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For other uses, see Valerian.
Emperor of the Roman Empire
Aureus Valerian-RIC 0034.jpg
Valerian on a coin celebrating
goddess Fortuna
Reign 253-260 (with Gallienus)
Full name Publius Licinius Valerianus (from birth to accession);
Caesar Publius Licinius Valerianus Augustus
(as emperor)
Born c. 193, c. 195, c. 200
Died After 260 or 264 (aged 60)
Place of death Bishapur or Gundishapur
Predecessor Aemilianus
Successor Gallienus (alone)
Wife Mariniana
Offspring Gallienus &
Valerianus Minor
Father Senatorial

Publius Licinius Valerianus Maior[1] (c. 193, c. 195, c. 200 - aft. 260 or 264), commonly known in English as Valerian or Valerian I, the Elder, was the only Roman Emperor to be taken captive alive, having reigned from 253 to 260.




Origins and rise to power

Coin of Egnatia Mariniana, wife of Valerian and mother of Gallienus.

Unlike the majority of the pretenders during the Crisis of the Third Century, Valerian was of a noble and traditional senatorial family. Details of his early life are elusive, but for his marriage to Egnatia Mariniana, who gave him two sons: later emperor Publius Licinius Egnatius Gallienus and Valerianus Minor.[2]

He was Consul for the first time either before 238 as a Suffectus or in 238 as an Ordinarius. In 238 he was princeps senatus, and Gordian I negotiated through him for Senatorial acknowledgement for his claim as emperor. In 251, when Decius revived the censorship with legislative and executive powers so extensive that it practically embraced the civil authority of the emperor, Valerian was chosen censor by the Senate, though he declined to accept the post. Under Decius he was nominated governor of the Rhine provinces of Noricum and Raetia and retained the confidence of his successor, Trebonianus Gallus, who asked him for reinforcements to quell the rebellion of Aemilianus in 253. Valerian headed south, but was too late: Gallus' own troops had killed him and joined Aemilianus before his arrival. The Raetian soldiers then proclaimed Valerian emperor and continued their march towards Rome. At the time of his arrival in September or October, Aemilianus' legions defected, killing him and proclaiming Valerian emperor. In Rome, the Senate quickly acknowledged him, not only for fear of reprisals, but also because he was one of their own.

Rule and fall

A bas relief of Emperor Valerian standing at the background and held captive by Shapur I found at Naghsh-e Rostam, Shiraz, Iran. The kneeling man is probably Philip the Arab.

Valerian's first act as emperor on 22 October 253 was to make his son Gallienus his Caesar and colleague. In the beginning of his reign the affairs in Europe went from bad to worse and the whole West fell into disorder. In the East, Antioch had fallen into the hands of a Sassanid vassal, Armenia was occupied by Shapur I (Sapor). Valerian and Gallienus split the problems of the empire between the two, with the son taking the West and the father heading East to face the Persian threat.

In 254, 255 and 257 he became once again Consul Ordinarius. By 257, Valerian had already recovered Antioch and returned the province of Syria to Roman control but in the following year, the Goths ravaged Asia Minor. Later in 259, he moved to Edessa, but an outbreak of plague killed a critical number of legionaries, weakening the Roman position in Edessa which was then besieged by the Persians. At the beginning of 260, Valerian was decisively defeated in the Battle of Edessa and he arranged a meeting with Shapur to negotiate a peace settlement. The truce was betrayed by Shapur who seized him and held him prisoner for the remainder of his life. Valerian's capture was a humiliating defeat for the Romans.[3]

Gibbon, in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire describes Valerian's fate [4]:

The voice of history, which is often little more than the organ of hatred or flattery, reproaches Sapor with a proud abuse of the rights of conquest. We are told that Valerian, in chains, but invested with the Imperial purple, was exposed to the multitude, a constant spectacle of fallen greatness; and that whenever the Persian monarch mounted on horseback, he placed his foot on the neck of a Roman emperor. Notwithstanding all the remonstrances of his allies, who repeatedly advised him to remember the vicissitudes of fortune, to dread the returning power of Rome, and to make his illustrious captive the pledge of peace, not the object of insult, Sapor still remained inflexible. When Valerian sunk under the weight of shame and grief, his skin, stuffed with straw, and formed into the likeness of a human figure, was preserved for ages in the most celebrated temple of Persia; a more real monument of triumph, than the fancied trophies of brass and marble so often erected by Roman vanity. [5] The tale is moral and pathetic, but the truth of it may very fairly be called in question. The letters still extant from the princes of the East to Sapor are manifest forgeries; [6] nor is it natural to suppose that a jealous monarch should, even in the person of a rival, thus publicly degrade the majesty of kings. Whatever treatment the unfortunate Valerian might experience in Persia, it is at least certain that the only emperor of Rome who had ever fallen into the hands of the enemy, languished away his life in hopeless captivity.

Death in captivity

An early Christian source, Lactantius, maintained that for some time prior to his death Valerian was subjected to the greatest insults by his captors, such as being used as a human footstool by Shapur when mounting his horse. According to this version of events, after a long period of such treatment Valerian offered Shapur a huge ransom for his release. In reply, according to one version, Shapur was said to have forced Valerian to swallow molten gold (the other version of his death is almost the same but it says that Valerian was killed by being flayed alive) and then had the unfortunate Valerian skinned and his skin stuffed with straw and preserved as a trophy in the main Persian temple. It was further alleged by Lactantius that it was only after a later Persian defeat against Rome that his skin was given a cremation and burial.[7] The role of a Chinese prince held hostage by Shapur I, in the events following the death of Valerian has been frequently debated by historians, without reaching any definitive conclusion.

The Humiliation of Emperor Valerian by Shapur I, pen and ink, Hans Holbein the Younger, ca. 1521

Some modern scholars believe that, contrary to Lactantius' account, Shapur I sent Valerian and some of his army to the city of Bishapur or Gundishapur where they lived in relatively good condition. Shapur used the remaining soldiers in engineering and development plans. Band-e Kaisar (Caesar's dam) is one of the remnants of Roman engineering located near the ancient city of Susa.[8] In all the stone carvings on Naghshe-Rostam, in Iran, Valerian is respected by holding hands with Shapur I, in sign of submission.

It is generally supposed that some of Lactantius' account is motivated by his desire to establish that persecutors of the Christians died fitting deaths;[9] the story was repeated then and later by authors in the Roman Near East "fiercely hostile" to Persia.[10]

Other modern scholars tend to give at least some credence to Lactantius' account.[11]

Valerian and Gallienus' joint rule was threatened several times by usurpers. Despite several usurpation attempts, Gallienus secured the throne until his own assassination in 268.

Owing to imperfect and often contradictory sources, the chronology and details of this reign are very uncertain.


  • Gallienus
  • Publius Licinius Valerianus Minor or Valerian the Younger was another son of Valerian I. Consul in 265, he was probably killed by usurpers, some time between the capture of his father in 260 and the assassination of his brother Gallienus in 268.

See also


  1. ^ Valerian full title at his death was IMPERATOR CAESAR PVBLIVS LICINIVS VALERIANVS PIVS FELIX INVICTVS AVGVSTVS GERMANICVS MAXIMVS PONTIFEX MAXIMVS TRIBUNICIAE POTESTATIS VII IMPERATOR I CONSUL IV PATER PATRIAE, "Emperor Caesar Publius Licinus Valerianus Pious Lucky Unconquered Augustus Germanic Maxim Tribunicial Power 7 times Emperor 1 time Consul 4 times Father of the Fatherland".
  2. ^
  3. ^ Valerian [1]
  4. ^ chapter ten
  5. ^ Footnote 150: The Pagan writers lament, the Christian insult, the misfortunes of Valerian. Their various testimonies are accurately collected by Tillemont, tom. iii. p. 739, &c. So little has been preserved of eastern history before Mahomet, that the modern Persians are totally ignorant of the victory Sapor, an event so glorious to their nation. See Bibliotheque Orientale.
  6. ^ Footnote 151: One of these epistles is from Artavasdes, king of Armenia; since Armenia was then a province of Persia, the king, the kingdom, and the epistle must be fictitious.
  7. ^ Lactantius, De Mortibus Persecutorum, v; Wickert, L., "Licinius (Egnatius) 84" in Pauly-Wissowa, Realencyclopädie 13.1 (1926), 488-495; Parker, H., A History of the Roman World A.D. 138 to 337 (London, 1958), 170. From [2].
  8. ^ Abdolhossein Zarinkoob "Ruzgaran: tarikh-i Iran az aghz ta saqut saltnat Pahlvi" pp. 195
  9. ^ Meijer, Fik (2004). Emperors don't die in bed. New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-31202-7.  
  10. ^ Isaacs, Benjamin. The Near East under Roman Rule. Boston: Brill Academic Publishers. pp. 440. ISBN 90-04-09989-1.  
  11. ^ Reiner, Erica. "The Reddling of Valerian." The Classical Quarterly 56:0101, 325-329, Cambridge University Press, 5/2006.

Primary Sources

External links

Regnal titles
Preceded by
Roman Emperor
Served alongside: Gallienus
Succeeded by

See also


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