Ancient History & Civilisation



Julian the Apostate (AD 332–363)

And if it becomes necessary to engage the enemy, take your post staunchly amongst the standard-bearers, wait carefully for the right time to inspire your men with an act of boldness, inspire the fighters by example without being rash, support them with reinforcements when they are under pressure, modestly rebuke the lazy, and be present as a true witness to the deeds of both brave men and cowards. Therefore, urged on by the gravity of the situation, go as a brave man to lead other brave men.

Constantius’ advice to Julian following his appointment as Caesar in AD 355.1

EXPANSION UNDER TRAJAN WAS FOLLOWED BY RETRENCHMENT AND THE reorganization of the frontiers under Hadrian and Antoninus Pius. When Pius died in AD 161 his successor Marcus Aurelius inherited a war with Parthia. Problems on the Danubian frontier also meant that Marcus spent much of the last decade of his reign on campaign, and he may even have been planning to create new provinces east of the Danube just before his death in 180. Although the second century AD witnessed a number of major conflicts, it was in general a time of great prosperity, when the Roman Empire in many respects reached its zenith. In the eighteenth century Edward Gibbon would see the years between AD 96 and 180 as the ‘period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous’. For him Rome’s decline began with the reign of Marcus’ son, the brutal Commodus, which broke the recent precedent of an emperor choosing an able senator to adopt as his heir rather than looking to blood relations. Certainly, Commodus’ murder produced an outbreak of civil war surpassing in scale even the ‘Year of Four Emperors’ which followed Nero’s suicide. The eventual winner, Septimius Severus, spent much of his reign fighting rivals or waging war against the Parthians and subsequently against the Caledonian tribes of northern Britain. Severus died in York, advising his two sons who succeeded him to ‘look after the soldiers and despise everyone else’.2 Within a few months the elder son, Caracalla, had murdered his brother and assumed sole power.

Caracalla enjoyed the military life and liked to be seen dressed in an ordinary soldier’s uniform and using a hand-mill to grind his grain ration into flour just as the legionaries did.3 Yet such gestures did not prevent his being stabbed to death by a cavalryman from his own guard as he crouched behind a bush to relieve himself on his way to fight another war with Parthia. After Caracalla emperors came and went with alarming frequency, most being murdered or executed by rivals, and a few dying in battle with foreign enemies. Civil wars were common, and as the Roman army wasted its strength fighting against itself, defeats on the frontiers became more and more frequent. Occasionally a strong emperor was able to maintain a measure of stability for a few years, perhaps even an entire decade, before upheaval and chaos returned.

Whilst it is extremely difficult to describe in detail any of the wars of the second century AD, the sources for the campaigns of the third century make this task altogether impossible. Certainly they do not allow us to scrutinize the generalship of any of the army’s commanders with any certainty, although the few anecdotes which are preserved suggest that their behaviour had much in common with that in earlier centuries. Against this measure of continuity, the relationship between the general and the state changed profoundly during this period, as the old tradition of relying on senators to provide the army’s commanders ended. The relationship between the princeps and his senatorial legates had always been uneasy, for such men were always potential rivals. Marcus Aurelius promoted a number of equestrian officers to high command, though usually only after admitting them into the Senate. Such men were often virtually professional soldiers, spending many years in successive commands rather than interspersing military with civil posts in the traditional way. Whether this made them markedly more competent than the mass of senatorial officers is impossible to know, but they were clearly seen as more loyal, since their elevation depended entirely on imperial favour. Severus encouraged the trend when he placed equestrian prefects rather than senatorial legates in command of the three new legions – I, II and III Parthica – which he formed during his reign. In the third century equestrians replaced senators in all senior military posts and only a handful of senators saw any military service at all.

Although the growing reliance on equestrian officers was mainly motivated by successive emperors’ fear of their own troops being turned against them by ambitious subordinates, in the long term the result was in fact to make such usurpation much easier. Marcus Aurelius spent almost half his reign with the army, as did Septimius Severus. Those seeking the emperor’s patronage were forced to go to him, so that over time a good deal of the imperial court’s activity came to take place in the headquarters of whichever army the emperor was with. Rome steadily diminished in importance as rulers spent less and less time there. The importance of the Senate also declined, both because the emperor rarely visited it and because its members were losing their prestigious military role. By the close of the third century, the Senate was politically irrelevant, and the city of Rome itself retained little more than symbolic significance. The focus of political activity was now with the army, which openly provided emperors with their only security. A man only remained in power for as long as he retained the loyalty of sufficient troops to defeat the forces of any rival. Whereas in the past a man seeking to make himself emperor had needed to win the support – however grudging – of the majority of the Senate, now he required the acquiescence of the army’s senior officers, virtually all of whom were equestrians. Increasingly these men found leaders from amongst their own number and raised them to the purple. Failure to bestow sufficient rewards and favours on the faction of officers who had made them emperor led only to a ruler’s swift murder and replacement by another. Becoming emperor was a lot easier than it had been under the early Principate, but remaining in power was considerably more difficult. Since newly created emperors were expected to shower honours and promotions on the leaders of the army which had backed their claim, men serving in other provinces gained little benefit from their elevation. As a result they often proved eager to seek from their own number a suitable candidate for the throne and back his claim in battle, eager to share the benefits of his victory.

It was extremely difficult for one man to retain the loyalty of the army throughout the empire, and the situation was made worse by the disappearance from the army’s command structure of a rank equivalent in authority to the old provincial legates. Under the Principate there was a gradual reduction in the number of legions stationed in a single province. Under Augustus a number of provinces permanently contained four legions, but by the late first century it was rare to have even three legions under the same command. In the second century the same trend continued, so that for instance the three-legion province of Britain was divided into two. As emperors became less and less secure, they proved increasingly reluctant to entrust command of an army numbering some 20,000 or more men to any potential rival. By the fourth century most of the old provinces had been divided into five or six regions with only comparatively small garrisons. Even then, civil and military power was split between different officials, which often made the organization of supply for a field force difficult.

Such a system coped well enough with border skirmishing, but was utterly inadequate when faced with a major raid or invasion. If something on such a comparatively large scale occurred, then the emperor had either to go in person to deal with the problem or to send a senior subordinate with sufficient troops, running the risk that the latter would use his command to make a bid for power. Distrustful of their own senior officers, most third- and fourth-century emperors spent a great deal of their reigns on campaign, performing duties which in the past had fallen to provincial governors. Since a man could only deal with one problem at a time, it became increasingly common for emperors to share power with a colleague. This had first occurred when Marcus Aurelius appointed Lucius Verus, his brother by adoption, as his co-ruler or Caesar. It was Verus who presided over the war with Parthia, although, in spite of some extremely sycophantic histories painting him in heroic mode, it is unlikely that he played a very active role in the campaign.4

In the late third century Diocletian created a system known as the Tetrarchy, where the Empire was divided into an eastern and western section, each controlled by a senior emperor, known as the Augustus, aided by a junior partner or Caesar. A statue showing the four men, standing in a group and each resting one arm on the shoulder of a fellow emperor, symbolized the ideal of co-operative rule. In its purest form the Tetrarchic system barely outlived Diocletian himself, but the principle of multiple emperors remained the norm, save for occasional periods when one man, most notably Constantine the Great, was able to take all power back into his own hands and rule alone. Regions felt neglected if an emperor failed to pay sufficient attention to their problems. Such discontent often prompted the troops stationed there to appoint a new emperor who would better meet their needs.5


When Constantine died in 337, having ruled for thirteen years as sole emperor, imperial power was divided between his three sons, Constantine II, Constantius and Constans, but it was not long before these began to fight amongst themselves. By 350 only Constantius survived, and much of the western empire had been seized by the usurper Magnentius. The latter was not finally defeated for another three years. The Empire had once again been united under a single Augustus, but Constantius had swiftly discovered the need for at least one assistant to aid him in his task. Most of Constantine’s extended family had been killed in the power struggles after his death, leaving only the two sons of his half-brother Julius Constantius. In 351 the older of this pair, Gallus, was appointedCaesar and given the task of supervising the eastern provinces whilst Constantius dealt with Magnentius.

Within a year of the suppression of the usurper, Gallus himself was executed by an Augustus who had grown to mistrust both the judgement and the ambitions of his Caesar. Yet Constantius could still only be in one place at a time, and the disruption caused by civil war had encouraged a number of problems to break out on the frontier. The Augustus sent Silvanus, the Master of Infantry (Magister Peditum, a term which did not imply any particular association with foot soldiers more than horsemen and simply denoted a senior general) to restore the situation in Gaul, which had suffered badly with barbarian raids and some settlement. However, the risk inherent in trusting anyone with an independent command was soon demonstrated when this man was proclaimed as Augustusby his army. The danger of a new civil war was averted when one of Constantius’ officers bribed some disaffected soldiers to murder Silvanus. The problems in Gaul remained, and the Augustus decided to send Gallus’ brother Julian to deal with them, deciding that a relative might be marginally more trustworthy than anyone else. To enhance the bond further, Julian married Constantius’ sister Helena.

Julian was proclaimed Caesar in Gaul on 6 November AD 355 at a formal parade of the army, the soldiers showing their approval by banging their shields against their knees. Such a ceremony openly demonstrated the transferral of political power to the military. The new Caesar was 23 and had never held any public position or spent time with the army. Like Gallus until his elevation to power, Julian had spent his early years in comfortable imprisonment, engaging enthusiastically in academic study at Nicomedia and subsequently Athens, where he was heavily influenced by mystical Neoplatonism. Constantine the Great had made Christianity the official religion of the Empire, although he had not actively suppressed the majority of pagan cults, and his family were also Christians. Encouraged by his deep dislike for Constantius – a feeling only reinforced by the execution of Gallus – the student’s rebellion took a religious path. Publicly Julian followed the new faith, but he secretly embraced paganism, a decision described by Christians as his apostasy. Later he claimed that the Sun God appeared to him in a dream instructing him in the formation of a new cult which he would seek unsuccessfully to introduce. Both in his own writings and in other accounts Julian comes across as a clever man, but one lacking much understanding of the views and feelings of others, especially of those with a less academic outlook. As a general he was to prove competent, if uninspired, and his inclusion here owes more to the relative wealth of material concerning his campaigns in comparison to any other fourth-century general than to any great genius.6

Constantius had deliberately hidden the scale of the problem in Gaul from his junior colleague until the latter was on his way to the region. Most serious of all was the news that Colonia Agrippinensis (Cologne) had been overrun by the Franks, but there had also been widespread raiding by another group of tribes, the Alamanni. Neither of these peoples were known in the early Principate and it has often been suggested that the smaller Germanic tribes faced by Caesar and Germanicus coalesced in the second and third centuries AD to form more united and coherent tribal confederations which presented a far more dangerous threat to the Roman frontier than their predecessors. Yet a more detailed examination of the military and political organization of the Germanic peoples in the fourth century suggests that little or nothing had actually changed. Divided into tribes and clans each with their own chieftains, they had very little political unity or sense of common purpose, and the power of kings and leaders proved as transitory as ever. Whether the tribes long known to the Romans had simply changed their names or been supplanted by other peoples is unclear, but the problem presented to the Roman army by these warlike tribes remained the same, as in general were the methods used in any effort to solve it.

Whenever the Romans were perceived to be vulnerable, then there would be raids into the provinces. If these succeeded and went unpunished, then more raids would occur on an increasingly large scale, perhaps eventually prompting full-scale invasions to seize and occupy land. In the years before Julian’s appointment as Caesar the frontier along the Rhine and Upper Danube had been stripped of many of its garrisons as men were drawn off to fight in the civil wars. Roman weakness was confirmed when barbarian raiders were able to penetrate deep into the settled provinces and come back with plunder and glory. Such successes prompted more and larger attacks, and as no emperor or senior subordinate came to the region with sufficient force and authority to wage full-scale war, these only became more common. Rome was seen to be weak, and the various Germanic war leaders exploited this situation. Julian’s task was not simply to restore some order to the frontier defences, but to instil once again a fear of Roman might in the peoples across the Rhine.

The resources with which he was to deal with the situation were by no means lavish. Under Diocletian and Constantine the overall number of men serving in the army appears to have increased significantly, and yet at the same time the size of individual field armies grew smaller. In Julian’s day the Roman army was divided into two basic sections, the limetani who garrisoned and patrolled the frontiers and the comitatenses or field armies. The comitatenses have sometimes been seen as mobile reserve, but their origins lay more in successive emperors’ desire for protection against internal rivals than in the threat of foreign enemies. Within the army the size of individual units had shrunk, so that the legion of some 5,000 men was no more than a distant memory and most seem to have numbered around 1,000–1,200 men. Auxiliary infantry units were similar in size or perhaps smaller, and cavalry probably somewhere near the 500 mark. Each regiment was commanded by an officer variously known as tribune, prefect orpraepositus. On campaign many units would be smaller than this. Most units in the field armies were brigaded together in pairs, but this was the highest level of organization and no larger subdivisions within an army were considered necessary. The army of the fourth century was geared towards warfare on a relatively small scale, an impression which Julian’s operations in Gaul confirm.

Service in the ranks of the army was compulsory for the sons of soldiers, and in general conditions appear often to have been worse than in the early Principate. Considerable numbers of recruits came from barbarian tribes, including many men from outside the Empire, and it has often been suggested that this barbarization of the army led to a decline in military efficiency. However, the Romans had a long tradition of making successful use of foreign soldiers, and it is hard to find many examples of ‘barbarian’ soldiers proving any less loyal or effective than troops recruited from the provinces. What is certainly true is that the trend towards recruiting troops locally, already visible in the first and second centuries, had become even more pronounced and that soldiers often displayed a particular loyalty to the region in which they were stationed.7


By the time Julian reached Gaul it was too late in the year to take the field and he spent the winter at Vienne, gathering intelligence and dealing with administrative matters. In June a report arrived informing him that Augustodunum (Autun) was under attack by a group of Alamanni. Tribal armies lacked skill in siegecraft and had a poor record in taking fortified positions, but in this case the walls were in a state of neglect and only the spirited defence by a group of retired veterans had repulsed them. The Alamanni had instead settled down to a loose blockade of the town, whilst most of the warriors dispersed to raid the surrounding area. Julian moved immediately to its relief and arrived there on 24 June having encountered no serious opposition.


Summoning his senior officers to a consilium to decide how to attack and punish the barbarians, he asked those with local knowledge about the main routes which would lead him eventually to the main town of the Remi (modern-day Rheims), where he had ordered his field army to concentrate and provisions sufficient to feed them for a month to be gathered. Dismissing several alternatives, Julian chose to follow a direct route through heavily wooded country, disdaining the risk of ambush primarily because he was told that the usurper Silvanus had successfully employed the same road. With him he had only a unit of cataphracts – the first such unit of heavy cavalry had been raised by Hadrian, but they later became relatively common, especially in the armies of the eastern provinces – and a regiment of ballistarii, who were probably artillerymen, but may just possibly have been equipped with an early type of crossbow. It was not a force especially suited to skirmishing, but at first the Romans did not encounter any raiders and managed to get through the most dangerous stretch of the road without any fighting. As the journey went on, they were attacked by small groups of Alamanni but managed to drive these off, although without inflicting much loss as the cataphracts with their armoured horses were not suited to rapid pursuit. A clear indication of the nervousness of the local population in the face of such widespread raiding was given when the small force reached Tricasa (Troyes) and found the town’s gate closed to them. Only after a long and rather undignified debate were the Caesar and his men admitted. Following a brief rest, Julian pushed on and joined the main army.

Another consilium was held to discuss the situation. Present were Marcellus, the Magister Equitum (another title for senior officer in the fourth-century army), and his predecessor Ursicinus, the man responsible for arranging the assassination of Silvanus and who had been ordered to remain till the end of the year to provide additional advice for the young Caesar. It was decided to launch an immediate punitive attack on the nearest groups of Alamanni. The attack went in the next day, but under cover of a thick mist the Germans dodged round the Roman column of march and attacked the two legions forming its rearguard. Their battle cries brought some auxiliary units to their aid before they were overwhelmed, but this unexpected near defeat had a deep impact on Julian. The historian Ammianus Marcellinus, at that time an officer on Ursicinus’ staff and quite probably with the column, says that it made him ‘prudent and cautious’ (providus et cunctator), which he considered to be amongst the highest virtues of a great commander. The Romans moved against a number of towns taken and sacked by the enemy, although in each case after their success the Germans had dispersed to plunder the surrounding area. Outside Brotomagum (Brumath) a war band stood up to the Romans and Julian fought his first significant action, although it was probably little more than a skirmish. He deployed his troops with both wings advanced, so that it resembled a crescent, and enveloped the Germans. Most seem to have fled before the trap was closed and only a minority were killed or captured. Yet the small victory was enough to overawe the other raiding bands and restore some semblance of order to the area.8

Julian then moved north and reoccupied Colonia Agrippinensis. The presence of the Roman army seems to have been enough to persuade the nearest Frankish kings to cease marauding expeditions for the moment and to accept the peace terms imposed by Julian. It was now near the end of the campaigning season and most of the Roman field army dispersed to winter billets. Food may well have been running short and Ammianus mentions that the Caesar was especially concerned with arranging for an adequate food supply for the next year’s campaigning. Years of raiding and disturbances had disrupted the agriculture of the area and stripped the land bare of many sources of food and fodder. Another major problem was the need to re-establish a proper system of frontier garrisons to deter future incursions. Julian decided to spend the winter at Senonae (Sens). Some deserters went over to the Franks at this point. It is not clear whether these soldiers were Germanic and sympathized with the enemy or whether their desertion was prompted by something else. When Ammianus gives a reason for a soldier deserting it is usually the fear of punishment.

Whatever their motives, the deserters informed the tribes that the Caesar had relatively few troops with him. A force of Alamanni promptly attacked Senonae, but were thwarted by the walls which the Romans had hastily repaired. Julian had too few men to sally out and fight in the open, and after a month-long blockade the Germans withdrew, complaining that they had been foolish even to contemplate besieging a town. If surprise or treachery failed to get them within a city’s walls, a tribal army would most often run out of food and have to disperse before the defenders were forced to surrender. In the third and fourth centuries many communities which had not felt the need of fortifications in the early Principate acquired walls. Simultaneously the army was putting far more effort into constructing strong ramparts and projecting towers around its bases. Defence was a much higher priority than it had been in earlier centuries.9


During the siege of Senonae, Marcellus had conspicuously failed to march to the relief of his commander. Near the end of winter he was replaced by the highly experienced Severus. Ursicinus was also recalled and soon sent to the eastern frontier where war was brewing with Persia. However, as a clear indication of the priority now given to Gaul Constantius had sent from Italy a force of 25,000 men under the command of the Magister Peditum Barbatio. The Roman plan was to launch a major offensive against the Alamanni, Julian attacking from the north and Barbatio from the south. Indirect pressure would also be put on the Alamanni by the Augustus’ own operations from Raetia on the Upper Danube.

Organizing such a major operation took time, and early in the spring a raiding force from one of the Alamannic tribes evaded the Roman troop concentrations and attacked Lugdunum (Lyons). Once again the barbarians were thwarted by the city’s fortifications, but they wandered freely around the surrounding lands, burning and looting. Julian responded quickly by forming a force of three cavalry regiments and sending them to cover the three main routes which the raiders were most likely to follow on their return journey. Marauding groups were always more vulnerable as they withdrew, encumbered with their plunder and often overconfident because of their initial success. There were many occasions throughout Roman history when raiders were surprised and massacred as they carelessly carried off their spoils. Often most of the warriors were drunk, and Ammianus recounts one occasion when an entire party were ambushed as they bathed or dyed their hair red in a river.10

At first the Roman operation was successful, mopping up with ease any parties of warriors who followed the roads. Only those Germans who abandoned their plunder and took to the wooded country managed to get past the cavalry. However, Barbatio, whose camp was much nearer than Julian’s, made no move to support the three cavalry regiments, and in fact one of his officers explicitly ordered these troops not to guard the main road open to the retreating barbarians. In the aftermath of this failure, two of the cavalry tribunes were dismissed – although one reappears shortly afterwards in another command and the second eventually became emperor, so the passage may be mistaken – from the army when blame was falsely placed upon them. It was not a promising start to a campaign which required close co-operation between Julian and Barbatio.

As the main offensive began and the columns advanced against the Alamannic communities which had settled on the west bank of the Rhine, the Romans found that the enemy had in most cases retreated, many to the islands in the river. Progress was slow because the barbarians had constructed numerous barricades of felled trees blocking the main roads and paths, and each of these had to be cleared before the Roman baggage train was able to pass. Julian decided that it was important to attack the Germans hiding on the islands and requested that Barbatio loan him seven of the river barges which he had gathered to be used in the construction of a bridge. The Magister Peditum not only refused, but actually ordered the burning of the boats in question. Then, or soon afterwards, he also destroyed a significant part of the grain gathered by Julian to support the army. Ammianus, who describes these incidents, obviously disliked Barbatio almost as much as he admired Julian, but there is no good reason to reject incidents of this sort.

Rome’s leaders had always been fiercely competitive, but in late antiquity this competition was bound by fewer constraints than at any other period, including the civil wars of the first century BC. Careers lacked the formal structure and limits of the old cursus honorum, and it was possible to reach supreme power either by a sudden leap or by small stages. Since anyone able to win the support of sufficient troops could become emperor, anyone thought capable of this was assumed to harbour such ambitions. Silvanus had probably been a reluctant usurper, but was effectively forced into this bid for power since he was believed to be plotting against the Augustus and would most likely have been executed even if he had continued to obey orders. Family connections were no security against suspicion and virtually from the moment of his appointment, Julian had been the target of a whispering campaign designed to throw doubt over his loyalty in the mind of Constantius. Many men rose to power and influence at court by plotting the demise of their superiors, though most in turn fell prey to the machinations of other ambitious men. There was little real security for the leaders of the Late Roman army and state.

Thwarted by Barbatio, Julian was fortunate to capture some German scouts, who revealed under interrogation that the river could be forded in summer. The tribune Bainobaudes, commanding a regiment of auxiliaries called the Cornuti (or ‘horned ones’, perhaps a reference to a shield device or crest), was ordered to launch a surprise attack. The men are described as light infantry, which probably means that they laid aside the body armour and helmets normally worn in battle for this specific operation. The soldiers were able to wade through the shallower parts of the river and swam through deeper sections, using their shields as floats, and reached an island before the Alamanni were aware of them. In a sudden, vicious attack, the auxiliaries fell upon the Germans and slaughtered all they could find, women, children and the old along with the warriors. This was a raid with murder as the objective, for its purpose was to instil a sense of horror in the other tribes. The context of the operation would anyway have made it difficult to secure captives and take them back to the army. Capturing some boats, the auxiliaries rowed to several other islands, massacring the occupants in the same manner. They then returned to the west bank of the Rhine without suffering any casualties, although most of the moveable plunder they had taken was lost when a boat was swamped. Realizing that the islands were vulnerable, the Alamanni fled to the eastern shore to escape the reach of Rome. Julian busied himself restoring or rebuilding the garrison posts along the river. It was harvest time, and the Romans took the opportunity to gather in the produce of the fields cultivated by the Germans, finding in this way sufficient provisions to stock the granaries of the forts as well as to supply the field army for twenty days.11

The Alamanni had suffered a reverse, but a single raid, however appalling its local consequences, was certainly not enough to convince the tribes that Rome had suddenly become invincible once more after years of weakness. A large force of warriors crossed into Gaul and surprised Barbatio’s army, routing them and capturing most of their baggage, camp followers and transport animals. Ammianus may have exaggerated the scale of the reverse, but certainly Barbatio was to play no significant part in the remainder of that year’s campaigning. Instead he travelled to Constantius’ court to intrigue against Julian. A few years later his intrigues would lead to his own execution when the Augustus came to believe that he harboured imperial ambitions.

The Caesar had more immediate problems on his hands, for seven Alamannic kings had joined together under the overall leadership of two of their number, Chnodomarius and his nephew Serapio, to muster one of the largest tribal armies recorded in the fourth century. Ammianus sets their overall numbers at 35,000 men, led by the kings along with ten royal princes and a large number of other chieftains. As always, it is difficult to know how accurate such a figure is, and whether the Romans or even the Alamanni themselves ever knew precisely how large the force was.

The bulk of the army consisted of those warriors able to equip themselves for battle and fighting in bands with their kinsmen and fellow clansmen. The hard core of the force was provided by the comites, the semi-professional fighters attached to the households of the leaders. Chnodomarius is said to have 200 of these well-equipped and highly motivated warriors in his household, but it seems unlikely that any of the less prestigious leaders had so many followers. Tribal armies normally took some time to gather since the individual warriors turned up as their mood dictated, and this force was no exception. Only part of the army was across the Rhine when Julian camped some 21 miles away. The German leaders were accurately informed by a deserter that Julian had little more than 13,000 men at his disposal – probably some 3,000 horse and 10,000 foot – and their numerical advantage, which was probably significant whatever the precise size of their own army, added greatly to their confidence. Further encouragement had been provided by their easy defeat of Barbatio’s troops and the knowledge that these were too far away to support the other Roman force.

After advancing to the area around Argentoratum (Strasbourg), they sent envoys to the Caesar, instructing him to leave the lands which they had taken by the sword, with the implication that a refusal would mean facing their great host in battle. The Alamanni were treating the Romans just as they would any Germanic tribe whose land they had seized. Such gestures were typical of many of the tribal societies encountered by the Romans throughout the centuries. Julian delayed giving a response to the ambassadors until his troops had completed their current task of repairing an old frontier fort, and then prepared for battle. He was also eager to wait until a large part of the Alamanni had gathered on the west bank of the Rhine, since the defeat of only a small advance guard was unlikely to achieve much in the long term, but he wished to avoid facing their entire strength. This consideration makes it even more difficult to estimate just how many German warriors there were at the subsequent battle.12

Julian led his army out of camp at dawn and advanced in a well-ordered column towards the enemy. The infantry were in the centre, flanked by cavalry, which included not just the cataphracts but some horse archers as well as the more conventionally armed horsemen. The entire army was screened by small parties of scouts, probably drawn mainly from the cavalry. By noon they were nearing the enemy, and Julian was inclined to halt and build another camp, allowing the men to rest before giving battle on the following day. When he explained this plan to the soldiers, it provoked a howl of disapproval, the men banging their spear shafts against their shields – a gesture Ammianus says always signified protest, unlike the acclamation of banging shields against knees. Men yelled out begging him to take them against the enemy immediately, declaring that with such a fortunate general they were bound to win. The army’s officers were equally keen to fight, arguing that it was better to confront and defeat the Alamanni altogether, rather than have to chase down individual groups if their great army dispersed. Finally a standard-bearer stepped out of the ranks and called on the ‘most fortunate of all Caesars’ to lead them to victory. The army resumed its advance.13

Roman commanders were often somewhat theatrical in their dealings with their men, but this incident suggests a very different relationship between general and troops to that in earlier periods. It is just possible that Julian always planned to fight that day, and simply feigned reluctance in front of his enthusiastic soldiers so that their keenness would help them to forget the fatigue of a long march in the heat of late summer. Yet Ammianus certainly does not suggest that this was the case, and such a deception would have been thought entirely praiseworthy in a general and so most certainly not something to suppress. One of the worst things a commander could do was to risk a battle against his better judgement. Caesar would certainly not have chosen to depict himself as being dissuaded by his subordinates from following any planned course of action. The standard-bearer who called out to Julian at first seems similar to centurions and soldiers who are shown addressing Caesar in the Commentaries, but it is important to note that the latter were never trying to convince their commander of anything apart from their courage and devotion to him. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the soldiers of the fourth century were all too aware of their capacity to dispose of any general and replace him with an alternative of their own choosing, and as a result felt very free to express their opinion.

The Romans pressed on and came to a low ridge not far from the bank of the Rhine. Three German cavalry scouts were seen galloping off to give warning of their approach and a warrior on foot was taken prisoner. He informed the Romans that the Alamanni had been crossing the river for the last three days. Soon their war bands became visible forming a battle line in the distance. Each group was formed in a cuneus, a word which most readily translates as ‘wedge’ and may have meant a vaguely triangular formation – probably caused by the minority of most enthusiastic warriors surging ahead of the remainder – or perhaps simply a narrow but deep column. Ammianus tells us elsewhere that the soldiers’ nickname for the cuneus was the ‘swine’s head’ (caput porci).14 On their right was an area of broken, marshy ground which included a derelict aqueduct or canal. Probably because of this unsuitable country on their left, the Romans massed all their cavalry on their right wing, apart from 200 men who formed Julian’s personal escort. The Alamanni responded by concentrating all of their horsemen opposite their Roman counterparts. It is unclear just how many cavalry the Germans had, but they may well have been relatively few in number and were generally more lightly equipped than their opponents, especially than the cataphracts. The Alamanni followed the tactic encountered by Caesar and described by Tacitus of supporting the horse with groups of agile young warriors on foot. Chnodomarius – who is described as an heroic, indeed almost Homeric figure by Ammianus – commanded the left of the German army, whilst Serapio led the right.15

As the Romans advanced towards the enemy line, Severus who was in command of the left wing grew suspicious of an ambush from the cover facing him and halted. With their left flank refused, the rest of the Roman army marshalled itself before continuing the advance. The infantry seem to have been deployed in at least two lines. Julian rode around the units addressing each in turn, for Ammianus tells us that it was impossible to be heard by the entire force once it was deployed in battle order (and also notes that a formal speech to an entire army was anyway the preserve of the Augustus). Some men he urged on to fight valiantly, but others he begged to restrain their enthusiasm and not surge forward without orders. In the main he repeated the same words to each of the units he rode past. During this long lull, Ammianus tells us that the German infantry sent up a great shout, suggesting that the kings and princes ought to leave the cavalry and dismount to fight with them. It was a sentiment similar to that which had once banned Roman dictators from riding so that they would stay with the phalanx. Chnodomarius was the first to dismount and join them in a gesture reminiscent of Caesar’s encounter with the Helvetii in 58 BC or Agricola at Mons Graupius in AD 84. The other leaders quickly followed his example.16

As both sides sounded their trumpets the two armies closed into missile range and began to hurl javelins at each other. Then the Germans charged, screaming their battle cry. They closed first with the Roman cavalry and the combat swayed back and forth for some time. Then, whilst the Roman cataphracts were resting and re-forming, their commander was wounded. At almost the same moment the mount of another man collapsed from fatigue, combined with the weight of the rider and its own armour. These minor events triggered a sudden panic as the entire unit fled. In the confusion most of the rest of the Roman cavalry joined in the rout, some of them streaming towards the Roman infantry. It was a dangerous moment, for if the foot had become infected with the panic the entire flank of the army might have dissolved. In the event the infantry’s discipline held firm and they kept their formation as the mass of horsemen bore down on them. Julian had seen the danger and galloped with his bodyguard to rally the fleeing troops, his position marked by his purple draco standard, a bronze animal head with an open mouth and something resembling a windsock streaming behind it. It was a type of standard copied from the Danubian peoples in the second century AD and is depicted on Trajan’s Column waving over the heads of Dacians and other barbarians.

The sight of his commander shamed one of the cavalry tribunes into stopping and gathering some of his men around him. Ammianus compared Julian’s action to an occasion when Sulla stopped his fleeing men by telling them to go and declare that they had left their general fighting alone in Asia. Yet it was very difficult to reassert control over fleeing troops, as even Caesar had found at Dyrrachium. Some cavalrymen formed up again around Julian, and others rallied in the shelter of the heavy infantry, but it seems more than likely that many left the battlefield altogether. Those left may have been shaken, and there is no mention of the cavalry playing much part in the rest of the action. However, nor is there any suggestion that the Alamannic horse were able to threaten the flanks of the Roman infantry, so it is possible that sufficient cavalry had rallied to hold these in check.17

All along the main line a fierce combat raged, the air full of showers of javelins and arrows as time after time groups surged into contact and fought hand to hand. In the Roman front line was a brigade of auxiliaries, consisting of the Cornuti and their sister unit the Bracchiati. Ammianus describes these soldiers raising the traditional Germanic battle cry, the barritus, which began with a low murmur and gradually built up to a crescendo. Whether these auxiliaries acted in this way because they were themselves German or simply because long years of campaigning against these tribes had taught them that German warriors found this gesture especially intimidating is impossible to say. Soon afterwards two more auxiliary units, the Batavi and the Regni, were fed into the fighting line, presumably on the orders of Julian or one of his senior officers. For a while things stabilized, until a group of the most determined German warriors led by several of their kings in person charged into contact, causing the other war bands to surge forward. Some of the Roman troops gave way, and the barbarians burst through the first line and ran on to attack the troops in reserve.

The main force of this attack fell on the Primani legion in the centre of the second line. These soldiers held firm and gradually began to force the Alamanni back. For a while the German warriors continued to fight with great determination, until their losses grew too heavy and their spirit suddenly collapsed. The whole tribal host gave way and dissolved into flight, their Roman opponents eagerly pursuing them and striking at their backs. As the Alamanni found their escape hindered by the river, Julian became worried that his men might suffer losses by too eagerly following the enemy into the water, and he and his officers galloped around restraining the advancing Romans on the bank of the river. The Romans hurled javelins or shot arrows at the figures trying to swim away. In the initial confusion Chnodomarius managed to slip away, but he was soon found and captured whilst hiding in a small grove.18

Julian had won a major victory in his first substantial battle. As his army withdrew to a hastily laid out camp with makeshift ramparts formed from rows of shields, they found that they lost 243 men and four tribunes killed. Ammianus does not mention how many wounded there were in addition to this. It is claimed that 6,000 corpses of the enemy were counted on the field, and that many others must have died in the pursuit or drowned in the Rhine. As the Roman army celebrated its victory the soldiers began to hail Julian as Augustus, prompting the Caesar to an immediate rebuke and a public oath declaring that he had no ambitions beyond his current status. There were plenty of courtiers willing to feed Constantius’ suspicion of his subordinate, but the Augustus was also happy to take personal credit for the defeat of the Alamanni in his official announcement. He is even supposed to have claimed to have been present at the battle, directing the army in person, and that at the end of it the captured Chnodomarius was brought before him instead of to Julian.19

In Gaul the Caesar was determined to exploit his victory to the full by crossing the Rhine and ravaging the territory of the Alamanni. There was at first some resistance to this from the troops, who felt that the campaign was complete, forcing Julian to persuade them in a speech. Bridging the Rhine, he led a column on a punitive expedition. The Alamanni vacillated in their mood, first seeking peace and then resolving to fight for their homeland, and a tribal army began to mass on the high ground facing the Romans. During the night Julian embarked 800 men in a fleet of small boats and sent them 2.5 miles further up the river, where they disembarked and began raiding and burning the nearest villages. Attack at this unexpected point was enough to draw off the warriors from the heights. The Germans again lost heart, and the Romans met no opposition as they advanced, gathering up the locals’ cattle, harvesting their crops, and putting any buildings to the torch.

After 10 miles they came to an area of forest, where a deserter had informed Julian that many warriors were waiting to ambush the invaders. For a while the Romans pressed on, until they saw the main paths blocked with barricades of felled trees – a sure sign that the Germans planned to harass them if they went further. It was now early autumn and the weather was turning cold, so that Julian decided to withdraw rather than risk fighting in unsuitable conditions for only the most modest of potential gains. Instead he moved to the nearby site of a derelict fort originally built by Trajan. The soldiers laboured to restore its fortifications and a garrison was installed and provisioned. This sign that the Romans planned a more permanent presence in their land finally prompted the Alamanni to seek peace, which Julian granted at first for ten months to the three kings who appeared before him.20

Fighting seemed over for the year, but as the Roman army made its way back to winter billets one column commanded by Severus unexpectedly encountered some Frankish warriors who were raiding the Roman province. It was later discovered that there were some 600 of these marauders who had concluded that Julian’s preoccupation with the Alamanni would prevent him from properly defending other sections of the frontier. Therefore, instead of returning to their homes after a season’s raiding, they had decided to establish their base in two abandoned Roman forts and continue their activities throughout the winter months. For fifty-four days in December and January Julian, the Caesar in Gaul and second only in status to the emperor Constantius, besieged these Franks until they finally surrendered. To prevent the Germans from escaping across the freezing river, he set up a system whereby soldiers in small boats regularly broke up the ice. This did not prevent news reaching some of their fellow tribesmen, who formed a small army to come to the raiders’ relief, but these turned back when they discovered that the surrender had occurred. This operation was carried out competently enough and ended successfully, but the involvement of even a junior emperor in such a small-scale affair is symptomatic of the lower level at which Rome’s rulers operated in late antiquity. Throughout his time in Gaul, almost everything Julian did would have been the normal task of a proconsul or propraetor under the Republic, or an imperial legate under the Principate.21


Julian spent the remainder of the winter in Lutetia (Paris), dealing with administrative and financial matters. The defeat of the Alamanni had been only partial, and the Romans were aware that most of their tribes and clans were determined to gain vengeance for Argentoratum. Julian had given orders for grain to be gathered to supply the army, but knew that this would not become available until July. The Germans were equally aware of the situation and thus did not expect any major Roman activity before this time. Trusting that they had made this assumption, Julian decided to take the field straight away, feeding his troops with hard-tack biscuit (bucellatum) baked from the grain stores of the army’s bases. This was a gamble, for if it proved impossible to replenish the fort’s granaries then these strongholds, which were normally virtually impregnable to siege, might easily succumb to starvation. When the army moved out, each soldier was provided with a bread ration in this form for twenty days.22

Julian’s first targets were the Salii, a Frankish people who had settled within the Roman province at Toxiandra, roughly in the area of modern-day Flanders. Before the campaign was under way a deputation arrived from these people, who seem to have been unaware of his intentions. The Frankish ambassadors wanted to be permitted to retain the land they had taken, promising that they would not raid or harass the nearby provincial communities. Julian gave them a deliberately unclear response and followed the envoys’ departure with a rapid attack. The Salii were taken completely by surprise and rapidly surrendered, allowing him to impose terms of his own choosing. Following this initial success, the Romans moved against another Germanic people, the Chamavi, who had similarly settled within the province. This time there was some fighting, but the resistance was swiftly overcome and the Germans ordered back to their original home beyond the Rhine.

These victories had come swiftly, and Julian decided that more permanent security could be re-established in the area by repairing and reoccupying three forts along the line of the River Meuse. Garrisons could be provided from the units under his command, but it was more difficult to secure sufficient food to fill the forts’ granaries. The army still had seventeen days’ worth of biscuit, and Julian ordered them to hand over much of this to the garrisons. This produced uproar, the soldiers once again feeling very free to express disapproval of the general’s decision, deriding him as an ‘Asiatic’ or ‘little Greek’ in reference to his upbringing. There were still several weeks to go before the harvest would be ripe and most were nervous of campaigning without sufficient food. Ammianus seems to have had considerable sympathy with the soldiers, noting that they were not demanding extra pay or donatives, in spite of the fact that they had not received even their regular salary let alone any bonuses since Julian took command. Constantius had not wanted to give his Caesar sufficient funds to win too much loyalty from the army in Gaul.23

Ammianus does not tell us specifically what happened after this protest, other than that it was eventually quelled with gentle words, but it is more than possible that the commander backed down. Julian had other problems as well. Severus, his formerly reliable subordinate, was in poor health and would die soon. In his last campaign during 358 he became almost morbidly cautious, so that the column under his command achieved very little. Diplomacy managed to win over one of the most powerful kings of the Alamanni. Another was forced to submit after a punitive expedition laid waste a swathe of his territory. The Romans were guided by a warrior captured by two tribunes sent by Julian explicitly to provide him with a prisoner. At first the marching column was hindered by the familiar barricades blocking the paths, but eventually they were able to penetrate a region the Alamanni had considered safe, prompting the king’s capitulation. By this time it was nearing the end of the summer and the Roman army dispersed to its winter billets once more. Julian once again busied himself with administration.24

The next year’s campaigning again began with a surprise attack on sections of the Alamanni who had refused to submit. In preparation a German-speaking tribune named Hariobaudes had been sent, ostensibly on a diplomatic mission, to gather intelligence about the various leaders’ intentions. In addition Julian had secured large amounts of grain from Britain, sufficient both to feed his field army and also to fill the granaries in the forts and the walled towns he intended to restore to a state of defence. Seven of the latter were reoccupied, even the auxiliaries – who usually disdained such tasks as beneath warriors – labouring cheerfully alongside the other troops. Acting on intelligence provided by Hariobaudes, Julian then crossed the Rhine and attacked the Alamanni, most of whom fled, allowing their crops to be burnt or confiscated. By the end of the year virtually all of the Alamannic leaders had submitted. Yet the peace remained tentative, liable to be broken as soon as the Germans once again began to believe that the Romans were weak. When in the winter of 359–60 much of northern Britain was overrun by the Picts and Scots, Julian felt it unwise to risk going to deal with the problem himself. Instead he sent Severus’ successor, Lupicinus, with four units of auxiliaries, to restore the situation across the Channel. The size of this force is another indication of the generally small scale of so much of the military activity in the fourth century.25


Whilst Julian was campaigning along the Rhine frontier, Constantius had been fighting on the Danube, but had found his attention being drawn ever more pressingly to the Empire’s eastern frontier. In 359 a dispute with Persia – in the third century the Sassanid dynasty of ethnic Persians had overthrown the Arsacid Parthian monarchy – which had long been looming, finally erupted into open war. From the beginning things went badly for the Romans. Needing men, Constantius commanded his Caesar to send him four entire auxiliary regiments – the Celtae, Petulantes, Batavi and Heruli – along with a draft of 300 men from each of his other units. There were rumours that the Augustus was almost as concerned to clip the wings of his successful junior colleague as to reinforce the army intended to meet the Persians.

Julian was perplexed by the order. His men were enraged and once again mutinied, refusing to be sent away from their families and relatives, especially as these would be left effectively at the mercy of the Alamanni. Once again they proclaimed Julian asAugustus, and this time he accepted, although Ammianus maintains that this was only because he was unable to persuade the soldiers to obey orders and allow him to request that Constantius rescind the order. The 28-year-old was raised on a shield held at shoulder height by some soldiers – the first recorded occasion when a Roman emperor was acclaimed in the traditional Germanic manner of appointing a chieftain. A torque worn around the neck as an award for valour was given by a standard-bearer to provide the newAugustus with a diadem. (This was an improvement on the initial suggestions of one of his wife’s necklaces or, still less auspicious, part of a horse’s decorative harness.) As he was being paraded through the camp in this way, the ‘reluctant’ new Augustuspromised each of the soldiers a substantial bounty in silver and gold for supporting him. Even Ammianus believed that Julian had no real expectation that Constantius would accept him as an equal and share the rule of the Empire.26

Rome was once again faced with civil war, but in this case there was comparatively little fighting since Constantius died of natural causes early in 361. The Empire once again had a single master, but his popularity proved fleeting. No longer feeling constrained to feign adherence to the Church, Julian openly professed paganism, alienating the Christians who were by this stage a numerous and powerful group. Even some pagans felt that the decree forbidding Christians to lecture or teach was unfair. Other measures upset groups such as the largely pagan aristocracies of the great eastern cities on whose support he might otherwise have relied. Whatever Julian’s intentions, his decisions as emperor betrayed a lack of good sense.

The same could be said of the major expedition which he launched against Persia in 363. For this he mustered an army of some 83,000 men, including a large part of the troops from Gaul who had willingly followed their own Augustus to the east, in spite of their earlier reluctance to serve under Constantius. It was the largest Roman army employed against a foreign opponent during the fourth century and it was able to drive deep into enemy territory, defeating all the forces it encountered. Yet Julian failed to force the Persians into a decisive battle and soon faced the inevitable problems of supplying so large a number of men over such great distances. From the beginning of the campaign at least a quarter of his soldiers were occupied in manning and towing the fleet of river boats carrying supplies along the Euphrates.

Julian’s behaviour at times suggested a conscious emulation of earlier Roman commanders. Having read that Scipio Aemilianus, Polybius, and a small group of soldiers had cut their way through an enemy-held gateway at Carthage, Julian tried to copy the exploit at the siege of Pirisabora, but he and his party were driven back. Ammianus excused this failure of his hero by explaining that the circumstances in which the original feat had been performed were different. During a reconnaissance of another stronghold at Maozamalcha, Julian and his officers were ambushed by ten Persians, two of whom recognized the emperor from his conspicuous uniform and charged at him. The Augustus killed one with his sword, whilst his bodyguards dealt with the other. After Maozamalcha had fallen, Julian publicly emulated Alexander the Great and Scipio Africanus by not harming, or even looking at, a number of extremely beautiful noblewomen who had been captured. Literature had always reinforced the aristocratic ideal of how a great Roman general should behave, but there is a strong sense that Julian came to let a desire to equal great historical commanders dictate too much of his behaviour.27

The Romans reached Ctesiphon, having cleared a canal constructed by Trajan and also used by Septimius Severus to bring the supply fleet from the Euphrates to the Tigris. Yet once there, Julian and his officers decided that they were not in a position to take it and so began a withdrawal. Against the advice of his officers, the Augustus ordered the transport fleet to be burnt, and instructed the army to march away from the river to retreat through land which the rival armies had not yet traversed. The sight provoked uproar amongst the soldiers, but an order cancelling the original instruction arrived too late to prevent its implementation. In the event it proved easy in the early days of the march to find sufficient fresh water, food and fodder from the lands the Romans were passing through. Soon, however, the Persians reacted and began burning the crops ahead of the enemy column. Julian was given additional cause to regret his rash orders, when he realized belatedly that the destruction of the boats made it impossible for the army to construct a bridge of boats allowing him to cross the Tigris once more and put the river between him and the Persians.

The supply situation now becoming desperate, the army marched on, fighting a number of vicious skirmishes at night with the pursuing Persians. In one of these Julian galloped out to try to direct the fighting, not even having time to don his armour. He was struck by a javelin which lodged in his side, and fell from his horse. No one was quite sure who had thrown the missile, although Libanius records a rumour that the thrower was Roman, a Christian soldier incensed by Julian’s promotion of paganism. The wound proved mortal, and the Augustus died in his tent shortly afterwards, his replacement quickly being selected by the army’s officers from amongst their own number. With the army in such a precarious position, there was little option save to conclude an ignominious peace with Persia.28

In Gaul Julian had proved himself to be a reasonably competent commander in spite of his lack of any military experience before his appointment as Caesar. As we have seen, the sort of problems he faced were of the kind routinely dealt with by the provincial governors of earlier periods. By the fourth century only an emperor wielded comparable authority and had the capacity to concentrate sufficient resources to defeat anything more than a few minor barbarian incursions. Julian did something to restore the security of the frontier along the Rhine, although in subsequent years this would prove impossible to maintain without a similarly active military presence in the area. He won a number of successes and suffered no serious defeats, but there is nothing in these campaigns to suggest exceptional talent on his part. Some of his decisions were questionable, and he certainly lacked Scipio’s or Julius Caesar’s talent for judging the mood of his men.

In the Persian campaign the sheer scale of the operation and the problems inherent in operating deep into enemy territory rather than in a friendly province hugely magnified the consequences of his mistakes and failure to understand his soldiers. Exceptionally large Roman armies did not have a very good record – Cannae and Arausio being the two most famous and disastrous examples – and it seems that forces larger than 40,000 or so men were extremely difficult for a general to control effectively. By the fourth century, when unit sizes had shrunk and the army was geared primarily to warfare at a much lower level, an army of 83,000 men was extremely clumsy. No one, from Julian down, had any experience of handling and supplying such a force. This, combined with the same problems which had helped to prevent Trajan’s and Severus’ campaigns in the east from producing a permanent defeat of the Parthians, eventually resulted in a humiliating failure. Julian’s career is interesting not because of his personal ability as a commander, but for providing a good indication of the circumstances in which Roman generals of the Late Empire performed their task.

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