Flavius Claudius Iulianus was born in the purple at Constantinople in 332, nephew of Constantine. His father, his eldest brother, and most of his cousins were slain in the massacre that inaugurated the reign of Constantine’s sons. He was sent to Nicomedia to be educated by its Bishop Eusebius; he received an overdose of Christian theology, and gave signs of becoming a saint. At seven he began to study classical literature with Mardonius; the old eunuch’s enthusiasm for Homer and Hesiod passed down to his pupil, and Julian entered with wonder and delight into the bright and poetic world of Greek mythology.
In 341, for reasons now unknown, Julian and his brother Gallus were banished to Cappadocia, and were for six years practically imprisoned in the castle of Macellum. Released, Julian was for a time allowed to live in Constantinople; but his youthful vivacity, sincerity, and wit made him too popular for the Emperor’s peace of mind. He was again sent to Nicomedia, where he took up the study of philosophy. He wanted to attend the lectures of Libanius there, but was forbidden; however, he arranged to have full notes of the master’s discourses brought to him. He was now a handsome and impressionable lad of seventeen, ripe for the dangerous fascination of philosophy. And while philosophy and free speculation came to him in all their lure, Christianity was presented to him as at once a system of unquestionable dogma and a Church torn with scandal and schism by the Arian dispute and the mutual excommunications of East and West.
In 351 Gallus was created Caesar—i.e., heir apparent to the throne—and took up the task of government at Antioch. Safe for a while from imperial suspicion, Julian wandered from Nicomedia to Pergamum to Ephesus, studying philosophy under Edesius, Maximus, and Chrysanthius, who completed his secret conversion to paganism. Suddenly in 354 Constantius summoned both Gallus and Julian to Milan, where he was holding court. Gallus had overreached his authority, and had ruled the Asiatic provinces with a despotic cruelty that shocked even Constantius. Tried before the Emperor, he was convicted of various offenses, and was summarily beheaded. Julian was kept under guard for several months in Italy; at last he convinced a suspicious monarch that politics had never entered his head, and that his one interest was in philosophy. Relieved to find that he had only a philosopher to deal with, Constantius banished him to Athens (355). Having expected death, Julian easily reconciled himself to an exile that placed him at the fountainhead of pagan learning, religion, and thought.
Six happy months he spent there studying in the groves that had heard Plato’s voice, making friends with Themistius and other immortal and forgotten philosophers, pleasing them with his eagerness to learn, and charming the citizens with the grace and modesty of his conduct. He compared these polished pagans, heirs of a millennium of culture, with the grave theologians who had surrounded him in Nicomedia, or those pious statesmen who had thought it necessary to kill his father, his brothers, and so many more; and he concluded that there were no beasts more ferocious than Christians.21 He wept when he heard of famous temples overthrown, of pagan priests proscribed, of their property distributed to eunuchs and partisans.22 It was probably at this time that in cautious privacy he accepted initiation into the Mysteries at Eleusis. The morals of paganism condoned the dissembling of his apostasy. His friends and teachers, who shared his secret, could hardly consent to his revealing it; they knew that Constantius would crown him with inopportune martyrdom, and they looked forward to the time when their protégé would inherit the throne, and restore their emoluments and their gods. For ten years Julian conformed in all externals to the Christian worship, and even read the Scriptures publicly in church.23
Amid all this apprehensive concealment a second summons came to present himself before the Emperor at Milan. He hardly dared go; but word was conveyed to him from the Empress Eusebia that she had promoted his cause at court, and that he had nothing to fear. To his astonishment Constantius gave him his sister Helena in marriage, conferred upon him the title of Caesar, and assigned to him the government of Gaul (355). The shy young celibate, who had come dressed in the cloak of a philosopher, adopted uncomfortably the uniform of a general and the duties of matrimony. It must have further embarrassed him to learn that the Germans, taking advantage of the civil wars that had almost destroyed the military power of the Empire in the West, had invaded the Roman provinces on the Rhine, defeated a Roman army, sacked the old Roman colonia of Cologne, taken forty-four other towns, captured all Alsace, and advanced forty miles into Gaul. Faced with this new crisis, Constantius called upon the lad whom he both suspected and despised to metamorphose himself at once into an administrator and a warrior. He gave Julian a guard of 360 men, commissioned him to reorganize the army of Gaul, and sent him over the Alps.
Julian spent the winter at Vienne on the Rhone, training himself with military exercises, and zealously studying the art of war. In the spring of 356 he collected an army at Reims, drove back the German invaders, and recaptured Cologne. Besieged at Sens by the Alemanni—the tribe that gave a name to Germany—he repulsed their attacks for thirty days, managed to secure food for the population and his troops, and outwore the patience of the enemy. Moving south, he met the main army of the Alemanni near Strasbourg, formed his men into a crescent wedge, and with brilliant tactics and personal bravery led them to a decisive victory over forces far outnumbering his own.24 Gaul breathed more freely; but in the north the Salian Franks still ravaged the valley of the Meuse. Julian marched against them, defeated them, forced them back over the Rhine, and returned in triumph to Paris, the provincial capital. The grateful Gauls hailed the young Caesar as another Julius, and his soldiers already voiced their hopes that he would soon be emperor.
He remained five years in Gaul, repeopling devastated lands, reorganizing the Rhine defenses, checking economic exploitation and political corruption, restoring the prosperity of the province and the solvency of the government, and at the same time reducing taxes. Men marveled that this meditative youth, so lately torn from his books, had transformed himself as if by magic into a general, a statesman, and a just but humane judge.25 He established the principle that an accused person should be accounted innocent till proved guilty. Numerius, a former governor of Gallia Narbonensis, was charged with embezzlement; he denied the charge, and could not be confuted at any point. The judge Delfidius, exasperated by lack of proofs, cried out: “Can anyone, most mighty Caesar, ever be found guilty if it be enough to deny the charge?” To which Julian replied: “Can anyone be proved innocent if it be enough to have accused him?” “And this,” says Ammianus, “was one of many instances of his humanity.”26
His reforms made him enemies. Officials who feared his scrutiny, or envied his popularity, sent to Constantius secret accusations to the effect that Julian was planning to seize the imperial throne. Julian countered by writing a fulsome panegyric of the Emperor. Constantius, still suspicious, recalled the Gallic prefect Sallust, who had co-operated loyally with Julian. If we may believe Ammianus, the Empress Eusebia, childless and jealous, bribed attendants to give Julian’s wife an abortifacient whenever she was with child; when, nevertheless, Helena bore a son, the midwife cut its navel string so near the body that the child bled to death.27 Amid all these worries Julian received from Constantius (360) a command to send the best elements of his Gallic army to join in the war against Persia.
Constantius was not unjustified. Shapur II had demanded the return of Mesopotamia and Armenia (358); when Constantius refused, Shapur besieged and captured Amida (now Diyarbekir in Turkish Kurdistan). Constantius took the field against him, and ordered Julian to turn over to the imperial legates, for the campaign in Asia, 300 men from each Gallic regiment. Julian protested that these troops had enlisted on the understanding that they would not be asked to serve beyond the Alps; and he warned that Gaul would not be safe should her army be so depleted. (Six years later the Germans successfully invaded Gaul.) Nevertheless, he ordered his soldiers to obey the legates. The soldiers refused, surrounded Julian’s palace, acclaimed him Augustus—i.e., Emperor—and begged him to keep them in Gaul. He again counseled obedience; they persisted; Julian, feeling, like an earlier Caesar, that the die was cast, accepted the imperial title, and prepared to fight for the Empire and his life. The army that had refused to leave Gaul now pledged itself to march to Constantinople and seat Julian on the throne.
Constantius was in Cilicia when news reached him of the revolt. For another year he fought Persia, risking his throne to protect his country; then, having signed a truce with Shapur, he marched his legions westward to meet his cousin. Julian advanced with a small force. He stopped for a while at Sirmium (near Belgrade), and there at last proclaimed his paganism to the world. To Maximus he wrote enthusiastically: “We now publicly adore the gods, and all the army that followed me is devoted to their worship.”28Good fortune rescued him from a precarious position: in November 361 Constantius died of a fever near Tarsus, in the forty-fifth year of his age. A month later Julian entered Constantinople, ascended the throne without opposition, and presided with all the appearance of a loving cousin over Constantius’ funeral.