Book Review: The Roman Emperor Aurelian: Restorer of the World


by John F. White

Barnsley, Eng.: Pen & Sword / Philadelphia: Casemate Publishers, 2016. Pp. xxviii, 220. Illus., maps, appends., notes, biblio., index. $39.95. ISBN: 1473845696

The Savior of the Roman Empire

Incorporating new material, British historian White has revised and expanded his 2006 life of Aurelian (r., A.D. 270-275), one of the ablest of the long line of emperors who followed Augustus. White opens with a critical assessment of the ancient evidence, most notably the notoriously unreliable Historia Augusta, which he does quite well, avoiding a dry academic style to make some of the difficulties and complexities of the sources readily understandable to the layman.

White then takes on what has come to be called the “Crisis of the Third Century”, the near collapse of the Roman Empire in the period A.D. 235-270, with a chapter on the deeper roots of the crisis, which lay in the problem of determining the succession to the imperium in the absence of a “legitimate” heir, which had already caused several civil wars in the past, and the collapse of the Severan dynasty in a coup against the young Emperor Alexander Severus (r. 222-235), which initiated a new and more terrible series of civil wars. White aptly titles his next chapter “The Generals Choose the Emperor”, as between 235 and 270 a dozen or so men were recognized as emperor by the Senate, and many more – tradition puts the usurpers at thirty – made bids for the purple, leading to almost incessant civil wars, with the internal chaos encouraging barbarian incursions and Persian invasion, almost literally bringing the empire down. White’s third chapter take up the start of the restoration of central power with an account of the reigns of Gallienus (r. 253-268), a man much maligned in the traditional literature, and Claudius Gothicus (r. 268-270), who did much to restructure the army, government, and state, paving the way for the accession of the able Aurelian on the untimely death of Claudius from Plague.

White covers Aurelian’s reign in three chapters. A remarkably energetic ruler, in just five years Aurelian managed to complete the restructuring of the army and stabilizing the finances, restored the frontiers, ejecting or taming barbarian invaders, and crushed usurpers, most notably rival claimants ruling vast swathes of northwestern European (Gaul, Germania, Britannia) and the East (Syria, Egypt), only to die at the hands of a disgruntled servant. White concludes with three more chapters to explain how Aurelian’s work was completed with the accession of Diocletian (r. 284-304), who extensively restructured the Empire, introducing a degree of stability and prosperity not seen in nearly a century.

In addition to his coverage of Aurelian, certainly one of the ablest of the emperors, White weaves into this story accounts of a number of other emperors, usurpers, and other persons of some importance at the time, such as the able Queen Zenobia of Palmyra, who led a bid to secure the imperium for her son, the Athenian historian Dexippus, who wielded a sword as ably as a pen, and others. Aurelian also gives us a discussion of the continuous evolution of the Roman Army and state in the period and events beyond the Roman world that fed the crisis.

White’s account is supported by careful research, as demonstrated by extensive notes, some including interesting variant treatments of the evidence, and some very interesting appendices.

Well written, The Roman Emperor Aurelian, one of a series on the Roman Emperors from Pen & Sword/Casemate, offers the lay reader an excellent picture of the Crisis of the Third Century and the life and work of Aurelian, which can be read with profit by those with a more serious interest in the subject as well, though marred by some irrelevant attempts to draw parallels with the state of the modern world.


Note: The Roman Emperor Aurelian is also available in several e-editions.


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi   

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