Two Immortal Speeches Delivered By The Emperor Julian

The Roman emperor Julian, wary of the encroaching borders of the Persians, undertook a military campaign against the Persian Empire in March of A.D. 363.  Despite some initial successes, the operation resulted in a defeat for Roman arms and Julian’s own death in battle.  Yet the field of conflict yielded more than just a litany of forgotten sieges and dusty marches.  The emperor had occasion to deliver two masterpieces of rhetoric, expressive of some of the noblest, and most memorable, sentiments ever uttered by a wearer of the imperial purple.  We will review both of them here. 

At one point during the campaign, Julian proposed to gift each of his men with one hundred pieces of silver.  But his weary troops expressed contempt for so small a sum, which they deemed unworthy of their valor.  As grumblings in the ranks increased to a mutinous volume, the emperor mounted a rostrum and delivered an impassioned speech to the assembled men.  The address is recorded in the reliable history of Ammianus Marcellinus (XXIV.3), who heard it personally.  I will reproduce it below.

See the Persians before you, overflowing with so much luxury.  Their wealth may enrich you, if we carry out our one task bravely and single-mindedly.  From an original position of immense resources, the Roman republic is now—believe me—in a position of great need.  This has happened because of those who instructed princes to pay ransoms with gold to the barbarians in return for peace.  Our treasury has been drained, our cities have been despoiled, and our provinces have been ravaged.  Although I come from a noble lineage, I have neither personal riches nor family connections:  I have only a soul that is free of all fear. 

And it is no shame for an emperor who places all good in the cultivation of the mind, to admit to an honest poverty.  For the Fabricii possessed no personal riches, but undertook serious military campaigns, and were rich in glory.  You may have these things in large measure if you follow without fear god and myself, who will lead cautiously, as much as human reason will permit, and if you conduct yourselves with restraint.  But if you fight me and move in the direction of disgraceful previous rebellions, then go ahead and do that now!

As befits an emperor, I alone, having completed a professional career of such accomplishment, will die standing tall, filled with contempt for a life that one little fever could snatch away from me.  Or I could simply leave office, since I have not lived in such a way that I could not at some point become a private citizen.

This is a masterful address by Julian. It appeals at once to both his men’s shame and their desire for plunder, while at the same time invoking his own exemplary conduct and record of military prowess (he had enjoyed great success in his previous campaigns in Western Europe).  Ammianus says that the effect this speech had on the men was remarkable.  They were won over by his honesty and rectitude; and they applauded his prudent leadership and willingness to share their hardships.  “When such sentiments [of the men] are expressed honestly from the heart,” says Ammianus, “they are accustomed to be shown by a slight rattling of [the soldiers’] weapons.” 

But Julian would not survive his Persian campaign.  He was cut down while in the thick of a furious fight.  While his bodyguards sought to prevent Julian from exposing himself too directly to danger, he was heedless of their counsel.  During a melee, his side was pierced by a javelin or spear of a cavalryman.  The missile lodged itself in his liver; he attempted to extract it, but the blade cut through his fingers.  He was carried from the field to his camp and given medical treatment; but there was nothing the doctors could do, for the wound was just as mortal as the injury Epaminondas had received at Mantinea.  As his attendants were gathered around him, the emperor spoke the following words.  They are recorded by Ammianus (XXV.3), who heard them personally. Julian’s lifelong study of philosophy gives his address a simple but stirring grandeur.

My friends, the time has now come, most favorably, for me to depart this life.  It comes at Nature’s demand.  I exult as a debtor of good faith about to return to his origin, not—as some might think—crushed and full of sadness, but having absorbed the universal wisdom of the philosophers regarding how much more happy is the soul than the body.  When a better condition is cut off from a worse one, one should feel joy instead of sadness.  I am also mindful of the fact that the gods in the heavens have allocated death to some of the most upright men as their greatest compensation. 

But I know that this reward was given to me so that I might not succumb to arduous trials, nor ever surrender or disgrace myself.  I have been trained to know that sorrows destroy only the faint-hearted, but give way to those who are resolute.  Neither do I feel any remorse for my actions, nor does the remembrance of any bad action trouble me.  Both when I was living in anonymity and narrow obscurity, and after I became emperor, I preserved my soul…Yet actual success, and the desired outcomes of our plans, are not always congruent with each other, since higher powers claim for themselves the right to decide the results of human undertakings…Neither will I be ashamed to admit that I learned some time ago, through the prediction of a reliable oracle, that I would die by the sword. 

He who wishes to die when he should not, and he who flees from death when his appointed hour has come, is rightly judged to be equally cowardly and ignoble.  I have said enough.  I feel my force of life slipping away…As a worthy adopted son of the republic, I hope that a good leader will be found after me. 

These were the last words of the emperor Julian, as he expired amid the sobs and lamentations of his companions.  He was thirty-two years old. He was buried at Tarsus in Cilicia. As a disciple of Plato, he had expressed a desire to be interred at the site of the ancient Academy at Athens; his soldiers had preferred a cremation, with the emperor’s ashes scattered in Rome near the relics of Caesar. “The history of princes,” writes Gibbon, “does not very frequently renew the example of a similar repetition.”

Not since the death of Socrates in Athens had such memorable and moving final words been spoken. History has recorded them, and burnishes their sentiments with a timeless nobility.    



Read more about the great deeds and words of men under duress in the new translation of Sallust’s Conspiracy of Catiline and War of Jugurtha.


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