Julian, Count of Ceuta

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"Count Julian" redirects here. For the novel, see Count Julian (novel).

Julian, Count of Ceuta was a Christian local ruler or subordinate ruler in North Africa who had a role in the Umayyad conquest of Hispania, a key event in the history of Islam in which al-Andalus was to have a major role and the subsequent history of what were to become Spain and Portugal.


Count Julian was "Commander of Septem" (present-day Ceuta), and according to some scholars, possibly last Byzantine Exarch of Africa.

Luis García de Valdeavellano writes that, during the Umayyad conquest of North Africa, in "their struggle against the Byzantines and the Berbers, the Arab chieftains had greatly extended their African dominions, and as early as the year 682 Uqba had reached the shores of the Atlantic, but he was unable to occupy Tangier, for he was forced to turn back toward the Atlas Mountains by a mysterious person" who became known to history and legend as Count Julian. Muslim historians have referred to him as Ilyan or Ulyan, "though his real name was probably Julian, the Gothic Uldoin or perhaps Urban or Ulbán or Bulian."

Julian is sometimes regarded as having been a vassal of Roderic, king of the Visigoths in Hispania (modern Portugal and Spain). But Valdeavellano notes other possibilities, arguing that probably he was a berber.

We are not certain whether he was a Berber, a Visigoth, or a Byzantine; as a "count" he may have been the ruler of the fortress of Septem, once part of the Visigoth kingdom; or he may have been an exarch or a governor ruling in the name of the Byzantine Empire: or, as appears more likely, he may have been a Berber who was the lord and master of the Catholic Berber tribe of the Ghomara.[citation needed]

Indeed, historically Ceuta (then called "Septem") and the surrounding territories were the last area of Byzantine Africa to be occupied by the Arabs: around 708 AD, as Muslim armies approached the city, its Byzantine governor, Julian (described as King of the Ghomara) changed his allegiance, and exhorted the Muslims to invade the Iberian Peninsula. After Julian's death, the Arabs took direct control of the city, which the indigenous Berber tribes resented. They destroyed Septem during the Kharijite rebellion led by Maysara al-Matghari in 740 AD, but Christian Berbers remained there (even if harshly persecuted in the next centuries).

  • Known Exarchs of Africa:
Tenure Name Notes
591–598 Gennadios (I) Last magister militum per Africam and first Exarch, victory over the Roman-Berber realm of Altava.
598 or 602–611 Herakleios
641(?)–647/48 Gregory
647/48–665 Gennadios (II)
after 665 Eleutherios Possibly Exarch of Carthage. The Arabic al-At'riyūn is commonly read as Eleutherios. He overthrew Gennadios.
about 711 Julian, Count of Ceuta Commander of Septem. According to some scholars, possibly last Exarch of Africa.

Role in the conquest of Hispania[edit]

Rift with Roderic[edit]

According to the Egyptian historian Ibn Abd-el-Hakem, writing a century and a half after the events, Julian sent one of his daughters to Roderic's court at Toledo for education (and as a gauge of Julian's loyalty) and Roderic subsequently made her pregnant. When Julian learned of the affair he removed his daughter from Roderic's court and, out of vengeance, betrayed Hispania to the Muslim invaders, thus making possible the Umayyad conquest of Hispania. Later ballads and chronicles inflated this tale, Muslims making her out an innocent virgin who was ravished, Christians making her a seductress. In Spanish she came to be known as la Cava Rumía.

However, it might well be only a legend. Personal power politics were possibly at play, as historical evidence points to a civil war among the Visigothic aristocracy. Roderic had been appointed to the throne by the bishops of the Visigothic Catholic church, snubbing the sons of the previous king, Wittiza, who died or was killed in 710. Thus, Wittiza's relatives and partisans fled Iberia for Julian's protection at Ceuta (Septem), the Pillar of Hercules in North Africa on the northern shore of the Maghreb. There, they gathered with Arians and Jews.

At that time, the surrounding area of the Maghreb had recently been conquered by Musa ibn Nusair, who established his governor, Tariq ibn Ziyad, at Tangier with an Arab army of 1,700 men. Julian approached Musa to negotiate the latter's assistance in an effort to topple Roderic.

What is unclear is whether Julian hoped to place a son of Wittiza on the throne and gain power and preference thereby or whether he was intentionally opening up Iberia to foreign conquest. The latter, though unlikely, is possible since Julian may have long been on good terms with the Muslims of North Africa and found them to be more tolerant than the Catholic Visigoths. Moreover, if Julian was the Greek commander of the last Byzantine outpost in Africa, he would have had only a military alliance with the Kingdom of the Visigoths and not been part of it.

Perhaps, then, in exchange for lands in al-Andalus (the Arab name for the area the Visigoths still called by its Roman name, Hispania) or to topple a king and his religious allies, Julian provided military intelligence, troops and ships.

Umayyad reconnaissance[edit]

Musa was initially unsure of Julian's project and so, in July 710, directed Tarif ibn Malluk to lead a probe of the Iberian coast. Legend says that Julian participated as a guide and emissary, arranging for Tarif to be hospitably received by supportive Christians, perhaps Julian's kinsmen, friends, and supporters, who agreed to become allies in the contemplated battle for the Visigothic throne.

The next summer Julian provided the ships to carry Muslim troops across to Europe. Julian also briefed Tariq, their general. The latter left Julian behind among the merchants and crossed the Strait of Hercules with a force of some 1,700 men. He landed at Gibraltar (Jebel Tariq in Arabic) on April 30, 711 and thus began the Umayyad conquest of Hispania.

Battle of Guadalete and aftermath[edit]

Later, in the Battle of Guadalete on July 19, Roderic's army of around 25,000 men was defeated by Tariq's force of approximately 7,000, largely by a reversal of fortune when the wings commanded by Roderic's relatives Sisbert and Osbert deserted or switched sides. Legend would later attribute that to a deliberate plan developed by Julian.

Afterwards, Julian was apparently granted the lands he was promised by the Muslims but, as the story goes, he lived on friendless and full of guilt for having become a traitor to his kingdom.

Literary treatments[edit]

In Part I, Chapter 41, of Don Quixote (1605), Miguel de Cervantes writes:

Meanwhile, the wind having changed we were compelled to head for the land, and ply our oars to avoid being driven on shore; but it was our good fortune to reach a creek that lies on one side of a small promontory or cape, called by the Moors that of the "Cava rumia," which in our language means "the wicked Christian woman;" for it is a tradition among them that La Cava, through whom Spain was lost, lies buried at that spot; "cava" in their language meaning "wicked woman," and "rumia" "Christian;" moreover, they count it unlucky to anchor there when necessity compels them, and they never do so otherwise. (Spanish text.)

The Jacobean playwright William Rowley recounts Julian's story in his play All's Lost by Lust (c. 1619).

The British writers Sir Walter Scott, Walter Savage Landor, and Robert Southey handle the legends associated with these events poetically: Scott in "The Vision of Don Roderick" (1811), Landor in his tragedy Count Julian (1812), and Southey in Roderick, the Last of the Goths (1814).

The American writer Washington Irving retells the legends in his 1835 Legends of the Conquest of Spain, mostly written while living in that country. These consist of "Legend of Don Roderick," "Legend of the Subjugation of Spain," and "Legend of Count Julian and His Family."

Expatriate Spanish novelist Juan Goytisolo takes up the legends in Count Julian (1970), a book in which he, in his own words, imagines "the destruction of Spanish mythology, its Catholicism and nationalism, in a literary attack on traditional Spain." He identifies himself "with the great traitor who opened the door to Arab invasion." The narrator in this novel, an exile in Morocco, rages against his beloved Spain, forming an obsessive identification with the fabled Count Julian, dreaming that, in a future invasion, the ethos and myths central to Hispanic identity will be totally destroyed.

In 2000, Julian's story became a West End musical, La Cava.


  • Edward Gibbon, History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chapter 51.
  • Luis García de Valdeavellano, Historia de España. 1968. Madrid: Alianza. (Quotes are translated from the Spanish by Helen R. Lane in Count Julian by Juan Goytisolo. 1974. New York: The Viking Press, Inc. ISBN 0-670-24407-4
  • Grieve, Patricia E. (2009). The Eve of Spain: Myths of Origins in the History of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish Conflict. Baltimore: JHU Press. ISBN 978-0-8018-9036-9. 

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