|Julian receives the mortal wound as depicted|
in this 19th century engraving.
When we marched on from this place, the Persians, since their frequent losses made them dread regular battles with the infantry, laid ambuscades, and secretly attended us, from the high hills on both sides watching our companies as they marched, so that the soldiers, suspicious of this, all day long neither raised a palisade nor fortified themselves with stakes. And while the flanks were strongly protected and the army, as the nature of the ground made necessary, advanced in square formation, but with the battalions in open order, it was reported to the emperor, who even then unarmed had gone forward to reconnoiter, that the rear guard had suddenly been attacked from behind.
Excited by the misfortune, he forgot his coat-of‑mail, and merely caught up a shield in the confusion; but as he was hastening to bring aid to those in the rear, he was recalled by another danger — the news that the van, which he had just left, was just as badly off. While he was hastening to restore order there without regard to his own peril, a Parthian band of mailed cavalry on another side attacked the center companies, and quickly overflowed the left wing, which gave way, since our men could hardly endure the smell and trumpeting of the elephants, they were trying to end the battle with pikes and volleys of arrows.
But while the emperor rushed hither and thither amid the foremost ranks of the combatants, and as the Persians turned in flight, they hacked at their legs and backs, and those of the elephants. Julianus, careless of his own safety, shouting and raising his hands tried to make it clear to his men that the enemy had fled in disorder, and, to rouse them to a still more furious pursuit, rushed boldly into the fight. His guards, who had scattered in their alarm, were crying to him from all sides to get clear of the mass of fugitives, as dangerous as the fall of a badly built roof, when suddenly — no one knows whence — a cavalryman's spear grazed the skin of his arm, pierced his ribs, and lodged in the lower lobe of his liver. While he was trying to pluck this out with his right hand, he felt that the sinews of his fingers were cut through on both sides by the sharp steel. Then he fell from his horse, all present hastened to the spot, he was taken to camp and given medical treatment. [Taken from the Roman History of Ammianus Marcellinus, Book XXV, Chapter 3]Julian's wound was mortal and though he lingered a few days, ultimately died of a hemorrhage.
The identity of Julian's slayer has remained a mystery to this day. As seen above, Marcellinus indicates that no one knew who threw the javelin that pierced Julian. Another of Julian's friends, the pagan philosopher Libanius, was quick to affix blame to those whom Julian hated most. The Christian historian Sozomen, writing about 60-70 years after the event, explains:
Libanius, the sophist, a native of Syria, the most intimate friend of Julian, expressed himself in the following terms concerning the person who had committed the deed:
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"You desire to know by whom the emperor was slain. I know not his name. We have a proof, however, that the murderer was not one of the enemies; for no one came forward to claim the reward, although the king of Persia caused proclamation to be made, by a herald, of the honors to be awarded to him who had performed the deed. We are surely beholden to the enemy for not arrogating to themselves the glory of the action, but for leaving it to us to seek the slayer among ourselves.
"Those who sought his death were those who lived in habitual transgression of the laws, and who had formerly conspired against him, and who therefore perpetrated the deed as soon as they could find an opportunity. They were impelled by the desire of obtaining a greater degree of freedom from all control than they could enjoy under his government; and they were, perhaps, mainly stimulated by their indignation at the attachment of the emperor to the service of the gods, to which they were averse."
In the document above quoted, Libanius clearly states that the emperor fell by the hand of a Christian, and this, probably, was the truth. It is not unlikely that some of the soldiers who then served in the Roman army might have conceived the idea, since Greeks and all men until this day have praised tyrannicides for exposing themselves to death in the cause of liberty, and spiritedly standing by their country, their families, and their friends. [Taken from: The Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen, Book VI, Chapters 1-2]It is notable that Sozomen, though a Christian, is persuaded by Libanius's logic and agrees that the culprit was probably a Christian. Interestingly, Libanius elaborates on the identity of the culprit in a separate tract entitled, Avenging Julian, in which he warned the newly crowned emperor Theodosius I to be wary of assassins. Writing in about AD 380, Libanius says the following:
"Our renowned Julian received that blow in the side as he strove to unite part of his line that had broken, spurring his horse towards them, cheering and threatening. The assailant who inflicted the wound was a Taiene [Saracen], acting in obedience to their leader’s command. This action, indeed, would probably secure for the chief a reward from the people who were keen to have him killed." [Taken from: Selected Works of Libanius: The Julianic Orations as found in the article Killing Julian by Benjamin James Rogaczewski]Libanius insinuates that this Saracen was in the pay of Christian masters because, as above, no one had come forward among the Persians to claim the reward for having slain the Roman Emperor. Of course, there are numerous problems with this type of logic, for example: the slayer may himself have been killed in the heat of battle; or the javelin may have been a random lucky cast from a Persian, or accidental friendly fire from a Roman. Writing in the early 5th century, the Christian historian Socrates offers a completely different explanation, as follows:
"Some say that a certain Persian hurled the javelin, and then fled; others assert that one of his own men was the author of the deed, which indeed is the best corroborated and most current report. But Callistus, one of his body-guards, who celebrated this emperor's deeds in heroic verse, says in narrating the particulars of this war, that the wound of which he died was inflicted by a demon. This is possibly a mere poetical fiction, or perhaps it was really the fact; for vengeful furies have undoubtedly destroyed many persons." [Taken from The Ecclesiastical History of Socrates, Book III, Chapter 21]Writing later in the 5th century, the Christian historian Theodoret lists the extant theories regarding the slayer, but maintains that ultimately the identity doesn't matter and in the process, provides one of the most memorable vignettes regarding the death of Julian:
"The name of the man who dealt that righteous stroke no one knows to this day. Some say that he was wounded by an invisible being, others by one of the Nomads who were called Ishmaelites [that is, a Saracen]; others by a trooper who could not endure the pains of famine in the wilderness. But whether it were man or angel who plied the steel, without doubt the doer of the deed was the minister of the will of God. It is related that when Julian had received the wound, he filled his hand with blood, flung it into the air and cried, 'You have won, O Galilean.'" [Taken from: The Ecclesiastical History of Theodoret, Book III, Chapter 20]Socrates offers the following summation of both the man Julian and his inglorious death, which strikes me as a pretty accurate assessment:
Be the case however as it may, this is certain, that the ardor of his natural temperament rendered him incautious, his learning made him vain, and his affectation of clemency exposed him to contempt. Thus Julian ended his life in Persia, as we have said, in his fourth consulate, which he bore with Sallust his colleague. This event occurred on the 26th of June, in the third year of his reign, and the seventh from his having been created Cæsar by Constantius, he being at that time in the thirty-first year of his age. [Taken from The Ecclesiastical History of Socrates, Book III, Chapter 21]For a detailed scholarly analysis of the death of Julian, check out Killing Julian by Benjamin James Rogaczewski.