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

Updated February 2, 2018 467.9k views12 items

Death by molten gold isn’t just a grisly Game of Thrones invention. In the third century, a Roman emperor named Valerian is alleged to have 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. That is, if we're to believe the account of Lucius Caecilius Firmianus Lactantius, an early Christian author who was no fan of Valerian's.

According to Lactantius, 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. The question of whether this involved a life of imprisonment and a fade into nothingness or a violent death by way of having molten gold poured down his throat is one to which we'll likely never have a definitive answer. 

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  • Valerian’s Son Didn’t Even Try To Rescue His Father

    During Valerian’s humiliation, his son Gallienus ruled Rome. But Gallienus was so weak that he never attempted to rescue his own father. Instead, Gallienus had his hands full trying to suppress a revolt in Rome’s western provinces, where a rival, Postumus, had declared himself Emperor of the Gallic Empire. 

    Lactantius didn’t buy Gallienus’s excuse, though. He paints a picture of a despondent Valerian, lamenting his “abject and servile state,” and then Lactantius turns the knife: “neither indeed was he ever demanded back.” Apparently Gallienus was too busy to write a letter to Shapur. Or he was too embarrassed about his father's purported footstool status.

  • Instead Of Killing Valerian, Shapur Tormented And Insulted Him

    The Persians made cameos to celebrate Valerian’s humiliation, showing the emperor helpless against Shapur, who is able to subdue and capture the Roman by simply grabbing his arm. 

    During the Roman emperor's captivity, Shapur could have executed Valerian at any time. And, according to some historians, this is likely exactly what happened. Lactantius, however, claimed that the king wanted to ensure “that the Roman name remained long the scoff and derision of the barbarians.” As a result, Shapur subjected the humiliated emperor to a barrage of insults.

  • Valerian’s Grisly Execution Was A Real-Life Game Of Thrones Gold Killing

    It doesn’t get much worse than having molten gold poured over your head, as season one of Game of Thrones proved. Except if the gold is poured down your throat. That might've been exactly what happened to Valerian when King Shapur got tired of insulting him. 

    What exactly happens when molten gold is forced down your throat? It can rupture your organs, burn your lungs, and choke you. When modern investigators recreated the death using molten lead (gold is pretty expensive), within 10 seconds, it had congealed and filled the entire throat. 

  • Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Or Was Valerian Flayed Alive And His Skin Dyed Red?

    According to an alternate cause of death postulated by Lactantius, Valerian was flayed alive, and “his skin, stripped from the flesh, was dyed with vermilion, and placed in the temple of the gods of the barbarians.” His flayed skin was stuffed with straw and Valerian was preserved in taxidermied form

    Valerian’s stuffed, red corpse stood as a symbol of Persian triumph and a reminder to the Romans to not be too confident about their strength.