Good evening legionaries,
We are pumped to bring you what we hope is the first of many great episodes! The Centurion has included a little background to get you ready, as well as books for further reading and ways to show your support! Please leave a comment and let us know what you think. We look forward to interacting with you!
Before you listen…
Something was rotten on the Rhine River.
The year was 235, and as the famed Roman Army marched to deal with the threat of Germanic barbarians, much appeared as it always had. Rome, capital of a great Empire, was nearing its one thousandth year of proud existence. Threatened many times from without by rival states and wildly different cultures, shaken repeatedly from within by periodic convulsions of civil war, Rome had always endured.
As the unruly and demoralized troops, fresh off a decidedly mixed campaign against the resurgent Persians, marched to the border with Germany to deal with yet another barbaric incursion, murder was in the air. When they received the news that their Emperor had bought off the barbarians with a bribe and there would be no revenge for the raids they had perpetrated in the army’s absence, the violent feelings quickly found a new target—the Emperor himself.
A genteel young man, Emperor Severus Alexander had ascended to power at the age of 15, under the direction of his mother and grandmother. Given the best tutors, he attempted to restrain the disturbing forces that were sending cracks through Rome’s imperial foundation: the loss of discipline among the formerly hard-living Roman troops and the debasement of the silver coinage for temporary funding fixes (and corruption).
It was not to be. Viewed as effeminate and the pawn of a woman, Alexander was despised by the Roman Legions, and his poor leadership against the Persians combined with his unmanly bribe of the barbarians sealed his (and his mother’s) doom. When both were brutally killed at camp on the Rhine and the legionaries hailed one of their own: a huge, menacing, and hard-nosed soldier by the name of Maximinus Thrax, the first peasant to ever assume the throne, they were unwittingly setting off a tumultuous five decades of constant civil war that would nearly destroy everything it took the better part of a millennium to build.
This eruption of assassinations, military fratricide, burning cities, and massive barbarian raids made possible by completely undefended borders was later known as “The Military Anarchy” or the “Crisis of the Third Century.” During this time frame, no fewer than 25 different men had “legitimized” claims to power and fought at least one civil war to gain or maintain it. Trade broke down. Fragmentation ensued. Tens of thousands of people were massacred or dispersed in successive years.
In this chaotic environment where so many good people had been killed, a man could make a name for himself more easily than in the past: when social order breaks down, social mobility picks up. A century earlier, a man like Aurelian might have been no better than a senior non-commissioned officer in a border legion—such was the best you could hope for as a lowly commoner. In those desperate times of the third century, however, he had risen to command whole armies, and become the trusted Master of the Cavalry under Emperor Claudius II.
Even if he had known he was destined to be Emperor himself, however, Aurelian could have been forgiven for pessimism. Assuming he was able to keep the inevitable rebels and usurpers at bay and avoid falling to revolt, he still had to fix the economy, get the soldiers in line, and use them to defeat Germanic Alemanni, Carpi, Goth, and Vandal tribal waves, along with the Sassanid Persians and several powerful leaders of breakaway regions, and to do it while paying them with nearly worthless currency.
At stake was Western Civilization itself, with the libraries that remained unburned, the stored up knowledge and cultural heritage of a thousand years’ time, which had already suffered incalculable damage and seemed sure to be snuffed out—returning Europe to a darker and more primitive time from which there could be no later Renaissance and no birth of modernism.
No big deal.
This episode is the story of Aurelian and the debt Rome and history itself owed him. May it be one small step toward restoring him— to his proper place as one of our most important historical figures.
For Further Awesome Reading
For the true learners and those who want the best! Gibbon is a towering figure in imperial Roman Scholarship. He was not only a total master of the history; he had complete command of the English language and his life’s work is as great a literary achievement as it is a historical one. Our understanding of Rome has been expanded and sharpened somewhat in the two and a half centuries since Gibbon’s career, but for sheer breadth, depth, and penetrating analysis of the slow crumbling of a great civilization, Gibbon is unmatched. Volume One briefly deals with the rise and establishment of the Empire, then covers its decline to the late fourth century, and can be read apart from all the other volumes. While not for the faint of heart, it’s worth every minute of your time!
If, however, you are a wuss who wants a simpler and more condensed account of Roman decline for a modern audience, you could certainly do worse than this next book:
Speaking of Goldsworthy, he’s really good when he’s got a specific issue to tackle in simple form. His short, incisive, and compelling piece on how the Romans evolved as a military fighting force is a great starting point for understanding why the Roman Legion was so feared, important, successful, and ultimately unsuccessful. The foreword by noted military historian John Keegan is pretty great, too:
For biographies of Aurelian, there are two notable books: the superior in depth and analysis (and far more expensive)
For a cheaper, more accessible to the regular reader, but less historically sound (in the closing chapters especially) biography,
Gets the job done. I don’t appreciate White’s thoughts on the fall of the Empire in general, but his analysis of Aurelian himself is as well-sourced as it can be, given the scarcity of sources on him in general.
Support the Edge of History podcast!
You can support our podcast by downloading on iTunes, subscribing and leaving a review. The Centurion reads every single one!
Share it on social media and with your friends. Also, use our Amazon links through the book title or picture to check out and purchase a book or finish your other shopping on Amazon. When you click the link, all of your other shopping supports the podcast whether you buy a book or not.
Edge of History podcast is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.