Ancient History & Civilisation


Julian is the best documented emperor of the fourth century. This contrasts with the relative brevity of his reign (he was sole emperor for only twenty months), but is to be explained above all by his unorthodox religious position, namely his opposition to Christianity and his attempt to rekindle a coherent pagan theology at the heart of the Roman state. This, combined with the dramatic events of his reign and his evidently charismatic personality, attracted the admiration and attention of pagan intellectuals and writers. Thus Julian's near contemporary, Ammianus, who served under him both in Gaul and on the Persian campaign, devoted the bulk of his surviving work to Julian's role in public life. Books 15–21 cover the period from his accession as Caesar to the death of Constantius in 361, and books 22 to 25 his rule as sole emperor until his death in Persia in July 363. Ammianus openly acknowledged that his admiration for Julian lent his account many of the features of a panegyric:

The great improvements which his valour and good luck enabled him to bring about in Gaul surpass many of the heroic actions of former times, and I shall therefore describe them one by one in due order. I intend to employ all the resources of my modest talent in the hope that they will prove adequate for the purpose. My narrative, which is not a tissue of clever falsehoods but an absolutely truthful account based on clear evidence, will not fall far short of a panegyric, because it seems that the life of this young man was guided by some principle which raised him above the ordinary and accompanied him from his illustrious cradle to his last breath. (Ammianus 16.1, trans. Hamilton)

Ammianus was not above criticizing Julian openly on several occasions, for instance for his excessive love of blood sacrifice, and for his unfair law banning Christian teachers, and at other times presents his actions in such a way as to imply criticism. In fact, as these examples show, his own conception of paganism differed from Julian's.45 His portrait of his hero is based more on admiration for his achievements as a leader of men, than on sympathy for his religious position. Ammianus' portrait can be compared with that of Zosimus, who devotes book three of his history to Julian. Zosimus' main source, here as elsewhere in his fourth century narrative, was the largely lost work of another pagan writer, Eunapius. Zosimus, however, dwelt even less on the religious issues than Ammianus, focusing almost exclusively on Julian's achievements as a military leader, in particular during the Persian campaign, which occupied the whole of the second half of the book.46 In the same mode as the pagan historians are the avowedly panegyric speeches of Mamertinus, a Gallic supporter, delivered in praise of the new ruler when he received the consulship in January 362, and the orations which were completed after Julian's death by the Anthiochian rhetor Libanius.47 On the other side there is the hostile Christian tradition, notably the fourth oration of the Cappadocian Gregory of Nazianzus, who had been a fellow student with Julian in Athens in the mid-350s. The fullest narrative presentation of the Christian view of Julian is book three of the Church History of Socrates. In addition to this rich and diverse tradition we can hear the voice of Julian himself, preserved not merely in the letters and edicts which he issued as emperor, but more importantly in private speeches, letters, and treatises.

After the murder of his father and several close relatives in 337 Julian was transplanted from Constantinople to an imperial estate near Caesarea in Cappadocia, where he began his education. His mother tongue was Greek, not Latin, and during the 340s and early 350s he developed into a passionate and highly gifted intellectual, becoming absorbed in Christian and classical literature, and in Neoplatonic philosophy. After Cappadocia, his studies took him to Nicomedia, Pergamum, and Athens, where he encountered two of the outstanding Christian talents of his generation, the future bishops Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nazianzus. During this period he was also attracted to pagan religious rituals, and Eunapius, in his life of the sophist Maximus of Ephesus, gives an account of a theurgic ritual attended by Julian, which had the effect, as Julian later averred, of converting him to belief in the old gods. Julian later claimed that this conversion had taken place in 351, although he remained outwardly an observer of Christianity until the moment of his final break with Constantius in 361 (see pp. 285–90).

Thus, the Caesar who took over command in Gaul in 355 was radically different in character, background, and education from his imperial predecessors. The imperial example which he consciously followed was that set by the philosopher emperor Marcus Aurelius, who, like Julian, spent much of his reign conducting wars along Rome's frontiers. Julian's literary tastes and education gave him other models to emulate, most notably the tragic warrior hero of the Iliad, Achilles, and Alexander the Great. Another figure from the past whose shadow hung over him was that of a Roman general and man of letters, whose rise to power was also based on successes won against barbarian enemies in Gaul, Julius Caesar.

Julian's aspiration to match the feats of these mighty predecessors gives the lie to the idea that he was primarily a dilettante figure, reluctantly dragged into imperial power. He was popular with his troops but frequently at odds with his senior officers, who had been appointed by Constantius to provide a strategic lead in the West. Notably he came into conflict with Florentius, the praetorian prefect, over the administration and the tax regime of Gaul. Florentius was eager to press hard to extract tax revenues and military supplies. Julian's concern was to restore well-being to the region, and perhaps thereby to ensure its support in a future civil war. Ammianus was as lavish in praise of Julian's fairness and generosity towards the provincials as he was of his military successes:

Finally, to say nothing of the victorious battles in which he routed the barbarians, who often fell fighting to the last, the benefits which he conferred on impoverished Gaul when it was at the last gasp are most clearly illustrated by this fact: when he arrived, he found that twenty-five gold pieces per head were exacted by way of tribute; when he left, seven sufficed to meet all demands. This was like bright sunshine breaking through dark clouds, and was greeted everywhere with dances of joy. (Ammianus 16.5)

Julian achieved his single greatest military success in 357; the victory of his own 13,000 troops over an army of 35,000 Alemanni led by the overconfident king Chnodomar at the battle of Strasburg (Ammianus 16.12). Credit for the victory was variously assigned. Ammianus tells us that Constantius' courtiers denigrated Julian, calling him Victorinus as he so frequently reported victories over the Germans in his dispatches, and ascribed the successes to the emperor. In fact credit might properly be claimed first and foremost by Julian's troops, and the officer group under his praetorian prefect Florentius. Julian had marched his troops twenty-one miles across the Jura mountains to within view of the enemy and then proposed that they should rest for the night before engaging. The troops themselves and their officers had simply overruled this excess of caution and impelled him to join battle at once, before the Alemanni could slip away across the Rhine to safety. The result was one of Rome's most crushing victories against a barbarian enemy, which re-established their control over the Rhine frontier for fifty years.

The success of the war along the Rhine contrasted with the difficulties which Constantius faced, and he ordered detachments from some of Julian's best troops to be sent to the East. Julian raised no initial objection, except to point out that some recent German volunteers had been enlisted on condition that they should not serve beyond the Alps. However, the conflict of interest swiftly developed into a crisis. The senior military commanders in Julian's army were naturally inclined to obey Constantius' orders. The troops convened in Paris, where Julian entertained their officers to a banquet on the eve of their departure. At first light next morning soldiers surrounded Julian's quarters, hailing him as Augustus, and by the middle of the day, protesting, Julian had been lifted up on the shields of his Germanic soldiers, equipped with a makeshift diadem, and proclaimed Augustus. Arguments have raged ever since as to whether he had orchestrated the whole affair, or was simply swept along by the tide of events. Julian defended himself from charges of complicity in the Letter to the Athenians (281c–286d). Ammianus provides a dramatic account, which leaves the question of responsibility ambiguous (Ammianus 20.4). The pagan historian Eunapius, whose work was used by both Ammianus and Zosimus in constructing their versions, was clear that Julian orchestrated the usurpation. Modern commentators are disinclined to give Julian the benefit of the doubt. Constantius certainly would not have done so.48

The progress of the usurpation unfolded over the next twelve months, as information and correspondence passed from one end of the empire to the other. A careful diplomatic letter sent by Julian asked Constantius to approve his elevation but was predictably rebuffed (Ammianus 20.8). Constantius' uncompromising reply was the moment of truth for Julian. Mindful of the fate of his half-brother Gallus, who had been summoned from the East and executed by the suspicious emperor in 354, Julian prepared for civil war.

In the autumn of 361 Julian began his move east, shipping troops down the Danube as well as overland towards Sirmium. A contingent was sent to besiege Aquileia, which had been seized by two legions loyal to Constantius, while he advanced to Naissus and the strategic Succi pass, which controlled the access to Constantinople. The long march to the East must have been crucially important for Julian, as it gave him the opportunity to cement the loyalty of his own officers and men. During the advance he used every means to rally support for his cause, soliciting support from provincial communities and signaling his impending arrival to the east Balkan provinces. The Letter to the Athenians was written at this time, explaining Julian's conduct in relation to Constantius both before and during his term in Gaul, and justifying his decision to accept the title of Augustus. In January 362 the new consul Claudius Mamertinus devoted much of his panegyric to the emperor to an account of this formative journey. Constantius rallied his own forces and prepared to bring them west for the battle, but died before the march was long under way. Julian entered Constantinople unopposed, as sole emperor, in December 361.

Julian was immediately responsible for many decisions relating to the administration of the empire. It is difficult to identify these as part of specific policies or guiding principles. However, Julian's approach to government seems to have been more deliberate than that of other emperors. This is clearest in the way he tackled religious issues and introduced many measures that were designed to curb Christian influence and advance pagan institutions, to be discussed on pp. 263–4 and 285–90. However, we can see a deliberate plan behind several other measures, which cohere with what we might expect from a ruler with his distinctive combination of experience and intellectual background. Julian was a passionate student of Greek culture, imbued in the literature, philosophy, and religious ideas of Classical Greece. It is not surprising, therefore, that he was prepared to champion the old ideal of the classical polis, the autonomous city-state. He restored to cities the right to collect taxes and revenues from their own lands, and allowed them to enlarge their councils. Meanwhile he attempted to reduce the state's own tax demands, and in particular tried to alleviate the financial burdens on city councilors, the curiales. These may all be seen as attempts to shore up the system of city-state government, which had underpinned the political arrangements of the early Roman Empire, but had become seriously eroded by state intrusion, increasing tax demands, and the enlargement of the imperial administrative bureaucracy through the third and fourth centuries. Julian's desire to put the clock back was not restricted to his religious initiatives.

Julian developed and put into practice his ideas of government, statecraft, and religious ideology against the background of his main undertaking, an invasion of Persia, which would reverse the setbacks which Rome had suffered on the eastern frontier under Constantius. He surely hoped that success in this undertaking would demonstrate the efficacy of his religious reforms, in bringing the Roman world back to belief in the old divine order, after the misguided imperial mission begun by Constantine to supplant this with Christianity. Moreover, his aspirations were kindled by contemplation of his own military successes. For five years he had campaigned with conspicuous distinction in Gaul. In securing the Rhine frontier he had had to contend with not only with the barbarian threat, but also with the conflicting strategies of Constantius' generals, and had emerged as their military superior. When it came to the ultimate test of Roman military command in the fourth century, victory in civil war, he had prevailed, albeit by default, over a rival whose prowess in these matters was legendary:

Constantius, though he suffered grievous defeats in foreign wars, prided himself on his successes in civil conflicts, and bathed in the blood which poured in a fearful stream from the internal wounds of the state. (Ammianus 21.16.15)

Julian left Constantinople in May 362, and reached Antioch a month later. There followed a period of eight months, in which troops were assembled and preparations made for the Persian expedition. The period proved too long for the patience of the predominantly Christian people of Antioch, and the relationship between the emperor and the host city worsened rapidly as a grain shortage, exacerbated by the growing demands of the troops, drove up prices and led to insupportable profiteering by dealers. Julian found himself in conflict with Christians and pagans alike in religious matters. The relationship between city and emperor is memorably encapsulated in the self-mocking speech, the Misopogon, which Julian addressed to the Antiochenes at the festival of the New Year.49

The emperor left the city at the head of 65,000 troops on March 5, 363. The high point of the campaign was a hard-won victory over a large Sassanian force outside the walls of Ctesiphon, but the city itself appeared impregnable. Julian now led his troops northwards on the far side of the Tigris, aiming to join a large contingent of Roman forces which had been sent into Upper Mesopotamia under the command of Sebastianus and Julian's relative Procopius. On June 26 the emperor fell victim of a spear wound, and died in the evening, allegedly reliving the final hours of his philosophical hero Socrates and discoursing with his last words on the immortality of the soul (Ammianus 25.3; Plate 3.3).


Plate 3.3    The Death of Julian. This Sassanian royal relief at Taq-e Bostan in northwest Iran depicts the gods Mithras to the left with a radiate crown, and Ahura-Mazda in the center, conferring the ring of royal power on the Sassanian king, Ardashir II. Under the king's feet lies the trampled body of his defeated enemy, who is recognizable from the thin features and goatee beard as the emperor Julian, who had been defeated by Ardashir's predecessor, Sapor II (S. Mitchell)

As we have seen (pp. 53–6) it fell to his successor Jovian to extricate the Roman forces from their exposed situation, at the price of surrendering control of the provinces beyond the Tigris which Galerius had claimed from Persia in the treaty of 299. More significant than this sacrifice was the handover to the Persians of Nisibis, a city which had three times endured sieges, and defied attempts at capture by Sapor II, in 338, 346, and 350 (Ammianus 25. 8–9).

Julian was the last emperor in direct line of descent from Constantius I, and a new dynastic era began with the accession of Valentinian and Valens in 364. Looking back over the saga of civil wars and usurpations which overshadowed the Roman Empire in the fourth century, it is important to appreciate the role played by dynastic politics. When Constantius brushed aside the feeble challenge of Vetranio in 350 he needed to do little more than remind his troops of the generosity they had experienced from his father Constantine, and the oaths of loyalty they had sworn to the old emperor's children. The choice of the obscure Jovian to succeed Julian was probably connected to the fact that he was a relative of Constantius, not merely one of the emperor's pall-bearers. In the following generation Gratian, the son of Valentinian, was to strengthen his own position as Augustus by marrying Constantius' daughter. It is thus hardly a surprise that the beginning of the new regime of Valentinian and Valens was immediately called into question by a relative of Julian, Procopius, who mounted a serious challenge from his base in Constantinople, Constantine's own foundation, and in northwest Asia Minor. A detail noted by Ammianus confirms that Procopius was well aware of the need to play the dynastic card:

Procopius hit upon a particularly effective way of winning their support by personally carrying about in his arms the small daughter of Constantius, whose memory they cherished, and stressing his relationship with that emperor and Julian. Another favourable circumstance was that Faustina, the child's mother, happened to be present when he received certain items of the imperial insignia. (Ammianus 26.7.10, trans. Hamilton)

The rebellion lasted from September 365 until May 366 and demonstrated two things. Firstly, it attested to the continuing force of sentiment in favor of the Constantinian dynasty, which guaranteed support for Procopius even when his military position was desperate. Secondly, it showed the solidarity of the senior military hierarchy in support of the two Pannonian officers whom they had placed in power (see p. 55). They prevailed, but securing the Valentinian succession had been a close run thing.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!