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Great defeats with Persians and Empire’s rematch in 3rd century CE

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

The Persian king Shapur I using the former Emperor Valerian as a footstool when mounting his horse
The Persian king Shapur I using the former Emperor Valerian as a footstool when mounting his horse

The greatest defeat in Roman history is considered to be the battle with Hannibal at Cannae in 216 BCE. There are also known hecatombs in the Teutoburg Forest in 9 CE and under Adrianople in 378 CE. However, a little known fact is that in the 3rd century CE, during the reign of Emperor Valerian, the Empire suffered two major defeats with the Persian state of King Shapur I. At Barbalissos and Edessa, two large Roman armies of around 60,000-70,000 were probably defeated and destroyed. people. The empire suffered the greatest humiliation in its history – the emperor became a prisoner of the Persian ruler. The Romans did not forget about the rematch – as early as 282, Emperor Carus conquered Mesopotamia with the Persian capital Ctesiphon, and only his unexpected death stopped the further march of the legions to the east.

From 235 CE The Roman Empire was troubled by a crisis. The barbarian armies grew stronger and stronger, and the emperors changed rapidly and violently. Civil wars were fought between successive claimants, pushed into purple robes by their backing armies. During this crisis, in 253 CE after only three months of the reign of Emperor Emilian, Valerian ascended the throne, thanks to the support of the legions from the Rhine. At the time of taking power, he was already about sixty years old and soon appointed his then thirty-five-year-old son Galien as his co-ruler. The father and son shared the threatened borders in such a way that it was the former who had to contend with the great Persian invasions of the Sassanids of King Shapur I. The first great Persian invasion probably took place in 253 CE, when at Barbalissos in Syria, Roman troops (still without the emperor) were defeated, and the army of 60,000 people annihilated. Antioch was conquered and 36 other cities in Syria, Palestine and Cappadocia, as Shapur boasts on a rock inscription discovered in the ruins of Persepolis in 1940. Such a great defeat probably forced Valerian to be more active. However, as early as 256 CE there was another Persian expedition into the Empire, little is known about due to the lack of sources. During the third expedition, in the year 259 or 260 CE The Romans suffered another defeat – at Edessa – despite having raised an army of 60,000-70,000. As a result of this battle, perhaps the greatest humiliation of the Empire in its entire history – Emperor Valerian was taken into Persian captivity, in which he remained until the end of his life, probably in 262 CE. The Persian king boasted that he would always put his foot on the neck of the former emperor when he got on a cart or a horse. According to Persian sources, the emperor was taken prisoner during a battle. Roman or Greek sources are silent on this subject, only the work entitled The story of Nea of Zosimos from the 5th century reports that the capture was deceptive during the peace negotiations. What was the cause of such great defeats for the Empire? Due to the scarce sources, guesses remain… Great plague in Roman troops? An army capable of elevating its candidates to the throne was not willing to fight to the last drop of blood? The reason was the great tactics and armament of Shapur’s troops? Or maybe the numerical losses of the Romans in the Persian relations are greatly exaggerated?

In the following years, the situation in the East of the Empire calmed down. Perhaps Shapur had satisfied his ambitions by capturing the emperor and looting and slaves from three previous expeditions, and the governor of Palmira, Septimius Odenat, loyal to the Empire, fought off the smaller attacks of the Persians. This ruler, being subject to the emperor, gained more and more independence to actually become independent from the Empire. After his death, the usurpation was completed by Emperor Aurelian, conquering Palmira in 272 CE.

In 282 CE one of Aurelian’s successors – Carus undertook the first expedition to Persia since Valerian. Unfortunately, its course is not exactly described in the sources. It is known, however, that it was possible to capture Seleucia in Mesopotamia and the capital of the Sassanids – Ktezyfont. Probably, the expedition could have achieved further success, had it not been for the sudden and unexpected death of the emperor. According to the report in The Writers of Imperial History there was a prophecy: no Roman emperor could conquer the lands further east of Ctesiphon. Karus, trying to get it, died struck by lightning – it was supposed to be a punishment for fighting fate. The very cause of Karus’s expedition is unknown. Perhaps the memory of the captured Emperor Valerian was still alive, so after the Empire defeated the usurpers and the barbarian invasions, the time has come to wash away the disgrace that was the Emperor’s captivity to the mortal, eternal enemy of the Empire? The expedition of Carus was a success, thanks to the capture of important centers of the Persian state, it was possible to at least partially wash away the shame of previous defeats. The Empire was on the final straight to overcome the crisis of the 3rd century. Less than two years after Carus’s death, Diocletian, the first emperor of the Dominate era, became emperor.

Author: Eligiusz Idczak (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
Sources
  • Aleksander Krawczuk, Poczet cesarzy rzymskich, Warszawa 1991

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