During the reign of Valerian the Roman empire faced various dire challenges of unrest, disorder, and war. The eastern side of the empire was under threat of being taken over by the Sasanian Empire. Antioch and Armenia which used to be under Rome had already fallen under Sassanid rulers.
Sensing the imminent disaster that his huge empire was faced with, Emperor Valerian decided to appoint his son to take care of problems in the West as he marched eastward to repel Persian forces. The Neo-Persian empire was ruled by Shapur the Great. This ruler was known for religious tolerance. His attitude enabled Christianity and other religions to flourish during his reign in his empire.
In 257 AD Antioch and Syria were recovered. In this same year when Valerian went to war against the Persians he sent two letters to the Roman senate asking them to order Christians to offer sacrifices to the Roman gods or face severe punishment. The following year in 258 AD he wrote a second letter in which he ordered the killing of Christian ministers and confiscation of their properties and treasures. It was at this time that the sad but wonderful testimony of saint Lawrence, a minister of the Gospel, happened.
Lawrence presents Treasures to the Emperor
Lawrence was a deacon in Rome, serving under Sixtus, the bishop of Rome. Lawrence had been entrusted with keeping the treasury and wealth of the church, out of which distributions used to be made to the needy.
In August 258 AD Emperor Valerian commanded that all Christian leaders, including deacons and bishops, be killed and their properties confiscated and surrendered to the Imperial treasury. On 6th August 258, Bishop Sixtus was killed. Next Lawrence was ordered to surrender the riches of the church.
Lawrence requested to be given three days to collect the treasures of the church. The Roman officials waited. Lawrence began to gather the treasures, going to homes of poor Christians and gathering them into one place. On the third day he stretched his arm over a gathering of poor Christians and boldly proclaimed to the roman prefect:
These are the precious treasure of the Church; these are the treasure indeed, in whom the faith of Christ reigneth, in whom Jesus Christ hath His mansion-place. What more precious jewels can Christ have, than those in whom He hath promised to dwell? For so it is written, ‘I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in.’ And again, ‘Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.’ What greater riches can Christ our Master possess, than the poor people in whom He loveth to be seen?
The Emperor Valerian was so enraged at this defiance that he ordered for the immediate destruction of Lawrence:
Kindle the fire (he cried)–of wood make no spare. Hath this villain deluded the emperor? Away with him, away with him: whip him with scourges, jerk him with rods, buffet him with fists, brain him with clubs. Jesteth the traitor with the emperor? Pinch him with fiery tongs, gird him with burning plates, bring out the strongest chains, and the fire-forks, and the grated bed of iron: on the fire with it; bind the rebel hand and foot; and when the bed is fire-hot, on with him: roast him, broil him, toss him, turn him: on pain of our high displeasure do every man his office, O ye tormentors.
Valerian decreed for all Christian civil servants (who refused to offer sacrifices) to be made slaves! This time, at Edessa, it seems the heavens could tarry no longer for the judgment that awaited the evil rulers of Rome.
Battle of Edessa and Humiliation of Valerian
As Valerian prepared to confront the Persians, in 259 AD, a terrible plague fell on his army. This was in the town of Edessa. A number of soldiers died and the Roman army became very vulnerable. The Persians besieged the town and defeated the Romans. Valerian requested for a peace treaty with the Persian ruler but he got betrayed, captured, and made a slave in Persia! These events greatly shook the Roman empire into a confusion of hopelessness.
In Persia Valerian suffered extreme humiliation: he was used as a stool by the Persian ruler when climbing his horse. It is said that one day when Valerian asked for his release in exchange for a great ransom, Shapur forced him to drink molten gold after which he was skinned. The tormentor was severely tormented and died.
> Forthcoming: The Ninth Persecution