The Valerian Persecution
Emperor Valerian at first favored the Christians and “filled his whole palace with godfearing people, making it a church of God,” Eusebius tells us. This gave the emperor a first-hand view of Christians and allowed him to see if these Christians in Rome practiced what they preached. Sadly, the fact that he turned against Christians speaks for itself and should act as a sobering lesson to Christians.
Valerian was taken captive by the Persians toward the end of 259 or early 260 at the Battle of Edessa. He was the only Roman Emperor ever to be taken prisoner, and his capture shook the Roman world. So it might be helpful to give a little background to this military conflict.
The Persians had overthrown their Parthian rulers a few decades earlier after revolting in 220 A.D. Up until that time, Parthia and Rome had been the two major superpowers of the Western World, fighting periodic battles along the Euphrates River that usually formed their border.
In 215 the Roman Emperor Caracallus concocted a scheme in which he pretended to desire peace with Parthia. In connection with this, he proposed to marry the daughter of the Parthian King. The Parthian people were overjoyed at the prospect of an eternal peace with Rome, and many came to Ctesiphon (Parthia's winter capital) for the royal wedding. The Roman army came also, supposedly to escort the Emperor.
When the Roman army arrived, Caracallus’ true designs came to light, because the army immediately began to slaughter the Parthian people. They even went so far as to desecrate the royal graves of the Parthian kings—something that they would not have dared to do even to the Catacombs of Rome, where many Christian martyrs were buried. Furious, the Parthians marched on Nisibis, the Roman headquarters. The Roman army assassinated Caracallus for putting them in such a position. The new Emperor, Macrinus, tried to appease the Parthians, but they were now too angry and bent on revenge to desire peace.
Needless to say, this desecration brought about one of the most massive world wars in history. Both sides gathered soldiers from the ends of their empires for the three-day battle in 217. The battlefield was piled so high with the dead that it hindered the battle itself, because the living soldiers soon could hardly see each other! But the battle at Nisibis ended with the greatest Parthian victory ever in their history of wars with the Romans.
Nonetheless, the war’s casualties weakened the Parthian Empire, and in 220 one of its provinces, Persia, took its opportunity to revolt against King Artabanus IV of Parthia. A battle in 227 virtually ended the great Parthian Empire, which had existed since 250 B.C. The new Persian Empire then pushed into Armenia and drove the so-called “lost tribes of Israel” into Europe.
These Israelites had lived in Parthia for centuries, concentrating on the area between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea. They were not known as Israelites, of course, for the nations called them Sakka and Gimirra (or Khumree). Sakka was from the name Isak, or Isaac, and Khumree was the Israelite king known as Omri. Though they lost their name “Israel,” the people themselves certainly existed in large numbers and formed the bulk of that part of the Parthian Empire until its fall.
These Israelites did not return to Palestine, as Dr. A. Neubauer wrote in The Jewish Quarterly Review, 1888 (Vol. I), page 15,
“The captives of Israel exiled beyond the Euphrates did NOT return as a whole to Palestine along with their brethren the captives of Judah; at least there is no mention made of this event in documents at our disposal.”
Josephus, the Jewish historian of the first century A.D., knew of their existence, for he writes in Antiquities of the Jews, XI, v, 2,
“Wherefore there are but two tribes in Asia and Europe subject to the Romans; while the ten tribes are beyond Euphrates till now; and are an immense multitude, and not to be estimated by numbers.”
The Euphrates River was the traditional border with Parthia. Hence, it is clear that the Israelite tribes to which Josephus referred in the first century A.D. were living “beyond Euphrates” in Parthia. The Persian uprising, however, pushed a great many of those Israelites into Europe, where they were known as Sakka (Latin: Saxons), Angles (Hebrew for “bull,” the sign of Joseph), Khumree (Celts), and by many other names. Many Sakka migrated to the Baltic Sea and formed the great Saxon confederation in what is now Germany. Others formed the Gothic and Gaelic migrations into Europe and Britain. The historical significance of the overthrow of Parthia should not be underestimated, for this largely completed the migration of the so-called “lost tribes of Israel” into Europe.
And so, in 260, the Roman Emperor Valerian was taken prisoner, not by the Parthians, but by the Persians. It was a new empire in world history, not to be confused with the first Persian Empire five centuries earlier in the days of Cyrus. Valerian’s son, Gallienus, his co-emperor, now became sole Emperor of Rome in 261. Eusebius tells us in Eccl. Hist. VII, xiii,
“Not long afterward Valerian became the slave of the Persians. His son, who now found himself sole ruler, showed more prudence in his conduct of affairs. One of his first acts was to issue edicts ending the persecution against us.”
The capture of Valerian ended the Roman persecution of the Church. The churches as a whole then entered a time of peace. Nonetheless, Christianity was still technically under the legal restrictions as a religio illicita. Eusebius tells us of something that happened in Caesarea while he was a boy. A soldier named Marinus had served in the army with distinction, perhaps in the service of Valerian in the Persian war. As he was about to be promoted to Centurion, a rival stepped forward and accused Marinus of being a Christian. As a Christian, unable to sacrifice to Caesar, Marinus was not allowed to be an officer in the Roman army.
The judge, whose name was Achaeus, asked Marinus about this, and Marinus told him that he was a Christian. The judge gave him three hours to rethink his beliefs. When Marinus returned, he firmly confessed himself to be a Christian, and so he was beheaded that day and promoted to a greater army of saints than the Roman army could have offered.
Astyrius, a Roman Senator, witnessed this execution. He too was a Christian but highly honored by emperors. He picked up the body of the martyr, placed it on a magnificent robe, and gave him an honorable burial. This same man, Astyrius, was known for a prayer of spiritual warfare that he did near a different Caesarea on the slopes of Mount Hermon in northern Palestine. Eusebius tells us in Eccl. Hist. VII, xvii,
“Near Caesarea Philippi, called Paneas by the Phoenicians, on the skirts of the mountain called Paneum, they point to springs believed to be the source of the Jordan. Into these they say that on a certain feast day a victim is thrown, and that by the demon's power it disappears from sight miraculously. This occurrence strikes the onlookers as a marvel to be talked of everywhere. One day Astyrius was there while this was going on, and when he saw that the business amazed the crowd, he pitied their delusion, and looking up to heaven, pleaded through Christ with God who is over all to refute the demon who was deluding the people and stop them from being deceived. When he had offered this prayer, it is said that the sacrifice instantly came to the surface of the water. Thus their miracle was gone, and nothing marvelous ever again happened at that spot.”
This was the place where Peter had given his great confession of faith in Matthew 16:16, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus responded, saying,
17 Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. 18 And I say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades shall not overpower it.
These words were spoken at the cavern under the great rock where this “demon” (or prehistoric creature?) had been living. It was known as “the gates of Hell” (i.e., Hades) and the home of Pan. Astyrius engaged in some spiritual warfare and put an end to the worship of Pan at that place. It is today known by its Arabic name, Baneas, and is a World Heritage park at the foot of Mount Hermon, the mountain on which Jesus was transfigured in Matthew 17.