Julian's Death

The mystery of Julian's death is one that has plagued historians for 1500 years. This death marked the end of the pagan state religion and all the great traditions it stood for, and in turn the victory of Christianity. In addition to Julian's own officer, Ammianus' account , here are the four other most reliable accounts.

Ammianus Marcellinus 25.3
(late 4th cent., wrote an expansive history in Latin)
When we marched on from this place, the Persians, since their frequent losses made them dread regular battles with the infantry, laid ambuscades, and secretly attended us, from the high hills on both sides watching our companies as they marched, so that the soldiers, suspicious of this, all day long neither raised a palisade nor fortified themselves with stakes. 2 And while the flanks were strongly protected and the army, as the nature of the ground made necessary, advanced in square formation, but with the battalions in open order, it was reported to the emperor, who even then unarmed had gone forward to reconnoitre, that the rear guard​13 had suddenly been attacked from behind. 3 Excited by the misfortune, he forgot his coat-of‑mail,​14 and merely caught up a shield in the confusion; but as he was hastening to bring aid to those in the rear, he was recalled by another danger — the news that the van, which he had just left, was just as badly off. 4 While he was hastening to restore order there without regard to his own peril, a Parthian band of mailed cavalry on another side attacked the centre companies, and quickly overflowed the left wing, which gave way, since our men could hardly endure the smell and trumpeting of the elephants, they were trying to end the battle with pikes and volleys of arrows. 5 But while the emperor rushed hither and thither amid the foremost ranks of the combatants, and as the Persians turned in flight, they hacked at their legs and backs, and those of the elephants. 6 Julianus, careless of his own safety, shouting and raising his hands tried to make it clear to his men that the enemy had fled in disorder, and, to rouse them to a still more furious pursuit, rushed boldly into the fight. His guards,​15 who had scattered in their alarm, were crying to him from all sides to get clear of the mass of fugitives, as dangerous as the fall of a badly built roof, when suddenly — no one knows whence​16 — a cavalry­man's spear grazed the skin of his arm, pierced his ribs, and lodged in the lower lobe of his liver. 7 While he was trying to pluck this out with his right hand, he felt that the sinews of his fingers were cut through on both sides by the sharp steel. Then he fell from his horse, all present hastened to the spot, he was taken to camp and given medical treatment. 8 And soon, as the pain diminished somewhat, he ceased to fear, and fighting with great spirit against death, he called for his arms and his horse in order by his return to the fight to restore the confidence of his men, and troubling nothing about himself, to show that he was filled with great anxiety for the safety of the others; with the same vigour, though under different conditions, with which the famous leader Epaminondas, when mortally wounded at Mantinia and carried from the field, took particular care to ask for his shield.​17 And p495 when he saw it near him, he died of his terrible wound, happy; for he who gave up his life without fear dreaded the loss of his shield. 9 But since Julianus's strength was not equal to his will, and he was weakened by great loss of blood, he lay still, having lost all hope for his life because, on inquiry, he learned that the place where he had fallen was called Phrygia.​18 For he had heard that it was fate's decree that he should die there. 10 But when the emperor had been taken to his tent, the soldiers, burning with wrath and grief, with incredible vigour rushed to avenge him, clashing their spears against their shields, resolved even to die if it should be the will of fate. And although the high clouds of dust blinded the eyes, and the burning heat weakened the activity of their limbs, yet as though discharged​19 by the loss of their leader, without sparing themselves, they rushed upon the swords of the enemy. 11 On the other hand, the exulting Persians sent forth such a shower of arrows that they prevented their opponents from seeing the bowmen. 12º Before them slowly marched the elephants, which with their huge size of body and horrifying crests, struck terror into horses and men. Further off, the trampling of the combatants, the groans of the falling, the panting of the horses, and the ring of arms were heard, until finally both parties were weary of inflicting wounds and the darkness of night ended the battle. 13 On that day fifty Persian grandees and satraps fell, besides a great number of common soldiers, and among them the distinguished generals Merena​20 and Nohodares​21 were p497 slain. The boastfulness of antiquity may view with amazement the twenty battles of Marcellus in various places;​22 it may add Sicinius Dentatus,​23 honoured with a multitude of military crowns; it may besides admire Sergius,​24 who (they say) was wounded twenty-three times in different battles, and whose last descendant Catiline tarnished the glorious renown of these victories with an indelible stain. Yet the joy in our success was marred by sorrow.​25 14 For while the fight went on everywhere after the withdrawal of the leader, the right wing of the army was exhausted, and Anatolius, at that time chief marshal of the court, was killed. Salutius, the prefect, was in extreme danger, but was saved by the help of his adjutant, and by a fortunate chance escaped death, while Phosphorius, a councillor who chanced to be at his side, was lost. Some of the court officials​26 and soldiers, amid many dangers, took refuge in a neighbouring fortress, and were able to rejoin the army only after three days. 15 While all this was going on, Julianus, lying in his tent, addressed his disconsolate and sorrowful companions as follows: "Most opportunely, friends, has the time now come for me to leave this life, which I rejoice to return to Nature, at her demand, like an honourable debtor, not (as some might think) bowed down with sorrow, but having learned from the general conviction of philosophers how much happier the soul is than the body, and bearing in mind that whenever a better condition is severed from a worse, p499 one should rejoice rather than grieve. Thinking also of this, that the gods of heaven themselves have given death to some men of the greatest virtue​27 as their supreme reward. 16 But this gift, I know well, was given to me, that I might not yield to great difficulties, nor ever bow down and humiliate myself; for experience teaches me that all sorrows overcome only weaklings, but yield to the steadfast. 17 I do not regret what I have done, nor does the recollection of any grave misdeed torment me; either when I was consigned to the shade and obscurity, or after I attained the principate, I have preserved my soul, as taking its origin from relation­ship with the gods, stainless (in my opinion), conducting civil affairs with moderation, and making and repelling wars only after mature deliberation. And yet success and well-laid plans do not always go hand in hand, since higher powers claim for themselves the outcome of all enterprises. 18 Considering, then, that the aim of a just rule is the welfare and security of its subjects, I was always, as you know, more inclined to peaceful measures, excluding from my conduct all license, the corrupter of deeds and of character. On the other hand, I depart rejoicing that, so often as the state, like an imperious parent, has exposed me deliberately to dangers, I have stood four-square, accustomed as I am to tread under foot the storms of fate. 19 And I shall not be ashamed to admit, that I learned long ago through the words of trustworthy prophecy, that I should perish by the sword. And therefore I thank the eternal power that p501 I meet my end, not from secret plots, nor from the pain of a tedious illness, nor by the fate of a criminal, but that in the mid-career of glorious renown I have been found worthy of so noble a departure from this world. For he is justly regarded as equally weak and cowardly who desires to die when he ought not, or he who seeks to avoid death when his time has come. 20 So much it will be enough to say, since my vital strength is failing. But as to the choice of an emperor, I am prudently silent, lest I pass over some worthy person through ignorance, or if I name some of whom I consider suitable, and perhaps another is preferred, I may expose him to extreme danger. But as an honourable foster-child of our country, I wish that a good ruler may be found to succeed me." 21 After having spoken these words in a calm tone, wishing to distribute his private property to his closer friends, as if with the last stroke of his pen, he called for Anatolius, his chief court-marshal. And when the prefect Salutius replied "He has been happy," he understood that he had been slain, and he who recently with such courage had been indifferent to his own fate, grieved deeply over that of a friend. 22 Meanwhile, all who were present wept, whereupon even then maintaining his authority, he chided them, saying that it was unworthy to mourn for a prince who was called to union with heaven and the stars. 23 As this made them all silent, he himself engaged with the philosophers Maximus​28 and Priscus in an intricate discussion about the nobility of the soul.​29 Suddenly the wound in his pierced p503 side opened wide, the pressure of the blood checked his breath, and after a draught of cold water for which he had asked, in the gloom of midnight he passed quietly away in the thirty-second year of his age. Born in Constantinople, he was left alone in childhood by the death both of his father Constantius (who, after the decease of his brother Constantinus, met his end with many others in the strife for the succession to the throne)​30 and of his mother Basilina, who came from an old and noble family.
Eutropius X 14-16
(late 4th cent., wrote a very brief history of the Roman Empire in Latin)

Then Constantius sent Julian, his nephew and the brother of Gallus, to Gaul, and married Julian to his sister. At this time the barbarians had looted many towns there, and were besieging others; everywhere there was bitter destruction, and the whole empire was teetering on the brink of utter collapse. Julian, with a few troops mustered in the Gallic town of Argentoratus, crushed the powerful army of the Allamanni, captured their proud king, and refurbished the province. Afterwards Julian won many great victories against the barbarians. He pushed the Germans to the other side of the Rhine, and restored the empire's ancient boundaries.

Not much later, after the army of Germanicianus had been detached from the protection of Gaul, Julian was hailed Augustus by the whole of his army. After a year passed, he set out to take over Illyricum, since Constantius was busy with his Persian campaign. Once Constantius was made aware of Julian's move, he turned back west, but died en route between Cilicia and Cappadocia in the 38th year of his reign and 55th of his life, winning the honor of membership in the gods...

From this point on Julian was in charge of the empire and prepared to wage war with the Persians -- a campaign in which I took part. Several Persian towns and castles were betrayed to him or were stormed by force, and once Assyria was taken he made camp near Ctesiphon for some time. After he had conquered, on his way home, while he was inadvisedly participating in a skirmish, he was killed by an enemy spear on the 25th of June, in the seventh year of his reign. He was 31 years old and was entered into the roll of the gods...

Anonymous Lives of the Caesars found in the Mss. of Sextus Aurelius Victor
(late 4th cent. brief biographies of the emperors in Latin)

[Once Constantius was dead] Julian was left in sole power of the Roman empire. Due to his overweening lust for glory, he set out for Persia. There he was led into treachery by a certain double agent. Since the Parthians were harrassing Julian as he marched, he ordered that a camp be set up. Once this was done, he ran forth from the camp with only a shield, and while imprudently struggling to call his battle ranks to order, he was pierced by a pike, and enemy pike -- clearly that thrown by a soldier in flight. He was carried back to his tent, returned to exhort the troops, and as he was gradually losing blood, he died around mid-night....
Libanius Orationes 18.274
: Funeral Oration for Julian (L. was perhaps the most famous pagan literary figure of late 4th century/ wrote in Greek)

Who was the killer? Who has heard of him? I for one don't know his name, but it is clear that no enemy soldier killed Julian, since none of the enemy were honored for striking the fatal blow. Indeed the Persians sent out heralds to lead Julian's slayer to his merited prize and to offer him great rewards. But nevertheless no one, not even out of lust for the reward, made the pretense.

Zosimus 3.28-29
(5th century "Byzantine" historian--wrote in Greek with an open anti-Christian bias)

On the next day(1) the Persians fell upon the inexperienced rearguard of the Romans. These were quite disordered at the time, but nevertheless, stirred up by the attack, they mustered courage to counterattack. Julian, as was his custom, circulated among the ranks encouraging their fighting spirit. When the men broke into hand to hand combat, Julian, himself attacking the offfcers of the enemy, was drawn into the midst of the fray, and there was struck by a sword at the climax of the battle. He was laid out on a shield and carried back to his tent, where during the night he died, providing no advice as to his succession.

1. That is, after the taking of Ctesiphon, on the march back to Roman territory.