26 June AD 363: A Persian spear fells Rome’s last pagan emperor

Julian’s attempt to impress troops in the east ends in disaster


In the spring of 363, the Roman Emperor Julian invaded Persia. Having ruled Rome for less than two years, he felt that he needed to prove himself to the troops on the empire’s eastern frontier. And what better way than by taking on their age-old enemies?

On 5 March, around 60,000 Roman troops marched out of Antioch (near modern-day Antakya in Turkey), led by the emperor himself. At first everything went smoothly, and by mid-May Julian had crossed the Tigris and was outside the Persian capital, Ctesiphon. But then things began to go wrong. Harassed almost daily by Persian attacks, Julian ordered his army to retreat north, and at a minor engagement on 26 June, the worst happened. Julian had thrown himself into the fray, wrote Ammianus Marcellinus, a historian on the emperor’s military staff, “when suddenly a cavalry spear, grazing the skin of his arm, pierced his side and fixed itself in the bottom of his liver”.

The wound did not at first seem serious; Julian’s personal doctor washed it with wine, then tried to stitch up the organs. But the bleeding continued, and it became obvious that the emperor was failing. As he lay dying, wrote Ammianus, Julian “entered into an intricate discussion with the philosophers Maximus and Priscus on the sublime nature of the soul”.

This seems a bit unlikely. It was inevitable that the last non-Christian emperor would get short shrift from Christian writers, so Ammianus, a fellow pagan, was probably gilding the lily. “At last,” the historian went on, “the swelling of his veins began to choke his breath and, having drank some cold water, which he had asked for, he expired quietly about midnight, in the 31st year of his age.” | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

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26 June 1541: Francis Pizarro meets a bloody end over dinner

The ageing conquistador’s brutal past finally catches up with him

Francisco Pizarro died as he had lived, sword in hand. Pizarro, who had defied the odds to bring down the Incas and conquer modern-day Peru for the Spanish, was almost 70 years old. As governor of New Castile (as Peru was then named), he had spent years locked in a bitter feud with a rival conquistador, Diego de Almagro. In 1538 Pizarro had had Almagro executed. But now the latter’s son – also Diego – wanted revenge.

Pizarro was dining in his palace in Lima when Almagro burst in with about 20 armed supporters. Most of the old man’s guests fled, but Pizarro stood his ground, reaching for his sword from where it hung on the wall. According to one account, he struck down two would-be assassins and ran a third through. While he struggled to draw out his sword, however, Almagro’s men stabbed him in the throat. Lying on the palace floor, Pizarro shouted: “Jesus!” The last thing he ever did was to draw a cross on the ground with his own blood and kiss it. The most ruthless conquistador of the age was dead.

Pizarro’s body was buried in Lima Cathedral, but it was not until 1977 that building workers found a lead box, bearing the inscription: “Here is the head of Don Francisco Pizarro Demarkes, Don Francisco Pizarro who discovered Peru and presented it to the crown of Castile.” Forensic scientists reported that the skull was broken by numerous violent blows – perhaps a fitting end for a man steeped in violence. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

26 June 1830

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26 June 1963

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