The Roman Emperor Flavius Claudius Julianus, known as Julian, was the last “pagan” emperor of the Roman empire. The emperor Julian attempted to restore Rome’s greatness, by restoring traditional Roman values and religions. Julian was a very complex man, much more so than later emperors. Julian was at times a brilliant military leader, a social reformer, a government reformer, a philosopher and a promoter of neo-Platonic paganism. Christians derisively refer to Julian as “The Apostate” because he had been raised a Christian. Julian did not openly reject Christianity until after he had “taken the purple.”
Julian was born in 331 or 332 in Constantinople. Julian’s uncle was the Emperor Constantine I. When Constantius II became Emperor, he had most of Julian’s relatives murdered. Julian and his half-brother Gallus were raised in exile on an imperial estate. Julian received a Christian education under the Bishop of Nicomedia, Eusebius of Nicomedia. However, when Bishop George of Cappadocia lent Julian books from the classical period, Julian developed a strong interest in philosophy and traditional religions, which Julian knew that he had to conceal.
In 351 Julian studied neo-Platoism under Aedesius and neo-Platonic theurogy from Maximus of Ephesus. In 355 the Emperor allowed Julian to travel to Athens, where he studied philosophy and was secretly initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries. Later in 355 Julian’s life made a radical turn, he was summoned to the imperial court at Mediolanum, and Constantius II had Julian married to Constantius’ sister Helena before sending Julian to Gaul as Caesar of the West.
Constantius thought the scholar would only be a figurehead, however Julian excelled in Gaul. Julian quickly adapted to military life and was responsible for winning several military campaigns. Julian’s popularity in Gaul swiftly grew. In 360, while in Paris, Julian’s legions proclaimed him Augustus (Emperor). Constantius maneuvered his legions in the east to meet the threat, but Constantius died before a civil war could begin in earnest. According to Constantius’ writing, Julian was Constantius’ choice for succession.
In 361 Emperor Julian entered Constantinople and began making governmental reforms by drastically reducing the size of government. Julian re-opened closed pagan temples across the empire and removed the advantages the Christian emperors had given Christians over non-Christians. Julian planed to rebuild the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, to further divide the quarrelsome Christians further. Julian weakened the power of Christian’s but he generously did not persecute them. Julian passed an edict guaranteeing freedom of religion. Julian addressed the senate, which emperors had not been doing and wrote books and essays in spare moments. Julian was a “hands on” working emperor, which did not endear him to the fired bureaucrats.
Julian began ruling in the style of a Marcus Aurelius or a Hadrian. Knowing that he needed the support of the eastern legions to remain emperor, Julian planned a campaign against the ancient enemy of Persia. A victory would assure his stability, enabling him to complete his reforms with the support of the army. Antioch would be the staging point for the campaign in Persia. After five months in Constantinople, Julian left for Antioch.
Julian’s stay in Antioch was unpleasant for the Emperor and the citizens of Antioch. Although most of the empire was still pagan, Antioch had become strongly Christian, the local temples had been neglected. The citizens of Antioch also expected the emperor to be aloof and follow the whims of the mob, but Julian led an ascetic philosopher’s life and his participation in pagan religious rites stunned them. Animosity grew on both sides. While in Antioch, Julian wrote the book Against the Galileans, which according to Christian apologist Cyril of Alexandria, was the most important work ever written against the Christian religion.
On 05 March 363 Julian happily left Antioch with an army of 65 to 90 thousand soldiers on the march toward Persia. By the middle of May, Julian’s forces arrived at the city of Ctesiphon, where they defeated defending forces in front of the city walls. However, the Romans did not believe they could breach the city walls with the threat of the main body of the Persian army at large. Julian made the decision to bypass taking the city and push with his army into the interior of Persia, in hopes of a decisive battle on Julian’s terms. Julian believed in the transmigration of souls and that he was Alexander the Great reborn.
The Persians used slash and burn tactics before the advancing Romans depriving them of food supplies. The Persians also employed attack and run tactics against the weakened Roman army and avoided an all out battle. On 26 June 363 near Maranga, Julian’s column was attacked at the Battle of Samarra. In a hurry to inspire his troops to counter attack, Julian leapt upon his horse with his sword, leaving his armor in his tent. In the mêlée that followed, Julian was struck by a lance piercing his liver and lower intestines. Julian was quietly removed from the battle, but the word that he had been seriously injured quickly spread. Although Julian received immediate surgery, he died in his tent three days later. One of Julian’s Christian generals “Took up the Purple” and became the next emperor. The hope to restore the greatness of Rome faded away.
Immediately it became hazardous to have been a friend of Julian and they began to disappear from public view. Julian’s religious reforms were undone. Many of Julian’s books and essays were destroyed as blasphemy. As an enemy of the church, Julian became almost the devil incarnate and so he remained until the renaissance. However, since the time of the renaissance, Julian has become the subject of researcher, plays and novels. His reputation has been revived in certain circles.
Although Julian’s book Against the Galileans was destroyed, fragments of the book were quoted by Christian apologist Cyril of Alexandria in three books he wrote (Contra Julianum)in an effort to refute Julian. What fragments remain of Against the Galileans is available on the internet or in book form available from Ostara Publications.
Additionally, Adrian Murdock published the book The Last Pagan, which is available through Inner Traditions. The Last Pagan is a very easy read and the writer may give a brief review at a later date. This writer also recommends the historical novel Julian by Gore Vidal. Vidal’s novel brings the characters to life and he had his own ideas concerning the death of the Emperor Julian.
People such as the Emperor Julian and Hypatia of Alexandria are all but forgotten. They should be remembered for the resistance they gave to a universalist, centrist controlling religion.