Kaiserbiographien: Gallienus (253 – 268)

prospectiva imperialia Nr. 34 [31.01.2016] / De Imperatorbibus Romanis. An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Rulers [03.08.1998]

Valerian (A.D. 253-260) and Gallienus (A.D. 253-268)

Richard D. Weigel (Western Kentucky University)

P. Licinius Valerianus, or Valerian, was unusual for his time period in that he was an emperor who came from an old Roman senatorial family. He was likely born shortly before 200 A.D., but little is known of his early life. Valerian married Egnatia Mariniana and had two sons, Gallienus and Valerian Junior. Gallienus was born around 218.[[1]] Valerian makes his first appearance in the sources in 238 A.D. as an ex-consul and princeps senatus negotiating with (more likely than serving on) the embassy sent to Rome by Gordian I’s African legions to secure senatorial approval of Gordian’s rebellion against and replacement of Maximinus Thrax as emperor.[[2]] The Scriptores Historiae Augustae probably report accurately that Trajan Decius, on the recommendation of the Senate, offered Valerian the censorship in 251. Although the senatus consultum cited and the specific office are of doubtful authenticity, the high reputation Valerian possessed in the Senate and his association with the government under Decius probably are truthful aspects of the story.[[3]] In 253 Valerian was apparently commanding in Raetia and Noricum when Trebonianus Gallus sent him to bring legions from Gaul and Germany to Italy for the struggle with the forces of Aemilianus. After Gallus‘ troops killed him and his son and joined Aemilianus, Valerian’s men proclaimed their general emperor and their arrival in Italy caused Aemilianus‘ soldiers to desert and kill their commander and join Valerian’s forces in acclaiming Valerian as emperor.[[4]]

The Senate presumably was pleased to ratify the position of Valerian, one of their own, as emperor and they also accepted his son and colleague, P. Licinius Egnatius Gallienus, as Augustus, rather than just as Caesar.[[5]] Valerian apparently realized the necessity of sharing power equally with his son and of dividing their efforts geographically, with Gallienus responsible for the West and Valerian himself concentrating on the East. The biographies of Valerian and Gallienus in the Scriptores Historiae Augustae, attributed to Trebellius Pollio, are not especially helpful in putting together an account of their joint reign. The life of Valerian is fragmentary and that of Gallienus projects an extremely biased negative interpretation of his career.

Gallienus in the early years of the joint reign concentrated, with some success, on protecting Gaul and the Rhine frontier by driving back Germanic tribes and fortifying cities such as Cologne and Trier. In a move which would characterize later diplomacy with Germans, Gallienus concluded an alliance with one of their chieftains, presumably to assist the Romans in protecting the empire from other Germanic tribes.[[6]] The invasions increased in number around 257-258 as the Franks entered Gaul and Spain, destroying Tarraco (Tarragona), and the Alamanni invaded Italy. Gallienus defeated the Alamanni at Milan, but soon was faced with the revolts in Pannonia and Moesia led first by his general there, Ingenuus, and then by Regalianus, commander in Illyricum. Gallienus put down these rebellions by 260 and secured stability in the region by concluding an alliance with the Marcomannic king, whose daughter Pipa the emperor apparently accepted as his concubine although he was still married to Cornelia Salonina.[[7]]

In the East, Valerian had succeeded by A.D. 257 in rescuing Antioch in Syria from Persian control, at least temporarily, but was soon faced with a major invasion of the Goths in Asia Minor.[[8]] The Scriptores Historiae Augustae biography of Aurelian has Valerian appear to speak in the Baths at Byzantium to publicly commend Aurelian for his success in driving back the Goths and reward him with the consulship and even with adoption as imperial successor.[[9]] However, it is not clear that Valerian even reached Byzantium because he sent Felix to that city while he remained to protect the eastern section of Asia Minor and then returned to Antioch to guard it against renewed Persian attacks.[[10]] It was at this point, around 259, that Valerian moved to defend Edessa and his troops lost significant numbers to the plague. Valerian tried to negotiate a peace with the Persian king, Sapor, but was captured by treachery and taken into captivity. The ultimate humiliation of a Roman emperor by a foreign leader was enacted through Sapor’s use of Valerian as a human stepping-stool to assist the Persian king in mounting his horse and Valerian’s body was later skinned to produce a lasting trophy of Roman submission.[[11]]

Eusebius discusses the policy of Valerian toward the Christians and says that, after initially treating them most positively, Valerian was persuaded by Macrianus to lead another persecution against them.[[12]] Valerian in fact after his brutal imprisonment and death in Persia would serve as a negative moral exemplum for some Latin Christian writers who gleefully pointed out that those who oppose the true God receive their just desserts.[[13]] Eusebius also credits Gallienus with reversing his father’s policy and establishing peace with the Church, citing imperial edicts which established freedom of worship and even restored some lost property.[[14]] Paul Keresztes claims that Gallienus in fact established a peace with Christians that lasted for forty-three years, from A.D. 260 until 303, and gave the community a kind of legal status which they had previously lacked.[[15]]

Andreas Alföldi details a growing separation between Gallienus and his father which goes well beyond the geographical one which had developed out of military necessity. In addition to the strikingly different policies, just described, which they pursued toward the Christians, Gallienus began to make his military independence clear through changes in coin inscriptions and by 258 he had created his central cavalry unit and stationed it at Milan. This independent force, which was under the command of a man of equestrian rank and soon stood on a level at least equal to that of the Praetorian Guard, would play a significant role in Gallienus‘ upcoming battles and, of course, was a foretoken of a new trend for military organization in the future.[[16]] Alföldi cites as evidence of the increasing separation between the joint emperors the statement that Gallienus did not even seek his father’s return from captivity, which Lactantius of course interpreted as part of Valerian’s divine punishment, but one wonders what indeed Gallienus might have done and his „indifference“ may have been instead his attempt to reassert confidence in his armies and not dwell on the depressing and humiliating servitude and ultimate death of Valerian.[[17]] Another reform which Alföldi discusses as part of Gallienus‘ independent stand is his exclusion of the senatorial class from major military commands. H.M.D. Parker credits Gallienus with beginning to separate the civil and military functions of Rome’s provincial governors, thus making senatorial governors purely civil administrators and starting to replace them even in this reduced role by equestrians.[[18]] The disappearance in this period of the S.C. stamp of senatorial authority on bronze coins was probably also seen as an attack on the prestige of the order, although the debasement of the silver coinage had by this time practically reached the point where the „silver“ coins were themselves essentially bronze and the change may have been more for economic than for political reasons. Gallienus‘ exclusion of senators from military command further broke down class distinctions because sons of centurions were by this time regularly given equestrian rank and the move further accelerated the alienation of Rome as center of the Empire. In addition, the bitterness of the senatorial class over Gallienus‘ policy most likely explains the hatred of Latin writers toward this particular emperor.[[19]]

Although Gallienus‘ military innovations may have made his forces more effective, he still had to face numerous challenges to his authority.In addition to systemic invasions and revolts, the plague wreaked havoc in Rome and Italy and probably in several provinces as well.[[20]] It must have seemed that every commander he entrusted to solve a problem later used that authority to create another threat. When Gallienus was involved in putting down the revolt of Ingenuus in Pannonia, he put Postumus in charge of the armies guarding the Rhine and Gaul. There is some doubt about which of Gallienus‘ sons, Cornelius Valerianus or P. Cornelius Licinius Saloninus, was left in Cologne under the care of the Praetorian Prefect Silvanus and perhaps also Postumus. In any case, when Postumus revolted and proclaimed his independent Gallic Empire, Silvanus and one of the emperor’s sons were killed. Gallienus probably restricted Postumus‘ expansion, but he never gained the personal revenge that, according to one source, drove him to challenge Postumus to single combat.[[21]] While Gallienus was thus engaged, and after Valerian’s capture by the Persians, Macrianus had his soldiers proclaim his sons, Macrianus and Quietus, emperors in Syria, Asia Minor, and Egypt. Gallienus sent Aureolus to defeat Macrianus and one son in the area of Illyria and Thrace; Odenathus of Palmyra defeated the other son and restored stability in Syria and, with Gallienus‘ approval, followed that up with a victory over the Persians.[[22]] After Odenathus‘ assassination ca. 267, his wife Zenobia continued to rule the independent Palmyrene section of the Empire.[[23]]

In A.D. 262 Gallienus concluded his tenth year in office by celebrating in Rome his Decennalia with a spectacular procession involving senators, equestrians, gladiators, soldiers, representatives of foreign peoples, and many other groups. This festival included feasts, games, entertainment, and spectacle which probably reminded Romans of the millennial Secular Games celebrations of Philip I and likely were intended to secure popular support at home for Gallienus. Over the next five years little is known about specific activities of the emperor and he presumably spent more time in Rome and less along the frontiers.[[24]]

Gallienus and Salonina as rulers patronized a cultural movement which collectively is known as the Gallienic Renaissance. The imperial patrons are most directly connected with the philosophical aspects of this movement because Porphyry testifies to their friendship for the Neoplatonic philosopher Plotinus. Porphyry goes on to say that Plotinus asked Gallienus to rebuild an abandoned former city of philosophers in Campania, rename it Platonopolis, and govern it as a kind of Platonic Republic, but that the jealousy and spite of others at court scuttled the plan.[[25]] In addition to Neoplatonic philosophy, according to Gervase Matthew, the Gallienic Renaissance included the „upward glance“ and other stylistic changes in imperial sculpture and religious beliefs that were characterized by „an overwhelming sense of the transcendent and immutable.“ Matthew points out both the return to artistic models of Augustus, Hadrian, and even Severus Alexander and also „a new Romantic tension“ which breaks with the past and points toward a new and very different world.[[26]] The Hellenic character of much of the Gallienic Renaissance is also stressed in the emperor’s trip to Athens where he, likely in imitation of Hadrian, became eponymous archon and received initiation into the Eleusinian cult of Demeter.

Late in his reign, Gallienus issued a series of coins in Rome which honored nine deities as Conservator Augusti or protector of the emperor by pairing his portrait with reverses picturing an animal or animals symbolic of each deity. Included in this group of celestial guardians are Apollo, Diana, Hercules, Jupiter, Juno, Liber Pater, Mercury, Neptune, and Sol. For example, Apollo’s coin-types portray a centaur, a gryphon, or Pegasus; Hercules is represented by either the lion or the boar. It appears that Gallienus was issuing the „animal series“ coins both to secure, through some religious festival, the aid of Rome’s protective gods against continuing invasions, revolts, and plague and to entertain the Roman populace with pageantry and circus games, thus to divert their attention away from the same problems and maintain the security of the regime in power.[[27]]

In A.D. 268, Gallienus saw his third son, Marinianus, become consul, but in the spring another Gothic invasion brought the emperor back to Greece. He defeated the invaders at Naissus in Moesia , but was deterred from pursuing them further by a revolt of the commander of his elite cavalry, Aureolus. He besieged this last rebel emperor in Milan, but a plot involving his Praetorian Prefect and two future emperors, Claudius and Aurelian, all three men Illyrians popular with many of the soldiers, lured Gallienus away from the city on a false pretext and assassinated him. The emperor’s brother Valerian and young son Marinianus were also murdered.[[28]] In spite of the bitter resentment which many of the senators must have felt toward the dead emperor and his reform policies, Claudius II, perhaps only to legitimize his own reign, persuaded the Senate to deify Gallienus.[[29]]


Primary Sources:

  • Scriptores Historiae Augustae (Loeb translation by David Magie), including The Two Valerians, The Two Gallieni, The Thirty Pretenders, and The Deified Claudius by Trebellius Pollio
  • Aurelius Victor, Liber De Caesaribus (translation by H. Bird)
  • Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History (Loeb translation by J. Oulton)
  • Eutropius, Breviarium (translation by H. Bird)
  • John Malalas, Chronographia (translation by Elizabeth Jeffreys, Michael Jeffreys, and Roger Scott)
  • Lactantius, De Mortibus Persecutorum (translation by M. F. McDonald)
  • Orosius, The Seven Books of History Against the Pagans (translation by R.J. Deferrari)
  • Porphyry, Life of Plotinus (translation by S. MacKenna)
  • A. Robertson, Roman Imperial Coins in the Hunter Coin Cabinet IV (Oxford, 1978)
  • Zonaras, Epitome Historiarum (Pinder edition, Bonn, 1841-1897)
  • Zosimus, Historia Nova (translations by J. Buchanan and H. Davis or by R. Ridley)

Secondary Sources:

  • Alföldi, A. Studien zur Geschichte der Weltkrise des dritten Jahrhunderts n. Chr. (Darmstadt, 1967).
  • Alföldi, M. Zu den Militärreformen des Kaisers Gallienus (Basel, 1957).
  • Altheim, F. Die Soldatenkaiser (Frankfurt, 1939).
  • Baynes, N. „Three Notes on the Reforms of Diocletian and Constantine.“ JRS 15 (1925), 195-208.
  • Bleckmann, B. Die Reichskrise des III. Jahrhunderts in der spätantiken und byzantinischen Geschichtsschreibung (Munich, 1992).
  • Brauer, G. The Age of the Soldier Emperors (Park Ridge, NJ, 1975).
  • Christol, M. „Les règnes de Valérien et de Gallien (253-268): travaux d’ensemble, questions chronologiques.“ Aufstieg und Niedergang der Römischen Welt II.2 (Berlin, 1975), 803-827.
  • Cook, S., F. Adcock, M. Charlesworth, and N. Baynes, The Cambridge Ancient History, volume XII (Cambridge, 1939).
  • De Blois, L. The Policy of the Emperor Gallienus (Leiden, 1976).
  • Demougeot, E. La Formation de l’Europe et les Invasions Barbares, vol. 1 (Paris, 1969).
  • De Regibus, L. La Monarchia Militare di Gallieno (Recco, 1939).
  • Gagé, J. „Programme d’italicité et nostalgies d’hellénisme autour de Gallien et Salonine.“ ANRW II.2 (Berlin, 1975), 828-852.
  • Göbl, R. „Der Aufbau der römischen Münzprägung in der Kaiserzeit.“ Numismatische Zeitschrift 74 (1951), 8-45 and 75 (1953), 5-35.
  • Grosse, R. Römische Militärgeschichte von Gallienus bis zum Beginn der Byzantinischen Themenverfassung (Berlin, 1920).
  • Grunwald, R. Studies in the Literary Sources for the Emperor Gallienus, 253-268 A.D. (Diss: Minnesota, 1969).
  • Healy, P. The Valerian Persecution (London and Boston, 1905).
  • Homo, L. „L’empereur Gallien et la crise de l’empire romain au IIIe siècle.“ Revue Historique 113 (1913), 1-22 and 225-257.
  • Kent, J.P.C. „Gallienae Augustae.“ Numismatic Chronicle 13 (1973), 64-68.
  • Keresztes, P. „The Peace of Gallienus: 260-303 A.D.“ Wiener Studien 9 (1975), 174-185.
  • Kuhoff, W. Herrschertum und Reichskrise: Die Regierungszeit der römischen Kaiser Valerianus und Gallienus (253-268 n. Chr.) (Bochum, 1979).
  • Manni, E. L’impero di Gallieno (Rome, 1949).
  • Matthew, G. „The Character of the Gallienic Renaissance.“ JRS 33 (1943), 65-70 and plates 4-6.
  • Oost, S. „The Alexandrian Seditions under Philip and Gallienus.“ Classical Philology 56 (1961), 1-21.
  • Parker, H. A History of the Roman World A.D. 138 to 337 (London, 1958).
  • Pekáry, T. „Bemerkungen zur Chronologie des Jahrzehnts 250-260 n. Chr.“ Historia 11 (1962), 123-128.
  • Pflaum, H.-G. „Zu Reform des Kaisers Gallienus.“ Historia 25 (1976), 109-117.
  • Pugliese-Caratelli, G. „La crisi dell‘ impero nell‘ età di Gallieno.“ Parola del Passato 2 (1947), 48-73.
  • Rosenbach, M. Galliena Augusta (Tübingen, 1958).
  • Rothkegel, F. Die Regierung des Kaisers Gallienus von 253 bis 268 n. Chr. (Glatz, 1894).
  • Simon, H.-G. „Die Reform der Reiterei unter Kaiser Gallien“ in W. Eck, H. Galsterer, and H. Wolff, Studien zur Antiken Sozialgeschichte: Festschrift Friedrich Vittinghoff (Cologne and Vienna, 1980), 435-452.
  • Voetter, O. „Die Münzen des Kaisers Gallienus und seiner Familie.“ Numismatische Zeitschrift (1900), 117-147 and (1901), 73-110.
  • Vorbrodt, T. Kaiser Gallienus (Diss: Halle, 1923).
  • Weigel, R. „Gallienus‘ ‚Animal Series‘ Coins and Roman Religion“, The Numismatic Chronicle 150 (1990), 135-143.
  • Wickert, L. „Licinius 173“ and „Licinius (Egnatius) 84“ in Pauly-Wissowa, Realencyclopädie 13.1 (1926), 350-369 and 488-495.
  • Zaccaria, C. „Contributo alla storia dei Cesari dell III. sec. d.C. I figli dell’imperatore Gallieno.“ Quaderni di Storia antica e Epigrafia 2 (1978), 59-155.
  • ________. „Successione ereditaria e propaganda dinastica nelle emissioni monetali del regno di Valeriano e Gallieno.“ Annali dell’Istituto Italiano di Numismatica 25 (1978) 103-138


[[1]]S.H.A. Val. 8 and Gal. 14.9-11; L. Wickert, „Licinius 84, 172, and 173“ in Pauly-Wissowa, Realencyclopädie 13.1 (1926), 352, 486-488, 494 .
[[2]] S.H.A. Gord. 9.7-8; Zosimus I.14; Wickert, 488.
[[3]]S.H.A. Val. 5-7; Wickert, 488-489.
[[4]] Zosimus I. 28-29; Orosius 7.22; Eutropius 9.7; Aurelius Victor 32.
[[5]]Eutropius 9.7-8 and Bird’s tr. n. 16, pp. 138-139.
[[6]]Zosimus I.30; H. Parker, A History of the Roman World A.D. 138 to 337 (London, 1958), 167.
[[7]]Aur. Vict. 33; S.H.A. Tyr. Trig. 9-10; Parker, 167-168.
[[8]]Zosimus I.31-37; Wickert, 491; Parker, 168-170.
[[9]]S.H.A. Aurel. 13-16.1.
[[10]]Zosimus I.36.
[[11]]Lactantius, De Mort. Pers. 5; Wickert, 492-493; Parker, 170.
[[12]]Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 7.10.
[[13]] Lactantius, 5; Orosius 7.22.
[[14]] Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 7.13.
[[15]] P. Keresztes, „The Peace of Gallienus,“ Wiener Studien 9 (1975), 174-185.
[[16]] A. Alföldi in S. Cook et al., Cambridge Ancient History XII (Cambridge, 1939), 181-184, 216-217.
[[17]] Lactantius 5; Alföldi, 183; Parker, 180-181. Hans-Günther Simon, in „Die Reform der Reiterei unter Kaiser Gallien“ in W. Eck, H. Galsterer, and H. Wolff, Studien zur Antiken Sozialgeschichte (Cologne and Vienna, 1980), 435-452, questions the „reform“ nature of Gallienus‘ changes and tries to place them within a broader context.
[[18]] Aur. Vict. 33 (see also Bird’s n.31 on p. 145); Alföldi, 183-184, 219-220; Parker, 178-180.
[[19]] Alföldi, 183, 219-221.
[[20]] Aur. Vict. 33; S.H.A. Gall. 5.6; Parker, 176.
[[21]] S.H.A. Tyr. Trig. 3.1-7; Wickert, 355-357; Parker, 167-168. On Gallienus‘ sons, see C. Zaccaria, „Contributo alla storia dei Cesari dell III. sec. d.C. I figli dell‘ imperatore Gallieno,“ Quaderni di Storia antica e Epigrafia 2 (1978), 59-155.
[[22]] S.H.A. Tyr. Trig. 12.11-14; Parker, 172-175.
[[23]] Zosimus 39; Alföldi, 176-178.
[[24]] S.H.A. Gall. 7.4-9.8; Parker, 176-177, 181-182.
[[25]] Porphyry, Life of Plotinus 12 in Stephen MacKenna’s translation of Plotinus: The Enneads (New York, 1957), 9.
[[26]] G. Matthew, „The Character of the Gallienic Renaissance,“ J.R.S. 33 (1943), 65-70 and plates IV-VI.
[[27]] R. Weigel, „Gallienus‘ ‚Animal Series‘ Coins and Roman Religion,“The Numismatic Chronicle 150 (1990), 135-143.
[[28]] Zosimus I.39-41; S.H.A. Gall. 13.6-15.1; Aur. Vict. 33; Eutrop. 9.11; C.A.H. XII, 189-190; Parker, 177-178. John Malalas preserves a different tradition, stating that Gallienus died from illness (Chronographia 12.27).
[[29]] Aur. Vict. 33.

Copyright (C) 1998, Richard D. Weigel. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.