Aurelian - the Greatest Roman Army commander in its history?

Feb 2011
1,595
#11
Well, how tactically proficient was Aurelian compared to soldier emperors like Constantine and Diocletian?
I would need to look that up myself to refresh my memory, but he did seem to have great success by deploying relatively light, mobile cavalry against the heavy eastern cavalry (of the cataphract and/or clibanarii type).
 
Feb 2017
425
Rock Hill, South Carolina
#12
Many of Aurelian's successes lie in events under his predecessor Gallienus, as they were in part some of the first Emperors to start moving the Roman army towards the Late Roman Organization.
 
Likes: Jari
#13
I'm reviving this thread because I think it's interesting and I have some points to make that I think users will find interesting (although I've admittedly made the same points in other threads).

a) We cannot compare the likes of Aurelian, Diocletian and Constantine to Scipio and Caesar because we have far less information on their campaigns. We simply do not have anywhere near enough detail with which to compare. We do not have detailed narrative sources for any of their reigns, information on the troubled decades of the late third century seems to have been rather murky anyway, and the principal authors on Constantine's reign are concerned with the supposedly divine support for his victories, not how he actually won them. In the case of Aurelian, it doesn't help that his reign was only five years in duration.

b) That being said, Aurelian and Constantine were clearly fantastic military leaders. To focus on the initial subject of the thread, Aurelian was a career soldier-turned-emperor who reigned for five years (270-275), and he appears to have been quite extraordinary. After playing a decisive role as general of the cavalry during Claudius II's war against the Goths (269-270), he fought an incredible number of successful campaigns during a reign of just five years, defending and reuniting a fractured empire. Note the following achievements:

1. Defeated his rival Quintillus (270).
2. Defeated a Iuthungian incursion into Raetia (270).
3. Defeated a Vandal incursion into Pannonia (270/1).
4. Defeated a major Iuthungian invasion of Italy with two major victories (271) - this followed two earlier Alemannic/Iuthungian invasions of Italy (during the 260s) - Aurelian's defeat over this third invasion ended German aggression against Italy until Alaric and Radagaisus in the 400s.
5. Put down a rebellion in Rome (271).
6. Defeated the usurpers Domitianus in Narbonese Gaul and Septimius in Dalmatia (271) - although these two may have been defeated by loyal subordinates rather than Aurelian himself.
7. In a major victory, he expelled Goths from the Balkans and launched a punitive expedition across the Danube against their homeland, killing the Gothic leader Cannabas (272) - The Goths would not raid the Balkans in serious numbers again until the reign of Constantine.
8. Defeated the Palmyrene Empire of Zenobia, with major victories won at Tyana, Immae, Daphne, Emesa and Palmyra (272)
9. Defeated the Carpi (273)
10. Defeated a second Palmyrene rebellion, with one detachment or loyal army putting down a related rebellion in Egypt (273)
11. Defeated the Gallic Empire of Tetricus (274) - supposedly Tetricus betrayed his own army to Aurelian, recognizing that he had little chance against Aurelian and not trusting in the loyalty of his own soldiers - the reunification of the empire was thus completed.
12. Dealt with unrest in Gaul (275)
12. Defeated a German incursion into Raetia (275)
13. Marched his army towards Persia, intending to avenge the defeats that Rome suffered in the previous decades (275)

Aurelian was assassinated in Thrace en route to Persia because of a conspiracy involving some of his secretaries and officers. Nevertheless, it is telling that the assassins fled to Asia Minor, and that the army did not organise a replacement, but deferred to the senate to appoint their next emperor. This was completely at odds with practice at the time. It shows that the army was blindsided by Aurelian's death and had not been anticipating his replacement in any meaningful way. This seems telling, considering that between 235 and 285 numerous emperors were appointed and replaced by the army. The imperial field army was loyal to Aurelian despite the third-century zeitgeist, and his successors Tacitus and then Probus made sure to hunt down Aurelian's assassins.
 
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#14
c) As for Diocletian, he strengths lay elsewhere. Diocletian's most famous battle was the Battle of the Margus in 285, when, as a usurper, he was fighting against the existing emperor Carinus. He actually lost (or was on the verge of losing) his most famous battle. However, Carinus' officers and praetorian prefect were in cahoots with Diocletian, and Carinus was cut down by one of his own tribunes either during or after the battle. That's how Diocletian won, which says something about his strengths and weaknesses.

Indeed, once he made Galerius Caesar in 293, Diocletian tended to give the toughest campaigns in the east to Galerius. Most notably, Diocletian assigned him the war against Persia (c. 296-298), the most important campaign of the period. Galerius' devastatingly decisive victory over the Persians was considered to have redeemed Rome and avenged the Romans upon Persia after the military embarrassments against the Persians during the mid-third century (one emperor killed, another captured, Antioch twice sacked, three armies severely defeated, fortresses destroyed, a humiliating treaty, Palmyra taking matters into its own hands, etc). Famously, in the contested kingdom of Armenia Major, Galerius performed a surprise attack on the Shahanshah Narseh's camp, seizing much wealth and taking many important captives, including Narseh's wives, daughters and sisters. Supposedly he had personally scouted the enemy camp. Narseh fled into his own territories, and Galerius counter-attacked, invading Media, Adiabene and Persian Mesopotamia before linking up with Diocletian in Nisibis. The Persians sued for peace, and were forced to give up Armenia and seven trans-Tigritanian territories. The Persians would not regain these territories until the death of Julian in 363.

Galerius also defeated a coalition of Egyptian rebels and Nubians (293-294), and fought numerous successful campaigns against the Carpi, Sarmatians and Marcomanni (299/300 - 307/8).

He was also a successful general before he became Caesar. He was a career soldier who at some point in time became Diocletian's son-in-law, and is reported as campaigning on the Danube in c. 290.

The one campaign Galerius is known to have lost was his march against Maxentius in Italy (307). However, unlike Constantine's later victory over Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge (312), Maxentius did not leave the walls of Rome to confront his adversary. By the time of Constantine's campaign, Maxentius' Rome was suffering from food shortages. This was not the case in 307, and so Maxentius had no reason to risk his army in a straight fight against Galerius, by then the most successful military leader in the empire. Thus, Maxentius remained behind his walls and used bribery to provoke defections among Galerius' troops. Some troops also supposedly defected because they found such an action against Rome (and against his son-in-law) to be impious. Galerius was forced to withdraw, but gave his troops free rein to ransack the countryside as he marched north, for which he was condemned by the contemporary Christian writer Lactantius. Galerius never returned to Italy. He assigned the task of retaking Italy to the emperor Licinius and withdrew from active campaigning as illness took hold. Licinius himself was too cautious against Maxentius, and Galerius was dead by the time Constantine defeated him.
 
#15
I would need to look that up myself to refresh my memory, but he did seem to have great success by deploying relatively light, mobile cavalry against the heavy eastern cavalry (of the cataphract and/or clibanarii type).
Aurelian does appear to have been a fan of wearing Palmyra's heavy cavalry down with false retreats using Moorish and Dalmatian cavalry. This is narrated in Zosimus' accounts of his victories at Immae and Emesa (272). He had successfully served as a cavalry commander under Claudius Gothicus, and so this is perhaps not surprising. However, when the battle of Emesa started to go a bit awry (because the heavy cavalry pressed down very hard on Aurelian's light cavalry), it was Aurelian's legionaries who wheeled about to the flank and turned the tides. At this battle Aurelian also made strong use of Palestinians wielding clubs and staves.
 
Likes: benzev
#16
As a final note, Aurelian did perhaps suffer a defeat to the Iuthungi near Placentia in 271, when the Iuthungi made a surprise attack. The Historia Augusta claims that Aurelian suffered this defeat during the Iuthungian invasion of Italy, before going on to defeat them once at the Metaurus and again (and most decisively) at the Altar of Fortuna. On the other hand, the Epitome de Caesaribus claims that he won all three battles. The Historia Augusta is notoriously unreliable and laden with blatant fiction, and Udo Hartmann, for instance, has argued that we should therefore accept the Epitome de Caesaribus, in which case Aurelian may have defeated two or three different barbarian bands at three different locations. Then again, the Historia Augusta has no clear reason to invent such a narrative, and the Epitome's account is only a brief notice, which may therefore be careless or mistaken in its content. If Aurelian did suffer a defeat, he would of course not be the only great commander to suffer a defeat, and he in any case managed to recover quickly enough to convincingly defeat the invasion soon afterwards.
 
Likes: benzev
Jan 2015
3,511
Australia
#18
He might have a lot of completion among other roman generals though.
Basically this. As fine a general as he was, the competition among Rome's ancient military leaders is just too great. We're talking about a society whose most important asset was warfare, who dominated the ancient world militarily, etc, and if we put a top 100 list together would probably have most of the greatest generals of antiquity on that list. Just hard to imagine you could make the argument for him over the top guys.
 
#20
As a final note, Aurelian did perhaps suffer a defeat to the Iuthungi near Placentia in 271, when the Iuthungi made a surprise attack. The Historia Augusta claims that Aurelian suffered this defeat during the Iuthungian invasion of Italy, before going on to defeat them once at the Metaurus and again (and most decisively) at the Altar of Fortuna. On the other hand, the Epitome de Caesaribus claims that he won all three battles. The Historia Augusta is notoriously unreliable and laden with blatant fiction, and Udo Hartmann, for instance, has argued that we should therefore accept the Epitome de Caesaribus, in which case Aurelian may have defeated two or three different barbarian bands at three different locations. Then again, the Historia Augusta has no clear reason to invent such a narrative, and the Epitome's account is only a brief notice, which may therefore be careless or mistaken in its content. If Aurelian did suffer a defeat, he would of course not be the only great commander to suffer a defeat, and he in any case managed to recover quickly enough to convincingly defeat the invasion soon afterwards.
In light of the uncertainty regarding what happened at Placentia, I should repeat that, regardless, Aurelian's eventual victory over the Iuthungi ended Germanic aggression against Italy until the 400s. There are no doubt many reasons for this, but after two previous invasions of Italy in the 260s, Aurelian's victory was probably of a particularly decisive nature.
 

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