The Reign of Emperor Gallienus – The Apogee of Roman Cavalry, Ilkka Syvanne

The Reign of Emperor Gallienus – The Apogee of Roman Cavalry, Ilkka Syvanne

Gallienus was one of the longer lasting Emperors during the Roman Empire’s Third Century crisis, ruling for fifteen years, alongside his father Valerian for the first half and alone for the second half. Despite the length of his reign and his many military successes he was one of the more controvsial Emperors. During his reign the Empire split into three parts – the Gallic Empire of Postumus held Gaul, Britain, the German provinces and briefly Hispania while in the east Odaenathus of Palmyra was nominally loyal but dominated Egypt, Syria, Judea and Roman Arabia after helping fight off a Persian invasion. The areas left to Gallienus were thus Italy, North Africa, the Balkans and most of Anatolia, and most of these areas came under constant attack. Gallienus and his generals were generally able to fight off the various barbarian invaders of those areas, but often only after large areas had been devastated, but Gallienus was unable to defeat Postumus or to keep the loyalty of many of his officers.

I find this book somewhat frustrating. The author combines two contradictory characteristics. On the positive side we have a real expert on late Roman military history, who produces convincing in depth examinations of many aspects of this period. On the negative side we have someone who has decided that any criticisms of Gallienus in the ancient sources are clearly the unfair result of conservative Senatorial forces. Sometimes this negative side rather overwhelms the first. One example would be his use of the rather controversial Historia Augusta, which for many years was believed to be a fourth century forgery claiming to be a series of third century histories, so anything that is only found in the HA has been considered suspect. Here the author makes a fairly convincing case for taking this source more seriously, but then almost automatically dismisses anything negative about Gallienus as the result of bias. However there are two redeeming features that make this less of a problem than it might have been. First is that the author doesn’t hide his views. Second is that in most cases he presents both sides of the case, gives the sources for both views and only then gives his views, so the reader is free to look at the same sources and come to their own conclusion.

Gallienus himself also emerges as a somewhat contradictory figure. He was clearly a very capable military leader, who managed to stay in power for significantly longer than most Emperors of this period and defeated a whole series of invaders and usurpers. He also probably carried out a series of military reforms that improved the general quality of the army, and which were used by his successors to reunite the empire and end the long period of crisis. Many of the problems he faced during his sole rule were the result of the capture of his father by the Persians – until then the father and son had ruled an intact Empire, normally with Gallienus based in the west and Valerian in the east.

On the other hand he must have been either very annoying or in some way made people feel endangered, as he faced a seemingly endless array of usuepers. Some of these were ambitious men motivated by a desire for power, but others appear to have been backed into a corner by Gallienus and decided that rebellion was their best chance of surviving. We are also told that Gallienus was popular with the army, and yet several of these usurpers appear to have been forced into rebellion by their soldiers. His sole rule began after his father was captured by the Persians, becoming the first Roman Emperor to become a prisoner of war. Gallienus appears to have done nothing to try and rescue his father (admittedly there may not have been much he could have done), again alienating many. Eventually he was murdered and the conspirators probably included several of his own senior officers. 

This is period for which the sources are often fragmentary and contradictory. For me the key strength of this book is the author’s willingness to acknowledge that and to look in some detail at the different sources and the different interpretation of events that they allow. As a result the reader is able to form their own opinion of the author’s views, and to be aware of the many alternative interpretation of the sources.

1 – The Sources and Analysis
2 – Roman Military in the Third Century
3 – The Family of Gallienus
4 – The Riders of the Apocalypse: The Disastrous Years of 249-253 and the Rise of Valerian
5 – The Joint Reign of father Valerian and son Gallienus in 253-259
6 – The Sole Reign of Gallienus: The Years of Multiple Crises 259-264
7 – Gallienus: The Final Years 265-268: Success and Disaster
8 – The ‘Effeminate’ Man who Performed Manly Feats
9 – Postcript: The Reign of Claudius II ‘Gothicus’ (AD 268-270) The Ancestor of the House of Constantine the Great

Author: Ilkka Syvanne
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 256
Publisher: Pen & Sword Military
Year: 2019

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