Early Life and Career
Aelianus was born in Aquincum, Pannonia Inferior sometime in 234. His father, Publius Aelius Martialis, was a soldier. Aelianus' family had been Roman citizens since at least the time that Hadrian was governor of Pannonia Inferior (c. 107).
Aelianus enlisted in his father's legion in 253. He rose through the ranks more quickly than many of his colleagues. This was partially due to exceptional ability on his part, but also because of the influence of his father.
During the reign of Claudius II, Aelianus was promoted to general. During the 270s, he held several civil and military posts in the Balkans.
Great Roman Civil War
After Aurelian began to fall out of favor in the Roman Empire, Aelianus chose to back Pinianus. For the majority of Pinianus' rule in the eastern provinces, Aelianus was stationed in the Peloponnese. He only participated in two battles against Aper's forces.
In December 278, Pinianus attempted to reconquer Pannonia from the Suevians, Quadians, and Marcomannians. By the summer of 279, the effort had proved largely unsuccessful, and Aelianus used the failure to reconquer the area as an excuse to rebel. Aelianus was able to quickly build support for himself in the Balkans and Anatolia. Pinianus fought Aelianus for several months, but he realized that he could not win; so on November 10, 279, he surrendered, recognized Aelianus as the Roman Emperor, and agreed to retire.
After the downfall of Pinianus, Aelianus absorbed most of Pinianus' realm. The exception was the province of Epirus, whose governor had chosen to align with Probus. Therefore, Aelianus went to war with Probus in an effort to take the province. Aelianus' forces made little progress in taking Epirus; but on September 28, 280, several generals stationed in Epirus ousted the governor in a coup d'etat and declared their allegience to Aelianus. At the same time, Messalla was rapidly taking over the western and southern parts of the empire. By the end of 280, Messalla controlled all of Italy and north Africa, part of the Levant, and two cities in Dalmatia. Aelianus went to war with Messalla in order to retake the two Dalmatian cities under Messalla's control.
During 281, Aelianus and Messalla fought on two fronts, Dalmatia and the Aegean coast of the province of Asia. Aelianus steadily lost on both fronts. Also, the governor of Cappadocia decided to refuse to recognize Aelianus or Messalla, thus effectively breaking away from the Roman Empire. The war continued into 282. In the spring of 282, Messalla rapidly gained ground in Anatolia; in March, the province of Osroene broke away and quickly aligned with Persia; and by the end of May, Aelianus realized that his situation was hopeless and surrendered.
During the war, Messalla had proposed a power-sharing agreement to Aelianus. Messalla's proposal was that Aelianus would rule over Anatolia and the Balkans as a junior emperor (Caesar), and succeed Messalla as the main emperor. Aelianus initially rejected the offer, but he accepted the deal after the war ended.
Reign over the Dominium Caesaris
By the time the war was over, Messalla had decided to use the power-sharing plan to severely limit the authority Aelianus could exercise over the Dominium Caesaris (the parts of Anatolia and the Balkans that Messalla granted him authority over). Because of this, Aelianus accomplished little during his tenure as Messalla’s subordinate. The only notable accomplishment of Aelianus between 282 and 286 was ordering the construction of several forts along the Danube.
Messalla did grant Aelianus an important role in the Osrinian War, in which the Roman Empire unsuccessfully attempted to reconquer Osroene. A large number of troops under Aelianus' command participated in the invasion of Osroene. Also, Aelianus requested that the king of Armenia help Rome. The war resulted in both Rome and Armenia losing territory and being forced to pay reparations to Persia and Osroene.
The reparations that the Roman Empire had to pay came mainly from the easternmost provinces. These provinces had better economies than the other provinces in the empire, but the confiscation of food and other goods to pay the reparations severely damaged the economies of these provinces. This quickly gave way to crime and an uprising against Aelianus.
The Eastern Rebellion continued through much of 288. A turning point came in October of that year. Messalla decided to use the rebellion as a pretext to remove Aelianus from power. Messalla sent out orders to units in Anatolia and the Balkans that were directly under his command to invade Thessalonica (the capital of the Dominium Caesaris) and arrest Aelianus. The orders to depose Aelianus were received in November 288, and Messalla’s forces promptly began turning on Aelianus’ forces. Aelianus’ forces were quickly overwhelmed, and Aelianus committed suicide on November 29.