Friday, 2 November 2012

Julian the Apostate – Pagan Hero?

Julian II (the Apostate), solidus, 361 CE
When I first heard about Julian the apostate (also known as Julian the philosopher)  the last polytheistic emperor of Rome, who attempted to reinvigorate the old ways throughout the Roman Empire after decades of Christian rule  I was naturally pretty interested. My initial impression was that he must of been amongst the last of the old school Romans bravely trying to push back the tide of Christianity. As I have learned more about him, and his times, I have come to realise that this was a naïve and self-serving perspective. I know now that Julian the apostate was an infinitely more complex character than I could have ever imagined and perhaps, ultimately, an unknowable one at that.

The first thing to know about Julian the apostate is that he was indeed a Christian apostate – he was not brought up as a Pagan. He was raised as a Christian. From the age of seven he was under the guardianship of the Bishop of Nicomedia (having been orphaned by his murderous cousin, the emperor Constantius II) and he later became a lector of the Christian church. It is known that he had a detailed knowledge of Christian teachings and it is thus an inevitable conclusion that Julian’s world views were profoundly influenced by his Christian education. The monotheism that earmarks Christian teachings appeared to have stayed with him, to some extent, as he drew ever more interest in classical philosophy and Hellenic polytheism.

The second thing to know about Julian is that he was a monist – I cannot pretend that I understand what monism is exactly, but I gather it involves belief in a single, eternal and transcendent "one", and that this “one” has many manifestations – including the Gods. This is not to derogate from his Paganism – clearly he was a Pagan, but not necessarily a Pagan of the old Roman school. In fact he was not a Pagan of the Roman school at all. He advocated Hellenism – unsurprisingly, as he appears to have never lived in Rome. He grew up in the eastern part of the empire, mostly or solely in the land we now call Turkey. He does not appear to have left this region until his early 20s, when he was summoned, as a quasi-prisoner, to live in Milan for a year within Constantius’ (Christian) court. Following this he moved to Athens – whereupon it appears he was initiated into the Eleusinian mysteries and thus made his break with Christianity.

"Demeter mourning for Persephone" by de Morgan (1906)
Inevitably, Julian’s exposure to the Roman way to the Gods would have been minimal. His geographical influences marked him out for Hellenism. Julian was not, however, a typical Hellenist – he was perhaps more a Hellenist philosopher than anything else. His brand of Hellenism was highly intellectual, esoteric and perhaps elitist. He was strongly influenced by Neoplatonism, which advocated belief in a soul which seeks unity with the infinite and supreme “one”, whom some call God. It also advocated an ascetic lifestyle and the cultivation of purifying virtues by which one’s soul becomes less sensual, more pure and thus elevated closer to the “one”. This, at least, is my understanding of Neoplatonism – quite frankly this perspective seems remarkably similar to contemporary Christianity to me. Whether it was similar to 4th century CE Christianity is another question – quite possibly it was not. It is unlikely that lofty teachings such as these could have had the large scale appeal that Christianity needed in order to strike a chord with the masses of the ancient Roman Empire.

Something that did strike a chord with the masses was Christian charity, a fact of which Julian was keenly aware. He has been quoted as saying:
“I think that when the poor happened to be neglected and overlooked by the [Pagan] priests, the impious Galileans observed this and devoted themselves to benevolence.”
“These impious Galileans not only feed their own, but ours also; welcoming them with their agape [communal feasts], they attract them, as children are attracted with cakes … Whilst the Pagan priests neglect the poor, the hated Galileans devote themselves to works of charity, and by a display of false compassion have established and given effect to their pernicious errors.”
His response to this was to encourage newly formed Pagan charities to do the same. He also, apparently, went a step further and attempted to remodel Pagan priesthoods with a hierarchy in imitation of the structure of the church. Likewise he admonished the priests to adopt a quasi-ascetic lifestyle (avoiding obscene shows, taverns, disreputable employment and the like), in imitation of church leaders – or at least this is what history tells us. If all this imitation was true then it suggests a serious mistake on the part of Julian – if these things had come to be associated with Christianity, trying to beat the Galileans (as he called Christians) at their own game was futile and his imitation would surely only serve to suggest the ethical and structural superiority of the Christians.

That Julian attempted to rebrand Paganism by copying the church is marvellous Christian propaganda. Along the same line it has come down to us that Julian was responsible for an incredible number of animal sacrifices – odd, given that he was said to have been a vegetarian. It has also been suggested (perhaps as more Christian propaganda) that he was “blindly submissive” to “rhetoricians and magicians” such as Maximus of Ephesus, a Neoplatonist philosopher, who is said to have lured Julian into a world saturated with magic, divination, theurgy and omens. If true, Julian may have let himself be overcome with very unRoman superstitio (excessive religious devotion and an inappropriate desire for knowledge). Again though, this seems strange, given that Julian is also said to have ignored a number of bad omens as he set out on his doomed Persian campaign. Having read some of Julian's letters, and knowing the high regard he had for philosophy (which does not usually tend towards superstitio), I think it more likely that the hold Maximus had over Julian was sexual. See, for example, this extract from a letter written by Julian to Maximus:
“I sleep with your letters as though they were healing drugs of some sort, and I do not cease to read them constantly as though they were newly written and had only just come into my hands. Therefore if you are willing to furnish me with intercourse by means of letters, as a semblance of your own society, write, and do not cease to do so continually. Or rather come, with heaven's help, and consider that while you are away I cannot be said to be alive, except in so far as I am able to read what you have written.”
Coptic icon depicting St Mercurius killing Julian II
Ultimately, Julian is a mystery. The antihero of early Christianity has become a post-Christian hero – whether he deserves either status is unclear. The more I have read about him the less certain I am. His character seems to have long been at the mercy of various propagandists, even in our own age – Gore Vidal’s novel based on this unknowable emperor, Julian, is used as a vehicle to present a blistering, and quite effective, critique of Christianity. Some might even say that, once again in an unwitting imitation of Christianity, Julian has become a latter day Pagan martyr, should the (probably untrue) rumours that he was murdered by a Christian be correct (though the concept of martyrdom is utterly repellent to me – it reeks of fanaticism – so I will not go that far).

I cannot finish this post without some discussion as to the emperor Julian’s untimely death, which invites an obvious question – was it the result of divine displeasure? Ignoring omens, engaging in superstitio, trying to restructure and reshape traditional Paganism based on a Christian model may or may not have lost Julian divine favour. However, I tend to think his death was probably more likely the result of personal folly. It is said he pursued the retreating enemy Persians with such haste that he failed to take normal precautions (putting on full armour) and was consequently fatally wounded by an enemy spear. I have read enough books about ancient Roman warfare to know that hell for leather pursuit of a retreating army could be extremely dangerous – I assume that Julian must have known this but perhaps got lost in the moment of battle fervour, or had other reasons for behaving so incautiously. He may have been trying to play the hero to his eastern (and largely Christian) troops so to win them over (as he had so successfully won over the western army – which was soaked in Pagans). Some writers suggest that Julian’s entire eastern war was itself a folly as the Persians posed no immediate threat to the Roman Empire during Julian’s reign and actually sent him peace envoys, which he rejected. Perhaps his earlier military successes against German forces in the west had given him too much confidence and his folly was one of hubris? Did he harbour delusions that he was a second Alexander? The only thing for sure is we will never know – but regardless of all that we know and know we don’t know about Julian, he still, for me, stands out as a brilliant flicker of light at a time when the dark ages loomed near. 

Sources: numerous online material found via google, including, etc. 

Written by M. Sentia Figula. Find me at neo polytheistRoman Pagan and on Facebook


  1. An interesting and thoughtful piece. Thanks for sharing it. He's certainly a complex character, though a very interesting one.

    1. Many thanks for your lovely comment:)