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Exploring the Ancient Past

The Emperor Julian

The Apostate Emperor

By Natasha Sheldon

Emperor from 361, Julian was the last Pagan Roman Emperor. Brought up as a Christian, revival of the old religions earned him the title 'apostate'.

Nephew of the Emperor Constantine, Flavius Claudius Julianus became Emperor of the Roman Empire in 361 AD. Emperor for less than two years, he is best remembered for his short lived revival of paganism. However, his brief reign saw a return of economic and political stability and prosperity and promised a return to the golden days of the empire.

 

Early Life

Born at Constantinople in 331AD, Julian was born into Christian Imperial dynasty intent upon murdering each other. His father, Julius Constantius, son of Constantius Chlorus, and half brother of Constantine I was assassinated in 337 AD, caught up in the bloody struggle for power between Constantine’s three sons Constantine II, Constantius II and Constans. Of his immediate family, only Julian and his half brother Gallus survived. Brought up in Cappadocia, they remained into seclusion until first Gallus and then in 355AD,Julian were recalled to the Imperial court in Milan.

Education and Intellect

 

Julian attraction to pagan philosophy probably began with the classical education her received in Cappadocia under the tutelage of the eunuch Mardinius. Whilst his brother served as Caesar or deputy to Constantius, Julian began a pilgrimage of the great centres of Classicism. First he went to Ephesus where he secretly abandoned Christianity in favour of theurgy, a Neo-Platonist philosophy which connected the material with the cosmos by magic. From here he continued to study at Athens, developing his ideas.

 

He wrote prolifically. His surviving works, which include 80 of his letters, 8 speeches, two satires: ‘The Beard Hater’ and ‘Banquet’ (which describes the reception of Constantine the Great in Olympus) and his treatise ‘Against the Galileans’, are often satirical and witty whilst revealing an intellectualised theological mindset which questioned and rationalised his beliefs.

 

The Good Emperor

 

In 354 AD, Julian’s brother Gallus was executed by Constantius. In 355AD, Julian was summoned to Milan to take his place. He was married to the Emperor’s sister, made his deputy or Caesar as the role was by then known, and given administration of Gaul and Britain. Here, Julian proved his worth as an efficient administrator and military commander. He reformed taxation and secured his provinces against barbarian incursions by defeating Germanic tribes such as the Alemanni and Franks. His troops so admired him that they mutinied against the emperor and in 361 proclaimed Julian emperor instead. However, civil war was prevented by the death of Constantius.

 

On becoming emperor, Julian began his attempts to resurrect the golden age of the empire. His reforms continued, with a streamlined civil service and taxation reforms. Included in these reforms was the removal of state funding from Christianity and tax concessions from its clergy. This was the beginning of his open attempts to reverse the religious sensibilities of the empire.

 

The Pagan Revival

 

On assuming the purple, Julian openly declared his paganism. Although he himself did not embrace all of the empires cults, he set about a widespread programme of restoration. The old cults and priesthoods were restored and temples repaired or rebuilt. It was even his ambition to restore the Temple of Jerusalem. Julian’s general attitude was one of religious tolerance. Christianity, despite loosing its many official benefits was not attached. However, the emperor did display a certain intellectual bias against ‘the Galileans’ as he disparagingly called them by forbidding them from teaching classical literature.

 

Certainly his reforms were not well received by the Christians in his empire. At Antioch, which Julian made his base 6 months into his rule, the predominantly Christian town greeted him with derision, mocking his classical affectations and undermining his attempts at reform, effectively sabotaging his efforts to stem a famine. His satire ‘The Beard Hater’ was written as a satirical response to this wave of unpopularity.

 

The Persian Campaign

In 362 AD, Julian left Antioch to begin his campaign against the Persians, an overt attempt to resurrect the military glory of the empire. For a time, he was successful. His army won a decisive early victory against the Persian King Shapur II near Ctesiphon. However, as the army pressed further into Persian territory, the campaign began to weaken. In June 363, Julian was wounded by a spear thrown by a mysterious horseman. He died three days later without naming a successor, leaving the army to elect his second in command, Jovian, to take his place.

 

His body was buried just north of Tarsus in October of that year and the philosopher Libanius gave his funeral oration. His reforms faded away and with him were buried the last hopes of a revived, pagan empire.

 

Sources

‘Who’s Who in the Roman World’ by John Hazel. Routledge: London and New York

The Last Pagan: Julian the Apostate and the Death of the Ancient World by Adrian Murdock. Sutton Publishing

The Oxford Classical Dictionary of Classical Myth and Religion ed. Simon Price and Emily Kearns.