Successors of Constantine: Constantius II and Julian

From the lecture series: The Roman Empire: From Augustus to the Fall of Rome

By Gregory S. Aldrete, P.h.D., University of Wisconsin, Green Bay

Roman emperor Constantine had brought stability and rejuvenation to the empire. When he died in 337 AD, he left behind a large family which scrambled to gain power. Who did, ultimately, reigned after the death of Constantine, and how did the successors of Constantine deal with the constant threats from outsiders?

Front and back image of ancient Roman copper coin of Emperor Constantius II
Copper coins used during the reign of Constantius II. (Image: Eduardo Estellez/Shutterstock)

Sons of Constantine

Constantine died of natural causes in 337 AD, bringing an end to a long and glorious rule that had brought stability to the Roman Empire. The few years after the death of Constantine were marked by inter-imperial skirmishes. His sons waged a bitter and bloody drive against the members of their larger family.  In the power struggle that ensued, the three sons of Constantine’s second wife, Fausta, emerged winners and divided the empire amongst themselves. Constantine’s half-brothers and most of their children were murdered to secure accession to the throne. Among the victorious sons, Constantius II was the most dynamic. 

These were troubled times, and soon more strife arose, resulting in a complicated sequence of wars, rivalries, rebellions, and conflicts, which involved external and internal foes. Over the course of these, both of Constantius’s brothers were slain. By 353 AD, Constantius found himself the lone survivor, and thus the sole ruler of the Roman Empire.

Constantius realized that the empire really required at least two emperors—one in the east, and one in the west—in order to provide adequate leadership and to respond rapidly to threats. Hence, he searched amongst the rest of his relatives for a junior emperor and settled down on two of his cousins. Constantius nominated Gallus, the first of his cousins, to serve in the east, but he soon proved to be inept and was beheaded. The second cousin, Julian, was then installed as his replacement, and he demonstrated considerably more talent. In fact, he eventually evolved into a full-fledged emperor.

Learn more about dawn of the Roman Empire.

Julian’s Rise to Supremacy

A 19th century depiction of Julian being proclaimed Emperor.
Julian became Rome’s emperor after the death of Constantius.
(Image: Félix Thorigny/Public domain)

Julian had a strong intellectual bent and was an enthusiastic student of history, rhetoric, and Neoplatonic philosophy. In his youth, he had pursued his academic interests at the great eastern centers of learning, such as Athens and Pergamum.

In spite of being a Neoplatonist and an enthusiastic student of history, he stunned everyone by being an effective military commander. He was given charge of the western front, which was under constant threat from the Rhine and Danube barbarian incursions. These regions were previously neglected and frequently ravaged by intrusion from outsiders. It was only under the able leadership of Julian that the western army was able to restore these boundaries.

In the East, Constantius was preoccupied defending the borders, where the Sassanian king Shapur II was trying to dismember the Roman Empire.

The Sassanians had captured some of the important Roman posts and had proved to be a serious threat in the East. Unsure if he had sufficient forces to take on Shapur II, Constantius ordered some of Julian’s troops to be redeployed to the East. As some of Julian’s spectacular success was not much to the liking of Constantius, this was also a ploy to weaken Julian.

However, this move backfired as the western soldiers objected to this plan and proclaimed Julian as their full-fledged emperor. Constantius was predictably infuriated, and a civil war between Constantius and Julian seemed imminent. However, before the battle took place, Constantius fell ill and died in 361 AD. He bequeathed the entire empire to Julian, who became the default ruler.

This is a transcript from the video series The Roman Empire: From Augustus to the Fall of Rome. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Julian, the Apostate

Officially, Julian had allowed the citizens of the Roman Empire to pursue any religion of their choice. Upon his succession, he declared that he had been a secret pagan all along. He reopened all the temples and canceled some of the edicts passed by Constantine and Constantius restraining pagan worship. Though Julian did not persecute Christianity, he annulled some of the subsidies and privileges acquired in the previous regimes. Influenced by Neoplatonism, Julian tried to rekindle the proto-monotheistic version of syncretic paganism adopted by some earlier emperors.

Painting showing Julian presiding at a conference of sectarians.
Julian earned the epithet ‘Julian the Apostate’ for his efforts to resuscitate paganism. (Image: Edward Armitage/Public domain)

Julian’s efforts to resuscitate paganism earned him the epithet ‘Julian the Apostate’ from Christian authors. Nonetheless, his assessment of the empire’s readiness to embrace a return of paganism was completely misplaced. One such mistake was his efforts to revive pagan practices in the deeply Christian city of Antioch, which failed miserably.

Learn more about Augustus, Rome’s First Emperor.

The Alexander Complex

Like so many rulers in the past, Julian too was vulnerable to the lure of power. This was something of an Alexander complex that inspired rulers to yearn for everlasting glory by following the footsteps of the legendary Macedonian conqueror.

In the desire to attain glory and need to ascertain Rome’s supremacy, Julian precipitously announced his decision to wage war against Shapur II and attack the Sassanian kingdom. In the war that ensued, Julian was struck in the side by a spear during a minor cavalry skirmish and he died in 363 AD, after reigning for a meagre three years.

The invasion proved to be not only a wrong decision, but also a fatal one, with Persians proving their supremacy once again. By the end of the 4th century AD, the barbarian invasions intensified, leading to the collapse of the western half of the Empire.

Common Questions about Successors of Constantine: Constantius II and Julian

Q: Who was Constantius Gallus?

Constantius Gallus was a cousin of Constantius II. He served as a junior emperor of the eastern province of the Roman empire. However, he soon proved to be inept and was beheaded.

Q: Who was the last emperor who favored paganism?

Emperor Julian was the last pagan emperor of Rome. All the Roman emperors who ruled after him were Christian.

Q: How did Emperor Julian die?

In 363 AD, Emperor Julian died after a spear struck him in the side during the war against Shapur II. The truth was never corroborated, but according to rumors, one of his own soldiers, a disgruntled Christian, used the confusion of the battle to strike him down.

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