Julian was now thirty-one. Ammianus, who saw him often, describes him as
of medium stature. His hair lay smooth as if it had been combed; and his beard was shaggy and trained to a point; his eyes were bright and full of fire, bespeaking the keenness of his mind. His eyebrows fine, his nose perfectly straight, his mouth a bit large, with full lower lip; his neck thick and bent, his shoulders large and broad. From his head to his fingertips he was well proportioned, and therefore was strong and a good runner.29
His self-portrait is not so flattering:
Though nature did not make my face any too handsome, nor give it the bloom of youth, I myself out of sheer perversity added to it this long beard. … I put up with the lice that scamper about in it as though it were a thicket for wild beasts. … My head is disheveled; I seldom cut my hair or my nails, and my fingers are nearly always black with ink.30
He prided himself on maintaining the simplicity of a philosopher amid the luxuries of the court. He rid himself at once of the eunuchs, barbers, and spies that had served Constantius. His young wife having died, he resolved not to marry again, and so needed no eunuch; one barber, he felt, could take care of the whole palace staff; as for cooks, he ate only the plainest foods, which anyone could prepare.31 This pagan lived and dressed like a monk. Apparently he knew no woman carnally after the death of his wife. He slept on a hard pallet in an unheated room;32 he kept all his chambers unheated throughout the winter “to accustom myself to bear the cold.” He had no taste for amusements. He shunned the theater with its libidinous pantomimes, and offended the populace by staying away from the Hippodrome; on solemn festivals he attended for a while, but finding one race like another, he soon withdrew. At first the people were impressed by his virtues, his asceticism, his devotion to the chores and crises of government; they compared him to Trajan as a general, to Antoninus Pius as a saint, to Marcus Aurelius as a philosopher-king.33 We are surprised to see how readily this young pagan was accepted by a city and an Empire that for a generation had known none but Christian emperors.
He pleased the Byzantine Senate by his modest observance of its traditions and prerogatives. He rose from his seat to greet the consuls, and in general played the Augustan game of holding himself a servant and delegate of the senators and the people. When, inadvertently, he infringed a senatorial privilege, he fined himself ten pounds of gold, and declared that he was subject like his fellow citizens to the laws and forms of the republic. From morn till night he toiled at the tasks of government, except for an intermission in the afternoon, which he reserved for study. His light diet, we are told, gave his body and mind a nervous agility that passed swiftly from one business or visitor to another, and exhausted three secretaries every day. He performed with assiduity and interest the functions of a judge; exposed the sophistry of advocates; yielded with grace to the sustained opinions of judges against his own; and impressed everyone with the righteousness of his decisions. He reduced the taxes levied upon the poor, refused the gift of golden crowns traditionally offered by each province to a new emperor, excused Africa from accumulated arrears, and remitted the excessive tribute heretofore exacted from the Jews.34 He made stricter, and strictly enforced, the requirements for a license to practice medicine. His success as an administrator crowned his triumph as a general; “his fame,” says Ammianus, “gradually spread until it filled the whole world.”35
Amid all these activities of government his ruling passion was philosophy, and his never-forgotten purpose was to restore the ancient cults. He gave orders that the pagan temples should be repaired and opened, that their confiscated property should be restored, and their accustomed revenues renewed. He dispatched letters to the leading philosophers of the day, inviting them to come and live as his guests at his court. When Maximus arrived, Julian interrupted the address he was making to the Senate, ran at full speed to greet his old teacher, and introduced him with grateful praise. Maximus took advantage of the Emperor’s enthusiasm, assumed ornate robes and luxurious ways, and was subjected, after Julian’s death, to severe scrutiny of the means by which he had acquired so rapidly such unbecoming wealth.36 Julian took no notice of these contradictions; he loved philosophy too much to be dissuaded from it by the conduct of philosophers. “If anyone,” he wrote to Eumenius, “has persuaded you that there is anything more profitable to the human race than to pursue philosophy at one’s leisure without interruptions, he is a deluded man trying to delude you.”37
He loved books, carried a library with him on his campaigns, vastly enlarged the library that Constantine had founded, and established others. “Some men,” he wrote, “have a passion for horses, others for birds, others for wild beasts; but I from childhood have been possessed by a passionate longing to acquire books.”38 Proud to be an author as well as a statesman, he sought to justify his policies with dialogues in the manner of Lucian, or orations in the style of Libanius, letters almost as fresh and charming as Cicero’s, and formal philosophical treatises. In a “Hymn to a King’s Son” he expounded his new paganism; in an essay “Against the Galileans” he gave his reasons for abandoning Christianity. The Gospels, he writes, in a preview of Higher Criticism, contradict one another, and agree chiefly in their incredibility; the Gospel of John differs substantially from the other three in narrative and theology; and the creation story of Genesis assumes a plurality of gods.
Unless every one of these legends [of Genesis] is a myth, involving, as I indeed believe, some secret interpretation, they are filled with blasphemies against God. In the first place He is represented as ignorant that she who was created to be a helpmate to Adam would be the cause of man’s fall. Secondly, to refuse to man a knowledge of good and evil (which knowledge alone gives coherence to the human mind), and to be jealous lest man should become immortal by partaking of the tree of life—this is to be an exceedingly grudging and envious god. Why is your god so jealous, even avenging the sins of the fathers upon the children? … Why is so mighty a god so angry against demons, angels, and men? Compare his behavior with the mildness even of Lycurgus and the Romans towards transgressors. The Old Testament (like paganism) sanctioned and required animal sacrifice. … Why do you not accept the Law which God gave the Jews? … You assert that the earlier Law … was limited in time and place. But I could quote to you from the books of Moses not merely ten but ten thousand passages where he says that the Law is for all time.39
When Julian sought to restore paganism he found it not only irreconcilably diverse in practice and creed, but far more permeated with incredible miracle and myth than Christianity; and he realized that no religion can hope to win and move the common soul unless it clothes its moral doctrine in a splendor of marvel, legend, and ritual. He was impressed by the antiquity and universality of myths. “One could no more discover when myth was originally invented … than one could find out who was the first man that sneezed.”40 He resigned himself to mythology, and condoned the use of myths to instill morality into unlettered minds.41 He himself told again the story of Cybele, and how the Great Mother had been carried in the form of a black stone from Phrygia to Rome; and no one could surmise from his narrative that he doubted the divinity of the stone, or the efficacy of its transference. He discovered the need of sensory symbolism to convey spiritual ideas, and adopted the Mithraic worship of the sun as a religious counterpart, among the people, of the philosopher’s devotion to reason and light. It was not difficult for this poet-king to pen a hymn to Helios King Sun, source of all life, author of countless blessings to mankind; this, he suggested, was the real Logos, or Divine Word, that had created, and now sustained, the world. To this Supreme Principle and First Cause Julian added the innumerable deities and genii of the old pagan creeds; a tolerant philosopher, he thought, would not strain at swallowing them all.
It would be a mistake to picture Julian as a freethinker replacing myth with reason. He denounced atheism as bestial,42 and taught doctrines as supernatural as can be found in any creed. Seldom has a man composed such nonsense as in Julian’s hymn to the sun. He accepted the Neoplatonist trinity, identified Plato’s creative archetypal Ideas with the mind of God, considered them as the intermediary Logos or Wisdom by which all things had been made, and looked upon the world of matter and body as a devilish impediment to the virtue and liberation of the imprisoned soul. Through piety, goodness, and philosophy, the soul might free itself, rise to the contemplation of spiritual realities and laws, and so be absorbed in the Logos, perhaps in the ultimate God Himself. The deities of polytheism were in Julian’s belief impersonal forces; he could not accept them in their popular anthropomorphic forms; but he knew that the people would seldom mount to the abstractions of the philosopher, or the mystic visions of the saint. In public and private he practiced the old rituals, and sacrificed so many animals to the gods that even his admirers blushed for his holocausts.43 During his campaigns against Persia he regularly consulted the omens, after the fashion of Roman generals, and listened carefully to the interpreters of his dreams. He seems to have credited the magic-mongering of Maximus.
Like every reformer, he thought that the world needed a moral renovation; and to this end he designed no mere external legislation but a religious approach to the inner hearts of men. He had been deeply moved by the symbolism of the Mysteries at Eleusis and Ephesus; no ceremony seemed to him better fitted to inspire a new and nobler life; and he hoped that these impressive rites of initiation and consecration might be extended from an aristocratic few to a large proportion of the people. According to Libanius, “he wished rather to be called a priest than an emperor.”44 He envied the ecclesiastical hierarchy of Christianity, its devoted priests and women, the communalism of its worship, the binding persuasiveness of its charity. He was not above imitating the better aspects of a religion which he hoped to supplant and destroy. He called new blood into the pagan priesthood, organized a pagan Church with himself as its head, and importuned his clergy to rival and surpass the Christian ministry in providing instruction to the people, distributing alms to the poor, offering hospitality to strangers, and giving examples of the good life.45 He established in every town schools for lectures and expositions of the pagan faith. To his pagan priests he wrote like a Francis to fellow monks:
Act towards me as you think I should act towards you; if you like, let us make this compact, that I am to point out to you what are my views concerning all your affairs, and you in return are to do the same for me concerning my sayings and doings. Nothing in my opinion could be more valuable for us than this reciprocity.…46 We ought to share our money with all men, but more generally with the good and the helpless and the poor. And I will assert, though it will seem paradoxical, that it would be a pious act to share our clothes and food even with the wicked. For it is to the humanity in a man that we give, and not to his moral character.47
This pagan was a Christian in everything but creed and as we read him, and discount his dead mythology, we suspect that he owed many lovable developments of his character to the Christian ethic which had been poured into him in childhood and early youth. How, then, did he behave to the religion in which he had been reared? He allowed Christianity full freedom of preaching, worship, and practice, and recalled the orthodox bishops exiled by Constantius. He withdrew from the Christian Church all state subsidies, and closed to Christians the chairs of rhetoric, philosophy, and literature in the universities, on the ground that these subjects could be taught with sympathy only by pagans.48 He ended the exemption of the Christian clergy from taxation and burdensome civic duties, and the free use by the bishops of the facilities supplied for the public post. He forbade legacies to churches; made Christians ineligible to governmental offices;49 ordered the Christians of each community to make full reparation for any damage that they had inflicted upon pagan temples during preceding reigns; and permitted the demolition of Christian churches that had been built upon the illegally seized lands of pagan shrines. When confusion, injustice, and riots resulted from this precipitate logic, Julian sought to protect the Christians, but he refused to change his laws. He was capable of sarcasm hardly becoming a philosopher when he reminded certain Christians who had suffered violence that “their Scriptures exhort them to support their misfortunes with patience.”50 Christians who reacted to these laws with insults or violence were severely punished; pagans who took to violence or insults in dealing with Christians were handled with leniency.51 In Alexandria the pagan populace had nursed a special hatred for that Arian Bishop George who had taken Athanasius’ see; when he provoked them by a public procession satirizing the Mithraic rites they seized him and tore him to pieces; and though few Christians cared to defend him, many Christians were killed or wounded in the attendant disorders (362). Julian wished to punish the rioters, but his advisers prevailed upon him to content himself with a letter of strong protest to the people of Alexandria. Athanasius now came out of hiding, and resumed his episcopal seat; Julian protested that this was done without consulting him, and ordered Athanasius to retire. The old prelate obeyed; but in the following year the Emperor died, and the Patriarch, symbol of the triumphant Galileans, returned to his see. Ten years later, aged eighty, he passed away, rich in honors and scars.
In the end Julian’s passionate perseverance defeated his program. Those whom he injured fought him with subtle pertinacity; those whom he favored responded with indifference. Paganism was spiritually dead; it no longer had in it any stimulus to youth, any solace to sorrow, any hope beyond the grave. Some converts came to it, but mostly in expectation of political advancement or imperial gold; some cities restored the official sacrifices, but only in payment for favors; at Pessinus itself, home of Cybele, Julian had to bribe the inhabitants to honor the Great Mother. Many pagans interpreted paganism to mean a good conscience in pleasure. They were disappointed to find Julian more puritan than Christ. This supposed freethinker was the most pious man in the state, and even his friends felt it a nuisance to keep pace with his devotions; or they were skeptics who not too privately smiled at his outmoded deities and solicitous hecatombs. The custom of sacrificing animals on altars had almost died out in the East, and in the West outside of Italy; people had come to think of it as a disgrace or a mess. Julian called his movement Hellenism, but the word repelled the pagans of Italy, who scorned anything Greek that was not dead. He relied too much on philosophical argument, which never reached to the emotional bases of faith; his works were intelligible only to the educated, who were too educated to accept them; his creed was an artificial syncretism that struck no roots in the hopes or fancies of men. Even before he died his failure had become evident; and the army that loved and mourned him named a Christian to succeed to his throne.