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“Happy Saturnalia from the Imperial Mansion.”
“Welcome to the House of Satyrs & Nymphs.”
“I don't need the Roman empire when I have access to all these lovelies back home.”
Gallienus (218-268) is the Roman emperor who somehow mislaid nearly his entire empire without being particularly bothered. He started out co-ruler of an empire that stretched from Scotland to Iran but ended up with his authority limited to a tent, pitched up outside the walls of Milan. His often called the 'Playboy Emperor' for his preference to enjoy the job rather doing anything important like fighting battles or actual 'ruling'.
This lassiez faire approach to power got a right telling off by historians who wonder how he managed to stay emperor for 15 years during an era where getting to your first anniversary was achievement enough. Yet Gallienus's reputation for incompotence was overlooked at the time. His own generals liked him until they decided he needed to 'retire' and the Christians welcomed him for revoking a list of penalties introduced against them for their 'unnatural worship'. This led to Gallienus receiving a reasonable write-up by later Christian writers, though he was supposed to have killed St.Zeno for curing his own daughters.
Helps to be connected
Gallienus's career before he became co-Roman emperor is a bit obscure. Allegations that he was a dabbler in the Imperial stockmarket or had 'positions on the slave trading industry' are mixed with other stories that he was essentially a loafer (natch, not loofah!). No great scandals were associated with Gallienus. He mixed with the right people but only to ensure life was less complicated. His only known hobby besides the usual vices (sex and alcohol) was military tactics. This didn't mean he actually wanted to go out and look for war but he had some ideas about improving Rome's military machine.
In 253 his father Valerian became Roman Emperor. As was now a usual procedure to make the job a family affair, Valerian made his eldest son co-emperor, with the brief to look after 'the Western bit' which included Britain, France, Germany, Spain..in other words a territory that now exists as the European Union. Valerian kept the rest and moved off to sort out the Goths and Persians. Gallienus's job was to head towards the River Rhine and deal with the untamed Germanic tribes.
I am Bored
Gallienus's campaign along the Rhine frontier was a disappointment. The Germanic tribes ran away so the emperor was soon back in Rome. He did have a new idea - that was to send two of his own sons Valerian the Younger and Saloninus out in his place. They became imperial interns, one in the Balkans and the other in Gaul. Gallienus meanwhile had set up his own military academy in the Praetorian Guard barracks where over the next few years future emperors Claudius II, Aurelian and Diocletian learned how to salute and ride a horse backwards.
For the next few years Gallienus chose to enjoy his position by building a large palace on the Saturnine Hill, a man-made mound constructed of old discarded, 'beyond their shelf life' slaves. There Gallienus liked to spend all day in his dressing gown with nymphs dressed like rabbits, jumping around in his garden with the barest of covering. Every Saturday, selected friends were invited to bathe in Gallienus's hypocaustic pool. People in Rome were not shocked, by the standards of a Caligula, Nero or Elagabalus this was tame stuff.
Gallienus's lifestyle didn't change a lot when in the space of two years he lost both sons and his father. Valerian the Younger died on a bloody camping holiday and Saloninus fell out with his boss Postumus who had him killed for making fun of his funny gallic latin accent. Then Gallienus got the news that his father Valerian had been defeated and was now a dishonoured guest at the court of King Shapor of Persia. Gallienus said he would act immediately. Now where was his pipe and dressing gown?
With Any Luck I Will Outlive Everyone
Gallienus was now the Soul ruler of the Roman Empire but this particular political cake sound came under the attack of various generals, chancers and senators all willing to dig in. The first rebel was Postumus in Gaul. Since he was already a marked man for killing Salonius, Postumus had nothing to lose by rebelling. He set up his purple banner in Trier and was acknowledged emperor in Germany, Gaul, Britain and Spain. However, instead of marching on Rome as other imperial pretenders had done, Postumus preferred to stay away from the Eternal City. Gallienus tried to bribe some of Postumus's friends to kill him at a dinner party but changed their minds.
In the East the Persians will still celebrating their capture of Emperor Valerian. Shah Shapur sent mocking letters to Rome describing what humiliations he was inflicting on Gallienus's dad. He hoped Gallienus would rush east to avenge his father but nothing happened. The cynical Gallienus replied simply that his father could take care of himself and Rome was very nice this time of year.
Postumus meanwhile was fighting against other imperial pretenders who rebelled against him and didn't trust his own generals not to turn on him if he moved against Gallienus. So the rivals had something of a stand off, neither daring to go against the other. This inaction suited Gallienus. In the East, more emperors rose and fell so quickly that an expression in Latin (translated) said Snow lasts longer than an emperor these days.
In amongst these ephemeral glory seekers, King Odaenathus of Palmyra offered an alliance with Gallienus and won a contract to re-conquer the East for him. He also promised to take on the Persians too and in this, his army was successful. Shapor lost his army and the contents of his personal trailer where what was left of Valerian was now being used as a couch covering. Odaenathus diplomatically had this buried but sent a sketch to Gallienus to show how it looked.
By 268 Gallienus was now feeling confident he could deal with Postumus. His eastern deputy Odanathus had died suddenly which removed the threat from that quarter and the spate rebellions had abated. So Gallienus sent general Aurelos, a protege of his new military academy, to take on the 'slow thinking Northerners'. However Aurelos was defeated and retreated to Italy to feel sorry for himself. Gallienus relieved his favourite of his office but Aurelos occupied Milan and threatened to burn the city down unless he was forgiven for failure. Gallienus declined and put Milan under siege. Gallienus was poor when it came to understanding the irony of his own career.
The siege was going badly. Milan showed no desire to surrender and Gallienus's army didn't seem to keen to die for their emperor. Retreating into his tent to relax with some of his luxuries (Candy and Mandy), Gallienus was sure Aurelos would be killed by his own soldiers. One morning whilst taking a leak outside his tent, Gallienus was set upon by his own generals and cut down. They then apologised and said 'it was business' and asked the dying emperor who he think would be a better emperor. Gallienus is said to have pointed a bloody finger at one his assassins and said: 'Claudius is the man with the sharpest knife. Make him your next emperor.' And they did.
In Rome, the Senate celebrated the death of Gallienus. Forgetting their own lack of criticism of Gallienus when he was alive, the Senate ordered the destruction of the late emperor's statues, memorials, his Saturnine Palace and all members of the imperial family. This looks cruel but it was typical Roman justice then, Mafia style.