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The Brief Reign of Jovian – Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 25 Part 1


Jovian had given away a big chunk of the empire in his humiliating deal with the Persians.  He betrayed loyal subjects of key frontier towns in the process.  His purge of political enemies deprived the state of the services of some able administrators and soldiers.  But his army was saved.  He was in personal charge of the most powerful single unit in the empire.  They  were exhausted after a 1500 mile round trip in hostile territory across tough terrain, but even so they were Jovian’s key to the throne.  By the rules of the game he was playing, Jovian was winning. Continue reading

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The Retreat of Jovian – Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 24 Part 3

The death of Julian left the Roman army in a tight situation.  They were still 200 miles deep in Persian territory and were running low on provisions.  Julian’s eccentric decision not to name a successor left them with an immediate practical problem.  Who was to lead them?  And needless to say the decision had to be made quickly – a crisis like this required decisions to be made without delay. Continue reading

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Could Julian the Apostate have defeated Christianity?

Julian has continued to fascinate people down the ages. He tends to be viewed favourably. In life he must have had a lot of charisma to do many of the things he did. He has left enough of his own writing and there are enough eye witness accounts that you can feel that you have got to know him.  He is talented, engaged, idealistic and with a great sense of humour.  He is very likeable.  Add to that a hero’s death and an against the odds struggle against history he becomes irresistible. Continue reading


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The Death of Julian – Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 24 Part 2

Resting Place of Julian the Apostate (Thanks to Wikipedia)

Julian was a scholar who had read widely and could write well.  His tastes were philosophical but the skills he had acquired in the pursuit of truth could be used for more worldly objectives.  So when he invaded Persia he studied the records of Trajan who had fought across the same territory years before.  Laying siege to Ctesiphon he was able to locate and reopen a canal built exactly 250 years before, enabling the city to be surrounded.

But although sieges were pretty much a Roman speciality for reasons that remain obscure, this one did not go well.   And as time went on Julian’s position became steadily less secure.  The other columns failed to arrive to join the siege, and the Persian king was still at large with his army.  Without reinforcements and in the absence of a quick and decisive battle, the Romans were very vulnerable to a counter-attack by Shapur.

In the end, Julian was forced to retreat. Retreating through enemy territory is always a risky business. Rather than go back the way he had come, he chose to destroy the fleet on the river with his supplies and fall back along a more northerly route. The Persians still didn’t dare attack in force but did start harrying the Romans.

During one such attack Julian himself,  sharing his troops privations and dangers, fought off some attackers personally. Unfortunately in his haste to join the fray he had not put on his breast plate. He sustained a wound from a spear.

The wound did not prove fatal straight away, but despite the best efforts of his doctor Julian became steadily more ill until it became clear he was going to die. We have a good eye witness account of the events and it makes tragic reading. Julian, still a young man not long into thirties faced death with courage and good humour. His religious principles had been dear to him throughout his life and in this crisis must have helped him. He no doubt sincerely believed that he was due to go to meet the dieties who had helped and counselled him. And he was dying a warrior’s death.

The thing he didn’t do was to name a successor. This was no oversight, he consciously and expressly left the choice to the army. They were to chose the man they felt best suited to lead the empire. Again we see here his religious faith coming to the fore. He had been chosen by the gods to save the republic. The gods would no doubt find a new hero to take over his role.

There is no doubt that Julian’s death was greeted with dismay by the troops. He had not led them for long but his charisma was already working the magic that it had done before in Gaul and which even won him friends in worldly wise and cynical Constantinople. His request was to be buried in Tarsus, and this wish was respected. His body was later moved to Constantinople to the church that housed the remains of the rest of his family. I doubt that he would have been pleased by this, but it is fitting. He was the most remarkable member of that remarkable family. Their stories are all bound together and it seems right  that they have all ended up in the same place in this world even though they had very different destinations in mind for the next one.

Julian died a hero’s death and had lived a hero’s life. By dying so young he never had a chance to make any huge mistakes that might have tarnished his reputation. Would he have returned victorious from Persia to massacre the Christians? It seems very unlikely but he would have been remembered very differently if he had. Would his reforms have led to a bloody civil war? More likely, but he seems to have been worldly wise enough that he would probably have avoided it. Would his changes to paganism have turned it into a monolithic force as repressive as the Church was soon to become? That was possible, but we rarely blame people for what they might have done. So Julian remains an heroic figure. But a hero to who? Obviously not to the Christians. He described them as ‘a sect of fanatics despicable to mankind and odious to the gods’. They were even ruder about him. Despite having not martyred a single Christian it is Julian who has been singled out as the emperor who has been personally maligned. A string of totally fictitious stories are told of imaginary saints who are supposed to have suffered at his hands. And if that weren’t enough Julian’s own death is credited to St Mercurius who was keen enough to kill him that he came down from Heaven specifically for that purpose. And the character of Julian was traduced. The story arose that his last words were to acknowledge the final victory of the Gallilean. Even now half-wits regularly put that quote on Twitter even though it is manifestly and easily provable nonsense.

He obviously could be a hero to the Pagans, but Paganism was not to last much longer. There are some people around today who are trying to revive pagan beliefs, but the most popular form is Wicca. This is a folksy grass roots paganism which doesn’t really sit very comfortably with Julian’s rather grander neoplatonic conception. I don’t think there is any particular incompatibility between what the modern Wiccans believe and what Julian would have recognised. But their styles are miles apart. Wiccans don’t seem to be the kinds of people who would be impressed by an emperor, and certainly not a warlike one. Wiccans are in any case a tiny group, even though they do manage to get a good crowd out for the Solstice at Stonehenge every year. There are people who profess to follow the Hellenic gods, but they are an even tinier minority.

Julian has attracted admirers over the centuries, but none of them are really a good fit to the man himself. Free thinkers in the Renaissance liked the fact that he was opposed to the Church. But he was a conservative by temperament so he never really made it as an icon of modernity or progress. Atheists might find his opposition to Christianity appealling, but his deep religious convictions are at odds with the principles of the Enlightenment. Gibbon carefully avoids hero worship of Julian. He saw him as a hero, but also realised that he was a fanatic as well albeit an attractive one.

In fact, what he does is extremely clever. He criticizes Julian’s fanaticism and praises his piety using exactly the language that in his own time would be applied to the Church. Without ever saying so directly, he leaves you with the impression that at the end of the day Julian was not really the mortal enemy and antitheis of the Christians. In the end, this was a battle between two different forms of the same delusion. In many ways the real tragedy was that such a brilliant and talented man’s life was devoted to a cause that was not really worthy of him.

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Julian Invades Persia – Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 24 Part 1

Roman Empire at Time of Julian the Apostate (thanks to Wikipedia)

Rome grew to dominate the world under the republic. After the republic fell, the emperors for the most part were content to simply defend what they had. But the tradition of conquest continued. Claudius added Britain and Dacia and Mesopotamia were conquered by Trajan. Several smaller scale campaigns outside the empire were undertaken too. So in 363 when Julian, the last pagan emperor led a Roman army drawn from all parts of the empire out across the border to conquer a foreign enemy he was doing something that was rare but which was not unprecedented. It would have broken his young and idealistic heart to know that this would be the last time the empire as he knew it would mount such an attack.

The force of 90,000 men he led into Persia was large by any standards and may well have been a third of the empire’s entire strength. It was sophisticated, well organised and well supplied. Julian himself was an experienced general with a strong track record, and there were other effective commanders on his staff. This was the kind of military expedition at which the Romans had historically excelled. It was an effective force with good prospects for success. But what exactly was its purpose?

Throughout history wars have been fought for many reasons. Sometimes, but rarely, the reasons have been good ones. But generally when you look closely most wars are fought for motives very different to what is claimed. Often it is simple. An external enemy is a perfect way to bolster the position of a weak regime. This seems pretty clearly to have been what was behind Julian’s attack on Persia. It wasn’t that his position on the throne was particularly precarious. In fact it was strong enough. He had the support of a large chunk of the army, and no obvious rivals. He might expect opposition from the mainstream Christians. But this wasn’t all Christians. The previously persecuted Christian sects had benefited from Julian’s edict of toleration. They were at the least not likely to want to overthrow him and risk getting persecuted again. He was strongly supported by the Jews and by the majority, the Pagans. So he was in no real danger.

But he was impatient to start rolling back the power of the Christians. And there was no better way to do this than by a successful campaign against the Persians. His Christian predecessor had been making heavy weather of fighting them. What better way to demonstrate the benefits of regaining the favour of the Gods than by a glorious victory that has cousin had failed to achieve. Julian would also be able to bind the eastern legions to himself in the same way he had already succeeded in doing with the western ones. With the army firmly behind him Julian would be sure to win if Christian dissent did break out into open civil war.

So the peace proposals from the Persian envoys representing Shapur, the King of Kings, were dismissed. It would be war, and war on a colossal scale. The barbarians in Germany were still in awe of Julian so there was no danger from that direction. The full power of the empire was available to defeat its biggest single enemy. And although diplomacy had been rejected, this didn’t mean political weapons were abandoned. They had with them a Persian prince of the blood called Hormisdas, who could be put forward as the Roman candidate for the throne. There wasn’t any particular issue with the legitimacy of the incumbent, but it didn’t do any harm to have one of his relatives to hand if the need arose. In fact Hormisdas had been at the Roman court from an early age and had become fully romanised. He was not just a figurehead but was reliable enough to actually lead some troops as well.

Julian moved to Antioch to supervise the preparations. The plan was to launch a three pronged attack with support on one of them from the Romans’ allies the Armenians. In the event the Armenian contribution was never to materialise. There was an issue here. Armenia had been the first Christian kingdom under the famous Tiridates and was still ruled by his descendents. The Armenian royal family were closely identified with the Christian cause and must have been alarmed by Julian’s pagan sympathies. It was probably not in their interest to support a campaign that was designed to promote paganism. Julian’s attitude towards the Armenians was haughty, but it may well have been his intention to stir up an argument with them. The Armenian regime can hardly have been one that Julian would have been keen on. The traditional Armenian culture had been eliminated by the Church. It was an example in miniature of what Julian was fighting against and a warning of the risk if he failed.

But militarily the betrayal by the Armenians should not have been hugely significant. There were still plenty of men to overrun the Persians. The biggest problem on the Roman side was logistics – feeding and supplying forces on the scale of this invasion was a massive undertaking. But the Romans had a long tradition of solving this kind of problem. One of the solutions was to build a huge fleet of 1,000 boats that could be used on the river Euphrates to supply the troops.

At first everything went pretty much according to plan. The Persians avoided battle since they had no hope of winning. The three columns advanced opposed only by the hostility of the terrain. One column was led by Julian himself who in the tradition of Julius Caesar and Alexander led from the front. He shared the hardships of his men – in fact the army was well supplied so there wasn’t too much hardship to share at first. But while Julian had laid on ample provisions he had banned wine. He wanted a well disciplined army and did everything he could to ensure it. He regularly spoke to the men, enforced strict punishments for misbehaviour and lavished donatives as well.

The Persians could not hope to win a battle, but opposed as they could. Rivers were diverted to flood the Roman camp. The Romans were delayed but not halted – their leader urging them on to great things. As they penetrated more deeply they started to encounter walled cities. Perisabor for example was a substantial stronghold, the second biggest city in the province of Assyria, and well armed and defended. But the ferocity of the Romans and their skill in siegecraft was legendary. Battering rams were deployed and the defenders overwhelmed as the legions stormed it.

It was impressive and eye-catching. And that was the point. Julian remarked that he was providing material for the sophist in Antioch. He referred to the great sophist of the age, Libanius. Libanius was a famous teacher of sophistry and rhetoric who had over the years established a reputation founded on his way with words. His insistence on maintaining his faith in the traditional religion had undermined his income but increased his prestige as a man of principle.

Needless to say, he was a favourite of Julian who must have had high hopes of the praise he could expect on his triumphant return. Julian was too intelligent to be duped by the empty flattery his position attracted. But justified acclaim from a man of courage, integrity and wisdom – that was worth having. In fact, I sometimes wonder if the desire to impress Libanius might have been the single biggest motive for the Persian campaign. Julian was a young man still eager for approval. It might well have been as simple as that.

It would also explain the rather theatrical behaviour of Julian as well. After the capture of Perisabor there was some moaning that the donative wasn’t enough for such a deadly battle. Julian addressed the issue head on.

“Riches are the object of your desires; those riches are in the hands of the Persians; and the spoils of this fruitful country are proposed as the prize of your valor and discipline. Believe me, the Roman republic, which formerly possessed such immense treasures, is now reduced to want and wretchedness once our princes have been persuaded, by weak and interested ministers, to purchase with gold the tranquillity of the Barbarians. The revenue is exhausted; the cities are ruined; the provinces are dispeopled. For myself, the only inheritance that I have received from my royal ancestors is a soul incapable of fear; and as long as I am convinced that every real advantage is seated in the mind, I shall not blush to acknowledge an honorable poverty, which, in the days of ancient virtue, was considered as the glory of Fabricius. That glory, and that virtue, may be your own, if you will listen to the voice of Heaven and of your leader. But if you will rashly persist, if you are determined to renew the shameful and mischievous examples of old seditions, proceed.

As it becomes an emperor who has filled the first rank among men, I am prepared to die, standing; and to despise a precarious life, which, every hour, may depend on an accidental fever. If I have been found unworthy of the command, there are now among you, (I speak it with pride and pleasure,) there are many chiefs whose merit and experience are equal to the conduct of the most important war. Such has been the temper of my reign, that I can retire, without regret, and without apprehension, to the obscurity of a private station”

The resignation threat showed that he was confident of his position, but it also comes across as a bit melodramatic. Or was the whole episode a photo opportunity artfully managed to project the image Julian wanted to the audience back home. We’d call it spin nowadays. But you can be a self publicist and still be a hero. Julian was leading his army into enemy territory, and even if they were being done for show his military achievements were still real.

The army marched deeper into the Persian empire. There were more cities to be taken. And the logistics of the operation were formidable, with the army being supplied from a fleet of boats sailing down the Euphrates in step with them. All the obstacles were overcome. All resistance was beaten down. Until, in the middle of May they arrived at the capital. The Persians attempted to prevent Julian reaching the city, but in pitched battle outside the Romans defeated them. Julian could now lay siege to Ctesiphon itself.

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