History of the Byzantine Empire


Julian the Apostate (361-63)



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Julian the Apostate (361-63).

The name of Julian, the successor of Constantius, is closely connected with the last attempt to restore paganism in the Empire. Julian was an extremely interesting personality, who for a long time has attracted the attention of scholars and writers. The literature about him is very extensive. The writings of Julian himself, which have been preserved, give abundant material for judging his philosophy and actions. The chief aim of investigators in this field has been to understand and interpret this enthusiastic “Hellen” so firmly convinced of the righteousness and success of his undertaking, the man who in the second half of the fourth century set out to restore and revive paganism and make it the basis of the religious life of the Empire.

Julian lost his parents at a very early age: his mother died a few months after his birth, his father died when he was only six years old. He received a very good education. His most influential tutor and general guide was Mardonius, a scholar of Greek literature and philosophy, who had taught Homer and Hesiod to Julian’s mother. While Mardonius acquainted Julian with the masterpieces of classical literature, a Christian clergyman, probably Eusebius, bishop of Nicomedia and later of Constantinople, a convinced Arian, introduced him to the study of the Holy Scriptures. Thus, according to one historian,[68] Julian received two different kinds of education which lodged in him side by side without affecting each other. Julian was baptized in his early youth. In later years he recalled this event as a nightmare which he must try to forget.

The early years of Julian’s life were spent in great fear and anxiety. Constantius, regarding him as a possible rival and suspecting him of having designs on the throne, sometimes kept him in provinces far from the capital as a kind of exile and sometimes called him to the capital in order to keep him under observation. Conscious of all the facts about the massacre of many members of his family who had been slain by the order of Constantius, Julian feared death constantly. Constantius forced him to spend a few years in Cappadocia, where he continued the study of ancient writers under the guidance of Mardonius, who accompanied him, and where he also became well acquainted with the Bible and the Gospels. Later Constantius transferred Julian first to Constantinople and then to Nicomedia, where he continued his studies and first exhibited his serious leanings toward paganism.

The greatest rhetorician of that period, Libanius, was lecturing in Nicomedia at that time. He was the true leader of Hellenism, who refused to study Latin, regarding it with disdain. He despised Christianity and attributed the solution of all problems to Hellenism. His enthusiasm for paganism knew no bounds. His lectures were exceedingly popular at Nicomedia. When Constantius decided to send Julian there, he foresaw perhaps what ineffaceable impression the enthusiastic lectures of Libanius might make upon the mind of the young student, and he forbade Julian to attend the lectures of the famous rhetorician. Julian did not formally disobey this imperial command, but he studied the writings of Libanius, discussed the lectures of the inspiring teacher with people who had heard them, and adopted the style and mode of his writings to such an extent that he was afterwards spoken of as a pupil of Libanius. It was also at Nicomedia that Julian studied with enthusiasm the occult neo-Platonic teachings, which at that time aimed to penetrate the future through calling out, by means of certain conjuring formulas, not only ordinary dead people but even the gods (theurgy). The learned philosopher Maximus of Ephesus greatly influenced Julian on this subject.

After surviving the dangerous period of the death of his brother Gallus, slain by the orders of Constantius, Julian was called to the court at Milan for acquittal and then exiled to Athens. This city, famous for its great past, was no more than a quiet provincial town where the famous pagan school stood as a reminder of the former glorious days. Julian’s stay at Athens was full of deep interest. In later life in one of his letters he “recalled with great pleasure the Attic discourses … the gardens and suburbs of Athens and its myrtles, and the humble home of Socrates.”[69] Many historians claim that it was during this stay in Athens that Julian was initiated by an Eleusinian hierophant into the ancient mysteries of Eleusis. This, according to Boissier, was a sort of baptism of a newly converted soul.[70] Some scholars, however, have expressed doubt about the Eleusinian conversion of Julian.[71]

In 355 Constantius appointed Julian to the position of Caesar, married him to his sister, Helena, and sent him as head of the army to Gaul to aid in the long and arduous campaign against the advancing Germans, who were devastating the land, ravaging the cities, and slaying the population. Julian handled the difficult task of saving Gaul very successfully and defeated the Germans near Argentoratum (later Strassburg). Julian’s main seat in Gaul was in Lutetia (Lutetia Parisiorum, later Paris). At that time it was a small city on an island of the Seine, which still bears the name La Cité (Latin civitas), a city which was connected with both banks of the river by means of wooden bridges. On the left side of the Seine, already occupied by many houses and gardens, was the palace erected probably by Constantius Chlorus; the remains of it may still be seen near the Cluny Museum in Paris. Julian chose this palace as his residence. He was fond of Lutetia, and in one of his later works he recalled wintering in his “beloved Lutetia.”[72]

Julian was successful in driving the Germans across the Rhine. “Three times, while I was still Caesar,” he wrote, “I crossed the Rhine; twenty thousand persons who were held as captives on the farther side of the Rhine I demanded and received back ... I have now with the help of the gods recovered all the towns, and by that time I had already recovered almost forty.”[73] Among his soldiers Julian inspired great love and admiration.

Constantius regarded the success of Julian with suspicion and envy. While undertaking the Persian campaign he demanded that Julian send him a reinforcement of legions from Gaul. The Gallic soldiers revolted against this demand and, lifting Julian upon a shield, they proclaimed him Augustus. The new Augustus demanded that Constantius recognize the fait accompli, but Constantius refused to do so. A civil war seemed to be unavoidable. But just at this time Constantius died. In the year 361 Julian was recognized as Emperor throughout the Empire. The adherents and favorites of Constantius were condemned to harsh punishments and persecution instigated by the new Emperor.

Julian for a long time had been an enthusiastic adherent of paganism, but he was forced to hide his religious convictions until the death of Constantius. Upon becoming the full master of the Empire, he set out to realize his sacred dream of restoring his favorite religion. During the first weeks following his ascent to the throne, Julian issued an edict in connection with his cherished plan. The historian Ammianus Marcellinus described this period:


Although from his earliest childhood, Julian inclined to the worship of the gods, and gradually, as he grew up, became more attached to it, yet he was influenced by many apprehensions which made him act in things relating to that subject as secretly as he could. But when his fears were terminated, and he found himself at liberty to do what he pleased, he then showed his secret inclinations, and by plain and positive decree ordered the temples to be opened, and victims to be brought to the altars for the worship of the gods.[74]
This edict was not unexpected, for everyone knew of Julian’s leaning toward paganism. The joy of the pagans knew no bounds; to them the restoration of paganism meant not only religious freedom but religious victory as well.

At the time of Julian’s accession there was not a single pagan temple in Constantinople itself, and since it was impossible to erect temples in a short period of time, it is very likely that Julian performed his solemn offering of sacrifices in the main basilica, originally intended for promenades and conferences and decorated since the time of Constantine the Great by the statue of Fortuna. According to the church historian Sozomen, the following incident took place in the basilica: An aged blind man led by a child approached the Emperor and publicly called him an irreligious man, an atheist, and an apostate. Julian answered to this: “Thou art blind, and the Galilean, thy God, will not cure thee.” The aged man answered, “I thank God for my blindness, since it prevents me from beholding thy impiety.” Julian passed by this daring remark without any comment and continued the offering of sacrifices.[75]

In proposing to revive paganism Julian was fully aware that it was impossible to restore it in its former purely material form; it was necessary to reform and improve paganism in many respects in order to create an organization capable of combating the Christian church. For this purpose the Emperor decided to borrow many elements from the Christian organization, with which he was well acquainted. He organized the pagan priesthood along the principles of the hierarchy of the Christian church; the interiors of pagan temples were arranged according to the examples set by Christian temples; the pagans were to conduct discourses and read about the mysteries of Hellenic wisdom (this compared with the Christian sermons); singing was introduced into pagan services; an irreproachable mode of living was demanded of priests; orders were threatened with excommunication and penance. In other words, in order to revive and adapt the restored paganism, Julian turned to a source which he despised deeply.

The number of beasts sacrificed on the altars of the gods was so great that it called forth doubt and a certain amount of jest even among the pagans. The Emperor himself took an active part in the offering of sacrifices and did not abhor even the lowest menial labor connected with these performances. According to Libanius, he ran around the altar, kindled the fire, handled the knife, slaughtered the birds, and knew all about their entrails.[76] In connection with the unusually large number of animals used for sacrifices, the epigram once directed toward another emperor, the philosopher Marcus Aurelius, became current again: “The white cattle to Marcus Caesar, greeting! If you conquer there is an end of us.”[77]

This apparent triumph of paganism was bound to affect strongly the position of the Christians in the Empire. At first it seemed that no serious menace was threatening Christianity. Julian invited the dissenting leaders of various religious parties and their congregations to the palace and announced that now, civil strifes having been ended, every man could follow his chosen religion without any impediment or fear. Thus a proclamation of religious tolerance was one of the first acts of Julian’s independent rule. Sometimes the Christians would begin their disputes in the presence of Julian, and then the Emperor would say, in the words of Marcus Aurelius, “Listen to me, to whom the Alemanni and Franks have listened.”[78] Soon after Julian’s accession an edict recalled from exile all the bishops banished during the reign of Constantius, no matter what their religious convictions, and returned to them their confiscated property.

Because these religious leaders recalled from exile belonged to different religious parties and were irreconcilable in their opinions, they could not live peacefully side by side and soon became involved in very serious disputes. Apparently Julian had counted on just such a development. Although seemingly he granted religious freedom to all, Julian was well acquainted with the psychology of the Christians and felt certain that discord would follow immediately; a disunited Christian church could not be a serious menace to paganism. At the same time Julian offered great privileges to those who would consent to renounce Christianity. There were many cases of such apostasy. St. Jerome called this policy of Julian “a gentle persecution, which attracted rather than forced people to join in the offering of sacrifices.”[79]

Meanwhile, Christians were being gradually removed from civil and military posts and their places were being taken by pagans. The famous labarum of Constantine, which served as the standard in the army, was abolished, and the shining crosses on the soldiers’ shields were replaced with pagan emblems.

But the act which dealt Christianity the most painful blow was Julian’s school reform. The first edict concerned the appointment of professors in the leading cities of the Empire. The candidates were to be elected by the cities, but each choice was to be submitted to the Emperor for approval. The latter could thus refuse to sanction the election of any professor he disliked. Formerly the appointment of professors had been within the jurisdiction of the city. Still more important was a second decree, preserved in the letters of Julian. It stated that “all who profess to teach anything whatever must be men of upright character and must not harbor in their souls opinions irreconcilable with the spirit of the state.” By “the spirit of the state”[80] this decree meant the paganistic tendencies of the Emperor himself. In this order Julian declared it absurd that men who expounded the works of Homer, Hesiod, Demosthenes, Herodotus, and other classical writers should dishonor the gods whom these writers honored:


I give them this choice, either not to teach what they do not think admirable, or, if they wish to teach, let them first really persuade their pupils that neither Homer nor Hesiod nor any of these writers whom they expound and have declared to be guilty of impiety, folly, and error in regard to the gods, is such as they declare. For since they make a livelihood and receive pay from the works of these writers, they thereby confess that they are most shamefully greedy of gain, and that, for the sake of a few drachmae, they would put up with anything. It is true that, until now, there were many excused for not attending the temples, and the terror that threatened on all sides absolved men for concealing the truest beliefs about the gods. But since the gods have granted us liberty, it seems to me absurd that men should teach what they do not believe to be sound. But if they believe that those whose interpreters they are and for whom they sit, so to speak, in the seat of the prophets, were wise men, let them be the first to emulate their piety toward the gods. If, however, they think that those writers were in error with respect to the most honored gods, let them betake themselves to the churches of the Galilaeans to expound Matthew and Luke … Such is the general ordinance for religious and secular teachers … Though indeed it might be proper to cure these, even against their will, as one cures the insane, except that we concede indulgence to all for this sort of disease. For we ought, I think, to teach, but not punish, the demented.”[81]
Ammianus Marcellinus, a friend of Julian and his companion in military campaigns, explained briefly this edict; “[Julian] forbade the Christian masters of rhetorical grammar to teach unless they came over to the worship of the gods,”[82] in other words, unless they became pagans. On the basis of references made by some of the Christian writers of that time, some people suppose that Julian issued a second decree forbidding Christians not only to teach but even to study in the public schools. St. Augustine wrote: “And did not Julian, who forbade the Christians to teach and study the liberal arts (liberales litteras), persecute the church?”[83] But the text of the second decree has not been preserved; it is possible that such a decree was never issued, especially since the first decree forbidding the Christians to teach indirectly involved the restriction upon study. After the publication of the teaching edict the Christians could send their children only to grammar and rhetorical schools with pagan teaching, and from that the majority of Christians abstained because they feared that within one or two generations of pagan instruction Christian youth might return to paganism. On the other hand, if Christians were not to receive a general education, they were bound to become the intellectual inferiors of the pagans. Thus Julian’s decree, even if there was only one, was of extreme significance to the Christians, since it greatly endangered the future of Christianity. Gibbon quite justly remarked: “The Christians were directly forbidden to teach; they were also indirectly forbidden to study, since they could not [morally] attend pagan schools.”[84]

An overwhelmingly large majority of the Christian rhetoricians and grammarians preferred to abandon their profession rather than turn back to paganism. Even among the pagans the attitude toward Julian’s edict varied. The pagan writer Ammianus Marcellinus wrote concerning this: “But Julian’s forbidding masters of rhetoric and grammar to instruct Christians was a cruel action, and one deserving to be buried in everlasting silence.”[85]

It is interesting to note how the Christians reacted to this edict. Some of them naively rejoiced that the Emperor made it more difficult for the faithful ones to study the pagan writers. In order to replace the forbidden pagan literature, the Christian writers of that period, especially Apollinarius the Elder and Apollinarius the Younger, father and son, proposed to create for use in the school, a new literature of their own. With this aim in view, they translated the Psalms into forms similar to the odes of Pindar; the Pentateuch of Moses they rendered into hexameter; the Gospels were rewritten in the style of Plato’s dialogues. Of this sudden literature, which could not possess any genuine artistic qualities, nothing has survived. It disappeared immediately after Julian’s death, when his decree lost its significance.

In the summer of 362 Julian undertook a Journey through the eastern provinces and stopped at Antioch, where the population, according to Julian himself, “have chosen atheism,”[86] that is, Christianity. The predominance of Christians explains why in the triumphal official reception accorded the Emperor at Antioch there was felt, and at times manifested, a certain coldness and even hatred. Julian’s stay at Antioch is very significant, because it convinced him of the difficulty, and even impossibility, of restoring paganism. The Syrian capital remained completely unmoved by the religious sympathies of the visiting Emperor. Julian told the story of his visit in his satirical work, Misopogon, or Beardhater.[87] During an important pagan holiday he expected to see at the temple of Apollo, in the Antioch suburb of Daphne, a large crowd of people, beasts for sacrifice, libations, incense, and other attributes of a pagan festival. Upon entering the temple, he found, to his great astonishment, only one priest with a single goose for sacrifice. In Julian’s version:


In the tenth month, according to your reckoning — Loos, I think you call it — there is a festival founded by your forefathers in honor of this god [Helios, Sun God, Apollo], and it was your duty to be zealous in visiting Daphne. Accordingly, I hastened thither from the temple of Zeus Kasios, thinking that at Daphne, if anywhere, I should enjoy the sight of your wealth and public spirit. And I imagined in my own mind the sort of procession it would be, like a man seeing visions in a dream, beasts for sacrifice, libations, choruses in honor of the god, incense, and the youths of your city there surrounding the shrine, their souls adorned with all holiness and themselves attired in white and splendid raiment. But when I entered the shrine I found there no incense, not so much as a cake, not a single beast for sacrifice. For the moment I was amazed and thought that I was still outside the shrine and that you were waiting the signal from me, doing me that honor because I am supreme pontiff. But when I began to inquire what sacrifice the city intended to offer to celebrate the annual festival in honor of the god, the priest answered, “I have brought with me from my own house a goose as an offering to the god, but the city this time has made no preparations.”[88]
Thus Antioch failed to respond to this festival occasion. Similar occurrences provoked Julian’s hatred against the Christians. His irritation grew still stronger when a sudden fire broke out in the temple of Daphne. Naturally the Christians were suspected of setting the temple on fire. Greatly provoked by this calamity, Julian ordered that the Christians should be punished by the closing of the main church of Antioch, which was immediately robbed of its treasures and subjected to sacrilege. This example was followed by many other cities. Conditions were becoming very grave. The Christians in their turn destroyed images of the gods. Some of the Christian leaders suffered martyrdom. Complete anarchy menaced the Empire.

In the spring of 363 Julian left Antioch and started out on his Persian campaign, during which he was mortally wounded by a spear. He died shortly after being transported to his tent. No one knew exactly who struck the fatal blow, and later many versions of this incident became current. Among them, of course, was the version that the Emperor was killed by the Christians. Christian historians, however, relate the well-known legend “that the Emperor threw a handful of his own blood [from his wound] into the air and exclaimed, ‘Thou hast conquered. Oh, Galilaean!”[89]

His army generals and close friends gathered about the dying Emperor in his tent and Julian addressed to them his farewell message. This speech is preserved in the writings of Ammianus Marcellinus (xxv, 3, 15-20). While anticipating his death with philosophical calmness, the Emperor presented a defense of his life and actions, and, feeling that his strength was ebbing, he expressed the hope that a good sovereign might be found to take his place. However, he did not name any successor. Noticing that all around him were weeping, he reproved them with still undiminished authority, saying that it was humiliating to mourn for an emperor who was just united to heaven and the stars. He died at midnight, on June 26, in the year 363, at the age of thirty-two. The famous rhetorician Libanius compared the death of Julian to the death of Socrates.[90]

The army proclaimed as emperor the head of the court guards, Jovian, a Christian of the Nicene Creed. Forced by the king of Persia, Jovian had to sign a peace treaty according to which Persia obtained several provinces on the eastern bank of the Tigris, The death of Julian was greeted with joy by the Christians. Christian writers named the Emperor “dragon,” “Nebuchadnezzar,” “Herod,” and “monster.” But he was buried in the Church of the Holy Apostles in a porphyry sarcophagus.

Julian left a number of writings which afford an opportunity to become more closely acquainted with him. The center of Julian’s religious convictions was the cult of the sun, which was created under the direct influence of the cult of the bright god, Mithras, and the ideas of a degenerated Platonism. From his very early childhood Julian loved nature, especially the sky. In his discourse on the “King Sun,”[91] the main source for his religious philosophy, he wrote that from early childhood an extraordinary longing for the rays of the divine planet penetrated deep into his soul. And not only did he desire to gaze intently at the sun in the daytime, but on clear nights he would abandon all else without exception and give himself up to the beauties of the heavens. Absorbed in his meditations he would not hear those who spoke to him and would at times be unconscious of what he himself was doing. According to Julian’s own rather obscure account of his religious theories, his religious philosophy reduced itself to a belief in the existence of three worlds in the form of three suns. The first sun is the supreme sun, the idea of all being, the spiritual intelligible (νοητος) whole; it is the embodiment of absolute truth, the kingdom of supreme principles and first causes. The visible world and the visible sun, i.e. the material world, is only a reflection of the first world, but not an immediate reflection. Between these two worlds, the intelligible and the material, there lies the intellectual (νοερος) world with a sun of its own. Thus, a triad of suns is formed: the intelligible or spiritual, the intellectual, and the material. The intellectual world is a reflection of the intelligible or spiritual and in its turn serves as an example for the material world, which is thus only a reflection of a reflection, an inferior reproduction of the absolute model. The supreme sun is too inaccessible for man. The sun of the physical is too material for deification. Therefore Julian concentrated all his attention on the central intellectual sun. He called it the “King Sun” and adored it.

In spite of his enthusiasm, Julian understood that the restoration of paganism involved many great difficulties. In one of his letters he wrote: “I need many to help me to raise up again what has fallen on evil days.”[92] But Julian did not understand that the fallen paganism could not rise again because it was dead. His undertaking was doomed to failure. “His schemes,” Boissier said, “could afford to be wrecked; the world had nothing to lose by their failure.”[93] “This enthusiastic philhellen,” Geffcken wrote, is half Oriental and ‘Frühbyzantiner.’”[94] Another biographer said, “The Emperor Julian seems as a fugitive and luminous apparition on the horizon beneath which had already disappeared the star of that Greece which to him was the Holy Land of civilization, the mother of all that was good and beautiful in the world, of that Greece which, with filial and enthusiastic devotion, he called his only true country.”[95]






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