His last great dream was to rival Alexander and Trajan: to plant the Roman standards in the Persian capitals, and end once and for all the Persian threat to the security of the Roman Empire. Eagerly he organized his army, chose his officers, repaired the frontier fortresses, provisioned the towns that would mark his route to victory. In the fall of 362 he came to Antioch, and gathered his troops. The merchants of the city took advantage of the influx to raise prices; the people complained that “everything is plentiful but everything is dear.” Julian called in the economic leaders and pled with them to restrain their profit seeking; they promised, but did not perform; and at last he “appointed a fair price for everything, and made it known to all men.” Perhaps to force prices down he had 400,000 modii (pecks) of corn brought in from other cities in Syria and Egypt.52 The merchants protested that his prices made profit impossible; they secretly bought up the imported corn, took it and their goods to other towns, and Antioch found itself with much money and no food. Soon the populace denounced Julian for his interference. The wits of Antioch made fun of his beard, and of his laborious attendance upon dead gods. He replied to them in a pamphlet, Misopogon, or Hater of Beards, whose wit and brilliance hardly became an emperor. He sarcastically apologized for his beard, and berated the Antiocheans for their insolence, frivolity, extravagance, immorality, and indifference to the gods of Greece. The famous park called Daphne, once a sacred shrine of Apollo, had been changed into an amusement resort; Julian ordered the amusements ended and the shrine restored; this had hardly been completed when a fire consumed it. Suspecting Christian incendiarism, Julian closed the cathedral of Antioch, and confiscated its wealth; several witnesses were tortured, and a priest was put to death.53 The Emperor’s one consolation in Antioch was his “feast of reason” with Libanius.
At last the army was ready, and in March 363 Julian began his campaign. He led his forces across the Euphrates, then across the Tigris; pursued the retreating Persians, but was harassed and almost frustrated by their “scorched earth” policy of burning all crops in their wake; time and again his soldiers were near starvation. In this exhausting campaign the Emperor showed his best qualities; he shared every hardship with his men, ate their scant fare or less, marched on foot through heat and flood, and fought in the front ranks in every battle. Persian women of youth and beauty were among his captives; he never disturbed their privacy, and allowed no one to dishonor them. Under his able generalship his troops advanced to the very gates of Ctesiphon, and laid siege to it; but the inability to get food compelled retreat. Shapur II chose two Persian nobles, cut off their noses, and bade them go to Julian in the guise of men who had deserted because of this cruel indignity, and lead him into a desert. They obeyed; Julian trusted them, and followed them, with his army, for twenty miles into a waterless waste. While he was extricating his men from this snare they were attacked by a force of Persians. The attack was repulsed, and the Persians fled. Julian, careless of his lack of armor, was foremost in their pursuit. A javelin entered his side and pierced his liver. He fell from his horse and was carried to a tent, where his physicians warned him that he had but a few hours to live. Libanius alleged that the weapon came from a Christian hand, and it was noted that no Persian claimed the reward that Shapur had promised for the slaying of the Emperor. Some Christians, like Sozomen, agreed with Libanius’ account, and praised the assassin “who for the sake of God and religion had performed so bold a deed.”54 The final scene (June 27, 363) was in the tradition of Socrates and Seneca. Julian, says Ammianus,
lying in his tent, addressed his disconsolate and sorrowing companions: “Most opportunely, friends, has the time now come for me to leave this life, which I rejoice to restore to Nature at her demand.” … All present wept, whereupon, even then maintaining his authority, he chided them, saying that it was unbecoming for them to mourn for a prince who was called for a union with heaven and the stars. As this made them all silent, he engaged with the philosophers Maximus and Priscus in an intricate discussion about the nobility of the soul. Suddenly the wound in his side opened wide, the pressure of the blood checked his breath, and after a draught of cold water for which he had asked, he passed quietly away, in the thirty-second year of his age.55*
The army, still in peril, required a commander; and its leaders chose Jovian, captain of the imperial guard. The new Emperor made peace with Persia by surrendering four of the five satrapies that Diocletian had seized some seventy years before. Jovian persecuted no one, but he promptly transferred state support from the pagan temples to the Church. The Christians of Antioch celebrated with public rejoicings the death of the pagan Emperor.57 For the most part, however, the victorious Christian leaders preached to their congregations a generous forgetfulness of the injuries that Christianity had borne.58 Eleven centuries would pass before Hellenism would have another day.