The History, 23.5

Ammian  translated by C. D. Yonge

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5Having received the reinforcements of the Saracens which they so cheerfully offered, the emperor advanced with speed, and at the beginning of April entered Circesium, a very secure fortress, and skilfully built, it is surrounded by the two rivers Aboras (or Chaboras) and Euphrates, which make it as it were an island.

2It had formerly been small and insecure, till Diocletian surrounded it with lofty towers and walls when he was strengthening his inner frontier within the very territories of the barbarians, in order to prevent the Persians from overrunning Syria, as had happened a few years before to the great injury of the province.

3For it happened one day at Antioch, when the city was in perfect tranquillity, a comic actor being on the stage with his wife, acting some common play, while the people were delighted with his acting, the wife suddenly exclaimed, “Unless I am dreaming, here are the Persians;” and immediately the populace turning round, were put to flight, and driven about in every direction while seeking to escape the darts which were showered upon them; and so the city being burnt and numbers of the citizens slain, who, as is usual in time of peace, were strolling about carelessly, and all the places in the neighbourhood being burnt and laid waste, the enemy loaded with booty returned in safety to their own country after having burnt Mareades alive, who had wickedly guided them to the destruction of his fellow-citizens. This event took place in the time of Gallienus.

4But Julian, while remaining at Circesium to give time for his army and all its followers to cross the bridge of boats over the Aboras, received letters with bad news from Sallust, the prefect of Gaul, entreating him to suspend his expedition against the Parthians, and imploring him not in such an unseasonable manner to rush on irrevocable destruction before propitiating the gods.

5But Julian disregarded his prudent adviser, and advanced boldly; since no human power or virtue can ever avail to prevent events prescribed by the order of the Fates. And immediately, having crossed the river, he ordered the bridge to be taken to pieces, that the soldiers might have no hope of safety by quitting their ranks and returning.

6Here also a bad omen was seen; the corpse of an officer who had been put to death by the executioner, whom Sallust, the prefect, while in this country had condemned to death, because, after having promised to deliver an additional supply of provisions by an appointed day, he disappointed him through some hindrance. But after the unhappy man had been executed, the very next day there arrived, as he had promised, another fleet heavily laden with corn.

7Leaving Circesium, we came to Zaitha, the name of the place meaning an olive-tree. Here we saw the tomb of the emperor Gordian, which is visible a long way off, whose actions from his earliest youth, and whose most fortunate campaigns and treacherous murder we related at the proper time, and when, in accordance with his innate piety he had offered due honours to this deified emperor, and was on his way to Dura, a town now deserted, he stood without moving on beholding a large body of soldiers.

8And as he was doubting what their object was, they brought him an enormous lion which had attacked their ranks and had been slain by their javelins. He, elated at this circumstance, which he looked on as an omen of success in his enterprise, advanced with increased exultation; but so uncertain is fortune, the event was quite contrary to his expectation. The death of a king was certainly foreshown, but who was the king was uncertain.

9For we often read of ambiguous oracles, never understood till the results interpreted them; as, for instance, the Delphic prophecy, which foretold that after crossing the Halys, Crœsus would overthrow a mighty kingdom; and another, which by hints pointed out the sea to the Athenians as the field of combat against the Medes; and another, later than these, but not less ambiguous:—

“O son of Æacus,
I say that you the Romans can subdue.”

10The Etrurian soothsayers who accompanied him, being men skilful in portents, had often warned him against this campaign, but got no credit; so now they produced their books of such signs, and showed that this was an omen of a forbidding character, and unfavourable to a prince who should invade the country of another sovereign however justly.

11But he spurned the opposition of philosophers, whose authority he ought to have reverenced, though at times they were mistaken, and though they were sometimes obstinate in cases which they did not thoroughly understand. In truth, they brought forward as a plausible argument to secure credit to their knowledge, that in time past, when Cæsar Maximianus was about to fight Narses, king of the Persians, a lion and a huge boar which had been slain were at the same time brought to him, and after subduing that nation he returned in safety; forgetting that the destruction which was now portended was to him who invaded the dominions of another, and that Narses had given the offence by being the first to make an inroad into Armenia, a country under the Roman jurisdiction.

12On the next day, which was the 7th of April, as the sun was setting, suddenly the air became darkened, and all light wholly disappeared, and after repeated claps of thunder and flashes of lightning, a soldier named Jovianus was struck by the lightning and killed, with two horses which he was leading back from the river to which he had taken them to drink.

13When this was seen, the interpreters of such things were sent for and questioned, and they with increased boldness affirmed that this event forbade the campaign, demonstrating it to be a monitory lightning (for this term is applied to signs which advise or discourage any line of action). And this, as they said, was to be the more guarded against, because it had killed a soldier of rank, with war-horses; and the books which explain lightnings pronounce that places struck in this manner should not be trodden on, nor even looked upon.

14On the other hand, the philosophers declared that the brilliancy of this sacred fire thus suddenly presented to the eye had no special meaning, but was merely the course of a fiercer breath descending by some singular power from the sky to the lower parts of the world; and that if any foreknowledge were to be derived from such a circumstance, it was rather an increase of renown which was portended to the emperor now engaged in a glorious enterprise; since it is notorious that flame, if it meet with no obstacle, does of its own nature fly upwards.

15The bridge then, as has been narrated, having been finished, and all the troops having crossed it, the emperor thought it the most important of all things to address his soldiers who were advancing resolutely, in full reliance on their leader and on themselves. Accordingly, a signal having been given by the trumpets, the centurions, cohorts, and maniples assembled, and he, standing on a mound of earth, and surrounded by a ring of officers of high rank, spoke thus with a cheerful face, being favourably heard with the unanimous good will of all present.

16“Seeing, my brave soldiers, that you are full of great vigour and alacrity, I have determined to address you, to prove to you by several arguments that the Romans are not, as spiteful grumblers assert, now for the first time invading the kingdom of Persia. For, to say nothing of Lucullus or of Pompey, who, having forced his way through the Albani and Massagetæ, whom we call Alani, penetrated through this nation also so as to reach the Caspian lake; we know that Ventidius, the lieutenant of Antony, gained many victories in these regions.

17“But to leave those ancient times, I will enumerate other exploits of more recent memory. Trajan, and Verus, and Severus have all gained victories and trophies in this country; and the younger Gordian, whose monument we have just been honouring, would have reaped similar glory, having conquered and routed the king of Persia at Resaina, if he had not been wickedly murdered in this very place by the faction of Philip, the prefect of the prætorium, with the assistance of a few other impious men.

18“But his shade was not long left to wander unavenged, since, as if Justice herself had laboured in the cause, all those who conspired against him have been put to death with torture. Those men, indeed, ambition prompted to the atrocious deed; but we are exhorted by the miserable fate of cities recently taken, by the unavenged shades of our slaughtered armies, by the heaviness of our losses, and the loss of many camps and fortresses, to the enterprise which we have undertaken. All men uniting in their wishes that we may remedy past evils, and having secured the honour and safety of the republic on this side, may leave posterity reason to speak nobly of us.

19“By the assistance of the eternal deity, I, your emperor, will be always among you as a leader and a comrade, relying, as I well believe, on favourable omens. But if variable fortune shall defeat me in battle, it will still be sufficient for me to have devoted myself for the welfare of the Roman world, like ancient Curtii and Mucii, and the illustrious family of the Decii. We have to abolish a most pernicious nation, on whose swords the blood of our kindred is not yet dry.

20“Our ancestors have before now devoted ages to cause the destruction of enemies who harassed them. Carthage was overthrown after a long and distressing war; and its great conqueror feared to let it survive his victory. After a long and often disastrous siege, Scipio utterly destroyed Numantia. Rome destroyed Fidenæ, that it might not grow up as a rival to the empire; and so entirely laid waste Falisci and Veii, that it is not easy to attach so much faith to ancient records as to believe that those cities ever were powerful.

21“These transactions I have related to you as one acquainted with ancient history. It follows that all should lay aside, as unworthy of him, the love of plunder, which has often been the insidious bane of the Roman soldier, and that every one should keep steadily to his own troop and his own standard, when the necessity for fighting arises, knowing that should he loiter anywhere he will be hamstrung and left to his fate. I fear nothing of our over-crafty enemies but their tricks and perfidy.

22“Finally, I promise you all, that when our affairs have met with success, without entrenching myself behind my imperial prerogative, so as to consider all my own decisions and opinions irrefragably just and reasonable because of my authority, I will give, if required, a full explanation of all that I have done, that you may be able to judge whether it has been wise or not.

23“Therefore, I entreat you, now summon all your courage, in full reliance on your good fortune, sure at all events that I will share all dangers equally with you, and believing that victory ever accompanies justice.”

24When he had ended his harangue with this pleasant peroration, the soldiers, exulting in the glory of their chief, and elated with the hopes of success, lifted up their shields on high, and cried out that they should think nothing dangerous nor difficult under an emperor who imposed more toil on himself than on his common soldiers.

25And above all the rest his Gallic troops showed this feeling with triumphant shouts, remembering how often while he as their leader was marshalling their ranks, they had seen some nations defeated and others compelled to sue for mercy and peace.

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