Valerian did not rule the Roman Empire very long. He assumed power in 253, but was captured in battle in 260. He died sometime thereafter, but the circumstances are disputed. Valerian definitely died in Persian captivity. However, ancient sources claim he was humiliated and executed while others argue the emperor lived out his days in comfort.
The Sassanid Empire, or Persians, invaded the eastern half of the Roman Empire. The Emperor Valerian marched to combat the invasion. His army fell victim to the plague and was understrength when they finally met the Persians. Valerian was forced to sue for peace and agreed to meet the Persian king Shapur I to discuss terms. Shapur went back on his word and arrested Valerian. He made the surviving Romans slaves.
Shapur was eager to exploit his victory at the Battle of Edessa. He carved a monument out of rock depicting the Roman leader’s surrender and submission. From there, the historical record is murky. Valerian died in captivity either through execution or some other agent.
Ancient sources claim Shapur humiliated the emperor. For example, the Persians used him as a stool to mount their steeds. After some time, Valerian attempted to pay a ransom for his freedom. In response, Shapur had the Roman flayed alive. Then, Valerian’s skin was stuffed and mounted. Years later, the Romans recaptured the macabre trophy and cremated it.
Some modern scholars dispute the ancient sources. They claim that the ancients invented the grotesque death for propaganda purposes. Some used the story to attack the Persians. Others wished to demonstrate what happens to those that persecute Christians. Valerian had initiated a pogrom, which ended with his own demise. Despite the powerful propaganda, some modern researchers think Shapur sent Valerian to live in comfort befitting his station. Sometime later, the emperor died of natural causes while in custody.
Shapur I dishonorably reneged on his truce with Valerian. The Persian captured the Roman and took him into custody. After that, the record is not clear. Valerian died in Shapur's care. According to tradition, he was humiliated, tortured, skinned alive, and stuffed as a trophy. Some have emerged to refute this story. Whatever the cause of death, Valerian’s reign was short and symptomatic of the Crisis of the Third Century.