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Bible Dictionaries

A Dictionary of Early Christian Biography

Valerianus, Emperor

Valerianus ( 1 ), C. Publius Licinius, emperor. a.d. 253–260. Before the close of 253 Valerian was proclaimed emperor by the legions of Rhaetia and Noricum, and he associated his son Gallienus with him in that dignity.

Their reigns were the most disastrous period in the history of Rome until that of Honorius. The empire seemed on the verge of dissolution. Every frontier was menaced by barbarian attacks, and even the interior provinces were invaded and ravaged. A German host entered Italy itself, and penetrated to Ravenna. The Franks, now first appearing under this name, assailed the Rhine frontier. The Goths and their kindred tribes poured across the Danube into Illyricum and Macedonia. The Persians took Nisibis, and, penetrating into Syria, captured Antioch (? a.d. 255). Worse even than all these wars was the great plague which had begun in the reign of Decius and which raged for 15 years (Zon. xii. 21).

To these calamities was added the most terrible persecution the church had yet experienced. In the early part of his reign Valerian was exceedingly favourable to the Christians, and his palace was filled with them. But in 257 a terrible change took place. Valerian fell more and more under the influence of the pretorian prefect Macrianus, an Egyptian, chief of the "magi" of that country. Under his influence Valerian ordered those who did not belong to the religion of Rome at least to render outward signs of conformity to it under pain of exile. By the same edict, Christians were forbidden, under pain of death, to assemble for worship or enter their cemeteries. The cases of St. Cyprian (Acta Procons. c. 1, in Migne, Patr. Lat. iii. 1499) and St. Dionysius of Alexandria (Eus. H. E. vii. 11) shew how uniform the procedure was under this edict. St. Cyprian was apparently the first to suffer in Africa, and the date of his exile (Aug. 257) shews when the persecution began. His sentence was simple banishment, but a great number of African bishops, priests, deacons, and some of the laity, were sent to the mines and endured great hardships (Cypr. Epp. 77–80 in Patr Lat. iv. 414).

This edict was followed in 258 by a rescript of tremendous severity from Valerian, who, in the interval, had probably set out to the East to take command against the Persians. (Early in the year he had held a council of war at Byzantium [Vopiscus, Vit. Aureliani , 13].) The punishment for the clergy of every grade was death. Apparently even recantation was unavailing. Senators, viri egregii , and knights were punished with degradation and confiscation of property, and with death if they refused to recant. Noble ladies were to forfeit their property and be exiled. Members of the imperial household suffered a similar forfeiture, and were to be sent in chains to work on the imperial possessions. It is remarkable that mention is only made of the clergy and the higher classes of the laity. The emperor's policy was apparently to strike at the leaders. The first victim of this rescript was pope Xystus, put to death on Aug. 6 as he sat in his episcopal chair. Four of his deacons suffered with him. This was the beginning of a violent persecution at Rome (Cypr. Ep. 82) in which four days later the famous St. Lawrence followed his master. Cyprian was beheaded on Sept. 14. Both in Rome and Africa a great number of Christians suffered. The best proof of the violence of the persecution is the long vacancies (about 11 months) of the sees of Rome and Carthage. In Spain Fructuosus, bp. of Tarragona, with two deacons, was burnt alive in the amphitheatre (Jan. 21, 259). In Palestine the names of three martyrs are preserved by Eusebius ( H. E. vii. 12). They came before the governor and declared themselves Christians. A woman who was a follower of Marcion shared their fate.

But the reign of Valerian was not destined to be of long duration. Dionysius regards his persecution as lasting the 42 months mentioned in the Apocalypse. His campaign against Sapor, king of Persia, the scene of which was the neighbourhood of Edessa, was disastrous. He was taken prisoner late in 260. How long he lived in captivity is unknown. Gallienus, immediately after his father's captivity, stopped the persecution, but it probably lasted in the East till the fall of Macrianus, who had assumed the purple in 262. Zos. i. 28–36; Zon. xii. 22, 23; Bernhardt, Geschichte Roms von Valerian; Tillem. Emp. iii., Mém. eccl. iv. 1; Victor, de Caes. 32; Epit. 32; the Life of Valerian in the Augustan history; Gibbon, cc. 10, 16).


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Bibliography Information
Wace, Henry. Entry for 'Valerianus, Emperor'. A Dictionary of Early Christian Biography. 1911.

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