Julian Apostate

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Julian: Rise of the Last Pagan Emperor of Rome

Julian had survived because he was so young (only six when the previous Emperor Constantine died), and he appeared unambitious and insignificant; he professed Christianity, but he had fallen in love with the culture of Athens and was a pagan at heart. In 355, as Constantius himself was preparing for war against Sapor, Julian was sent to Gaul as caesar to fight the Franks. (Julian’s chief of staff was picked personally by Constantius.) Julian quickly assumed command and won some victories, but the raids continued. The Alamanni-after a succession of successful raids and skirmishes, after driving even Julian behind walls, after seeing Roman cooperation break down in a futile attempt to coordinate a converging movement on the Alamanni-decided on a major campaign in Gaul under their king, Chnodomarius [Chnodomar]. Julian was ready to fight, and the two sides met at the battle of Strasbourg [Argentoratum] (A. D. 357).

The Roman army had to march about twenty miles. It set out at dawn, the foot soldiers in the middle, their flanks guarded by cavalry squadrons including cataphracts and archers (“a formidable kind of armed men”). After eight hours marching, they reached the vicinity of the enemy camp and Julian suggested to the troops that they prepare a fortified camp wherein they could rest, refresh themselves, and prepare to attack the next dawn. The soldiers “gnashed their teeth, clashed their spears on their shields,” and demanded that Julian lead them immediately against the enemy. Julian’s Praetorian prefect also urged him to attack while they had all the Alamanni fixed in one location and reminded him of “the hot tempers of the soldiers which could turn them so easily to riot.” A standard bearer cried out, “Advance, Caesar, luckiest of all men!”

The Romans advanced slowly, and when they came in sight of the Alamanni, they formed up in a close-packed wedge formation, and the Alamanni also formed up in wedges. The Alamanni put all their cavalry opposite the Roman cavalry on the Roman right. As the cataphracts had the advantage over the Alamanni cavalry because they wore mail armor and their hands were free while the Alamanni had to hold reins and shield in one hand and spear in the other, the Alamanni reinforced their cavalry with skirmishers and light infantry. The Alamanni had dug trenches on their right from which to spring ambushes, but the Romans expected trickery and halted on the edge of the trenches and waited to see what would happen.

Julian, protected by a bodyguard of 200 men and identified by a dragon banner, rode back and forth calling upon his men to restore Rome’s majesty; the Alamanni called upon their leaders to dismount and share the fortunes of the common soldier. King Chnodomarius [Chnodomar], a gigantic, muscular man, was the first to dismount, and the other princes followed his example. Then the trumpets blared, the two sides hurled their spears at each other, and the Alamanni charged. “The Alamanni, their long hair streaming, their eyes blazing with madness, made a terrifying sight.”

The two sides, densely packed, pushed each other back and forth, and clouds of dust obscured the field. Then the Roman cavalry commander was wounded and the Roman cavalry withdrew; Julian rushed to the spot to stop the retreat, but the cavalry and Julian were out of the battle long enough for the Alamanni to force their way into the Roman formation. There they were checked momentarily by Julian’s German troops before they broke through to the center of the army, where the Roman master of troops commanded a special unit. The two sides hacked at each other, the Romans sheltered behind their phalanx of shields, the Alamanni gone beserk, trying to break the formation and shouting war cries above the shrieks and moans of the wounded and dying. The Romans stabbed at the unprotected sides of the Alamanni, until they broke the impetus of their charge and forced them to turn and run.

The Romans pursued them to the banks of the Rhine and struck them until their swords were dulled, their spears broken, and then they stood on the banks of the river and threw javelins at them. The Alamanni who had preserved their shields in their flight used them as miniature rafts to take them to the other side. Chnodomarius surrendered and was sent to Rome where he died of old age. The Romans estimated that the Alamanni had numbered about 35,000 and that they themselves had been outnumbered three to one. They acknowledged 247 dead.

Julian’s Germans were so valuable to him that he learned their language. One of the commanders in his subsequent campaign against the Persians was Vadomarius, who had been king of an Alamannic canton. As king, Vadomarius led raids into Roman territory (in 352-353), his own territory had been raided in retaliation, and he had concluded a peace treaty with the Romans. Under the cover of the peace treaty, even as he accepted the local Roman commander’s invitations to banquets, he continued to raid Roman territory. Roman patience ran out, Vadomarius was arrested while he was attending a banquet, and he was sent to Spain. (His son succeeded him as king.) During Julian’s campaign in the east, Vadomarius was the “leader of the Phoenicians,” and under Julian’s successor, Valens, he conducted the siege of Nicaea and successfully commanded troops against the Persian King Sapor II in 371. This German king was at home in the Roman world, at least as that world was represented by the army, and he was a trusted commander, although his loyalty was pledged to the emperor and the army, not to the abstract entity Rome.

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.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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