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Julian’s Gamble in the Desert

By Byron J. Nakamura
2/28/2018 • MHQ Magazine

Inspired by Alexander the Great, the Roman emperor set out to conquer Persia with a massive army, a bold plan, and a thirst for glory.

One day in early April, stood on an earthen mound and looked out upon a magnificent array of military might. Assembled before him were the legions of the Roman eastern field army, 65,000 strong, along with 1,000 transport AD 363, the emperor Julian vessels and 50 warships, a flotilla reminiscent of the one amassed by Xerxes to invade Greece more than 800 years before. Julian’s army had left its winter headquarters in Antioch a month earlier and paused here, at Cercusium, on the east bank of the Euphrates River. Three hundred miles to the south, on the Tigris River near modernday Baghdad, lay Ctesiphon, the capital of the Sassanid Persian Empire. Julian planned a lightning assault on the city, part of a bold, if risky, scheme to crush the army of the Persian king Shapur II, one of the most celebrated and ruthless rulers of his generation. Victory, Julian promised his soldiers, would expand the empire, secure its eastern frontier, and fill Roman coffers—and the soldiers’ pockets— with Persian wealth.

A successful campaign would also bring great glory to Julian. Elevated to the throne by his troops only a few years earlier at age 29, Flavius Claudius Julianus was one of Rome’s most educated and intellectual rulers. A keen student of history, he burned with ambition. Addressing his troops, he spoke of previous Roman rulers— Trajan, Septimius Severus, and Lucius Verus among them—who had tasted victory over Rome’s eastern enemies. He also must have thought of his personal hero, Alexander the Great, who had conquered Persia 600 years earlier; Julian fancied himself the Greek king’s spiritual heir. If his plan worked and brought a great empire to its knees, Julian too would be hailed as a world conqueror.

When Julian became sole emperor of Rome after the death of his cousin Constantius II in 361, he inherited a hotly contested eastern frontier. Roman influence on that frontier extended north into the kingdom of Armenia and south to Syria, northern Arabia, and the northwestern floodplains of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Yet for more than four centuries Rome had been forced to battle for these lands against its eastern rivals, principally the Parthians and the Sassanid Persians.

In the years before Julian came to power, the Sassanid dynasty produced a line of energetic and brilliant kings who forged a civilization with a cultural sophistication, wealth, and military might that matched or exceeded Rome’s. Their empire encompassed the central Tigris and Euphrates valleys leading to the Persian Gulf and the Iranian Plateau and areas east, including portions of central Asia (modern-day Uzbekistan and Pakistan) up to the edges of northern India.

Like their Roman counterparts, Persian kings were expected to secure and expand their empire. In King Shapur II, the Romans faced one of the greatest Sassanid rulers, a leader worthy of the title “Shahanshah,” or King of Kings. A fearsome warrior, Shapur II spent much of his 70- year reign on the battlefield. According to early Islamic sources, he earned the name “Shapur of the Shoulders” (Shabur Dhul-aktaf) for leading Lakhmid Arab prisoners across the desert on a rope threaded through their pierced shoulders. Like Julius Caesar and Alexander, Shapur often dove into battle, knowing his presence could inspire his troops. And he cut a heroic figure. A Roman witness reported that in battle he “exchanged his crown for a golden helmet in the shape of a ram’s head, set with precious stones.”

From 337 to 361, Shapur waged aggressive campaigns against the Romans on his western borders. He aspired to seize Armenia and the Roman province of Mesopotamia, which included lands west of the Tigris River. Farther west, wealthy Roman Syria was an attractive prize. Its major city, Antioch, was the hub of eastern trade routes and lay astride all roads leading to Egypt and Asia Minor.

Shapur fought nine battles against Constantius II, with limited success. Determined to renew his assault when Julian came to power, the Persian posed a dangerous threat. His heavy cavalry, among the ancient world’s best, was well suited to fighting on the arid, rolling steppes of Mesopotamia. The Persians also excelled at siege warfare. Like their ancient predecessors the Assyrians, the Sassanid Persians used a variety of siege engines and towers with battering rams. Expert hydro-engineers, they also built dikes and canals to dam river water that, when released, exploded with enough force to batter down a city’s walls. Another tactic was to divert a river in order to flood the lowlands around a city, isolating and slowly starving the inhabitants.

Responding to Shapur’s incursions into northern Mesopotamia, Julian moved swiftly to prepare a punitive expedition. At Antioch during the winter of 362, the emperor mobilized Rome’s eastern legions, gathering equipment and supplies. Julian also sought divine support for his campaign from the traditional Roman gods, making blood sacrifices of cattle and other animals. Though raised a Christian, Julian had revealed his allegiance to the Roman traditional gods upon his ascent to the imperial throne, becoming the first non-Christian emperor since the famous conversion in 312 of Constantine, his father’s half-brother.

According to accounts of his contemporaries as well as Julian’s own writings, the emperor was self-confident and spirited. Before becoming emperor, he had served in Gaul under Constantius II and distinguished himself as an administrator and general by restoring order along the Rhine frontier. At the Battle of Strasbourg in 357, he defeated seven chieftains of the Alemmani Confederation despite being heavily outnumbered.

Julian knew that a victorious campaign against Shapur would bolster his reputation as a military leader—a key to imperial success. And it appears that he had few doubts about securing that victory. When offers of assistance arrived from Rome’s eastern allies, the emperor turned them down. He must have assumed that once Ctesiphon fell, the rest of Persia would surrender as well. Julian’s trump card was Prince Hormisdas, a brother of Shapur’s who had lost his bid for the throne and defected. Hormisdas accompanied Julian on the campaign, supplied valuable intelligence, and was likely Julian’s choice to become a pro-Roman client king once Shapur was toppled.

Some in Julian’s army and imperial house did not share the emperor’s enthusiasm for war on Persia. Many Christians feared that a victory by “Julian the Apostate” would give the traditional Roman gods new prominence and credibility. Other critics believed the newly crowned emperor should focus on the rampant inflation in Antioch and the eastern provinces or the continued unrest among the Germanic tribes. Such grumbling, however, fell on deaf ears. For Julian, there was a campaign to organize and a glorious war to be won.

On March 5, 363, Julian in high spirits launched the invasion. Leaving Antioch, the invasion force moved quickly east, crossing the Euphrates at Belias, one of the river’s tributaries. Much as it is today, the terrain in the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys was varied, with large stretches of rolling desert but also irrigated fields, canal networks, and even marshes near the rivers.

At Carrhae, about 420 miles northwest from Ctesiphon, Julian revealed his plan of attack. In a bold move, the emperor split his army, placing 30,000 men under the command of a relative, Procopius, and Count Sebastianus, who had commanded Roman forces in Egypt. Deployed as a diversionary force, the detachment was to cross the Tigris, protect Julian’s left flank, and make the Persians believe that the emperor sought to recapture three Roman fortress-cities—Amida, Singara, and Bezabde—taken earlier by Shapur. These lay about 300 miles north of Ctesiphon, near modern-day Mosul in Iraq.

Shapur, Julian believed, would take his army from Ctesiphon to meet this threat—leaving the capital open to attack. The emperor and the main Roman army would feign an attack toward the Tigris and the fortresses, then quickly head southeast down the Euphrates toward Ctesiphon. When Shapur realized he had been duped, he would return to Ctesiphon to defend it against Julian. Procopius would follow close on his heels and link up with Julian. With all Roman forces reunited under his command, the emperor would engage and crush Shapur’s army somewhere outside the Persian capital.

For Julian, success depended on a combination of surprise, speed, and deception. Some modern writers conclude that Julian sought to squeeze Shapur’s forces in a gigantic pincer between himself and Procopius. Others maintain that he followed the contours of a plan developed by the emperor Constantine, who was organizing a Persian campaign before he died in 337. Scholars also note that Julian’s route along the Euphrates was very similar to that taken by the emperor Trajan, one of Julian’s idols, in his invasion of Parthia in 116. Whatever the case, the emperor went to great lengths to fool Shapur, even placing supply depots along the Tigris to complete the charade that his targets were the three fortress-cities.

On March 27, nearly a month after Julian left Antioch, the Roman force under the emperor rendezvoused south of Carrhae with its support fleet, which had been constructed in Roman Asia Minor. The army and fleet traveling in tandem must have been an impressive sight. Julian’s ships stretched the width of the Euphrates, while the army formed a 10-mile column along the east bank.

At the vanguard was a scouting force of 1,500 light cavalry, Lakhmid Arabs and Scythian horse archers. Julian commanded the center of the column, made up of Rome’s famous heavy infantry, the “flower of his army,” as one historian wrote. Arintheus, the magister equitum (master of the horse), and the Persian prince Hormisdas led Julian’s large cavalry contingent, which kept watch over the army’s left flank. The baggage train traveled behind the infantry and was guarded by two divisions of regular soldiers.

The army met little resistance as it made its way down the Euphrates and plunged into southern Mesopotamia, deep in Persian territory. The few manned fortifications the Romans encountered were taken without much effort and burned. Hormisdas earned his keep by persuading some Persian garrison commanders to come to terms.

Earlier the emperor had seized upon a sign that victory was certain. His horse, Babylonius, which had been named after the famous ancient city, was a magnificent steed whose tack was decorated with fine golden ornaments and precious stones. One day before Julian’s morning ride the beast stumbled and collapsed, his adornments clattering to the ground. Taking this as a favorable omen, Julian shouted with joy: “Behold, Babylon has fallen stripped of all its finery!”

Yet Julian must have felt some apprehension. He had heard nothing from Procopius and his diversionary force. And why did the Persians offer so little resistance? Where was Shapur? Some Persians, he knew, lay just beyond the army’s periphery, watching and waiting; his scouts had killed a few in skirmishes. The Romans also suspected Persian sabotage when the river one day suddenly burst its banks, sinking a number of grain ships. Stone sluices that controlled the flow of water for irrigation had mysteriously collapsed. Julian, mindful of hidden dangers, kept lightly armed bodyguards with him and constantly moved within the Roman column.

As the weather grew warmer and more humid, resistance to the Roman advance stiffened. When the defector Hormisdas set out on a predawn reconnaissance patrol one morning, a large contingent of Persians encamped on the opposite side of the river tried to ambush him. The assassination failed, though, when they misjudged the depth of the water and could not cross. Later it was discovered that the surena, Shapur’s prime minister at Ctesiphon, helped plan the attack.

As the Romans drew closer to the capital of Ctesiphon, they forded the Naarmalcha, or Royal Canal, which provided water to neighboring farms and communities. Two heavily armed fortress-cities guarded the canal ways leading to Ctesiphon: Pirisabora, now the modern Iraqi city of al-Anbar, and Maozamalcha, which lay 30 miles south.

Julian reached Pirisabora first. Its leaders refused to parley, showing confidence in their massive battlements, which were constructed of mud brick and cemented with bitumen, a substance like asphalt. When the Romans opened their siege, they pounded these walls from dawn until dusk. Battering rams with heads of iron shook the city’s superstructure. Ballistae—large crossbowlike siege weapons wheeled out from the Roman ships—launched heavy stones and iron-tipped bolts that could pierce two men in a single shot. Catapults—called onagers (literally “wild asses”) because of their kicking recoil—flung stones as well as clay vessels filled with burning pitch.

The Persian defenders, covered in iron scale, spread large tarps of wet goat’s hair over the battlements to absorb the impact of Roman missiles. As they rained down spears, clay tiles, and arrows on Julian’s soldiers, civilians threw stones.

The fighting raged for two days. As casualties mounted, Julian tried to encourage his troops by leading sorties. He even spearheaded an assault on one of the city’s iron gates, surrounded by soldiers holding their shields overhead in a testudo, a tortoise-like protective shelter.

Frustrated by the resilience of the city’s defenders, Julian turned to his engineers. They set to work building a helepolis, or city-taker, an enormous siege tower first used in the fourth century BC by the Hellenistic Greek general Demetrius Poliorcetes, a besieger extraordinaire. From the high ramparts of their city, the Persians watched the tower take form and grow. Realizing it could easily overtop their highest battlements, they despaired and sought terms for surrender.

By the time Julian neared Maozamalcha, the second fortress on the canal leading to Ctesiphon, it was May and unbearably hot. In modern Iraq, early summer can bring temperatures in the mid-90s; during Julian’s campaign, humidity from the floodplains accompanied this heat. The surrounding marshes bred sand flies and mosquitoes that tormented men and horses. The lush surroundings of the early campaign were gone, along with their foraging opportunities.

The Romans also encountered vast stretches of flooded territory. Evidently the Persians had broken the dikes that held back the Euphrates. The Romans responded ingeniously, making portable bridges out of inflated animal skins. Small boats and planks also helped the army traverse the marshy lands.

But it was slow going. Julian might have speeded the advance by moving to open country, but he feared that terrain would favor the Persian cavalry, particularly its heavily armored horsemen, the Savaran. Julian knew they could easily destroy a Roman column not in battle formation.

To reach Maozamalcha and Ctesiphon, Julian’s army left the main riverbank of the Euphrates and headed east through the irrigated lands between the Euphrates and Tigris. They followed a canal line toward the capital, now less than 20 miles away.

The fortress of Maozamalcha was on a small island surrounded by water and thick beds of reeds. Its defenders were rested and well stocked, expecting Julian’s arrival. The Romans conducted their siege with brutal efficiency, locking the city down tight. For two days the air filled with the sounds of ballistae screeching as they wound up and discharged their bolts. Roman soldiers charged up ramparts in their coats of chain mail with their shields held high above them, fending off projectiles hurled by Maozamalcha’s defenders. The city was protected by double walls, so even when the Roman soldiers breached one wall, a second awaited. Persian soldiers atop the walls tossed down all manner of incendiary material. Smoke from fires cast a gloom over the city, while screams of the wounded and dying could be heard through the din of the fighting.

As the siege continued, Roman sappers directed by siege engineers dug tunnels under Maozamalcha’s walls. On the third day, Julian ordered a night attack to divert attention from the noise of digging as the sappers neared the surface. With the defenders preoccupied, the Romans emerged from the tunnels and took the city from inside.

The victory was sweet; the city was sacked, plundered, and burned. The Persian capital was just 12 miles away.

Leaving the smoldering ruins of Maozamalcha, the Romans enjoyed a brief respite. The army rested for two days at the ruins of Seleucia, once a great city of Ancient Greece founded by one of Alexander the Great’s generals. Natural springs there provided fresh water, but the Romans also discovered the crucified remains of the family of Mammersides, who had surrendered the city of Pirisabora to Julian. It was a grisly reminder of the fate that awaited collaborators.

As Ctesiphon grew closer, uncertainty gnawed at Julian. There was still no word from Procopius, nor any sign of Shapur’s army. Persian raiding parties nipped at the flanks of his army, refusing direct confrontation. Just outside Maozamalcha, the Romans sighted a large Persian force led by one of Shapur’s sons, but it quickly withdrew. Was this merely reluctance to engage in battle? It was as if the army were being drawn into a trap as inexorable as a powerful undercurrent of the Euphrates.

Even greater concerns plagued Julian when he reached his long-sought prize, Ctesiphon. The Persian capital was protected by a canal, which had been dammed and drained of water. The deep, swift waters of the Tigris also presented a difficult crossing. Drawn up to defend the capital were thousands of spearmen with straight swords and long coats of iron scale, as well as line upon line of archers. And of course, there was the Savaran heavy cavalry, the mailed fist of the Persian army. It’s not clear how many Persians defended the city, but they were an awesome sight.

Undeterred, Julian moved quickly, removing the dam, refilling the canal, and moving his fleet into the Tigris. To get his army to the walls of Ctesiphon, Julian staged a daring night crossing, sending five ships to establish a foothold on the opposite bank. When the Roman troops spilled from the ships onto the steep muddy bank, they were met with a shower of flaming arrows and burning pitch. Persian artillery hurled clay jugs that shattered on the wooden decks of the ships, spilling naphtha, a flammable oil, and sparking fires. Though the initial assault didn’t go well, Julian pretended otherwise, shouting to his troops that the fires were a predetermined signal for a successful landing. More ships crossed, and after intense fighting the Romans gained control of the riverbank and pressed forward.

On a broad plain outside Ctesiphon’s walls, the surena, Shapur’s prime minister, prepared for battle. The Persians typically set lines of their Savaran cavalry at the front of a core of heavy infantry in the middle. Light or heavy cavalry protected the flanks. A strategic reserve was often held in the rear. The Persians usually opened battle with a hail of arrows from mounted or foot archers to soften the enemy’s front lines. Next the heavy cavalry charged with their lances, hoping to weaken the enemy line and create enough panic to break it. If the line did not break, the cavalry would wheel away and the infantry would engage, relying on hand-to-hand fighting to mop up.

The Persian heavy cavalry posed a great threat to Julian. Over time the Romans would develop units similar to the Savaran. But for now the emperor had to worry most about protecting his flanks. If the Savaran put to flight Julian’s own cavalry and then outflanked and encircled his infantry, defeat seemed certain.

At Ctesiphon the Persians opened the battle in their preferred manner with a salvo of arrows whistling through the air from the light skirmisher units. Their elephants trumpeted, their bulk threatening “destruction to all who approached,” according to a witness. The Savaran charged, whipping up dust. Resisting the thunderous clash, the Roman infantry held firm and engaged the heart of the Persian infantry. Julian seemed to be everywhere, reinforcing weak points, extolling the brave, spurring on the fearful. Soon the Persians’ line buckled and gave ground, and their slow retreat turned into full flight as they headed for the safety of the city gates. Horses, elephants, and warriors—including the surena—were driven from the field.

Julian now faced a crucial decision. Thousands of Persians lay dead, but the bulk of Ctesiphon’s army remained within the city’s walls. Without Procopius’s reinforcements, Julian wasn’t sure he had the strength for a protracted siege. And most distressing, Shapur’s army still lurked somewhere to the north. In his original plan, Julian assumed the Persian king’s main army would show itself before a siege of Ctesiphon. After his army beat Shapur, Ctesiphon would then surrender. At worst, Julian had thought, he would defeat Shapur and take the capital afterward at his leisure.

On June 5, Julian and his staff officers held a war council, after which the emperor abandoned plans to take Ctesiphon. He may have worried that Shapur would attack from the rear during a siege, forcing the Romans to fight two Persian forces simultaneously. Instead Julian ordered the army to head north along the Tigris and hunt down Shapur’s forces.

Before leaving Ctesiphon, Julian issued an order that dramatically changed his campaign. His magnificent fleet was to be burned so that it wouldn’t fall into enemy hands. It is a perplexing decision. Without the fleet’s support, the army would have to forage for its food. Nor could it carry siege equipment, which meant Julian could not take up the attack on Ctesiphon after he beat Shapur’s army. Some dubious accounts of Julian’s decision maintain that he acted on bad intelligence supplied by Persians posing as deserters. Perhaps the best explanation is that the emperor had no choice. The ships couldn’t accompany the army north because that would mean sailing upstream on the Tigris. What’s more, after Julian abandoned the siege of Ctesiphon, the fleet was needed only for logistical support—something Julian gambled his army could do without.

Whatever prompted his decision, it was clear that Julian’s goal was total and unconditional victory. A few days after the battle, Shapur sent envoys to negotiate terms for peace. The Persian king was willing to relinquish certain garrisons and cede a portion of territory along the eastern frontier. Julian, outraged, hardly listened and summarily rejected Shapur’s proposal. Having come this far, he would not be denied the glory he craved.

Misfortune struck the Roman army even before the embers of the burned fleet cooled. Some of Julian’s rank and file panicked at the sight of the ships aflame and urged a return home via the army’s original path. This was impossible; the Romans had ravaged most of the lands along its Euphrates route, and the Persians had destroyed others. The enemy also had allowed the melted winter snow to flood the area, turning it into a swampy, fetid morass.

Morale ebbed as the army trudged up the Tigris. Because it was now well into June, the heat was stifling. Thick swarms of flies and mosquitoes cast a shadowy veil over Julian’s forces. The Persians burned fields ahead of the army, which forced the Romans to wait for the flames to subside. Their pace slowed to a crawl. Skirmishers from Ctesiphon dogged the rear guard and struck at the baggage train, which held the precious and dwindling supplies. The army was about to run out of food.

When Julian’s forces stopped for the evening along the Diyala, a tributary of the Tigris, Roman scouts reported a whirling cloud of dust many miles to the north. It was hoped that this was a relief column commanded by Procopius. That night the emperor slept fitfully, plagued by nightmares and the troubles that had dogged his campaign. At daybreak, the dust cloud grew closer, and the Romans picked out the iron breastplates and glistening mail corsets of mounted soldiers. But it was not Procopius. It was the Persian heavy cavalry, the Savaran. Shapur’s main army had arrived.

Later that morning several units of Shapur’s cavalry attacked Julian’s baggage train, much to the Romans’ despair. Its capture or destruction would be the army’s death knell. Fighting desperately, the Romans managed to turn back the Persian horsemen, who were stunned. Julian’s forces continued on, and days passed as they lurched along the east bank of the Tigris.

About 75 miles into the march, near the district of Maranga, Roman scouts told Julian that the Persians had formed into a set battle formation, blocking the Romans’ path. At the front were units of Savaran cavalry armored head to toe with iron bands and ring mail, their faces covered with forbidding metal masks resembling a human face. Elephants and their mahouts, or drivers, stood ready to break through the Roman lines. And archers, so many archers, filled the plain.

The Romans, despite their weakened condition, responded well. Julian quickly formed his infantry into a crescent and reinforced his wings. The emperor did not wait for opening skirmishes but charged in at full speed. This unexpected maneuver confused the enemy. The gap between the armies closed so quickly that the Persian archers could not loose their arrows. The Savaran cavalry had little time to build up speed for their charge and found themselves engulfed by the Roman infantry. Like angry hornets the Romans swarmed the armored horses, killing them from below and upending their riders.

With the archers and cavalry neutralized, the Romans smashed into the Persian infantry, driving Shapur’s army back. The battle continued until the Persians withdrew, leaving the Roman forces spent as they headed back to their tents. The casualties on both sides were so heavy that a three-day truce was called to recover and collect the dead.

Shapur, stung by the Romans’ mettle, refused to again offer a pitched battle against Julian. Rather, he shadowed the Roman army as it marched along the Tigris. On the verge of starvation, the Romans were weak but still dangerous. Like a pack of hounds attacking a wounded wolf, Persian cavalry harried the Roman flanks. The Persians would seem to appear from nowhere, fiercely attack at a weak point, then quickly withdraw when the legionaries rallied. This forced Julian to march his army in battle formation, which slowed its pace considerably.

On June 26 Julian was riding with the army’s vanguard at Sumere (modern-day Samarra) when news arrived of a Persian attack at the rear. The emperor grabbed a shield and sped to the action, neglecting to don his armor. After this raid was stymied, reports of new Persian attacks sent the emperor riding to the front and then the center, where Persian Savaran units supported by elephant corps had broken through. The smell of the monstrous beasts reportedly had panicked the Roman cavalry. Throwing aside caution, Julian spurred his horse and threw himself into the fight, rallying his soldiers and screaming orders as he hacked through waves of Persian troops. The air filled with a hailstorm of arrows and javelins, along with what must have been the horrible noise of fighting, the wails of the dying, and the trumpeting of elephants as they trampled Roman and Persian alike.

The Roman legionaries, inspired by their emperor fighting alongside them with so little protection, drove back the Persians. The day was saved. Members of the imperial bodyguard, who had been scattered during the fighting, urged the emperor to leave the fray. At nearly that moment a spear pierced Julian’s side, entering his ribcage. Julian attempted to pull the spearhead out but cut his fingers to the bone. The emperor fell. Although he was quickly brought to safety, doctors could do little. The spear had penetrated his liver and bowels, and most likely sepsis set in. The emperor died quietly around midnight, nearly four months into his campaign.

It is unclear who threw the spear that killed Julian. Accounts point to a disgruntled Christian soldier within his ranks or a Saracen cavalryman. In any case Julian’s expedition now lacked food and a leader. With little enthusiasm, the Roman commanders selected one of their fellow officers, Jovian, a high-ranking court official, as the new Roman emperor and leader of the army.

Ten days later Shapur offered terms for peace. Jovian, left with a starving army and few options, submitted to a peace treaty regarded by one contemporary writer as the “most shameful in the history of the Romans.” The empire lost five key regions across the west bank of the Tigris, including 15 fortress-cities, along with key strongholds. Rome’s presence in Mesopotamia was virtually wiped out, and Armenia, a Roman ally and important buffer state, was left without protection. Rome would not mount another major invasion of its eastern rival for nearly three centuries.

Afterward, the Romans limped back to Antioch. At Thilsaphata, approximately 200 miles from where Julian fell, the main Roman army finally regrouped with the forces of Procopius and Sebastianus. Sources are silent on the movements of the diversionary forces during Julian’s march to Ctesiphon. Shapur’s long absence suggests they were a successful decoy. Yet what prevented them from joining the main Roman army remains a mystery.

Blame for the failure of the Roman expedition lies with Julian and his strategy. The emperor was supremely confident in himself and perhaps in others such as Procopius. This ultimately proved his undoing. Though his plan was risky, he devised no contingency for failure, no exit strategy. Like his hero Alexander, he aimed to conquer all Persia as well as adjacent lands. Perhaps blinded by hubris, Julian failed to realize that Rome was an aging superpower that had reached its zenith two centuries earlier. Shapur’s peace offer after Ctesiphon’s fighting would have ensured Roman superiority in the east. Yet Julian’s ego and ambitious reach far exceeded his grasp.

A windswept cliff face at Taq-i Bostan, near modern Kirmanshah in Iran, carries a trenchant reminder of Julian’s tragic end. A rock relief there dates to the Sassanid Persian era and features what is believed to be two Persian gods, Ahura-Mazda and Mithras, and the Persian king Ardashir II, who most likely was a son of Shapur II and may have been at the battle of Sumere. The three figures are trampling a bearded man who resembles Julian. This monument in stone stands as a testament to the shattered dreams of conquest unfulfilled.

 

Originally published in the Summer 2010 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here

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