Who was Emperor Valerian and what Happened to him?

As the first Roman emperor to suffer the ignominy of capture as a prisoner of war, Valerian faced insurmountable challenges during a period of unprecedented turmoil in the Roman Empire. Despite valiant efforts to preserve the values of his predecessors, his reign was fraught with conflict. This is the captivating tale of Emperor Valerian.

History Rulers
13 May 2023

What happened to Valerian is one of the most common questions asked about the man who reigned as emperor of Rome in the middle of the third century. Scholars, academics, and historians have debated the answer for centuries, and this debate continues today.

But who was Valerian? Roman emperor between 253 AD and 260 AD, his emperorship coincided with one of the most chaotic and fractious periods in the long and complex history of one of the world’s great empires.

The Crisis of the Third Century was an era of corruption and political instability. The empire lurched from one economic disaster to another and was beset by external threats from barbarian invasion, unprecedented social unrest and wildly erratic internecine struggles. In the anarchy of the five decades from 235, more than twenty-five emperors sat on the throne, some for as little as a few weeks.

Find out about the life and times of Publius Licinius Valerianus and we’ll answer the question on everyone’s lips: what happened to Valerian?

The Early Years of Valerian, Emperor of Rome

The Condemnation of St Lawrence by Valerian (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Like much of the chaos of the third century, facts about people, places and events are scarce, often contradictory and the subject of debate and conjecture. It’s believed Publius Licinius Valerianus was born somewhere around 195 AD to 200 AD into a distinguished family which may have had its origins in Etruria, modern-day Tuscany.

Although it’s by no means certain, it’s generally agreed he married Egnatia Mariniana and they had two sons, Publius Licinius Egnatius Gallienus and Licinius Valerianus. Emperor Valerian ruled with the former as co-emperor.

It’s said that Valerian was elected as consul, and may have played an important role in the ill-fated rebellion of Gordian I against Maximinus Thrax in 238 AD.

There is almost no mention of Valerian between 238 AD and 251 AD during which time ten men sat on the throne of Rome. However during the reign of Decius, Valerian – by this time a senator – proved his worth as a possible future emperor.

Decius left the affairs of Rome under the control of Valerian while the former battled the Goths in Thrace.

Decius himself died during the Battle of Abritus, alongside his son Herennius. After the brief reigns of Trebonianus Gallus, Volusanius and Aemillian, all of whom were reputed to have been killed by their own soldiers, the army and Senate proclaimed Publius Licinius Valerianus as Valerian, emperor of Rome.

Valerian, Roman Emperor

The Arch of Gallienus in Rome (Photo by Icas94/De Agostini Picture Library via Getty Images)

Valerian inherited a vulnerable empire that was, according to one historian, ‘out of control.’ Recognising the inability of one man to control the entirety of the ailing empire, his first order as emperor was to appoint his son as augustus, meaning he could rule jointly as co-emperor with his father.

He put Gallienus in charge of affairs in the west while he looked east at the emerging threat of the Persian Empire. The Sassanids, under King Shapur I, posed a significant challenge to Rome’s eastern territories.

Emperor Valerian left Rome early in his reign and it’s believed he never returned. He retook Antioch from the Sassanids and, in Asia Minor, he pushed back the advances of tribes including the Goths, seeking to regain lost territories and re-establish Rome’s eastern borders.

During his time warring with the Persians, he continued the Decian Persecution which demanded that Christian clergy offer sacrifices to the Roman gods. He went even further, ordering the seizure of titles, property, and even executions if they didn’t comply.

It must be noted that when Gallienus became sole emperor in 260 AD, he rescinded the decree.

Rome's Worst Military Defeat?

Shapur's triumph over Valerian (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

In late 259 AD or early 260 AD, Valerian, emperor of Rome, suffered a catastrophic defeat against the Sassanids led by Shapur I.

Valerian’s entire force – possibly tens of thousands of men – were lost. It’s said to have been one of the worst military disasters in Roman history. For the first and probably only time, a Roman emperor was taken into captivity.

The defeat weakened the Roman Empire to such an extent that it never fully recovered. But what happened to Valerian?

The Capture and Captivity of Valerian

The humiliation of Valerian by Shapur I (Photo by: Pictures From History/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Accounts of Emperor Valerian’s time in captivity and eventual death vary dramatically.

Eutropius wrote that he ‘was overthrown by Shapur, king of Persia, and being soon after made prisoner, grew old in ignominious slavery among the Parthians’. The early Christian author Lactantius suggested he was used as a human footstool Shapur would stand on to mount his horse. Other accounts of his death say that he was made to drink molten gold or that he was flayed alive.

However, numerous additional accounts contradict this grim fate and indeed suggest he was in fact sent to Bishapur or Gundishapur, cities in the Sassanid Empire, where he lived out the remainder of his life in relative comfort.

Indeed it’s not certain when or how Valerian died, but there’s little doubt that his capture was an abject humiliation for the Roman Empire.


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