O thou mother of Gods and of men, who sharest the throne of the great Zeus .. . O life-giving Goddess, who art the wisdom and the providence and the creator of our very souls . . . Grant to all men happiness, and that highest happiness of all which is the knowledge of the Gods; and grant to the Roman people that they may cleanse themselves of the stain of impiety . . .
Julian, Hymn to Cybele, Mother of the Gods
Young Constantius had behaved impeccably during those first few weeks in Constantinople after the Emperor's death, and had favourably impressed many of the leading citizens by his comportment during the funeral. Once his father had been laid safely away in his huge apostolic tomb, however, and he and his two brothers had jointly received, on 9 September, their acclamation as Augusti, he abruptly shed the mild-mannered mask that he had worn until that moment. A rumour was deliberately put about to the effect that, after Constantine's death, a scrap of parchment had been found clenched in his fist - accusing his two half-brothers, Julius Constantius and Delmatius, of having poisoned him and calling on his three sons to take their revenge.
The story seems improbable, to say the least; but it was vouched for by the Bishop of Nicomedia and accepted unhesitatingly by the army in Constantinople. Its effect was horrendous. Julius Constantius was pursued to his palace and butchered on the spot with his eldest son; so too was Delmatius, together with both his sons, the Caesars Delmatius and Hannibalianus, King of Pontus. Soon afterwards Constantine's two brothers-in-law - his close friends Flavius Optatus and Popilius Nepotianus, who had been respectively married to his half-sisters Anastasia and Eutropia - met similar fates; both were senators and former Consuls. Finally the blow fell on Ablavius, the Praetorian Prefect, whose daughter Olympias was betrothed to the new Emperor's younger brother Constans. Apart from three little boys - the two sons of Julius Constantius and the single offspring of Nepotianus and Eutropia, who were presumably spared because of their age - the three reigning Augusti, when they met in the early summer of 338 at Viminacium on the Danube to divide up their huge patrimony between them, were the only male members of the imperial family still alive.
The demarcation - of such vital importance for the peace and stability of the Empire - proved straightforward enough, the brothers continuing to control, with a few adjustments, the same regions in which they had previously ruled as Caesars. To Constantius went the old County of the East, including the whole of Asia Minor and Egypt. This gave him responsibility for the always delicate relations with Christian Armenia, as well as for the conduct of the war with Persia which was now beginning in earnest. His elder brother, Constantine II, was to remain in charge of Gaul, Britain and Spain, while to the younger brother, Constans - though he was still only fifteen - went the largest area of all: Africa, Italy, the Danube, Macedonia and Thrace. This distribution theoretically gave Constans authority over the capital itself; but as neither he nor Constantius was to spend any time there during the coming year, and as in 339 Constans was voluntarily to surrender the city to his brother in return for his support against Constantine II, the point proved of little significance.
It was perhaps inevitable, given their characters and upbringing, that the three Augusti should sooner or later start quarrelling among themselves; one feels, none the less, that with a measure of self-control they might have preserved the peace for a little longer than they in fact managed to do. The initial blame seems to have been Constantine's. The eldest of the three - born early in 317, he had been appointed Caesar when only a month old - he found it impossible to look on his co-Emperors as equals and was forever trying in one way or another to assert his authority over them. It was Constans's refusal to submit to his will that led Constantine, in 340, to invade Italy from Gaul in an attempt to bring his refractory young brother to heel. But the latter, for all his tender years, was too clever for him, and ambushed him with his army just outside Aquileia. Constantine was struck down and killed, and his body thrown into the river Alsa. From that time onward there were two Augusti only, and Constans, aged just seventeen, held supreme power in the West.1
Unfortunately, the character of Constans was no better than that of
1 Constans was to visit Britain in 345, the last legitimate Roman Emperor ever to do so.
his surviving brother. Sextus Aurelius Victor, the Roman Governor of Pannonia whose History of the Caesars is one of the principal sources for the period, describes him as 'a minister of unspeakable depravity and a leader in avarice and contempt for his soldiers'; he certainly neglected the all-important legions along the Rhine and Upper Danube whose duty it was to secure the Empire's eastern frontier against the unremitting pressure from the barbarian tribes, preferring to take his pleasures with certain of his blond German prisoners, as dissolute and debauched as himself. By 350 the army was on the brink of revolt, and matters came to a head when, on 18 January of that year, one of his chief ministers gave a banquet at Augustodunum - the modern Autun - while Constans was away on a hunting expedition. Suddenly in the course of the festivities, a pagan officer of British extraction named Magnentius donned the imperial purple and was acclaimed Emperor by his assembled fellow-guests. On hearing the news Constans took flight, but was quickly captured and put to death.
The usurper did not last long. Constantius, realizing that the revolt in the West was potentially more serious even than the Persian menace, marched against him with a large army, pausing only to appoint his young cousin Gallus - one of the three survivors of the massacre of 337 — Caesar of the East, and to marry him off to his sister Constantina, widow of the less fortunate Hannibalianus. In September 351 Magnentius was soundly defeated at Mursa - now Sisak, in Croatia - and two years later, having failed to regain his following or to rebuild his scattered forces, decided his position was hopeless and fell on his sword. The Emperor, however, still felt threatened. Late in 354, suspecting - almost certainly wrongly - that Gallus was plotting his overthrow, he had the young Caesar beheaded, thereby widowing the luckless Constantina for the second time.
Constantius was now the undisputed sole ruler of the Roman Empire. His defeat of Magnentius, however, did not mean the end of his problems in Gaul. The German confederations beyond the Rhine, emboldened by the neglect of the frontier by Constans and the ensuing rebellion, were making themselves increasingly troublesome. Among his own army, too, several other minor conspiracies had been brought to light. On the other hand the Persian War was by no means over, and he could not stay in the West indefinitely. Much as he would have preferred to keep the power in his own hands, by the autumn of 355 he had at last come to accept the fact that he would have to appoint another Caesar.
On the assumption that any new Caesar was to be chosen from within the Emperor's immediate family, there was only one possible candidate. A philosopher and a scholar, he had no military or even administrative experience; but he was intelligent, serious-minded and a hard worker, and his loyalty had never been in question. Messengers were accordingly dispatched post-haste to Athens to fetch him: the Emperor's twenty-three-year-old cousin Flavius Claudius Julianus, better known to posterity as Julian the Apostate.
The child, as everybody knows, is father to the man; and since, for the past sixteen centuries, historians have been trying to explain Julian's curious and complex character in terms of his early life, it may be worth our while to trace those formative years, very briefly, here. His father, Julius Constantius, was the younger of the two sons born to the Emperor Constantius Chlorus by his second wife Theodora - a branch of the imperial family that had been obliged to keep an extremely low profile after the succession of Constantine and his elevation of Theodora's predecessor and sworn enemy, Helena, to Augustan rank. Julius Constantius had thus spent the greater part of the first forty-odd years of his life in what was effectively a comfortable but unproductive exile when, soon after Helena's death, Constantine had invited him, with his second wife and his young family, to take up residence in his new capital; and it was in Constantinople that his third son Julian was born, in May or June of the year 332. The baby's mother, Basilina, a Greek from Asia Minor, died a few weeks later; and the little boy, together with his two considerably older stepbrothers and a stepsister, was brought up by a succession of nurses and tutors under his father's benevolent, if somewhat distant, supervision. Then, when he was still only five, Julius Constantius was murdered - the first victim of that family blood-bath that followed the accession of his nephew to the throne.
It was a day that Julian never forgot. Whether he actually witnessed the murder of his father and stepbrother is not recorded; nor do we know - though we can easily guess - how near he himself came to sharing their fate. But the experience left a permanent scar, and although a child of his age could hardly have understood why it occurred or who was responsible, the truth soon became apparent as he grew up. And, as it did so, his early respect for his cousin turned to an undying hatred.
To Constantius, on the other hand, young Julian was no more than a minor irritation. The only real problem was what to do with him. The Emperor sent him first to Nicomedia where, with Bishop Eusebius as his tutor, he could be assured of a conscientious, if somewhat narrow, Christian upbringing; then, when Julian was eleven, he and his brother Gallus found themselves effectively exiled to Macellum, the ancient palace of the Kings of Cappadocia. There they remained for six years, with only books for company; not until 349 were they allowed to return to the capital. Gallus was called to the imperial court; Julian, however, by now formidably well read in both classical and Christian literature, obtained permission to apply himself to serious study.
The next six years were the happiest in his life - spent wandering across the Greek world from one philosophical school to another, sitting at the feet of the greatest thinkers, scholars and rhetoricians of the day; reading, arguing, discussing, disputing. First he was in Constantinople; from there he returned to Nicomedia, but not to old Eusebius. The name that attracted him now - significantly enough - was that of Libanius, a celebrated philosopher who had firmly rejected Christianity and all it stood for and remained a proud and self-confessed pagan. By this time the direction of Julian's own sympathies may have been suspected: when one of his former Christian teachers forced him to swear a solemn oath that he would not attend Libanius's lectures, he had them taken down and copied at his own expense. After some time at Nicomedia he passed on to Pergamum, thence to Ephesus and finally to Athens. It seems to have been while he was at Ephesus that he made his decision to renounce Christianity for ever and to transfer his allegiance to the pagan gods of antiquity; but the process was a gradual one, to which it is impossible to ascribe a precise date. In any case he had no choice, in his exposed position, but to keep his new faith a secret; it was to be another ten years before he was able to avow it openly.
Julian arrived at Athens in the early summer of 355. He had not been there long before he caught the eye of a fellow-student. 'It seemed to me,' wrote St Gregory Nazianzen later,
. . . that there was no evidence of a sound character in that oddly disjointed neck, those hunched and twitching shoulders, that wild, darting eye, that swaying walk, that haughty way of breathing down that prominent nose, those ridiculous facial expressions, that nervous and uncontrolled laughter, that ever-nodding head and that halting speech.1
As one of the Empire's leading Christian theologians, Gregory was admittedly parti pris; the portrait he paints is hardly an attractive one. And yet, despite its obvious exaggerations, it still has a somehow authen-
1 St Gregory Nazianzen, Orations, V, 23.
tic ring, and it is at least partly corroborated by other descriptions that have come down to us. Julian was obviously not a handsome man. Burly and stocky, he did indeed hold his head at a curious angle; he had fine, dark eyes under straight brows, but their effect was spoiled by the overlarge mouth and sagging lower lip. In manner - not surprisingly in one who had grown up without a single friend of his own age - he was awkward, uncertain and quite painfully shy: not the sort of material, in short, of which Emperors are made. But then he had no ambitions in that direction. He asked no more than to be allowed to remain at Athens, with his teachers and his books; and, when the call came to present himself before Constantius at Milan, he himself tells us how he prayed to Athena to bring him death rather than allow him to set forth on so fateful a journey.
But his prayers went unanswered; the Emperor's command could not be disobeyed. On Julian's arrival at Milan the situation proved to be just as he had feared. After an agonizing wait of several days, he was duly received by Constantius — the two had met only once before, some seven or eight years previously at Macellum - and informed that he was henceforth a Caesar. His hair was trimmed short, his scholar's beard shaved, his ungainly body squeezed into a tight-fitting military uniform; and on 6 November he received his formal acclamation from the assembled troops. As he acknowledged their doubtless somewhat perfunctory cheers, he - and they - could hardly have failed to remember the unfortunate Gallus, acclaimed in similar fashion not five years before and already twelve months in his grave. The Emperor's words, as he presented the new Caesar to the legions, were nothing if not affectionate; but Julian knew that, if he were to avoid the fate of his half-brother, he would have to tread warily indeed; and the interminable panegyric which he composed at this time in praise of Constantius leaves us in no doubt that he intended to do so.
There has long been a tradition - initiated, in fact, by Julian himself - to the effect that when he was sent into Gaul as Caesar in the late autumn of 355 it was as little more than a figurehead: that, as Libanius was later to put it in his funeral oration, 'he had authority to do nothing save to wear the uniform'. There were even suggestions that he was being deliberately sent by Constantius to almost certain death. All this was, of course, nonsense. The Emperor could boast a formidable record of family murders already; had he seriously wished to eliminate Julian - who, as a wandering scholar, had presented no conceivable threat to his security he would have found a far quicker and surer way of doing so. (And he would hardly have given Julian the hand of his sister Helena in marriage, as he also did at this time.) Besides, the need for a Caesar in the West was genuine and undeniable. The truth seems to be that Julian, on assuming what he had expected to be the unfettered command of the army in Gaul, was piqued to discover that both the Praetorian Prefect and the magister equitum - the civil and military commanders respectively - were directly responsible to Constantius himself. Here, he believed, was a deliberate attempt on the part of the Emperor to diminish his authority. The thought that he was not yet twenty-four and totally without experience in the field does not seem to have struck him.
But he learned fast. It was he, rather than his cautious generals, who led the whirlwind campaign in the summer of 356 that took his army from Vienne to Autun, Troyes and Rheims and thence to Metz, through the Vosges to Coblenz and finally to Cologne - which had been taken by the Franks ten months before and which he now recaptured for the Empire. The following year saw a still greater triumph near Strasbourg, in which 13,000 legionaries smashed a Frankish enemy of 30,000 or more, leaving some 6,000 dead on the field at a cost of just 247 of their own men. The next two years brought still further victories. By the end of the decade the imperial rule had been re-established for the whole length of the frontier, with Julian himself now settled in Paris and, finally, in undisputed control.
In the East, on the other hand - to which Constantius, after a brief visit to Rome, had long since returned - the situation was a good deal less happy. In 359 the Emperor had received a letter from the Persian King:
Shapur, King of Kings, brother of the Sun and Moon, sends salutation . . .
Your own authors are witness that the entire territory within the river Strymon1 and the borders of Macedon was once held by my forefathers; were I to require you to restore all this, it would not ill become me . . . but because I take delight in moderation I shall be content to receive Mesopotamia and Armenia, which was fraudulently extorted from my grandfather. . .
I give you warning that if my ambassador returns empty-handed I shall take the field against you, with all my armies, as soon as the winter is past.
Constantius had no intention of surrendering any of the disputed territory to King Shapur. He was, however, fully aware that he now faced the greatest challenge of his reign, and in January 360 sent a tribune
1 The modern Struma.
to Paris demanding huge reinforcements for the army of the East: four auxiliary units formed of members of Gallic or Frankish tribes loyal to the Empire were to leave at once for Mesopotamia, while all other units were to make available 300 men each. By Caesar and soldiery alike, the imperial command was received with horror. Julian was faced with the prospect of losing, at a single stroke, well over half his army; he had moreover promised the Gallic detachments that they would never be sent to the East. They for their part knew that, if they allowed themselves to be marched away, they would be unlikely ever again to see their wives and families. These would be left destitute behind them, an easy prey for the barbarian bands who, finding the frontier almost unguarded, would once again come swarming into imperial territory.
We shall never know for certain just what took place in Paris during those fateful spring days. According to Julian's own account - in a letter which he wrote to the people of Athens late in the following year - he was determined that the Emperor's orders should be obeyed, however unwelcome they might be to him personally. He summoned all the units in question to Paris, told them the news and exhorted them to accept the inevitable, emphasizing the unprecedented opportunities and rich rewards that awaited them when victory was theirs and, in a further effort to reconcile them to their fate, promising that their families would be transported with them to the East at public expense. But the legionaries, their anger now further inflamed by the anonymous pamphlets that were being circulated from hand to hand, vilifying Constantius and declaring him unworthy of imperial office, would have none of it. By evening, Julian saw that he was faced no longer with disaffection but with open mutiny. Yet even then - he called upon all the gods to witness — he had no idea what was in his soldiers' minds. Were they planning to proclaim him as their Augustus, or to tear him to pieces?
Just about sunset, when Julian had retired to an upper chamber of the palace for some much-needed rest, a trembling chamberlain came to report that the army was marching on the palace. 'Then,' wrote Julian,
peering through a window, I prayed to Zeus. And as the shouting grew louder and the tumult spread to the palace itself I entreated the god to give me a sign; and he did so, bidding me cede to the will of the army and make no opposition against it. Yet even then I did not yield without reluctance but resisted as long as I could, refusing to accept either the acclamation or the diadem. But since I alone could not control so many, and since moreover the gods, whose will it was, sapped my resolution, somewhere about the third hour some soldier or other gave me the collar;1 and I put it on my head and returned to the palace -lamenting, as the gods knew, in my heart.
Does Julian, perhaps, protest a little too much? There is no evidence that he conspired against Constantius, nor that he would ever have wavered in his loyalty if that fateful order for reinforcements had not ultimately made loyalty impossible. But his four and a half years in Gaul had taught him courage and confidence and had given him, for the first time, political ambitions. By now, too, he seems to have believed himself divinely appointed to restore the old religion to the Empire; and it seems unlikely to say the least that, once he had received - or thought he had received - the sign from Zeus, he should have continued to show much reluctance to accept the diadem.
The only difficulty was that no diadem existed. Ammianus Marcellinus - a member of the imperial bodyguard, who was almost certainly in Paris at the time and was probably an eye-witness of much of what took place - writes that the soldiers first proposed to crown Julian with his wife's necklace; when he objected that female adornments would be unsuitable for such a purpose they suggested the frontlet of a horse, but once again he demurred. At last one of the standard-bearers tore the great gold chain from his neck - an emblem of his office - and placed it on Julian's head.
The challenge, unwilling or not, had been flung down. The die was cast. There could be no going back.
Julian was in no hurry to march to the East. The distance involved was immense, and he was far from certain of the loyalties of the many imperial garrisons stationed along the road. If they were to maintain their allegiance to Constantius, he might well find his way blocked - and, quite possibly, his retreat as well. He preferred to bide his time, to send ambassadors to his cousin informing him of what had occurred and suggesting some kind of accommodation between them.
The envoys found Constantius at Caesarea (now Kaiseri) in Cappadocia - ironically enough, on that very estate of Macellum where he had kept the adolescent Julian six years a prisoner. On receiving the messsage he flew into so furious a rage that they at first feared for their lives. For the moment, tied down as he was in the East, all he could do openly was to send Julian a stern warning; in secret, however, he began encouraging the barbarian tribes to renew their offensive along the
1 See below.
Rhine. That way he might at least tie his rival down and prevent him from any eastward advance. In the short term this plan proved moderately successful, and for much of the remainder of the year Julian found himself fully occupied on the frontier. Then in late October he moved south to Vienne, where on 6 November he celebrated the fifth anniversary of his inauguration as Caesar - wearing, Ammianus tells us, 'a splendid diadem inlaid with precious stones, though when first entering on his power he had worn but a paltry-looking crown like that of a president of the public games'.
The coming of spring saw more trouble on the Rhine, put down only after a somewhat discreditable episode in which the chieftain of the Alemanni was invited to dinner by the local Roman commander and -almost certainly on Julian's orders - arrested as soon as he crossed his host's threshold. But by then it had become clear that negotiations between the two Emperors were getting nowhere and that Constantius, taking advantage of a lull in the Persian campaign, was preparing an all-out offensive against his cousin. Julian, we read, was still profoundly uncertain about how best to react: whether to meet him half-way, securing as best he could the allegiance of the troops stationed along the Danube, or whether to wait for him in Gaul, on his own home ground, where he could be sure of his troops. Once again he prayed to the gods for a sign; and once again, we are told, it was vouchsafed to him. Pausing only to make a ritual sacrifice of a bull to Bellona, goddess of war, he assembled his army at Vienne and set out for the East.
Now the Rhine could not be left entirely undefended; moreover, if the whole story about the refusal of the Gallic troops to leave their homeland were not a complete fabrication, then must have been several units reluctant to follow their Emperor on this new expedition. Julian thus had only some 23,000 fighting men on whom to rely - pitifully few in comparison with the number that Constantius could be expected to hurl against him. To conceal this disparity and to make his strength appear greater than it actually was, he therefore broke up his army into three. Ten thousand were to cross the Alps into North Italy and make their way through modern Croatia; a similar number were simultaneously to march through Raetia and Noricum, an area roughly corresponding to Switzerland and the Tyrol. Finally, a select group of 3,000 under Julian himself were to head through the southern part of the Black Forest to the upper Danube in the neighbourhood of Ulm, there to embark on river boats and sail downstream. All three columns were to meet at Sirmium on the river Sava, some twenty miles to the west of Belgrade.
Not surprisingly, Julian's detachment arrived first; the impatient Emperor decided against waiting and pressed on to the south, pausing only when he reached Naissus, where he had decided to pass the winter and consolidate. He had been there only three or four weeks when messengers arrived from the capital: Constantius was dead. He, Julian, had already been acclaimed Emperor by the massed armies of the East. The struggle for power was over, almost before it had begun.
Constantius, the messengers reported, had been at Hierapolis (the modern Mambij, in northern Syria) when he had - most unwillingly -taken the decision to march against his rival. He had retraced his steps as far as Antioch, and had just set out on the 700 miles to Constantinople when he had come upon a headless corpse by the roadside, which he immediately took for an evil omen. By the time he reached Tarsus he was stricken by a low fever, but he refused to stop and dragged himself on a mile or two to the little village of Mopsucrenae. There it became clear that he could go no further; and there, on 3 November 361, he died. Until that last illness he had always enjoyed perfect health. He was forty-four years old.
To Julian, this was yet another proof that the gods were working on his behalf. Neither then nor later, however, did he show any sign of relief or jubilation. He hastened on to Constantinople, in order to be present when the body of his predecessor reached the capital. On the day of its arrival he himself, dressed in the deep mourning that he had ordered for the whole city, was on the quayside to supervise the unloading of the coffin. Later he led the funeral procession to the Church of the Holy Apostles, weeping unashamedly - and, as far as we can tell, genuinely - as his father's murderer and his own life-long enemy was laid to rest. Only after the ceremony was over did he assume the attributes of Empire.
And he never entered a Christian church again.
Within days of Julian's accession to the imperial throne, it was plain to all in Constantinople that the new regime was going to provide a marked contrast to the old. A military tribunal was established at Chalcedon across the Bosphorus to try certain of Constantius's chief ministers and advisers whom the new Emperor suspected of having abused their powers. Some were acquitted, others let off with periods of banishment or forced residence; but several were condemned to death - including two, the sinisterly named Paul the Chain and his collaborator Apodemius, joint chiefs of Constantius's detested intelligence network, who were sentenced to be buried alive. More deserving of sympathy was Ursulus, who had served Julian with distinction in Gaul as his minister of finance and who, though subsequently transferred to the East, had never shown him the slightest disloyalty. Some years before, however, at the siege of Amida in Upper Mesopotamia, he had unwisely cast aspersions on the Empire's military efficiency; and the eastern generals had never forgiven him. Julian had taken care not to be a member of the tribunal himself; as Emperor, however, he could easily have intervened to save his old friend. It was a disappointment to many of his admirers that he did not do so.
In the Palace itself, the new broom was even more dramatically apparent. Ever since the days of Diocletian, the Emperor had been growing more and more of a being apart, separated from his subjects by a court increasingly rigid with ceremonial, approachable only by his senior ministers - in the intervals between their successive prostrations - and surrounded by whole regiments of domestics whose numbers increased with every passing year. As Libanius was later to claim in his funeral oration on Julian:
There were a thousand cooks, as many barbers, and even more butlers. There were swarms of lackeys, the eunuchs were more in number than flies around the flocks in spring, and a multitude of drones of every sort and kind. There was one refuge for such idle gluttons, to have the name and title of being one of the Emperor's household, and in very quick time a piece of gold would ensure their enrolment.1
The purge that followed Julian's arrival was swift and thorough. Literally thousands of chamberlains and major-domos, of grooms and barbers and bodyguards, were summarily dismissed without compensation, until the Emperor was left with only the skeleton staff required to meet his own needs - those of a single man (for his wife Helena was by now dead), ascetic and celibate, to whom food and drink were of little interest and creature comforts of none.
Similarly radical reforms were made in the government and administration - usually in the direction of the old republican traditions. There was, for example, a significant increase in the power of the Senate, which Julian henceforth made a point of attending regularly and in person, travelling there on foot as a sign of respect. The taxation system was tightened up and rationalized; so too were the imperial communications, and in particular the cursus publicus, which ensured the proper provision of horses, mules and oxen for the transport of government servants
1 Oration XVIII, 130.
travelling on duty and for the carriage of official freight. Once famous for its efficiency, this organization had been allowed by Constantius to fall into the hands of unscrupulous agents whose animals were often so overworked and undernourished that, so Libanius tells us, 'most of them dropped down dead as soon as they were unhitched - or even before, while they were still in the traces'.1
But these measures were of the kind that any strong ruler might enforce on succeeding a weak and corrupt regime. Where Julian stands alone among all the Emperors of Byzantium is in his convinced and dedicated paganism. During his years as Caesar, he had been obliged to pay lip-service to the Christian faith: as late as April 361 we find him attending Easter mass at Vienne. But his inner rejection of that faith had long been an open secret, and from the moment that the news was brought to him at Naissus of Constantius's death he made no more pretence. It was as a professed pagan that he attended his predecessor's funeral in the Church of the Holy Apostles, and as a pagan that he settled down, after much divine consultation, to frame the laws which, he was convinced, would ultimately eliminate Christianity and re-establish the worship of the ancient gods throughout the Roman Empire.
There would, he believed, be no need for persecution. Persecution meant martyrs, and martyrs always seemed to have a tonic effect on the Christian Church. The first thing to do was to repeal the decrees by which pagan temples had been closed, their property confiscated and their sacrifices declared illegal. Then, in the ensuing atmosphere of complete religious toleration, an amnesty would be proclaimed for all those orthodox Christian churchmen whom the pro-Arian government of Constantius had sent into exile. Orthodox and Arian would soon be at each other's throats again, of that he was sure - for, as Ammianus notes, 'he had found by experience that no wild beasts are so hostile to men as are Christian sects in general to one another'.2 After that it would be only a question of time before the Christians saw the error of their ways and embraced once again the old faith that they should never have left.
Such reasoning, over-simplified though it may be, must seem to modern minds quite impossibly naive. Julian was, however, that unique combination - a Roman Emperor, a Greek philosopher and a mystic. As an Emperor, he knew that his Empire was sick. It no longer functioned as it had in the golden age of the Antonines two centuries before. The army had lost much of its old invincibility and was now, more often
1 Oration XVIII, 14).
2 Ammianus Marcellinus, XXII, v, 4.
than not, barely able to keep the peace along the frontier. The government was inefficient, plagued by pluralism and corruption. The old Roman virtues of reason and duty, honour and integrity were gone. The Emperors themselves, his immediate predecessors, had been sensualists and sybarites, living in an unreal world of fantasy and self-indulgence; still capable, perhaps, of leading their forces into battle when absolutely necessary but happier by far to recline in their palaces, surrounded by their women and their eunuchs.
All this, clearly, was the result of moral degradation. As a philosopher, however, Julian was not prepared to leave it at that. He was determined to discover the cause of the decline; and, because he was a deeply religious man living in an age in which men instinctively sought spiritual solutions to worldly problems, he concluded that this all-important question could be answered in a single word: Christianity. Here, as he saw it, was a faith that rode roughshod over the old virtues, emphasizing instead such effete, feminine qualities as gentleness, meekness and the turning of the other cheek. Worse still, it preached the disastrous creed of free and easy absolution. In a curious little composition entitled The Caesars, composed for the Saturnalia of December 362, Julian makes his views clear enough - picturing Jesus (who has taken up his abode with Incontinence) 'crying aloud to all comers: "Let every seducer, every murderer, every man guilty of sacrilege, every scoundrel, come unto me without fear. For with this water will I wash him and straightway make him clean. And though he should be guilty of those same sins a second time, let him but smite his breast and beat his head and I will make him clean again.'"
In a word, Christianity had emasculated the Empire, robbing it of its strength and its manhood and substituting a moral fecklessness whose effects were everywhere apparent. Comparisons with other places and periods are always dangerous; yet to say that Julian looked on the Christians of the fourth century in something of the same light as a conservative of the old school might have looked on the hippies and Flower Power people in the 1960s might not be too wide of the mark.
Conservatives of the old school, however, are not normally mystics. Julian was. Dearly as he loved philosophical and theological debate, his approach to religion was always emotional rather than intellectual. Seldom during his short reign did he miss an opportunity of publicizing his views - shocking many of his subjects, pagan as well as Christian, by descending to the market place to give public lectures and firing off long, impassioned treatises and tracts in refutation of those contemporary thinkers whom he thought wrong-headed. When he took up his pen, he worked furiously, frenziedly and at almost unbelievable speed. The 17,000 words of his Hymn to Cybele were, he tells us, written in a single night. Unfortunately, it reads like it. Julian's style is diffuse, undisciplined and oddly self-indulgent - all those faults that he most deplored and that were most conspicuously absent from his daily life: a style that might have found favour among some of the woollier of the neo-platonists whom he admired, but that would have cut little ice with Socrates or Aristotle. No matter. He wrote, as he earnestly believed, under divine guidance. The gods were always with him, inspiring his tongue, directing his pen, for ever ready with a sign of encouragement or warning to lead him in the path of righteousness and truth. Never, one suspects, never for a single second, did he bethink himself that he might be wrong, or that the old religion might not, after all, prevail.
It appeared, on the other hand, in no great hurry to do so. In the summer of 362 Julian transferred his capital to Antioch, in preparation for the Persian expedition that he was preparing for the following year; and as he marched through the heartland of Asia Minor - covering the 700 miles in something under six weeks - he was concerned to note that the Christian communities, having overcome their initial fears that the Emperor might institute a new wave of persecutions, had settled down as before and were showing no sign whatever of tearing each other to bits; nor were the pagans - who represented an almost infinite variety of beliefs, from the primitive animism of the peasantry to the arcane mysteries evolved by the neo-platonist intellectuals - noticeably stronger or more cohesive than in Constantine's day. (The overwhelming majority of them probably practised no religion at all, or did so more out of respect for tradition than any real spiritual conviction.) In vain did Julian journey from temple to temple, personally officiating at one sacrifice after another until he was nicknamed 'the butcher' by his subjects. In vain did he try to impose upon his fellow-pagans an organized priesthood with its own hierarchy on the Christian model, urging them to establish hospitals and orphanages, even monasteries and convents, in order, as it were, to beat the Christians at their own game. The prevailing apathy was unshakeable. Ruefully, Julian himself told the local citizens the story of his visit to the great festival of Apollo, held annually at Daphne, the rich residential suburb of Antioch:
I hurried there from the temple of Zeus Kasios, believing that at Daphne if anywhere I should enjoy the sight of your wealth and public spirit. And, like a man seeing visions in a dream, I pictured to myself what a procession it would be - the beasts for the sacrifice, the libations, the choruses in honour of the god, the incense, and the youth of your city gathered about the sacred precinct, their souls dressed in reverence and they themselves clothed in white raiment. But when I entered the shrine I found neither incense, nor barley-cake, nor a single beast for sacrifice . . . And when I enquired what sacrifice the city proposed to offer to celebrate the annual festival of the god, the priest answered: 'I have brought from my own house a goose as an offering, but the city has so far made no preparations.'1
If the pagans could not be galvanized into life, there was no alternative but to increase the pressure on the Christians; and on 17 June 362 Julian published an edict which, innocuous though it appeared at first sight, struck a body-blow at the Christian faith. For any schoolteacher, it declared, the first and most important requirement was an irreproachable moral character. In consequence, no teacher would henceforth be permitted to follow his calling without first obtaining the approval of his local city council and, through that, of the Emperor himself. In an explanatory circular Julian made it clear that in his view no Christian who professed to teach the classical authors - who in those days occupied virtually all the school curriculum - could possibly be of the required moral standard, since he would be teaching subjects in which he did not himself believe. He must consequently abjure either his livelihood or his faith.
This edict has been denounced by Christian writers down the ages as the most heinous of Julian's crimes against the Church. Even in his own day, the pagan Ammianus Marcellinus considered that it 'deserved to be buried in eternal silence'. Its effects, moreover, were felt far beyond the academic world. Christian demonstrations were held in protest, and there were riots when, on discovering that the temple of Apollo at Daphne had been defiled by the burial within its precincts of a Christian martyr (ironically enough, at the command of Julian's own brother Gallus), the Emperor ordered its exhumation and removal. On this latter occasion, several of the demonstrators were arrested. They were later released, though only after at least one of them had been put to the torture; but on 26 October the whole temple was burnt to the ground. Julian retaliated by closing down the Great Church of Antioch, confiscating all its gold plate.
Tension was now rising fast. Further incidents followed and, as the situation began to escalate, more than one hot-blooded young Christian
1 Misopogon, 361-1.
courted - and achieved - martyrdom. There were, to be sure, no out-and-out persecutions of the kind that had been seen under Decius or Diocletian; but Julian - whose emotional stability was a good deal more uncertain than either of theirs - would have been fully capable of instituting such persecutions had he thought them necessary. It was a blessed day indeed for the Christians when, on 5 March 363, he set off for the East at the head of some 90,000 men, never to return alive.
There was nothing new about the war with Persia. The two vast Empires had been fighting along their common frontier - with occasional deep inroads into each other's territories - for the best part of two and a half centuries. In 298 Galerius's victory over King Narses had theoretically ensured forty years of peace; but in 363 Narses's second successor, Shapur II, had decided to take his revenge. Shapur was at the time fifty-four years old, and had occupied the Persian throne for the same period - technically, indeed, a little longer, since he is perhaps the only monarch in all history to have been crowned in utero. The quotation from Gibbon is irresistible:
The wife of Hormouz remained pregnant at the time of her husband's death, and the uncertainty of the sex, as well as of the event, excited the ambitious hopes of the princes of the house of Sassan. The apprehensions of civil war were at length removed by the positive assurance of the Magi that the widow of Hormouz had conceived, and would safely produce a son. Obedient to the voice of superstition, the Persians prepared, without delay, the ceremony of his coronation. A royal bed, on which the queen lay in state, was exhibited in the midst of the palace; the diadem was placed on the spot which might be supposed to conceal the future heir of Artaxerxes, and the prostrate satraps adored the majesty of their invisible and insensible sovereign.
It had been fortunate for Constantius that for much of the 350s, when he had been busy in Gaul with the revolt of Magnentius and its aftermath, Shapur too had been occupied elsewhere. For the rest of his reign, however, both before and after that period, the Persian King had caused him almost constant anxiety. The climax came in 359 when, after a prolonged siege, Shapur captured the key fortress of Amida - the present Turkish city of Diyarbekir, which controlled both the headwaters of the Tigris and the approaches to Asia Minor from the East - and went on from there to build up a dangerously strong position in Upper Mesopotamia. By now, therefore, a major Roman offensive was essential if the situation were not to get seriously out of hand; and Julian - conscious as he was of following in the footsteps of Pompey, Trajan and Septimius Severus and even, there is reason to suspect, believing that he might be the reincarnation of Alexander the Great himself - was impatient to achieve similar glory.
His road ran first of all due east, by way of Beroea - the modern Aleppo - where he slaughtered a white bull on the acropolis as a tribute to Zeus. At Hieropolis he wheeled slightly to the north, crossing the Euphrates and the present Syrian-Turkish frontier - possibly to perform a further sacrifice at the great temple of the Moon at Carrhae, now Harran. From here he followed the flow of the rivers: first the Belikh as far as Raqqa and then the Euphrates itself to the point, just south of Baghdad, where it comes to within some thirty miles of the Tigris and where the army was able to take one of the several minor waterways linking the two. Thus, after a few minor sieges and skirmishes but no real difficulties, Julian found himself on the west bank of the Tigris, gazing up at the walls of Ctesiphon,1 the Persian capital.
On the opposite shore, however, occupying the land between those walls and the river, was a Persian army, already drawn up and ready for battle; and the Roman generals were concerned to note that it numbered, besides the normal cavalry, a quantity of elephants - always a powerful weapon, not just because their men had no experience of dealing with them but because their smell terrified the horses to the point of panic. None the less, Julian gave the order to advance across the river. The first attempt to land on the further bank was repulsed; but the second, with the whole weight of the army behind it, succeeded and battle was joined. It ended - to the surprise of many on both sides - in an overwhelming victory for Roman arms. According to Ammianus, who was there and who took part in the fighting, 2,500 Persians were killed at the cost of a mere seventy Roman lives.
The date was 29 May; already by the next day, however, suddenly and without warning, the situation had changed. Doubt and uncertainty spread over the Roman camp. Within the space of a week, the siege of Ctesiphon was abandoned - almost before it had begun - and the army was thinking only of retreat. What had happened? There was much talk among Julian's apologists about Persian skulduggery, and it may well have been a trick of some kind that led him to order the burning of his considerable river fleet - though how much good this would have been to him on his return journey upstream is open to question. But the most
1 Now a must spectacular ruin, some twenty miles south-cast of Baghdad.
likely explanation - and that given by Ammianus, who should know - is that the Emperor had at last been brought face to face with military realities: that Ctesiphon was virtually impregnable, and that Shapur's main army - larger by far than that which had just been defeated — was rapidly approaching. And there was another problem too: despite the recent victory, morale in the Roman army was dangerously low. Food was short, the Persians having pursued a scorched-earth policy for miles around; the rivers were all in flood, with the result that the men were floundering from one quagmire to the next; the heat was murderous; and the flies, Ammianus tells us, were so thick that they blotted out the light of the sun. Julian, he goes on, was still in favour of advancing further into Persian territory; but his generals refused. Even had they themselves been willing, they knew that they could never have persuaded their men to follow. On 16 June the retreat began.
Continually, remorselessly harried by the Persian cavalry, the army trudged back to the north-west along the left bank of the Tigris. Then, on 26 June, when it had reached a point a short distance downstream from Samarra, it suddenly came under heavy attack. Once again the dreaded elephants were brought into action, once again the air was thick with spears and arrows. Without pausing to strap on his breastplate, Julian plunged into the thick of the fray, shouting encouragement to his men as he fought in their midst; and just as the tide of battle was turning and the Persians were beginning to retreat, a flying spear struck him in the side. Trying to pull it out, he succeeded only in severing the sinews of his right hand; meanwhile, those nearest him lifted him from the ground where he had fallen and carried him to his tent. The spear was extracted from deep in his liver, but the damage was done. He died just before midnight.1
Julian was thirty-one at the time of his death, and had occupied the imperial throne for just nineteen and a half months. As an Emperor he was a failure. He was responsible for virtually no lasting legislation, he wasted his time and energy on a hopelessly quixotic attempt to revive an ill-defined and moribund religion, to the detriment of that which was to give the Empire its binding force for a thousand years to come; he made
1 According to legend, Julian scooped up a handful of the blood that was flowing from his wound and murmured the words \'icisti Galilaee! - 'Thou has conquered, Galilean!' He is said to have been killed by St Mercurius, one of the Christian army officers whom he had had executed, but whom the Virgin had temporarily resurrected for the purpose — a fact subsequently proved by his contemporary St Basil who, commanded in a dream to visit the martyr's tomb, there found the bloodstained lance.
himself thoroughly unpopular with his subjects, Christian and pagan alike, who hated his puritanism and his ceaseless sermonizing; and he came near to destroying the entire imperial army - as well as himself - in a campaign which, however brilliantly organized on the ground, ended in near catastrophe through want of clear-sighted forward planning and properly focused objectives.
And yet, of all the eighty-eight Emperors of Byzantium, it is Julian who, more than any other - not excepting the great Constantine himself - has caught the imagination of posterity, from Gregory Nazianzen in the fourth century to Gore Vidal in the twentieth. He has been depicted by medieval writers as a devil, a serpent, even as Antichrist; by those of the Renaissance as a tragic hero; by those of the eighteenth century as the archetypal philosopher-prince, the apostle of reason and enlightenment; and by the Romantics in their favourite guise of outsider and rebel - noble, courageous, but ultimately defeated. It is arguable that this last interpretation - even when, as has several times occurred, Julian's life is embellished with the love interest which in history it had so conspicuously lacked - comes nearest the truth.
The real tragedy of Julian lies not in his misguided policies or in his early death, but in the hairsbreadth by which he failed to achieve the greatness which he in so many ways deserved. Few monarchs have possessed his most outstanding qualities in such abundance: his intelligence, the depth of his education and culture; his energy and tireless industry; the courage and inspiring leadership that he invariably showed in battle; the utter integrity and incorruptibility of his public and private life; his apparent immunity to physical temptation of whatever kind; his astonishing ability to sublimate himself in the service of his Empire and, above all, of his gods. Sadly, however, he also possessed two faults, which together made any lasting achievement impossible. The first was his religious fanaticism, which warped his judgement and robbed him of that instinctive sense of priorities which is essential to any successful ruler; the second was a certain lack of sharpness and definition in his thinking. The latter trait, which is all too evident in his literary effusions and which was ultimately to sabotage the Persian expedition, may well derive from the former: Julian could on occasion be curiously indecisive. Again and again we find him asking the gods for guidance, when he should have been taking decisions for himself. On the other hand this very weakness gave him, once he had resolved upon his actions, a quite extraordinary self-confidence; and even when it was plain to all that a disastrous mistake had been made, his courage never deserted him.
Perhaps, had he lived, Julian would have overcome both these faults and proved himself one of the greatest of all the Roman Emperors. But he did not live. He died, in the most characteristic way he could have died, bravely but unnecessarily, leaving the world with nothing but the ineffaceable memory of a marvellous, misguided young visionary who attempted to change the world and failed, his talents and high qualities betrayed, his promise unfulfilled.