Tell the king, on earth has fallen the glorious dwelling, and the water springs that spoke are quenched and dead. Not a cell is left the god, no roof, no cover. In his hand the prophet laurel flowers no more.

—WILMER C. WRIGHT, Julian: Volume III

The empire might have been profoundly transforming itself, but its citizens were oblivious to the change. They had called themselves Roman at the start of Constantine’s reign, and they would still be calling themselves Roman 1,123 years later when Constantinople finally fell. On the evening of May 22, 337, they were only aware that Constantine’s thirty-one-year reign was over. It had been the longest one since Augustus, and had ushered in sweeping changes. Christianity had struck its first blow against paganism for the soul of the empire, but that war was by no means over.

Despite his formidable reputation as a defender of the faith, the world Constantine left behind wasn’t by any means a Christian one. Strictly speaking, the Roman Empire was still officially pagan, and the government continued to pay for the upkeep of temples and priests of the old state religion. Constantine had done nothing more than legalize Christianity, but from the beginning it was clear that the new faith was the wave of the future. There were many in the empire who watched the growing influence of this strange new faith with fear, and writers and historians alike bemoaned the decay of traditional values. The old gods had nourished Rome for a thousand years, and moralists ominously warned that only disaster could come of abandoning them now. The temples were still full, despite the crowded churches, and there were many who prayed for a champion of the old gods who would save the empire from the enervation of the Christians. Only twenty-four years after Constantine’s death, that leader arose.

It’s one of those quirks of history that the last pagan emperor was a member of the empire’s first Christian dynasty. Perhaps not surprisingly, Constantine had put very little thought into who would follow him on the throne. Showing his usual preoccupation with himself, he left detailed instructions about his funeral but didn’t bother to address the succession. Each of his three surviving sons (with a distressing lack of originality, all had been given different variations of the name Constantine) assumed that he would become emperor, and the result was an awkward three-way division of the empire. Constantius II, the most able of the boys, took the precaution of killing off anyone with a drop of his father’s blood, sparing his cousin Julian only because at five years old the child didn’t seem much of a threat.

The massacre may have prevented any further diminution of the brothers’ power, but though the empire was large, it wasn’t large enough to contain the three monumental egos, and they started fighting almost immediately. Born into the luxury of the palace, they had been raised by an army of attendants, surrounded since birth by the cloying ceremonies of royalty. Educated by swarms of tutors, flattered by the attentions of courtesans, they had little time or opportunity to develop brotherly bonds, and this led to a troubled family dynamic, to say the least. Within three years, the oldest brother had invaded the territory of the youngest, and the empire convulsed once again into a civil war.

While Constantine’s sons were busy killing each other, their cousin Flavius Claudius Julianus, better known to posterity as Julian the Apostate, was spending his childhood under virtual house arrest reading the Greek and Roman classics. By temperament a quiet, serious scholar, he was perfectly content to remain in his comfortable exile and showed no aspirations to join his family on the dangerous imperial stage. When he turned nineteen, Julian successfully obtained permission to travel abroad to pursue his studies, and he spent the next four years journeying from Pergamum to Ephesus, sitting at the feet of philosophers and falling under the spell of the vanishing classical world. By the time he reached the famous School of Athens, he had secretly rejected Christianity and converted to a form of paganism called Neoplatonism. Keeping his apostasy carefully hidden under an appearance of piety, he reassured his worried teachers that his faith was as strong as ever, even as he inducted himself into numerous pagan cults.

Julian’s youthful travels came to an all-too-abrupt end. Constantius II had outlasted his brothers and united the Roman world under his sole rule, but he found that the empire had too many enemies for one person to face alone. When he had been consolidating power, his family had seemed a threat, to be eliminated or neutralized as quickly as possible. But now that he was established on the throne and the heavy responsibilities of office were weighing him down, blood seemed to be the best chance at loyalty after all. Barbarians were overrunning Gaul and someone had to be sent to stop them, but Constantius II was pinned down dealing with the ever-present threat of Persia. Searching for someone within his own family to send was somewhat embarrassing since he had been instrumental in killing virtually everyone related to him, but there was still one available candidate. Hoping that Julian had learned the virtue of forgiveness during his extensive education, Constantius II summoned his young cousin to Milan.

Julian would have liked to live out his time in quiet study, but an emperor’s summons could hardly be ignored. Pausing only long enough to visit the ancient site of Troy, he nervously presented himself before his cousin. The last family member to appear in front of Constantius II had been executed, and after hearing his fate Julian wasn’t sure that he had fared any better. Raised to the rank of Caesar, the former scholar was sent to Gaul to restore order on the Rhine frontier. To accomplish this arduous task, he was given only 360 men who (as he dryly put it) “knew only how to pray” and not to fight.*

Julian was hardly an impressive commander himself. Ungainly and somewhat awkward, he had never led anyone in his life and was openly ridiculed by the court. The West was in chaos that daunted even an experienced campaigner like Constantius II, and it would most likely take years to straighten out. No one put much faith in the serious and introverted new Caesar.

Decked out in an uncomfortable military uniform, the former student gathered up his books, and on December 1, 355, he set out on his unlikely mission. Against all expectations, he turned out to be a brilliant general. In five years of campaigning, he pacified the province, liberated twenty thousand Gothic prisoners, expelled the barbarians, and even crossed the Rhine four times to destroy the Alamanni in their own territory. Sending the conquered Germanic king to Constantinople in chains, the victorious junior emperor retired to Paris for the winter.

Such daring exploits were the last thing Constantius II wanted to hear about. Julian had left him as an awkward student, a quiet, non-threatening youth widely mocked by the court, and had somehow transformed himself into a skilled general and administrator, adored by his army and citizens. He had shown no signs of disloyalty, but Constantius II had seen too many pretenders in his time to just sit back and wait until he was betrayed. The sooner this emerging threat was dealt with the better. Claiming to need Julian’s money and troops for a campaign against Persia, Constantius II wrote to his cousin demanding that the Caesar levy taxes on Gaul and immediately donate half of his army to the Persian campaign.

Word of the emperor’s demands reached Julian in the winter of 359 and was greeted with horror and disbelief. Many of Julian’s soldiers had joined explicitly on the condition that they would never be sent east, and the thought of marching thousands of miles to fight under another banner while their families were exposed to barbarian raids sparked a strange mutiny. Surrounding Julian’s palace during the night, his soldiers hailed him as Augustus, and pleaded with him to defy Constantius II.* After claiming to have received a sign from Zeus, Julian at last agreed. Hoisting him up on a shield in the ancient Germanic fashion, the soldiers shouted themselves hoarse, splitting the Roman world once again between two masters.

The world was not to be split for long. Julian’s actions obviously meant war, so he dropped the pretense of his Christian faith and sent manifestos to every major city in Greece and Italy declaring his intention to restore paganism. Word of the shocking apostasy sped through out the West, but it failed to reach Tarsus, where Constantius had fallen seriously ill. Julian had timed his revolt perfectly. Unaware of his cousin’s new faith, Constantius magnanimously named Julian as his successor and dismissed his doctors. A few days later, the forty-year-old emperor was dead, and a pagan once more took up the reins of the Roman Empire.

Julian was on the Adriatic coast when he heard of his cousin’s death, and he traveled to the capital so fast that a rumor started that his chariot had grown wings. The first emperor to have been born in Constantinople arrived in his native city on December 11 and was greeted with a thunderous welcome. Nearly every inhabitant poured out into the streets and acclaimed Julian, in the words of one eyewitness, “as if he had dropped from heaven.” Senators hurried to congratulate him as jubilant crowds thronged the alleys cheering and clapping. Most of them had only heard rumors of their young emperor, whispered stories of military greatness that had trickled down from the frontiers. Their first glimpse of him striding confidently through the city seemed a vision of Julius Caesar himself, returned to lead the empire to a new golden age.

The view from the throne, however, wasn’t quite so rosy. Everywhere he looked that bright December day Julian saw vice, debauchery, and unrestrained decay. The reign of Constantine’s sons seemed to have unleashed bribery, gluttony, and every kind of corruption. Imperial offices were bought and sold with alarming ease, and even the army had grown soft and undisciplined. Ostentatious displays of wealth hid the decay under a glittering facade, and extravagance seemed to have replaced governance.

For Julian, true reactionary that he was, the source of his empire’s sickness wasn’t hard to see.* Augustus had dressed in simple robes and called himself a humble “first citizen.” Now emperors went about in silken robes encrusted with jewels, hidden from their people by eunuchs and a cloud of incense. Where once they had conferred with generals to conquer the world, now they spent their time meeting with cooks, planning ever more elaborate culinary delights. Worst of all, they had thrown off the old Roman martial virtues of honor and duty and adopted Christianity with its feminine qualities of forgiveness and gentleness. No wonder emperors and armies alike had grown soft and weak. Marching through the Great Palace of Constantinople, Julian cut a great swath through the clutter, tossing out the cloying attendants and firing hundreds of barbers, cooks, chamberlains, and household servants who had pampered the previous occupants of the throne.

These imperial tics, however, were only the symptoms of imperial decay. The real source of the contagion as far as Julian was concerned was Christianity. Persecution had clearly not worked in the past, and he saw no need for it now Internal feuds had racked the religion for decades, and all he had to do was to encourage it to destroy itself. Publishing an edict of toleration, he invited all the exiled Christians back to their homes and sat back to watch the Arian and Nicene factions tear each other apart. Paganism, he was sure, was the superior religion, and, given a choice, his people would willingly return to it. After quickly lifting the ban on pagan practices, he crisscrossed the empire, reopening temples and conducting so many sacrifices that his bemused subjects nicknamed him “the Butcher.”

It was all to no avail. Paganism was a spent force only dimly half-remembered by its former adherents, and no amount of public prodding would bring it back. Impatiently, Julian decided to turn up the pressure by announcing that pagans were to be preferred over Christians for the appointment of public offices. When this failed to have the desired effect, he made it known that violence against Christians would not be prosecuted. After several bishops had been lynched, the emperor escalated it even further, forbidding Christians from teaching in the empire’s schools.

Most of the best philosophers and teachers were by this time Christian, and their disenfranchisement came as a severe blow to Byzantines of every class. Even Julian’s friends thought he had gone too far, and his usually flattering biographer, Ammianus Marcellinus, called it “a harsh measure better buried in eternal silence.”* But none of these Draconian measures, animal sacrifices, or scolding letters exhorting his pagan subjects to resume their faith seemed to have any effect. Something else was needed.

Constantine had Christianized the empire by winning the battle of the Milvian Bridge, and Julian thought that he could therefore reverse it with a great victory for paganism. An appropriate enemy was readily available in the hostile power of Persia, which was even now attacking the cities of the East.* The campaign against them was long overdue. Julian’s famous uncle had wanted to crown his career with a great victory against Persia, and now Julian would complete that task—not to vindicate Christianity, but to destroy it.

In the spring of 362, he set off on a tour bound for Antioch, the glittering metropolis of the East, to plan his campaign. When he reached the city, its citizens welcomed him with open arms. Used to the splendor and luxury of the imperial court, they were soon bitterly disappointed by the austere emperor and his endless censorious speeches castigating them for their lack of faith. Plummeting popularity and barely muted grumbling, however, had no effect on Julian, and he continued his attempt to revive paganism. Messengers were sent to Delphi, with instructions to ask the oracle for a prophecy. Delphi was the most famous oracle in the Roman world, and its priestess’s chewing on laurel leaves and inhaling fumes had been relaying Apollo’s messages for over a thousand years, but the ancient world was gone, and the answer the oracle gave was the last one ever recorded. “Tell the king,” she said, “on earth has fallen the glorious dwelling, and the water springs that spoke are quenched and dead. Not a cell is left the god, no roof, no cover. In his hand the prophet laurel flowers no more.” It was a fitting epitaph—had he only known it—to Julian’s attempt to repaganize the empire.

The emperor, however, stubbornly refused to give up. If paganism wouldn’t recover, then Christianity must be crushed. Christ had prophesied that the Jewish temple wouldn’t be rebuilt until the end times, and in order to disprove this and cast Jesus as a false prophet, he ordered it to be rebuilt. Work started quickly enough, but an earthquake (and, according to Christian sources, “great balls of fire”) shattered the foundations, forcing the terrified overseers to abandon the project. Tempers were rising daily, and in Antioch the mood had become dangerously seditious. Matters weren’t improved when the emperor paid a visit to inspect the city’s famous temple of Apollo. Disgusted to learn that a Christian martyr had been buried within its precincts, Julian tactlessly ordered the body exhumed immediately. Outraged riots swept the city, and order was only restored when he forcibly arrested and executed several Christian agitators. A few weeks later, a pagan worshipper left candles burning unattended in the temple, and the entire structure caught fire and burned to the ground.

Blaming the conflagration on the city’s Christian population, Julian closed their cathedral and confiscated their gold plate, using it to pay the soldiers he was gathering. By this point, the city was on the brink of revolt, and he was even losing the support of his pagan subjects. Mocked openly in the streets for his beard and his anti-Christian measures, every day seemed to bring both sides closer to the breaking point.* Finally, in March 363, Julian’s great army was ready, and to everyone’s immense relief he gave the order to march east.

The campaign against Persia had all the markings of a tragedy even before it began. The idealistic young emperor was determined to find the glory that would refurbish the tattered standard of his religion in a vain and unnecessary war, regardless of the cost. Nothing seemed to go right, but Julian stubbornly pressed on. The Persians offered little resistance, doing their best to keep out of the way of the superior Byzantine force, but the locals diverted rivers to flood the army’s path, and it was high summer before Julian reached the Persian capital of Ctesiphon. Julian’s Gaulish troops were unused to the heat, and Ctesiphon’s high walls couldn’t be taken without a long siege. With the burning sun beating down on them, constant harrying attacks, and rumors of a large Persian army approaching, Julian was reluctantly persuaded to abandon the attempt.

For ten days, the army stumbled back, suffering incessant skirmishes as their enemies became increasingly bold. Then, on the morning of June 26, the Persians suddenly attacked. Showing his customary bravery, Julian leaped out of his tent and went crashing into the thick of the fray without pausing to fully strap on his armor. There, in the chaos of the battle, he was struck in the side with a spear. His men rushed to him, lifting him up from where he had collapsed in the dust. The spear was quickly pulled out, releasing a gush of blood, and he was carried back to his tent. The wound was washed with wine, but the tip had pierced his liver, and Julian knew it was fatal. There in his tent, with the sounds of battle already receding, he closed his eyes and stopped fighting. Scooping up a handful of his blood, he threw it towards the sun and, according to legend, died with the words “Vícístí Galílaee”* on his lips.

The words were wiser than the dying emperor meant them to be. The old religion was disorganized and decentralized, a fashionable relic for the cultural elite. It couldn’t compete with the personal revelation of Christianity for the hearts and minds of the masses, and its complex jumble of gods and rituals ensured that it was too divided for its partisans to cohesively unite behind it. Even had he lived, Julian wouldn’t have been able to change that—the old world that he had fallen in love with in his youth was irretrievably gone. Hopelessly romantic and frustratingly stubborn, the emperor had squandered his energy and imagination foolishly trying to revive a moribund religion at the expense of the one that would define the empire for the next thousand years. Rome and its polytheistic days belonged firmly in the past, and even Julian’s pagan subjects seemed bewildered by his numerous sacrifices. As one of them dryly put it, “Perhaps it was better that he died, had he come back from the east there would soon have been a scarcity of cattle.”*

His body was brought, ironically enough, to Tarsus, the birthplace of Saint Paul, and the last pagan emperor was laid to rest with all his immense promise unfulfilled. At his death, the Constantinian line came to an end, and the gods of Mount Olympus were consigned to decorative mosaics and whimsical scenes on palace floors to amuse bored emperors.

The vast pagan literature of the classical world, however, didn’t pass away. It was too deeply ingrained in Roman culture, too entwined with intellectual thought, to be so lightly cast off. The future was with Christianity, but no one who considered him-or herself Roman could completely reject the classical world. Unlike their western counterparts, early Byzantine church fathers recognized the benefits of pagan philosophy, arguing that it contained valuable insights and that careful reading would separate the wheat of moral lessons from the chaff of pagan religion. Byzantine universities, from Constantinople to the famous Academy of Athens, would preserve and cultivate classical writing throughout the empire’s history, and even the Patriarchal Academy in Constantinople taught a curriculum that included study of the literature, philosophy, and scientific texts of antiquity. This sharply contrasted with the West, where waves of barbarian invasions would shatter civilization and break the bonds with the classical past. In thought and in power, the future was with the East; from now on the world would be ruled from Byzantium.

*True Roman that he was, Julian was also disgusted by the Germanic beer that was consumed in such large quantities by the locals. Referring to the offending brew, he wrote: “I recognize thee not; I know only the son of Zeus [referring to Dionysus, the god of wine]. He smells of nectar, but you smell of goat.”

* The irony here, of course, is that the soldiers who rebelled at the prospect of being summoned east ended up following Julian to Constantinople and then Persia, a clear example of the respect the emperor commanded in his men.

Marcellinus Ammianus. W. Hamilton, ed. and trans. The Later Roman Empire (AD354–378) (New York: Penguin Classics, 1986).

*In his attempt to roll back the clock, Julian took to sitting among the senators while they deliberated—as Augustus had done—claiming that even he was not above the law. He had no intention, however, of returning to the more collegial rule of the late republic. In his fanatical quest to destroy Christianity, he was among the most heavy-handed of emperors.

*Marcellinus Ammianus. W Hamilton, ed. and trans. The Later Roman Empire (AD 354–378) (New York: Penguin Classics, 1986).

*The Persians looted their way across the frontier, but were unable to sack the major Roman city of Nisibis. Thanks to the prayers of a local bishop, an army of gnats and mosquitoes came to the rescue, biting the trunks of the Persian elephants and driving them mad.

Wilmer C. Wright, Julian: Volume III (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003).

*Constantine and his sons had set recent imperial style by remaining cleanshaven, but Julian, perhaps in homage to the philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius, proudly wore one. He passed his time in Antioch writing two books: Misopogon and Against the Galileans. The first, translated as “Beard Hater,” was a withering attack on the people of Antioch, while the second was a scathing critique of Christianity.

*“Thou hast conquered, Galilean”—a reference to the triumph of Christianity.

*Ammianus Marcellinus. The Later Roman Empire (AD 354–378), W. Hamilton, ed. and trans. (New York: Penguin Classics, 1986), p. 298.

The most famous example of this was the fourth-century father Saint Basil of Caesarea, who wrote a treatise entitled To Young Men, on How They Might Derive Profit from Pagan Literature.

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