Julian "the Apostate"

An entry from The Encyclopedia of Heresies and Heretics by Chas S. Clifton. Published in 1992 by ABC-Clio, Santa Barbara, California. (Polish edition: Encyklopedia herezji i heretykÛw, Oficyna Wydanwicza Atena, 1996.)

JULIAN THE APOSTATE: Born in 331 and ruler of the Roman empire from 361 until his death in 363, the emperor Flavius Claudius Julianus is known to history as "the apostate" because he formally renounced the Christian religion in which he had been raised and tried with only partial and ephemeral success to revive the old Roman state Paganism, placing himself at its head as high priest and "philosopher-king."

Julian was born in Constantinople, the new imperial capital established by Constantine the Great. His father, Julius Constantius, was Constantine's half-brother, who spent most of his life excluded from power by Constantine (who feared him as a possible rival to the throne) and was eventually murdered by Constantine's son and successor Constantius when Julian was five. Julian's mother had died shortly after his birth. The young Julian spent most of his boyhood under what amounted to house arrest in luxurious imperial villas, surrounded by nurses, slaves and tutors, the whole establishment supervised by Eusebius, a Christian bishop. For a time he was also allowed to make extended visits to his grandmother's country estate; otherwise, aside from rare visits from his half-brother Gallus, he was without many family contacts.

He was raised a Christian, but educated in the Pagan classics--the only books of literature, philosophy and science available--such as the works of Homer and Plato.In his teens he was baptized and ordained a "reader," the lowest step on the clerical ladder, charged with giving the lessons from the Old and New Testament during worship services. Later in life, he wrote of those years of gilded exile that "No stranger came near us [i.e. Julian]. None of our old friends was allowed to visit us. We were cut off from any serious study and any contact with free men; surrounded by a splendid entourage, we had no companions but our own slaves."

Despite his carefully guided Christian upbringing, Julian was drawn to the competing philosophy of Neoplatonism, Christianity's chief intellectual rival and an irresistible influence on it. He had also experienced moments of mystic insight that did not seem to fit into a Christian worldview; by his twentieth birthday, he decided privately that he was philosophically a Pagan although he had never encountered Pagan religion in practice. At about the same time in his life, the political climate changed and Julian was allowed to travel where he liked as long as he stayed out of political affairs. His studious nature led him to one Aidesios, a student of the late Neoplatonist teacher Iamblichus, and through other of Aeidesios's students heard of Maximus, a charismatic man who combined philosopher, ritual magician and freelance Pagan priest. Using the works of Iamblichus, which countenanced ritual magic as a step in the soul's journey toward the One--the source of all existence--and other magical texts such as the second-century Chaldean Oracles, Maximus offered initiation into what amounted to a secret, esoteric Neoplatonic religion. Julian became his initiate. Later he was also initiated into the all-male cult of Mithras, the Persian Sun god widely worshiped in the Roman army--Mithraism with its ranks and lodges filled a place somewhat similar to modern Freemasonry for soldiers stationed far from home.

While Julian's brother Gallus was appointed Caesar (regional military commander) of part of the eastern empire under the emperor Constantius, only eventually to be accused of treason and executed like so others, Julian continued his philosophical and magical studies while keeping the outward appearance of pious Christianity. But eventually the emperor's net caught him too. Accused of plotting treason, he was summoned to Constantius's headquarters in Milan. On the way he visited the city of Troy (much reduced from its Homeric glory) and was escorted by a bishop to the shrines of the goddess Athena and the hero Hector. Both shrines were still in use, something that did not seem to offend the bishop, and both the continuance of Pagan practice and the bishop's tolerance--perhaps even approval--affected Julian deeply.

Unlike his half-brother, Julian escaped execution, but was held for a time under house arrest and then exiled to Athens, now a political backwater but still an important center of learning. Here he continued his studies and was also initiated into the ancient cult of the goddess Demeter at Eleusis. But after less than a year, he was recalled to Milan in 355; facing another coup attempt, Constantius decided to summon his sole adult male relative and invest him as his deputy, for all that he had destroyed Julian's father and brothers.

The quiet, scholarly 24-year-old gave up his philosopher's beard and philosopher's gown. Suddenly he was a high officer: Caesar of Gaul, Britain, and Spain. He also undertook a political marriage with Helena, Constantius's sister, who was about 30. In fact, he was only a figurehead, military and civil decisions being made by other men Constantius had appointed.

Swept into a campaign against the German and Frankish tribes already underway, Julian studied the craft of war from veteran officers and garnered some small initial successes which only enhanced his popularity among the legionnaires and people. After his outnumbered troops--with Julian in the thick of combat--defeated a larger coalition of German tribesmen on the Rhine at Strasbourg his popularity rose even faster in the army. Too much popularity, however, could be unhealthy. From being a figurehead, Julian was now Constantius's potential rival.

The flash point came in 360 when Julian, headquartered in Paris, was requested by the emperor to send six legions--many of them romanized Germans--far to the east for a campaign against the rising Persian Empire. Although he tried to comply, the soldiers refused to go, instead proclaiming him their emperor. They surrounded his palace all night, chanting "Iulianus Augustus!" ("Julian for emperor!"). In the morning he came out and was lifted high, standing on a shield held by a group of soldiers--a German ritual of tribal chieftainship transplanted to the Roman legions.

Thrust toward civil war, Julian tried negotiating with Constantius. The negotiations dragged on: Constantius was commencing a campaign against the Persians while Julian meanwhile continued punitive expeditions against the German tribes. In the summer of 361, however, the Persians backed down, and Constantius began to prepare for war with his former subordinate who in turn moved down the Danube to meet the emperor in the eastern empire. But Constantius died between Antioch and Constantinople in November 361; Julian, in fact, was able to reach Constantinople in time to meet the late emperor's corpse as it was brought to the capital.

Now emperor at age 29, Julian tried to become Plato's "philosopher king." He trimmed the extravagant imperial court and issued edicts of religious toleration. Not only did he permit Pagans and Christians their religious practices equally, but he stopped the Christian clergy's government salaries and refused to intervene in disputes over heresy. In fact, he ordered that Christian clerics exiled for heresy by his predecessor be allowed to return home. He issued a decree ordering that Pagan temple property confiscated under Constantine and his successors be returned to its original owners; in some areas, this provided an excuse for anti-Christian looting and the martyrdom of some believers. But beyond that, he tried to turn educated people and the upper classes away from Christianity. He encouraged Pagan theologians--a novelty, as classical Paganism had done without theologians, having only poets and priests.

Perhaps Julian's potentially most far-reaching edict forbade Christians from teaching grammar or rhetoric--what teachers today would call literature and "language arts"--in private or municipal schools. It did not, however, forbid young Christians from attending such schools, for that was part of Julian's plan to make Christianity less appealing to the educated portion of the populace. (Some Christian historians of the following century did falsely accuse Julian of banning Christian students, however.) He did not ask Christian teachers to abandon their faith, he explained, but he merely wished them to stop teaching the literary classics, for example Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, as literature while condemning the religious views expressed in those and other pre-Christian works. "If they [teachers] are real interpreters of the ancient classics, let them first imitate the ancients' piety towards the gods. If they think the classics wrong in this respect, then let them go and teach Matthew and Luke in the church," the young emperor wrote.

Julian's edict presented both Christian teachers and parents with difficult choices. The former group faced an obvious threat to their livelihoods. With no tradition or law of "academic freedom" to protect them, they had to either live and teach a lie or else face firing. Parents, meanwhile, had to either pull their children out of the very schooling that would put them on the path to careers in law or government, for example, or else risk exposing them to openly anti-Christian school faculties. Had Julian not died only months later, he could have seriously hurt Christianity's rising prestige.

While trying to block Christians from teaching, Julian also wrote and encourage the writing by others of anti-Christian books that paradoxically reflected how powerful Christianity had become. He sought to unify Pagan theology and to elevate Pagan priests into full-time religious workers like their Christian counterparts, complete with ecclesiastical hierarchies culminating in the person of Julian himself as pontifex maximus or high priest of the entire empire.

"Do we not see that what has most contributed to the success of atheism [what educated Pagans considered Christianity to be] is its charity towards strangers, the care it takes of the tombs of the dead, and its feigned gravity of life?" Julian wrote in a letter to a Pagan religious dignitary.

He also underwrote reconstruction of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, destroyed by Roman armies three hundred years earlier. The combination of an earthquake in Jerusalem, Julian's death, and opposition from the rabbis (who were now the Jews' spiritual leaders in place of the former temple priesthood) put an end to the project shortly after work on it had begun.

But Julian's efforts to damage Christianity and restore the old cults in a Neoplatonic synthesis with himself as its leader was cut short by events. In 363 he led an army east towards the Persian frontier in attempt to contain the Persian Empire and stabilize Roman boundaries. In one of several clashes along the banks of the Euphrates River, Julian was fatally wounded by a Persian cavalryman's lance. According to the most reliable accounts, he rushed into a melée without his armored breastplate, was wounded, and was carried to his tent where he died later in the day. Pagan chroniclers painted him as discussing philosophical issues with Maximus and others until losing consciousness. On the other hand, the fourth-century church historian Theodoret (one of those who misdescribed Julian's school edict) portrayed the emperor as admitting in spiritual defeat, "Vicisti, Galilee," in other words, "Thou hast conquered, O Galilean," [Jesus].

The imperial preference for Christianity was reasserted by Julian's successor, Jovian. Under subsequent emperors the "decline and fall" of the empire continued, with its western portions being abandoned to various Germanic and other non-Roman kings a century later.

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Alexandria would have been Julian's favorite reading material.