The Famous and Infamous Rulers of Rome – Part 30
The Famous and Infamous Rulers of Rome series explores the most famous – and infamous – dictators, leaders and emperors of Rome. The history of the Roman Empire is perhaps unprecedented in its prosperity, considered by most historians and scholars to have been the “perfect empire” with a stable economy, a strong government and superb military. The men who ruled this empire varied greatly, from noble leaders like Antoninus Pius to oppressive despots like Caligula. The story of Rome’s rulers has it all – love, murder and revenge, fear and greed, envy and pride. Their history is a rollercoaster that lurches from peace and prosperity to terror and tyranny. Over the next few weeks, we will look at some of the most outstanding rulers that Roman history created – and who created Roman history. This week we focus on Valerian.
Valerian, a descendant of a distinguished family from Etruria, was born in about 195. He served as consul in the 230s under Alexander Severus and was one of the leading supporter of the Gordian rebellion against Maximinus Thrax in 238.
Under later emperors, he was much appreciated as a stalwart senator, a man of honor one could rely on. Emperor Decius granted him special powers to oversee his government when he embarked on his Danubian campaign. And Valerian dutifully put down the rebellion of Julius Valens Licianus and the senate, while his Emperor was fighting the Goths.
Under the subsequent reign of Trebonianus Gallus, he was entrusted with the command of the powerful forces of the Upper Rhine in 251, proving that this Emperor, too, deemed him a man he could trust.
When Aemilian rebelled against Trebonianus Gallus and led his troops against Rome, the Emperor called upon Valerian to come to his aid. However, Aemilian had already advanced so far it was impossible to save the Emperor.
Yet Valerian marched on toward Italy, determined to see Aemilian dead. With Trebonianus Gallus and his heir both killed, the throne was now free for him to take control. When he reached Raetia with his troops, the 58 year old Valerian was hailed Emperor by his men. Aemilian’s troops soon after murdered their master and vowed allegiance to Valerian, not wanting to face a fight against the formidable Army of the Rhine. Their decision was at once confirmed by the senate. Valerian arrived at Rome in 253 and elevated his 40 year old son Gallienus as full imperial partner.
The Roman Empire was in the midst of chaotic times, as German tribes invaded the northern provinces in ever greater numbers. So too, in the east, the coastline of the Black Sea continued to be devastated by seaborne barbarians. In the Asian provinces, great cities like Chalcedon were sacked and Nicaea and Nicomedia were put to the torch. Urgent action was required to protect the empire and reestablish control. The two emperors needed to move swiftly.
Valerian’s son and co-Augustus Gallienus, now went north to deal with the German incursions on the Rhine. Valerian himself took the east to deal with the Gothic naval invasions. In effect, the two Augusti split the empire, dividing the armies and territory between each other, giving an example of the split into eastern and western empire which was to follow in a few decades.
But Valerian’s plans for the east came to very little. First his army was hit by pestilence, then a far greater threat than the Goths emerged from the east.
Shapur I, King of Persia, now launched another attack on the reeling Roman Empire. Shapur’s forces overran Armenia and Cappadocia and in Syria even captured the capital Antioch, where the Persians set up a Roman puppet emperor. However, as the Persians invariably withdrew, this would-be emperor was left without any support, was captured and burned alive.
The reasons for the Persian withdrawal were that Shapur I was, contrary to his own claims, not a conqueror. His interests lay in looting the Roman territories rather than acquiring them permanently. Thus, once an area had been overrun and sacked for all it was worth, it was simply abandoned again. By the time Valerian arrived in Antioch, the Persians had most likely already retreated.
But in 259, Shapur I launched yet another attack on Mesopotamia. Valerian marched on the city of Edessa in Mesopotamia to relieve this city from the Persian siege, yet his army suffered severe losses by fighting, but most of all, by plague. In 260, Valerian decided it would be best to sue for peace with the enemy. Envoys were sent to the Persian camp and returned with the suggestion of a personal meeting between the two leaders.
The proposal must have appeared genuine, for Emperor Valerian, accompanied by a small number of personal aides, set out to the arranged meeting place to discuss the terms for bringing the war to an end. But it was all merely a trick by Shapur I. Valerian rode right into the Persian trap and was taken prisoner and dragged off to Persia.
Nothing more was ever heard again of Emperor Valerian other than a disturbing rumors that his corpse was stuffed with straw and preserved for ages as a trophy in a Persian temple.