The Roman Emperor Aurelian: Restorer of the World by John F. White

Book Review by Martin Holmes

The Roman emperor Aurelian, John F. White acknowledges, is not a household name. Many Roman emperors are, especially those who reigned in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. Some of them, such as Marcus Aurelius and Trajan, are known for their piety and good governance. Others (perhaps more!) are remembered for their cruelty, notably Caligula but also Tiberius. Many consider Nero the epitome of ineptitude and gluttony. Vespasian and Augustus are often remembered for their political cunning and daring exploits.

This popular knowledge, however, usually does not last longer than the 2nd century. Many see the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180 – the last of the ‘Five Good Emperors’ – as marking the beginning of Rome’s decline. After Aurelius came Commodus, a man despised for his cruelty. After Commodus came an age of chaos, dominated by barbarian invasions, financial crises, and a general loss of law and order. It was the age of the soldier-emperors, men who rode to power on the backs of their legions, seizing the imperial purple by force. Few lasted longer than a few years. Assassinations and usurpers were commonplace, as was military defeat. In 251 Decius was the first emperor to be killed in battle; in 260 Valerian was the first to be captured alive by the enemy. By 270 the Empire had split into three pieces, each vying for dominance over the others. Strained by barbarian invasions and fractured by infighting, the fortunes of the Roman Empire looked bleak.

That was, of course, until the reign of Aurelian (270-275). In this new biography, John F. White shows how Aurelian reversed this trend and revitalised the Empire. At first sight he was just another soldier-turned-emperor. A Pannonian by birth, Aurelian was of humble origins. He enlisted in the army as a young-man, serving initially as a legionary, rising through the ranks to become a general. In this position he became an important player in imperial politics. In 268 he helped assassinate the emperor Gallienus VII, installing his comrade Claudius on the throne. When Claudius died unexpectedly in 270 Aurelian coveted the position for himself, becoming emperor that year.

Aurelian, White argues, was more than just another soldier-emperor. He fought hard for the Roman Empire. Under his leadership the army confronted the northern barbarians, winning successive campaigns against the Juthungi, Alamanni, Goths, and Carpi. In the east Aurelian defeated Queen Zenobia, restoring the eastern provinces to Roman control. While in the region he also launched an expedition into Persia to confront the growing Sassanid Empire. In the west he defeated the usurper Tetricus in Gaul, restoring the western provinces to Rome’s control. At the time of his murder in 275, Aurelian was en route to Persia, probably to launch another invasion against the Sassanids. These military victories, achieved in only a few years, were remarkable to say the least.

Yet that was not all. White emphasises Aurelian’s talent as a strategist and a statesman. Much of his time was spent reforming the military, as it was the Empire’s first line of defence. Corruption was dealt with harshly, as were inefficiency and laziness. The army, in Aurelian’s mind, needed to be top notch. At the same time, he knew that reforming the army alone was not enough. The Empire was under threat. Already barbarians had frequently broken through the front lines, ravaging the northern provinces and even Italy. In 271-272 he abandoned the province of Dacia, seeking to improve the lines of defence. Determined to protect Rome he built new walls around the capital. In an effort to promote unity among the Empire’s diverse inhabitants, Aurelian promoted the cult of the Sun God ‘Sol.’ His martial prowess, stern sense of duty, and strategic mind endeared him to many in the Empire and especially the senate. When he was assassinated in 275 people throughout the Roman world, in White’s words, were “stunned.”

In itself, White’s biography of Aurelian is commendable. He persuasively argues that Aurelian is important, and has been unfairly neglected by historians. After all his military victories rival those of Trajan and Vespasian; his work ethic that of Marcus Aurelius. This 3rd century emperor, dubbed the ‘Restorer of the World’ by his contemporaries, deserves attention from anyone interested in history and the classics.

In addition, White goes further. He provides readers not only with a biography of Aurelian, but with a ‘life and times’ of the later Roman Empire. He splits the book (roughly) into three parts. The first discusses the military, financial, and political crises of the third century. The second discusses Aurelian, and how he propped up the Empire in the time of its greatest need. The third discusses the legacy of his reign and the careers of other Emperors, notably Diocletian, who grappled with the same issues. This strength prevents the book from becoming bogged down in Aurelian’s rather short lifetime and even shorter reign, offering a comprehensive assessment of the Roman world in the 3rd century AD.

All things considered it is a powerful book, with no noticeable downsides. White is an engaging writer with a deep understanding of the subject matter. His book really is a landmark biography and a significant addition to classical scholarship.

Because of this I recommend it to anyone interested in Aurelian, the later Roman Empire, or the Roman world in general.

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