How Barbarians Forced a Scholar to be a Caesar

Nobody expected Julian to do well as Caesar. All his life he had been nothing more than a scholar and a bookworm. What did he know about waging war or running an empire? With this in mind, the emperor Constantius II made sure that Julian’s chief officials reported to him. Although this curtailed Julian’s powers, it was better than losing the western empire. But all this caution was for naught. In the end, Julian proved his worth as a Caesar within a year of his ascension. Find out how he did so.

Limited Power

On November 6, 355, the twenty-four year old Julian became Caesar of the Western Roman Empire. Although he did not wish to be Caesar, he made up his mind to do a good job. After his coronation was over, he set off for Vienna to assume command. But along the way, he was appalled to learn that barbarian troops had destroyed Cologne, a major city in Germany. Despite the gladness with which the people of Vienna received him, Julian was in no mood to celebrate.

Due to his youth and inexperience, Julian’s chief military and civil officers took orders from Constantius himself. The emperor wanted to make sure that his cousin made the best choices in ruling and war. At the same time, he also wanted to prevent Julian from turning against him or causing a mess like Gallus did. These measures did not daunt Julian. He set out to learn all he could about being Caesar and soon proved that he was good one.

The Successes of Julian

The fall of Cologne drove home the severity of the barbarian threat to Julian. Not wanting to waste any time, he spent the winter of 355 in Vienna learning the ropes and laying his plans. Soon, Julian learned of an attack on the city of Autun. Although the city survived the onslaught, the barbarians were likely to try again. Instead of waiting, Julian decided to take the fight to the barbarians and to gain experience in battle. After careful preparations, the Caesar and his troops reached Autun on June 24.

Upon arrival, Julian held a war council with his generals to discuss their course of action. Aware that the barbarians threatened the city of Troyes, most of the generals advised caution. They preferred to take a safe route in relieving the city. But Julian had other ideas. Although this was his first war council, he displayed a preference for boldness, creativity and speed. Upon learning of a dangerous route through the dark woods that would give him the element of surprise, Julian went ahead with this suggestion.

Despite objections, the Caesar set off with a small but speedy force through the woods where he came upon the barbarians. A fierce battle ensued. The barbarians hurled their superior numbers at Julian’s troops with all their might. But despite their ferocious onslaught, they could not break Julian’s army. Soon, the barbarians lost heart and fled. Julian allowed them to leave because he knew his armoured troops could not catch them.

Having relieved Troyes, Julian rested his troops for a short while before heading for Reims to meet up with his main force. From there, Julian managed to defeat the Alamanni and the Germans while going on the retake more towns in Gaul. The most important city that Julian retook was Cologne. To buy time, he forced the Franks to accept a peace treaty. This gave him a chance to rebuild the devastated city.

The Problems Julian Faced

The campaign season ended with the approach of winter in 356. Julian could look back on his first campaign with satisfaction. Firstly, he had gained hands on experience in battle. Secondly, he had racked up a string of successes against the barbarians due to his boldness and speed. After leaving instructions for the rebuilding of Cologne, he dispersed part of his forces to various towns to gather supplies. Having done so, he left for the town of Sens.

The lull in the fighting did not mean rest for Julian. He still had to sort out the various problems he faced. Firstly, there was the issue of deserters. The town garrisons had fled their posts in the face of the barbarian onslaught. How was he going to entice them to return? Secondly, he had to consider the problem of the barbarians. Knowing that the empire was weak, the barbarians banded together to plunder the land. How was he to defeat them all? Lastly, Julian had to find a way to supply his forces as he split them up to deal with the various threats. Without a proper logistical solution, his troops faced certain defeat.

The Siege of Sens

As Julian mulled over his problems, the barbarians learned that he had few troops at Sens. Not wanting to miss this chance, they besieged the town hoping to capture it and the young Caesar. Despite the surprise, Julian kept his cool. He closed the gates and directed his small force to defend the walls. Due to the severity of the situation, he had to get the citizens to help in repairs for the damage done to the walls.

Throughout the siege, Julian worked hard to encourage his men to hold out. Thanks to his boundless energy, the barbarians failed to breach the walls and gave up after a month of trying. The narrow escape reminded Julian once more of the barbarian threat. Due to their frequent raids, the land, crops and property lay in ruins. Famine would set in soon if Julian did nothing about the matter. Thankfully, the energetic young Caesar had plans to address the issues and the support of his men to carry out his ideas. But before he could tackle the threat, he gave his men a short rest to recover from the siege.

Reflections of the Vizier

Julian proved he was not a mere scholar. During the first year of his ascension as Caesar, he had learned to govern and fight in battle. The threat that the barbarians posed forced him to learn quickly. Due to his boldness and speed, he managed to score a few victories against the barbarians and retook some towns in the process. His successes earned him the respect of his troops who were more eager to follow his plans. The scholar whom no one expected to succeed was coming into his own.


Marcellinus, Ammianus. The Later Roman Empire: A.D. 354-378 (Penguin Classics). Translated by Walter Hamilton. England: Penguin Books, 2004.

Norwich, John Julius. Byzantium: The Early Centuries. England: Penguin Books, 1990.

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