Weird History The Roman Emperor Who Died By Having Molten Gold Poured Down His Throat  

Genevieve Carlton
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Death by molten gold isn’t just a grisly Game of Thrones invention. In the third century, a Roman emperor named Valerian died when his rival poured liquid gold down his throat. Valerian’s gruesome death was nearly as bad as the horrific executions in Henry VIII’s time, and that's really saying something. Unfortunately for Valerian, his execution was only one part of his humiliating captivity in the hands of the Persians.

Persian King Shapur I captured Valerian in battle and tormented him relentlessly. He used Emperor Valerian as a footstool, mocked him, and stuffed his flayed skin with straw. The humiliation of Emperor Valerian was so bad that his own son didn’t even try to rescue him. 

What happened to Emperor Valerian after his capture at the Battle of Edessa? King Shapur I and the Roman Emperor Valerian came from clashing superpowers, and the Persians made an example of Valerian to taunt Romans with their lost glory. Talk about adding insult to injury. 

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Photo: Giovanni Battista Cavalieri/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Valerian Came To Power When Being Emperor Was A Death Sentence


When Valerian became emperor in 253, Rome was in the middle of the Crisis of the Third Century. In a period of only fifty years, the empire would boast a staggering total of nearly fifty different emperors. Many emperors only lasted a few months, assassinated by rivals or even their own troops. As historian Pat Southern put it, “To be declared emperor once marked the apogee of a man's career. In the third century it was a death sentence.”

Valerian’s seven years of rule might seem like a success—until he was captured by Rome’s greatest enemy, the Persians. 

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Photo: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Persian King Shapur I Beat Three Roman Emperors


Valerian’s rival was King Shapur I of Persia. As Rome attempted to expand in the Middle East, Shapur pushed them back, first killing Roman emperor Gordian III at the Battle of Misiche, and then defeating his successor to capture the city of Antioch.

But Shapur’s greatest victory came in 260 when he captured emperor Valerian at the Battle of Edessa. If Valerian thought being captured was humiliating, he had no idea what was coming next.

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Photo: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Valerian Became A Human Footstool For King Shapur


Lactantius, an early Christian writer who was twenty when Valerian died, wrote a description of the emperor’s treatment at the hands of the Persians. After his capture, Valerian “wasted the remainder of his days in the vilest condition of slavery,” Lactantius reported. 

King Shapur even humiliated Valerian by using him as a human footstool. “The king of the Persians, who had made him prisoner, whenever he chose to get into his carriage or to mount on horseback, commanded the Roman to stoop and present his back.”

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Photo: Hans Holbein/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

King Shapur Really Rubbed In The Whole Footstool Thing


Shapur did more than just step on Valerian’s back. According to Lactantius, every time the king trod on the emperor, he smiled and said, “This is true, and not what the Romans delineate on board or plaster,” mocking the emperor’s fall from power. 

The Romans weren't about to carve a statue of Valerian’s humiliation, but Valerian became a popular subject in Persian and European art for centuries after the emperor’s death. In the 16th century, over a thousand years later, Hans Holbein was still drawing the Roman with a Persian king’s foot on his back.