Posted by: ken98 | February 3, 2010

Four Fatal Mistakes and a Funeral (in the Near Future)

Day 145 – Ken here (W)(2-3-2010)
(DEF v.2, ch.23, pp.930-940)

It’s a beautiful day outside, sunny and warm, and once again I’m inside living with the emperor Julian. Reading Vidal’s Julian at the same time as Gibbon’s Julian (and Julian himself – texts online) is kind of strange and a little dizzying, like seeing double (or triple) images of the object at once. But its gratifying to read an account in one book and be led through it in another, and read Julian’s original account in one of his texts online. Julian’s an interesting guy (heavy understatement there).

We continue Chapter 24 with a slower and slower pace. Imagine a scene in the cinema where the closer we get to the pivotal action sequence, the slower the slow-motion effects become – Gibbon is nothing if not dramatic.

With regularity (maybe once every 20 pages or so) we feel ourselves set up by his melodious confidence-inducing prose and then suddenly surprised by lightning-quick denouements or resolutions that leave you breathless (and sometimes a little chagrined at being led-on so easily again). The previous 10 page section documented maybe 30 days, this 10 page section documents maybe 10 days, the next will document only a few days, then a couple of hours.

Right now, Julian is marching and winning and losing in Persia – things look awkward, but not desperate – but (unknown to everyone – except maybe his murderer) Julian has only a few days left to live.

(Note: There is nothing easier than being an armchair historian 1700 years after the fact (meaning me, not Gibbon) – but that’s what history is for – trying to figure out what it all REALLY MEANT. So here goes…)

The Story
 
Julian Transports Fleet to Tigris

  • Julian arrives near Ctesiphon and needs to transport the fleet to the Tigris
  • Julian knows his history and uses an old canal dug by Trajan 300 years earlier, redigs it, and moves the fleet
  •  
    Battle of Ctesiphon

  • Overview of (363) from Wiki (here – there are 5 of them – 165, 198, 363, 637, 1915 – what a LONG HISTORY for ONE PLACE – Iran/Iraq IS the crossroads of the East and West)
  • Julian arrives before the ruins of the former HUGE Alexandrian capital city of Seleucus (600 years before), now a small greek-speaking suburb called Coche of the new Persian city of Ctesiphon (the winter capital of the Persian monarchy)
  • Fatal Mistake #1? With a wide river, steep banks, and heavy fortifications (like attacking the Death Star in Star Wars), Julian launches a lightning attack on the bank in the dead of night, and takes it, causes a huge retreat in the Persian forces and runs the Persians all the way into Ctesiphon (and behind) the walls of Ctesiphon – the gates of Ctesiphon are open, but a wounded general (Victor) cautions not to throw all into a last assault – so the Romans wait. (May 363)
  • Unbeknownst to anyone involved – this is the high-water mark of the whole campaign (May 363)
  •  
    Julian burns Fleet, is Betrayed, Wanders Looking for Sapor

  • Fatal Mistake #2? The Sapor and the Persians sue for peace under any terms (after all one of their capitals is almost lost and the largest army in the world (at the time) is roaming FREELY in the CENTER of their country) – Julian keeps the negotiations secret and refuses all overtures to a cease-fire -shades of madness and over-weaning pride (hubris ).
  • Ctesiphon is very difficult to attack, once the gates are closed, Julian decides (a la Alexander the Great and Darius)(Julian fancies himself something like Alexander) to bring the fight to the inland part of the empire and knock Sapor to his knees
  • Two Generals argue and a King reneges and so Julian’s army is not reinforced with fresh forces from the North for an assault on the Persian King (Sebastian, Procopius, and the Armenian King Arsaces Tiranus (the king betrays the Romans, Julian again – as he had betrayed Constantius)
  • Fatal Mistake #3? Julian burns his vast fleet – Gibbon discusses this for almost 2 pages – why is it important? It marks the high-water mark of Julian’s successes, seems another act of hubris (overweaning pride – which gives the whole story of Julian the character of a Greek tragedy), and foreshadows the huge Roman losses in Mesopotamia in just a few days – Christian Bishops acting as armchair military “historians” delight in marking these acts as a kind of divine self-destructive insanity brought on by God to punish the apostate Julian – Gibbon repeatedly denigrates the accuracy of the Christian historians and their otherworldly historical theories.
  • Fatal Mistake #4? A full regiment of Persians and a Persian noble “desert” to the Romans – they turn out to be spies and mis-informants. They lead the Romans on a wild goose chase through the deserts around Baghdad/Ctesiphon. Eventually they are discovered, but only after provisions start to run low, and the army of 60,000 is getting sick and hungry in the swamps and deserts and burnt lands of the Persian heartland.
  •  
    Julian Decides to Retreat to the North and the Kurds (former Corduene Satrapy of Persia)

  • Losing supplies daily, and with the Persians burning and retreating (like the Russians before Napoleon), and with the betrayal of the renegade Persian nobleman, Julian has no provisions, and feels lost
  • Julian – greatly dissatisfied, along with his dissatisfied legions – resolves to retreat back up North to the Roman client kingdom of Corduene (the Kurds of Kurdistan) and re-group
  • The whole campaign – from passing the Chaboras river (into Persian territory) through the complete victory at Ctesiphon, the wandering in the burnt-out farmland, etc has only taken 70 days. It is an amazingly fast conquest – amazingly Alexander-The-Great-like. Had Julian lived, would the Persian empire have endured?
  •  

    Painting of Napoleons Retreat from Moscow - Theodore Gericault - The Russians fought, but burnt and retreated before the invasion of the French Empire under Napoleon in the early 1800's.  In the same way the Persians burnt and retreated before Julian in 363 as Julian marched through the center of the Persian Empire

    Painting of Napoleons Retreat from Moscow - Theodore Gericault - The Russians fought, but burnt and retreated before the invasion of the French Empire under Napoleon in the early 1800's. In the same way the Persians burnt and retreated before Julian in 363 as Julian marched through the center of the Persian Empire

     
    Quotable Gibbon: On Scorched-Earth Policy
     
    In a very English-Western European way, Gibbon characterizes the 2 different strategies for a successful scorched-earth policy (a scorched earth policy is a situation where an invading army that expects/needs to live off the agricultural/industrial production of the country being invaded is thwarted by the destruction of farmland/machinery/cities by the inhabitants of the country being invaded – the inhabitants burn/scorch and retreat before the invading army, offering little resistanc – and relying on an exhaustion of supplies to defeat the invaders rather than direct confrontation – example: Both Napoleon and Hitler when invading Russia).

    His analysis – a freedom-loving, non-totalitarian people do it for love of country (read: England or the West), or by fiat an a centralized, “fascist” state (read: the Orient)

    The appearance of the hostile country was far more inviting. The extensive region that lies between the river Tigris and the mountains of Media was filled with villages and towns; and the fertile soils for the most part, was in a very improved state of cultivation. Julian might expect that a conqueror who possessed the two forcible instruments of persuasion, steel and gold, would easily procure a plentiful subsistence from the fears or avarice of the natives.

    But on the approach of the Romans this rich and smiling prospect was instantly blasted. Wherever they moved, the inhabitants deserted the open villages and took shelter in the fortified towns; the cattle was driven away; the grass and ripe corn were consumed with fire; and, as soon as the flames had subsided which interrupted the march of Julian, he beheld the melancholy face of a smoking and naked desert. This desperate but effectual method of defence can only be executed by the enthusiasm of a people who prefer their independence to their property; or by the rigour of an arbitrary government, which consults the public safety without submitting to their inclinations the liberty of choice.

    (DEF v.2, ch.24, p.939)

    Another (famous) painting of Napoleon's Retreat from Moscow by Theodore Gericault - the Russian steppes destroyed the French Imperial Army just as effectively as the burnt desert did Julian's legions 1500 years before

    Another (famous) painting of Napoleon's Retreat from Moscow by Theodore Gericault - the Russian steppes destroyed the French Imperial Army just as effectively as the burnt desert did Julian's legions 1500 years before

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