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Prelude to unification: Aurelian vs. the Barbarians (271 A.D.)

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Aurelian assumed command of the splintered Roman world in 270 A.D. The western empire broke into three sections prior to his ascension. Emperor Claudius Gothicus began the process to reunite the political unit by force. However, his death left the task to his successor. Before Aurelian could bring the secessionists into line, he needed to secure his northern flank against barbarian incursions. As a result, Aurelian’s first major action as emperor occurred in the north. The new emperor confronted and defeated the Alammani in 271 freeing him to move on Rome’s rebellious provinces.

Rome’s latest emperor had extensive and successful military experience. He used that experience against the empire’s enemies and began his plans for the conquest of the Palmyrene and Gallic Empires. The two empires had been part of Rome before seceding. In late 270, Aurelian campaigned against a number of tribes in Northern Italy.

Aurelian temporarily secured Northern Italy and set his sights further north. The Alamanni tribe ravaged the countryside as it marched south toward Italy. The new threat entered Northern Italy as Aurelian supervised the Vandal withdrawal. The Alamanni launched a surprise attack and defeated the emperor’s army.

The defeat panicked Rome, but Aurelian kept his head. His forces fell upon the Alamanni camp and pushed them back north. They attempted to flee, but the emperor remained on the offensive and decisively defeated the barbarians at Pavia. Aurelian needed a major victory to repair damage to his reputation after the defeat in his initial encounter with the Alamanni.

Aurelian’s defeat seemed to weigh heavy on Roman minds. The Alamanni scored a victory too close for comfort. The public relations disaster needed repair before Aurelian could reunite the west. As a result, the emperor strengthened Rome’s defenses. The city built the Aurelian Walls between 271 and 275 enclosing all seven hills. They measured 11 feet thick, 26 feet high, and proved an intimidating sight for newcomers. The emperor left construction to builders and bureaucrats and moved against the Goths in the Balkans. He defeated the barbarians and earned the moniker Gothicus Maximus. However, he decided it was too expensive to reincorporate Dacia into the empire and let it go for the time being. The defensive works and offensive against the barbarians in Italy and the Balkans allowed Aurelian to concentrate on reuniting the old Roman Empire.

The emperor secured the Roman frontier during the first year of his reign. He defeated a number of tribes in Northern Italy, the Alamanni invaders, and then the Goths in the Balkans. Aurelian also strengthened Rome’s defenses and abandoned Dacia for larger concerns. His actions from the end of 270 and throughout 271 consolidated his power, secured Italy, and protected his flanks. As a result, the emperor could concentrate on conquering the renegade Palmyrene and Gallic Empires.

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