Sunday, October 18, 2020

Gallienus, Third Century Reformer

 Born into a wealthy and traditional senatorial family, Gallienus was the son of Valerian and Mariniana. Valerian became Emperor on 22 October 253 CE and had the Roman senate elevate Gallienus to the ranks of Caesar and Augustus. Valerian divided the empire between him and his son, with Valerian ruling the east and his son the west. Gallienus defeated the usurper Ingenuus in 258 CE and destroyed an Alemanni army at Mediolanum in 259 CE.

The defeat and capture of Valerian at Edessa in 260 CE by the Sasanian Empire threw the Roman Empire into the chaos of civil war. Control of the whole empire passed to Gallienus. He defeated the eastern usurpers Macrianus Major and Mussius Aemilianus in 261–262 CE but failed to stop the formation of the breakaway Gallic Empire under general Postumus. Aureolus, another usurper, proclaimed himself emperor in Mediolanum in 268 CE but was defeated outside the city by Gallienus and besieged inside. While the siege was ongoing, Gallienus was stabbed to death by the officer Cecropius as part of a conspiracy.

Although ancient historians did not treat Gallienus favorably, he was actually responsible for several useful reforms. He was the first emperor to commission the Comitatenses, military cavalry units that could be quickly dispatched anywhere in the empire.  The formation of these units created a precedent for the future emperors Diocletian and Constantine I.  Gallienus also prioritized more reliable equestrian commanders over senators. Classicist Pat Southern, author of "The Roman Empire from Severus to Constantine", observed that, although this policy undermined senatorial power, these reforms and the decline in senatorial influence not only helped the later emperor Aurelian to salvage the Empire, but they also make Gallienus one of the emperors most responsible for the creation of the Dominate, along with Septimius Severus, Diocletian, and Constantine I.

Dionysus (Bacchus), of course, represents the god of wine and the grape harvest, but the Romans also associated him with freedom, at times calling him Liber (meaning free).  As Eleutherios ("the liberator"), his wine, music and ecstatic dance freed his followers from self-conscious fear and care, and subverted the oppressive restraints of the powerful.  The cult of Dionysus is also a "cult of the souls." His maenads feed the dead through blood-offerings, and he acts as a divine communicant between the living and the dead.  It is probably these more somber symbols Gallienus sought to invoke with this portrait since the chaos of the Third Century was  anything but carefree.

Image: Roman portrait dated to 260 CE thought to be possibly the emperor Gallienus (253-268 CE) in the guise of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine that I photographed at the Art Institute of Chicago.

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