Born to an obscure provincial family in Pannonia, his career began during the reign of emperor Valerian, when he earned a consulship. Later on, he served as a general in several wars, and his success ultimately made him the right-hand man and cavalry commander of the army of Emperor Claudius II. In 268, his cavalry routed the powerful cavalry force of the Goths at the battle of Naissus and broke the back of the most fearsome invasion of Roman territory since Hannibal.
Two years later, when Claudius lay on his death-bed, he supposedly named Aurelian as his successor. Although Claudius' brother Quintillus briefly seized power, Aurelian had the support of the legions and soon gained control. With his base of power secure, he now turned his attention to Rome's greatest problem--recovering the vast territories lost over the previous two decades.
Late in 270, Aurelian campaigned in northern Italy against the Vandals and Sarmatians, expelling them from Roman territory and earning the title of Germanicus Maximus. The next year, he finished what Claudius had started, hurling the last remaining Goths back over the Danube River. For this, he received the title Gothicus Maximus. However, he was forced to abandon the province of Dacia, on the exposed north bank of the Danube, as too difficult and expensive to defend.
In 272, he turned his attention to the lost eastern provinces of the empire, ruled by Queen Zenobia from the great city of Palmyra on the Euphrates River. Zenobia had carved out her own empire, encompassing Syria, Palestine, Egypt and large parts of Asia Minor.
Asia Minor was recovered easily; every city but Byzantium and Tyana surrendered to him with little resistance. The fall of Tyana lended itself to a legend; Aurelian to that point had destroyed every city that resisted him, but he spared Tyana after having a vision of the great philosopher Apollonius, whom he respected greatly, in a dream. Apollonius implored him, stating "Aurelian, if you desire to rule, abstain from the blood of the innocent! Aurelian, if you will conquer, be merciful!"
Whatever the reason, Aurelian spared Tyana. It paid off; many more cities submitted to him upon seeing that the emperor would not exact revenge upon them. Within six months, his armies stood at the gates of Palmyra, which surrendered when Zenobia tried to flee to Parthia. The so-called "Palmyrene Empire" was no more. After a brief clash with the Parthians and another in Egypt, he was forced to return to Palmyra in 273 when that city rebelled once more. This time, Aurelian allowed his soldiers to sack the city, and Palmyra never recovered from this. More honors came his way; he was now known as Parthicus Maximus and Restitutor orientis (Restorer of the East).
In 274, the victorious emperor turned his attention to the west, and the "Gallic Empire" which had already been reduced in size by Claudius II. Aurelian won this campaign largely through diplomacy; the "Gallic Emperor" Tetricus II was willing to abandon his throne and allow Gaul and Britain to return to the empire, but could not openly submit to Aurelian. Instead, the two seem to have conspired so that when the armies met at Châlons-en-Champagne that fall, Tetricus simply deserted to the Roman camp and Aurelian easily defeated the Gallic army facing him. Tetricus was rewarded for his part in the conspiracy with a high-ranking position in Italy itself.
Aurelian returned to Rome and won his last honorific from the Senate--Restitutor Orbis, Restorer of the World. In four years, he had secured the frontiers of the empire and reunified it, effectively giving the empire a new lease on life that lasted 200 years.
In the fall of 275, Aurelian was in Asia Minor preparing another campaign against the Parthians, who were stirring up trouble on the frontier when he met his end. As an administrator, Aurelian had been very strict and handed out severe punishments to corrupt officials or soldiers. Some high-ranking soldiers in the Praetorian Guard, fearing punishment from the Emperor, murdered him in September of 275.
Aurelian's enemies in the Senate briefly succeeded in passing damnatio memoriae on the emperor, but this was reversed before the end of the year and Aurelian, like his predecessor Claudius, was deified.
See also: Roman Empire