Jan. 10, 2022

Last Of The Romans: Aurelian (Part 1)

In the late third century, The Roman empire teetered on the brink of total collapse.

Barbarian hordes pour over the deserted border fortresses. Plague ripples through the cities, while hyperinflation pushes the population into poverty.

The government is in freefall. Emperors are raised in rapid succession before being murdered and replaced with another.

It seemed that, finally after 700 years of prominence The Realm’s fall was imminent.

But at the 11th hour when all seemed lost, one man would breath new life into the dying state.

For his efforts, the senate would grant him the title Restitutor Orbis - Restorer Of The World.

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Additional Reading / Sources:



  • Paid Artlist.io license for 'Anthology Of Heroes Podcast' utilised for numerous sounds/music
  • The Ice Giants by Kevin MacLeod is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license.
    • https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
  • https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Aurelianus_Lucius_Domitius.jpg
  • A big thanks to the show Patreon, Claudia K for providing the imposing voice of Zenobia!


It's the third century AD.

The Roman Empire teeters on the brink of total collapse.

Barbarian hordes pour over the deserted fortresses of the northern border as plague ripples through

the cities, collapsing the economy.

Peasants and nobles alike rise up in fury against the increased taxation demanded from


Famine breaks out and the countryside turns into a no man's land.

Meanwhile at the top of the pile, the government turn on each other.

Emperors are raised in rapid succession before being murdered and replaced, with some ruling

for as few as 21 days.

Like rats on a sinking ship, prominent generals declare independence from the central government,

taking with them the rich provinces of central Gaul, Syria and Egypt.

With each passing day, the empire sinks deeper and deeper into debt, instability and pessimism.

It seemed that finally, after 700 years of prominence, the realm's fall was imminent.

But in an impoverished, rough tumble village in the Balkans, a newborn baby was wrenched

screaming into a harsh and uncertain world, and at the 11th hour, when all seemed lost,

it was he who would breathe new life into the dying state.

In just five years he would reinvigorate the army, stabilize the economy and force the

breakaway provinces to again recognize the supremacy of Rome.

For his efforts, the Senate would grant him the title, Restitutor Orbis, Restorer of the


My name's Elliot Gates, and you're listening to the first episode of the Anthology of Heroes

side project, Last of the Romans.

And this is the story of Emperor Aurelian, Restorer of the World.

Before we start today, I wanted to quickly explain what I'm trying to do with this little

side project.

I've always found the term, the last Roman, a really interesting topic.

What constitutes the last Roman?

The last emperor, maybe?

But the emperor of what?

The Western Roman Empire?

The Eastern Roman Empire?

The Holy Roman Empire?

Perhaps you'd say it was the last emperor who used Latin as a main language, or the

last emperor to exhibit Roman values, or the last one to worship the old pagan gods.

Already we've got a huge pool of candidates, right?

So I want to share with you my own short list of some that could fall into this category.

Hopefully you'll enjoy it.

I'm not planning on sidelining our regular coverage of global heroes, I'll just throw

in one of these every now and again.

Let's get started.

I want you to picture in your head ancient Rome.

Perhaps you're picturing gleaming marble columns, a public bath, stern looking legionnaires

standing in formation thousands strong.

Well that's Rome during the first emperor, a guy called Octavian, or Augustus, who ruled

around 20 BC.

Augustus pushed through countless reforms, speeding up communication between cities,

changing the civil service tax to become fairer, building new roads and much more.

During his rule, the Roman Empire stood alone on the world stage.

There was no other nation that could match it in terms of manpower, wealth or standard

of living.

But the first emperor's rise to power had broken something, something that could never

be repaired.

Rome was, or had been, prior to him, a republic.

Its leaders were elected, served terms and then stepped down.

While the system wasn't perfect, it was a law that had been in place for centuries.

Augustus and his uncle Julius Caesar had shown the Roman world, if you had a big enough army

behind you, moral conventions, law, none of it really mattered when push came to shove.

Augustus knew he danced a pretty fine line.

His rule was smooth because he kept the Roman Senate happy.

Dictator or not, these were still extremely powerful men and if they felt disrespected,

well things could get messy.

So he cleverly came up with a term to describe his unique position.

He was the princeps, meaning first among equals.

He was not a king or a dictator or a tyrant, he was just a teensy little bit elevated above

the Senate, at least that's how he wanted to seem.

So that was Augustus' rule, unprecedented yes, but it was good living so no one was

really complaining.

But fast forward a couple of decades later and we get Caligula, who hated the Senate

and went out of his way to ridicule them and flout his power.

I mean this guy got these poor old bastards to run beside his chariot just so he could

laugh at them.

He really thought he was untouchable, as long as he had his bodyguards with him, a group

of exceptionally skilled soldiers called the Praetorian Guard.

The commander of which he also mocked, teasing him and nicknaming him after Roman sex gods

and goddesses.

Probably not the wisest move towards someone who is in charge of your life.

Eventually this guy has enough and just straight up murders him.

And even though everyone hated Caligula and they were glad to see him go, it kind of sets

a precedent.

There was nothing immortal or divine about the emperor, he bled and died just like everyone


A few generations later, along comes Nero, same thing, Nero and his disgusting neckbeard

are murdered.

I mean he may have killed himself but if he did he was forced into it.

And as we keep moving through successive emperors, the role of the army in raising these men

up becomes more and more central, likewise it does in keeping them there.

The army starts to request more money and the emperors pay it.

I mean what choice did they have?

Meanwhile the Senate becomes less and less important.

They're still powerful men sure, but are they literally going to murder you if you

go against them?

Probably not.

In 96 AD the Roman Empire begins its longest period of prosperity.

For about 80 years the empire was ruled by a bunch of very talented and very able men.

One of them, a guy called Trajan, swelled the empire to the largest land area it will

ever reach.

The term Pax Romana or the piece of Rome was coined during this time.

What this meant was that the lands ruled by Rome were so safe that you could, in theory,

walk from Shiraz in modern day Iran to Glasgow in Scotland without anyone bothering you.

I mean you can't even do that now.

But these times couldn't last.

Talented emperors ruling in succession were partly a result of luck and the spell was

broken suddenly when the last of these emperors passed the reigns to his worthless son, a

guy called Commodus.

This guy really lost the plot, he was similar to Nero but probably a little worse.

I mean he renamed the Roman Empire the Colony of Commodus, changed all the days and months

to have his name in them, decided he was the reincarnation of Hercules, I mean the whole


And if you want to know what the Senate thought of him, well, he renamed them the Commodian

Fortunate Senate.

So I'll let you figure that one out for yourself.

Predictably someone murders this SOB and that sends the empire into a spiral.

Eventually a guy called Septimius Severus manages to hold on.

To give you a kind of an idea of what Severus was, a theory online says that JK Rowling

named the Harry Potter character Severus Snape after him and kind of based his personality

on it.

Severus was a military man.

To keep the army loyal to him, starting with his reign, emperors began to promise more

and more pay to the legions.

The army becomes the most important thing.

If you need any confirmation, on his deathbed Severus tells his sons, quote, enrich the

soldiers and despise everything else, end quote.

Not long after, in a single year, there is five emperors, all of which were murdered

in quick succession.

To make matters worse, one of them is called Pupianus, yeah, that's his real name, dire

times indeed.

The state coffers, filled to the brink after decades of prosperity, are drained quickly

and it's around here where the wheels really start to fall off.

We can't talk about rubbish emperors without skipping Elagabalus, can we?

Can we?

No, no, no, you've got to hear this, sorry.

Elagabalus was a horny little deviant from Syria.

At around 16 years old, he fell into favour with the army after convincing them that he

was a distant relation of one of the better emperors of the past.

His men proclaim him emperor and the Senate, which is really just a rubber stamp at this

point agrees.

As German historian, Barthold George Niebuhr put it, in his four year reign, the 16 year

old emperor lived a quote, unspeakably disgusting life, end quote.

That may sound like some pretty rough character assassination and it's true that some of these

accounts come from senators who really hated him, but I mean, this kid had sex with everyone

and everything.

He married several people, a couple of women, but mostly men, and made sure he was portrayed

as the wife at all ceremonies, not exactly fitting with the strong masculine energy Rome

liked to portray itself as.

Provincial governors were apparently given command based on how big their dicks were

and finding the routine of signing petitions and amending laws incredibly boring, the emperor

instead, prostituted himself at brothels and searched in vain for a doctor who could perform

surgery to give him a vagina.

All this left little time for actually administering the empire.

So while the emperor or empress, as he usually liked to be called, busied himself with his

hobbies, corruption skyrocketed as his favorites took the reins of power.

Elagabalus was killed eventually and the pendulum almost immediately swung back to men from

military backgrounds.

And if the Senate ever tried to raise up one of their own, well, they usually didn't last

a year.

So I've covered about 200 years of very detailed Roman history in a few minutes.

So Mike Duncan, if you ever listened to this, I apologize profusely for the oversimplification.

So what we've talked about is what's happening internally within the borders that Rome controlled.

The empire was huge, yes, but there was a whole outside world, a world that had definitely

not remained static while emperors wrestled with each other for control or searched in

vain for doctors who could perform vaginoplasty.

When I spoke about the Roman army before, I spoke about it almost like they were created

just to fight other Roman contenders, but this definitely wasn't their original purpose.

When not in campaign, the legions were stationed on the frontiers, the borders of where Roman

civilization ended and so-called barbarism began.

In this episode, we'll be focusing on the two most volatile ones, the eastern border,

loosely from the Black Sea coast of modern Georgia down to the bottom of the modern Suez

Canal and the northern border, the Rhine-Danube border, roughly the eastern borders of Germany

following the Danube River down through Romania until you hit the Black Sea.

As of 211 AD, there were something like 16 of the 32 legions Rome controlled stationed

along the northern border.

To give you a frame of reference, across all of Rome and Africa, there were two.

Even at the best of times, the northern border was hectic, but with so many challenges to

the throne, many of the would-be emperor generals began to pull troops back.

A few angry Germans terrorizing the border towns versus a shot at becoming emperor?

I know, I'll put my money, right?

The thing about the borders were they weren't designed to be crossed, meaning that once

a raiding party trampled over an undermanned guard post, they really had free reign of

the empire.

It could take weeks for a centralized army to arrive, and by that time, they'd already

have headed back with as much loot as they could carry.

Once these boys headed home, sat down over a horn of mead and let their Nordic brothers

know what was happening down south, well, it was just open season.

Raging parties start to turn from one chief and a few hundred of his men into serious


I mean, these guys were pushing down from Germany to the borders of Spain, Romania,

and the coasts of Greece.

Hell, I mean, they're even getting in boats and heading across the Black Sea, Viking style.

In the year 251 AD, Emperor Decius puts together an army to push one of these, you know, hordes


And, well, I'll let Byzantine historian Zosimith tell it, quote,

Proceeding, therefore, incautiously in an unknown place, he and his army became entangled

in the mire, and under that disadvantage were so assailed by the missiles of the barbarians

that not one of them escaped with life.

Thus ended the life of the excellent Emperor Decius, end quote.

Covered in mud and grime, Decius becomes the first Roman emperor ever to die in battle

with a foreign enemy.

And this kind of thing just keeps happening more and more.

And when the central government is busy, when the armies are already dealing with another

threat, the provincial commanders are pretty much told, well, you're on your own, best

of luck.

Leaving them to try and pay off the invaders or scrape together an army to fight them.

Which of course weakens trust and makes these provinces feel like they're on their own.

What's the point of paying taxes to the emperor if he leaves you high and dry?

So that was the Germanic frontier, but over in the east there was an arguably an even

greater threat.

As I said, this border was loosely from the Black Sea coast of modern Georgia down to

the mouth of the Suez Canal.

And on the other side of this lay the closest thing Rome had to a rival, the Parthian Empire.

These guys were originally a Central Asian tribe who had supplanted the Persian Empire

that had been there before them.

The Parthians were not equal with the Roman Empire, but if Rome was preoccupied they could

probably cause a bit of damage.

While the Roman government was struggling to get the little pervert Elagabalus out of

power, the Parthian dynasty had been replaced by a much more warlike and aggressive one,

the Sassanids.

These Sassanids were a Persian dynasty and made no secret of their desire to recreate

the ancient Achaemenid Empire, the one that Alexander the Great had destroyed so decisively.

And so the revitalized Persians quickly realize that their western neighbors are not having

an easy time lately and ratchet up the pressure.

The founder of the new dynasty advances into Rome's eastern provinces, but they repulse.

They try again, and a few cities have traded back and forth over the years, you could say.

In the year 244 though, there seems to have been a fairly significant loss to the Persians

– and I say seems because good sources around this period are few and far between.

But to this day, in modern Iran, a huge Persian rock relief exists showing the Sassanid ruler

– a guy called Shapur I – mounted on a horse trampling the body of Emperor Gordian

III, while the new Roman Emperor Philip begs on hands and knees for clemency.

There's a picture of this on our Instagram page, at anthologyofheroes or one word.

Did this event ever really take place?

Historian David Porter says probably not, stating that Gordian likely died in a mutiny

at the hands of his men.

But the guy begging for clemency at the ruler's feet?

Well kinda.

Philip did indeed pay up and cede a significant portion of land to the Persians.

Like every other emperor at this time, he knew the army was required in so many different

places at once he had to prioritize where to use them.

With the prestige of defeating the mighty Roman Empire in a pitched battle, Shapur sets

himself on the warpath.

A decade or so later, he actually manages to capture the emperor in battle.

In what was becoming a horrifying century of firsts, Emperor Valerian is taken prisoner

after a disastrous defeat.

Accounts differ as to the treatment he received – some stating that he was treated well

by Shapur, but others, oh boy.

There's tales of Shapur using the 60 year old emperor as his footstool to help him reach

his horse.

Others speak of him being kept in a cage and humiliated whenever the Persian had some spare


In the end he died in captivity and according to one source, his skin was flayed from his

body, stuffed with straw and kept as a grisly trophy for the bloodthirsty king.

The news of an emperor actually being captured was a hammer blow to Roman psyche and morale.

What was happening to our world?

This must have been the underlying thought of Postumus, a Roman commander who was stationed

in Gaul along the northern frontier.

He had done an admirable job of holding back the German tide and with each passing year

had less and less resources and men allocated to him.

After defeating a large German raid that had pushed all the way into Italy, he began to

distribute the loot to his men when an order came from the emperor's son.

The order made it clear that the captured booty was the property of the state and not

of Postumus and his men.

Well that was the final straw.

This recently ascended nobody who had provided them no assistance was now demanding they

return the loot they earned.

At the assistance of his troops, Postumus declared himself emperor.

Over the next ten years he would solidify his territory, effectively ruling all of France

and Britain and a little bit of Germany.

Breaking with tradition though, he never marched on Rome or tried to annex the rest of the


He was content to hold on to power in the area historians now call the Gallic Empire,

Gaul being the name of the Roman province of France.

Postumus would prove a slippery enemy.

The string of Roman emperors in Rome always had reintegrate Gaul on their to-do list but

with so much going on they never end up getting around to it.

Though he would be murdered ten years into his reign, he had established a precedent.

Even if the emperor in Rome refused to admit it, Gaul was no longer a part of the Roman


Almost as if watching everything unfold in Gaul, similar events had begun to take place

in the east.

The empire was full of talented military men, but much to the government's chagrin, talent

usually went hand in hand with ambition.

This man's name was Odaenathus, Odaenathus.

Now Odaenathus was in fantastic standing with the emperor.

After the Persian capture of Emperor Valerian, you remember the human footstool from earlier,

while pumped up with Roman pride, Odaenathus led his veteran troops into Persia and absolutely

walloped the Persian king of kings, returned home, quelled a rebellion before again returning

to Persia and recovering a few Roman cities.

Talk about a good guy, hey?

The new emperor heaped all kinds of exceptional titles on him.

Box, Imperator, Corrector, all of these were out of the ordinary for a governor and reflect

the gratitude felt by the state.

But then, after his conquest of Persia, he took a bit of a strange title for himself.

Odaenathus declared himself king of kings.


You can see where this is going, right?

Overwhelmed with so many other problems, the emperor really had no choice.

With rebellions and raids running right across his empire, he had to validate the cocky pretender.

Fine, you can be king of kings, but that's it, right?


Once again he probably figured, yeah I'll sort that out later, but for so many of these

emperors there was no later.

Everything not marked urgent was just added to this ever-growing backlog of eventual issues.

And while all this was happening, of course, plague broke out.

Sources are scarce about how bad this actually was, but a contemporary speaks of around 5,000

people a day dying in Rome alone, and it was truly a perfect storm.

But as they say, it's always darkest before the light.

But first, a quick message from one of our friends of the show.

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Canada, and Mexico, from their deep origins to our present epoch.

Join me, Marc Vinette, on this exciting, fascinating, epic journey through time, focusing on the

compelling, wonderful, and tragic stories of North America's inhabitants, heroes, villains,

leaders, environment, and geography.

The History of North America podcast series is an incredible historical adventure that

chronicles the thrilling, action-packed tale of a continent.

I invite you to come along for the ride.

So finally we can get into the man this episode was meant to be about.

I know that's probably the biggest intro I've ever done before actually introducing

the subject matter, but if I just gave a 20-second spiel, things were really bad for Rome, yeah,

lots of barbarians, bit of plague, couple of rebellions, it doesn't really cut just

how dire things were, does it?

In the year 270 AD, Emperor Quintilius dies, probably murdered.

Quintilius was one of the senators men, silly senators, they should know by this point,

you've got to ask the army first.

Anyway, after his death, the army raises up one of their own.

His name was Lucius Domitius Aurelianus, but we'll be referring to him as Aurelian.

Now Aurelian's early life is murky, he probably grew up somewhere in the Balkans.

I've seen a few people online say Serbia, but to be fair, most of those people were

Serbian and everyone seems to want a claim to this guy's homeland.

Wherever it was, the general consensus is that he came from quite a modest background.

Probably he was the son of a farmer.

There's a tonne of anecdotal stories about his mother knitting in purple clothes as an

infant predicting his rise to fame, but a lot of this fantastical narrative comes from

his biographer who was a huge flatterer of his and very biased.

We do know that, from the pantheon of Roman gods, he lent his favour to Sol, or Sol Invictus,

the unconquered son.

This deity probably came from Syria originally and was related to the god that dirty old

Elagabalus introduced during his reign.

Sol Invictus was also a bit of a working class god, usually favoured by lower class members

of Roman society, which ties well into the thought that Aurelian didn't come from much.

Appearance wise, the young man was described as, quote, combly, good to look upon, with

manly grace, tall in stature and possessed by many strong muscles, end quote.

At around 20 years old he joined the legions as a rank and file foot soldier, meaning he

began his career when things really began to go off the rails for the empire.

Very early on he would have noticed he was spending more and more time fighting fellow

Romans who served usurper emperors compared to, say, barbarians.

That's not to say he didn't do his share of that either.

From foot soldier he quickly proved himself, being given the nickname Aurelianus Manu ad

Ferum, literally Aurelian hand to sword.

Aurelian was a harsh man to be sure.

Some would say cruel.

His biographers used terms like severe, incorruptible, stern, bloodthirsty and excessive.

These are not descriptors that would endear you to the public, but that was just fine

with him.

He was a conservatively minded man.

I guess you could say he was a bit of a Roman patriot who strived to restore the law and

order and discipline that existed before these troubles started.

The only thing he hated more than corruption was challenges to the power of Rome.

There is a heap of unsubstantiated stories about Aurelian's rise to power and the historical

record is just so spotty around this time, but there's mention of him playing a pivotal

role in defeating several German tribal confederations, notably the Suebi, who were based around

modern Chechia and the Sarmatians from around modern Ukraine.

By all accounts, he was a very firm commander.

He tolerated no nonsense from his men.

His entire life had been spent in the military, so he was used to finding military solutions

for all problems, even ones where diplomacy might have sufficed.

One of the sources I used for this episode comes from a biography by Flavius Vopiscus.

He's usually a real flatterer of Aurelian, but even he can't help out to point the rigidness

of the man, quote, Though at other times a most excellent man, he did in fact employ

his power too much like a tyrant, for in slaying the leaders of the revolts he used too bloody

a method of checking what should have been cured by milder means, end quote.

Eventually he works his way into a senior position as a cavalry commander and is so

successful in his efforts that after a particularly impressive victory he's adopted into a well-respected

Roman family, the same family that put out Emperor Trajan, one of the greats.

Adopting was a common practice in the empire and a useful way to get yourself some family

pedigree quickly.

There's a lot of debate about whether this event actually happened, but even if it didn't,

Aurelian rose fast until the next two emperors, especially under Claudius.

Before long he was magister equitum of the Roman army, commanding the entirety of the

empire's cavalry and second only to the emperor himself.

Claudius and Aurelian together manage a few victories against the rampaging armies of

Germans in northern Italy, and then another few close shaves with the Goths and the Balkans.

Not every battle is a victory, and in case you haven't noticed, these engagements are

now no longer anywhere near the Rhine border.

These tribal confederations are just charging across the frontier, hitting up the soft rich

underbelly of the empire, areas like Italy or Greece that are not used to raids and don't

really have much in the way of fortifications to defend them.

Claudius soon falls sick, possibly of the plague, leaving his protege as the sole commander

of the army.

And Aurelian doesn't disappoint.

Hammering the huge Gothic army as it begins to retreat, he splits the confederation forcing

them into smaller bands which were much easier for him and his men to deal with.

With decades of military experience under his belt, and perhaps with a family name to

boost his credibility, Aurelian makes a run for the top job.

Claudius dies and smelling an opportunity, his brother Quintilius jumps in to fill the

void, with the Senate backing him.


I mean, you'd think they would have figured out how things work by now, right?

The army, of course, refuses to ratify the Senate's choice.

Quintilius is killed, or kills himself, and a 56 year old Aurelian grabs the reins of

a very, very shaky Roman Empire.

To all contemporaries of the time, there was no reason to think Aurelian's rule would

be any different from the string of military dictators who had been raised to the purple

before him.

Setting a tone for his rule, he skipped the traditional ceremony where an emperor would

formally greet the senators.

This wasn't a deliberate slight against them, he just didn't have time, or said

differently, their opinion was so irrelevant to him he didn't make time.

Springing into action he ambushed the Juthungi, a tribe originating from southern Germany.

The barbarians were on their way back home, and after a successful loot run they were

slowed down by all the plunder they'd taken.

The new emperor knew an opportunity when he saw one.

He hid his army in the tree lines on both sides of the river, and then waited for the

ambassadors to present themselves before him.

The Juthungi, like many other tribes, had enjoyed years of being paid tribute by previous

emperors in exchange for peace.

Inconvenienced and unimpressed by this interruption to their raid, the barbarian ambassadors swagged

into the negotiation tent to meet this newly minted so-called emperor.

But something was different.

The balance of power was immediately skewed.

Far from greeting the ambassadors as equals, Aurelian sat apathetically on an elevated


Draped in purple, sitting underneath the famous Roman eagles, he was flanked by pristinely

dressed officers proudly displaying the standards of Roman greats.

The eyes of Trajan, Hadrian, Augustus, and Marcus Aurelius reminded these barbarians

that they were not, and never would be, equal to Rome.

Shuffling uncomfortably, the ambassadors broke the silence and tried to rebalance things.

Bragging about the strength of the numbers they could bring, they said they were prepared

to make peace with the empire again if they would agree to reinstate the tribute payment.

From his elevated throne, the emperor lambasted the envoys for breaking their truce, and pretty

much said to them, surrender or suffer under the might of Rome.

Slinking away, the Juthungi ambassadors prepared for battle.

Aurelian with his vanguard quickly departed for Rome as, at this very moment, another

German tribe was threatening the capital itself.

Zipping back, he left his generals to spring the trap and smash the Juthungi.

But for all his talk about the superiority of Rome, most of the enemy tribe broke free

of his encirclement and made their way south, heading towards Italy to do some revenge plundering.

If you want something done right, I guess you've got to do it yourself.

Aurelian and his vanguard turned right around and beat them back, sending them across the

Rhine relieved of whatever plunder they stole.

Racing back to Rome, he flies through the motions of a formal crowning the emperor kind

of ceremony with the senate, and then readies the army for its next challenge.

This other Germanic tribe that were threatening the capital were known as the Alemanni.

Fun fact, in Spanish, Arabic, and probably a few other languages, Germany is referred

to as Alemania, which kind of goes to show this tribe definitely left their mark on history

in some way.

So sometime around winter in the year 270, Aurelian meets the ambassadors of the Wayward

tribe and tells them, quote, If you want to fight, I am prepared, but you would do better

to surrender, and I give guarantees as your lord, end quote.

Guarantee of safety, he means.

But the Germans won't hear it, and somehow they manage to lure Aurelian's army into

a forest.

In case you didn't hear what happened in Teutoburg Forest, the legions generally don't

do well in forests.

Aurelian's army is ripped apart by the ambush, and they only just manage a retreat back across

the frontier.

The Alemanni, emboldened by their success, fan out into smaller groups and pillage the

rich countryside of northern Italy.

Once again, the smaller groups prove easy picking for Aurelian's army, and few make

it back home.

It was a victory, but a costly one.

For the third time in only a decade or two, Rome itself had been seriously threatened

by external enemies.

The only time Rome had been sacked in living memory was almost 700 years ago, in the very

early days of the Republic.

Historically, this kind of thing just didn't happen.

But now, with enormous federations of tribes charging through the countryside, there was

a need to defend the Queen of Cities.

Aurelian constructs an impressive set of walls around the city, a lot of which still stand


Many other major cities that once relied on frontier garrisons to keep them safe follow

this example.

As the Emperor finished the construction of his walls, he was acutely aware that every

one of his actions was being closely observed by power-hungry rivals.

Each setback greatly raised the chance of defections, which could trigger a chain reaction

of more defections.

Aurelian walked a tightrope across the world stage.

In the Far East, there was one who watched the act closer than all others.


Her name was Zenobia.


Zenobia had been on the scene for a while, but I wanted to wait until now to introduce

her properly as one of the main characters in the story.

Zenobia was the de facto ruler of Roman Palmyra, the rich, far eastern province of the Empire

that bordered Sassanid Persia.

She was the wife of Odinathas who we mentioned earlier in the episode.

After the assassination of her husband, she had taken over command, supposedly acting

as a regent for their young son.

It's difficult to understate just how important and impressive of a ruler Zenobia was.

Like her late husband, she probably came from good Roman and Palmyra stock.

She had a shaky grip on Latin but was fluent in Greek, Egyptian and Aramaic.

From her earlier days, she fanned rumours that she was descended from the House of Seleucid,

one of the successors of Alexander the Great.

Like her, she was equally keen to draw parallels between herself and the legendary Queen Cleopatra.

She was intelligent, courageous, politically shrewd and beautiful.

All contemporaries that write about her go to great lengths to emphasise her chastity,

which is rare when these guys describe a powerful woman, and especially rare when describing

a powerful woman of eastern descent.

Though her rule officially started at the death of her husband in 267, judging by how

well she managed after his death, it's probably fair to say that she had a good deal of input

into government affairs long before his passing.

Aurelian would have heard whispers of this tenacious and ambitious Queen of the East,

but at least for now, she was remaining loyal to the new emperor, although she did have

a troubling habit of printing coins with both her portrait and Aurelian's portrait.

A troubling development that he would need to keep an eye on.

And that my friends is where I leave you today, but don't fret, I'll be back to bring you

the second and final part of this story as the restorer of the world manages to fight

off enemies from every side at once while stabilising the economy and reforming the

government before his abrupt end that came all too soon.

But since it's Christmas in five days, here's a bizarre link between Aurelian and Christmas


Aurelian's chosen god, Solon Victus, held its most important feast day on the 25th of


As Solon Victus was one of the largest cults of the Roman Empire prior to the introduction

of Christianity, there's serious historical speculation that the date marked as Jesus'

birth date was actually just the early church's way of assimilating this pagan holiday into

a Christian one.

So whether you're tucking into some turkey with your family or having a quiet one on

your own, spare a thought for your boy Aurelian, knee deep in dismembered Goths fighting for

the glory of Rome.

And if that isn't the true meaning of Christmas, I don't know what is.

Happy Christmas wherever you are, and thanks for listening.