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“You're one cool caesar”
“Aurey...I thought we could work something out”
“Rome needs to wear concrete protection against Barbarians”
Picture this fresco. You are sitting in your sun lounger in Ancient Rome. Before you are the suburbs of the city, a sprawling mass of citizens, slaves and tourists noisily going about their business. You can see them arriving or leaving along the roads that stretch to the far distance. This is an open city, no physical barriers to prevent you coming or going. True, some remnants of the original city wall can be found but most of it has been re-used for garden rockeries or incorporated into buildings but the city's boundaries now stretch a lot further. Rome has no need of artificial barriers to protect itself. No foreign army has been in this neighbourhood for nearly 500 years when Hannibal and his Carthaginian army searching for lost elephants, Rome's legions are all the protection your home needs now.
Then as you instruct a slave to pat your back, your gaze is distracted by a new site. A line of brick and concrete is crossing very near your house and there is a man outside your door. He carries the authority of Rome and presents you with a scroll. It is an eviction order:
Citizen of Rome. By order of Lucius Domitius Aurelianus Augustus, your villa stands in the way of Caesar's new infrastructure project. A wall is coming through this land and your villa has to be demolished. You have one hour to clear this place and load your belongings on a horse and cart. Any resistance will be meet by the full force of Imperial Planning Regulations. Signed: Aurelian Augustus. Restorer of the World. Builder of Walls.
And with that, the house you had thought would last forever is no longer yours. What had once been a garden where you held your dancing nymph parties is buried for ever under Roman concrete and brick.
Aurelian was born in Dacia (modern Romania) in around 210. He was so poor that as there was a Roman tax on names, he and his family had done without one for generations. A retired Roman senator called Aurelius adopted all of them and gave his name to them to use, take out credit cards and acquire sub prime mortgages in out-of-the-way swamps. Only one survived to adult hood and prison and that was Aurelian. He needed to leave.
Aurelian joined the Roman army and for the next 30 odd years, saw in action on various frontiers. At some stage, he was in Italy where he joined emperor Gallienus's new military academy Ulcus Punctum ('Sore Point'). This was a time of changing Roman tactics with the emphasis on getting away from boring legions to waging war on horse. The Romans had long despised armies that relied on 'feckless' cavalry but after losing battles against the Persians and Barbarians, it was time to change. Aurelian appeared to have approved and became part of a club of senior Roman commanders.
The Roman Empire was at this time in a bad shape with rebellions, invasions and breakaway states popping up all the time. In 268 the largely useless Gallienus was murdered whilst trying to smoke out of Milan a rival called Aurelos (no relation). The rebel said he 'had done Rome a favour' by toppling Gallienus but Aurelian saw if different. He encouraged Aurelos to surrender Milan and then gave all his soldiers a vote on whether they wanted to see the Roman general spared or speared. To Aurelian's relief, Aurelos was killed.
edit Emperor's Best Friend
A military council at Milan agreed to support Claudius Gothicus as emperor. Gothicus - as his name shows - was something of a slave to black eyeliner and dyed hair. Aurelian became his number two and the two men agreed that they had to restore Rome's reputation as a military power. Besides the rival Gallic Roman Empire based in Gaul, the most immediate threat came from the Goths. They had overrun Dacia and pushed the legions over the Danube. This was personal for Aurelian. He was going home.
On their way north, the Romans were surprised to find a large body of common or garden German barbarians heading towards Rome. Their ability to cross the frontier without detection and make straight for Rome alarmed Aurelian. He evidently made a large mental note about this and that Rome's legions could no longer guarantee the imperial capital the triple A rating that it was exempt from destruction. Luckily these Germans were an ill disciplined mob and were beaten comprehensively. Perhaps they were really Anglo-Saxons, a few centuries shy of invading and occupying Britannia.
For the next couple of years Aurelian was busy fighting and scratching with the Goths in the Balkans. Gothicus agreed to take all the glory and promised Aurelian that if he ever felt a bit sick and close to death, he would recommend Aurelian as next emperor. So when Gothicus then died - and made his brother Senator Quintillus next emperor, Aurelian was more than disappointed. This would be a kill or be killed campaign. The two rivals and their armies met near Aquileia in northern Italy. The pre battle preliminaries sorted out which armies judged their commanders' composure under pressure. Quintillus was judged the loser but allowed to go to the bathroom and cut open his veins. Aurelian wasn't cruel with his enemies as he was to prove later on.
Aurelian's victory against one rival left him with two others to deal with. One was Tetricus, the obsessive game playing emperor of the breakway 'Gallic-Roman Empire' in Gaul, Britannia and Germania. The other was Queen Zenobia of Palmyra and Egypt, the most dangerous woman (in Roman eyes) to come out of the Middle East since Cleopatra. Aurelian asked for assessment reports and judged Tetricus as the weaker opponent and since Zenobia controlled Rome's lucrative luxury trade routes (what would the Romans do without their fancy clothes), chose to take her on.
Zenobia was in her early 30s, a widow with a snotty son called Vaballathus. Though she was something of a Queen of the Desert, Zenobia claimed to be the descendant of Cleopatra, Dido of Carthage and the goddess Aphrodite. By all accounts she was a 'blow your sandals off' type of woman and a warrior in the mode of Boadicea and Joan of Arc. The effective ruler of the Eastern half of the Roman empire since the death of emperor Gallienus in 268, Zenobia had already took on and beaten the Persians, a feat that alluded other Roman emperors and had seen at least one of them - Valerian - pay for his failure by being skinned alive as a couch covering by Shah Shapur.
This could have led to some sort of alliance between Aurelian and Zenobia, perhaps a replay of Antony and Cleopatra. Aurelian liked 'tough women', his own wife Ulpia Severina fitted that role (as she was to prove later) but Zenobia upped the stakes by proclaiming her own baby son Vaballathus emperor. Now this indeed was Actium all over again, Roman West against the Effeminate East. Aurelian's army overwhelmed Zenobia's soldiers near Antioch and she was captured alive. Zenobia's order for a basket of asps going amiss.
Chained to a golden cage, Zenobia was paraded in Rome along with Aurelian's other battle trophies (some with and some without taste). Traditionally, the Romans would then kill their prisoners but Zenobia's shapely Asian ass was saved by a love struck Roman senator called Marcellus Petrus Nutenus. The 'nut' pleaded with Aurelian to spare her (Vaballathus having died on the way when he was run over by a chariot). At which point....all surviving manuscripts break off! It is like losing the last pages in a novel. So, depending on who you read Aurelian (a) refused and left Zenobia chained up like a sex slave, (B) Let his wife Ulpia kill her or (C) Nutenus was allowed to marry her and the couple lived in Rome. They had many children including a daughter Nutella who would later go on and patent a sickly, spoon licking chocolate spread.
edit Rome's Corset of Stone and the Loss of Dacia
If Zenobia was indeed spared to give rise to a hazel chocolate paste then this explains why emperor Tetricus in Gaul took voluntary retirement. Aurelian agreed and Tetricus officially resigned and got a new job. Moreover, unlike previous Roman emperors (or wannabes), Tetricus wasn't murdered or executed by Aurelian. Was this mercy or was Aurelian going all 'Liberal' in a very un-Roman way?
Perhaps to keep everyone distracted, Aurelian announced a new building project. Rome was going to become a walled city once again. There were howls in the Senate that this was the Roman Empire going 'yella' in the face of the barbarians and that more money should be spent on re-arming the legions with the latest battlefield technology. Aurelian declined to change his mind and drew the line of where the wall was to go through some prime real estate. Villas that could once look out on a scene of arcadian rural idyls now had a concrete and brick wall running right past their windows. Only one Roman resisted the developers. Pyramid salesman Caveat Emptor Cestius refused to move from his self advertising property so the constructors had to build the wall on either side. They expected to return one day but legal wrangles lasting nearly 2,000 years have prevented the completion of the job.
Whilst this was going on, quietly Aurelian abandoned his old homeland to the Goths. Dacia had been devastated by recent wars and there was no money to rebuild the infrastructure. Goths liked living in there but had no concept of maintenance and within 50 years, the former Roman province was a ruin.
edit Aurelian and the Jazz connection
Following his triumphs, Aurelian became surprisingly gloomy. He became unapproachable and insisted he be referred to the new title Dominus et Deus (master and god) or D&D. Aurelian didn't like staying in Rome (Trajan's column was specially avoided as it was a celebration of the original conquest of Dacia) . Like emperor Hadrian, Aurelian preferred to travel around the empire. One of their new favourite places was in Gaul where a city was re-named Aurelianum in Aurelian's honour. The city became known for its lively night life. Aurelian would sit alone, with just his bodyguards as he listened to some smokey lyre music. This was the start of the Aurelianum music scene which over time, would become the 'Orleans' and then 'New Orleans' jazz sound and Hurricane Katrina.
Matters of importance along the frontiers forced Aurelian out of his pleasure zone and with Ulpia, marched off east along the way. A corrupt bureaucrat called Eros (with a name like that you can imagine he must have been an overweight bore) noticed a private report indicating that a member of Aurelian's staff was on the take. Knowing that he would be fingered - and that Aurelian would send him to the salt mines (if he was lucky), Eros convinced Aurelian's generals that their emperor was about to embark on some 'mild meglomania' and that no one would be safe. Though Aurelian had shown no signs of irrational cruelty, his generals allowed themselves to be convinced by Eros's story and struck the emperor down as he lay sleeping in his battle tent.
Ulpia demanded an apology and had Eros crucified. Remarkably and pointing to the example of Zenobia, said there was no bar on her becoming the ruling Empress of the Roman Empire, 'mater castrorum et senatus et patriae' (ruler of the barracks'). She was proclaimed empress Ulpia Severina and ruled the empire alone. It would be a short reign. Within a few months Ulpia was gone. It is not known if she died, was killed or retired. She disappears from the records in much the same way as Zenobia. Perhaps the two women met later and successfully rubbed each other out of the historical record.
Marcus Claudius Tacitus