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Aurelian's reforms and assassination (275 A.D.)

Aurelian reunited the Roman Empire, initiated many reforms, and was murdered.
Aurelian reunited the Roman Empire, initiated many reforms, and was murdered.

Aurelian reunited the Roman Empire after it split into three political units. He also eliminated the barbarian threat in Italy and the frontier. The emperor also reinforced Rome’s defenses by building the wall that bears his name. On top of this, he was a reformer as well. Aurelian’s efforts strengthened and reinforced the empire and set the groundwork for Diocletian’s reforms.

The emperor’s reforms focused on the economy and religion. He highlighted the god Sol Invictus and set it above the other gods. Aurelian hoped to simplify religion and provide Romans with a single god to worship without conflict or confusion. He used the treasure pirated from the former Palmyrene Empire to finance his efforts. The emperor seemed to have been pushing the empire into monotheism. Some have theorized that Sol Invictus was a version of the Judeo-Christian god. Others believe Aurelian planned to eliminate the other pagan gods altogether. However, this is speculation.

In addition to religion reform, Aurelian moved to solidify the Roman economy. The Roman economic system collapsed in the third century as a result of constant civil wars and barbarian incursions. He minted new coins containing a 5% silver content, which actually represented an improvement upon the currency of the period. The emperor tried to recall the older coins and replace them with the new ones. However, this proved exceedingly difficult.

Aurelian also moved to crack down on mint workers who stole coins and replaced them with inferior ones. The mint official in charge, Felicissimus, was arrested and tried for embezzlement. In response, the mint workers revolted and rioted in the streets. They were used to the government looking the other way as they robbed the treasury. Aurelian put down the insurrection, killed many rebels and their supporters, and executed Felicissimus.

Despite the reforms, emperors were warlords first. Rome’s main enemy, the Sassanid Empire, weakened after two rulers died within a year of each other. Aurelian hoped to exploit the instability and the weak Emperor Bahram I. However, the Roman was assassinated before crossing into Asia Minor. One of his secretaries, Eros, lied on a minor issue, but feared the emperor’s response. Aurelian was one of the stricter men to wear imperial purple and the secretary feared for his life. Eros drew up a phony pogrom list and approached the men he named as potential victims. Eros included many high ranking members of the emperor’s body guard. They believed the list was real, feared for their lives, and murdered Aurelian in 275.

Aurelian restored most of the Roman Empire in a short period. He reunited the empire after it split in three, reformed the economy, and moved to change Roman religion. However, his nature as a stern disciplinarian frightened those around him and led to his assassination. As a result, Aurelian did not finish the job of restoring stability and ending the Crisis of the Third Century for good. A number of successors followed with little success until Diocletian finally assumed the throne and finished the job Aurelian started.