4

King of Kings

`I am the Mazda-worshipping divine Shapur, King of Kings of Aryans [i.e. Iranians], and non-Aryans. ... And when I was first established over the dominion of the nations, the Caesar Gordian from the whole of the Roman Empire and the nations of the Goths and Germans raised an army and marched against Assyria, against the nations of the Aryans and against us. A great battle took place between the two sides on the frontier of Assyria at Meshike. Caesar Gordian was destroyed and the Roman army was annihilated.' - King Shapur I of Persia, describing his victory over the Romans in 2442

n March 1920 soldiers from Britain's Indian army were on the banks of the Euphrates in Syria when they stumbled upon a truly remarkable archaeological discovery. Some sepoys digging a position for their machine gun uncovered a temple that had been buried for more than sixteen centuries. Their officer, one Captain Murphy, recognised the building as Roman. All four walls were richly decorated with scenes showing sacrifice. By a strange chance, one of these murals depicted soldiers - Roman soldiers from around the year 238. They were the officers of the Twentieth Palmyrene Cohort, parading beside their standard (vexillum) of a square red flag hanging down from a crossbar on top of a long pole. In front of them is their commander, Tribune Julius Terentius - his name is neatly painted in Latin beside him - who offers incense on the altar. Another man, `Themes son of Mokimos, priest' is named, though this time in Greek. The objects of worship were three figures of gods - or perhaps emperors - and the guardian spirits or Fortunes of two cities, of Palmyra and the place itself, Dura Europos.

Little was known about Dura Europos from literary sources, but this all changed when a programme of large-scale excavation began on the site. By this time Syria had passed under French control and the FrancoAmerican team of archaeologists was aided and protected by soldiers of the Foreign Legion as well as locally raised troops. It was a suitably exotic combination for what had once been a highly cosmopolitan frontier community. Dura was founded around 300 B c as a Macedonian colony and throughout its history Greek probably remained the main language of everyday speech. Yet inscriptions, graffiti and papyri show that a range of other languages, including Aramaic, Palmyrene, Parthian and Latin were also in regular use. The Parthians held the city for two and a half centuries before it fell to Rome in 165 during the campaigns of Lucius Verus. Just over ninety years later Dura fell to enemy attack and was abandoned forever.2

Conditions at Dura preserved much that does not normally survive, including wooden shields with ornate painted decoration, shafts of weapons, fabrics and a great quantity of documents written on papyrus. Many of these were associated with the Twentieth Palmyrene Cohort, making it probably the best known unit in the Roman army. Like all bureaucracy, the subjects are generally mundane. There are daily reports listing the number of men fit for duty - the cohort was predominantly infantry, but also had some horsemen and even a few camel riders. Records were kept of men posted away, going on leave or returning to duty. Another records the allocation of horses to the cavalrymen, giving each animal's age and a fairly specific description of its colour.

The Twentieth seem to have been the main part of the permanent garrison. (Interestingly enough, in the past the Parthians had stationed archers supplied by their Palmyrene allies to hold the place.) Other units, including detachments of legionaries, were also often present. The Palmyrenes were auxiliaries, but the real difference in status between these troops and the legions was no longer as important as it had once been. Virtually all of the men in the cohort were Roman citizens. On the nominal role the name `Marcus Aurelius Antontinus ' is most common, revealing that they had gained citizenship following Caracalla's universal grant and taken the emperor's name. Some of them may genuinely have come from Palmyra, but many will have been from other Syrian communities. The Roman army tended to recruit locally whenever this was possible.'

Julius Terentius' family owed their name and citizenship to an earlier emperor. As the commander of a cohort he was an equestrian. The painting shows him as tall - although this might be to reflect his status - with a trim beard and a receding hairline. The other officers boast a variety of hairstyles and are almost all bearded. One stands out because his hair is fair. The tribune has a white cloak, in contrast to the darker drab cloaks worn by everyone else. All are unarmoured (although helmets, body armour and shields were employed in battle), wear close-fitting trousers, closed shoes rather than sandals and white tunics with long sleeves. The men's tunics have a red border and Terentius and the front rank of officers have two rings on each sleeve. They do not look too much like the classic image of Roman soldiers, but such a uniform was normal by this period, even emperors conforming to the style.

Officers like Terentius usually served for a few years in a command, before moving on to another post. However, his career was to be cut short. In 239 the Roman outpost came under attack and he was killed in the fighting. Casualties may have been heavy, for the overall strength of the cohort seems to have fallen by ioo men at this time. Terentius' wife Aurelia Arria had accompanied him in this posting and left a poignant memorial to her dead husband. The text, carefully painted in Greek on the wall of a house - perhaps their billet - mourns `her beloved husband', a man who had been `brave in campaigns and mighty in wars'.4

Persia: The New Enemy

Terentius was not killed by Parthians, but by soldiers of the new Sassanid Persian dynasty. Arsacid Parthia was an essentially feudal state, with the king relying on the great noble families to run the empire and provide him with soldiers. The king needed the nobles, but they were always a potential threat, for if they became too powerful they could overthrow him and place a rival claimant on the throne. Civil wars were frequent. During the second century the monarchy had also been battered by successive defeats in the great wars with Rome, losing more and more territory on the borders. Caracalla's murder in 217 may well have prevented new Roman conquests. Although Artabanus V of Parthia extorted a substantial sum from Macrinus as the price of peace, he was unable to take any more advantage of Rome's weakness because he faced internal problems of his own. One of his brothers was challenging him for the throne, while another rebellion led by a nobleman was also gaining momentum. It was the latter that proved fatal. By 224 Artabanus V had been defeated - the victor's propaganda claimed that he killed the king in personal combat - and the Parthian empire died with him.

The victor was Ardashir I, son of Papak, perhaps grandson of Sassan, although romantic stories later circulated about how the family got its name. He was a Persian rather than a Parthian, but it would be wrong to see his rebellion as a nationalist campaign to overthrow `foreign' Parthian rulers. Ardashir was simply one of many local aristocrats, if an especially talented and ambitious one. It probably took a decade for him to beat all his local rivals and become undisputed king of his home province of Persis (modern Fars). That he was able to rise in this way gives a good indication of the weakness of central government, which he continued to exploit as he expanded into other provinces. Roman sources make him claim to be the heir of the old Achaemenid Persian kings smashed by Alexander the Great. In Greek his name was Artaxerxes. However, there is no trace of this connection in his internal propaganda and, as far as we can tell, few Persians had much knowledge of this era of their past.

Ardashir won because he was a good soldier and a strong leader. He also followed the traditional Persian religion of Zoroastrianism - a monumental relief set up by his son shows the god Ahura-Mazda crowning the victorious Ardashir. This in itself was a break with tradition, for in the past it had not been considered proper to represent the god in human form. On the monument the earthly king tramples the defeated Artabanus beneath the hooves of his horse, while his heavenly counterpart similarly crushes the evil god Ahriman. From the beginning the new dynasty claimed divine favour and encouraged the construction of the fire-temples central to the cult, but it would be wrong to see them as crusaders. The Parthians had never been hostile to Zoroastrianism and it was only later that it developed into a state church that suppressed other faiths. Ardashir was devout, but tolerant of other beliefs and ideas.'

In many ways the new regime closely resembled the old. It was still essentially feudal, although the balance of power had shifted markedly in favour of the king and the administration that developed around the court. At first this had more to do with the strength of Ardashir's character than anything else. As importantly, over time the nobles and lesser kings ruling each region were almost all replaced by members of the Sassanid family. These men and their retinues continued to supply most of the troops for the royal army and the king could not fight a major campaign without them. Ardashir was respected and feared. He was also a usurper who had recently fought his way to power. Few would have guessed that his dynasty would last until the seventh century. If ever he seemed to be weak there was a real danger that another nobleman would depose him. Ardashir needed to keep winning victories to show that he was strong and to reward his followers with plunder. His mind soon turned to the border with Rome.

The rise of the Sassanids had profoundly shifted the balance of power on the frontier. Part of the Arsacid family held on to the throne of Armenia and, faced with the threat of invasion, they turned to an ever closer alliance with Rome. Hatra, the desert city that had defied both Trajan and Severus in turn, repulsed a Persian attack in 229, and at some point accepted a Roman garrison. A year later Ardashir attacked the Roman province of Mesopotamia. It was a very tempting target. The twenty-year-old Severus Alexander was seen as weak and under his mother's thumb. Still worse, the Roman troops in this and the neighbouring provinces were not in a high state of readiness. In the last twelve years they had taken part in a civil war and several failed usurpations. Inevitably, discipline had declined, and with it levels of training. Dio mentions that the soldiers in Syria had recently murdered their governor in a mutiny. The Persians easily broke through and raided in Mesopotamia and perhaps beyond.'

At first Alexander tried to negotiate, prompting the Persian envoys' boasts about reviving the old Persian Empire as far as the shores of the Mediterranean. Ardashir was not the first to make such claims - in 35 a Parthian king had done the same during a dispute with the emperor Tiberius. Then as now, it was clearly little more than diplomatic bluster to help secure far more modest objectives. When talking failed, Alexander gathered a large expeditionary force from all over the empire and went east. Morale was still a problem and there was at least one mutiny before the campaign began. The details of the operations that followed are hazy, and the Persians had probably already retreated from the Roman province. If not, then they were promptly expelled. Three Roman columns then invaded Persian territory, one being led in person by the emperor. There seem to have been some Roman victories, before Alexander retreated prematurely and allowed the Persians to maul one of the other Roman columns.7

The outcome was an uneasy stalemate, neither side mounting any major operations for several years. Alexander left to celebrate a triumph in Rome and then move to the Rhine frontier. The Persian army had dispersed when the Romans withdrew, the feudal element returning home and leaving Ardashir with only his immediate retinue and professional mercenaries. Yet the king was probably content, as raiding will have produced plunder for his nobles and their retainers. There was also glory from winning victories and avoiding any serious defeat. Having strengthened his position on the throne, for the moment he was satisfied.

The Death of an Emperor

In 236 Ardashir launched another attack on Mesopotamia, capturing the cities of Carrhae, Nisibis and Edessa. Again, this may essentially have been a raid aimed at winning glory and gathering plunder. The new emperor Maximinus was too preoccupied with campaigns in the west to respond. He was already facing growing internal opposition. Short of money, his representatives were ordered to be especially rigorous in their collection of taxes, adding to his unpopularity. In March 238 an imperial procurator was lynched in Africa by the tenants of some landowners he had been squeezing for money. They quickly proclaimed the proconsul of the province as emperor. His name was Gordian (fully, Marcus Antonius Gordianus Sempronianus Romanus) and he was senator of good family, but modest talent. He was also extremely old - Herodian says he was eighty. However, his son was with him in the province and was quickly named as co-emperor as they set up court in Carthage. When the news reached Rome the Senate rejoiced and immediately pledged its loyalty, declaring Maximinus a public enemy.'

However, they were premature. Africa was not a military province and had no significant garrison. Neighbouring Numidia contained a full legion - IIIAugusta- as well as auxiliaries. Its governor was also a senator, but he had a personal grudge against Gordian and chose to stay loyal to Maximinus. The legion marched on Carthage. The Younger Gordian led a volunteer army against them, but the enthusiasm of peasants was no match for properly equipped and trained soldiers. The army was routed and its commander killed. His father hanged himself when he heard the news.'

The rebellion had been crushed after a few weeks, but it was too late for the Senate to change its decision and so a new emperor needed to be found. A board of twenty ex-consuls was given the task of picking out men suitable for the job from amongst the senators' peers. They selected two of their own number, Balbinus and Pupienus, both of whom were probably at least in their sixties. On the day they were proclaimed there was rioting and they were forced to take another colleague, the grandson of Gordian - the child of his daughter and not his recently killed son. Gordian III was just thirteen and the disturbances had almost certainly been orchestrated by senators and senior equestrian officials, who felt that they could gain power through this puppet.'°

By this time Maximinus had marched on Italy, but became bogged down in the siege of Aquileia. It was there that his officers grew tired of him and killed him. The army then declared its support for the three emperors named by the Senate. It is quite possible that they are the three armoured figures receiving the offering of Terentius and his men on the painting at Dura. However, from the very beginning Balbinus and Pupienus were unpopular with the praetorians and after a couple of months the guardsmen murdered the two men. Once again the empire was ruled by a boy in his early teens - or rather by the people who could control him. The most important of these was Praetorian Prefect Caius Timesitheus, who married his daughter to the young emperor. Although he appears to have been reasonably competent, this was not the way the empire was supposed to work. There were also major problems, not least the same shortage of funds that had caused Maximinus to resort to desperate measures."

Wracked by civil war and once again ruled by a mere boy, the Roman Empire seemed weak and vulnerable to its neighbours. Therefore the Persians pressed their attacks, taking Hatra in 240. By this time Ardashir had died and been succeeded by his son Shapur I, who had shared power with his father in the last few years and already proved himself a formidable soldier. Even so, by 243 the Romans had recaptured Carrhae, Nisibis and Edessa. The army then marched against Ctesiphon - formerly the Parthian capital and still the main seat of government for the new regime. Before it arrived Timesitheus died of natural causes. Early in 244 Shapur met the Roman army in battle near the city and claimed a victory. Roman sources deny that they were defeated, but Gordian certainly did not win and the army soon began to retreat."

At the very least it was a strategic victory for Shapur, reinforced by the death of the nineteen-year-old Gordian. How he died is unclear. The Persians claimed to have killed him, and some of the Roman accounts say that he received a wound that proved mortal. The darker tradition, which says that during the retreat he was murdered in a conspiracy led by the two praetorian prefects, is generally preferred by historians. Certainly the young emperor had presided over a military failure. The two new praetorian prefects had been close associates of Timesitheus and were also brothers - the first time this had ever happened. The younger of the two, Philip (fully Marcus Julius Philippus), was proclaimed emperor by the army. His older brother may simply have been less forceful, but the key factor was probably that Philip had a son, who in due course was made co-emperor. Once again the emperor was an equestrian, and like Macrinus, Philip had risen through the imperial household. By now probably in his forties, he came from an obscure town in southern Syria, which he would later rebuild at massive cost as the grand city of Philippopolis. Later historians dubbed him Philip the Arab, but there is no reason to believe that he was not fully Roman in all important respects.

New emperors were always vulnerable to challengers and Philip wanted to return to the heart of the empire as soon as possible. He made peace with Shapur, giving him 500,000 gold coins and conceding that Armenia lay within Persia's sphere of influence. No Roman territory was ceded, but the Persian king kept Hatra and had won a degree of dominance over the border regions. He also gained a huge amount of glory and was not hesitant in celebrating this. In a victory monument he is depicted on horseback trampling the corpse of Gordian while Philip begs for mercy. The success greatly strengthened his grip on the kingdom."

Philip returned to Europe. Later he would send back his older brother to take charge of the eastern provinces with the title `commander of the east' (rector orientis), watching the uneasy peace with Persia. In 245-246 Philip himself campaigned on the Danubian frontier, which had come under heavy attack from the tribes beyond. A year later he was in Rome, where he celebrated the one thousandth anniversary of Rome's foundation with a great festival. Most of our sources are hostile to Philip, but as far as we can tell he seems to have done his best to rule well. At this period, however, this was seldom enough. Like all recent emperors he was desperately short of money, not helped by his lavish expenditure. Heavy taxation provoked a rebellion in Syria in 248 and at the end of that year the army in Moesia on the Danube proclaimed a rival emperor. The latter did not last long before his own men turned against him and killed him.14

There was soon more trouble on the Danubian frontier, perhaps provoked by the reduction or cancellation of subsidies paid to the tribes to keep the peace. Philip sent an experienced senator named Decius (fully, Caius Messius Quintus Decius) to the region to restore order. In 249 the army there proclaimed Decius emperor and he promptly led a force back to Italy. Philip was defeated and killed in battle near Verona, and his son was murdered immediately afterwards. The fate of Philip's brother is unknown, but he was probably also killed. Decius was soon back on the Danube, fighting against groups of barbarians who had overrun the frontier. From the very beginning he knew that his grip on power was precarious. Probably for this reason one of his first measures was an edict commanding the entire free population of the empire to sacrifice on his behalf. The ritual was to be performed by a set date and had to be witnessed by a local official. Perhaps unintentionally, this decree provoked a crisis for one group within the empire, the Christians."

An Enemy Within?

The first discovery at Dura Europos was a temple and more were found in the subsequent excavations. Like every other community in the polytheistic empire, many different cults seem to have happily coexisted. Decius' decree was quite vague when it commanded people to make an offering to the `ancestral gods', allowing individuals to address their worship to whatever deities they preferred. More spectacular than the temples at Dura was the uncovering of a synagogue dating to the third century. Its walls were covered in paintings showing scenes from the scriptures, including the Exodus and the arrival in Canaan. This in itself is highly unusual, for normally the Jews of this period were reluctant to represent the human form in art. The style is very similar to the Terentius painting and suggests local taste.'6

Around the same time that the synagogue was built at Dura, some rooms in a private house were converted into a baptistry by local Christians. Once again, its walls were painted in the same local style, this time with scenes including Adam and Eve, Jesus as the Good Shepherd and with Peter walking on water. In contrast to the later tradition, Jesus is shown as beardless. Another poorly preserved scene seems to have depicted the women going to the empty tomb after the Resurrection. In many ways this discovery was even more surprising than that of the synagogue, for Christianity is almost invisible archaeologically until the fourth century. It did not set up monuments or build distinctively shaped churches, since groups tended to meet in private houses or outside. Without the wall paintings, archaeologists would have been far less confident in identifying the room as a baptistry.17

Christians did not sacrifice, something which made them very different from the bulk of the population of the empire. They also denied the existence of any god other than their own, a position which was seen as akin to atheism. The Jews had a similar view, and were seen as perverse by many outsiders, but at least they were a distinct people, whose religion was traditional. For a long time the Christians were seen as just another Jewish sect and it was probably not until the end of the first century that there was a wider perception that the cult stood outside Judaism. Christianity was new, and Christians were drawn from all nations and every level of society. This made many especially suspicious of the religion, since it was hard to be sure how many Christians there were. Critics claimed that converts were usually the vulnerable, poor and ignorant, often slaves or women - groups that educated men felt were by nature illogical. Rumours also spread of terrible secret rituals. The communion service, with its talk of eating flesh and drinking blood, fuelled tales of cannibalism."

Jesus was crucified sometime around 30, during the reign of Tiberius. Although the main charge was one of opposition to Roman power - the claim made that he was king of the Jews - there was no attempt by Roman authorities to suppress his followers. However, in 64 after fire had swept through the heart of Rome, popular opinion turned against Nero and accused him of exploiting the destruction for his own advantage and perhaps even of having arranged it in the first place. In response, the emperor blamed the Christians for starting the blaze, hoping that this unpopular group would make good scapegoats. Many were arrested and executed, some being burned alive as punishment. Both Peter and Paul were said to have been killed during this purge, the former crucified, but the latter beheaded because he was a citizen."

Nero's persecution seems to have focused on the Christians in Rome, but even there it is unclear how long it lasted. The principle was established that being a Christian was a crime against the state, but afterwards the authorities showed little interest in actively suppressing the Church. At the beginning of the second century Pliny the Younger was governor of Bithynia and Pontus, touring from city to city within the province to deal with appeals and dispense justice. At one place people arrested by the city authorities on a charge of being Christians were brought before him. After investigation Pliny concluded that there was no truth in the wild stories of crimes and deviant behaviour, simply of `excessive superstition'. Those who denied that they were Christians - even if they admitted that they had been in the past - were released. All they had to do was perform a sacrifice and revile the name of Christ. Pliny gave each suspect three chances to escape punishment in this way. If they refused then he had them executed, feeling that they deserved it for their 'stubbornness and rigid obstinacy' as much as anything else."

Emperor Trajan approved Pliny's actions as the correct procedure. The crime was simply being a Christian when questioned by the authorities. Past, and even future, beliefs did not concern the empire, especially if they were kept private. At the end of the second century the Christian author Tertullian, himself a lawyer, claimed that no other crime was treated in the same illogical way. He also emphasised that Christians were model citizens, found in almost every walk of life. The refusal to sacrifice was simply a mark of their integrity, that they could not bring themselves to act out a ritual they knew to be wrong. Yet they were loyal subjects who would obey all other laws, pay their taxes and pray for the emperor and the good of the empire."

After Nero, persecutions of Christians were sporadic and local. They tended to occur at disturbed times or in the wake of natural disasters where people wanted some group to blame. Tertullian claimed that almost any misfortune prompted the cry of `Christians to the lion!' - lion singular, rather like `the Hun' in the First World War. Trajan's advice to Pliny was highly revealing, for he stressed that a governor should not hunt out Christians, but merely try those arrested by local authorities. Emperors were not worried by Christianity, but they were concerned to keep individual communities happy. Under Marcus Aurelius there was a large-scale persecution of Christians at Lugdunum (modern Lyons) in Gaul around the year 177. The continuing outbreaks of plague may well have had something to do with creating the nervousness that found this outlet. More immediately, it meant that there was a shortage of suitable criminals to provide victims for the arena."

Even so, there are few signs of a systematic hunt for suspects. The lawyer who came forward to defend those arrested was himself accused of being a Christian during the trial. He confessed and joined the defendants and died in the arena. Later, when a well-known doctor was thought to be encouraging the Christians as they went to their deaths, he too was arrested and sent off for execution. Sometimes arrest and execution were prompted by entirely personal motives. In another account we read of a wife who was converted and subsequently divorced her husband. He in turn publicly accused her and the preacher he blamed for her conversion. On another occasion a recently promoted centurion was reported to the authorities by a colleague who had hoped to gain the same post. Many people seem to have been known to be Christians without this becoming an issue until another dispute arose."

Christian accounts of martyrdoms often emphasise the efforts made to persuade suspects to abandon their faith and go free. Governors are represented taking considerable time and using both threats and reason to convince them. In another case we read of a father begging his Christian daughter, `have pity on my grey head - have pity on me your father ... think of your child, who will not be able to live once you are gone. Give up your pride!' She refused and was killed in the arena. Not everyone was so determined. On another occasion we read of a man `who had given himself up and had forced some others to give themselves up voluntarily. With him the governor used many arguments and persuaded him to swear by the gods and offer sacrifice.' Martyrs were revered by the Church, but there was often suspicion of those who volunteered to be punished. Some members of the local church seem to have survived each persecution, and accounts depict them as able to visit and support those held awaiting trial and punishment. The impression is that normally the aim was to arrest some prominent Christians and so deter the others. Governors and even local magistrates seem far more concerned with public displays than private belief.

Sometimes the accounts include moments of grim humour, such as the following exchange between a governor in Spain and a local Christian.

Governor: Are you a bishop? (Episcopus es?)

Bishop: I am. (Sum.)

Governor: You were. (Fuisti.)14

The bishop was then burned alive. Public executions for any crime were made especially unpleasant since they were supposed to act as a deterrent. They were also often included in public entertainments. Not all Christians were killed. Men might be sent to labour in the appalling conditions of imperial mines, while women were sometimes sent to work in brothels. On other occasions fines or imprisonment were used, again in the hope of persuading the accused to recant. When the death sentence was imposed, it was often inflicted in extremely savage ways, even by Roman standards. Usually the crowd revelled in the slaughter and only rarely was there any trace of sympathy. On one occasion in Africa around 203 two young women were to be killed by a maddened heifer.

So they were stripped naked, placed in nets and thus brought into the arena. Even the crowd was horrified when they saw that one was a delicate young girl and the other a woman fresh from childbirth with the milk still dripping from her breasts. And so they were brought back again and dressed in unbelted tunics.

The crowd seems to have been quite happy to see clothed women being trampled and gored to death.2s

Persecutions were spectacular, and appalling for those caught up in them, but they were also rare until the middle of the third century. Most of the time, the majority of people in the Roman world were content for others to follow their own conscience in matters of religion. Many who were not Christians still revered Jesus as a holy man. Julia Mamaea had summoned the famous Christian thinker Origen to Antioch so that she could listen to his ideas. Her son, Alexander Severus, is even supposed to have had a statue of Jesus along with those of other gods and great men he prayed to and kept in his personal chambers. It is easy to forget that the polytheistic mindset made it easy to accept new deities, even if Christians themselves insisted that worshipping Christ must mean a denial of other gods. Philip is said to have been sympathetic to Christians - one later source even claims that he was one himself."

Persecutions were local and occasional and do not seem to have hindered the spread of Christianity. As usual when it comes to statistics, we have no real idea of how many Christians there were at any set period. It appears to have been primarily an urban religion, but then we always know more about life in the cities than the countryside so this assumption may be mistaken. From the beginning Christians produced great quantities of writing, which indicates that a good number were literate and that some were well educated. They probably included many individuals from locally important and prosperous `middle classes'. Probably Christians were rare amongst the senatorial class, but even this is impossible to prove.

Christianity remained illegal, but only rarely was the law enforced, and most of the time Christians went about their normal lives and even practised their religion in a semi-public way. Decius' edict challenged this and Christians responded in various ways. Some bribed the local officials to purchase the receipt without actually performing the sacrifice. Others complied and made the offering - sometimes one member of the family doing this to protect the others. A few may have abandoned their faith in the face of this government order. Far more resisted, but how they were dealt with depended on the attitude of local magistrates and the provincial governors. Some Christians were executed, even more arrested and punished in other ways, but the sources are too poor for us to know how many suffered. The prominent Alexandrian theologian Origen, who two decades earlier had been summoned by Julia Mamaea, was one of the victims, dying as result of a spell of imprisonment. Decius' edict changed assumptions about the influence of the State over beliefs and also highlighted the ambiguity of the official attitude towards Christians. It was the act of a nervous new ruler, and one worried by foreign invasions, the probability that usurpers would challenge and also the continued impact of outbreaks of plague.17

Defeat and Humiliation

Decius' reign lasted less than three years. He had probably already begun to mollify the decree for sacrifices before he was killed in 251 fighting barbarians on the Danubian frontier. The army chose Gallus, the senatorial governor of Moesia, as his successor. We know of at least one attempted usurpation in Syria, before the man Gallus had appointed to replace him in Moesia rebelled in 253. When the rival armies met, they did not fight a battle, but after a conference simply murdered Gallus and his son. The victor, Aemilianus, suffered the same fate within a matter of months. Valerian (fully, Publius Licinius Valerianus) was also a distinguished senator and promptly appointed his son as fellow Augustus. The father soon went to the eastern frontiers where a crisis had developed, leaving his son, Gallienus, to deal with problems in the west.Z"

Shapur had taken advantage of Rome's weakness to intervene in Armenia. At some point he seems to have arranged the assassination of the Armenian king. In 251 he launched a full invasion and drove out that man's successor, who sought sanctuary with the Romans. Shapur chose to take this as a breach of Philip's promise to give him a free hand in Armenia. As importantly, he knew that the Romans were busy fighting amongst themselves. In 252 he marched up the Euphrates and attacked Syria. A Roman army was defeated and Antioch itself captured, along with many smaller cities. However, the Persians never intended to stay. They plundered the cities, took captives and then returned home. Prisoners were an important objective for the Persian king, who settled them in communities deep within his territory where they could labour on large-scale irrigation and building projects. As the Persians pulled back, some minor victories were won by Roman troops and local militias, but really this was just a question of hastening the withdrawal.

The Persians were quiet again by the time Valerian arrived in Antioch in 255. He soon faced other problems from widespread raiding by fleets of Germanic pirates. As resources were shifted to deal with this, the frontier with Persia was once again weakened. Shapur launched a series of small attacks, aimed mainly at capturing border towns. Then in 260 the Persian king led another great invasion, striking first at Mesopotamia. Carrhae and Edessa were attacked. Valerian rushed with a large army to confront the enemy. Concentrating so many troops was dangerous, since it weakened defences elsewhere and, still worse, there had been several recent outbreaks of plague. Again, we do not know quite what happened. There may have been a battle or perhaps simply manoeuvring. What is certain is that Valerian and his senior officers were captured by the Persians, apparently in the middle of a parley. Shapur is shown holding the emperor by the wrist on several victory monuments. He claimed that the defeated Romans numbered 70,000 men, but we should be as sceptical about Persian claims of enemy numbers as we are about those made by the Romans. The Persians raided widely throughout Cappadocia, Syria and even Cilicia. Antioch probably fell for a second time."

Dura Europos was already abandoned by the time Valerian was captured. It seems to have been briefly occupied by the Persians between 252 and 253 before it was retaken by the Romans. The latter were soon working to strengthen the fortifications by building a heavy earth bank behind the main wall, demolishing nearby houses in the process. A few years later the Persians attacked again. With the Euphrates to the east, deep wadis to the north and south, inevitably their main effort was made against the western wall. An initial assault on the main gate failed after heavy fighting which left many arrowheads embedded in the brickwork. The Persians then turned to engineering. Above ground they constructed a ramp that would allow a mobile siege tower or battering ram to be brought against the wall. Underground they dug tunnels to undermine the defences. In response, the Romans laboured to raise the height of the wall in front of the ramp, and also started working on counter-mines. Siege warfare was a battle of ingenuity and engineering skill as much as brute force.

The Persians had some success when one of their mines caused the collapse of a tower that was well placed to shoot at the men working on the ramp. However, soon after this success, the Romans struck back when their tunnels undermined the assault ramp and rendered it too weak to take the weight of a siege engine. Further along the wall Persian miners were already working on another tunnel, this time intended to bring down a tower and the adjacent wall and create a breach in the defences. The Romans guessed what they were up to and dug a mine that eventually broke into the enemy tunnel. Perhaps there was a vicious melee fought in the dark claustrophobic confines of the mines. Certainly, almost twenty Roman soldiers died there, along with one Persian, and their remains were found by the excavators. Recently another intriguing reconstruction has been put forward. This suggests that the Persians knew that the Roman raiders were coming and prepared a dreadful surprise, heating sulphur and pitch to give off noxious fumes. The layout of the tunnels meant that the draught carried this quickly into the Roman tunnel, asphyxiating the soldiers. Later, the Romans' bodies seem to have been heaped up into a makeshift barricade, to protect against other attacks, as the Persians prepared to burn the props and collapse the whole mine. Unknown to them, the equally nervous defenders were busy bricking it up at the other end in case the Persians should try to follow it into the city. Later, the Persians collapsed their main mine, but it did not have the intended result. A tower and parts of the wall sunk several feet into the ground, but did not collapse. We do not know how the Persians finally got into Dura Europos. The defenders may have surrendered, despairing of resisting another onslaught, short of food, or because there was no hope of relief. The Persians stayed for a little while, but then abandoned the city to the sands. It was probably too far forward for them to hold in the long term.3°

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!