Fun with Roman History

February 13th, 2015

I recently got around to reading Peter Heather's Fall of the Roman Empire.  It's an excellent read for the layman, and he poses some interesting debates for the historian.  One interesting theory he suggests is that the Huns had an indirect (and earlier than usually assumed) effect on Rome as their migrations forced the Goths to rush the borders and clash with the Empire.

But my area of study is the 3rd Century crisis, and that's why I noticed an odd and unorthodox account of Numerian's death.

Everyone remembers the famous emperor Numerian, right?  He's right up there with…well, don't feel badly.  They don't teach much about the 3rd century in school because it was such a mess.  Rome's borders were crumbling under the weight of Germanic invasions, and the empire was in a state of nearly constant civil war.  Dio (as in Cassius, not Ronnie James) remarked that Rome had descended "from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust."

From the death of Alexander Severus in 235 to the coronation of Diocletian in 284, there were 26 confirmed emperors and over 50 usurpers (Gallienus succeeded in winning exactly one thing in life–he had as many as thirty).  Approval by the Senate was an afterthought–the armies were the kingmakers for the empire, and their favorite generals were the only men deemed fit to rule.

The last of these "barracks emperors" was a guy named Numerian.  His father was Carus, who waged a pretty successful war against the Persians until he was either taken ill or struck by lightning.  The circumstances of his brother's death are equally unclear but may involve a jealous husband.  What we do know is that Numerian was a pretty decent guy.  Gibbon praised him for his eloquence and charm, asserting that he deserved to rule in happier times.

Unfortunately, the 280's were anything but happy times.  Numerian was charged with leading the legion back from Ctesiphon with his father-in-law, a Prefect named Flavius Aper (the name means "boar").  Aper sequestered Numerian from the troops with a claim the young emperor had taken ill.  After a few days, the soldiers became suspicious.  Upon seizing the emperor's litter, they found him dead.

The troops elected a cavalry commander named Diocles to succeed him.  Calling himself Diocletian, the new emperor accused Aper of poisoning Numerian and executed him on the spot.

(If Vopiscus is to be believed, this act fulfilled a prophecy given to Diocles by a druidess who told him he would become emperor after slaying a boar.)

So, that's the widely accepted story.

Peter Heather's book, however, tells a different version.  He claims Numerian was captured and killed by the Persian king Shapur:

Later in the century, a second Roman emperor, Numerianus, was also captured, but killed immediately: ‘They flayed him and made his skin into a sack. And they treated it with myrrh [to preserve it] and kept it as an object of exceptional splendour.’  Whether this was also Valerian’s fate, or whether he was kept on the floor or the wall, the sources don’t say.  [p. 141]

His source is Dodgeon's Roman Eastern Frontier and the Persian Wars, which appears to be quoting John Malalas' Chronographia:

And the bishop [St. Babylas] stopped him, saying to him, 'You are polluted from sacrifice to idols; and I do not assent to your seeing the mysteries of the living God.' The emperor Numerianus was angry with him and immediately executed him. He went out from Antioch and campaigned against the Persians. In the ensuing battle, the Persians launched an attack on him and destroyed the greater part of his forces, and he fled to the city of Carrhae. The Persians put it under siege and took him prisoner, and immediately they executed him. They flayed his skin and made it into a bag. They treated it with myrrh and preserved it for their particular glory.

OK, that's different.  So, which account is right?  Well, I've got to be at work in the morning, so I'll do my best to answer tomorrow.

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