Aurelian and the Third Century - Alaric Watson,  Watson Alaric Ah, “Star Trek.” So good yet so...frustrating. In one of its better episodes, “Bread and Circuses,” Kirk, Spock and McCoy find themselves on a world where Rome never fell; gladiatorial combats are broadcast on live TV; and 2,000 years after its founder’s death, Christianity is only now beginning to spread. As an erstwhile historian I have many misgivings about how this parallel history works out. For example, how does English become the lingua franca of the empire when it’s a child of Rome’s barbarian conquerors? But in regard to ST’s relationship to this book, one line in particular always makes me cringe when I hear it. The landing party has been captured by a group of escaped slaves who worship the “sun” (as Kirk, et al., assume), and McCoy makes the observation that it’s odd that these people would worship a solar deity. When Spock asks why, the doctor replies: “Because, my dear Spock, it’s illogical. Rome had no sun worshipers. Why would they parallel Rome in every way but that?” But, of course, Rome had plenty of sun (and Son) worshipers. As a symbol of power, prosperity, virtue and all good things, the sun has always been an important part of Indo-European mythologies. Among the traditional gods, Apollo and Helios (Sol) were solar deities. The Emperor Elagabalus (aka, Heliogabalus) was high priest of a Syrian solar cult. And the subject of this review attempted to reinvigorate the state cult by focusing worship on the Unconquered Sun (Sol Invictus).

What has this digression to do with Aurelian? Not much but I always think of him when I watch the episode, and inevitably am reminded of the show when I read about the emperor.

And the chance to bring in a “Star Trek” reference is an opportunity not to be missed.

Alaric Watson’s* Aurelian and the Third Century is a well written, straightforward account of one of the most critical, if all too brief, reigns in imperial history. In AD 270, the empire looked to have reached the nadir of its fortunes. A century of invasion and civil war had reduced the institutions established by Augustus three centuries before to chaos. A rival emperor ruled in the West, and Odenathus and Zenobia had created a separate state around Palmyra in the East.

Appearances were deceiving: By 275, when Aurelian was assassinated, the empire was reunited, the armies (for the most part) were disciplined and loyal, the currency was in the process of recovering its value, and reforms had begun that would restore fiscal health to the imperial treasury. Due in large part to Aurelian. Without his reign, it’s unlikely that Diocletian’s would have been possible a decade later.

The first part of this book is a narrative of the political and military events of the reign, the bulk of which revolve around the so-called Palmyrene Wars against Zenobia. Part two, focuses on the religious and economic reforms Aurelian undertook. Aurelian’s military campaigns restored unity to the empire and his reforms restored discipline and loyalty, which served his successors well in the decade after his death. His fiscal reforms were not entirely successful but they slowed the economic decline and formed the basis for Diocletian’s more thorough and successful efforts. Only in religion did Aurelian clearly fail.

The image of Aurelian has suffered much because our sources (particularly the notorious Historia Augusta, the Fox News Corp of its day) were written by members of the fading senatorial class, whose influence was being extinguished by the professional military and mandarin classes emerging in the third century. Consequently, they present Aurelian as a bloody-handed tyrant. While, admittedly, Aurelian was not a gentle soul, he showed surprising (for the times) forbearance to most of his enemies. Tetricus, his Western rival, held important posts in the imperial bureaucracy after his defeat; and Zenobia married a Roman senator and comfortably retired to an Italian estate.**

Of course, the officers who murdered Aurelian were convinced that their lives were in danger so we can’t exaggerate the emperor’s clemency too much. In 275, a disgruntled eunuch forged documents purporting to show that Aurelian was preparing to move against certain generals. In a pre-emptive strike, they moved and murdered him at Caenophrurium. The emperor’s loyalists (including the future Diocletian, who was known as Diocles at the time) were able to seize power as the conspirators had no political motivations for their deed and no plans for succession, and the empire was largely spared another debilitating civil war.

As a kid, at the beginning of my love affair with history and Rome in particular, Aurelian quickly became my favorite emperor, bar none. One reason was the name. I really like the name – it sounds and looks good. It’s fortunate that I’m childless since in all likelihood any son of mine would be saddled with that moniker. A second, more substantive, reason is that I was impressed by Aurelian’s foresight and political courage displayed when he evacuated the untenable province of Dacia (which lay on the northern side of the Danube). Watson’s biography reinforces that admiration and respect, and I recommend it to those interested in Roman history. The book breaks no new ground nor does it propose any seriously radical reinterpretation but it’s a lucid and interesting account of what most likely happened, incorporating the scholarship available at the time of writing (1999).

* “Alaric.” Now there’s a name to conjure with. How could a boy named “Alaric” not become a historian of Late Antiquity?

** The marriage may not have been entirely voluntary but considering that the alternatives involved any number of gruesome executions, Zenobia was probably relieved.

*** My favorite emperors and some recommended books about them (both fiction and nonfiction):

Augustus: Augustus (bio), Augustus, and there's a story about Augustus in one of the Sandman graphic novels, though I forget which one.
Claudius: I, Claudius, Claudius the God and His Wife Messalina, Claudius, The Twelve Caesars
Vespasian: The Roman Emperors
Septimius Severus: The Roman Emperors, Septimius Severus: The African Emperor
Aurelian: Beyond this biography, I don't know of any general work about the man but his life cries out for a historical novel!
Julian: Julian, Julian and Hellenism: An Intellectual Biography