This paper argues that Julian’s succession to the purple in November 361 was a more contentious proposition than is usually assumed and should not be seen as a simple dynastic transition.
Despite being the subject of numerous biographies from Bidez (1930) to Murdoch (2008), little attention has been paid to Julian’s accession. Recent reassessments of aspects of his career from his relationship with contemporaries to his literary output, notably Elm (2012) and the collection of Baker-Brian and Tougher (2012) have continued this trend of ignoring the brief period between Constantius’ death and Julian succeeding him. Dynastic ties, command of the Gallic army and a claim to the office since his Paris coup in 360 are assumed to have assured an untroubled and even instantaneous transition. This view is supported by most of our ancient sources, friendly or hostile, who typically stress the smoothness of Julian’s succession despite very different attitudes to his reign.
It is this paper’s contention, however, that the traditional account fails in three ways. First, it overestimates the potency of dynasty, both Julian’s specific claim on a hostile eastern elite and the value of dynastic succession more broadly; a point developed in the scholarship of McEvoy (2013). Second, it ignores the strong incentives which his allies and adversaries both had for downplaying problems with the transition. Finally and most importantly, it fails to fully consider the implications of our most detailed source, Ammianus Marcellinus.
Instead, it is argued that the brief account of an effort to find an alternative candidate in Ammianus XXI.5.4 suggests a more complicated picture which better reflects the reality of imperial succession. Julian’s accession was not an automatic process which occurred with the death of his cousin; instead it happened afterwards when significant elements of the old regime decided to accept his claim rather than elevate a rival candidate. He did not simply become an emperor – he was made one.
The situation in November 361 thus has strong parallels with the imperial vacancies of June 363 and February 364, recently explored in detail by Lenski (2003) and Olariu (2005). The key difference was not the dynastic factor but rather that there was a strong contender already claiming the office. Nevertheless, it was still not inevitable that Julian would emerge as the plurality candidate of an elite which had been preparing to go to war with him days beforehand and subsequent events at Chalcedon suggest that he was not a consensus candidate. Understanding exactly how Julian came to the purple in 361 thus helps our understanding both of his actions in office and of the nature of imperial succession in the fourth century more broadly.
The Emperor Julian