This Week in History – Hey Look, a Roman Pandemic


09 September 214 – The Restorer of the World was Born

Emperor Aurelian was born on this day in 214 CE. He paved the way for Christianity to conquer the world. 

The Roman Empire lasted from 27 BCE to 476 CE; however, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. From 235 CE to 284 CE, the Empire suffered what historians call “The Crisis of the Third Century.” The Crisis consisted of famines, a plague, internal revolts, and barbarian incursions. Also, the imperialist expansions of the 100s and early 200s had left the legions and the budget stretched too thin. Whaaaa? Wars of choice, a pandemic, internal strife, and poor leadership nearly collapsed the empire? Who could have predicted such a thing? Hopefully, the Romans were wearing their masks and social distancing.

From 235 CE to 285 CE, there were 26 emperors in 50 years. The Crisis began with Emperor Severus Alexander getting aerated by his own troops. After that, several more emperors got poked full of holes or just run into exile. The life expectancy of a Roman emperor in the 200s was something like a gnat’s life. Most of these emperors were army generals who decided they wanted to be emperor. Since they had the most goons, they got to be emperor. That is, until somebody with even more goons showed up or their  goons turned on them. It’s a mystery why anybody would want to be emperor during the crisis. Goon squads aren’t known for their loyalty. 

In 268, the Roman Empire effectively fell apart. The part centered around Italy continued to be the Roman Empire. Modern-day France, Britain, and Spain became the Gallic Empire. Modern-day Syria, Egypt, and other bits of the Middle East became the Palmyrene Empire. So, in that sense, the Empire didn’t survive. If the United States split into three parts, it would be hard to argue that it didn’t fall apart. Either way, historians generally don’t consider this a real dissolving of the empire because it was so short-lived. 

Photo by Jamil Kabar on Unsplash

The Crisis of the Third Century is such a profoundly disruptive event that historians generally consider it the end of Classical Antiquity and the beginning of Late Antiquity. Perhaps most significantly, the complete chaos that gripped the Empire for 50 years allowed Christianity to begin to grow in the Empire. The pagan Romans had no love for Christianity and had a habit of feeding Christians to lions, tigers, bears, oh my. However, they were busy with their world ending; so, Christianity was able to grow in places that encountered Christians. The relative lack of fiery furnaces became known as the Little Peace of the Church

In May of 270, Aurelian became Emperor of Rome. He expelled the barbarians, the Goths, and anybody else who thought they had a claim to Roman territory. By 272, Aurelian had reconquered all of the lost territory and reunited the Roman Empire. For this, he was named Restitutor Orbis, “Restorer of the World.” However, the Empire had already been shown to be vulnerable. Furthermore, a world-changing ideology had seeped in through the crevices: Christianity. In 313, 40 years after Aurelian’s reconquest, Christianity became an accepted religion in the Empire. In 380, Nicene Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. 

Within about 100 years, Christianity went from being a fringe cult to conquering the world. That all began with the Crisis of the Third Century. It was only possible because Aurelian restored the world. He was born on this day in 214 CE.