How did the Emperor Julian die?

[compiled by R. A. Kraft for RelSt 735 Historiography, April 2007]



Ammianus Marcellinus, Roman History. London: Bohn (1862) Book 25. pp. 373-401. Libanius, "Julian the Emperor" (1888). Monody: Funeral Oration for Julian Gregory Nazianzen, " Julian the Emperor" (1888). Oration 5: Second Invective Against Julian.

3.3.  He, roused to anger by this mishap, without stopping to put on his breastplate, snatched up his shield in a hurry, and while hastening to support his rear, was recalled by fresh news that the van which he had quitted was now exposed to a similar attack.

4.   Without a thought of personal danger, he now hastened to strengthen this division, and then, on another side, a troop of Persian cuirassiers attacked his centre, and pouring down with vehemence on his left wing, which began to give way, as our men could hardly bear up against the foul smell and horrid cries of the elephants, they pressed us hard with spears and clouds of arrows.

5.  The emperor flew to every part of the field where the danger was hottest; and our light-armed troops dashing out wounded the backs of the Persians, and the hocks of the animals, which were turned the other way.

6.  Julian, disregarding all care for his own safety, made signs by waving his hands, and shouted out that the enemy were fleeing in consternation; and cheering on his men to the pursuit, threw himself eagerly into the conflict. His guards called out to him from all sides to beware of the mass of fugitives who wore scattered in consternation, as he would beware of the fall of an ill-built roof,

when suddenly a cavalry spear, grazing the skin of his arm, pierced his side, and fixed itself in the bottom of his liver.

7.  He tried to pull it out with his right band, and cut the sinews of his fingers with the double-edged point of the weapon;

and, falling from his horse,

he was borne with speed by the men around him to his tent; and the physician tried to relieve him.

8.  Presently, when his pain was somewhat mitigated, so that his apprehensions were relieved, contending against death with great energy, he asked for arms and a horse, in order that, by revisiting his troops, who were still engaged, he might restore their confidence, and appear so secure of his own recovery as to have room for anxiety for the safety of others; with the same energy, though with a different object, with which the celebrated leader, Epaminondas, when he was mortally wounded at Mantinea, and had been borne out of the battle, asked anxiously for his shield; and when he saw it he died of his wound cheerfully, having been in fear for the loss of his shield, while quite fearless about the loss of his life.

9.   But as Julian's strength was inferior to his firmness, and as he was weakened by the loss of blood, he remained without moving: and presently he gave up all hope of life; because, on inquiry, he found that the place where he had fallen was called Phrygia; for he had been assured by an oracle that he was destined to die in Phrygia.

It is indeed necessary I should speak out, and put an end to the false reports current concerning his end.

For when the Persian was already reduced to despair, having been manifestly conquered, and in fear lest our troops should occupy the best places in his kingdom, and winter there----when he was choosing envoys, was counting out presents (amongst which was a crown), and intending, it is said, to send them on the following day, together with a supplication for peace, and to leave him (Julian) the arbiter of the terms----

a part of the army is separated from the rest, from some troops having to resist an attack, and the others going on without perceiving it----and a brisk breeze at the same time stirring up the dust and producing a cloud, and giving cover to those who wished to commit the crime----

the (R. 613) emperor hastened up with one attendant for the purpose of uniting the broken line,

when a horseman's spear cast at him, being without armour (for he, on account, I suppose, of his being so much the stronger, did not even arm himself), passed through his arm and entered into his side.

The hero fell, and seeing the blood pouring forth, but wishing to conceal the disaster, remounted his horse, when, as the blood betrayed the wound, he kept crying out to those he successively met "not to be alarmed at his hurt, for that it was not mortal."

He said this, but at the same time was sinking under the danger; and is carried to the tent, to the black bed, the lion's hide, and mattress----for such was his couch.

And when the surgeons pronounced there was no hope of life, the army receiving the news of his death all set up a wail, all beat the breast, by all was the ground moistened with tears; their weapons escaped from their hands, and were thrown away; for they thought that not even one to carry the tidings would return from thence home.
13. Up to this point, such is the universal account; but thenceforward, one and the same story is not told by all, but different accounts are reported and made up by different people, both of those present at the battle, and those not present;

for some say that he was hit by a dart from the Persians, when engaged in a disorderly skirmish, as he was running hither and thither in his consternation; and the same fate befell him as it did to Cyrus, son of Parysatis, who went up with the Ten Thousand against his brother Artaxerxes, and by fighting inconsiderately threw away the victory through his rashness.

15.  And while these events were taking place, Julian, lying in his tent, thus addressed those who stood around him sorrowing and mourning : "The seasonable moment for my surrendering this life, O comrades, has now arrived, and, like an honest debtor, I exult in preparing to restore what nature reclaims; not in affliction and sorrow, since I have learnt, from the general teaching of philosophers, how much more capable of happiness the mind is than the body; and considering that when the better part is separated from the worse, it is a subject of joy rather than of mourning. Reflecting, also, that there have been instances in which oven the gods have given to some persons of extreme piety, death as the best of all rewards.

16.   "And I well know that it is intended as a gift of kindness to me, to save me from yielding to arduous difficulties, and from forgetting or losing myself; knowing by experience that all sorrows, while they triumph over the weak, flee before those who endure them manfully.

17.   "Nor have I to repent of any actions; nor am I oppressed by the recollection of any grave crime, either when I was kept in the shade, and, as it were, in a corner, or after I arrived at the empire, which, as an honour conferred on me by the gods, I have preserved, as I believe unstained. In civil affairs I have ruled with moderation, and, whether carrying on offensive or defensive war, have always been under the influence of deliberate reason; prosperity, however, does not always correspond to the wisdom of man's counsels, since the powers above reserve to themselves the regulation of results.

18.   "But always keeping in mind that the aim of a just sovereign is the advantage and safety of his subjects, I have been always, as you know, inclined to peace, eradicating all licentiousness—that great corruptress of things and manners—by every part of my own conduct; and I am glad to feel that in whatever instances the republic, like an imperious mother, has exposed me deliberately to danger, I have stood firm, inured to brave all fortuitous disturbing events.

19.   "Nor am I ashamed to confess that I have long known, from prophecy, that I should fall by the sword. And therefore do I venerate the everlasting God that I now die, not by any secret treachery, nor by a long or severe disease, or like a condemned criminal, but I quit the world with honour, fairly earned, in the midst of a career of flourishing glory. For, to any impartial judge, that man is base and cowardly who seeks to die when he ought not, or who avoids death when it is seasonable for him.

20.   "This is enough for me to say, since my strength is failing me; but I designedly forbear to speak of creating a new emperor, lest I should unintentionally pass over some worthy man; or, on the other hand, if 1 should name one whom I think proper, I should expose him to danger in the event of some one else being preferred. But, as an honest child of the republic, I hope that a good sovereign will be found to succeed me."

21.   After having spoken quietly to this effect, he, as it were with the last effort of his pen, distributed his private property among his dearest friends, asking for Anatolius, the master of the offices. And when the prefect Sallust replied that he was now happy, he understood that he was slain, and bitterly bewailed the death of his friend, though he had so proudly disregarded his own.

22.  And as all around were weeping, he reproved them with still undiminished authority, saying that it was a huumiliating thing to mourn for an emperor who was just united to heaven and the stars.

23. And as they then became silent, he entered into an intricate discussion with the philosophers Maximus and Priscus on the sublime nature of the soul, while the wound of his pierced side was gaping wide. At last the swelling of his veins began to choke his breath, and having drank some cold water, which he had asked for, he expired quietly about midnight, in the thirty-first year of his age. He was born at Constantinople, and in his childhood lost his father, Constantius, who, after the death of his brother Constantine, perished amid the crowd of competitors for the vacant crown. And at the same early age he lost his mother, Basilina, a woman descended from a long line of noble ancestors.

Both sides, therefore, gave their vote that the existence of the Romans was locked up in him, the one as they mourned, the other as they exulted; the one as they deemed they were lost, the other as they believed they had already conquered. One may discern his excellence even from his dying words; for when all who stood round him had fallen a-weeping, and not even the masters of philosophy could master their feelings, he rebuked the others, and especially the latter persons, because "when his past life was bringing him to the islands of the Blest, they wept for him as though he had spent his life so as to deserve Tartarus." The scene was like the prison that contained Socrates; those present resembled those that were present with that philosopher; the wound the cup of poison; the words his words; whilst the circumstance that Socrates shed not a tear was paralleled by our hero's doing the same. But when his friends besought him to name a successor to the empire, inasmuch as he saw nobody like himself at hand, he referred the election to the army; and him he urges to do his best to save the troops, for that he in preserving them had endured every toil.

But stop, for when I reflect upon the reproof which he administered to his weeping friends in his tent, I see him disapproving of this complaining part of my oration, and I fancy that he, descending hither, were it allowed, would use to us language such as this: "You that are lamenting the fatal blow, and my death in the flower of youth, if you deem it a worse thing to dwell with the gods than to dwell with men, you are not in your right senses: but if you suppose that I have not been admitted to that region, you are entirely in the dark, and appear to me to be in a most unreasonable condition of mind, for you are entirely unacquainted with the very person whom you believe you know most intimately. Neither let my falling in battle, and by the steel, be accounted by you a bad end -- so fell Leonidas, so fell Sarpedon, so Epaminondas, so Memnon, children of the gods. If my time on earth grieves you by its shortness, let Alexander, the son of Jove himself, bring you consolation." Thus would he speak----but I, what shall I have to add to his words?

Who was the one that killed him, does anyone desire to hear? His name I know not, but that he who killed him was not an enemy there is a clear proof, namely, that none of the opposite side received rewards for the fatal blow, although the Persian king summoned by public proclamation the slayer to come forward and receive reward, and it was in his power if he did come forward to gain great things. And yet no one from desire of the rewards boasted of the deed; and, truly, we ought to be very thankful to the enemy that they did not arrogate to themselves the glory of things they had not done, but gave it to us to look for the murderer amongst ourselves. For those persons to whom his being in life was no advantage (these were they who lived not according to the laws) had previously plotted against him, and then, profiting by the occasion, effected their purpose; their natural wickedness compelling them to it, which had no liberty to exert itself under his government; and, above all, the fact that the gods were receiving due honour, the very opposite thing to what they strove for. And what Thucydides remarks concerning Pericles, that he showed, by his death, how important a man he was to the state; the same thing, one may say, with respect to this emperor; for though all other things remained the same as they had been before----the men, the arms, the officers, the legions, the captives, the pay, the rations----yet in a single change, that regarding the sovereign, everything was shipwrecked. ...
...for what a darkness has returned through the murder of our emperor!
Others, however, tell some such story as this respecting his end: that he had gone up upon a lofty hill to take a view of his army and ascertain how much was left him for carrying on the war; and that when he saw the number considerable and superior to his expectation, he exclaimed, "What a dreadful thing if we shall bring back all these fellows to the land of the Romans!" as though he begrudged them a safe return. Whereupon one of his officers, being indignant and not able to repress his rage, ran him through the bowels, without caring for his own life.

Others tell that the deed was done by a barbarian jester, such as follow the camp, "for the purpose of driving away ill humour and for amusing the men when they are drinking." This tale about the jester is borrowed from Lampridius, who gives it as one of the many current respecting the death of Alexander Severus. The "Historia Augusta," a recent compilation, was then in everybody's hands.

...but to this prince thou hast granted only to touch upon his third year on the higher throne----a man whom thou oughtest to have thought worthy of a longer, or at any rate, no shorter life than the great Cyrus; for like him he had preserved for his subjects the institutions of their fathers.

...And since I have alluded to portraits----many cities have placed him by the side of the statues of the gods and do honour to him with the gods, and already many a one has asked in prayer for some blessing from him, and has not been disappointed: so evidently hath he ascended up unto them, and received a share in the powers of those above. Very much in the right, therefore, were they who were near upon stoning the first who brought news of his death, as one that slandered a god. setting out to war to invoke as helper against the barbarians Him, who, being able to discover all the future by means of divination, made it his business to discover whether he should do harm to the Persians, but did not trouble himself to know whether he should himself return home in safety----thereby proving that he was anxious for glory, not for life.
At any rate, he receives a wound truly seasonable (or mortal) and salutary for the whole world, and by a single cut from his slaughterer he pays the penalty for the many entrails of victims to which he had trusted (to his own destruction);

but what surprises me, is how the vain man that fancied he learnt the future from that means, knew nothing of the wound about to be inflicted on his own entrails! The concluding reflection is for once very appropriate: the liver of the victim was the approved means for reading the Future, and it was precisely in that organ that the arch-diviner received the fatal thrust.

14. One action of this person deserves not to be passed over in silence, as it contains, to wind up many others, the strongest exemplification of his madness. He was lying upon the bank of the river, and in a very bad way from his wound, when, remembering that many of those before his time who had aimed at glory, in order that they might be thought something higher than mortals, had (through some contrivances of their own) disappeared from amongst men, and thereby got themselves accounted gods; so he, being filled with a craving for similar glory, and at the same time ashamed of the manner of his end (by reason of the disgrace arising from his temerity), what does he contrive and what do? for not even with life does wickedness become extinct. He endeavours to throw his body into the river, and for this purpose he was using the assistance of some of his confidants and accomplices in his secret doings! And had not one of the imperial eunuchs perceived what was going on, and telling it to the rest out of disgust at the extravagant notion, prevented his purpose from being effected----why, another new god born out of an accident, would have manifested himself to the stupid!" And he, having thus reigned, thus commanded his army, closed his life in this way.
Procopius was sent forward with the remains of Julian, to bury them in the suburbs of Tarsus, according to his directions while alive. He departed, I say, to fulfil this commission, and as soon as the body was buried, he quitted Tarsus, and though sought for with great diligence, he could not be found anywhere, till long afterwards he was suddenly seen at Constantinople invested with the purple. ... Earth, in the suburbs of Tarsus in Cilicia, has received his corpse. 16. What then remained but for the corpse of the impious one to be carried home by the Romans, although he had closed his career in this manner?

... 18. But as for the other [i.e. Julian, in contrast to his Christian predecessors Constans and  Constantine], the circumstances attending his departure to the war were disgraceful (for he was pursued by mobs and townsfolk with vulgar and ribald cries, as most people yet remember), but still more inglorious was his return. What was his disgrace? Buffoons and mimes escorted him, the train moved along amidst foul jokes from the stage, with piping and dancing, whilst he was upbraided with his apostasy, his defeat, and his end, suffering every sort of insult, hearing every sort of thing in which such people indulge who make ribaldry their trade, until the city of Tarsus received him (why and wherefore condemned to this indignity I know not); where he has a consecrated ground without honour, a tomb accursed, a temple abominable, and not even to be looked at by pious eyes!