Ancient History & Civilisation


The story of Julian demonstrates a very different individual response to the complex religious environment of the fourth century. The issue of where paganism stood in relation to Christianity was put to the test after the death of Constantius in November 361, when Julian emerged by default as sole ruler of the empire. Immediately he declared his pagan convictions and initiated policies which were designed to reverse the measures taken in favor of Christians by his predecessors, and to restore the prestige and authority of the traditional religion:

(He) directed in plain and unvarnished terms that the temples should be opened, sacrifices brought to their altars, and the worship of the old gods restored. To make this ordinance more effective he summoned to the palace the Christian bishops who were far from being of one mind, together with their flocks, who were no less divided by schism, and warned them in polite terms to lay aside their differences and allow every man to practise his belief boldly without hindrance. His motive in insisting on this was that he knew that toleration would intensify their divisions and henceforth he would no longer have to fear unanimous public opinion. Experience had taught him that no wild beasts are such dangerous enemies to man as Christians are to one another. (Ammianus 22.5.2–4, trans. Hamilton)

The roots of Julian's attachment to paganism can clearly be traced to his upbringing. He was born in the new imperial city of Constantinople in 332, the son of Constantine's half-brother Julius Constantius. When the emperor died in 337 the army, with the connivance of Constantius II who was the only one of the emperor's sons present in the city, massacred the collateral male descendants of Constantius I to guarantee the transfer of power to his sons. The only survivors of this blood-letting were Julian and his elder half-brother Gallus. The five-year-old Julian was removed, perhaps for safety's sake, to a country house near Nicomedia (Julian, ep. 4, Bidez-Cumont), the home of his mother Basilina's family, where his education was directed by the powerful bishop Eusebius. In 361, the year that he openly declared his bid for power, he recalled the details of the traumatic murders in his Letter to the Athenians:

That on the father's side I am descended from the same stock as Constantius on his father's side is well known. Our fathers were brothers, sons of the same father. And close kinsmen as we were, how this most humane Emperor treated us! Six of my cousins and his, and my father who was his own uncle and also another uncle of both of us on the father's side, and my eldest brother, he put to death without a trial; and as for me and my other brother, he intended to put us to death but finally inflicted exile upon us. (Julian, Letter to the Athenians 250c-d, trans. W. C. Wright)

At Nicomedia he was under the tutelage of a Christian eunuch Mardonius, who introduced him to classical Greek literature (Julian, Misopogon 352a–54a), and in 341 he was sent as a virtual exile with Gallus to an imperial villa in the interior of Asia Minor at Macellum, near Caesarea. Julian studied Greek literature intensively under the direction of another priest, George, before returning to Constantinople in 348. When George was later transferred to become bishop of Alexandria and was murdered by a riotous mob, Julian, who had just become sole emperor, confessed to coveting his library.14 While his half-brother now became attached to the court, Julian pursued his education under the rhetoricians Nicocles and Hecebolius. He soon came in contact with the sophist Libanius, the leading practitioner of Greek rhetorical education of the period, and despite a temporary ban from attending Libanius' lectures, became his tutee.

In 351 he encountered the group of philosophers around Aedesius of Pergamum, who himself had studied with one of the great figures of Neoplatonism, Iamblichus of Chalcis. Julian was attracted to the circle of talented and charismatic speculative intellectuals who had studied with Aedesius: Eusebius from Myndus in Caria, Chrysanthius of Sardis, Priscus from Thesprotis in northwest Greece, and Maximus of Ephesus. The tendency in late Platonic speculation had been to emphasize the mystical at the expense of logic and reason. In the Lives of the Sophists Eunapius provides a lengthy account of Julian's encounter with the Neoplatonists. Eusebius was an advocate of rational argument, but Maximus practiced theurgy, claiming the ability to manipulate the gods and thus help mortals to achieve union with the divine world.15 Although Eusebius understandably condemned such activities as the impostures of witchcraft and magic, Julian was captivated by the account he gave of a séance in which Maximus, by chanting hymns and burning incense, had caused a statue of Hecate to break into a smile, and the torches in the goddess's hands to burst into flame. The young man made his way directly to Ephesus, where Maximus was in residence, and became his devoted pupil (Eunapius, Sophists, 474–5). Julian himself, in his letter to the Cynic Heraclius, which defended his own preference for Platonic philosophy, identified this as the moment of his conversion from Christianity to paganism (Julian, Or. 7, 235), and this was repeated by Libanius in his speech addressed to the emperor at Antioch on January 1, 363 (Libanius, Or. 12.34).

Julian's pagan beliefs defy summary. They were rooted in his devotion to Greek literary culture and Greek philosophy, which provided him with a moral and a cultural framework. He was a believer in divination, not least when reading signs that were relevant to his own future, he was impressed by theurgic magic and convinced of the importance of the key ritual of animal sacrifice. He developed his own speculative syncretistic idea of solar monotheism in his hymn to the sun, in which it appears that the god Helios may have been equated with Mithras. In this, as in other matters, his developed views were personal to himself, not matters of common belief even among pagan intellectuals. More­over, he conducted his own life and his pagan devotions in a spirit of ascetic piety which was clearly based on Christian models. His paganism was thus a particular thing. Julian's religious convictions made him a very isolated figure, even among the religious intelligentsia of his own generation.16

On the other hand much of his public religious policy as emperor, both in deeds and words, presents a mirror-image of fourth-century Christianity. He was aware that his attempt to usurp power potentially faced formidable Christian opposition. Since the beginning of the fourth century Christianity had prevailed over pagan polytheism in Constantine's two civil wars against Maxentius and Licinius, and the most recent usurpation of Magnentius against Constantius had pitched Christian against Christian. Flying under a pagan banner would have been catastrophic, as he recognized from the outset.

To frustrate any opposition and win universal goodwill he pretended to adhere to the Christian religion, from which he had secretly apostasized. A few only were in his confidence, and knew that his heart was set on divination and augury and all the other practices followed by the worshippers of the old gods. (Ammianus 21.2.4, trans. Hamilton)

Accordingly he ostentatiously attended a Christian service at the festival of Epiphany, January 6, 361, before declaring his hand against Constantius. As soon as the news of Constantius' death reached him, encamped at Naissus, the birthplace of Constantine, he advertised his paganism in dramatic fashion:17

We worshipped the gods openly, and most of the army which accompanied me reveres them. We sacrificed oxen in public. We offered many hecatombs to the gods as expressions of thanks. The gods bid me to purify everything insofar as possible, and I obey them with enthusiasm. They say that they will give rewards for our labour, if we do not grow slack. (Julian, ep. 26, trans. Bowersock)

In his personal conduct, as Ammianus puts it, “Julian was so spectacularly and incorruptibly chaste that after the loss of his wife he never tasted the pleasures of sex” (Ammianus 25.4.1, trans. Hamilton). The view of pagan religion which he transmitted to his subjects by letters and edicts was built upon an elaborate moral basis which mirrored in detail that of the Christians. He matched Christian injunctions to charity, which were based on biblical texts, with his own arguments based on passages of Homer. To counter Christian mockery of the worship of idols, he set out elaborate and explicit arguments for revering and worshipping the gods' images, although he acknowledged that the gods themselves were not corporeal beings.18 Unusually in the polemic between pagans and Christians in late antiquity he was prepared to name his enemies, albeit pejoratively, as “Galilaeans,” who were pitched against the ranks of pagan “Hellenes.”

In the letter which he wrote in the summer of 362 to Theodorus, high priest of the province of Asia, he sets out a bleak diagnosis of the condition to which pagan belief – Hellenism – had been reduced, and proposed remedies for it. In Asia Minor Julian had followed a precedent set by the tetrarch Maximinus during the time of the persecutions, when he had appointed provincial high priests responsible for maintaining the old cults in the provinces and supervising the rest of the priesthood.19 On the other hand, he equally deliberately rejected the tetrarchic precedent of using persecution as a weapon against his enemies, since martyrdom had strengthened not weakened Christian resolve. There were three thrusts to his argument in the letter. Public rituals, especially sacrifice, should be revived and punctiliously observed; priests were to set examples of restraint and sobriety, avoiding the temptations of the theater and chariot-racing, excessive drinking and disreputable trades. They were to check on the conduct of other priests and members of their families, especially to prevent them backsliding into Christian observance; and they should engage in philanthropy to aid the poor (ep. 89).20

Julian reckoned that three specific features were at the heart of Christian success: their acts of charitable generosity, their care for the dead, and their virtuous conduct. All three were rooted in conditions of life in the Roman world, and were of particular importance among the poor. Agricultural and urban communities in antiquity were exposed to the risk of destitution and famine, brought on by failure of the harvest, the depredations of warfare, the greed of landowners, or the excessive demands of a predatory state. Without insurance or any state-sponsored forms of poor relief, the only recourse of communities was to self-help. If this was forthcoming, it came in almost all cases from friends and neighbors in the villages and small towns of the empire, but many would have been unprovided for. Christianity appealed directly and unambiguously to the poor, both in ideology and in practice. The network of churches was capable of transforming God's providence into a tangible system of support for Christians. It is evident that many communities impressively lived out the injunctions of the Gospels to “love thy neighbor.”

Death, like famine, was also an inescapable reality which pressed hard on every family. Life expectancy was low by modern standards; there were no forms of effective contraception; and infant mortality rates were horrendous, even among the aristocracy. Coping with premature death was thus an experience that every individual and every family faced, usually repeatedly. Christian faith could not ward off death, but it could and did dramatically transform it to a moment of hope and expectation, of resurrection to a new life. Places of burial became a particular focus for Christian gatherings. The persecuting emperors of the third and early fourth century were aware of this when they forbade Christians to assemble in their graveyards (Eusebius, HE 7.11.10–11). Aemilianus, deputy of the prefect of Egypt, summoned Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria, before him in 258 and banished him to Libya:

I see at once that you are ungrateful and pay no attention to the clemency of our emperors. So you shall not remain in this city but be sent to the regions of Libya at a place called Cephro.…And neither you nor any of the others will be allowed to hold assemblies or to enter the cemeteries, as they are called. (Eusebius, HE 7.11.10)

The Christians, as this passage shows, had coined a new word, koemeteria, “dormitories,” to signify their new understanding of death. Christians, their faith confirmed by baptism, slept, awaiting the resurrection to eternal life. Fifty years later during the great persecution of the tetrarchs, these cemeteries were places where Christians regularly assembled, and they were again singled out by the persecuting authorities. One of the unplanned consequences of persecution was to increase their symbolic significance. The cults which grew up around the early Christian martyrs were for the most part located in the cemeteries where the victims of the persecutions had been buried.

Finally, Christians of Julian's day impressed others by their dignified conduct. This may have been particularly conspicuous in contrast to the demeanor of their pagan priestly counterparts, which Julian admonishes in the same letter to Theodorus. Countless inscriptions from Roman provincial cities show that pagan priests in the second century AD had generally been wealthy and pious members of the municipal gentry, who were treated with honor and respect in their communities. However, by the fourth century they were few in number and their status in most provincial cities was sharply reduced.21 It is hard not to be reminded of the story ruefully told by Julian himself in his satirical broadsheet Misopogon, addressed to the people of Antioch. He had ventured to the sanctuary of Apollo at Daphne near the city to celebrate the annual summer festival. The well-off citizens of Antioch boycotted the event, and instead of the expected feasting and sacrifice, he was met by a single priest who had brought a modest victim from his own house – a goose (Julian, Misopogon, 34–35).

It is not only with the hindsight of history that we may judge Julian to have been fighting a losing battle. We have the impression of an eccentric, highly intelligent and tirelessly active emperor cajoling and haranguing friends and small groups of convinced supporters to try to put together an imperial policy which simply enjoyed little popular support. Even Ammianus, a pagan sympathizer, declared that he was “superstitious rather than a genuine observer of religious rites,” and regarded his anti-Christian campaign to have been ill-judged.22 He overtly criticized his most publicized measure, the edict which forbade Christians to take up positions as rhetors and teachers in the cities of the empire.

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