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.
When Valerian became emperor in 253, Rome was in the middle of the Crisis of the Third Century. In a period of only 50 years, the empire would boast a staggering total of nearly 50 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.
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.
Lactantius, an early Christian writer who was 20 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.
Lactantius wrote that 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.”
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 1,000 years later, Hans Holbein was still drawing the Roman with a Persian king’s foot on his back.