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Valerian I

(c. 193 - c. 262 CE)

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Valerian I

Publius Licinius Valerianus

Ruled as

Imperator Caesar Publius Licinius Valerianus Augustus


253 – 260 CE


c. 193 CE


c. 262 CE

Coin of Valerian I

Valerian I was born around 193 CE (certainly between 193-200 CE) as Publius Licinius Valerian; also called Valerian the Elder. Valerian I was a Roman emperor in the years 253-260 CE. He was the only Roman emperor who got in and died in captivity. He was captured during the war with Persia.

Origins and political career

The period in which he lived (3rd century CE) was a serious test for the efficiency of the “Roman organism”. At that time, the Roman Empire was plagued by plagues, invasions (Persians, Goths, Alamans, Franks, Quadi and Sarmatians), civil wars and economic degression. After the assassination of the ruler Alexander Severus in March 235 CE, the power for the next 50 years was between 20 and 25 self-proclaimed Caesars. They were usually influential generals who ruled in their dominions.

Valerian came from an excellent senatorial family from Etruria. He served in the military rank of a high-rank officer, and probably also commanded a legion. In accordance with cursus honorum, he held all subsequent offices at the consulate. His wife was Mariniana, who was deified after death.

Valerian the Elder still in the reign of Alexander Severus (the last of the Sewer family) in 230 CE became consul. In 238 CE he took the side of Gordian during a rebellion against Maximinus Thrax and became an influential senator. At that time he was to read to the senate the letters of Gordian and his son in which they asked for recognition of their authority. During the reign of Emperor Decius, the ruler entrusted Valerian with empire management during imperial war campaigns on the Danube. Valerian stayed in the capital as an advisor to Decius’ younger son – Hostylian. During one of Decius’s campaigns against the Goths, Valerian suppressed the anti-imperial rebellion of Julius Valens Licjanus. During the rebellion, Emilian against Trebonian Gallus was in favour of the righteous emperor, whom he was helping. At that time, he led legions from Retia and Germania. Upon hearing of the Trebonian assassination in August 253 CE, he returned to the Rhine Recession.


In 253 CE, legionaries proclaimed an approximately 60-year-old Valerian emperor. Valerian’s clash with Emilian did not take place, because the latter died at the hands of his soldiers, who went to the side of Valerian. At the end of 253 CE, the Senate confirmed the election of Valerian as emperor. Valerian appointed his 35-year-old son Gallienus as co-emperor responsible for the western part of the empire. Not later, Gallienus received the title of August, which equalled him in rights with his father. Valerian knew that he could not cope with the rule of a great state, especially in hard years, so he needed the support of his son. Besides, Valerian’s mature age “ordered” him to guarantee his only son the right to the throne. If he died, Rome would not be on the brink of collapse and civil war again.

In 254 CE, Valerian sent his son across the Alps, where battles with barbarians were fought, and he himself remained in Rome, ready for possible campaigns in the East. Valerian and Gallienus waged numerous wars against Franks, Goths, Alamans and Persians. With the Persians, Rome fought in 253 and 256 CE.
In 257 and 258 CE, Valerian began the persecution of Christians whose activities he considered criminal and violent of the Roman religion. The emperor forbade the celebration of Christian masses and visiting catacombs (burial sites). Clerics refusing to sacrifice were executed, and laypeople were punished by confiscation of property, exile and forced labour.

The bas-relief depicts the victorious commander Szapur I, who holds Emperor Valerian captive. The former emperor Filip Arab is probably the kneeling man. The bas-relief was discovered in Naqsh-e Rustam, Iran.
On Creative Commons Attribution license - On the same terms 3.0.


During the war with Persia, when the Persians occupied Mesopotamia, Valerian set off with a 70,000 army against the commanding king King Shapur I. The army was decimated by the plague and surrounded by Edessa. According to chroniclers, in 260 CE, Emperor Valerian was captured during the battle of Edessa, captured by Szapur during truce negotiations. King Shapur I used the captured emperor as a footrest when getting on a horse. The exact date of death is unknown, but it is suspected that Shapur I allowed Valerian to live to a natural ending in Bishapur. The King of Kings was full of relief showing the defeats of the Romans and the triumph of the King of Kings. It is also possible that after the death of the “emperor in captivity” he was skinned. This is a rather late reference, and skinning is one of the Sassanid standard methods of execution, so it seems more likely that Szapur enjoyed his acquisition until his natural death. It is probable that after death, the body was skinned, the skin was stuffed and hung on the walls of the temple to remind it of the king’s success.

The imprisonment of the Roman emperor was an unprecedented humiliation for the Roman Empire. To make matters worse, Gallienus had no way of avenging this shame because the legal ruler had to deal with rebels and new usurpers. After the death of Valerian, I was counted among the gods as Divus Valerianus.

  • Krawczuk Aleksander, Poczet cesarzy rzymskich, Warszawa 2004
  • Rodgers Nigel, Rzymska armia. Legiony, wojny, kampanie, Warszawa 2009

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