On Aurelian

Just recently, I devised a back-of-the-napkin metric for historical influence: [Years of Continued Influence Following Death]/[Years Active]. Here’s how it’d work for Jesus. 

Jesus died in 33 CE, and no doubt this kick-started his greatest claim to fame. Last time I checked, Christianity was still relevant, so let’s make his years of continued influence 2022 – 33 = 1989. According to John the Baptist, Jesus preached for just three years. Plugging into our formula, we get an influence score of 663. But what does this number mean? 

We can make the broad assumption that each of Jesus’ years spent preaching directly contributed to 663 years of Christianity, and therefore 663 years of influence. This leads to the unit “years per year active” (ypya). Muhammad’s score is 1390/23 = 60 ypya, which should make sense. At this point, you should realize that historical figures who have founded or spread ideas will have ever-increasing influence scores. Also realize that relatively modern figures don’t work in this model; I think a good rule of thumb is at least before ~1500 CE in order to make reasonable calculations. 

Here are some non-intellectuals whose influence comes from the finite lifespans of empires or kingdoms. You might think that Genghis Khan would hold a huge score, but you would be somewhat mistaken. Although he may have founded the largest empire by landmass, it only lasted 227 years including the Silk Road, for a score of 227/22 = 10 ypya. For Alexander the Great, who ruled for about 14 years, we can credit him with the Hellenistic age and give him an influence score of 21 ypya. If we give Augustus the Byzantine Empire, he gets 1440/41 = 35 ypya. Every figure listed so far has been widely considered one of the most influential in human history, and if we were to make a larger list, all would still be household names. That is, except one.

Lucius Domitius Aurelianus, 42nd emperor of Rome, has an influence score to his name of 1179/6 = 196.5 years per year active. To put that in perspective, Aurelian has managed to rise over the ranks of figures like Leonardo da Vinci (9), Plato (39), Aristotle (51), and Paul the Apostle (109), whose ideological and artistic contributions have the benefit of time on their side. In fact, Jesus’ score divided by Aurelian’s is greater than Aurelian’s divided by Muhammad’s, meaning that, logarithmically, Aurelian is closer to Jesus than Muhammad. In a few hundred or thousand years, these people will end up overtaking him so long as they stay relevant, but nonetheless, it is remarkable that a military leader with only a limited amount of years of continued influence has a score this high (even higher than Julius Caesar’s 174!). So what did Aurelian actually do? How could he get such an impossible number?

The third century was a tough place to be, to put it briefly. However, the 100s had ended up being one of the most successful ages of any empire’s history. The reign of the Five Good Emperors secured this statement from Edward Gibbon: “If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy … he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus.” If our boy Eddy, one of the greatest historians of the Roman Empire, can say that, something must have gone really wrong. In fact, it almost could not have gone worse with this Emperor Commodus. 

Think of Caligula, Little Boot, our chronic epileptic who allegedly made his own horse consul and marched his armies to Gaul to collect seashells. When a list of the worst Roman emperors is made, Caligula is always at the top with the likes of Nero. Now imagine if Caligula had ruled for four times as long. Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus ruled from 177 to 192 and almost entirely undid the century-long work of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antonius Pius, and Marcus Aurelius. It’s better to put Commodus’ exact resume into modern terms. Picture President Joseph Biden renaming the US to the “Colonies of Joe” and calling himself the reincarnation of George Washington. Then have him participate in multiple monster truck rallies and WWE events, send the military of the Colonies of Joe to assassinate Vice President Kamala Harris and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, and finally be assassinated himself by John Cena via Full Nelson, all in the span of a hellish four presidential terms. There is zero exaggeration here.

Immediately after Commodus died, Rome fell into civil war and the next emperor was assassinated after just three months. The emperor after that began the trend of bidding the military for power, and then himself was killed by the army after just nine weeks. After this though, Septimius Severus was able to establish a relatively secure period of time for the Roman Empire through the Severan Dynasty. Still, if the previous three emperors had not seemed unbelievably imcompetent by now, Septimius was forced to call the British governor Albinus “Junior Emperor” to buy time for a counterattack. Nevertheless, Septimius managed to rule for 19 years, implemented relatively sound policies, and established a clear line of succession. 

The next four emperors are not as interesting, which says a lot because they were still relatively bad at their job. Severus Alexander, last of the Severans, was only nominally in power. The real emperors of his reign were his mother and grandmother, and the Roman public had now fully lost faith in the abilities of its government. Herodian, a contemporary Roman historian, writes that Severus Alexander died “clinging to his mother and weeping and blaming her for his misfortunes.” 

Somehow, the following 35 years were worse. Nearly half of the next 15 emperors served for less than a year. From Augustus to Marcus Aurelius, 16 emperors served over 200 years. In the third century, 16 emperors would serve over just 50 years. Rome splintered into three empires (which actually sounds okay considering the circumstances), the main Roman Empire, the Gallic Empire, and the Palmyrene Empire. The Severans had begun the extremely bad policy of currency debasement, or using less and less precious metals in coins, which resulted in rapid inflation. In fact, an inflation rate of over 2,000% resulted, with commodity money. Modern cases of hyperinflation, like 1946 Hungary, are only possible with fiat, or intrinsically worthless, currency (paper money). Roman coins actually contained precious metals, 97-99% in the early days of the empire, and had to be hand-struck. But by Aurelian’s time, it was down to less than 2%, through countless intentional policies of debasement. 

Then comes Aurelian in 270 CE. Already one of the empire’s most accomplished generals, Aurelian literally scared the previous emperor into suicide without their armies even meeting. Numerous barbarian (as in foreign; they were very capable) factions had been ransacking the frontiers of Rome for most of the 200s to add on to all of the empire’s problems. A sizable number of emperors had ended up dying to these forces as well, and yet Aurelian immediately put down at least four concentrated attacks during his reign without any losses. To give a better sense, in just about six years, Aurelian made multiple 800+ mile military treks against foreign invaders and went undefeated. Aurelian made an initial 800 mile long trip to Aquincum (Budapest) after taking up the title of Emperor in Rome in order to fight the Vandals. Right after this, another band of barbarians, the Jugunthi, began marching on Rome. Aurelian was forced to make the round trip now, and then had to chase them across the Danube for another 800 miles. Then, Aurelian had to walk back to Rome to stop a bloody incursion. Keep in mind, by this point Aurelian has already traveled more than the distance from London to Kiev, without counting his experiences as general. 

Aurelian then made the 2,000+ mile march on the Palmyrene Empire, based in the Syrian city of Palmyra, which had taken control over all of the Roman Empire’s east-most provinces. These include modern day Egypt, Israel, Syria, parts of Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. After winning, Aurelian was forced to travel again to the Danube to put down another barbarian invasion, and then go back to Palmyra after a second uprising (3,000+ miles total). At this point it gets almost silly. Aurelian marches his army to the Rhine river, 2,300 miles away, once again scares the this time Gallic Roman Emperor into surrendering, then eventually makes the 3,000 mile journey to Persia. In six years, Aurelian walked more than the equivalent of halfway across the earth

Aurelian ended up being assassinated on this last campaign. The story goes that a secretary, scared of being punished by Aurelian for whatever reason, disseminated rumors to his generals that he would kill them. It’s likely that this really did happen, because his assassination was so hasty that his murderers hadn’t even planned a successor. It would then be another six emperors worth of chaos until Diocletian ascended. Nevertheless, Aurelian’s early death ensured that he would only ever be “remembered” as just another soldier-emperor of the third century. 

And for reasons besides his ridiculous list of military accomplishments, Aurelian wasn’t just another soldier-emperor at all. In the brief amount of time not spent fighting (or marching), Aurelian appointed competent bureaucrats and administrators, heavily cracked down on corruption, built various public works including the walls surrounding Rome today, and redrew the vastly over-extended Roman borders to save future emperors of his toils. Not only that, Aurelian was one of the greatest benefactors to the common people, canceling all debts owed to the state, implementing a greater food dole, and reversing the desertion of farmland through agricultural projects. While Diocletian is commonly cited as the only emperor who addressed Roman hyperinflation, Aurelian actually began doing so a decade prior through implementing tighter controls on mints and introducing new and well-insured coinage.

Every step of Aurelian’s 14,000+ miles, every split second military call on the field, and every blunder of previous emperors he tried to undo has led to Aurelian’s influence score. For each year that he was emperor, he bought 200 more years of life to the Roman and eventually Byzantine Empire. One could say that had Aurelian lived for just three more years, we would all be speaking Latin. 

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