Julian the Emperor – Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 22 Part 2

In the late summer of 360 Julian marched across the Rhine near modern day Basel and out of the empire with a mere 3,000 hand picked volunteers.  He penetrated the Black Forest just north of the Alps.  Travelling light and crossing mountains and morasses by obscure and rarely used routes he was soon out of contact with the civilised world.

The empire was on the brink of a civil war.   Constantius had rejected the overtures for peace from his cousin.  He was not going to accept Julian’s elevation to the rank of Augustus of the West by a spontaneous rebellion of his troops. With a bigger army and plenty of cash, Constantius could simply march against Julian and depose him.  The prudent course of action would have been to do his best to build up his defences in the hope of holding Constantius off long enough to negotiate some kind of deal.

So what was Julian up to setting out into enemy territory with a force barely big enough to engage in a skirmish?

When you are faced with a game you can’t win by the normal rules, the only option is to change the rules.  He had been cautious and prudent for a decade, loyally following the dictates of the senior emperor and hiding his true feelings and convictions.  This policy had not paid dividends.  In fact it looked like it had lost him everything when Constantius had moved to remove him as Caeser anyway.  Julian was young and idealistic.  Having to keep up appearances was an affront to his notions of courage and nobility as well as proving ineffective. Now he had broken free he was prepared to risk everything to keep his freedom.

The main Roman field army was directly under the control of Constantius and was more than a match for the forces available to Julian.  If it weren’t at that moment engaged with the Persians thousands of miles away Julian would have had no chance at all.  As it was, the situation did allow him some time. But the reach of the emperor was long.  Although he couldn’t attack Julian himself straight away he was able to engage allies among the German barbarians to fight the upstart for him.  This possibility was anticipated by the rebels and Julian’s men succeeded in intercepting the letters to the potential allies.  They also captured supplies, lavish supplies, intended to maintain the hired enemies.  Two huge stocks of provisions were captured enough to sustain a substantial campaign in at the least a two pronged attack.   Clearly the intention was to overwhelm the province of Gaul and put an end to the rebellion.  The danger was averted for now thanks to these intelligence operations, but it is easy to imagine how the provincials of Gaul would have felt about these revelations.  Julian’s personal popularity rose even higher.

They had chosen him as their leader and no doubt hoped he had a plan.  And they wouldn’t be disappointed.  The active intelligence that was Julian’s hallmark did not fail him at this ultimate test,

But Julian’s plan was more audacious than anyone could have anticipated.  Even for someone whose career was so full of the bizarre and the unexpected, this still stands out as his most surprising move of all.  He reappeared not back on the Rhine but on the upper reaches of the Danube in what is now Austria.   There he commandeered a small fleet of boats, and propelled by a favourable wind and the enthusiasm of his oarsmen travelled some 700 miles down the river to arrive at Sirmium, the capital of Illyricum in only 11 days.

The Danube border was lightly defended.  With surprise and speed Julian was able to take control of it and its troops.  The leader of the border divisions was Lucillian, who seems to have had trouble keeping up with the situation.  Julian sent some light infantry to locate him and apprehend him.  He doesn’t seem to have realised that he was being made a prisoner.  He offered the young prince some advice about how unwise it was for him to have risked his life so recklessly with such a small force.   Julian made things clear for him.
“Reserve for your master Constantius these timid remonstrances, when I gave you my purple to kiss, I received you not as a counsellor, but as a suppliant.”

 

The citizens of Sirmium were a bit quicker on the uptake.  On his arrival at the city they welcomed Julian with open arms.  They adorned themselves with flowers, an old custom on feast days that honoured the goddess Flora and lit tapers to welcome him.  If Julian’s motive had simply been to go out in style and with some honour then his objective was achieved already.  But he was in earnest.  This was no stunt.  It was part of a strategy that aimed to give him control of the empire.  Frankly, its chances of success weren’t very good, but given the hand he was playing with it it was the best that could be contrived.
The plan had been revealed at a meeting of Julian’s councillors in Paris earlier in the year.   Passions ran high.  The one minister who advised against open conflict with Constantius was attacked by troops loyal to Julian and ended up with his hand cut off.  He was only saved from death when Julian himslef protected him with his cloak.  The soldiers who had rebelled rather than obey the orders to go to the east, where now eager to follow Julian in the same direction.  They met the plan with uproarious approval, banging their shields together and drawing their blades across their throats to show that they would support Julian to the death.
While Julian was carrying out the riskiest task, two other columns of 10,000 each were proceeding with the rest of the plan.  They moved quickly into Italy and the western areas of Illyricum, overawing local populations and creating the impression of greater numbers than they actually possessed by covering a lot of ground and never pausing anywhere for long.  The tactic worked, and the amazed population of Italy found themselves with a new Augustus.  The pro-Constantius consuls in Rome fled. (Julian was later to have some fun at their expense by adding fugitive in the sense of ‘scarpered’ or ‘fled’ to their names in official records.)
The Senate still sat in Rome and could be used by Julian to bolster his legitimacy.  He asked them to ratify his election.  The Senate played along, albeit with a deft bit of wording that allowed them to wriggle out of their support for Julian in the event of his power grab failing.  But nonetheless, Julian controlled Rome and could claim the full right to rule by virtue of the Senate’s support.  And he also controlled Illyricum, giving him about half the total area of the empire.
Illyricum at this stage comprised the whole of the Balkans and Greece except for Thrace, the area directly around Constantinople.  Occupying it strengthened the position of Julian considerably.  Constantius could no longer easily communicate with potential allies among the barbarians of Germany.  It also made supplying them very difficult.  This reduced the risk of having to face a war on two fronts.  It also gave him control of gold and silver mines, making it possible to actually finance his war.
So with very little fighting Julian had transformed his position.  He also had the initiative and the momentum – always important in any conflict.  His courageous actions made for great propaganda to enhance his growing popularity and support.   When he had crossed the Rhine in the summer his situation had looked hopeless.  It was still pretty poor on paper, but he had created the perception that he was winning.  And in fact, winning was no longer totally inconceivable.
His next move was to engage in a war of words from his new base in Sirmium, sending letters to the cities of Greece and the Balkans justifying his actions and requesting their support.  He released secret papers from Constantius to discredit him.  He contrasted the way Constantius did deals with the barbarians with his own policy of defeating them.  Negative campaigning has a long history.  But I think that there was a serious purpose behind all this – it wasn’t just thumbing his nose at his rival.  I don’t think Julian ever intended to face Constantius in a pitched battle.  I think the plan was to run him around forcing him to disperse his forces and turn the struggle into a series of hit and run battles where he could accumulate a series of showcase victories to rob the official government of its legitimacy.  In a guerilla war the support of the population is crucial, and I think Julian was trying to lay the groundwork for a popular struggle.
I imagine that people were not very different in Roman times from today.  No doubt there were a few partisans for the imperial contenders.  There are always some people who like to take sides.  But the vast majority were probably mainly concerned with working out how to make sure that they didn’t offend whoever was likely to win.  There isn’t any evidence that the general population had any preference for one side or the other.  Julian may have been personally popular in Gaul, where the fear of the barbarians gave them good reason to be grateful to him.  But in parts of the empire that hadn’t seen invasions since the distant reign of Aurelian, they don’t seem to have been so bothered.
But if Julian’s PR offensive wasn’t producing results his military activities were still going to plan.   A body of troops were sent to hold the key pass that Constantius would have to pass through when he made is inevitable counter-attack.  Julian forces had increased by incorporating troops from the newly occupied provinces.  But there were a couple of units that had received particular praise from Constantius himself.   These were suspect and couldn’t be relied on in a pitched battle with their former commander.  Prudently, Julian sent them to Gaul.
Aquileia with its strategic position for Julian
They justified his suspicions as soon as they were out of sight by delivering his first upset. Once in Italy they rebelled, or I suppose derebelled, and seized the important city of Aquileia in the name of Constantius.  This was a huge blow.  It was located exactly on the line of communications between Julian and his base.   Troops had to be dispatched to lay siege to it, diluting Julian’s effort when he was already short of frontline soldiers.  It was also politically embarrassing as it showed that Julian did not automatically have the support of everybody.
Meanwhile Constantius was pulling together a peace settlement with the Persians so he could concentrate his forces on his internal  difficulties.  Once had could focus, his superiority in numbers made his victory all but inevitable, so much so that he referred to it not as a campaign but as a hunting expedition.  As he prepared to march, he assured his troops that there was little chance of the legions of the West even giving battle.  And on top of the events in Aqueleia, there was good news from Africa too.  A pro-Constantius notary called  Gaudentius had taken control of the African provinces and had cut off the grain supply to Rome.  Julian’s position was now looking highly precarious.Constantius had never shown the flare of Julian for military matters, but was not a fool.  He had seen off the rebel Magnentius in the battle of Mursa by leaving professional generals to do the actual fighting while he prayed nearby.  He had fought several campaigns since then with respectable results. He was now 45 with a lot more experience than Julian, as well as a lot more troops.  He had to be the favourite to win the war.  And yet it is still tempting to think that Julian might have pulled it off.  He had surprised everyone already after all.  Ancient battles could often produce unexpected results and often turned on issues of individual leadership.

But in the end, it was never put to the test.  Constantius fell ill not long after setting out on his march.  His health went rapidly went downhill and just outside Tarsus he died.  Before his death he named Julian as his successor.

This seems a little surprising at first.  He knew Julian was a pagan now, and given that Constantius had devoted a lot of his time and effort to the destruction of pagan temples and actively persecuting the wrong kind of Christian you might have thought Julian was the last person Constantius would pick.   He was clearly intent on killing Julian to punish him for a rebellion that he obviously considered unforgivable.  Handing his throne to him doesn’t seem to be the most logical of moves.  But it did make sense.  Julian was the only remaining member of the house of Constantine, and was still childless.  Under the circumstances Julian was the best hope for the new bride and infant child of Constantius.  Anyone else would certainly have killed them as a threat to their own position.  Julian was also the only candidate who would not have instantly inherited the civil war against Julian.  He really was the only sensible choice.

Constantius has had a bad press from history. Gibbon described him as inheriting the vices of Constantine without the virtues.  Julian’s charm that was so evident in his own lifetime has continued to affect not just Gibbon but many other historians who have tended to be dismissive of his enemy.  Constantius hasn’t been helped much by his Arian convictions either.  Arianism was to be defeated and its adherents are now viewed by Christian historians as heretics.  So from an orthodox point of view, despite all his efforts Constantius must be in Hell with his cousin.

But the judgement of history would not be recognised by his contemporaries.  His reign was a long one by the standards of his time, and simply staying on the throne he inherited for the full length of his natural life was no mean achievement.  And being brought up as an imperial heir was a crazy start to life, managing to stay sane through that was more than a lot of people would manage.

As an emperor he was just about successful enough militarily to hold his head up.  Admittedly he hadn’t exactly shone against the Persians, but he had defeated the rebellion of Magnentius albeit mainly through prayer.   But he had been pretty young then.  Later he had given the Germans good reason to respect his name showing he had managed to learn how to command troops well enough.  And morally deplorable as the campaigns against heretic Christians in Africa and elsewhere were, they were at least carried out efficiently. The active persecution of the catholics was the biggest blot on his name.   The pagans were lucky for this distraction – the plans he had to deal with them were never put into action.   He seems to have been popular enough with the people, certainly in the East.  And when the war against Julian started he was able to count on the support of his soldiers.

Sandwiched between his father Constantine and his cousin Julian, two of the most remarkable emperors in the history of the empire, he inevitably fails to get that much attention.  But he could look back on a pretty solid rule.   Plenty of much worse men got to wear the imperial purple.  His biggest errors were failing to get control of the imperial machine and getting caught up in faction fighting amongst the Christians.  But both of those issues would have tried the patience of a saint. And unlike his Dad, he wasn’t one.

There was an attempt at a palace coup to prevent Julian taking up the throne.  This was Constantinople – that was the way things worked there.  Many people had good reason to dread Julian as an emperor.  Take Eusebius for example.  He had plotted against Julian and killed his brother.  That has got to be awkward.   But there was no stomach to oppose Julian amongst the soldiers, whose opinions were the important ones.

Julian was still pursuing his goal with the same determination and energy he had shown all along.  He was planning a three pronged attack on Thrace to bring him to the walls of the capital when the delegation from the city arrived assuring him that every sword was for him.

He marched for the city and was met with crowds from sixty miles out. They may have been a bit non-plussed. He probably didn’t cut the grandiose kind of figure the Romans had got used to in their emperors since Diocletian.   He was short, dressed in simple garb and he had just travelled all the way across Europe camping most of the way, he must have been pretty weather beaten.  Nonetheless he entered the city in triumph to the acclaim of the people, the army and the Senate.   Few emperors had worked so hard to get the job or shown so much flair in the process.

His cousin’s coffin arrived a few days later.  Julian accompanied the body to doors of the Church of the Holy Apostles dressed in mourning and was seen to weep.  We can’t know what he was thinking but I think his grief was genuine.  The two men went back a long way and were as much victims of the imperial system as anyone.  They were the last survivors of the house of Constantine and had a lot in common with each other.  They had only been divided by politics and religion, things that seem important but in the end are trivial matters for all the passion they generate.  They were relatives and could have been friends.  They would have been happier if they could have been just that.

We won’t ever know what was really going through his head that day, but at the age of 32 Julian was now the ruler of the Roman world. His rise to supreme power must have surprised everyone, and the surprises weren’t over yet.

 

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One Response to Julian the Emperor – Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 22 Part 2

  1. Very well written piece. I think Julian was one of the most brilliant leaders in history. Gore Vidal wrote an excellent book on that emperor, simply called “Julian” I had my best friend name his son Julian after him. Had Julian lived another few decades, I think he might have prevented the advent of the Dark Ages. I also consider him to be the first important Zionist considering his attempt to restore Judea and rebuild a Third Temple in Jerusalem. I noted a tiny street in that city called Julianus, obviously in honor of that amazing man..

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