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Aurelian (A.D. 270-275)

[An  additional entry on this emperor's life (in French) is available in DIR Archives]
Christian Körner

University of Bern


1. AURELIAN (A.D. 270-275)

Coin with the image of Aurelian (c)1999 Princeton Economic Institute

1.1. Sources

The main sources for the reign of Aurelian were written about one hundred years afterwards, in the second half of the 4th century: Aurelius Victor (whose description is partly lost [[1]]), Eutropius and the Historia Augusta, a collection of imperial biographies which combines fiction and fact [[2]]. Two Byzantine sources, Zosimus (5th-6th century) and Zonaras (11th-12th century), are also very important for Aurelian's reign. Inscriptions and coins provide additional information.

1.2. Birth and origins, career before 270 (A.D. 214/215-270)

Lucius Domitius Aurelianus was born on the 9th of September 214 or 215 in either Dacia ripensis or in Sirmium (modern Sremska Mitrovica, in Pannonia), i.e.
in the region of today's northern Serbia, southern Romania, and western
Bulgaria[[3]]. He was of humble origins, his father being a colonus (tenant) of a senator named Aurelius [[4]]. Aurelian had a military career; as dux equitum (commander of the cavalry), he joined the conspiracy against the emperor Gallienus in A.D. 268 and supported the new ruler Claudius II Gothicus, under whose reign he continued his career, becoming supreme commander of the whole cavalry of the Roman army [[5]].

1.3. Ascent to power (A.D. 270)

Claudius died of the plague in September A.D. 270; his brother Quintillus became his successor. But the soldiers in Sirmium revolted and proclaimed Aurelian emperor in May or September of that same year [[6]]. He defeated Quintillus and was confirmed by the senate after Quintillus had died under obscure circumstances [[7]]. The official propaganda claimed that on his deathbed Claudius II had designated Aurelian as his successor [[8]]; Aurelian later (perhaps in A.D. 272) placed his dies imperii on the day of Claudius' death, thereby dismissing Quintillus as a mere usurper [[9]].

1.4. The years 270 and 271

Aurelian spent the winter 270/271 in Rome. In A.D. 270 or 271, he fought in Northern Italy and in the Danube region against the tribes of the Vandals, Juthungi and Sarmatians [[10]]. (This was the last time that German tribes invaded Italy before the raid of Alaric and his Visigoths in A.D. 401.) The extreme pressure on the Roman Empire resulting from these invasions caused several rebellions: Septiminus or Septimius, Urbanus, and Domitianus revolted, and it seems that also Felicissimus'rebellion is to be dated to the beginning of Aurelian's reign (see below chapters 2-3 and 5-6).

1.5. The years 271 and 272

In A.D. 271, Aurelian received the title Germanicus maximus and entered his first consulate [[11]]. Returning to Rome for the winter 271/272, he initiated work on the Aurelian wall, in part still visible today. He also fortified other Italian cities, e.g. Pisaurum and Fanum Fortunae [[12]]. His coins of this early phase clearly show that he promoted the army: they bear legends like concordia exercitum / militum / legionum, fides militum, virtus militum / equitum, thereby celebrating the unity, loyalty and bravery of the soldiers. Other coins emphasize the region where Aurelianus was born and later proclaimed emperor: genius Illyrici, virtus Illyrici. In A.D. 272, he had to fight the Goths, and thus assuming the title Gothicus maximus [[13]]. He abandoned the province of Dacia north of the Danube. As a compensation for the settlers that had left the abandoned province and to conceal the shame of abandoning Roman territory, he created a new province Dacia on the safer southern bank of the Danube on the territory of the provinces of Moesia and Thracia [[14]]. The capital of this new province was Serdica (today Sofia), where a mint was opened in A.D. 272. This new province was important for Aurelian's prestige: Since he had abandoned Roman territory, he had to create a new Dacia to replace the lost province.

1.6. The Palmyrene war (A.D. 272-273)

Aurelian's next project was the reintegration of the Eastern provinces into the Roman Empire [[15]]: Zenobia of Palmyra and her son Vaballathus had established the Palmyrene Empire extending from Egypt to Asia Minor. When Aurelian came to power in A.D. 270, he first seems to have reached an agreement with the Palmyrenes since he was too weak to fight them: Vaballathus in his coinage recognized Aurelian as emperor, but also called himself rex and imperator[[16]]. When Aurelian felt strong enough, he started his campaign. Marching through Asia Minor, he faced little resistance except for the city of Tyana [[17]]. He was eager to show himself willing to gain the loyalty of the Easterners. In the summer of A.D. 272, Aurelian defeated the Palmyrene army near Antiochia (perhaps at Immae). Zenobia and her general Zabdas flew to Emesa where Aurelian again defeated their army [[18]]. Afterwards, he besieged and conquered Palmyra in the Syrian desert. Zenobia tried to escape to the Persians (who had supported her), but was captured at the Euphrates [[19]]. The emperor spared her life, but the philosopher Longinus and other friends of hers whom she betrayed to Aurelian were put to death [[20]]. Aurelianus assumed the titles Parthicus maximus and Persicus maximus and was hailed as restitutor Orientis.

Returning to the west, Aurelian defeated the tribe of the Carpi in the Danube region in A.D. 273 and settled some of them in the Empire, assuming the title Carpicus maximus [[21]]. In the meantime, the Palmyrenes had revolted again under a man named Apsaeus. First, they tried to convince Marcellinus, governor of the province of Mesopotamia, to become emperor. But Marcellinus informed Aurelian of the rebellion. The Palmyrenes therefore proclaimed Antiochus emperor. This Antiochus may be identical with the Septimius Antiochus who is called son of Zenobia in an inscription [[22]]. Aurelian conquered the city again and destroyed it. He also suppressed the revolt of Firmus (see below chapter 4) in Egypt. Roman rule in the East was now established firmly. The emperor celebrated his triumph in Rome (see below chapter 1.7.).

1.7. The war against the Gallic Empire (A.D. 274)

In A.D. 274, Aurelian entered his second consulate and now turned towards the west, where the Gallic provinces had formed an empire of their own in A.D. 260. In a battle at the Catalaunian fields (Châlons-sur-Marne), the emperor of the Gallic Empire, Esuvius Tetricus, deserted his troops and allied with Aurelian, who defeated Tetricus' army [[23]]. After this victory, Gallia and Britannia were reintegrated into the Roman Empire. Aurelian celebrated his second triumph, where he is said to have presented Zenobia and Tetricus, and called himself restitutor orbis [[24]]. Tetricus afterwards became corrector of Lucania, while Zenobia is said to have lived near Rome [[25]].

1.8. The years 274 and 275

After the culmination of the crisis that had started in the fifties and sixties of the third century with the emergence of the Gallic and the Palmyrene Empires, Roman rule was now consolidated again. The emperor initiated necessary reforms in the interior. A monetary reform was enforced [[26]]. People had lost their faith in the antoninianus, a consequence of the swift depreciation during the third century: The antoninianus was officially worth two denars but the governments had debased its weight and its value. The main aim of Aurelian's reform was to reestablish the trust of the people in the antoninianus [[27]].

The emperor tried to achieve more unity in the Empire by establishing Sol invictus as supreme god of the Roman Empire. On coins, Sol is called Dominus imperi Romani. A priesthood called "priests of the Sun-god" was created. At the end of A.D.274, perhaps on the 25th of December (Sol's alleged birthday), he inaugurated the new temple of the Sun-god in Rome on the eastern Campus Martius (today between the Via del Corso and the Piazza San Silvestro). Annual ludi and an agon Solis every fourth year were being held in honor of the Sun-god [[28]]. Aurelian also restored discipline in the army [[29]].

Aurelian was married to Ulpia Severina (her name is only known from inscriptions and coins) and had a daughter. In autumn A.D. 274, Ulpia received the title Augusta [[30]]. The empress bore also the title mater castrorum et senatus et patriae, known from the Severan empresses and from Otacilia Severa, the wife of Philippus the Arabian [[31]]. Perhaps, Ulpia Severina was the daughter of  the Ulpius Crinitus who is mentioned in the Historia Augusta. Ulpius Crinitus is said to have stemmed from the emperor Trajan and to have adopted Aurelian [[32]]. The whole story and perhaps even the person seem to be invented with the aim to connect Aurelian with the "good emperor" Trajan[[33]].

1.9. Aurelian's end (A.D. 275)

In A.D. 275, Aurelian, by now consul for the third time, suppressed revolts in Gaul and fought invading barbarians in Vindelicia (southern Germany today) [[34]]. He now planned to march against the Persians [[35]]. On his way to Byzantium, he was murdered in September or October 275 at Caenophrurium (between Perinthus and Byzantium). The emperor's secretary had planned a conspiracy, telling the officers of the Praetorian Guard  falsely that Aurelian was about to kill them; the troops therefore murdered Aurelian. The secretary probably had economic motives: He felt threatened by the emperor's actions against corruption [[36]]. According to Eusebius, Aurelian's death prevented a persecution of the Christians which the emperor had planned[[37]]. The damnatio memoriae seems to have been inflicted on Aurelian for a short time, as some inscriptions seem to indicate, but later he was consecrated as Divus Aurelianus [[38]].

Ulpia Severina may have reigned for a short time  until Tacitus was elected as successor of Aurelian, since some of her coins seem to have been minted after Aurelian's death [[39]]. In any case, the sources claim that there was a short interregnum between the reign of Aurelian and the election of Tacitus[[40]]. Aurelian, an excellent general, had a disciplined and upright character, but was also severe[[41]]. He tried to proceed against the corruption of the revenue-officers and the provincial governors [[42]]. Loved by his troops, he was not as popular with the senate (see also below under chapter 3) which may be the reason why his deification was delayed. Many of his reforms and measures anticipate late antiquity: the military reorganization, new forms of protecting the frontiers, the monetary reforms, his religious policy that was directed to religious unity, the elevation of the ruler. (Aurelian appears already in his lifetime, A.D. 274, on coins of Serdica as deus et dominus natus, "God and born ruler", although he did not bear this title officially [[43]].) In the Epitome de Caesaribus, his achievements are compared to those of Alexander the Great and Caesar [[44]].

2. DOMITIANUS (CA. A.D. 270/271)

Domitianus was proclaimed emperor at the beginning of Aurelian's reign, but killed soon afterwards [[45]]. His rebellion seems to have been the result of the barbaric invasions at the beginning of Aurelian's reign (see above chapter 1.4.) [[46]]. He perhaps is to be identified with the general Domitianus who is said to have defeated the Macriani about A.D. 261 [[47]]. The discovery of a second specimen (2004) of a coin minted in the name of Domitianus strengthens the view that  Domitianus was acclaimed emperor. [[48]].


Felicissimus was chief (rationalis) of the fiscus under Aurelian [[49]]. He instigated his employees to forge coins. When this was disclosed, he started a revolt on the mons Caelius [[50]]. The imperial troops could suppress this revolt only with difficulty [[51]]. Felicissimus died in the struggle [[52]]. Several senators and equites seem to have been involved in the uprising; in any case, Aurelian executed several senators [[53]]. No source mentions that Felicissimus tried to become emperor, nor are there any extant coins minted in his name [[54]]. According to the sequence of events as narrated by Aurelius Victor, the revolt could be dated after the defeat of Tetricus and before the inauguration of the temple of Sol, i.e. in A.D. 274. But perhaps A.D. 271 is to be preferred, since in A.D. 274, Aurelian was in firm control of the Empire, having defeated the invading tribes and the Gallic and Palmyrene Empire.   Moreover, the mint in Rome seems to have stopped its work for some time before the monetary reform in A.D. 274, which could be a consequence of the rebellion.   Finally, according to Zosimus and the Historia Augusta, there was unrest only at the beginning of Aurelian's reign [[55]].

4. FIRMUS (A.D. 273)

Firmus, a salesman from Seleukeia, was very rich because of his business connections, which expanded as far as India [[56]]. He was a friend of Zenobia.   After the second defection of Palmyra, he instigated a revolt in Alexandria in A.D. 273 to support the Palmyrenes, interrupting the corn supply for Rome. Aurelian suppressed the revolt and Firmus was killed [[57]]. In fact, Firmus was never proclaimed emperor [[58]]. His extant coins have been proved to be forgeries [[59]].

From Ammianus and Zosimus, it is certain that there was unrest in Egypt following the defeat of Palmyra. But neither historian  mentions Firmus. Bowman proposes an interesting hypothesis: The Egyptian papyri of the time mention an  (corrector) named Claudius Firmus. A corrector could be appointed to deal with upheaval in a province. Perhaps, this was also the reason for the appointment of the corrector Firmus: in that case, he would not have instigated the revolt, but have been appointed to suppress it. The anonymous author of the Historia Augusta on the other hand could have been inspired to invent a usurper "Firmus" because there was an African rebel named Firmus under the reign of Valerian; the anonymous author therefore would have invented the usurper Firmus under Aurelian by transposing several elements known from two totally different persons [[60]].

5. SEPTIMIUS (CA. A.D. 271/272)

Septimius (or Septiminius, as some manuscripts of the Epitome de Caesaribus read [[61]]) was proclaimed emperor about A.D. 271/2 in Dalmatia, perhaps because the region was threatened by the Gothic invasions. Septimius was killed soon afterwards by his own troops [[62]].

6. URBANUS (CA. A.D. 271/272)

Urbanus revolted against Aurelianus ca. A.D. 271/272, but was killed soon afterwards [[63]]. It has been suggested that the person may be invented [[64]].


7.1. Abbreviations and general works


          Aufstieg und Niedergang der Römischen Welt. Geschichte und Kultur          Rom  im Spiegel der neueren Forschung, ed. by H. Temporini and W. Haase, Berlin / New York 1972ff.

Barbieri, 1952:

G. Barbieri, L’albo senatorio da Settimio Severo a Carino (193-285), Roma 1952 (Studi pubblicati dall’Istituto Italiano per la Storia Antica, Fasc. 6). DNP: Der Neue Pauly. Enzyklopädie der Antike, ed. by H. Cancik and H. Schneider, Stuttgart / Weimar 1996ff. Hartmann, 1982: F. Hartmann, Herrscherwechsel und Reichskrise. Untersuchungen zu den Ursachen und Konsequenzen der Herrscherwechsel im Imperium Romanum der Soldatenkaiserzeit (3. Jahrhundert n. Chr.), Frankfurt a. M. / Bern 1982 (Europäische Hochschulschriften, Ser. 3, Vol. 149). Kienast, 1996: D. Kienast, Römische Kaisertabelle. Grundzüge einer römischen Kaiserchronologie, Darmstadt 21996. KlP: Der Kleine Pauly. Lexikon der Antike, ed. by K. Ziegler and W. Sontheimer, Stuttgart 1964ff. Peachin, 1990: M. Peachin, Roman imperial titulature and chronology, A.D. 235-284, Amsterdam 1990 (Studia Amstelodamensia ad Epigraphicam, Ius Antiquum et Papyrologiacam pertinentia, Vol. 29). PG: Patrologia Graeca PIR and PIR2: P. von Rohden / H. Dessau, Prosopographia Imperii Romani Saec. I.II.III, Berlin 1897ff.

E. Groag / A. Stein (continued by others), Prosopographia Imperii Romani Saec. I.II.III, 2nd edition, Berlin / Leipzig 1933ff.

PLRE: A. H. M. Jones / J. R. Martindale / J. Morris, The Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire, Vol. I: A.D. 260-395, Cambridge 1971. RE: Paulys Realencyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft, ed. by G. Wissowa (continued by others), Stuttgart 1893ff. RIC: H. Mattingly / E. A. Sydenham, The Roman Imperial Coinage, Vol. V, Part I, London 1927.

P. H. Webb, The Roman Imperial Coinage, Vol. V, Part II, London 1933.

s.v.: sub voce 7.2. Sources 7.3. Aurelianus and Ulpia Severina 7.4. Domitianus 7.5. Felicissimus 7.6. Firmus 7.7. Septimius 7.8. Urbanus
Copyright (C) 2001, Christian Körner. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.

Comments to: Christian Körner

Updated:20 July 2001

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