in those days, and the road through the desert was dangerous. The Roman marching column was frequently harassed by enemies, probably nomads, brigands, Palmyrene light troops or all three. The siege of Palmyra was not going to be easy. The Historia Augusta even claims that Aurelianus was wounded by an arrow. Whether or not this is true, it was clear that Zenobia was in deep trouble. The defenders were quickly running out of provisions and desperately needed reinforcements. Zenobia consulted her war council and it was decided that she would try to escape from the city and request military aid from the Persians. The great Shapur was most likely dead by this time. His son Hormizd had succeeded him, but by the time the Romans put Palmyra under siege he seems to have passed away as well. Bahram I was now king of the Sassanid Empire and Zenobia may have seen him as a potential ally against a common enemy.

Funerary monument from Palmyra.

Zenobia unfortunately never reached Bahram. Although she managed to leave Palmyra on a swift camel, she was soon spotted by a Roman patrol and arrested when she tried to cross the river Euphrates. Aurelianus treated her with respect and sent her to Rome for his triumph. Her son Vaballathus – basically a non-entity – was likely sent along with her, although he may have drowned while crossing the Bosporus. Palmyra now quickly surrendered to the Roman army, probably in late 272 or early 273. Leaving a garrison behind, Aurelianus withdrew to Emesa and there sentenced Zenobia’s advisors to death. He apparently blamed them the most for her rebellion (and according to Zosmius, so did Zenobia, who now pretended to be just a ‘simple woman’). One of these advisors was the philosopher Cassius Longinus, who was said to have met his death with great dignity and courage.

In the meantime, one of Aurelianus’ generals had recaptured Egypt.[1] This part of the campaign is poorly documented. The Historia Augusta credits Marcus Aurelius Probus (the future emperor Probus) for this success[2], but there is some reason to doubt this statement, as the authors may have confused him with one Probus or Probatus who served under Claudius Gothicus and who was defeated in Egypt by the Palmyrenes in 270. But whoever conquered Egypt for Aurelianus, this most vital province was now firmly back under Roman control. As a result, the emperor could rightly claim to be the RESTITVTOR ORIENTIS, the ‘restorer of the East’, a term found on many of his coins.

After a few punitive raids against the Persians and Arabs, for which he earned the nicknames ‘Parthicus maximus’, ‘Persicus maximus’ and ‘Arabicus maximus’, the victorious emperor returned to Europe. While he was fighting the Carpi in Moesia and earning the title of ‘Carpicus maximus’, he suddenly received word that Palmyra had revolted against him and had massacred the garrison. Aurelianus was not in the mood for mercy. Before the year 273 was out he had returned to Syria and virtually wiped Palmyra off the map. Once a prospering city, it now quickly faded into obscurity. The emperor then proceeded to quell a rebellion in Alexandria, Egypt, which was perhaps led by the Firmus mentioned in the Historia Augusta. Order was quickly restored, so that Aurelianus could now focus on bringing the tottering Gallic Empire to its knees.

Sources

Primary sources

Secondary sources

  • Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of the West, p. 128-131.

Notes

[1] Possibly as early as the spring or summer of 271.

[2] The Life of Probus 9.

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