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An Alternate History of the Roman Empire: The Romans Reunite

By Tim Venning

Coins depicting Aurelian's victory over the Palmyrene Empire. Image shared under the CC BY-SA 3.0 licence

This Series of Articles discusses a hypothetical history of the Roman Empire wherein Marcus Aurelius lives longer and so it's more stable. In the first seven articles this took us to 270.

In spring 270, the Germans escaped through the Roman blockade in bad weather and struggled North East across Thrace, pursued by the Imperial army. As the plague struck again, Claudius became ill and retired to Sirmium leaving the campaign to Aurelian. He pursued the Germans and succeeded in breaking them up into smaller bands which were hunted down. Gradually the enemy was destroyed and Thrace and Moesia were cleared. Claudius took the title ‘Gothicus Maximus’ but in August 270 died at Sirmium, aged fifty-eight. It is uncertain if it is merely later propaganda that he asked his senior generals for Aurelian to be elected to succeed him. On the news reaching Italy the troops there proclaimed his younger brother Quintillus Emperor, and the Senate accepted him as Aurelian already had a reputation for strictness and favouring military interests. They deified Claudius, and decreed a gold statue of him as saviour of the Empire which was to be placed in the precinct of the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitol. Meanwhile in Thrace as the news reached the main army they hailed Aurelian as Emperor, and the Danube and Dacian troops accepted him too. Quintillus and his army awaited Aurelian’s advance at Aquileia in North East Italy; as the battle-hardened Balkan army approached Quintillus’ troops refuse to fight them and after a reign of two months he died violently – either suicide or at the hands of his men. His army went over to Aurelian, who entered Aquileia. The Senate duly changed its allegiance, and sent an embassy to congratulate the new Emperor. (Largely as in OTL.)

The Asding Vandals now attacked Marcomannia as most of its troops had been called off to North Italy by Claudius earlier and/or were now restoring order to ravaged Rhaetia, and on hearing the news Aurelian returned to Aquileia to gather his army and set off for the frontier. He harassed the advancing Vandal horde, and eventually secured a victory which forced them to negotiate; they agree to withdraw across the Carpathians and hand over hostages and 2000 recruits for the Roman army. Meanwhile a Palmyrene army under Zabdas secured control of Antioch and Northern Syria for Zenobia in open revolt against Rome that spring. The new Gallic Emperor Victorinus was killed by troops at Lugdunum in summer 270 , apparently as a result of interfering with his officers’ wives; his mother secured the election of Caius Pius Esuvius Tetricus, governor of Aquitaine, as his successor with the help of cartloads of her money for the troops; Tetricus assumed power at Burdigala (Bordeaux) and moved his headquarters from Lugdunum North to Trier, abandoning the faction-ridden army in the South which was fighting over the throne and had refused to accept him as Emperor. Behind his retreat, the troops who Aurelian had sent from N Italy into Provence that spring secured Massilia with the aid of the arrival of a fleet from Ostia and opened the way for loyalists to march across the coast to Narbo Martius (Narbonne) and link up with Spain. The rule of Tetricus was ended in the South East of Gaul and that summer Aurelian’s troops secured Lugdunum too, but he held onto his own Aquitaine plus the northern half of Gaul and the priorities of the war with Zenobia in the East meant that Aurelian, a cautious and methodical if ruthless commander, did not judge it yet timely to advance North.

During Aurelian’s difficulties in Marcomannia riots had broken out in Rome involving workers at the Imperial Mint, who had been involved in systematic fraud by devaluing the coinage and pocketing the difference between the real and the official weight of precious metals; the ‘Financial Secretary’ (‘a rationalibus’) Felicissimus was implicated, and probably incited the riots when he was about to be sacked and accused of treason on Aurelian’s orders. He was soon killed, either being arrested and executed or killed in the fighting, and the Mint workers barricaded themselves on the Caelian Hill with the assistance of disaffected senators who incited the populace to assist them in rebellion against the ‘alien Illyrian peasant tyrant’ Emperor. The revolt was put down by the ‘urban cohorts’ (the troops based in Rome) and Imperial troops sent in by Aurelian, and the Caelian was stormed with possibly thousands of casualties in street-fighting from house to house. Aurelian closed down the Mint in retaliation, and drafted some of the dismissed workers into the army. He ordered the construction of a massive wall round the main built-up areas of Rome so the city was safe from attack by more marauding barbarians; the ‘Wall of Aurelian’ secured the city for succeeding centuries. The Goths raided Moesia again while Aurelian was preoccupied in Italy that summer; he took his army East, caught their main force South of the Danube and defeated it, and crossed the river to pursue the raiders back to their homeland. He defeated and killed their king, Cannabuades, in a major battle and became ‘Gothicus Maximus’. (Events largely as in OTL, but less German successes and less damage to the Empire’s fragile infrastructure.)

The Aurelian walls between Porta San Sebastiano and Porta Ardeatina

Aurelian now assembled an army of detachments from the Rhine, Dacian, and Danube legions, Dalmatian and Mauretanian cavalry, and other units to attack Zenobia and recover the East; that winter he marched from the Balkans to the Bosphorus. In May 271 his Aurelian’s naval expeditionary force, led possibly by the future Emperor Marcus Aurelius Probus, landed in Egypt; Alexandria was quickly recovered, followed within a month by the rest of the province. In June Zenobia’s massive army, dominated by heavily-armed cavalry ‘cataphracts’, was drawn up on the open plain across the Orontes from Antioch to confront the advancing Aurelian. The Emperor moved East avoiding the city to cut off the Palmyrene supply-route back to their desert capital, and Zabdas sent his cavalry to intercept him. They reached the crucial Antioch-Berroea road near Immae first, but Aurelian had his lighter cavalry attack the ‘cataphracts’ on a hot morning and then gallop back along the road as if in panic.

The Palmyrenes followed, and when they were exhausted from the heat the Romans turned and attacked and destroy them. Zenobia evacuated Antioch at night with the rest of her troops, having calmed the citizens into thinking she was victorious by staging a fake ‘victory parade’ and the Palmyrenes retreated to Emesa. As Aurelian approached next day, Antioch surrendered and was included in a general pardon; Aurelian waited for reinforcements to arrive and then advanced to Emesa. The Palmyrenes, reputedly up to 70,000 strong, were lured into pursuing another false Roman retreat in the battle on the plain outside Emesa, but this time their cavalry caught the retreating Roman cavalry and started to break through the Roman lines. Fortunately the Palmyrenes broke ranks in their enthusiastic pursuit and a Roman infantry-force smashed through the gap and drove them back. They were driven back in chaos and suffer heavy losses, and Zenobia had to abandon Emesa and fall back to Palmyra. In August, joined by local Arab tribes who resented Palmyra’s dominance of the profits from desert trade-routes, Aurelian advanced to the Palmyra oasis and besieged Zenobia’s capital. Zenobia refused all talks and tried to secure Persian aid, but was not assisted – probably due to the faction-fighting at the Persian court as the aged Shapur’s health deteriorated.

Palmyra was relentlessly starved out, the local Arabs helping to supply the Romans, and after several months of this Zenobia secretly left the city to flee by camel toward Persia but was caught on the banks of the Euphrates and taken as a prisoner to Aurelian. Before long the city surrendered and was spared but was looted to help pay for the war and satisfy the troops and was staffed by a large Roma garrison. Zenobia and her leading associates, particularly the anti-Roman Greek rhetorician Longinus, were not included in the pardon for citizens, and were taken off to be tried at Emesa for rebelling against the Empire; Longinus was among those executed. Aurelian reorganised the Eastern frontier-defences, came to an agreement with the Persian court who sent him an embassy with rich gifts and assurances of their peaceful intentions, and assumed the title of ‘Persicus Maximus’.

Aurelian paraded Zenobia in chains through the major cities of Syria and displayed her to the populace at Antioch to show her ex-subjects that she was defeated and break her mystique, and took his army back to the Balkans via Asia Minor. At Palmyra, the pardoned noble Apsaeus forms a conspiracy for a new revolt and tried to persuade Marcellinus, Aurelian’s commander of the main Eastern army at Antioch, to join them; Marcellinus, potentially outnumbered if Syria revolts and/or Persia joined in, pretended to be seriously interested but sent an urgent warning to Aurelian. But Apsaeus’ potential

rescuer ‘Great King’ Shapur now died after a 32-year reign early in 272, and was succeeded by his son Hormisdas who was a much more pacific character and steered clear of the conspiracy. Aurelian received Marcellinus’ warning and took his army on a forced march back to Syria to catch the rebels by surprise. Aurelian arrived at Antioch, and heard that Apsaeus’ rebels had seized Palmyra and slaughtered the Roman garrison of 600 archers; Antiochus, a younger son of Zenobia (not by Odenathus and as such aged only five or six), had been proclaimed as their king. Aurelian advanced to besiege Palmyra again, and the rebels were taken by surprise without having had time to call in hep or pile up supplies and did not hold out long. Antiochus and other nobles were deported and Apsaeus was executed, but there was no major purge as Aurelian could not afford to alienate the local nobility or he would need a huge army posted in the region for years to come ; the city was not levelled, but most of its wealth was pillaged, the buildings were stripped of precious metals and anything else useful to Rome, and it never recovered as a commercial centre.

In autumn 272 Aurelian returned to Rome, and reorganised the coinage to reduce the : the importance of the old Imperial mint at Rome which was running coin-clipping and metal-stealing ‘rackets’ while the Emperor was absent on the frontiers after 252. He placed the main Imperial mint at Mediolanum with a new department based at Ticinum, the others now being at Siscia, Serdica (Sofia) for the Balkans, Berytus (Beirut) for the Levant, Cyzicus, Antioch, and Alexandria. The long-debased bronze coinage, traditionally minted in Rome but not issued since 270, was replaced, the weight of the gold ‘aureus’ was restored to the level under Caracalla before debasement in the 240s crises, and a new silver coinage was issued. New mines were opened in the eastern Alps of southern Rhaetia and in Marcomannia to provide metal for the coinage, staffed by a mixture of troops on ‘punishment duty’ for cowardice or laziness and Palmyrene and Gothic prisoners-of-war. Aurelian also issued tax-exemption for produce grown on deserted agricultural land which had been taken back into use, cancelled all outstanding debts owed to the State and ordered the burning of records to reassure debtors that they would not be pursued (like Hadrian had done), and reorganised the ‘grain-dole’ in Rome (distribution of free bread to those citizens on a list of eligibility) to make it hereditary, increase the weight of loaves while keeping the price the same, and improve the production in bakeries.

Aurelian also ordered the start of construction-work on the riot-wrecked Caelian Hill in Rome of his grand new Temple of ‘Sol Invictus’ (‘Unconquered Sun’), the Syrian solar deity whose worship was particularly favoured by the Danubian and Dacian armies. This cult of the sun-god as the saviour of the Empire and a symbol of beneficent power, linked to the role of the Emperor as protector of his people and defeater of internal and external threats, was achieving increased prominence in the troubled mid-C3rd Empire as a whole as the devotion to the traditional Roman pantheon declined, but it did not involve the complex intellectual logistics and mystic impenetrabilities of the Neoplatonists and it was not as ‘alien’ and Oriental as the cults of Cybele and Isis. It was given the lavish decoration of its main new temple in Rome and Imperial-led cultic devotion traditionally reserved for the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitol – and its priests were not selected from the old senatorial families who monopolised the ‘Olympian’ cults but were mostly retired Balkan ex-officers, to the annoyance of the capital’s aristocrats.

In spring 274 Aurelian had the time to launch his final showdown with Tetricus and reunite the Empire, which he was already anticipating doing on his coinage. He crossed the Alps to the Imperial advance-base at Grenoble, and advanced to Lugdunum, up the Saone valley, and onto the plains of Champagne where Tetricus had assembled his army at Chalons-sur-Marne. A great battle was fought on the ‘Catalaunian Fields’ and Aurelian’s generalship was decisive, Tetricus being captured during the fighting whereupon his army panicked and was slaughtered. War-weary Tetricus may even have arranged to surrender before the battle in order to save lives, and he did not put up much of a fight; but his officers fought to the end rather than surrender as Aurelian was known to be ruthless and was expected to purge them, and the losses of experienced officers seriously undermined the effectiveness of the Gallic army as this was reintegrated into the main Imperial army under Aurelian’s own commanders. Aurelian reorganised Gaul, and proceeded to the Rhine to restore the defences and install new garrisons; he campaigned against the Alemanni there before returning to Italy. On his return to Rome in the autumn Aurelian celebrated his restoration of the unity of the Empire after eighteen years of invasions and civil war with a magnificent Triumph. He paraded his men and the trophies of his victory, with Tetricus and his son in Gallic costume and Zenobia in her jewellery, Eastern robes, and golden chains in starring roles, some fake Gothic ‘Amazons’, and an impressive array of wildlife.

Tetricus was allowed to rejoin the Senate and was made ‘corrector’ (deputy governor) of Lucania in South Italy, and Zenobia was allowed to live in a villa at Tibur but was never allowed to return to the East. Apparently Aurelian even consulted her about how to fight the Persians in successful desert ambushes ahead of his forthcoming Persian campaign, and many of her second-ranking officers who he had deported from Syria to Italy in 272 were allowed to rejoin the Roman army while her Arab mercenary regiments from central Arabia were enrolled in the legions as auxiliaries and were settled on the Persian frontier so they could harass any Persian raiders.

Aurelian was not assassinated by a minor conspiracy at Perinthus on the Propontis (Sea of Marmara) while heading to his new Persian campaign in December 275 as in OTL – hence there was no mass-ravaging of Gaul in the 276-8 period by opportunistic Germans. The Emperor’s frightened secretary Eros, afraid of punishment for his past slips in accounting and keeping correspondence from the short-tempered Emperor, tried to bribe a group of officers to kill his master, but was detected and executed. Aurelian marched on with his Balkan and Dacian levies to Chalcedon to halt for winter training-manoevures, and arrived in Antioch in the spring to assemble his Eastern armies. Hence Aurelian was was able to invade Persia as planned via the Euphrates valley bin 276 as the new ‘Great King’ Hormisdas had just been succeeded by his middle-aged and equally unmilitary brother Bahram and there was intrigue and purges underway at the Persian court which held up the new ruler from marching to intercept him. Fearing a revolt by sub-kings from Media and Atropatene (Azerbaijan) who had wanted another of his brothers (married to a local princess) on the throne, Bahram did not order them to assemble their cavalry and intercept Aurelian lest they revolt and attack Ctesiphon, and he made the worst interpretation of why they then kept out of the war even when summoned.

In fact, Aurelian – aware of tribal activities on the Ukrainian steppes from his local spy-recruitment when he had been a commander in Dacia in the early 260s – had sent agents with gold to pay the latest tribe to arrive on the lower River Don, the Alans, to invade South via the Caucasus into Atropatene and distract the regional Persian lords – and a force of Alans also rode South West into the upper Tigris region to link up with the Emperor’s Armenian vassals for the war. Aurelian overran Mesopotamia with his large army of 50,000 men – unlike Valerian in 260 he had taken the trouble to levy new recruits for the garrisons of Dacia, Marcomannia and Moesia and get them trained before he removed local troops to the East for his war so the Northern frontier was adequately protected, though this meant impressing farm-labourers so the harvest of 275 suffered and the regional governors had to get permission to enrol more German tribesmen as labourers instead.

The Roman archers, backed up by Arabs recruited through the Emperor’s Palmyrene vassals, showered the Persian ‘cataphract’ cavalry with steel-tipped arrows and kept them at a distance, so there was no battle in the plains Eeat of Edessa and the Persian generals – not joined by Bahram who stayed in his capital afraid of kidnap if he ventured to his army – retreated. Aurelian sent some of his cavalry to the upper Tigris to join the Armenians and Alans and hurry down the river towards Ctesiphon, and the Persians retreated before him to avoid being cut off. They broke the dykes to flood the plains around their capital in a vain attempt to hold him up – but he had had ships built on the upper Tigris and floated downstream in case this happened. Ctesiphon fell and was occupied and looted as Bahram fled to Istakr, and some of the generals who he had threatened to purge for refusing to fight to save the capital defected to Aurelian who had the sense to guarantee their estates and titles plus armed protection if they deserted the Sassanid dynasty for good and acted as his regional governors. The Emperor marched as far as Charax (Basra) and proclaimed a great victory, but he could not tempt enough local warlords in central Persia or Media to abandon the Sassanids to re-create a Parthian-style devolved state there as his vassal kingdom as he had intended to do – cheaper than occupying the region permanently and just as effective in keeping the Sassanids weak.

He was too cautious to invade the Zagros and force the issue lest he be ambushed by the ‘Great King’s mobile Oxus valley nomad mercenaries, though he wintered in Ctesiphon and in spring 277 made a major raid into Media to besiege Ecbatana and installed his own candidate as vassal-king of Atropatene (the man was later evicted by Bahram II once he had gone home). Bahram I now died inopportunely, but his realm held together and exaggerated reports sent from the lower Rhine of a major raid by local Franks reminded Aurelian not to seem to neglect the West for the East or he could face mutiny like Valerian had done I 260. That summer the Emperor returned to Syria after forcing the new Persian ruler, Bahram‘s insecure son Bahram II, to sign a treaty accepting Roman rule of all of upper Mesopotamia as far as the Tigris near Arbela and of the middle Euphrates where a chain of new Roman fortresses were built and were protected by Arab cavalry mercenaries who were moved into the region as Roman vassals with their herds. Aurelian might be ‘Persicus et Mediacus Victor Maximus’ and he had a huge haul of loot from the sacked and burnt-down Ctesiphon, but in reality he had to retreat without annexing the lower parts of Mesopotamia like previous Roman invasions of the Parthian empire had done.

(Events from 276 onwards adapted for a continued reign of Aurelian; in OTL it was now Probus, his lieutenant, in charge until he was assassinated by rioting troops in 282. He was then succeeded by Carus, who carried out the invasion of Persia that is done earlier by Aurelian in this version. Carus then died or was murdered in his tent in Persia in 283 during a thunderstorm, and was succeeded by his short-lived sons Carinus in the West and Numerian in the East.)

Having had to abandon his plans to recreate a vassal Parthian state to secure the Eastern frontier permanently, he made up for it by a vigorous round of centralising reforms in Rome that made him even more resented by the sidelined nobility , enlarging the bureaucracy in the capital and at his Northern military HQ, Mediolanum, to ensure that orders were passed to and information passed to him from each province and enrolling talented middle-class ‘equites’ from across Italy to serve him and be promoted by experience not birth. He also enlarged the army from its usual strength of thirty-three legions to thirty-six and extended taxes on the wealthy landowners to pay for it, though evasion remained common, and he arguably commenced the practice (usually attributed to Diocletian, his great successor-but-one) of requiring large numbers of soldiers in the frontier garrisons to take on and work local farms as part-time farmers and only serve part-time in the garrisons, replaced by their brothers or sons while they were farming. These ‘soldier-farmers’ gained a legally new rank as ‘limitanei’, the ‘frontier-men’, by 300 to distinguish them from full-time regimental soldiers and were neatly categorised as such in official records and now served hereditarily; but though Diocletian ‘tidied up’ and formalised the process Aurelian was the one who originated it, originally piecemeal in those frontier provinces short of farmers after the mid-C3rd plagues and the losses of soldiers and farmers in civil wars and invasions.

In the meantime, the crossing of the Rhine and sacking of several local riverine towns (fortified Colonia Agrippinensis held out) in summer-autumn 276 by a horde of around 30,000 Franks and Alemanni was held off by the local Rhine garrisons and reinforcements sent by the war-denuded ‘comitatus’ HQ at Mediolanum , but the Emperor could not tolerate any breach of faith by supposedly loyal tributary ‘barbarians’ so in 278 he moved NW with his returned main army to tour the Rhine and then lead his men across to ravage Frankish territory. The Frankish ‘kings’ (warlords elected from among the nobility for specific campaigns, not yet permanent rulers) fled before his huge army and trusted to the forests to protect them , but Aurelian methodically cut down huge swathes of forest to enable his men to build a chain of roads across the plains to the Elbe while his new Channel fleet, built to his orders at Gesoriacum (Boulogne) in 276-7 after Frankish and Saxon seaborne raids on the British and Gallic coasts, moved up the North Sea to land troops at the mouth of the Elbe.

With their people starving or in hiding the Frankish nobles had to agree to a treaty and pay tribute – cattle and timber as they had no coins - and supply an annual levy of troops to the Roma army, but the harsh Aurelian did not bother to give the grovelling chiefs who had to turn up at his camp and swear allegiance any gifts or honour and this offended their sense of propriety so low-level raids resumed on land and sea in the later 270s. The Germans had learnt their lesson as to major invasions, but the frontier remained tense and the more emollient actions of Aurelian’s successor, Probus, in sending the chieftains gifts to distribute to their vassals did not do much in the long run to keep them loyal either. Aware of the threat of future seaborne raids, Aurelian ordered the building of a permanent fleet in the Channel to protect the coasts, and it was under him and Probus that the first naval bases in Britain – Rutupiae (Richborough) on the N side of the Cantician (Kentish) coast and Dubris (Dover) on the South side – were developed.

Depiction of Diocletian by Charlotte Mary Yonge

Aurelian died in 280, aged 66, after 10-year reign, as ‘Restitutor Orbis’ (‘Restorer of the World’) and promoter of a new, patriotic national Roman cult of the ‘Unconquered Sun’ as the supreme god and protector of the Empire. The strengthened Empire passed to his choice of the ‘best man’ among his generals as his ‘Caesar’ as his own health declined, Probus (ruler in 276 – 282 in OTL), who kept the peace he had established and died in June 284 aged 52 after an apparent seizure while arguing with some mutinous soldiers who had brought him a petition demanding an end to ‘humiliating’ forced labour work during his inspection tour of the middle Danube . (He was lynched by them in a similar incident in 282 in OTL.) The ambitious civilian minister and recent appointment as Praetorian Praefect, Flavius Diocles from Dalmatia – another ‘self-made’ man from lower-class origins, but an administrator not a soldier - secured the throne as the more senior and war-experienced generals at court could not agree on who was to have the throne and he emerged as a ‘dark horse’ candidate during four days of squabbles.

The best commander among the generals, the sexagenarian Carus who had earned Aurelian’s trust by his methodical surrounding and starving-out of several crucial Tigris valley cities in 276, was blocked by his rivals due to a mixture of jealousy and fear of the potential of his boastful, drunken and arrogant son Carinus as a successor – would this young man turn into a tyrant? As a result he flung his support to Diocles as his nominee and the latter won, blocking a plan to bribe generals and soldiers alike by the greedy cavalry-commander Flavius Aper who was then arrested for a ‘plot’ and executed. (In OTl, Aper was Diocles’ superior as Praefect, executed by this ‘junta’ for his presumed murder of or covering up the death of Numerian in 284.) Diocles, aged 43 and the best administrator among the generals but importantly lacking any serious enemies unlike his main rivals , became Emperor ‘Diocletian’. Carus became his new Eastern commander-in-chief to supervise the containment of Persia, with Carinus being kept in the new ruler’s bodyguard but meeting an ‘accident’ on a hunt that was probably arranged by his sovereign. (Diocletian was chosen as emperor of the East after Probus’ successor Carus’ younger son Numerian died in suspicious circumstances in 284 in OTL, then overthrew Carinus in battle in the West in 285.) Diocletian reunited the Empire , and went on to create a new system of government – still in search of that elusive factor, stability.


Timothy Venning is a respected Historian who won the London University History Prize in 1979 and whose latest straight history book is Cromwell's Failed State. He has also written multiple books of counter factual essays including Caesars of the Bosphorus,Eternal Caesars, King Charles or King Oliver and King Henry IX, all published by Sea Lion Press, and If Rome Hadn't Fallen.


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