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Emperor Julian’s campaign against Persia

Emperor Julian's campaign against Persia

Emperor Julian’s campaign against Persia in 363 AD


Julian achieved the rank of Augustus on the death, aged only 44 years old, of Constantius on 3rd November 361. He had been acclaimed by the soldiers as Emperor in Lutetia (Paris) in 360, an event which was leading to civil war with Constantius but was only averted by the latter’s death whilst on the way to fight. 

Julian was a nephew of Constantine the Great and managed to survive the dynastic bloodletting that saw his own father executed in 337. Whilst initially suspected of treachery by Constantius, and held as virtual hostage for a year in 354, until he was cleared by the intervention of Empress Eusebia. Constantius summoned Julian to Mediolanum on 6th November where he created him ‘Caesar’ of the west and married him to his sister, Helena. 

Julian headed off to Gaul where he became acquainted with the army and administration of his territories. He successfully campaigned against the Germanic tribes and Franks between 356 and 358. In 357 he had taken personal control of the province of Belgica Secunda to counter the influence of the Gallic Praetorian Prefect, Florentius, who was corrupt.

In 360 Emperor Constantius had summoned half of the soldiers under Julian’s command to head east. Constantius, seeking to minimise Julian’s influence, had appealed to the army commanders directly but they did not wish to leave Gaul. The army officers circulated an anonymous letter criticising Constantius and expressing fears of what would happen to Julian. This dissatisfaction resulted in the soldiers proclaiming Julian as ‘Augustus’. Julian accepted this title but did not move to confront Constantius. Instead he campaigned along the frontier against the Germanic tribes and even issued coins showing him as Augustus with Constantius. 

Eventually Constantius moved west to confront Julian and Julian was moving east but as luck would have it, Constantius died before any battle was fought. 

Julian achieved the rank of sole Emperor on the death, aged only 44 years old, of Constantius on 3rd November 361. 

Julian could count on the support of the army in the west but the east was a different story, with many soldiers loyal to the memory of Constantius. Julian held a tribunal at Chalcedon, probably in 362 AD, in which many of these placemen of Constantius were brought to trial. However, it seems that Julian was not entirely confident that he held the loyalty of the soldiers in the east even after the tribunal and this may have been part of his decision to launch his campaign against the Persians. It is certainly not the case that the campaign was a necessity, in fact Shapur had sent emissaries to Julian seeking peace but this had been rejected. 

Julian raised an army of 95,000 and constructed an enourmous logistical operation to support his campaign including numerous siege engines. He and his forces then marched east to face Shapur and the Persians. When he arrived at Carrhae he sent 30,000 of his men under Precopius and Sebastianus to Armenia and with the rest he headed into the Persian heartlands toward their capital at Ctesiphon. 

Siege of Pirisabora – 27th until 29th April 363 AD

Marching through Assyria, Julian accepted the submission of towns and cities until he arrived at Pirisabora, a city only fifty miles outside the Persian capital. The Roman attack against the outer defences, using siege machines, succeeded and the defenders, commanded by Mamersides, retreated to the fortified citadel. The city was mercilessly sacked in memory of the Persian destruction of Amida and the remaining Persians surrendered two days later, after which the city was burnt to the ground. 

Julian distributed the spoils of the city amongst his soldiers and continued the march further into Persian territory.

Siege of Maiozamalcha – May 363 AD

Shapur II had failed to assemble an army to block the Romans advance into Assyria in time and he was reduced to releasing dykes to flood the route of Julian’s advance and the resolution of garrisons in the way. The Romans, fresh from their victory at Pirisabora were marching towards Ctesiphon when the arrived under the walls of the fortress city of Maiozamalcha, just eleven miles from the capital.

Maiozamalcha possessed strong walls and the population and garrison were apparently so confident that they heaped insults on the Romans who battered away with their siege machines. However these visible attempts to reduce the city were a ruse by Julian, the real action happening underneath the ground. Roman engineers secretly dug a mine under the wall and, using this method, the city was infiltrated by 1500 soldiers who burst out and overwhelmed the defenders from within.

Maiozamalcha and it’s occupants paid for their earlier insolence with their lives as the occupants of the city were slaughtered by the Romans, who pillaged and destroyed the Persian palaces that they found there.

The Battle of Ctesiphon – 29th May 363 AD

Julian arrived with the Roman army on 29th May 363 outside Ctesiphon to find a Persian army deployed outside the walls and ready for battle. The Persians consisted of cataphracts, heavily armoured cavalry, reinforced with infantry and war elephants.

Shapur was not present at the field but was fast approaching with a large force but did not arrive for the clash.

The Persians were, under their general Merena, positioned on the opposing bank of the Tigris but they were unable to prevent a Roman crossing. Once on the Persian bank of the river the Romans moved forward and defeated the Persian force, causing 2500 casualties.

The Romans, flush with another victory, set about plundering and may have missed the chance to capitalise on their success. The defeated Persians were able to flee back inside the city, further strengthening the garrison. To make matters worse it seems that Julian decided at this point to burn his fleet of ships on the river, possibly to free up man power.  

Julian was now faced with several problems. His force was running low on supplies due to the Persian scorched earth policy and he doubted he had the strength to capture Ctesiphon which was heavily fortified. He had to face Shapur’s main army, which was undoubtedly larger than the force he had just defeated, and his soldiers were starting to be affected by disease. Part if Julian’s plan had involved a rendezvous with the forces sent to Armenia under Procopius but these had disastrously failed to appear. These issues combined with low morale caused Julian to agree to the demands of his officers that the army should abandon any further offensive action and move back to Roman territory.

The Roman army began the retreat along the Tigris with the hope of meeting up with Procopius and the other part of the invasion force along the way. 

The Battle of Maranga – June 363 AD

Julian and the Roman army had begun the retreat from Ctesiphon on 16th June 363 AD. The Romans were marching on foot, having burned their ships, and were harassed and closely followed by the Persians.

Julian’s decision to set fire to his ships is a perplexing one. Regardless of the reasons, his men set off with 20 days of supplies. At this point it seems that the Romans were moving inland but were given faulty directions by local scouts, all the while the Persians were burning the countryside surrounding them as part of their scorched earth policy. 

The Persians, in hot pursuit, kept up attacks on the rear guard of the Roman column and this in turn escalated into a full battle at Maranga. 

On this occasion the Romans drove off the Persians but both sides suffered heavy losses. The impact of this struggle was more keenly felt by the Romans however, who not only were weakened through their scanty supplies but now also delayed and more at risk of a confrontation with Shapur’s main army.

The Battle of Samarra – June 363 AD

Julian and the Romans were still deep in Persian territory when Persian skirmishing against the rear of the Roman force turned into another serious battle. 

The Romans were in retreat towards Empire territory, having failed to capitalise on their victory at the gates of the Persian capital Ctesiphon. They were low on supplies and weakened by disease by this stage and suffering from an effective Persian scorched earth policy and continual harassment of their rear guard. 

Julian, hearing of the developing attack, rode back toward the rear units, not waiting to put on his armour. As he did so he received news that the flank of his force was under cavalry attack and that the Persian had deployed their elephants. Julian diverted to face this new threat, rallying the withdrawing Roman soldiers he met coming the other way. The Persians, seeing the Roman position starting to harden, began to retreat. Julian then, encouraging his soldiers, charged after the Persians out running his bodyguard who were calling for him to pull back. It was at this point Julian was struck in the side by a spear thrown from the Persian side and fell from his horse.

Julian was quickly carried back to his camp but died from the wound he had sustained at about midnight. 

Julian had not named a successor, although it is possible he had intended this to be Procopius as he had given him an imperial robe before he was sent to Armenia. The officers assembled at dawn on 27th June 363 AD with the task of appointing a new leader. The acclaimed Jovian, who was head of the Imperial bodyguard.

It was a disastrous choice. Jovian had no option but to continue the retreat but when he arrived at Dura he found he could not cross the Euphrates. At this point Jovian agreed to a humiliating peace with Shapur in exchange for an unhindered retreat. The terms of the peace, which was set for thirty years, was the evacuation of all Roman control in Mesopotamia, abandonment of their ally in Armenia and Persian occupation of the fortress towns such as Nisibis, Castra Maurorum and Singara.  


Gibbon, Edward: ‘The history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire

Browning, Robert: ‘The Emperor Julian

Bostock, G.W: ‘Julian the Apostate

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