Valerian the Elder

Publius Licinius Valerianus
(AD ca. 195 – AD 260)

Valerian, a descendant of a distinguished family from Etruria, was born in about AD 195. He served as consul in the 230’s under Alexander Severus and was one of the leading supporter of the Gordian rebellion against Maximinus Thrax in AD 238.

Under later emperors he was much appreciated as a stalwart senator, a man of honour 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 AD 251, proving that this emperor, too, deemed him a man he could trust.

When alas 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.

Though Valerian marched on toward Italy, determined to see Aemilian dead. With Trebonianus Gallus and his heir both killed, the throne was now free also to him. When he reached Raetia with his troops, the 58 year old Valerian was hailed emperor by his men (AD 253).

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 autumn AD 253 and elevated his forty year old son Gallienus as full imperial partner.

But these were hard time for the empire and its emperors. 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.

Sapor I (Shapur I), king of Persia now launched another attack on the reeling Roman empire. If the Persian assault began early into Valerian’s or shortly before is unclear.

But Persian claims to have captured as many as 37 cities are most likely true. Sapor’s forces overran Armenia and Cappadocia and in Syria even captured the capital Antioch, where the Persians set up a Roman puppet emperor (called either Mareades or Cyriades). However, as the Persians invariably withdrew, this would-be emperor was left without any support, was captured and burnt alive.

The reasons for the Persian withdrawal were that Sapor I was, contrary to his own claims, not a conqueror. His interests lay in looting the Roman territories, rather than acquiring them permanently. Therefore, once an area had been overrun and sacked for all it was worth, it was simply abandoned again.

So by the time Valerian arrived in Antioch, the Persians had most likely already retreated.

One of Valerian’s first acts was to defeat was to crush the rebellion of the high-priest of the notorious deity of El-Gabal at Emesa, Uranius Antoninus, who had successfully defended the city against the Persians and therefore had declared himself emperor.

Valerian campaigned against the marauding Persians for the next years, achieving some limited success. Not much detail is appears to be known of these campaigns, other than in AD 257 he did achieve a victory in battle against the foe. In any case, the Persians had largely withdrawn from the territory they had overrun.

But in AD 259 Sapor I launched yet another attack on Mesopotamia. Valerian marched on the city of Edessa in Mesopotamia to relieve this city from the Persian siege. But his army suffered severe losses by fighting, but most of all, by plague. Hence Valerian in April or May AD 260 decided it would be best to sue for peace with the enemy.

Evoys 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 Sapor 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 rumour by which his corpse was stuffed with straw and preserved for ages as a trophy in a Persian temple.

It is, however, worth mentioning here that there are theories, by which Valerian sought refuge with Sapor I from his own, mutinous troops. But the above mentioned version, that Valerian was captured by deceit, is the traditionally taught history.


The decline of Rome

Roman Empire

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