This unfortunate emperor suffered an imaginative death in 260 CE
Throughout the long history of the Roman Empire, it seems as if enough blood was spilt to replace the earth’s oceans. Assassinations, massacres, persecutions, executions, gladiatorial games and wars fill almost every century of the Roman Empire’s lengthy existence. Even with the over-abundance of morbid and macabre killings, the execution of Emperor Valerian (r. 253-260) was so shocking that it remains vividly unique, even when compared to other bloody events that are abundant in Roman history.
When he came to power, Emperor Valerian was no stranger to government and administration. He had already been a senator and a governor, and had refused to take the powerful position of censor. He was also no amateur to imperial politics or war. He helped Emperor Gordian I gain favor with the Senate, and Valerian was also a trusted aid to the emperors, Decius and Gallus. When a rebellion broke out against Emperor Gallus in 253, Valerian gathered his troops to reinforce the emperor, but he was too late—Gallus was assassinated. When news of the emperor’s death spread throughout the empire, the legions that were marching to aid Gallus proclaimed Valerian as the new emperor. Compared to other imperial successions, Valerian’s transition to power was unnaturally smooth. The Senate accepted him, and Aemilianus, the rebel who had been warring with the late Emperor Gallus, was assassinated by soldiers defecting to Valerian’s side.
The empire Valerian found himself leading was more vulnerable than it had been for a long time. Germanic warriors were pushing down toward Italy and the Goths were threatening imperial regions near Byzantium and Greece. Worst of all for the Roman Empire, Persia was on a dramatic rise to power under the rule of King Shapur I of the Sasanian Dynasty.
King Shapur had already proven to be a more than formidable foe to earlier emperors. He killed one Roman emperor, Emperor Gordian I, in the Battle of Misiche (c. 244) and invaded deep into Roman lands. He maneuvered his way toward the Black Sea, occupying Armenia, and his Persian forces also pressed their way toward the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, capturing the city of Antioch in 252.
To allow himself to focus on King Shapur I and the threats to the east, Emperor Valerian appointed his son, Gallienus, as co-emperor in charge of the Western Empire. As Valerian began to mobilize his legions to advance against the Persians, he strangely decided to enact persecutions against Christians. His motivation for these persecution remains largely unknown—for Valerian was not particularly hateful toward Christianity—but some theorize that the motive of the persecutions was to seize the wealth of the Christians to fund the state during its troubling times, or to simply distract the Roman population from its many threats by creating a scapegoat. Valerian may have also wanted to curry favor with the traditional gods of Rome by persecuting Christianity. The lack of precise motive aside, Emperor Valerian began disrupting Christian gatherings around 257, and by 258, major Christian figures were being executed. Bishop (or Pope) Sixtus II of Rome and Bishop Cyprian of Carthage were among the most notable of those executed in Valerian’s persecutions.
Valerian’s campaign against King Shapur I began with great success. Roman forces regained Antioch from Persian occupation in 257, and Valerian was able to restore much of provincial Syria to Roman control. Just as Valerian was making the situation in the east manageable, disaster struck in 258—the Goths drastically increased their harassment of the Roman-held regions of Greece, Thrace and Byzantium. The threat caused by the Goths was dangerous enough to cause Emperor Valerian to withdraw from his war with King Shapur of Persia and relocate back toward Anatolia, to the city of Edessa, to be in a position to better combat both of the hostile groups. Unfortunately for Valerian, Edessa also was riddled with plague, which spread into the camped Roman forces.
When King Shapur I pursued Emperor Valerian to the city of Edessa, the Persians found the Roman army weakened and in disarray because of the disease. In the resulting Battle of Edessa (c. 259 or 260), King Shapur I won an overwhelming victory over the Roman legions. Roman sources from that time period rarely discussed the Battle of Edessa (likely because of the embarrassment it caused), but we do know that the battle was disastrous for Rome. The Persians captured huge numbers of Roman soldiers, and these prisoners of war would later be used as laborers for King Shapur’s ambitious building projects. Among the captured was none other than Emperor Valerian—but he would not be a common laborer. King Shapur had different plans for the fallen emperor.
King Shapur I kept Emperor Valerian close. While the other captured Romans were forced to build structures and monuments for Shapur, Valerian, himself, was put to a different use. Emperor Valerian had the unfortunate fate of actually being a tool for King Shapur I—more specifically a stepping stool. When the Persian King decided to take his horse for a ride, he would send for Emperor Valerian, who would be forced onto to his hands and knees, allowing Shapur to mount his horse, using Valerian’s back as a platform. Understandably, Valerian tired of being stepped on by others, so the powerless emperor offered to pay a ransom to secure his own release. That question of ransom would prove to be a fatal mistake for Valerian.
The degree of horror involved in Valerian’s execution depends on the source, but all agree that Emperor Valerian never left Persian territory alive. The least gruesome, and least popular, account is that Valerian was exiled to an undisclosed Persian city for the rest of his days. Exile was the most Valerian could hope for, but unfortunately, the next accounts are exponentially more brutal.
The most commonly used source for the other, more gruesome, accounts of Valerian’s execution is Lactantius (c. 250-325), who was a Christian writer who certainly enjoyed recording the death of a persecutor of Christianity. One of the ways the ill-fated emperor was reportedly executed involved Valerian being forcibly made to ingest molten gold. Perhaps, he was fed the melted gold coins that were offered as a ransom payment. Another rumored method of execution is that Shapur I had Valerian flayed alive and skinned. Then the Persian King ordered for the emperor’s hide to be preserved, stuffed and put on display as a trophy. Maybe the truth (if Lactantius’ account has any credibility) is a mixture of both executions—perhaps, King Shapur I preferred his trophies gilded. Despite not knowing exactly how Emperor Valerian died in 260, the emperor did not survive being captured by the Sasanian King Shapur I. Valerian’s son, Gallienus (r. 253-268) managed to hold on to power in Rome for nearly another decade after his father’s death, but he, too, died a violent death at the hands of an assassin.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Early Christianity: A Brief History by Joseph H. Lynch. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.