June 27, 2016, by Will Leveritt
On this day in AD 363 the Roman emperor Jovian ascended the throne
Text by Rob Stone
Jovian was born in AD 331 in Singidunum (modern day Belgrade, Serbia). His father, Varronianus, was the commander of the bodyguards (comes domesticorum) of Constantius II. Jovian himself would join this group and prior to his accession he had risen to the same position as his father, commanding the guard for the emperor Julian.
Jovian played a very minor role in the history of the Roman Empire and is often forgotten in favour of other, more successful or controversial emperors in Late Antiquity. He ruled for just 8 months and was related to the emperors who came before and after him through neither blood nor marriage, thus both beginning and ending his dynasty with his reign.
According to Ammianus’ history, even the soldiers who cheered for Jovian’s accession didn’t want him to be emperor; instead they were cheering because they believed that Julian had recovered from his injuries, an indication of just how underwhelming this emperor appears to have been. However, Jovian actually played a small but important role in shaping both the history of Late Antiquity and the world we know today.
The key to understanding the importance of Jovian’s reign is to recognise the previous emperor Julian’s efforts to reform the worship of the pagan gods.
Julian, reacting to the adoption and growth of Christianity as the official religion of the empire during the reigns of his uncle Constantine I and cousin Constantius II, attempted to restore the traditional worship of the gods through a combination of introducing Christian concepts (such as charity) into the pagan religions to make them more appealing and promoting pagans above Christians in both the military and civil spheres.
Julian hoped that these measures would reverse the movement of both the common people and the elites towards Christianity over the course of his reign.
However, Julian also recognised that to secure his rule against Sassanid and Gothic invasions and potential usurpers and to prove publicly that he had divine support from his gods he would need to win a decisive campaign.
Thus, at the beginning of 363, Julian marched into Persia seeking to assert his dominance and secure the empire from both external and internal threats. Unfortunately, his campaign would end in disaster: he was mortally injured during a Persian ambush.
Jovian was raised to power after the death of the emperor Julian. According to Ammianus, who was a great supporter of Julian, he was not the unanimous choice of the generals but he and his allies took advantage of their debating to present Jovian as the new emperor.
He took control of a demoralised army stranded deep within enemy territory and an empire in the midst of a religious crisis. Given these issues, Jovian acted quickly.
He negotiated a peace deal with the Sassanid Empire that granted free passage for his army in return for the surrender of a series of boundary forts and an agreement to withdraw all support for the Armenian king (effectively surrendering it as a vassal to the Persians).
While these were large concessions for the Romans, they paled in comparison to the potential loss of the entire army and its leadership as would happen at Adrianople under the reign of one of Jovian’s successors, the emperor Valens. Jovian’s peace deal allowed the Roman army to return home and to once again secure their borders with the Germans, Goths and Persians, staving off a military crisis.
The other key act in Jovian’s short reign was the reestablishment of Christianity as the main religion of the empire. Julian’s financial support for paganism was revoked, imperial funds were once again used for the building of churches rather than temples and the promotion of pagans above Christians was reversed.
Jovian’s position as a Christian emperor rather than a pagan one stopped the potential growth of paganism and guaranteed that, from Late Antiquity to the present day, Christianity was the major religion of the Western world.
However, Jovian was never able to enjoy the religious and military security he began to establish. On his return to the empire, he rushed towards Constantinople to quickly establish himself in the eastern capital and to prevent any usurpers capitalising on his humiliating peace treaty by seizing the city.
He would never reach the city, falling ill en route and dying overnight in the town of Dadastana, aged just 32. He was succeeded as emperor by Valentinian I, who split the empire in two and appointed his brother Valens as emperor in the East.
The successes and failures of their joint reign, and that of the rest of their dynasty, would quickly push the short-lived Jovian out of the minds of the citizens of the empire.