A short history of Byzantium

A short history of Byzantium: No. 23 Do not forsake us Emperor Jovian: The shameful peace of the year 363 AD.

We first fleetingly hear of Jovian, in Ammianus Marcellinus narrative in the year 361AD just after Constantius’ death. He was in charge of bringing the dead emperor’s body to Constantinople for the state funeral and while riding in the vehicle that carried Constantius, Jovian experienced a warm welcome, something usually only reserved for emperors. We can only imagine what sort of mixed feelings he might have had while being fussed over by the people of Constantinople. As a relatively junior officer, Jovian most likely would have felt overwhelmed? Ammianus concludes this intriguing passage by hinting that:

“These are other things of the sort were a sign that imperial power would come to Jovian, though only in an empty shadowy form, since they occurred while he was directing a funeral procession.”

If only Jovian could have seen what the future had in store for him while he directed the procession, he might have savoured the moment a little longer. However, he would never experience this sort of adulation again from the people of Constantinople. When he became emperor in 363, almost by accident upon Julian’s death, deep inside Persian enemy territory, his first thoughts were to sue for peace and desperately get back to Constantinople to secure his reign. Unfortunately, Jovian would die en route to the city, in the Roman town of Dadastana, allegedly by charcoal asphyxiation in his bedroom in 364. Interestingly, his short reign of eight months would see a reversal of Julian’s edicts, restoring in particular all of the rights and privileges of the Christians. But this would not be his greatest legacy (his likely successor would have restored Christian privileges anyway), it was instead his controversial peace treaty with the Sassanid King Sharpur II.

A brief summary of the Roman and Persian-Sassanid frontier wars to 363 AD.

The eastern Roman frontier was at its greatest extent under Emperor Trajan in 117, as far as the cities of Ctesiphon, Babylon and Charax near the Persian Gulf. Though beginning from the middle of the third century, Persia’s new heirs the Sassanids, who had overthrown the Parthians, would gradually wrestled back control of parts of Roman Mesopotamia and Armenia. But crushing defeats to the Sassanids by Emperor Galerius in 298, saw a harsh peace settled by Diocletian in Rome’s favour. The Sassanid King Narseh gave up territory to the Romans, making the Tigris river the border between the two empires. The Sassanids, as a result of the conditions of this peace, had to cede back Armenia and five provinces west of the Tigris: Ingilene, Sophanene, Arzanene, Corduene and Zabdicene. The jewel in the crown was arguably the city of Nisibis.

At the beginning of the fourth century, the Sassanid dynasty was ruled by Sharpur II. Like many of Sharpur’s predessors, he too was resentful of the fact that many decades early they had lost important ground including the Armenian region to the Romans. In the late 330’s, provoked by the great Constantine I, just before his death, Sharpur saw this as an opportunity to avenge their losses. Though soon after Constantine’s death, King Sharpur found himself instead fighting his son Constantius II. It is believed that for thirteen uninterrupted years, the two rulers fought in at least nine major battles. None of the battles proved to be conclusive. After the siege of Nisibis in 350 AD, Sharpur who once more failed in his attempts to achieve his objectives against Constantius, finally decided to sue for a truce. For both men this came as a relief.


The city walls of Amida (modern day Diyarbakir) built by Constantius II.

In 359, Sharpur re-emerged to resume his war against his old foe Constantius and successfully besieged the Roman city of Amida. For seventy-three days, the Roman garrison and its inhabitants almost held out inside the impressive fortress walls of Amida. Unfortunately, with the capture of the city, Sharpur ordered the slaughter of the garrison and its inhabitants.

In the wake of Sharpur’s victory at Amida, he continued to raid and launch assaults across the Tigris, on strongholds like Singara and the fortress of Bezalbde. In all Sharpur had succeeded in taking these and several other Roman forts except Nisibis, which seemed to be his Achilles heel. The result of these incursions by Sharpur shook Constantius II. In 361, he demanded that his cousin Julian, in Gaul at the time, send his armies east to help him. But Julian refused and a new civil war was poised to erupt. It was only with Constantius’ untimely death that the empire was spared further heartache and a distraction that Sharpur would have dearly welcomed but it wasn’t to be. Nonetheless, Sharpur had a new enemy in Julian, who inherited the struggle against Persia with honour and vigor. 

The expedition of Julian in Persia was a reversal of Constantius’ defensive war against Sharpur. He set himself the task of winning territory like his heroes Trajan and Alexander the Great. Julian’s aim was to surprise and defeat Sharpur at his own game. In 363, he sent his general Procopius eastward, in a diversionary attack through Armenia, along a route that eventually led to the Tigris. (Early gains saw the city of Amida fall back into Roman hands.) While Julian’s main column moved south following the Euphrates all the way to Sharpur’s capital of Ctesiphon. But fate would not be kind to Julian, who ultimately failed to take the city itself, despite his victory outside its walls. He was forced into a hasty retreat, when re-enforcements failed to materialize and near Phrygia Julian was fatally stabbed in his side by a Sassanid spear. The whole Roman army gasped as to what would happen next.

Stranded deep in Sassanid territory, starving and suffering from a lack of supplies, the senior officers had to choose a new emperor to lead them out of their tight spot. Their first candidate, as emperor was Sallustius Secundus, but he refused citing old age; and so Julian’s officers named a second, a staff-officer named Jovian, who accepted their acclaim. At first there was excitement in the camp, as he was mistaken as Emperor Julian, who had risen from his death bed to lead them once more. But soon they realised that the tall and lanky new Emperor was not Julian and they resigned themselves with grief once more. 

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Solidus of Emperor Jovian.

The shameful peace.

If Julian inherited the great struggle with Persia, Jovian definitely inherited the awful retreat ordered by Julian. In any other circumstances, Jovian probably would have made a good emperor, but instead he gained the scornful disapproval or criticism of some of his contemporaries for the decisions he made straight after Julian’s death. It was hardly his fault that the retreat deep in enemy territory had turned disastrous, and in an attempt to arguably save himself and the stranded army, he decided to come to terms with Sharpur. This decision pleased Sharpur immensely, as he offered the most humiliating terms possibly, that not even Jovian in all good conscience could refuse. 

Our faithful source from the period, Ammianus Marcellinus, who was with Emperor Julian on the ill fated retreat, wholeheartedly disagreed with Jovian’s decision, considering the treaty to be dishonourable. He says he would have rather fought ten battles than to have given in to all of Sharpur’s ransom. The suggestion is also made by Ammianus that since the treaty was ratified some hundred miles from Roman territory, surely they could have fought their way out? Nonetheless, Ammianus resigns himself to the task of reporting the terms of the treaty, in which Jovian ceded five provinces beyond the Tigris, Arzanene, Corduene, Moxoene, Rehimene and Zabdicene. Amongst some of the important forts and towns in these provinces that were to be ceded were the strongholds of Nisibis, Singara and the Moor’s fort. The final ‘shame’ that Ammianus conveys to his readers is that of the loss of Armenia (proper). Jovian agreed to hold back from intervening and supporting Armenia’s monarchy against the Saasanids. With so much lost Jovian was able to at least negotiate the release of its populations but everything else had to be handed over. All in all, a majority of territory lost was roughly equal to the territory originally annexed by Galerius and Diocletian in 298. 

For all that Rome once stood for, prestige, strength and political power, was almost erased for good by the stroke of the pen by Jovian. Cities and forts that once stood as a bulwark against Persian aggression, like Nisibis and Singara were now, as historian David Potter states, “a fortified bridgehead into Roman territory”. The empire’s stranglehold of northern Mesopotamia and Armenia would never be the same again. There would be fleeting movements of territorial gains (and losses) under emperors like Anastasius, Justinian and Heraclius, before the whole theatre in the Near East (and more) would fall to the Arabs.

This author often wonders whose legacy really is the shameful peace of 363? Can Jovian blame his predecessor Julian for his predicament? Can they both be held accountable for what had occurred? Some will argue that Julian didn’t have to beeline for Ctesiphon, so deep in enemy territory; while others will argue that Jovian should have fought on until he made it back to Roman territory without signing a peace? It is easy for us to hypothesis and lay blame now. Though for those who were there, amongst the action and fallout of the peace, we have their words that stand as a testimony of the tragedy. Ammianus wrote:

“So, after peace had been made for thirty years and ratified by solemn oaths, we returned by another route, avoiding the rough and broken ground of the river and suffering from lack of food and drink. This peace, which was ostensibly granted on grounds of humanity, resulted in loss of life on a large scale…”

Upon returning to the city of Nisibis during the long retreat back to Roman territory (which was still incomplete), Emperor Jovian informed its inhabitants that they were being forceable relocated to Amida because Nisibis was no longer their home. Nisibis was now home to the Sassanids. After they pleaded with Jovian to allow them some dignity to defend the city, but were outright refused, they were instead encouraged to grab their children, wives and belongings. Ammianus describes it here best: 

“So the word was given to apply compulsion and to threaten all those who delayed with death. The city was filled with lamentation and grief; nothing was to be heard but one universal wail. Married women tore their hair at the prospect of being driven into exile from their homes in which they had been born and brought up; mothers who had lost their children or been widowed were forced away from the tombs of those they loved; the weeping throng embraced the doorposts and thresholds of their homes in floods of tears. The difficult roads were crowded with refugees dispersing as best they could. In their haste many people smuggled away such of their goods as they thought they could carry; the rest of their property, however extensive and valuable, they disregarded, being compelled to abandon it for lack of transport.”


The ruins of the fourth century Church of Saint Jacob in Nisibis (modern day Nusaybin, Turkey).

The forsaken cries of the people of Nisibis seem to pour from the pages of Ammianus and it is not hard to see why it couldn’t be true. The proud residences of this “bulwark of the provinces” stood up to Sharpur II on three diffferent occasions in 338, 346 and 350 during the reign of Constantius. Christian tradition tells us of stories of how Jacob of Nisibis prayed for divine intervention to save his city. Jacob died presumably after the siege of 350 and would not be there to see his city fall finally to Sharpur in 363. There was no siege or last stand, the gates were just simply opened to bring in the fallen body of Emperor Julian (on his way to be buried in Tarsus) and his tattered army now led by Jovian. The sad feelings of the mostly Christian population of Nisibis, of learning that they had been betrayed or forsaken by their new emperor, is poignantly expressed on behalf of the people by Ephrem the Syrian in his hymn. Bishop Ephrem wrote:

“A wonder! By chance the corpse of the accursed one, 

Crossing over towards the rampart met me near the city! 

And the Magus took and fastened on a tower, 

The standard sent from the east,

So that this standard-bearer would declare to the onlookers, 

That the city was slave to the lords of that standard.”


Notes and Further Reading:
The full text of Bishop Ephrem’s Hymn in Jul. 3.1-3, translated by McVey, is found in David S. Potter’s, The Roman Empire at Bay, AD 180-395.
Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edited, Abridged and with a Critical Foreword by Hans-Friedrich Mueller, The Modern Library, 2013.
Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of the West: The Death of the Roman Superpower, Wiedenfeld & Nicolson, 2009.
“These and other things of the sort…”, Ammianus Marcellinus, The Later Roman Empire: AD 354-378, Selected and translated by Walter Hamilton, Penquin Classic, 1995, p.233.
“So, after peace had been made for thirty years…”, Ammianus Marcellinus, The Later Roman Empire: AD 354-378, Selected and translated by Walter Hamilton, Penquin Classic, 1995, p.p.304-05.
“So the word was given to apply compulsion….”, Ammianus Marcellinus, The Later Roman Empire: AD 354-378, Selected and translated by Walter Hamilton, Penquin Classic, 1995, p.308.
John Julius Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, Viking, 1988.
“…a fortified bridgehead into Roman territory.”, David S. Potter, The Roman Empire at Bay, AD 180-395, 2nd Edition, Rouledge, 2014, p.507.
Photo credit: Every effort has been made to trace and acknowledge appropriate credit. All images are used under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 license. Of interest is the header image of the map of the Roman–Sassanid frontier, which despite some small variation represents the peace treaty that was arranged between Jovian and Sharpur II in 363. The Roman Empire is on the left and the Sassanid Empire on the right. Importantly, Sharpur has gained the cities of Nisibis and Singara and most of Armenia (proper).

4 comments on “A short history of Byzantium: No. 23 Do not forsake us Emperor Jovian: The shameful peace of the year 363 AD.

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