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Aurelian and the Third Century by Alaric Watson

Book Review by Ursus

Sandwiched between the end of the early empire and the beginning of the late empire is the often overlooked figure of Lucius Domitius Aurelianus, better known in English as Aurelian. Brief though his five-year reign was, Aurelian achieved the extraordinary feat of reuniting an empire torn by foreign invasion and internal fracture. To my knowledge, Watson's book is the only major treatment of Aurelian in the English language, and it is an overwhelmingly sympathetic view.

It should not be mistaken for a biography in the traditional sense of the word. The author admonishes that there are too many gaps in the historical knowledge of Aurelian, and the information we do have is often biased or conflicting. Instead the book seeks to critically examine the literary and material evidence of Aurelian's reign and place it within the wider scope of Rome's Third Century.

The first half of the work is the most interesting. It is a political and military narrative of Aurelian's life from his days as a senior army officer to the aftermath of his assassination. This almost novel-like history is written with an intelligent yet clear prose and makes for a page turning experience! The second half is a survey of Aurelian's many reforms. It is more academic in nature meaning rather detailed and written with prose far less conducive to excitement. Nonetheless it serves as excellent research material and is very illuminating. Taken together the two halves reveal the remarkable achievements of the proclaimed Restorer of the World.

In critically reexamining the evidence, Watson's assessment is revisionist. He feels that "Crisis" is a bit of a misnomer when applied to the fifty years of turbulent events of the mid-Third Century. It was a more of a troubled realignment of the Roman world. The author parodies Tacitus on saying that the Third Century revealed a secret: a Roman could become emperor without even stepping foot in Rome! Hence the rival imperial pretenders in Palmyrene and in Gaul. Nonetheless, the so-called Crisis, traditionally used as the stark break between a dichotomy of the benevolent Principate with the more autocratic Dominate, is in the author's vision overplayed. There was much continuity and gradual development between the early and late empire, and Aurelian's reign was in fact a prescient nexus between the two.

The author sees in Aurelian the ultimate career soldier deeply conservative, but responsive to change with a detail to attention and a determined energy. The pro-Senatorial literary clique who wrote history criticized Aurelian for his supposed cruelty and heavy handedness. Watson dismisses such criticism, presenting evidence that Aurelian was cruel only when necessary and otherwise very merciful to his enemies. Instead of cruelty, Aurelian promoted a traditional Roman trait true to his military background: discipline. Despite the pro-Senatorial animosity, Aurelian was actually quite kind to the established nobility. If the Senate was underused in Aurelian's reign, it was only because the Senate, in a sign of the times, had become an anachronistic institution divorced from Rome's pressing military concerns.

Aurelian's achievements, in addition to the reunification of the empire, include: the improved use of cavalry, inherited from Gallienus; a reorganization of the mint system; the construction of the now famous Aurelian walls around Rome; a concerted effort to stamp out provincial corruption; the abandonment of Dacia as a strategic reorganization of defenses; and finally the introduction of the syncretic cult of Sol Invictus, whose temple's dedication date on 25 December is still celebrated in a Christianized form around the world.

As an aside to Aurelian, his rivals in the Gallic and Palmyrene "empires" are also investigated. Queen Zenobia is in particular a fascinating figure and Watson tries to cut through the legend and propaganda surrounding her.

Watson's treatment is an interesting and informative read of a dimly understood era of Roman history. It helps to elucidate the confusing events surrounding the "Crisis of the Third Century" and for that alone is worth the price.

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Book Review of Aurelian And The Third Century - Related Topic: Battles of the third century


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