Shapur I (r. 239/242-270/272), of the Sasanian Persian Empire, had a long reign filled with impressive military successes, including the besting of at least three Roman Emperors (Gordian III [r. 238-244], Philip [r. 244-249] and Valerian [253-260]), the last of which was captured by the Persians and paraded around Shapur’s court as a living trophy. Amid Shapur’s record of conquests and expansions, however, was a curious blemish of defeat inflicted on the Persian forces by an unlikely leader who won a battle against Shapur’s forces near Emesa around 252 or 253. The battle took place during a campaign of warfare launched by Shapur I against the Roman Empire around 252. Shapur’s campaign targeted Syria and Anatolia. As a result, Emesa, located at the Homs Gap between Aleppo and Damascus, was an early objective that Shapur wanted to take. Nevertheless, a local force from the Emesa region quickly mobilized, marched south, and set up a defensive position before the Persians arrived. The Emesan troops, curiously enough, had as their leader a man named Uranius Antoninus (also known as Sampsigeramus), who was said to have been a priest of the love goddess, Aphrodite. To Shapur’s chagrin, the priest of Aphrodite and his Emesan forces were able to hold the Homs Gap and halt the Persian army.
Shapur’s military campaign, however, was no way near its end—instead, this particular campaign would stretch on to 257, and, unfortunately for the Romans, the Persians would ultimately be successful. That aside, the officers involved in the Emesan victory over the Persians immediately leapt into politics and their local army launched a bid to set their leader up as a new emperor of Rome. The priest of Aphrodite may have been involved in the insurrection, but the identities of the usurpers at Emesa are vague and contested. Whatever the case, there were bigger fish in the sea—Septimius Odaenathus of Palmyra, who was given great power by Emperor Gallienus of Rome (r. 260-268), crushed the rebel army at Emesa and brought the region under the influence of Palmyra. This same Odaenathus was able to halt Shapur’s renewed advances against the Roman Empire, defending the regions of Mesopotamia and Armenia from Persian attacks. When Odaenathus and his eldest sons were assassinated, the powerful Palmyrene regime declared independence under the rule of Queen Zenobia of Palmyra (r. 267/268-272). The aforementioned city of Emesa joined Zenobia’s upstart empire. Zenobia’s revolution, however, was defeated by Emperor Aurelian of Rome (r. 270–275), who absorbed the region back into the Roman Empire.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Venus tells Aeneas and his friend Achates to go to Carthage, designed by Giovanni Francesco Romanelli (c. 1610–1662), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Cleveland Museum of Art).
- The Oxford Dictionary of Late Antiquity, edited by Oliver Nicholson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.