More Fun with Roman History

February 14th, 2015

Picking up from yesterday, we're left with vastly differing accounts of the emperor Numerian's death.  Which is correct?  The easiest way to solve this is to run down a simple timeline.

Malalas' Chronographia makes the following claims:

  • Saint Babylas (then patriarch of Antioch) refused to admit an emperor to the church
  • the emperor executed Babylas
  • the emperor went to war with the Persians
  • said emperor was captured following a siege at Carrhae

It becomes apparent he's referencing three distinct emperors, all of whom predate Numerian by a generation.

The first is Marcus Julius Philippus, commonly known as Philip the Arab.  Philip was probably born in Syria, and he served as Praetorian prefect under Gordian III.  Gordian died under suspicious circumstances, and Philip was declared emperor.  He ruled from 244-249.

There have been allegations that Philip was sympathetic to Christianity, and his wife Severa corresponded with Origen.  Eusebius writes in Chapter 34 of his Ecclesiastical History:

GORDIANUS had held the government of Rome six years, when he was succeeded by Philip, together with his son Philip. It is said that, as a Christian, on the day of the last vigil of the pass-over, he wished to share with the multitude in the prayers of the church, but was not permitted by the existing bishop to enter before he had confessed his sins, and numbered himself with those who were referred to transgressors, and had space for repentance. For otherwise he would never be received by him, unless he first did this, on account of the many crimes which he had committed. The emperor is said to have obeyed cheerfully, and exhibited a genuine and religious disposition in regard to his fear of God.

If this took place in Antioch, it would all match up.  Babylas was patriarch there at the time.

Philip's successor was a nasty piece of work named Decius (249-251).  Decius resented Christianity and believed that Rome's troubles were the result of her rejection of the old gods and their ways.  He signed an edict requiring Christians to make sacrifices to the pagan dieties upon pain of death, and he had Babylas imprisoned.*  Contrary to Malalas, Babylas was not immediately executed.  He would die in 253 under the emperor Trebonianus Gallus.

So, who was the guy captured in Persia?  That would be Valerian, who ruled from 253-260.  Valerian picked up on Decius' persecutions with a vengeance.  Among his victims were Cyprian of Carthage and Sixtus II of Rome, both bishops of their respective churches.  Christians were banned from assembly and clergy of all ranks were exiled.  By 259, widespread executions were conducted.

The following year, Valerian set out to retake Antioch from the Persian king Shapur I, and the two armies clashed somewhere between  Carrhae (the city mentioned by Malalas) and Edessa.

To say it didn't go well would be an understatement.  Valerian was taken prisoner and publicly humiliated by Shapur.  Though accounts of his death vary, he was not executed immediately as Malalas claims.  Some Persian inscriptions show him being (literally) used as a footstool, while others seem to depict him in conference with Shapur.

Valerian's loser kid Gallienus would rule for a bit afterwards, and he would relax policies towards Christians.  It would be still be another 14 years (and seven emperors) before Numerian would be on the radar.

So, Malalas is referencing Philip, possibly Decius, Gallus, and Valerian.  Somehow, he thinks they're all the same guy.  How did he get things so hopelessly muddled?

The answer is simple:  Malalas was a terrible historian.  His work embodies the dumbing down of both history and the Greek language for the masses of Byzantium.  Krumbacher described the Chronographia as "the earliest important monument of low Greek," and Treadgold saw Malalas as "the authentic voice of a typical Byzantine–that is, of an ignoramus."  Despite the number of names he drops as sources, most of them would have been fragmentary at best.  It's understandable (if irritating) that he would have cobbled together what information he could find and filled in the gaps with assumptions.

The last remaining question is why Heather used him.  He's a spectacular historian (his history of the Goths is marvelous), so I'm left to wonder if he knows something we don't.  If that's the case, an answer would be fascinating indeed.

So, why is this even interesting?  Because Numerian's reign took place in one of history's great liminal moments.  His successor Diocletian would fundamentally alter the Roman empire, both in spirit and structure.  Though he was the last great persecutor of Christians, his reforms would pave the way for Constantine, the Catholic church, and the structure of Europe for centuries to come.  In fact, the eastern (don't call it Byzantine) empire would exist in one form or another until 1922.

Everyone wants to know what happened the day after a great revolution, but it's sometimes revelatory to know what happened the day before.

*  There are some interesting notes in Margaret A. Schatkin's translation of John Chrysostom's Apologist, for which there appears to be no online source.  On page 62, she mentions a general named Numerius who persecuted Christians on Decius' orders.  I don't know if this might have contributed to Malalas' confusion, but it's a mildly interesting parallel.

**  …and that reminded me of another famous Numerius, who appears in Ammianus' account of the fourth-century emperor Julian:

Numerius, shortly before governor of Gallia Narbonensis, was accused of embezzlement, and Julian examined him with unusual judicial strictness before his tribunal publicly, admitting all who wished to attend. And when the accused defended himself by denying the charge, and could not be confuted on any point, Delphidius, a very vigorous speaker, assailing him violently and, exasperated by the lack of proofs, cried: "Can anyone, most mighty Caesar, ever be found guilty, if it be enough to deny the charge?" And Julian was inspired at once to reply to him wisely: "Can anyone be proved innocent, if it be enough to have accused him?"


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