Emperor Julian


Emperor Julian (330-363 AD): a pious and intelligent soul who saw the writing on the wall when it came to militant monotheism.


Battle of Strasbourg – Argentoratum 357 AD Julian the Apostate defeats the Alamani – Igor Dzis The Battle of Argentoratum (also known as the battle of Strasbourg) , was fought in 357 A.D. between the Late Roman army under the Caesar and future Emperor Julian and the germanic Alamanni confederation led by king Chnodomar.


Reconstructed initial order of battle at Strasbourg. On the Roman side, legions hold the centre, auxilia the wings. Note Julian’s position, with his 200-strong cavalry escort (probably scholares), between the two Roman lines and Severus’ separate division on the left wing. (The Roman line-up is based on a 15,000-strong force). On the German side, troops are drawn up in contingents from each pagus, with each pair of pagus contingents under a king. Note the infantry hidden in the wooded area (left) and interspersed among the cavalry (right)

Whereas Constantius II can be said to have built upon his father’s achievements, in the West, his brother Constans managed affairs rather less wisely. He was accused of keeping ill counsel, and his court drew censure for its excess. In spite of the fact that Constans is known to have legislated against homosexual acts, he is reported by later sources to have maintained a sort of male harem of barbarian prisoners-of-war. In 350, he was overthrown in a palace coup and replaced by a military officer of Germanic origin by the name of Magnentius. This act inevitably incited the wrath of Constantius, who, in 351, pursued the usurper’s army first from the Balkans, then into Italy, and ultimately into Gaul, where, in 353, Magnentius was finally defeated.

Constantius’ sojourn in the West had necessarily raised the question of who was to supervise the East, where the Persians remained an ever-present threat. Childless as he was, Constantius had been obliged to look to the princely survivors of the massacre of 337, and in 351 had appointed Gallus as Caesar. Gallus’ period of rule in the East appears to have been characterized primarily by his penchant for unnecessary violence. As Ammianus puts it, ‘going beyond the limits of the authority granted him … (he caused) … universal mischief by his excessive harshness’. Constantius could not afford to see the East alienated, and, in 354, with characteristic forthrightness, he summoned Gallus to him and had him executed. Constantius now busied himself with fighting a number of campaigns against barbarian insurgents on the Rhine. In 355, he appointed as Caesar Gallus’ half-brother, Julian, whom he left to oversee events in Gaul as he himself moved on to campaign on the Danubian front.

Constantius must have realized that Julian had little reason to love him. The emperor was, after all, implicated in the death of nearly all of Julian’s closest family. Between 342 and 348, Julian and Gallus had effectively been kept in a state of imprisonment in a palace in Cappadocia. Since 348, however, Julian had been permitted some relief from this closed world, and had been allowed to travel first to Constantinople, and thence to Nicomedia, Ephesus, and briefly, Athens, where he had busied himself with acquiring a liberal education. This bookish young man of 24 can hardly have seemed a threat to so hardened a soldier as Constantius, secure as he was in the affection of his army.

In 359, the Persians captured the important Roman frontier post of Amida, and the following year two other Roman outposts fell. Constantius was obliged to return to Antioch and prepare for war. Since 357, and Constantius’ march on the Danube, Julian had effectively been the sole representative of imperial authority in the western provinces, a responsibility to which he adapted himself with remarkable élan. In an impressive series of campaigns, Julian had driven the marauding barbarians from northern Gaul, and shown the strength of Roman arms beyond the Rhine. At the same time, he had reorganized the collection of taxes in Gaul to the benefit of both fisc and subjects alike. Julian was proving himself to be not only a brave general, but an efficient and equitable administrator.

Julian’s success in Gaul appears to have caused Constantius some consternation. Accordingly, in early 360, the emperor sent orders that a considerable portion of Julian’s army be moved eastwards for the purposes of the Persian war. To Julian this must have seemed like a deliberate attempt to undermine his position. Julian’s army was soon to head east in numbers that Constantius may not initially have expected. For, in February 360, Julian’s troops proclaimed him Augustus. Constantius refused to countenance any diminution of his own authority, and in 361 Julian and his army began the long march east to settle the question of the imperial title by force of arms. Constantius in turn withdrew from Antioch, ‘eager as always’, Ammianus records, ‘to meet the challenge of civil war head on’. As he and his army advanced through Cilicia, however, Constantius fell victim to a fever that claimed his life. The late emperor’s advisers agreed to acknowledge Julian as supreme lord of the Roman world, and two officers set off to invite him ‘to come without delay and take possession of the East, which was ready to obey him’. Julian hastened to Constantinople.

Julian’s reign was to last little more than eighteen months. Yet, to contemporaries, as to modern scholars, his period of rule was to be of lasting fascination. On the death of his uncle he chose to reveal publicly what had long been known to a circle of close intimates, namely that, during his studies first in Nicomedia in 351, and subsequently at Ephesus, he had cast aside the God of Constantine, and instead embraced the mysteries of Neoplatonic paganism. Once in Constantinople, Julian declared religious toleration, removed the privileges enjoyed by the Christian Church and clergy, and ordered a revival of worship at the pagan temples of the cities of the empire.

Julian sought to present this declaration as restoring to the Roman world the publicly sanctioned worship of the gods who had granted Rome her past success. Yet it is important to realize the extent to which, even to many non-Christians, Julian’s paganism seemed a strange and possibly alienating amalgam. Julian had been raised a Christian: his paganism had something of the quality of a foreign tongue, one eagerly acquired, but alien to the ear of a native speaker. Julian was a devotee of a highly intellectualized form of paganism that took a metaphorical approach to the myths and legends of Graeco-Roman tradition. Whilst the cults of individual deities were to be nurtured, the ultimate purpose of these cults was to lead one to a clearer appreciation of the single divine principle embodied in what Julian described as ‘the creator … the common father and king of all peoples’.

This intellectualism, infused with a monotheistic tendency that had long been evident within late paganism, might well have appealed to members of the empire’s educated elite. Yet Julian’s high-mindedness went hand-in-hand with a taste for the spectacular, the sacrificial, and the magical, a taste which many members of this self-same elite would have regarded as rather vulgar. Thus Ammianus remarks that Julian was ‘superstitious rather than genuinely observant of the rites of religion, and he sacrificed innumerable victims regardless of expense’. It was not just the accession of Christian emperors that had led provincial pagans to allow the civic temples and their associated cults to fall into desuetude. It was also, to some extent, the result of a lack of interest in overtly public and highly costly displays of pagan religiosity on the part of well-born pagans themselves.

If Julian’s religious inclinations ran counter to much contemporary feeling, so too did certain of his secular aims. In essence, Julian’s policies reveal a determination to roll back the Diocletianic and Constantinian revolution. The court was reduced both in scale and splendour. The emperor was to revert to the role of chief magistrate, rather than overlord, of the Roman world. The central government was gradually to be retrenched, and the administration of the empire was once more to devolve upon the self-governance of the city councils. Such conservative ambitions may have seemed praiseworthy to some. But the chance to escape burdensome civic duties, to advance oneself through the offices of central government, to experience and partake in the extravagance of the court, had opened up opportunities to members of the new imperial aristocracy which they would have been loath to lose.

It is thus perhaps no surprise that, as Julian headed off from Constantinople to Antioch in 362, he found himself distinctly underwhelmed by the enthusiasm his secular and religious policies were eliciting amongst the cities through which he passed. This was to culminate with Julian’s spectacular falling out with the citizenry of Antioch. There, Julian’s lavish sacrifices to mark the feast of Adonis at a time when the city was suffering from a food shortage, combined with the emperor’s own botched attempts to relieve the city’s hunger, annoyed Christian and pagan alike. This left the emperor vulnerable to a public lampooning that made a deep impression on him. Upon his return to the region, Julian declared, he would make Tarsus, not Antioch, his home.

Julian’s journey east in 362, however, suggests that he was aware of the difficulties he faced in realizing his ambitions. For his aim appears to have been to do what Roman emperors had long done to unite the Greek-speaking cities of the East behind them: to launch a campaign against the Hellenic world’s traditional enemy—the empire of Persia. In 363, with an army of 65,000 men, Julian crossed into Persian territory, and, in a series of spectacular victories recorded for us by the first-hand testimony of Ammianus Marcellinus, came within reach of the capital of the shahs at Ctesiphon. Within sight of the city’s defenders, Julian presided over a set of athletic celebrations and games. A brilliant victory seemed within his grasp, one that would demonstrate the superiority of his religion. However, it soon dawned on Julian and his advisers that the city was, to all intents and purposes, impregnable. As the Christian Gregory of Nazianzus declared, ‘from this point on, like sand slipping from beneath his feet, or a great storm bursting upon a ship, things began to go black for him’.

It was at this point that Julian made his fatal error. He decided that, rather than retreating the way he had come, he would burn the ships that his army had used to traverse the Euphrates and its tributaries, and instead strike further into Persian territory. As it did so, Julian’s increasingly demoralized army found itself deprived of supplies and subjected to raids and ambushes. During one such attack, on 26 June, the emperor himself was struck down by a spear that passed through his ribs. Julian was carried to his tent where he died the same evening, professing satisfaction, according to Ammianus, that he had at least suffered a virtuous death in battle rather than ‘through secret conspiracy’. Others were less sure: it was rumoured that the emperor had in fact been struck down by one of his own Christian troops.

It is easy for the historian to dismiss Julian as a hopeless idealist, whose policies were doomed to failure. Certainly, it is difficult to imagine how the emperor’s secular policies could have succeeded. Yet, however eccentric Julian’s paganism may have been, the goal of an empire in which Christianity was but one faith among many, tolerated but not privileged, was surely an achievable one, particularly had the pagan emperor shown himself as successful on the field in Persia as he had been in Gaul. As the reign of Constantine had demonstrated, what mattered most in securing the loyalty of his subjects was an emperor’s success at arms, not his religious predilections. It is instructive that, upon Julian’s death, his officers offered the crown first to an elderly pagan in their company by the name of Salutius. Only after Salutius had declined did the crown pass to the Christian officer Jovian, who negotiated his army’s retreat from Persia in return for the surrender of the frontier city of Nisibis and a swathe of Roman territory. Never again was a pagan to rule over the Roman world. The Church was to make certain of that. In the late fourth century, the relative indifference to pagan survivals that had characterized the policies of the Christian emperors before Julian increasingly gave way to a grim determination fully to Christianize society and state, be it by consent or coercion.

Jovian led the dispirited Roman forces home through Antioch to Constantinople in the near vicinity of which, on 17 Februrary 364, he died. The crown now passed to the general Valentinian, who divided the empire with his brother Valens, the latter taking the East, Valentinian heading for the West, where the absence of Julian’s army had led to a resurgence of barbarian raids across the Rhine and Danube. Valentinian spent much of the subsequent eleven years of his reign engaged in successful military campaigns. In the East, Valens was obliged to contend both with a revived Persian threat and a revolt on the part of Procopius, a relative and supporter of the deceased Julian. In addition to defeating Procopius, Valens took battle to the usurper’s barbarian allies across the Danube, defeating them in 369.

In 375, whilst himself campaigning on the Danube, Valentinian died. He had intended his elder son, the 16-year-old Gratian, to succeed him as emperor, and had left the boy at Trier in northern Gaul. Indeed, in an unusual step, Gratian had been accorded the title of Augustus in 367. Rather than complying with these wishes, however, Valentinian’s Danubian army acclaimed as emperor his 4-year-old son, Valentinian II, whose court was established in northern Italy, although the entourage around Gratian continued to exercise effective control in Gaul.


Leave a Reply