Julian the Apostate

Julian the Apostate

After the inflationary crises of the third century,  Diocletian and Constantine saved the Roman Empire.  But they saved it by crossing the line between civilisation and barbarism. The Roman society now acquired many of the characteristics of barbarism, but as so often barbarism worked: people lost many of their essential freedoms,  but they gained in prosperity. Even in far off Britain we can see the results: many of the smaller villas died out, but the larger villas flourished and some of them, such as Woodchester, North Leigh or Bignor became very large indeed. A number of valuable hoards of treasure, many of them containing sets of elaborate sliver tableware have been discovered, the best known being that from Mildenhall.  The rich were getting richer, but the middle classes were squeezed. Nevertheless, the poor in a way flourished,  for many of the rural settlements in Roman Britain were occupied in the fourth century.  There is an awful lot of fourth century pottery around.

But in the middle of the fourth century, an emperor came to power who tried to put the clock back and change everything.  He is Julian the Apostate,  who is most famous because he renounced Christianity and embraced paganism – hence the term the Apostate.  He reigned for only eighteen short months before he was killed in battle in Persia, but in this time not only did he renounce Christianity but he also carried out many other reforms.  And if we want to understand what was happening in the fourth century we need to study his career closely.  We must be like an archaeologist who digs a narrow trench into a big mound to find out what lies at the centre, or like a surgeon who makes an incision to find out what really lies beneath the skin.  The results are illuminating.

To start at the beginning, we  must first understand his family background, and to understand the family background we must begin not with Constantine the Great, but with his father Constantius Chlorus who was himself briefly emperor.  He had two wives, firstly Helena the mother of Constantine (who later became Saint Helena the Archaeologist, who went to Jerusalem and excavated the site at the Holy Sepulchre and found the True Cross). But he then had a second wife Fausta, who had another brood from whom Julian descended.  When Constantine died he failed to establish who was to be his successor, so his three sons: Constantine II, Constantius and Constans divided the empire between them and murdered all the offspring of Fausta, sparing only two young children: Julian aged five and his elder half-brother Gallus.  Psychologists have a lovely time with Julian whose parents were murdered by his uncles.

The dominant of the three rulers proved to be Constantius who was suspicious of everyone and built up a spy network around him.  Julian was always guarded and from the age of thirteen to eighteen he lived with his elder half-brother Gallus in a palace at Macellum in central Turkey that was in effect an open prison.  When a crisis arose in the west Gallus was summoned away to be Caesar in the east, but Constantius became suspicious of him, summoned him back and murdered him.  It was not good for Julian’s psychology to have his half-brother and closest companion also murdered by his uncle.

Julian was brought up as a Christian but in those crucial years of semi-imprisonment at Macellum he read widely and was increasingly attracted to the pagan philosophers, particularly the philosophy founded by Plotinus (204 – 270) based mostly on Plato and thus called Neo-Platonism.  It was a highly intellectual philosophy that was not really suitable for mass consumption, though tinged with undertones of mysticism and magic. After his release from Macellum he went on to study at the top university – at Athens,  where his paganism increased, though of course all had to be kept secret, and openly he was a Christian.

Julian goes to Gaul

Coin of Julian when he was a junior emperor, a ‘Caesar’ in Gaul and had not yet grown a beard.

Eventually in 355 another crisis arose in Gaul, so Julian, aged twenty-four, was summoned to be Caesar and sent to take control in Gaul.  Constantius did not really trust him – he trusted nobody, and though Julian was Caesar,  the real power lay with the Praetorian prefect who was by this time in effect the Governor of the province.  But Julian was successful: he proved to be a very capable general, shared hardships with  his troops and thus gained the approval of the army and soon at a battle near Strasbourg won a major victory over the Alamanni, the invading German tribes, whose name is still remembered in French word for Germany, ‘Allemagne’.  His army of only 13,000 defeated the German army of 35,000 with only 243 Roman soldiers killed.  The German king was captured and sent back to Rome where he died.

Further success followed in the financial field.  The Pretorian prefect wanted to raise taxes, but Julian, realising that the inhabitants of Gaul needed to be kept on side, opposed the tax increase.  He took financial charge of one province Belgica and collected the taxes without extortion (XVII,3), and eventually managed to reduce the poll tax for Gaul as a whole from 25 gold solidi a year to just 7 gold solidi.  The figure is sometimes doubted, but it is given by Ammianus Marcellinus who was present in Gaul at the time (XVI,5).

Through his successes,  the western frontier was settled, but there was trouble in the east, in Persia, and  Constantius ordered him to send half his troops to join the war in Persia.  The troops, most of them Germans, objected to the idea of leaving home.  There was a crisis meeting in Paris and the troops proclaimed Julian ‘Augustus’ that is Emperor, equal with Constantius.  How far the troops acted spontaneously and how far Julian led them on was never known; no doubt it was a bit of both.

But the chips were down and Constantius summoned Julian to meet him.  Julian mindful of what had happened to his brother Gallus when he was Caesar and had been summoned by Constantius and then murdered, feared the worst. However unlike Gallus, Julian now had a powerful army behind him, an army that was fiercely loyal, and what is more he had the glamour of having won a successful victory.  Had it come to war he had every reason to believe that he would win.  Fortunately it did not come to that,  for as both armies converged on the Balkans, Constantius died while he was still marching through Asia Minor (Turkey), and  Julian was left as undisputed Emperor of the whole empire.  He escorted Constantius’ body back to Constantinople where it was buried with full Christian honours in the Church of the Holy Apostles.  It was only after he had carried out the full Christian ceremonies that Julian let it be known that he was actually a pagan.

Julian in Constantinople

Julian was only in Constantinople for five short months before he set out on his journey to the east to face the Persians, but these five months were clearly a whirlwind of activity which can be treated under two headings – his campaign against the Christians, and his economic and social reforms.

Julian’s paganism was something of a mishmash. Unlike Christianity which was a more-or-less single creed, albeit with many sharp heresies, paganism took many forms.  Julian adopted the most intellectual form which was called Neo-Platonism.  This was based on the teachings of Plotinus (204/5-270) which, based on the philosophies of Plato, put forward a triad of the One, the Intellect and the Soul, believing that only by intellectual effort could the soul move towards its source.  There was also a mixture of mysticism and even magic but it had little appeal beyond the most intellectual circles.

The aspect of Julian’s paganism that is most repulsive to us today was his delight in sacrifice, in slaughtering animals by the score.  We rarely realise that one of the benefits of Christianity was that it rescued us from the bloody excesses of animal sacrifice.  This was combined in a belief in auspices that verged on magic: when he was setting out on his final Persian campaign he consulted an Etruscan priest who said that the auspices were unfavourable:  Julian, a true Roman, set out nevertheless.

But essentially paganism meant reverting to the old gods – whoever they were.  They varied from place to place and you simply worshipped at whichever shrine you came to.  This wonderful tolerance was paganism’s greatest attraction – and its greatest weakness.

How to attack Christianity

It is interesting to note the methods that Julian used to attack the Christians for they tell us much about the strength and indeed the weaknesses of Christianity.  His first move was an edict of toleration echoing the edict of Constantine in tolerating the Christians, but now laying down that not only should pagans be tolerated but the Christians should tolerate each other, and that in particular the Arians and other heretics should be tolerated, and a number of bishops who had been driven into exile were allowed to return.  Ammianus in a famous aside remarked that ‘no wild beasts were as ferocious as were the Christians in attacking each other’.  And it is suspected that Julian intended to destroy Christianity by letting loose internal strife. But  it says much for the extent to which Christianity was becoming dominant and intolerant that an edict of toleration could be seen as an attack.

Julian was rather too keen on sacrificing animals. Here his weapon is raised to pole-axe the ox in front of him. Another sacrificed animal lies to the right. This miniature in a 9th century manuscript of Gregory of Nazianzus is firmly based on classical models.

Pagan customs and rituals were also now tolerated, particularly the custom of sacrifice which had been forbidden.  Indeed to our eyes Julian was rather over enthusiastic in personally undertaking the sacrifice of oxen.  Pagan temples were also to be restored to their former owners and priests who had been living in poverty suddenly found themselves restored and revered. Even in far off Britannia the reforms may have been felt, for at the Roman villa at Littlecote an elaborate suite of rooms was built with a fine mosaic celebrating Orpheus which the excavator interprets as being an outburst of pagan enthusiasm following Julian’s new regime.

More devastating perhaps was that the privileges given to Christian priests were now withdrawn, in particular the privilege of not serving as a town councillor which had become a rather burdensome form of taxation.

A particularly clever move was a proposal to rebuild the temple at Jerusalem this may have appeared to be a nod to the Jews but it was anathema to the Christians who had just founded the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as a result of Saint Helena’s archaeological zeal and did not want to have a rival tourist attraction.  Furthermore the rebuilding of the temple would undo Christ’s prophesy that “One stone should not be left on another” (Matthew  24 i – ii).  The Christians were furious.

However the reform that was most notorious was an edict forbidding Christians to become teachers.  This incidentally throws a fascinating sidelight on the state of education in the fourth century that was clearly quite extensive and had been extensively infiltrated by the Christians.  However the core of education still consisted in rhetoric and in the study of the classical texts; and how argued Julian could the classical texts be properly studied under Christian teachers?  It is clear that one of the crucial spearheads of Christianity was by capturing the educational process and this edict of Julian became the most hated part of his whole attack on the Christians.

At the same time Julian set out to bolster the case for paganism and in doing so emphasised the strengths and weaknesses of both Christianity and the traditional religions.  Christianity could be attacked for its concentration on corpses, both in its concern for the corpse of Jesus Christ and even more for the cult of martyrs whose corpses or parts of them played a central role in all the most successful churches.  There was the disagreement, the divergence between preaching and practice. Though Christianity claimed to be a doctrine of peace, in practice Christians fought each other with the utmost ferocity.  Indeed the pagan historian Ammianus remarked that ‘wild beasts in the field did not fight each other with the same ferocity as did the Christians’. And then the Christians could be accused of moral softness; baptism was normally delayed until one was on one’s deathbed, for baptism wiped away all sins, so even the most vile sinner could by being baptised on his death bed be assured of a quick entrance into heaven.

However the most interesting feature of Julian’s attempt to boost paganism was that he recognised that part of the success of Christianity was due to its superior organisation.  The Christian church had become a highly successful organisation with bishops and priests.  Paganism by comparison was a very amateur affair: priesthood was a sort of civic honour that was undertaken by the upper classes in the community, whereon a feast day was really a big booze-up, where you went out, had a procession, sacrificed an oxen and then ate it, after which you went back to your normal daily life.  There was no attempt at providing the social services that had grown up with Christianity of providing a circle of friends for support and advice. Julian had grand ideas of establishing a formal framework for this, for appointing a chief priest for each province and an official priest for each city. He did not live long enough to put this into action: but it was this business-like framework that was to form one of Christianity’s  chief assets.

Changing society

But if the attack on Christianity is the most notorious of Julian’s reforms, it is perhaps his social changes that are most revealing about our central concern: the laps from civilisation to barbarism.  One of the crucial differences between the two is the difference between a caste society and a class society.  The difference is essentially that between a fixed society and a flexible society. A caste society is one where the divisions between the various castes are rigid. Whichever caste you are born into, there you remain . The best example of this is India still plagued by the remnants of a rigid caste system. They class society by contrast is flexible: you can to a large extent choose which class you belong to, which friends make and how far you make a success of your life. Of course birth and wealth play a part in this, but the system is flexible – it enables you to choose your friends and your place in society.

I believe that the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire can to a considerable extent be correlated with its descent from a class society to a caste society. This can be assigned quite precisely to the Emperor Diocletian;  previously,  the emperor was simply the first citizen – in the classic phrase, primus inter pares.   But Diocletian clearly realised that if his new centralised system was to work, the person at the centre must be turned into a semi-divine figure kept at a distance from the normal population so that they could not realise that he was in fact, fallible. The system was modelled in practice on the Sassanian Empire in Persia. The Emperor began to dress splendidly, wearing gorgeous silk clothes encrusted with jewels, with bejewelled slippers and wearing a crown or diadem. Subjects were expected to prostrate themselves when they came into his presence, and he was surrounded by an apparatus of chamberlains, bodyguards and most important of all the cubicularii, the grooms of the bedchamber, mostly eunuchs who control access to his presence. It was an extremely profitable position, for the best way to obtain access to the Emperor was by paying a hefty bribe.

All this Julian swept away. There is a famous story told by Ammianus and embellished by Gibbon that one day Julian called for a barber.  ‘An officer,  magnificently dressed, immediately presented himself: “It is a barber I require” exclaimed Julian with affected surprise,  “Not the Chancellor of the Exchequer”.  He questioned the man concerning the profits of his employment and was informed that besides a large salary and some valuable perquisites, he enjoyed a daily allowance for twenty servants and as many horses”.  “A thousand barbers,  continues Gibbon, A thousand cupbearers, a thousand cooks were distributed in several offices of luxury; and the number of eunuchs can only be compared with the insects of a summer’s day’.  Virtually all were dismissed and even Gibbon felt he had been a little harsh. ‘By a single edict he reduced the palace of Constantinople to an immense desert and dismissed with ignominy the whole train of slaves and dependants without providing any just, or at least benevolent exceptions for the age and services, or the poverty of the faithful domestics’.

It is interesting to ponder what part Christianity played in these changes, the acceptance of the rule of one man and of the economic changes that this implies.  Did Christianity with its belief in one god also inculcate a belief in one ruler?  Is paganism and the belief in many gods inherently democratic, whereas monotheism and the belief in just one god inherently dictatorial?  Whatever may be the underlying reasons, the Christians rather approved of the aggrandisement of the emperor and were rather appalled when Julian attempted to reverse the process.

A notable occasion was on the 1st January 362  when the new consuls were appointed, and Julian instead of waiting for the consuls to come up to the palace to see him, went down on foot to the senate house to meet the consuls and   join in their inauguration – an action which, said Ammianus: “Some commended but others criticised as affected and cheap” (22,7).  Indeed he frequently came into the Senate House to give attention to various matters, and many of the senators were rather embarrassed by the proceedings.  They much preferred their role as decorative on-lookers.

A 19th century concept of Julian presiding at a conference of sectarians. This painting by Edward Armitage is now in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Another story is told about a report he received from a spy of someone who had been seen dressing up in purple  – and purple was the imperial colour. This would normally have been considered a capital offence but Julian, having ascertained that the man was not a threat, laughed the episode off and sent the man a pair of purple slippers to complete his outfit. The story is revealing in several ways. Firstly that purple was now so much the imperial colour that wearing it was a capital offense. There had indeed been a long tradition of wearing the latus clavus, a purple stripe down the front of the tunic as a sign of senatorial rank, and victorious generals had been dressed in purple, but by now wearing purple was a capital offence.  And it tells us to about the extent to which spying had become the norm. Julian himself had suffered from it both during his upbringing and particularly when he was Caesar in Gaul, when Constantius, who was notoriously suspicious,  appointed all Julian’s staff for him and required them to spy on Julian. There was even a particular form of spy known as the agentes in rebus – agents for ‘things’ – who were a sort of watchdog to report back to the Emperor about the activities of all other departments. The establishment of watchdogs is a sign of barbarism and Julian did away with them leaving only 17 for the whole empire.  And the episode of the slippers tells us something of Julian’s sense of humour: here was an Emperor who could turn what others would call treason into a joke. No wonder that Julian has become a hero to so many.

Reviving the Empire – the Cities

How did Julian attempt to revive the Empire? Interestingly, his main effort went in an attempt to revive the role of the cities. Classical Greece was centred round cities – indeed there is no proper overall word for ‘Greece’ in classical Greek. Rome grew up as a city and when Rome began to acquire an empire, the cities formed the basis of the Empire. Those of us who study Roman Britain are very aware of the problem, for in Britain (and Gaul) cities did not really exist, and society was arranged round tribes, and therefore cities had to be invented with two names, the name of the city and the name of the tribe – Isca Dumnoniorum (Exeter) or Venta Belgarum (Winchester).

But far off Britain was the exception, and in Italy and the East life revolved round the cities and in the cities most of the work was done by the curia. The curia was a descendant of the Greek Boule, or council – in Athens there was a council of 500  chosen by lot and who served for a year.

In the Roman Empire, the city council was known as the ‘curia’.  It normally consisted of a hundred citizens, and at the height of the Roman Empire in the first and second centuries AD it became a great honour to become a member of the curia.  The appointment was made for life: you inherited the position, or were co-opted. The curia did all the work that made the city work:  at the head were the duoviri, the two men who acted as mayor, who theoretically administered justice but in practice organised and paid for the games. Beneath them were the quaestors, who look after the finances, and beneath them, and even more important, were the aediles, who actually ran the city, who looked after the roads, the paving, the water supply, and most important of all, the sewers. In the great days of Rome, this worked well: the leading men were glad to show their affluence by spending lavishly. At Pompeii the huge amphitheatre was built by just two of the colonists. But by the third century the system was in decline, and  being a member of the curia had become a burdensome form of taxation which many of the citizens began to try and avoid: one of the privileges that Constantine gave to Christian priests was that they could opt out of the curia and thus many rich men sought to become Christian priests in order to avoid the curia and its expenses.

The revival of city became the centrepiece of his legislation. The first task was to strengthen the city and put their finances in order, and to do this he began a program of transferring city lands back to the city. Cities had often had acquired substantial lands whose rents supported the city’s costs: when people died intestate, their lands went to the city. However in recent years, the emperors had been appropriating such lands and adding them to the res privata – their own possessions. Similarly since Constantine, when pagan temples were closed down, their lands were transferred to the res private; Julian saw that they were either return to the original temple authorities or to the cities.

Another major relief came from the changes to the Aurum Coronarium. The custom had arisen that on the accession of an Emperor and every five years thereafter, every city should give a gold crown to the Emperor.  These were often worth between 1,000 to 7000 solidi (gold coins) and thus it was a considerable tax on the curia. Julian refused most of these gold crowns: one suspects that he would have liked to abolish them altogether as he did not approve of such peripheries, but for many cities it was an opportunity to show their loyalty so he stipulated that in future the maximum value should be just 70 solidi.

But it was not just a matter of improving the finances of the city, it was a matter of increasing the numbers of those serving in the curia, the decurions, so he withdrew many of the immunities that allowed people not to serve on the curia, particularly those that had been extended to the Christian priests.

Another substantial reform was to reduce the use of the post service. A post service was established throughout the Empire. Those of us in Roman Britain who study Roman roads know all about the Antonine Itinerary, a list of the roads compiled in the second century, and we enjoy identifying the names on the map with names on the ground: it is the source of most of the of our knowledge of the names of towns and villages of Roman Britain and we have great fun in identifying the post stations and the inn, or Mansio at their centre. But they were a burden to the local inhabitants who had to pay costs of maintaining the horses and carriages on which the Imperial post depended; Constantine had given bishops the permission to use the Imperial post system but Julian withdrew this permission and introduced a fixed number of permits which could only be increased on his own specific instructions.

Most of these innovations were introduced in a very short time, basically in the four or five months that he spent at Constantinople, and are thus only a rough outline of what he surely intended; they point the way in which he was intending to go. But there is a constant debate as to whether had he lived longer, he would have achieved his aims. Probably not: he was trying to turn the clock back and return to a social structure that no longer existed. But it is interesting to see the direction in which the most thoughtful of Roman emperors thought that reform should be undertaken.


These reforms were mostly introduced in the five short months that he spent in Constantinople, a stay that was clearly a big success.  But the big task for Julian, as indeed for any Roman emperor at the time, was how to deal with the Persians. In Persia, the Sassanid Empire was at its height and rivalled Rome for its splendour, sophistication and military prowess.  Julian had come from the Western Empire with all the glamour of a successful general and everybody hoped that he would be able to repeat his success in the East.  Indeed he saw himself as being the successor to Alexander the Great who at a similar young age had gone east and destroyed the Persian Empire.  But the first stage was to proceed to Antioch to establish his base; but his stay at Antioch was a failure.

Antioch vied with Alexandria to be the third city of the Roman Empire – after Rome itself and Constantinople.  Antioch had been founded in the 3rd century BC as the capital of the Seleucid Empire, one of the three successor kingdoms to Alexander the Great: as such it had flourished as a centre of Hellenic culture.  And Julian, who considered himself above all to be a Hellene, had great hopes that he would flourish there and be welcome.  He miscalculated badly,  for although Antioch may have been Hellenic, it was also fun loving and Christian – and it is interesting that already by this time the terms ‘Christian’ and ‘fun-loving’ fitted well together.  Julian might possibly have got away with being anti-Christian but his austerity got him into trouble.  Towards the end of his stay he wrote what must surely be one of the most remarkable pieces of world literature: a short (12,000 word) essay called the Misopogon, or the ‘beard hater’, in which he threw against himself all the accusations that the people of Antioch threw against him.  It is wry and meant to be amusing, but it tends to come over as being rather bitter and not at all the sort of thing that an emperor should write.

When Julian became Emperor he grew a beard to show that he was a philosopher. However the coin engraver appears to have been a little uncertain as to just what a real beard looked like. Photo courtesy BM.

The first complaint with which he taunted himself was the fact that he wore a beard.  Smooth men were in fashion at the time, but the classical philosophers had all worn beards and Julian fancied himself as being a classical philosopher so he grew a beard too.  In any case he was a very hairy man and on the short side, and he gave the impression of being uncouth and untidy.  He could never be bothered to have his nails cut and his fingers were always black, covered with ink because he was always writing.  All this did not go down well.  In addition he did not like going to the theatre which at this time consisted of pantomimes rather than plays, and he hated going to the horse races at the circus.  And he did not approve of dancing the cordax which I suspect should be translated as rock and roll.

What he really wanted to do was to be back in his beloved Lutetia, which is in fact Paris, which he describes being a lovely little island set in the middle of a river:  ‘A good kind of vine grows thereabout’, he adds.  He got on well with the ‘boorish Celts’, but felt out of place in a ‘prosperous, gay and crowded city’. ‘You always sleep alone at night’ they said ‘and there is no way of softening your savage and uncivilised temper’. ‘For pleasure is here in abundance and delights whose fruits one could enjoy continuously: for instance the sight of men and pretty boys dancing, and any number of charming women’.  ‘It is due to my own folly’ he said ‘that I did not understand the temper of this city from the beginning’.

He also made practical mistakes: there was a food shortage particularly of corn and it is clear that he blundered first by blaming the merchants for hoarding the corn; and then by bringing in corn supplies from outside, and distributing it cheaply; and then blaming the merchants again for buying up his cheap distributions and selling them more expensively in the countryside.  So he antagonised the merchants too.

And then there was the affair at Daphne, a suburb of Antioch where there had been a famous temple.  He went out on an official visit expecting to be greeted by beasts for sacrifice, libations (i.e. lots of booze); choruses in honour of the gods and youths of the city attired in white.  But when he entered the shrine he found no incense, not so much as a cake, not a single beast to sacrifice.  Eventually the caretaker came out from his own house bearing as an offering a single goose.  Worst was to come for subsequently the temple was burnt down and the pagans blamed the Christians, and the Christians said it was nothing to do with them but was due retribution for Julian’s impiety.

‘Why in heavens name, he concludes, am I treated with ingratitude? I feed you from my own purse; I increase the register of senators; I gave you 3,000 plots of land that you asked for’.  But then he concludes ‘that I am myself responsible for all the wrong because I transformed your graciousness to ungracious ways.  In future I shall endeavour to be more sensible, but I hope in return that you will be honoured by the gods.’

The Misapogon is an amazing piece of work, indeed I cannot think of any other piece of work where a supreme ruler dares to list so strongly the case against him.  It is I think meant to be witty but somehow it is just a little bit too bitter to be witty, and it gives the impression that brilliant and self-knowing though he may have been, he was nevertheless just a little bit of a crackpot.

The Attack on the Persians

When Julian went east to attack the Persians, the Persian Empire was at its height under its great ruler Shapur II. This piece of Jewelry is thought to be a portrait of Shapur. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

After five disastrous months in Antioch, Julian left at the head of a great army hoping to redeem himself by a great victory over the Persians: he set off for the Euphrates; he marched down its banks, re-built a canal, reached the walls of Ctesiphon, the Persian capital, and then disastrously burnt his boats.  He was uncertain what to do, but then in a minor skirmish where he had failed to put on his heavy breastplate he was injured by a spear thrust and died that evening.

With his death the invasion came to an end.  Whether he had got himself into a difficult position is hard to say.  In war morale counts for much, and had morale been high,  he might well have pushed on to a successful conclusion.  As it was morale collapsed, the soldiers had to choose a new emperor.  They offered the purple to Salutius Secundus, a praetorian prefect more distinguished in law than in war, who sensibly refused it, so it was offered to Jovian, the commander of the Imperial guard, who accepted reluctantly.  But the army was in a perilously exposed position and there was nothing to do but to make an ignominious peace and withdraw.  Five provinces were given up, the bulk of the land between the Tigris and the Euphrates, including the crucial fortress of Nisibis.  The Julian experiment was finished, Christianity was restored, austerity was at an end, and the emperor once again became a semi-divine figure.  Jovian did not last long and was soon succeeded by two brothers Valens and Valentinian.


Julian has been well served by historians.  The last great Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus was a contemporary and friend of Julian and like him a pagan, and he accompanied Julian and was present at many of the events that he described from the Battle of Strasbourg onwards.  He wrote a history of Rome from AD 96 down to 378 intending to follow on from the works of Tacitus.  Unfortunately the first half is all lost, but his books from 353 to 378 have survived.  Though a fellow pagan and admirer of Julian he is nevertheless admirably fair and does not hesitate to point out his defects.  Then there are the writings of Julian himself who was clearly a manic writer who just had to spend all his spare time scribbling, scribbling, scribbling.  Over 1,000 pages have survived: letters; decrees; speeches, diatribes against the Christians – and the Misapogon.  Then there is his friend the speech-writer Libanius and his great enemy, the Christian Gregory of Nazianzus, who for a Christian is remarkably a useful source of history.  Even the secondary writers are useful, especially Zosimus, another pagan writing around AD 500, who had nothing original to say but was content to summarise the works of others; and for Julian he summarised the work of Eunapius, who was clearly another major lost historian.

In recent times too he has been the subject of two outstanding biographies: one by Robert Browning, Professor of Classics at Birkbeck, is an urbane civilised summary of Julian’s life and work.  The other more scintillating work is by Glen Bowersock, Professor of Classics at Harvard, and who was indeed briefly my tutor at Oxford: this is a character assassination of Julian, determined to cut him down to size wherever he can and to interpret everything in the most hostile possible sense.  It is a scintillating diatribe, displaying a stunning sense of learning and a knowledge of even the most obscure texts.  It is perhaps a pity that Browning’s work came out just before Bowersock’s, because Browning’s book would have been all the better had it been written as an answer to Bowersock.

Perhaps the best summary can be given in the brief note that Glen adds to the opening page of his biography, clearly added at the last minute after Browning’s book had appeared when he quotes Browning as saying: ‘An American student once compared Julian with President John F Kennedy.  The comparison will not bear close analysis.  But the feeling behind it suggests why Julian became the subject of legend within a few years of his death.’  Bowersock then adds: ‘When Julian died all Christians and many pagans received the news with relief.  But in comparison with Kennedy seems to me totally unilluminating.  The reader will judge’.

Then reviewers have pointed out that there is absolutely no evidence for his statement that ‘Many pagans received the news with relief’.  But is not the comparison with President Kennedy of interest?  Julian had charisma, he had his own ideas as to what was going wrong with the Roman Empire and he set out to put it right.  His views on Christianity remain of course controversial, though many,  perhaps even a majority of scholars today would agree with them.  Many too agree with his austerity, his attempts to cut back on taxes, his desire to revive the cities and his belief that the emperor should return to being a man not a god.  No doubt he was trying to turn the clock back and that failure was probably inevitable.  Certainly he failed at Antioch, but he realised his failure and had he lived and returned in triumph from Persia would he not have learnt his lesson and forced himself to attend the circus?

His crucial inspiration was his discovery of Greek philosophy and he liked to think of himself as being a Hellene – a descendant of the Greek philosophers.  But once he became a Caesar he began studying Roman history.  He ideal emperor was Marcus Aurelius, but he took on board the great Roman virtue of common sense and made himself into one of the leading Roman generals.   He was undoubtedly a bit of a crackpot, but then do we not all have an element of crackpot within us?  But like John Kennedy, he had charisma and that charisma makes him the one of the most interesting personalities of the fourth century, and indeed one of the most important figures in our attempt to distinguish the difference of barbarism and civilisation.

On to Theodosius the Great

30th January 2014