The capture of the emperor Valerian by the Persians in Syria in 260 is an iconic defeat in the history of the Roman Empire. Other Roman leaders had lost battles, entire armies, and even their lives on the eastern frontier, but Valerian’s survival as living Persian trophy was unprecedented. Valerian was a celebrity of defeat whose fate demanded interpretation by later historians to connect him with their societies.
Despite the importance of this defeat within Roman history, the penumbra of the “third century crisis” has consigned the event to modern catalogs of imperial misfortunes or to serve as an introductory anecdote in histories of the emperor Gallienus, Valerian’s son and successor. Even when historians have tried to reconstruct the series of events that led to the disaster, as David Potter (2014) does, no one has yet considered the divergent narratives of the capture of Valerian as different ways of coming to terms with the catastrophe.
The earliest account of Valerian’s captivity is the Res Gestae Divi Saporis, a trilingual inscription that proclaims the deeds of the Persian king Shapur. Here Valerian is simply part of the plunder accumulated after a battle: when Shapur “recaptured” what he calls his own cities of Carrhae and Edessa, he took the Roman emperor as his prisoner because of perceived previous Roman aggression against Persia. As a foe conquered in battle, Valerian represented Shapur’s achievement in his war against Rome, and no subsequent narration of his life in captivity is necessary.
To reclaim Roman glory from Valerian’s disgrace, the fourth-century biography of Valerian in the Historia Augusta invents letters sent by various neighbors and allies to the Persian king. This unsolicited advice praises Valerian as still “prince of princes” in captivity, and the letters warn the Persians to return him to the Romans or else bring ruin to the entire region. One correspondent admonishes the Persian king by comparing him to Mithridates of Pontus, whose good fortune in defeating the Romans did not endure. Against the memory of a disaster now a century away, the Historia Augusta imagines that “Romans are never more dangerous than when they are defeated.”
For another audience, Valerian’s capture was only a prelude to his well-earned suffering as a prisoner. Fourth-century Christians remembered Valerian for his persecution, so the history of Lactantius finds revenge in the details: the abusive treatment of the living emperor as a footstool for the Persian king as well as the later exhibition of his corpse in a temple. The king is said to have mocked Valerian, and the Persians learned to hold all Romans in contempt because of the imperial prisoner’s pitiful situation. But as Christians faced their own imperial crises a century later, Orosius claims that Valerian’s punishment was inadequate compensation for the shedding of Christian blood, and so the third century had to witness even more Roman defeats.
Valerian the imperial prisoner of war thus served a variety of purposes as Roman, Persian, and Christian histories integrated him within their visions of the world after his defeat.
The Other Side of Victory: War Losses in the Ancient World