Valerianus and Gallienus: The Years 253-260

Aureus of Valerianus (source: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.).

When he marched on Rome in 253, Aemilianus had taken away many troops from the Danube border. Valerianus had done the same when he marched on the Eternal City with the legions from the Rhine the same year. As a result, these borders were weakly defended and the Germanic and other tribes living beyond the two rivers felt confident enough to stage new raids. These would have to be dealt with by Gallienus and his generals, while Valerianus would take charge of the war against the Persians. The frequent ‘barbarian’ incursions lead to a growing awareness that the old Roman army made up of legions of some 5.000 men was not fit to deal with raids. It was an army that excelled at fighting large pitched battles, but these were rare in the third century, especially in the western part of the Empire. Once the raiding parties had sneaked or fought their way past the border troops, there was no mobile reserve to stop them. The Roman army needed to be reformed and some reforms may have started with Valerianus and Gallienus.

Gallienus the general

Latin sources usually paint a very negative picture of Gallienus, while Greek sources are much more positive of him. The reason is probably that he drew the ire of the senatorial class in Rome, whose members vilified him in their histories written in the Latin language. The senators may have had good reason to do so. Gallienus seems to have been very popular with the common people and especially the army, which explains why he managed to survive on the throne for fifteen years, longer than all of his predecessors since Septimius Severus (193211). On the other hand he likely offended senators when, as part of his army reforms, he abolished the centuries-old privilege that only senators could serve as senior military tribunes (tribunus laticlavius) and legionary commanders (legatus legionis). These prestigious posts could now also be held be members of the equites.[1] Merit rather than social class was what counted now.

Bust of Gallienus (Capitoline Museums, Rome).

A good example of the hostility found in Latin sources is the Historia Augusta, which portrays the emperor as a party animal, who mostly enjoyed the company of whores, pimps, actors and jesters while the Empire around him was falling apart. This picture could not be further from the truth. While Gallienus did organise large spectacles (for instance, his decennalia in 262 and a triumph in 264), he spent much of his reign campaigning against enemies both within and outside the Empire. Between 254 and 258[2] the emperor fought against the Germanic tribes on the Rhine. Judging by the coins he issued in this period, his campaigns were generally a success. Several coins feature Germanic prisoners and Gallienus began styling himself ‘Germanicus Maximus’. We also find texts such as VICTORIA GERMANICA (‘Victory over the Germans’) and RESTIT[VTOR] GALLIAR[VM] (‘restorer of the Gallic provinces’) on his coins. Gallienus seems to have combined brute force with diplomacy, as Zosimus mentions at least one case in which he made a deal with a Germanic chieftain. This was nothing new: Caracalla and Severus Alexander before him had done the same.

In the same period, probably in 254, the Marcomanni invaded Pannonia. They had been peaceful for decades, but were now on the move again. Rather than fighting the invaders, Gallienus made a treaty with their king, a certain Attalus. The treaty was likely concluded in 258 and stipulated that a part of Pannonia Superior was to be ceded to the Marcomanni, who in return were under an obligation to guard the border against new incursions. The emperor was given the king’s daughter, a woman named Pipa or Pipara, as a hostage and concubine. The Historia Augusta claims he truly loved her, while Aurelius Victor speaks of a shameful love affair (amori flagitioso).

Gallienus and the usurpers

Relief on the tomb of a soldier from the 3rd or 4th century. He carries two javelins, a flat oval shield and a sword on the left side (Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Aquileia).

Gallienus’ legitimate wife was Cornelia Salonina and with her he had three sons, Valerianus II, Saloninus and Marinianus. Valerianus II had been made a Caesar, either by his father or his grandfather, and had been left at Sirmium under the care of one Ingenuus. In 258, young Valerianus suddenly died and Ingenuus was suspected of having had a hand in the boy’s death. Gallienus made his second son Saloninus a Caesar and sent him to Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium (Cologne) on the Rhine. He then rushed to Pannonia to deal with Valerianus’ alleged murderer, who by now had been proclaimed emperor by his troops.

In late 258 or early 259, the legitimate emperor defeated his rival at Mursa (modern Osijek in Croatia). Ingenuus was killed or drowned himself after the battle. After his victory, Gallienus left Regalianus behind to guard the province and hurried back to Italy which had been invaded by the Alemanni. These he defeated at Mediolanum (Milan) in 259; those who managed to escape were later annihilated in Rhaetia. Before entering Italy, the Alemanni had first invaded the area known as the Agri Decumates, which was the region between the Rhine and Danube. The area had been annexed and settled by the Roman Empire in the first century, but was now permanently wrested from Roman control. Although the Alemanni had been defeated at Milan, Gallienus nor his successors would be able to recover the Agri Decumates.

Gallienus simply could not be everywhere at the same time and sections of the borders had to be defended by his generals. At some point, possibly in 256, the Goths had crossed the Danube again, marched through Thrace and threatened Thessalonica in Macedonia. Although their siege was ultimately unsuccessful, their invasion created a great panic in Greece, which had enjoyed peace for over two centuries. The Athenians strengthened their walls and the Corinthian Isthmus was fortified. Many cities in the Roman Empire of the middle of the third century did not even have walls. But now that the Crisis of the Third Century was at its peak, many hastily began building them, if only to deter an approaching enemy.

Mosaic of Neptune from Roman Gaul (Musée des beaux-arts et d’archéologie de Besançon).

In spite of Gallienus’ successes against the Germanic tribes, the borders were soon in turmoil again. In 259 or 260, Regalianus rebelled in Pannonia and was proclaimed emperor by the troops. He defended the province against the Sarmatians, but was soon killed at Carnuntum by the very same troops that had presented him with the purple. There was therefore no need for Gallienus to come back and punish him. However, things were very different in Gaul. After Gallienus had left the Rhine region and had taken many of the troops stationed there with him, a Frankish coalition of Bructeri, Salii, Chamavi and others had broken through the Roman defences. The Franks fought and looted their way through Gaul and even reached Tarraco in present-day Spain. On their way back they were checked by Marcus Cassianius Latinius Postumus, a Batavian who was possibly the legate of Germania Inferior. In 260, he inflicted a severe defeat on them near the temple of Hercules-Magusanus at Empel (now part of ‘s-Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands).

Postumus had proven that he could defend the region against foreign invaders, something Gallienus was unable or unwilling to do. Not long after his victory, the Batavian commander was declared emperor by the troops. There was, however, one small obstacle on his path: Saloninus, Gallienus’ second son who had been made a Caesar. He was still in Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium (Cologne) as overall commander of the region and needed to be dealt with. As Saloninus was still young, he had been given a guardian named Silvanus. Postumus attacked the city and killed the two men. The two German provinces and Gaul were now under his control, and soon the Spanish and British provinces would join his ‘Gallic Empire’, as it is called today. But that is not what Postumus himself would have called his realm. As far as he was concerned, he was the legitimate Roman emperor. Culturally, his Empire was thoroughly Roman. His subjects spoke Latin, consuls were appointed and perhaps an alternative Senate was set up. The only thing special was that Postumus never seems to have pondered an invasion of Italy to depose Gallienus. Instead, he let Gallienus come to him.

Valerianus: the unlucky emperor

Roman cavalry helmet (Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden).

Valerianus had reached the Roman East by 254 or early 255. There were likely some skirmishes with the Persians and Nisibis may have fallen to them in one of the years mentioned. The emperor did not have the means yet to go on the offensive against Shapur. The Roman forces in the region had been badly cut up during the previous Persian offensive and needed to be replenished and reorganised. Many of the cities and towns of Syria lay in ruins, especially Antiochia, previously one of the largest cities of the Empire. As Valerianus was engaged in assembling his army, rebuilding the region and – most of all – restoring Roman morale, he was suddenly confronted by new invasions from the north.

The Bosporan Kingdom (Regnum Bospori) was a Roman client kingdom on the shores of the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. It comprised much of the Crimea and the Taman Peninsula on the other side of the Kerch Strait. The Greco-Roman kingdom was ruled by kings who were apparently all named Tiberius Julius. Like the Roman Empire, the Bosporan Kingdom frequently found itself under attack from the Goths. In about 254, a group of Goths forced the Bosporans to provide them with ships and probably also with crews. The Goths then sailed to the Greco-Roman colony of Pityus (now Pitsunda in Georgia), which was defended by one Successianus. He managed to repel the attack, but the Goths were back the next year. In about 255, they first launched an unsuccessful attack on Phasis (also in present-day Georgia) and then sacked Pityus. Their next target was an even more important city: Trapezus in Cappadocia, which is modern Trabzon in Turkey. Although the city was defended by a large garrison, it was captured during a night attack. The Goths gathered much loot and enslaved many of the inhabitants.

Asclepius, the Roman god of healing (Capitoline Museums, Rome).

The success of the invasions encouraged further incursions. In about 256, another group of Goths invaded the province of Bithynia et Pontus. Part of the Gothic army seems to have taken the land route to Asia and have marched along the western shores of the Black Sea, while another part was transported by ship. Perhaps the failed siege of Thessalonica by the Goths (see above) was part of this operation. When the invaders reached Bithynia, the first city to fall to the Gothic onslaught was Chalcedon (opposite Byzantium), followed by Nicomedia, Nicaea and a few others. The Gothic invaders then tried to penetrate into the province of Asia and attack Cyzicus, but bad weather forced them to retreat. The emperor Valerianus seems to have done what he could to help the embattled provinces, but he and his generals were probably too late all the time. What was worse was that his troops were badly affected by the Plague of Cyprian. Those who did not die were in no condition to fight. The Historia Augusta claims that the disease claimed 5.000 lives a day ‘in both Rome and the cities of Achaea’.[3] Even if this claim was fabricated or exaggerated, there is no reason to doubt the seriousness of the plague.

Valerianus: persecutor of Christians

Under these dire circumstances, with ‘barbarian’ invasions everywhere, a plague raging through the Empire and an upcoming offensive against Shapur, Valerianus decided to test the loyalty of his Christian subjects. His Edict of 257 was quite different from that of Decius, who had ordered the entire free population of the Roman Empire to sacrifice to the ancestral gods without ever mentioning the Christians. Valerianus did explicitly target Christians, more specifically their bishops, priests and deacons. These were to be arrested and compelled to sacrifice to the traditional gods. Banishment was the penalty for those who refused. As long as the leaders were held in custody, Christian assemblies were prohibited and Christian cemeteries closed. What was more, Church possessions, valuable objects and money were confiscated. The Edict may have been, at least partially, financially motivated.

Bishop Cyprianus before the proconsul (Museu Episcopal, Vic).

Most Christians in the Roman Empire lived in the Greek-speaking East. The percentage of Christians there may have been about 20 percent of the population, compared to about 5 percent for the Empire as a whole.[4] The most important centre of Christianity was probably Antiochia, where according to Acts 11:26, the word ‘Christian’ had been coined. However, the Christian community of Antiochia had suffered a disaster in 253, when their city had been taken and pillaged by Shapur. Patriarch Demetrius and many of his flock had been captured. They had been deported to the Sassanid Empire, where they were resettled and allowed to freely practice their religion. Shapur was a tolerant ruler, who respected other faiths in his Empire, such as Christianity and Manicheism, a religion founded by the prophet Mani (ca. 216-274). The fact that his opponent was treating Christians with respect may have been one of the reasons for Valerianus to doubt their loyalty vis-à-vis the Roman Empire. His distrust may have been a factor in issuing the Edict.

We know that patriarch Dionysius of Alexandria, another major centre of Christianity, was arrested and, when he refused to sacrifice, exiled. The same happened to Cyprianus, the bishop of Carthage, who was banished to Curubis. We do not know what happened to bishop Mozabanus of Jerusalem, nor what the fate of the bishop of Nicomedia was. Although it had a Christian community early on, Nicomedia lay in ruins after the Gothic attack of 256. Later it would be rebuilt and become an important centre of Christianity again. It would be bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia (died 341) who would baptise Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor of Rome. The name of the bishop of Nicomedia during the Valerian persecutions is unknown.

Mosaic of Saint Lawrence.

And what happened to the bishop of Rome, Pope Sixtus (or Xystus) II? Initially, the authorities in the Eternal City seem to have just ignored Valerianus’ Edict. The Pope was not arrested until a second Edict reached Rome in 258. It was much more detailed than the first and stipulated that bishops, priests and deacons who refused to sacrifice were to be executed. Christian senators, equestrians and high officials lost their rank and possessions. Christian noblewomen were stripped of their possessions as well and were exiled. Finally, Christians who worked in the administration of the Empire were forced to do hard labour. The second Edict sealed the fate of Pope Sixtus and also that of Cyprianus. Sixtus was arrested and decapitated on 6 Augustus 258, along with six of his deacons. Four days later, a seventh deacon, Laurentius (Saint Lawrence), was executed as well after he refused to tell the authorities were the riches of the Church were hidden. According to tradition, he was roasted alive on a gridiron, but since he was a Roman citizen, death by decapitation sounds much more likely (see Rome: San Lorenzo in Lucina). He was buried in the catacombs of the Campo Verano, where we now find the church of San Lorenzo fuori le Mura.

In Africa, the proconsul Aspasius Paternus had been replaced by Galerius Maximus. The new governor had Cyprianus arrested. When he refused to sacrifice to the gods, he was decapitated on 14 September 258. Sixtus, Laurentius and Cyprianus can all be considered historical, and so can bishop Fructuosus of Tarraco, who was martyred in 259. Other alleged martyrs, such as the Numidian Saints Marianus and Jacobus, are a bit more doubtful, although we do know that Christians were persecuted in Numidia and that the bishops Nemesianus, Dativus, Felix and Victor, were sent to the mines.[5] Valerianus’ persecutions specifically targeted church leaders and Christian nobles, but we know no credible cases of senators or equites who were stripped of their rank (the fact that they were targeted does prove that there were in fact Christian senators and equites). The number of martyrs among the bishops, priests and deacons was likely not that high, but we should not underestimate the chilling effect the executions had on Christians. In Rome, the Christians may have collected the relics of Saint Peter from the Ager Vaticanus and those of Saint Paul from a cemetery on the Via Ostiense. These were then presumably translated to a safer place along the Via Appia. We now find the church of San Sebastiano fuori le Mura on that spot.

Valerianus: an emperor in chains

Relief featuring Shapur, who is holding Valerianus by the arm. The kneeling man is Philippus Arabs. Behind Shapur we see the priest Kartir (photo: Sahand Ace, CC BY-SA 3.0).

In late 259 or early 260, the Persians under Shapur attacked Carrhae and Edessa. Valerianus had by now assembled a large force and confronted the king. According to the Res Gestae Divi Saporis, the emperor’s army was 70.000 men strong, but that sounds like a massive exaggeration. A battle took place near Edessa, of which no details have been preserved. It was clear, however, that it was a heavy Roman defeat and that Valerianus was captured. Shapur claims to have destroyed the Roman army first and then captured the emperor, but Roman sources such as Aurelius Victor and Zosimus tend to attribute the Persian victory to treachery: the emperor was supposedly kidnapped during negotiations. In any case, the Roman army in the region was no longer a coherent fighting force and for the first time in history, a Roman emperor was in enemy captivity. Valerianus was not the only high-ranking prisoner. The Res Gestae Divi Saporis claims that a praetorian prefect and several senators and subordinate commanders were also captured. Along with probably thousands of ordinary soldiers, they were deported to Persis, where the Persians recognised their engineering skills and set them to work on several architectural projects, including the Band-e Kaisar.

The only thing we know for certain about Valerianus’ fate is that he died in captivity. We do not know when this happened, nor in what circumstances. Aurelius Victor claims he was horribly mutilated (foede laniatus), while the anonymous author of the Epitome de Caesaribus asserts that Shapur used him as a mounting block to get onto his horse, a story also found in the work of the Christian author Lactantius. Whether these claims are reliable is up for debate. Most sources do seem to agree that the emperor ultimately died of old age, so his living conditions cannot have been that bad. After he had passed away, according to Lactantius, his skin was flayed off, dyed red and placed in a temple. As a Christian, Lactantius had plenty of reasons to vilify Valerianus, who had been responsible for the persecution of Christians. And yet there may be some truth in what he wrote. The eleventh-century scholar Al-Biruni wrote that after the prophet Mani (see above) was executed under one of Shapur’s successors, his skin was stripped off, filled with grass and hung over one of the gates of Gundeshapur. As important enemies of the Sassanid Empire, the contemporaries Valerianus and Mani may have been given the same treatment after their deaths.

Eye-protector for a horse (Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden).

After their victory near Edessa, the road to the Roman provinces further to the west lay open for the Persians. They happily pillaged Syria, Cilicia and Cappadocia and deported the populations of many cities until they were checked by an unlikely adversary, who will be discussed in the next post. It was in any case not Gallienus, who never made any attempt to rescue his father. We may question the statement in the Historia Augusta that he was actually happy that Valerianus had been captured, but there is no doubt that he was simply stuck in Europe, fighting off Germanic invasions, trying to defeat Postumus’ Gallic Empire and constantly on his guard against usurpers and assassins.

Sources

Primary sources

Secondary sources

  • Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of the West, p. 100-101;
  • Henk Singor, Constantijn, p. 102-106.

Notes

[1] Aurelius Victor claims that Gallienus “was the first to prohibit the senators from undertaking a military career or entering the army” (De Caesaribus 33; translation: H.W. Bird). He exaggerated, but there was kernel of truth in his words.

[2] Most, if not all, of the years given in this post are uncertain. The events discussed may have happened earlier or later, and the order of events is also up for debate. What I present here is an educated guess and an attempt to establish a chronology that is at the very least plausible.

[3] The Two Gallieni 5.

[4] E.Ch.L. van der Vliet, Een geschiedenis van de klassieke oudheid, p. 424.

[5] Cyprianus, Epistle 77.

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