Battle of Samarra

The battle of Samarra (the exact location is unknown) took place on 26th June of 363, after the invasion of Sassanid Persia (Iran) by the Romans. It was a major skirmish of the Persians with indecisive results. However, Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate was killed in the battle and this was the final event that pushed despaired Romans to offer terms for ending the war.


Julian invaded Persia with a force of 65,000 men, hoping to win a major victory against Persians in the east and replace Shah Shapur II with his brother Ormisdas. Julian made two blunderous mistakes at the very onset of the invasion. He split his force into two, one under General Procopius numbering 30,000 men, which went to northern Mesopotamia, and one numbering 35,000 men under his own leadership. His second mistake was not defeating the main Sassanid army before attacking the capital, which would eventually lead to expedition's failure in 363. Julian at first won a tactical victory outside Ctesiphon, but could not take the city. Even worse, Prokopius failed to join him with his army, for unknown reasons.

David S. Potter suggests that Julian's main faults was that he made a very risky campaign and that he didn't bring adequate siege train. Therefore, he had to retreat after realizing that Ctesiphon was too strongly defended to be taken by assault while his army was running out of supplies. However, the Sassanid army, under Shapur, implemented a scorched earth policy while harassing Romans all their way back to Roman Mesopotamia. Julian, realizing that his army could not get resupplied or re-enforced, tried to commence a set piece battle with his enemy, but could not.

So decision was taken to retreat through the district of Corduene to the north , where there was hope to find adequate supplies. After a few days of advancing through the enemy country, despite defeating Persian skirmishes and inflicting them heavy losses in the Battle of Maranga, the demoralized army was essentially depleted of provisions and tired of the continuous fighting.

The Battle

After three quiet days, Roman army was attacked during its cautious advance in square formations. The battle at Samarra was a Persian skirmish, first against the rear guard of the Roman column. Then they fell on the centre and the left wing of the Romans. According to Ammianus Marcellinus narrative, Julian hastened to rally his forces against the Persians, without wearing his armour. He managed to raise their morale and reverse the possibility of collapsing but his personal guard was dispersed during the fighting and Julian was fatally hit on his back by a spear. The spear was most probably thrown by a Saracen auxiliary in Persian service, as his doctor Oribasius concluded. After treatment by the doctors, he returned to the battlefield. The battle continued indecisively until the darkness of the night put an end to the fighting. Julian died from his wound, in his tent, a few hours later.


Roman army's general staff proclaimed Jovian, the commander of Julian's guard, as his successor. He ordered the army to continue withdrawal but, after failing to cross Tigris, Jovian clearly saw that the situation was desperate. Thus he was forced to offer humiliating terms in order to save his army and himself from complete destruction. The treaty with Shapur included surrendering of the five districts (Arzanene, Moxoene, Zabdicene, Rehomene and Corduene) that Diocletian had won from Narseh, as well as 15 fortresses including the strategical cities of Nisibis and Singara without their inhabitants. This severely hampered the empire's defensive system in the east and offered the Persions favourable conditions in the subsequent confrontations with the Romans.



  • Ammianus Marcellinus' works in English at the Tertullian Project with introduction on the manuscripts
  • Kaveh Farroukh, Sassanian Elite Cavalry AD 224-642
  • David S. Potter, The Roman Empire at Bay AD180-395, Routledge, 2004

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