December 11, 2014, by Will Leveritt
1653 years ago today: the last Pagan emperor entered Constantinople
Text by Rob Stone
Images by Kelly Grimshaw
Following the death of Constantine I (337), the Empire was divided between his three sons (Constans, Constantine II and Constantius II) and the remainder of his male family was murdered, with the exception of the young Julian and his half-brother Gallus. Raised by his pagan mother, Julian turned his back on Christianity at a young age but kept his conversion secret until he became emperor.After the death of his brothers and with the threat of usurpers across the empire, Constantius II was forced to promote his cousin Gallus to the rank of Caesar (Junior Emperor) in 351 to help him control the Empire. However, Gallus proved to be an incompetent and wrathful deputy and, once the usurpation of Magnentius had been dealt with, Constantius had his cousin removed from his post and executed three years after his appointment.
Following his half-brother’s death, Julian was promoted to replace him and given control of the West, a task complicated by the threat of constant warfare along the Rhine. The young Caesar, however, rose to the task and defeated the combined forces of various tribes at the battle of Strasbourg. This success prompted Julian’s troops to proclaim him Augustus (Senior Emperor) at the beginning of 360, and moved the Roman state towards another civil war.
Julian accepted the title, although a renewal of attacks along the frontier delayed his march eastward to face Constantius until the following year. Despite his victories over the Alamani, Julian’s chances of success were limited; his enemy had the backing of the Senate and the wealth of the East. However, before the emperors could meet in battle, Constantius fell ill and passed away. In his final hours he appointed Julian his heir in an effort to reunite the state.
Julian thus entered Constantinople fresh in his new role as the lawful ruler of the entire empire. However, his rule was not as secure as he would have hoped. He soon openly confessed his paganism and began a series of reforms aimed at stemming and reversing the tide of Christianity. In an effort to appease those he had upset and to prove his abilities as an emperor, Julian prepared for a campaign against the Persian empire to the East.
Two years later, in 363, Julian began his campaign. Despite his early successes, the war soon turned against Julian; the emperor refused to listen to the concerns of his troops and even burned his fleet as a symbol of his refusal to retreat from Persia. This mistake would soon return to haunt Julian as he was lethally wounded in a Persian ambush on the 26th of June.
Julian died at the age of 32 without an heir. His officers, trapped in foreign territory without a leader, appointed as the deceased emperor’s successor a Christian officer named Jovian, whose first act was to negotiate the safe passage of the Roman army out of Persia. Although Jovian was to rule for only one year, his rise brought an end to any efforts to reform paganism; Christianity once again became the state religion of Rome and the Julian would be remembered as the last pagan emperor of Rome.
This post previously appeared on the Argonauts and Emperors blog.