Julian the Apostate: Death

The Persians launched a surprise assault on the Romans, including in their own force a detachment of Indian elephants. Julian himself rode into the battle, carrying nothing but a sword and shield, wearing no armor. Sometimes this has been interpreted as overconfidence or contempt for the Persians; more likely Julian was simply caught up in the heat of the moment as he tried to rally his beleaguered troops. There is also a tradition, preserved especially by Gregory of Nazianzus, that Julian was looking for death.

Whatever the explanation, Julian’s refusal to don his armor was a fatal misjudgment. He was stabbed with a spear (apparently a kontos - heavy cavalry lance), the weapon piercing his side and rupturing his intestines. Julian was carried away from the battle, and was examined by his personal physician, Oribasius. Initially it looked as though the Emperor would survive, but late in the evening the wound began to bleed profusely, and Julian died.

Several legends surround the death of Julian. Ammianus tells us that he knew he was dying, but, a philosopher to the end, gave a discourse to his attendants. Another, almost certainly bogus tradition claims that Julian’s last words were ‘you have won, Galilean!’ This was, of course, a reference to Jesus Christ, and his belief that the hopes of Greco-Roman paganism would die with him.

Controversy surrounded the issue of just who killed Julian. Theories abounded almost from the moment the Emperor died - possibly suspects included a Persian horseman, a ‘Saracen’ auxiliary in either Roman or Persian service, or a Roman legionary who was disgusted with the retreat from Ctesiphon, or with Julian’s paganism. Ammianus largely avoids the issue, whereas Libanius describes the murderer as a Taienos, a Greco-Syrian word denoting an Arab. The church historian Philostorgius blames a ‘Saracen’ lancer in the Persian army, who was vengefully cut down by Julian’s companions immediately after striking the blow.

The question of who killed Julian - and why he fought unarmored in the first place - will remain one of history’s mysteries. What cannot be denied, is that Julian made the last great, and ultimately doomed, effort to redeem pre-Christian classical religion and philosophy.