Home > B. The Living Artifact > Aurelian and Zenobia–the Crisis, Part 4

Aurelian and Zenobia–the Crisis, Part 4



AD 270: After struggling through almost four decades of weak emperors and continuous invasions by alien peoples, the Roman Empire at last found the man to lead it out of crisis: Aurelian. Born in near obscurity in Roman Dacia, Aurelian rose through the military ranks as a successful commander until he was proclaimed emperor following the brief reign of another soldier-emperor, Claudius II. The new emperor at once embarked on an incredible series of military campaigns.

Claudius had already scored a decisive victory over invading Goths at the Battle of Naissus, and Aurelian built on this momentum. In 271, he overcame initial defeat in Italy at the hands of the Alemanni to destroy the invaders at Pavia. After ordering the construction of the Aurelian Walls around Rome, he led his army into the Balkans, where he defeated another horde of invading Goths, killing their leader in battle.

Aurelian continued his march east, easily retaking Asia Minor from the Palmyrenes. In Syria, Aurelian finally encountered real resistance, crushing the Palmyrenes at Antioch. The victory led to the siege and capture of Palmyra, and Zenobia (240-275) herself was captured as she was attempting to cross the Euphrates into Persia (274) The queen was taken back to Rome, where she was made to walk in golden chains as part of the emperor’s triumphal entry into the city.

Accounts differ over Zenobia’s fate, some suggesting that she was beheaded shortly after arriving in Rome, but others relating that she married a Roman senator, gave birth to several daughters, and became a famous socialite. What else, after all, could the Romans do with a lady who claimed descent from Dido?

The subsequent reconquest of the Gallic Empire seems anti-climatic: Aurelian persuaded the Gallic emperor Tetricus to capitulate before battle, and Tetricus fled into the Roman camp during the fight, leaving his army to scatter before the onslaught. Aurelian awarded him with high position in Rome.

As charmed as Aurelian’s career seems, however, he did not escape the usual fate of emperors during the crisis: he was murdered by own officers in Thrace (A.D. 275).


Aurelian was not only a great leader in battle, but an energetic and constructive ruler as well. He restored many public buildings, re-organized the management of the food reserves, set fixed prices for the most important goods, and prosecuted misconduct by the public officers. The only true loss that occurred during his reign was the burning of the Great Library of Alexandria while the emperor was subduing a rebellion in Egypt–and even this is not certain.

But at Aurelian’s death, the empire was still weak. Dozens of thriving cities, especially in the Western Empire, had been ruined, their populations dispersed. They could not be rebuilt; the currency had lost much of its value during the crisis and much of the empire’s economic infrastructure had been wrecked. Another sign of trouble: major cities and towns had not needed fortifications for many centuries; many now surrounded themselves with thick walls.

And these are only the most superficial problems. Part 5 will spell out the deeper changes.  RT


RT’s Related Posts: 1) The Crisis of the Third Century, Part 1, Rome; 2) The Crisis of the Third Century–Part 2: The Gallic Empire; 3) Palymyra, Valerian, Shapur, Mani–The Crisis, Part 3


Roman CoinAntoninian des Aurelianus. WikiCmns; Public Domain. PaintingQueen Zenobia’s Last Look Upon PalmyraHerbert Schmalz. WikiCmns; Public Domain.

  1. October 8, 2013 at 7:45 pm

    Such a lovely way to learn about the dramatic complexities of the Roman Empire! Thanks.

  2. October 9, 2013 at 6:13 pm

    shl: thanks for the comment; the Romans do have a lot to teach us moderns… RT

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