“My dear Valerian. I don't think you are comfortable in your own skin. I have a solution.”
“Now I understand what you meant when you told me to get stuffed.”
An emperor who ended up as a purple coloured sofa? It sounds like a story out of horror fiction but this was the fate of Roman Emperor Valerian. Whether it was a sofa or a skinned corpse stuffed with straw, the gruesome trophy was supposed to reside in the private chamber of a Persian shah who would alternately taunt it or wheel it out dressed as a Roman emperor to 'join the dinner party'. Eventually it fell apart and was thrown away by a later King of Kings who thought it clashed with the carpets.
So let's go back to the beginning. How did this emperor's career end up as a piece of ghoulish upholstery? Valerian - full name Publius Licinius Valerianus - was another Roman from the old school of Senatorial back scratch. In that, he mixed in the same social circles as Trebonianus Gallus and knew how to lie down at dinner. This was in contrast to some recent occupants of Caesar's throne who always betrayed their social origins when they opened their mouths. Valerian had served the empire as a Consul of Rome during the reign of Gordian and had been promoted to a succession of governorships until ending up in Gaul.
It was there he got the message from Gallus to come to his aid in 253 when another Roman governor Aemilianus rebelled. Valerian arrived too late but as now Aemilianus had been proclaimed emperor and was issuing commemorative coinage, Valerian had to keep on marching to Rome. In this he was lucky, Aemilianus was another outsider - this time from Libya and the snooty Roman power brokers much preferred Valerian as he was 'one of us'. A few choice bags of coins and double rations for the emperor's 'loyal' soldiers saw them change sides and Aemilianus's brief three month reign was over. As ever in this game, the loser lost everything including his life.
Emperor and Son
Valerian's first move was elevate his own son Gallienus as co-emperor. Since the entry level for becoming a Roman emperor appeared to be a chest of money for bribery purposes and the balls to risk everything in a 'death or glory' run, Valerian kept a long list of anyone he thought could challenge him. Indeed many pretenders were to arise in his reign and that of his son but few bothered to come to Rome to fight him. They preferred to cut off their own slices of the Roman empire and rule there instead.
Since Valerian had no campaign medals on his chest, he wanted to prove his spurs in a war. Perhaps against the Goths or some other barbarian outfit who wouldn't be such a danger. With typical bravado, Valerian wanted to fight the Persians and make it a war of revenge to the memory of Decius and decency in fashion.
Christians queue up for martyrdom
Since 250 the Roman authorities had been executing quite a number of obstinate Christians who refused to burn a chicken as a good luck omen for the emperor. Valerian had hoped that the 'real trouble makers' had been dealt with but he now had a fresh bunch to consider. Amongst those taken a short cut to paradise was Pope Stephen I, saints Rufina and Secunda and another Papal seat warmer, Pope Sextus. Valerian was keen to get his hands on the money to help finance his Persian campaign. However, the church treasurer Lawrence refused to handover anything. This money was 'offshore and in heaven's keeping'. Lawrence was arrested and questioned.
The Roman tax authorities said this was tax evasion and asked for Lawrence to be punished. Since the penalty for book cooking was death, the Imperial Roman Service (IRS) demanded this be implemented. To the Christians this was out and out persecution. The sentence was the read by Valerian's enforcer Rome Prefect 'Rocky' Marcianus:-
"Kindle the fire of wood make no spare. Has this villain deluded the emperor? Away with him, away with him: whip him with scourges, jerk him with rods, buffet him with fists, brain him with clubs. Pinch him with fiery tongs, gird him with burning plates, bring out the strongest chains, and the fire-forks, and the grated bed of iron: on the fire with it; bind the rebel hand and foot; and when the bed is fire-hot, on with him: roast him, broil him and let this traitor simmer for 20 minutes. Also this weekend, the Colosseum will let responsible children accompanied by an adult to watch the Junior Gladiatorial Games. Tickets still available.
With almost pornographic detail, the Christians relate Lawrence got all this and more but as with other martyrdoms, only God would decide if you died. Laurence got through all this, joking that he was feeling under cooked. The entertainment only ended when someone had the wit to chop Lawrence's head off.
Valerian was finally able to get away from Rome and head east. He left a list of 'things to do' on the family fridge for Gallienus to read and marched out of Rome. The army crossed the Balkans and into Asia Minor. Near Edessa on the Tigris, Valerian mistakenly let his soldiers have some rest whilst he tried to work out where the Persians were. Climbing onto a hill to get a better look at a distant Persian army, Valerian was surprised by a band of mounted Persians. They recognised Valerian from a coin and took him prisoner.
Shah Shapur demanded Valerian do a thorough grovel and questioned why the emperor hadn't killed himself. Valerian said he was sure his dutiful son Gallienus would pay for a ransom and so if the Shah didn't mind, he Valerian would take a rest. Shapur took the opportunity to relate what happened to the last Roman leader to be captured alive.
You pathetic man. Why even that money crazy triumvir Crassus was prouder than you when the Parthians captured him. They made him drink molten gold. Why should I not do the same to you?'
Valerian then replied in a manner unexpected by Shapur.
Oh that's so B.C. Shapur. Are we not civilised men? Around our empires are tribes of people who only wash when the rain falls on them. Rome and Persia should be allies against India or China. Now set my ransom for your trouble and we can talk business. Here...I extend my soft hand.
Shapur is said to have snorted loudly. And then he reminded the Romans of Persian superiority.
I am from the family of Cyrus the Great. When my ancestors were chasing the Greeks around the Acropolis, where were the Romans then? Sitting with their farm animals amongst the scrubby hills of a dirty village called Rome. You are not my equal, none of you are. I am Shapur, King of Kings, Lord of the Sky. Now kneel before me Roman scum. I want to try something,
A horse was brought out and positioned behind Valerian. Shapur then took a long run up, racing down a beautiful carpet, he hit Valerian's back and vaulted into his saddle.
Solution!. Now take him away and tell Gallienus I have his father.
Whether Gallienus ever received a ransom note is not known. Nor did he send a revenging army to the East to find Valerian. Other matters came up and Valerian was left in the Persian court. Shapur took his 'purple mobile stool' everywhere, even on to a beach to play volleyball. Eventually Shapur got tired of the old emperor. Whether he let Valerian die of some disease or killed him, the Shah had a dead emperor on his hands. There would be no honorable burial for Valerian. Instead Shapur summoned his palace taxidermists who skinned Valerian's body and refashioned the skin into the shape of a couch. Shapor thought this very funny and would make anyone who displeased him, sit on Valerian until their fate was decided. It was usually death, Shapur was a strong law-and-order ruler and knew killing enemies or servants kept people entertained.
Valerian's death was barely noticed by Roman historians but the Christians were happier to record their feelings about it. Valerian was painted as an ogre, a Christ denier who died for his sins. Sympathy for the ex-emperor was in very short supply from them.