Aurelianus: The Years 274-275

Altar of Malakbel or Sol Sanctissimus (Capitoline Museums, Rome).

Now that Zenobia had been defeated and captured, Aurelianus could focus on the one remaining rebel in the West: Tetricus, ruler of the so-called ‘Gallic Empire’ (the name is a modern invention). In early 274, the army of Aurelianus met that of Tetricus in the vicinity of Durocatalaunum (modern Châlons). Tetricus seems to have had little taste for battle. He was under severe pressure from one of his own officers, a man named Faustinus, and had possibly already struck a deal with Aurelianus before the fighting started. Once the two armies clashed, Tetricus defected and saw his army being cut to pieces. The Gallic Empire was no more, and the Roman Empire had been reunited. Aurelianus certainly deserved to be called the Restitutor Orbis and the Pacator Orbis, terms that are frequently found on his coins. He was also the restitutor and pater patriae. So far the Romans had only seen a tough and merciless emperor. Now they would see that Aurelianus had a softer, generous side to him as well.

Aurelianus the Spectacular

After his victory in Gaul and still in 274, Aurelianus held a spectacular triumph in Rome. Both Zenobia and Tetricus and his son were forced to walk in front of the emperor’s chariot. The Historia Augusta has left us a fantastic report of the triumph, which I will quote in full below. Even though it is hardly the most reliable source and the stag-drawn chariot is probably a product of the author’s fantasy, the Historia’s description captures the spirit of the spectacle quite well:

“It is not without advantage to know what manner of triumph Aurelian had, for it was a most brilliant spectacle. There were three royal chariots, of which the first, carefully wrought and adorned with silver and gold and jewels, had belonged to Odaenathus, the second, also wrought with similar care, had been given to Aurelian by the king of the Persians, and the third Zenobia had made for herself, hoping in it to visit the city of Rome. And this hope was not unfulfilled; for she did, indeed, enter the city in it, but vanquished and led in triumph. There was also another chariot, drawn by four stags and said to have once belonged to the king of the Goths. In this — so many have handed down to memory — Aurelian rode up to the Capitol, purposing there to slay the stags, which he had captured along with this chariot and then vowed, it was said, to Jupiter Best and Greatest. There advanced, moreover, twenty elephants, and two hundred tamed beasts of divers kinds from Libya and Palestine, which Aurelian at once presented to private citizens, that the privy-purse might not be burdened with the cost of their food; furthermore, there were led along in order four tigers and also giraffes and elks and other such animals, also eight hundred pairs of gladiators besides the captives from the barbarian tribes. There were Blemmyes, Axomitae, Arabs from Arabia Felix, Indians, Bactrians, Hiberians, Saracens and Persians, all bearing their gifts; there were Goths, Alans, Roxolani, Sarmatians, Franks, Suebians, Vandals and Germans — all captive, with their hands bound fast. There also advanced among them certain men of Palmyra, who had survived its fall, the foremost of the State, and Egyptians, too, because of their rebellion.

There were led along also ten women, who, fighting in male attire, had been captured among the Goths after many others had fallen; these a placard declared to be of the race of the Amazons — for placards were borne before all, displaying the names of their nations. In the procession was Tetricus also, arrayed in scarlet cloak, a yellow tunic, and Gallic trousers, and with him his son, whom he had proclaimed in Gaul as emperor. And there came Zenobia, too, decked with jewels and in golden chains, the weight of which was borne by others. There were carried aloft golden crowns presented by all the cities, made known by placards carried aloft. Then came the Roman people itself, the flags of the guilds and the camps, the mailed cuirassiers, the wealth of the kings, the entire army, and, lastly, the senate (albeit somewhat sadly, since they saw senators, too, being led in triumph) — all adding much to the splendour of the procession. Scarce did they reach the Capitol by the ninth hour of the day, and when they arrived at the Palace it was late indeed. On the following days amusements were given to the populace, plays in the theatres, races in the Circus, wild-beast hunts, gladiatorial fights and also a naval battle.”[1]

View of the Forum Romanum.

Older generations perhaps still remembered the spectacles organised by Philippus Arabs in 248 to celebrate the 1000th anniversary of Rome, while younger Romans no doubt had memories of Gallienus’ decennalia of 262 or his triumph of 264. With his own triumph, Aurelianus must have at least equalled his predecessors. It was a triumph in honour of all his victories over Rome’s enemies since he had ascended the throne, not just Zenobia and Tetricus, but also the ‘barbarians’ from the north, east and south that had violated the borders of the Roman Empire. Among the soldiers participating in the triumph were the heavily armoured horsemen known as the cataphractarii or clibanarii. They were becoming an ever more important element in the Roman army.

A Roman general’s triumph traditionally ended with the execution of the high-ranking prisoners that had been paraded in it. These were usually strangled to death in the Tullianum. However, in an extraordinary bout of clemency, Aurelianus had decided to spare Zenobia and Tetricus. Zenobia may have been allowed to live out the rest of her life at an estate near Tibur (modern Tivoli). She settled there with her children, but whether Vaballathus was still among them is uncertain. Later writers claim the former Augusta remarried, a dubious claim which may be based on a statement by Eutropius that Zenobia’s descendants still lived in Rome in his own time, i.e. the middle of the fourth century.[2] Tetricus was given an administrative job in Lucania in Southern Italy, while his son was made a senator. The emperor then took measures against counterfeit money, removing false coins from circulation and issuing new ones with a higher content of silver.[3] He also tended to the needs of the poor citizens of Rome, complementing the existing bread dole with systemised distributions of oil, salt and pork.

Aurelianus and Sol Invictus

Solar wheels or rouelles (Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, Langres).

The most lasting architectural contribution of the emperor to the city was – apart from the Aurelian Walls – undeniably the construction of a great temple dedicated to Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun. The temple stood in the Campus Agrippae, in the vicinity of the church of San Silvestro in Capite, which was probably built over the temple’s western enclosure. Tradition dictates that it was inaugurated on 25 December of the year 274, a date that, according to the Filocalian calendar, was the NATALIS INVICTI, the birthday of the Invictus. The Romans had a long history of sun god worshipping, but the sun god’s role had always been rather marginal. The emperor Vespasianus (69-79) had converted the Colossus of Nero, which stood in front of the Colosseum, into a statue of the sun god Sol, but the cult of Sol had never gained any momentum in the first two centuries CE. This all changed in the third century.

The cult of the sun god was given a boost when emperors from the so-called Severan dynasty took control of the Empire. Septimius Severus (193-211) was married to a Syrian woman, Julia Domna, whose father was a high priest of the sun god Elagabal (‘god of the mountain’). The temple of Elagabal stood in Emesa, Syria (present-day Homs), where the deity was worshipped in the form of a large black rock. The cult of Elagabal was introduced in Rome by the emperor Elagabalus (218-222), Julia Domna’s grand-nephew. His religious revolution and attempts to place his sun god at the top of the divine hierarchy was a miserable failure, but the practice of worshipping a sun god continued. Images of Sol appear frequently on coins struck during the reigns of emperors such as Severus Alexander (222-235), Gordianus III (238-244) and Gallienus (253-268). The sun god can often be seen holding a globe, suggesting that the power to rule the world was granted to emperors by him, Sol. Gallienus was also “the first emperor since Elagabalus to address Sol directly in coin legends”[4], and on his coins we find texts such as Sol Conservator Augusti, Sol Comes Augusti and – finally – Sol Invictus.

Relief of Mithras, with Sol and Luna visible (Vatican Museums, Rome).

Aurelianus’ choice for Sol Invictus was both sensible and logical.[5] He was a man from the Balkans and worship of the sun god was popular among the Illyrian soldiers. According to one story – possibly fabricated – the emperor’s mother had been a priestess of the sun god. People living in the Balkans, such as Dacians and Thracians, had venerated solar wheels for centuries, and so had the Celts of Gaul, Northern Hispania and Britain. The Celtic god Taranis was usually equated with Jupiter, but he was also seen as a sun god, and dozens of ‘wheels of Taranis’, solar wheels or rouelles have been excavated in modern France, Belgium, Britain and  Spain (see the image above). The ‘Gallic’ emperor Victorinus issued coins with images of Sol, and so did Tetricus II, the son of Tetricus (see above).

Among Aurelianus’ soldiers were certainly worshippers of Mithras, members of a mystery cult who always referred to their deity as sol invictus Mithras (although he is actually portrayed as a companion of Sol rather than as the sun god himself; see the image on the left). The cult of Mithras was a thoroughly Roman product and mostly thrived in Rome, Ostia and the western provinces, but it did have roots in the Roman East, probably originating in Cappadocia. Sun worship was ancient in Roman Egypt and – as we have seen above – well-established in Syria. Aurelianus had no doubt seen the temple of Elagabal in Emesa when he took that city from Zenobia. More importantly, he had been to Palmyra, where the sun god Malakbel was worshipped. Zosimus claims he had confiscated the statues of Malakbel and of the supreme god Bel, and had them placed in his new temple. Malakbel was already known in Rome at the time, as the city had a Palmyrene community. In Latin his name was apparently Sol Sanctissimus, ‘Most Holy Sun’ (see the first image of this post). All in all, Aurelianus’ decision to build a temple to Sol Invictus made perfect sense.

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

Rather large claims have been made regarding the nature of Sol Invictus. Was he really a supreme deity and were the other gods simply manifestations of him? Had some sort of ‘solar monotheism’[6] or henotheism emerged? The simple fact is that we do not know what Aurelianus believed, while it is impossible to establish what ordinary Romans believed. After Aurelianus had inaugurated his temple and set up a college of priests, the cults of the other gods were continued. Jupiter remained the supreme deity of the Romans, although perhaps under Aurelianus he had to accept Sol Invictus as his equal. The emperor no doubt felt a strong personal devotion to the sun god. He also intended the cult of Sol Invictus to become an empire-wide phenomenon, a unifying force in the multicultural Roman Empire. This was his political goal, and it seems rather unlikely that Aurelianus was motivated by complex theological theories about the nature of his Sol Invictus. He was, after all, just a simple soldier. His primary concern was always to keep his throne secure.

An accidental assassination

In 275, Aurelianus was in Caenophrurium or Perinthus, not far from Byzantium. It is usually assumed that he was planning a new offensive against the Persians. Although he already used the titles ‘Parthicus Maximus’ and ‘Persicus Maximus’, he had so far only executed a few raids in the aftermath of the capture of Palmyra. Unfortunately, Aurelianus would never be able to launch any new offensives. In 275 he was murdered by his own soldiers. It does not seem that any high-ranking officers were involved, and Aurelius Victor attributes the murder to certain tribuni who feared for their own lives because of the emperor’s strictness and ruthlessness. Both Victor and Zosimus blame a clerk or notarius for the murder: the man had been reprimanded by the emperor and subsequently forged a list of soldiers Aurelianus wanted executed. The soldiers, seeing their names on the list and fearing for their own lives, then drew their swords and slew their emperor. The chief assassin was a man named Mucapor.

Part of a Roman helmet, ca. 200-300 CE (Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden).

Although the story of the hit list may have been fabricated later, the soldiers involved in the murder had acted on their own accord. The rest of the army, from the rank and file to the senior officers, were in shock at the death of their beloved emperor. Aurelianus was given a grand funeral and was later deified, but the Empire was now faced with a great challenge. The slain emperor and his wife Ulpia Severina only had a daughter, who could of course not succeed him. His sister probably had a son, but sources such as the Historia Augusta claim the emperor had already had him killed. So all in all, there was no successor. The situation was in many respects very different from that in 268, when Gallienus had been killed. His assassins had been high-ranking officers who had immediately presented Claudius with the purple. Aurelianus’ assassins were non-entities who had no political power whatsoever. There was an interregnum of about two months before the army had selected a successor. Ulpia Severina may in the meantime have continued to serve as empress, although her exact role is impossible to reconstruct.

In the end an old senator named Marcus Claudius Tacitus was accepted by both the Senate and the army as the new Augustus. Although Aurelius Victor[7] and the Historia Augusta[8] tried to present his appointment as a restoration of senatorial government, the candidate was actually shoved down the senators’ throats by the army. Tacitus was said to be 75 years old. He had been consul ordinarius in 273, alongside Julius Placidianus, Aurelianus’ praetorian prefect. Perhaps it was this connection that made him a suitable candidate. In November or December of 275, the Roman Empire had a new Augustus again.


Primary sources

Secondary sources

  • Matthew P. Canepa, The Two Eyes of the Earth: Art and Ritual of Kingship Between Rome and Sasanian Iran, p. 81;
  • Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of the West, p. 118-119 and p. 129-131;
  • Henk Singor, Constantijn, p. 34-39;
  • Timothy Venning, A Chronology of the Roman Empire, p. 618-620.


[1] The Life of Aurelian 33-34.

[2] Breviarium Historiae Romanae 9.13.

[3] It is not impossible that it was these measures that led to the brief but fierce revolt of the mint workers which I have discussed for 271.

[4] Matthew P. Canepa, The Two Eyes of the Earth: Art and Ritual of Kingship Between Rome and Sasanian Iran, p. 81.

[5] The following paragraphs are in part based on Henk Singor, Constantijn, p. 34-39.

[6] Singor, p. 37.

[7] “Everyone was happy because the senators had recovered the right to choose the emperor from the arrogant military” (De Caesaribus 36; translation: H.W. Bird).

[8] “How full of weight the authority of the senate!” (The Life of Tacitus 2).

Updated 10 April 2023.


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