Constantius and Julian -Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 19 Part 2

Blackadder: Where is the prisoner.
Baldrick: He’s dead.
Blackadder: Dead? Are you sure?
Baldrick:  Well I cut his head off. That usually does the trick.

In that episode of Blackadder 2, Edmund Blackadder had been put in charge of the Tower of London and had brought all the scheduled executions forward so he could enjoy a long weekend.  Unfortunately Queen Elizabeth had changed her mind about killing one of her favourites.  When the change of instructions got through,  it was too late. With, needless to say, hilarious consequences.

I was reminded of that scene when I read that in some accounts of the death of Gallus, Constantius had second thoughts and sent a message to the prison sparing his cousin from execution.  The message arrived in plenty of time to save his life, but the artful eunuch Eusebius who saw Gallus as a threat to his influential position in the court delayed its delivery until it was too late.  As even the easily confused Baldrick could work out, beheading is a pretty final process.

Whether or not this version is true, it is easy to understand why Constantius would be in two minds about whether or not killing Gallus was a wise move.  Was it really such a good idea to get rid of one of the last people with a legitimate claim on the inheritance of Constantine?  We’ll a look in more detail at reasons why not a bit later.  First lets look at the immediate repercussions.

With Gallus out of the way all eyes turned to Gallus’ younger and much more charming brother Julian. He was now the last male relative of Constantine.  Potentially Julian was just as threatening to the positions of some courtiers.  In some ways even more so.  Plotting started instantly.  The story was put about that Julian had been in league with Gallus to overthrow Constantius.  That would be a very good excuse to get rid of him.

Julian had charmed the court of Constantinople with his good looks, intelligence and wit.  And he still has the power to charm even today.  We can get to know him from his own writings and also from accounts by close acquaintances.   And it is easy to like him.  He won friends early on, and was socially successful enough to provoke some jealousy from the emperor himself, enough for him to be advised to distance himself from the court so as not to overshadow his illustrious cousin.  That at any rate is one story.  I can’t help thinking that the jealousy might well have been in the minds of the men around Constantius seeking his attention rather than Constantius himself.

His passion in life was philosophy and he went about sporting a philosopher’s beard.  He must have cut a slightly odd figure in the court where most of the inhabitants were the ambitious or the servile.  Julian by contrast had no particular need to impress or flatter anyone and not really much power to make him worth courting.

But once his brother was killed he became the focus of the attention of the most worldly and calculating elements in the court.  I am talking about the eunuchs.  This is when we see the grit and determination in the otherwise aimable character of Julian emerging for the first time.  He was watched closely and everything he said was monitored.  There were two risks.  If he spoke out against his brother’s killing that was a treasonous act.  Eusebius and the other eunuchs no doubt would have been only to happy for this to be his downfall.

But to condemn his brother would have shown a weakness.  An understandable weakness – he was at risk of losing his head after all. But to buy his survival by slandering his kinsman would have been a highly dishonourable thing to do, and Julian valued his honour. That Julian could show loyalty to both his sovereign and his brother under the circumstances is a great testament to both his intelligence and his integrity.

Constantius must have been under subtle pressure from Eusebius to get rid of the potential threat that Julian posed to Constantius, and of course to the position of Eusebius himself.  But Julian had made friends.  And one of those friends was the wife of the Constantius, Eusebia.  And she could plot to get her own way as well. Somehow the contrasting plots of Eusebius and Eusebia cancelled each other out, and Julian ended up neither dead nor pardoned, but being internally exiled.  But the exile was to Athens.

Athens was the place Julian would have chosen to be exiled to had he been given the choice.  He could indulge his bent for philosophy in the very epicentre of what he loved.  The schools of philosophy were still in operation and he could learn from the top scholars.  He loved Athens, and would always have done so.  It was his sort of place. But it must have seemed all the sweeter to him out of the febrile atmosphere where one word wrong could have been deadly.  Instead of the wiles of the eunuchs he could enjoy the groves of academia.

Julian’s first language was Greek and he had a passion for Greek culture and with it for Greek religion.  And it was the religion that caught his imagination.  He had been brought up a Christian.  He knew his Bible well, and had even been a functionary in Church services.  He was a member of the family that had done more than any other to establish Christianity as the faith of the Roman Empire.  But this also gave him the inside view.  He knew where the bodies were buried.  Possibly literally.  Given his situation – a murdered father and an executed brother – it was not surprising that he was no lover of Constantine.  But the form his rejection would take would shock the world.  For now, his inner beliefs were kept to himself.  But he already attributed his deliverance not to God but to the Gods.

The actual agent of his deliverance, as he also acknowledged, was the empress Eusebia.  Like many others she had taken a shine to Julian and promoted his cause directly to Constantius.  She knew her Julian and was no doubt well aware of the appeal of Athens to him.  Having avoided him getting the chop, she worked on a more ambitious project still.  While Julian was enjoying the culture of Athens, Eusebia had more ambitious plans for him.  The elevation of Gallus hadn’t worked, but the problem was the character of Gallus not the basic idea.  Julian was a very different character to Gallus. And Gallus had been given the plum provinces while Constantius had kept the troublesome western ones.  Why not try the idea again, but this time the other way around.  Let Julian have the slog of fighting off the barbarians in inglorious border fighting, while Constantius got the glory of sorting out the long standing grudge match against the Persians.

So after only six months in exile in Athens, Julian was rehabilitated.  He was summoned to the palace in Milan to be given his new role.  Constantius probably congratulated himself on his open mindedness.  Despite his previous problems with Gallus, he was prepared to give Julian a chance.  He would need to take precautions of course, but basically this was a generous act to share his power with his kinsman.  It would also strengthen the empire and solve some problems.

That wasn’t how Julian saw it.  He was happy in Athens and had made many friends – he seemed to be good at making friends.  He did not regard Constantius as in any way a potential benefactor.  He was the remaining representative of the clan that had murdered his family – including recently his brother – and who had usurped his country’s gods.  And they were not to be trusted.  The memory of the deceit used to trick his brother into handing himself over to humiliation and death was fresh in his mind.  The treatment he was getting now must have looked like he was about to go the same way.

He considered flight or suicide, and referred to Minerva the goddess who he had a particular affinity with.  But the augers were that the gods would protect him.  Minerva had borrowed angels from the Sun and Moon to guide his steps and keep him out of danger.  He would gather his courage and travel to the court of his enemy and the personification of evil.

His supernatural protection was not needed.  He was welcomed with open arms and embraced by the royal couple.  He was to be elevated to the rank of Caesar.  Julian has left an account of how he found himself suddenly in a strange world where even previously familiar objects seemed odd, as if being encountered for the first time.  He shaved his philosopher’s beard off and took on the military garb of a Roman Emperor.  His bemusement was a source of amusement for the rest of the court.

But in reality it was a serious, even a deadly business.  The idea was for Julian to be a figurehead for military operations in Gaul.  The border had been overrun.  Former mercenaries, having been discharged but who had not gone home, were a menace.  In particular the Alamanni were intent on carving out a kingdom for themselves in the south east of Gaul.  The presence of a bona fide emperor and relative of the great Constantine would be a huge fillet for morale.

The first stage was to show Julian to the troops.  He joined Constantius on a platform elevated above a huge assembly of the army in Milan.  Constantius recommended to them the nephew of Constantine.  Although his only experience of soldiers was being guarded by them, and his only experience of politics was reading Plato’s Republic Julian was acclaimed by the troops.  To mark their approval they banged their shields on their knees.  Julian was now an emperor.  Constantius in his speech had talked of how they were now colleagues

But he still hadn’t escaped the suspicion and danger of his position.  He was watched continually and closely. His mail was intercepted and read.  His household was staffed with informers. He was only allowed to keep four of his domestics:  his physician, a couple of footmen and his librarian.  That last one was a concession to his bookish nature.  Eusebia had recognised his intellectual inclinations and presented him with a library of books.  This was thoughtful and a kind and generous gesture.  It also probably reflected the notion that Julian was going to have time on his hands in his new role.  His new household was tightly regulated, even down to what meals were to be served to him.  In fact Julian being the austere lover of plain living was revolted by the extravagant dishes suitable to his new rank.  And his dinner wasn’t the only thing he didn’t get a say in and probably wouldn’t have chosen.   He was married to the remaining daughter of Constantine, Helena.  When I said in the last podcast that Constantina was the last daughter of Constantine I was wrong.  Sorry about that.

Helena mathematically speaking cannot have been less than 30, and in all probability was in her forties.   It was no whimsical matter to put these two together.  Gibbon hints at the motive and in an age of hereditary monarchs did not have to spell it out for his readers.  In our more democratic age it may not be so obvious, so let me spare you the trouble of working out the dynastic implications.  Constantius and Eusebia at this stage did not have any children.  This made Julian the lawful successor to Constantius.  On one level this made him a threat because he could mount a challenge to Constantius.  But as Julian did not have an army at his disposal he was not in a strong position to push this.  In any case, his claim would not be a strong one since Constantius was clearly more closely related to Constantine.

But Julian’s claim did have another effect.  If someone wanted to overthrow Constantius, they would have to overcome the problem that Julian would be the legitimate successor.  Kill Constantius and you get Julian.  So a live Julian was in fact a protective shield for Constantius.  This worked still better if the shield was a Caesar.  The last minute attempt to save Gallus may not have happened, but it makes a lot of sense if it did.

Any son of Constantius and Eusebia had prior claim.  This meant Julian shouldn’t be a long term threat, but even so there was still a risk.  Any son of Helena would have had a claim on the throne.   In the event of Julian having a son, he would also be a contender.  Putting them together kept the succession under some measure of control and at least reduced the supply of alternative emperors to a single stream.  Hopefully the young Julian and the mature Helena would be at a reproductive disadvantage to Constantina and Eusebia.

Whatever the precise calculations, Julian was soon on his way to his new posting in Gaul, and took his new wife with him. She was to produce at least one and possibly more children with him but none survived.  Their deaths have been attributed to a cunning plot by Eusebia who artfully poisoned them.  This would have been a perfectly logical thing for her to have done, but the practicalities make it unlikely.

Constantius was still preparing a major campaign against the Persians but ended up staying in Italy for the eighteen months after the departure of Julian.  He had some border issues to deal with, a bit of persecution and also decided to visit Rome for the first time.  This was the first visit of an emperor since his father some 32 years before, so it was quite a big event.  He was greeted rapturously by the crowds.

Constantius behaved the total emperor throughout.  On arriving in the city he acted the part by never looking to either left or right while walking slowly through the streets.  He presided over games, met the senators and behaved like a supreme being.  The days when the Romans felt able to chum up to their emperor as if he was simply one of them were long gone.

Constantius had behaved as the consumate and polite guest in his visit to Rome and obviously enjoyed the reception he got.  To say thank you he decided to give the city a present.  And he hit on a great gift idea.  Who could fail to be bowled over by an obelisk from Egypt?  There happened to be a particularly large one that Constantine had already started moving with the intention of shipping it to Constantinople.  This project had been abandoned on his death, so the obelisk was going spare.  It was put in a particularly large boat and shipped to Rome where it was erected in the Circus Maximus.  It is still in Rome, though now it has been moved to the Lateran Palace.  The Romans liked obelisks and had pinched loads of them over the years.  Today there are more obelisks in Rome than anywhere else, even Egypt.  The one that Constantius gave to the city is the tallest.  So that was a nice token of appreciation.

Having had some fun in Rome, Constantius now had some serious business to conduct with the Persians and the Quadi.  The effects of the bloodthirsty battle of Mursa were still being felt in the form of poorly defended borders.  This allowed the lightly armed but very mobile Quadi to raid deep into the empire and carry off goods and citizens.  The Quadi were however no match for the legions.  Constantius crossed the Danube in strength and cut them and the other troublesome tribes to pieces.  He then made peace with some and set up some inter-tribe conflicts to facilitate the centuries old highly effective tactic of dividing and ruling.  The tribe of the Limigantes were particularly troublesome and in several episodes showed themselves to be untrustworthy and unwilling to respect diplomatic practices.  When they tried to seize Constantius himself during peace talks they had gone too far.  The order was given for their extinction, and the order was carried out.  Genocide would not have particularly shocked the Romans, and several genocidal projects were contemplated during the empire’s history.  But I think this is the only one that was ever actually carried out.

But it showed how strong the empire was even at this late stage in its history. This was Rome in its characteristic position of dictating the terms to the barbarians and holding the initiative.

The Persians were never such easy meat and chose to take advantage of the distraction to make trouble.  A haughty message arrived from Sapor.  The King of Kings and brother of the Sun and Moon condescended to offer terms to the supplicant emperor.  He would limit his demands to the provinces of Mesopotamia and Armenia as a show of his moderation and leniency, even though as the rightful successor of Darius he was entitled to ask for much more.

Sapor may have received some encouragement in his arrogance from within the empire.  In another example of byzantine behaviour the local officials had opened negotiations with the Persians without any authority from Constantius himself.  This was to prove to be a bit of a pattern of his reign.  He was competent enough when he was in direct control, but projecting his power via the imperial bureaucracy defeated him.  He doesn’t seem to have even been able to keep control of it.  So while he was triumphing over the Quadi he was being let down against the Persians.

But now the channels were open he made an attempt to establish a lasting peace.  He sent a delegation of three.  They were a count, a notary and sophist in Gibbon’s phrase.  I suppose we’d call them a politcian. a lawyer and a PR man.   This sounds like just the team for the job but they were unsuccessful and came back with the news that Sapor intended war.

He was encouraged in this by a Roman deserter called Antoninus who offered inside information on the defences.  With this advantage Sapor marched into Roman territory.  But it turned out that the Romans were better prepared than expected and the land in the anticipated attack route had been cleared of anything useful.  Time was lost as a different longer path had to be taken.  Once they had got back into Roman territory they bypassed the strong position of Nisibis and fell on less well defended Amida.

But even Amida was no pushover.  Its walls had been rebuilt and tall towers added.  It had recently been renamed after the emperor and was equipped with the latest dart throwing technology.  It was defended by 7 regular legions and a corp of barbarians.  Sapor attempted to overawe them with his presence alone but a missile fired hit him.  He was only protected from injury by his diadem.  I wonder if someone was trying out their new toy.  The defenders must have been well armed with missiles, because in another incident the son of one of the allies of Sapor was killed during an attempt to parlay.

This enraged the attackers and they set about an aggressive siege.  It was a hard fought battle.  The barbarian contingent attacked the Persians in a strong sortie.  The Persians counterattacked and captured a tower enabling them to shower the defenders with arrows.  In the end the attackers got some advice from Roman deserters and constructed mobile attacking towers.  Trenches were dug that allowed the attackers to get near enough to undermine the walls.  Battering rams were brought into service to reduce the defences.

The defenders fought on with desperate courage, but in the end they could hold out no longer.  Everyone the Persians caught in the city was massacred.  Incredibly, some of them escaped.

It was a victory for Sapor, but one that he had paid far too high a price for.  The spirited defence had reduced his army of 100,000 by 30,000.  And the fighting season had been used up.  He returned to Persia and made the most of the PR opportunity, but basically he had expended a huge portion of his resources for very little in the way of advantage.

The high morale and dogged determination of the defenders of Amida commands respect and admiration, but also begs a question.  They must have fought under the impression that they were going to be relieved.  So why didn’t a relief column appear?

The answer is that secure behind the lines the eunuchs had other priorities.  An invasion on the scale of Sapor’s was not an insignificant threat and required a response from a good general,  And luckily one was to hand in the form of Ursinicus.  It was him that had prepared the defences that had so effectively delayed Sapor in the early stages of his campaign.  But just as the crisis broke he was replaced by Sabinian, an effete courtier rather than a soldier.  Then Ursinicus was recalled, but was obliged to report ot Sabinian who vetoed any aggressive course of action and remained in his camp at Edessa.

Incredibly, Sabinian had the escapees from Amida executed. Presumably the story of the defence was embarrassing to those who had not moved to rescue them.   An enquiry was undertaken into what had gone wrong which concluded by blaming Ursinicus.   With not much more to lose, Ursinicus finally blurted out that if they carried on waging war the way they were doing, the emperor himself would not be able to defend the empire.

In the end this was put to the test.  Constantius himself took over to try to avenge the loss of Amida.  He led his army out and laid siege to Becabde – a Persian fortress.  But the weather turned against the expedition and he ended up returning to Antioch empty handed.

It was a miserable campaign from the Roman point of view.  Much blood had been shed but little had been achieved. Meanwhile, a stream of straight forward accounts from Julian reported success after success against the Germans for the young Caesar.

Here is the Blackadder episode referenced at the beginning. The line quoted is at 12:20

 

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