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THE AGE OF GALLIENUS
by Camden W. Percival
Originally printed in Alex G. Malloy's sales catalog The Antioch Hoard of Gallienus in 1992.
The middle of the third century was a particularly turbulent time in Roman history. The empire was under attack by her neighbors on all sides; her soldiers, more loyal to their own interests than to the Empire itself, continually proclaimed new emperors; even nature itself seemed to be conspiring to destroy the old order. We will examine in detail the time of the emperor Gallienus (p. Licinius Egnatius Gallienus), who ruled from 253 to 268. Gibbon states: "The whole period was one uninterrupted series of confusion and calamity."
The half-century from 235 to 284 is known as the period of the "Barracks Emperors." During this period there were 21 emperors, plus numerous unsuccessful aspirants to the purple. Of this number only two died of natural causes, the rest falling in battle or the victims of assassins (generally their own troops). These emperors were successful generals, mainly of provincial and non-aristocratic stock, vying for the loyalty of the troops with promises of money. The legions, made up largely of mercenaries, swung from emperor to emperor.
Perhaps due to the continual warfare of the times, much of the ancient world was struck with the plague, probably bubonic, in the early 250's. It may have begun among the Germanic invaders or in the slums of Alexandria where, according to Gibbon's estimate, half the population succumbed. The illness reached pandemic proportions among the troops (killing among others the emperor Hostilian), and returned home with the soldiers. At one point five thousand people per day died in Rome. Agriculture was particularly affected by the continual warfare and illness.
Valerian (p. Licinius Valerianus), the father of Gallienus, is described as being of noble birth, prudent, and experienced. He had been named Censor by Decius; in 253 he was serving as Governor of Raetia, an area between the Rhine and Danube. Summoned home by then-emperor Trebonianus Gallus to combat the uprising of Aemilian, he marched the Gallic legions back to Italy. Before the reinforcements could arrive, Gallus was assassinated by his own troops, who went over to Aemilian. Valerian continued marching into Italy; Aemilian's troops, showing loyalty typical of the period, murdered him and hailed the newcomer as emperor. Valerian marched to Rome, where the Senate, probably delighted to see an emperor of old Roman aristocratic stock, confirmed his imperial titles. Valerian, then about sixty years old, had his son Gallienus named as co-emperor. Gallienus' older son, Valerian II (P. Cornelius Licinius Valerianus), was named Caesar. When this prince died about two years later, the younger son Saloninus (P. Licinius Cornelius Saloninus Valerianus) became Caesar.
The two Augusti inherited an empire beset with problems; there was no time to rest and consolidate their position. The plague which had killed Hostilian still raged. The economy was in disarray, with rampant inflation; the silver content of the coinage continued to decrease. An Egyptian papyrus of about 260 ordered money-changers to stop refusing Imperial coins. The Christians were considered a threat (or at least a useful scapegoat); in 257 Valerian issued edicts resuming the persecutions of Decius. These required that the established religious formalities be respected, ordering participation by clergy in sacrifices to the gods. The edicts were not directed at the laity; the body of Christians was not bothered, although gathering for religious purposes and entry into the cemeteries was forbidden. At this point the punishment was exile. The edicts of 258 were sterner: recalcitrant clergymen were to be put to death. Christian senators or equites who refused to sacrifice were subject to confiscation of their property and, if they continued to refuse, to death. The caesares, those in the employ of the emperor, were subject to exile to the mines. Leading churchmen were arrested; in 258 Pope Sixtus was apprehended leading a service in the catacombs and was beheaded.
The empire was under external pressure from all sides: the Germanic tribes of Goths, Franks, and Alemanni attacked the various frontiers, and the resurgent Persian empire under the Sassanian emperor Shapur wreaked devastation in the East. The loyalty of the emperor's own generals and troops remained in question.
As soon as Valerian removed the Gallic legions to Italy to secure the throne, the Franks crossed the Rhine and attacked Gaul. Valerian sent Gallienus to combat the invaders; he probably arrived on the frontier sometime in 254. He made his headquarters in Cologne, walling the city and taking the precaution of paying his soldiers in gold rather than the silver coins of questionable value. He remained for four years, fighting five German campaigns. Older historians portray Gallienus as irresponsible and lazy; newer archaeological evidence suggests that his time was spent rushing about the Rhineland fortifying cities and battling Franks. The Roman army, strung along the frontier, was not sufficient. Gallienus could defeat the invaders, but they would simply attack somewhere else. In an attempt to combat this tactic, he created a highly effective mobile cavalry force, which would be stationed after 260 in Milan. This group, generaled by Aureolus, was probably Gallienus' most effective weapon.
In about 257 the Franks poured into northern France; by about 259 they penetrated into Spain. The Alemanni moved into the empire further south than the Franks; beginning about 256 they attacked the limes, the barricade marking the frontier. About 258 some went through Raetia into northern Italy. Gallienus was forced to rush his troops back to Italy, defeating the Alemanni at Milan. He made agreements with some German tribes which gave them lands on the frontiers, which they were then to defend against further incursions. In one such agreement, Attalus, king of the Marcomani, gave Gallienus in return his daughter Pipa, who became the emperor's concubine.
Meanwhile, in the east, the resurgent Persia, under the new Sassanian dynasty, was attempting to win back Roman territories which had once been Persian. The energetic emperor Shapur, whose reign began in 241, seems to have invaded the Roman territories almost annually. The rich cities of Syria were tempting targets. In 254 Shapur's armies took the city of Nisbis in Mesopotamia and Tyana in Asia Minor. In 256, supposedly with the help of a traitor, Shapur captured and sacked the great city of Antioch. According to Libanius, writing in the fourth century, the populace was attending the theatre; an actor looking over the crowd saw the Persian hordes and ad-libbed "If I'm not dreaming, there are the Persians!" Meanwhile, another Germanic horde, the Goths, was swarming south through the Balkans into Greece and Asia Minor.
At this point, it was necessary for Valerian to take charge of the Eastern defenses. The empire was divided administratively (though not legally), with Gallienus in charge of the west, Valerian the east. Valerian began rebuilding Antioch, which Shapur did not defend, having taken its treasure back to Persia. Valerian set up his headquarters in Samosata, where he could combat the Persians and Goths. In 259 he led his troops to Asia Minor to face the Goths; with the bad luck which seems to have haunted Valerian's reign, his army was struck with the plague and had to struggle home. Shapur chose this time to advance once again. Valerian, unable to allow his army to recuperate, finally came to battle against Shapur before Edessa, probably in the summer of 260. What followed was one of the most shameful episodes of Roman history. Valerian was captured by the Persians. It is not certain whether he was taken in battle or when attempting to negotiate. Shapur had a number of monuments erected to commemorate the great victory, one of which gloats:
"In the course of the third campaign, ... Valerian Caesar came against us...[with] 70,000 men. And beyond Carrhae and Edessa we fought a great battle against Valerian Caesar, and we took Valerian Caesar with our own hands, and as for the others, the Praefectus, senators and officers who held command in the army, we took them and deported them to Persia. And the province of Syria and the province of Cilicia and the province of Cappadocia we burned with fire, and devastated, and made the people captive, and seized."
Several monuments still exist showing the Roman emperor kneeling in submission to the Sassanian. Valerian's fate at the hands of Shapur is unknown: Gibbon repeats stories that he in life was used as a mounting-block and at death his body stuffed and displayed in a Persian temple. It is also possible that, like other captured officers, the elderly Valerian was used as an engineer in the construction of Shapur's prisoner-of-war city (whose original name translated to "Better than Antioch Shapur made this"), later the intellectual centre of Gundeshapur.
The dishonour of Valerian's loss shocked the empire; Gallienus apparently made no attempt to recover his father. The two had disagreed in manner and policy, and Gallienus wished to distance himself from Valerian's unpopularity. At any rate, a rescue attempt would have been a fruitless gesture. So Valerian disappears from history; Gallienus' problems were getting worse. When it became necessary to depart for the Danube frontier, he left his teenaged son Saloninus in nominal control in Cologne. The general Postumus, probably governor of southern Germany, took advantage of his commander's absence to declare himself emperor. After a short siege the troops in Cologne handed Saloninus over to Postumus, who had the boy executed. The separate Gallic empire lasted until 274, when control passed back to Aurelian (Postumus himself having been killed by his troops in 268 because he refused to allow them to sack the city of Mainz). At one point in the year 260, the Emperor in Rome controlled only Italy and North Africa.
The Roman generals Callistus and Macrianus defeated Shapur and recovered Antioch. Odenathus of Palmyra collected an army and attacked Shapur on his way back to Carrhae, inflicting serious losses. This lessened the Persian threat, but the two Roman generals then proclaimed Macrianus' sons Macrianus and Quietus emperors. Macrianus was defeated in the Balkans by Gallienus' general Aureolus, commander of the mobile cavalry unit; Odenathus of Palmyra defeated Quietus at Emesa. Odenathus was then entrusted with command of the Roman armies in the east, eventually regaining Carrhae, Nisbis, and all of Roman Mesopotamia. Although nominally under Roman control, the Palmyrene leader, termed "Dux Orientis," exercised effective control over the eastern provinces. (The eastern mints continued to coin in the name of the emperor). After Odenathus' death, his widow Zenobia did declare independence and rule for a while until crushed by Aurelian.
In 262 the governor of Egypt, Aemelian, revolted. Easily defeated, he was shipped back alive to Gallienus, who had him strangled. The Goths continued to sporadically plague the east. In about 263 they burned the famous Temple of Diana at Ephesus, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. In 267 they took Byzantium and burned Athens, Corinth and Sparta. The citizens of Athens used the blocks from their ancient buildings to construct a new wall, thereby completing the destruction. Indeed, the only construction which seems to have been done anywhere during this period is the building of fortifications.
Beginning about 263, Gallienus, with his generals Claudius and Aureolus, attempted to remove the Gallic emperor Postumus. Although successful in battle, he was unable to remove the rival emperor. It was possible that Aureolus, still the leader of the elite cavalry, deliberately failed to follow up on military victories. So Gallienus' son Saloninus, like his father Valerian, remained unavenged.
During the quieter periods during his sole reign, Gallienus spent more time in Rome. He rescinded his father's ordinances against the Christians, returning the places of worship to their former owners and removing the penalties for Christian worship. He probably did not, however, sympathize with the religion, having supposedly been initiated into the mystery cult of Demeter at Eleusis. Unlike his father and most of the other emperors of the period, he was interested in the arts. He was considered a gifted orator, and wrote poetry in Greek and Latin. Interested in Greek culture, he was like Hadrian named the archon, or chief magistrate, of Athens. Gallienus was a patron of the Neoplatonist philosopher Plotinus, whose book, the Enneads (edited by his student Porphyry), is considered one of the most important philosophical works to come down to us from antiquity. Plotinus requested that the emperor establish a philosophers' city, Platanopolis, in Campagnia. Apparently Gallienus was willing, but following his advisors' recommendation, the city was never built.
Gallienus attempted to reduce the importance of the senate, excluding its members from command in the army (although he belonged to the senatorial class himself). Given the history of hostility between senate and emperor, he did not wish the control of troops added to the senators' wealth and connections. Civil posts remained open, but military positions were to be reserved for the equites. There seems to have been little outcry from the senators on this loss, though it lessened their political strength. In eliminating from bronze coinage the letters SC (standing for senatus consulto), he removed even the fiction of senatorial issue.
Gallienus' end came, like that of most emperors of the period, from his own generals. It was mentioned earlier that Aureolus, the general of Gallienus' elite cavalry stationed in Milan, might have deliberately avoided defeating Postumus. In 268, while Gallienus was in the Balkans fighting the Gothic Heruls, Aureolus publicly defected to the Gallic emperor. Gallienus and his former general met in battle outside Milan, after which Aureolus retreated into the city. While Gallienus settled down for a siege, his principal officers, Claudius and Aurelian among them, formed a conspiracy against him. One of the plotters rushed into the emperor's tent during dinner, announcing the approach of Aureolus' troops. Gallienus rushed out, without his bodyguard, into the arms of the waiting assassins. Claudius was named his successor, followed by Aurelian when Claudius died of plague.
Gallienus ruled for fifteen years, half with his father and half alone. His reign was a period of barbarian invasion, natural disaster, economic decline, and rebellion. He stopped the persecution of the Christians, and encouraged cultural pursuits during a time dominated by soldiers. He attempted to hold the empire together; his cavalry became the mainstay of later imperial armies. Though not one of the great emperors, Gallienus tried hard during a difficult time.
Brauer, George. The Age of the Soldier Emperors. Noyes Press. 1975.
Delorme, Jean. "The Ancient World" in Larousse Encyclopedia of Ancient and Medieval History. New York: Excalibur Books. 1981
Ferrill, Arthur. The Fall of the Roman Empire- the Military Explanation. London: Thames & Hudson, 1986.
Millar, Fergus. The Roman Empire and Its Neighbours. New York: Holmes & Meier. 1981.