Aurelian and the Third Century by Alaric Watson
Book Review by Philip Matyszak
Those who know Roman history might assume that the word 'crisis' has been accidentally left off the title of this book, for it is hard to think of the third century AD without considering how great a mess the Roman empire was in at that time. In fact this issue is the very first which Alaric Watson deals with in a book which achieves the rare feat of being both academic and very readable. He points out that what we call 'the third century crisis' was in fact at least three crises, overlapping but not exactly contemporaneous. He also points out that there was more to the third century than these crises, for a number of cultural and religious issues came to the fore in this period, and understanding these is the key to understanding the culture of fourth-century Rome.
While the nature of the third century crises is described with impressive clarity, neither these issues nor the changing character of imperial rule and the rise of Christianity are dealt with in any great detail. This is a book of just 208 pages (not including notes and appendices), and the author does not want to waste any time before he gets down to his main topic - the emperor Aurelian himself.
This is unsurprising, as Aurelian is a fascinating subject, but it does mean that the reader unfamiliar with the era will need some help with peoples and events referred to but not described in detail. For example the author contrasts the solar cult of Aurelian with that of Elagaballus without giving much detail about the latter. Major characters of the third century such as Shapur, the Gordians and Decius are mentioned, but only as far as they pertain to Aurelius and his reign. In short this is very much a book about Aurelian rather than about the third century, and seen in this light it is a very good book indeed.
Alaric Watson deftly sketches the background to the near-impossible situation which Aurelian inherited. In AD 270 the Roman empire was coming apart at the seams. There was a rival emperor in power in the west, and while the Palmyran kingdom was holding the east together nominally in the name of Rome it was in fact both autonomous and becoming dangerously more so. Gothic invaders had recently rampaged through Greece and the Aegean Sea, and barbarian tribes attacked across the Rhine and Danube almost with impunity, sometimes striking deep into the once inviolate lands of Italy. On top of that, the Roman empire was practically bankrupt, beset with a declining tax base and rampant inflation which destroyed the value of the coinage faster than the imperial mints could produce it. Politically, the flawed imperial succession process had led to some sixty pretenders and emperors claiming to rule the empire over the past decades (Watson demonstrates that at times it is pointless to differentiate between 'emperor' and 'pretender') almost all of whom perished violently.
If Aurelian did not set the world to rights during his brief but action-packed five year reign, he came very close. He made a sporting attempt to reform the coinage and threw back waves of barbarian invaders. He brought Gaul and the western empire back under the rule of Rome, and defeated Zenobia of Palmyra when her expansionist ambitions led to Palmyra taking control of Egypt and attempting to do the same in Asia Minor.
Where Watson is at his best is as he sifts through the confusing, contradictory and sometimes downright false evidence for the period. Like every other historian of the period he confesses his exasperation with the mixture of half-truths, invention and pure fantasy which is the Historia Augusta, a book which any sensible scholar would immediately disregard if not for the fact that it remains the principal literary text dealing with the period. Watson makes masterly use of the coin evidence of the period to correct dates and gain insights into imperial propaganda and policy. This is backed up with a plate illustrating some of the critical coin issues described. However - at least in the digitized paperback edition - the plates are of such low quality that we have to take the author's word that the fuzzy grey disks in the illustration are indeed the coins in question. The hardback edition may offer better quality pictures, but with this edition fewer and larger coin illustrations would have been more helpful.
An implicit objective of this book is to defend Aurelian against some of the charges laid against him by ancient authors. Aurelian is clearly a hero to the author, and the only negative allegation with which he agrees is that Aurelian definitely disliked Christians and was probably preparing to persecute them when he was assassinated. Even here Watson makes the point that Christianity at this period could be considered a pernicious influence, the practice of which was tantamount to treason. Aurelian's cult of the sun is explained convincingly not as an attempt to set up an alternative monotheistic religion, but as an addition to the Roman pantheon. Aurelian was a henotheist (one who worships a single god, but accepts the existence of others) rather than a monotheist.
Likewise, Watson takes issue with the charges that Aurelian sidelined and disrespected the Roman senate. He points out that the contingencies of the time forced Aurelian to recruit his officers from the widest possible talent pool, and that apart from the execution of some frankly treasonous senators after the riots of 271, Aurelian generally treated the senate with respect. It is also pointed out that the 'legendary cruelty' of Aurelian seems to have few practical examples. Also, it is clear that Aurelian spared his two greatest enemies, Zenobia and Tetricus, and even offered the latter a minor administrative post in Italy. (Which was gratefully accepted.)
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Monetary reforms, the eponymous walls around Rome and social legislation are dealt with in surprising detail given the space available. Like his protagonist, Watson has the ability to do a lot with limited resources. Also refreshing is the author's confessions of ignorance where the evidence runs out, and his admission that some confusing matters may never be resolved. The appendices are a detailed look at some of the knottier issues of Aurelian's reign, and deserve to stand as academic papers in their own right.
In summary, this is an excellent account of Aurelian and his reign. Given Watson's expertise with the period and his superb handling of the issues, one can only hope that he will at a future time expand this study into a badly-needed history of the third century as a whole.