At the end of June AD 363 in the north of what is now Iraq, a Roman emperor died from a fatal wound after a battle and with him the last hope of paganism in the Roman empire died.
By Adrian Murdoch.
From the California Literary Review.
A month after his thirty-first birthday, Flavius Claudius Julianus, better known as Julian the Apostate, had been ruler of the Roman Empire for less than two years. He was dark haired, of average height for the era—around 5 foot 4 inches—and with a trim build. Underneath his hair, which he tended to wear combed down onto his forehead like all the members of his family, he had penetrating eyes, heavy eyebrows, a straight nose, and a rather large mouth with a pendulous lower lip that was hidden behind the bristly beard he wore trimmed to a point, like those you can see of the ancient Greek philosophers in the Louvre or the British Museum. It was a deliberate affectation, a sign of his deep love of Hellenic culture and passionate hatred of the Galileans, as he dubbed Christians. Many mocked him and called him a goat behind his back.
He had been wounded in battle, three months into a campaign in the East against the Persian Empire and its king, Shapur II. Although the Roman army had been advancing slowly in readiness for battle, Julian, who had gone on ahead to reconnoiter, had received word that the rearguard had been ambushed from behind. As he rode back to lend moral support to those in the rear, he was summoned by the news that the van, which he had just left, had been similarly attacked. Before he could restore the position, a troop of Parthian cuirassiers attacked the center and breached its left wing. The soldiers broke ranks in confusion—just as Alexander the Great’s had in India six centuries previously—at the sight, smell, and noise of elephants.
But the center held and the enemy was beaten off. Julian charged at the Persians to encourage his soldiers to pursue the now routed army. It was a foolhardy move. He had forgotten his breastplate and was armed only with a shield—some say that he was confident in his victory but more plausibly he had rushed out without time to put on his armor, or perhaps had disregarded it because of the heat of the Mesopotamian summer. There was blood everywhere, and dying and screaming men. The confusion was made worse because as the battle raged, a violent dust storm had arisen that reduced visibility so much that reports say that the sky and the sun were totally concealed by the clouds.
Nonetheless Julian continued his attack, shouting and waving his arms. In his enthusiasm and in the heat of the battle, he had only one attendant. The rest of the emperor’s escort of guards had been scattered in the mêlée.
A horseman appeared through the dust charging at full gallop. He rode up and aimed his cavalry lance directly at the emperor. It found its mark. The spear grazed Julian’s arm, pierced his ribs, and ended up in the lower part of his liver. It was a double-bladed spear, so sharp that as Julian tried to pull it out he cut the fingers of his right hand to the bone.
In pain he fell from his horse. Although now weak from loss of blood, Julian tried to conceal what had occurred from his soldiers. He remounted straightaway and gave some orders, calling out to everyone he met not to be afraid about his wound for it was not fatal. He then lost consciousness. Men rushed to the spot and the emperor was carried to the camp and laid out on his lion skin and straw bed where he received medical attention.
Four people were with Julian as he died: his doctor and confidant Oribasius; a friend from his tours of duty in Gaul, Salutius Secundus, prefect of the East; and two philosophers Maximus and Priscus. On his deathbed he asked after Anatolius, his minister of finance. Aware that he was about to die, the emperor had wanted to appoint him executor of his will. When told that he had fallen in battle, the emperor spent time mourning him.
In his last hours, Julian engaged his friends in a philosophic dialogue about the nature of the soul. Aware that they were in enemy territory, harried on all sides, and about to be without a leader, they kept interrupting him and begged him to appoint a successor. Julian had decided to leave that decision to the army, his men—many of whom had followed him faithfully all the way from Gaul. Suddenly the wound in his side gaped wide and the veins in his throat swelled up and obstructed his breath. He asked for, and drank, some cold water. Then at around midnight, Julian lost consciousness and passed away peacefully.
The rule of few Roman emperors had been quite so eagerly anticipated as Julian’s. When the new emperor entered Constantinople, the capital of the Roman Empire, on December 11, 361, he was met by the classical equivalent of a ticker-tape parade. His popularity is hardly surprising; Julian was young, quick-witted, and had a proven track record in the two areas most citizens cared about—on the battlefield and in reducing taxes. He was also popular with the soldiery and despite his obvious adherence to pagan religion; there was little trace of sectarianism about him.
As emperor, Julian ruled for only eighteen months, yet his reign is a beacon of light in the later Roman Empire and the story of Julian’s life and death has survived vividly. Along with Constantine, he is arguably the only late Roman emperor of whom most people have heard. How did this happen?
First, Julian was different. The previous century had been a time of upheaval and a series of violent and forgettable soldier emperors sat on the throne. As often as not they were soon murdered by the men who had put them there in the first place. An intellectual was a curiosity and a novelty.
The battle that Julian picked—Christianity—was fought by the era’s greatest and most articulate thinkers. When the emperor Constantine accepted Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire in 313, he let loose a philosophy that was to pervade every aspect of political, social, cultural, and, of course, religious life right up to modern times. But that is all with the benefit of hindsight. Christianity did not become the official winner until seventeen years after Julian’s death. When Julian took the purple, the battle against Christianity was by no means over. The Christians were not a unified organization, splintered as they were into numerous groups; indeed, much of the empire was still pagan.
At a time when neither pagan nor Christian ideologies reigned supreme, the state of your soul was arguably the single most important issue of the day. Few were short of opinions on the last Roman emperor to oppose Christianity—seen most trenchantly in the way that he is still best known as the “Apostate,” the one who renounced Christianity—and it is of little surprise that both pagan and Christian apologists comment extensively on his reign, in Latin, Greek, Syriac, Arabic, and Armenian. For most writers then, as now, Julian is either monster or saint. He was just as Napoleon was to the Italian poet Manzoni: “an object of undying hatred and incomparable love.”
When news of his death broke, one of the emperor’s closest friends wailed: “Gone is the glory of good. The company of the wicked and the licentious is uplifted. . . . Now the broad path, the great doors lie wide open for the doers of evil to attack the just. The walls are down.” At the same time, a former fellow student from the university in Athens trumpeted the death of “the dragon, the apostate, the great mind, the Assyrian, the public and private enemy of all in common, him that has madly raged and threatened much upon earth, and that has spoken and mediated much unrighteousness against Heaven.” It is a cry that is as exultant as it is pitiless.
As a result of the passion that he generated, Julian’s reign is one of the best-illuminated periods in antiquity. It is comparable to, and arguably much better served than, the latter days of the Roman republic and the early empire. But even more intriguing, a huge range of Julian’s own writings has survived, more so than of any other Roman ruler. For Julius Caesar we have the self-serving propaganda of The Civil War and Conquest of Gaul of which one modern editor dryly notes: “des Mémoires ne sont pas des Confessions.” For the philosopher emperor Marcus Aurelius we have his stoic Meditations, which tell us a great deal about his thoughts on philosophy but very little about the man himself. But in Julian’s vast array of extant writings—which run to over 700 pages—we have more than sixty letters, both public and private, speeches, philosophical and religious thoughts, even a satire.
What all of this material does is to make Julian emerge from history a vital, engaging, flesh and blood man. It is too easy to pigeon-hole many of the other great Roman leaders, from Julius Caesar, the consummate politician and Trajan, the workaholic soldier, to Constantine, the cynical opportunist. But the wealth of contemporary material gives us Julian warts and all. He can be kind, thoughtful, funny, and whimsical. He can also be petulant, childish, bad-tempered, and even sulky.
But we do not just remember Julian because he is a three-dimensional character. A mystique developed around the emperor because of the mythic nature of his demise, something that continues to intrigue. Julian has in many ways become a figure of far greater potency in death than he ever was alive. Who was that mysterious cavalryman? The Persian king offered a reward for Julian’s killer, yet it was never claimed. Within a few years various suggestions had been made which range from the plausible to the utterly fanciful. They emerged almost at once and make Julian’s death the classical equivalent of the JFK assassination—the cavalryman became a fourth-century spearman on the grassy knoll. Even contemporaries admitted as much. “One and the same story is not told by all, but different accounts are reported and made up by different people—both of those present at the battle and those not present,” wrote one former friend.
For many pagans, Julian’s death had parallels with that of his spiritual mentor Alexander the Great—indeed he had not wholly discouraged those comparisons during his lifetime—at its most basic level with the war in Asia Minor itself. One historian writing only fifty years or so after the emperor’s death, suggested that Julian believed that he was possessed of Alexander’s soul.
But Julian never did comprehensively defeat the Persian king and he never did conquer Asia, and this is a complementary part of the attraction. Julian failed, quite magnificently and irredeemably. The romantic failure has always been attractive in Western thought and not only did few of Julian’s innovations survive his death, many were starting to unravel even before he died. Just as when reading Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther, or Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, the reader of any biography of the emperor knows that Julian is doomed from the beginning. He stops being an emperor and starts being a tragic hero.
The dark portent of Julian’s death is brought into sharp relief because, unlike literature, there are so few moments in history that can be regarded as definitive watersheds. Take the fall of the Roman Empire as an example. When did it finally collapse? Was it on August 24, 410, when Rome was sacked by Alaric the Visigoth? Was it on September 4, 476, when the last of the Western Roman emperors, the thirteen-year-old Romulus Augustulus, was deposed by barbarians and sent off to live in peace and obscurity with his relatives near Naples? Or was it on May 29, 1453, when Constantine XI, the final Byzantine emperor, died on the ramparts of Byzantium clutching a picture of the Virgin Mary to his chest as the Turks sacked the city?
In a way all of them are right. But with the death of Julian we have something different. To all intents and purposes we can say that paganism died as a credible political and social force in the last days of June 363.
As soon as the man becomes myth, he becomes depersonalized. It was in his role as an opponent of Christianity that Julian not only became best known, but known at all. As such he was lumped together with all the other opponents of the Church. When, in the aftermath of the murder of Thomas Beckett in 1170, a French archbishop wrote to the pope to complain about Henry II, he refers to the actions of the English king as exhibiting the “wickedness of Nero, the perfidiousness of Julian and even the sacrilegious treachery of Judas.”
The emperor became a touchstone for man’s relationship with God and the Church throughout history. In the unwavering Christian societies from the Middle Ages to the seventeenth century it was a black-and-white affair. One of the biographers of Charlemagne refers to Julian simply as “hateful in the eyes of God,” while John Milton in his pamphlet on the freedom of the press written in 1644 called the emperor “the subtlest enemy to our faith.”
As society’s relationship with God began to change during the Enlightenment, so too Julian’s position shifted in the popular mind. The emperor’s apostasy fitted Voltaire’s idea of abstract deism as well as his anti-clericalism. The author of Candide famously dismissed a contemporary biography of the emperor by the Abbé de la Bleterie with: “above all you must be dispassionate and that is not something that ever applies to a priest.” It is not hard to imagine Julian saying the same thing. The Roman emperor was being reborn as a creature of the Enlightenment and began to stand for the liberation of man. Most influentially of all, Edward Gibbon made Julian the hero of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
But by the end of the nineteenth century it was the emperor’s paganism that was celebrated by the later Victorian poets like Swinburne and writers like Thomas Hardy, only for him to suffer again in the twentieth century. The brilliant modern Greek poet, Constantine Cavafy, who wrote a cycle of nine poems about Julian, thought that the emperor was “a bore and perhaps the only thing he tolerated in him was the fact that his was a lost cause” while Gore Vidal’s 1964 novel Julian brings us almost full circle, presenting an overly exuberant young philosopher king.
If all of this shape-shifting seems confusing to the reader, it presents even more problems for the biographer. The difficulty with trying to disentangle Julian the man from Julian the myth is that almost too much has survived. Nonetheless, it is possible to strip away the many veneers of bias and distortion and see the man, his motivations, and the world in which he lived.
There are always going to be difficulties in understanding a man who stood on the boundary of the classical and medieval world, particularly in a society that has become distanced from the day-to-day practice of religion. But these challenges can be overcome and it is possible to make the connection across the centuries. After all, the idea of divine voices, visions, and revelations in the contemporary framework of our understanding would appear no more odd to Julian than our speaking of the subconscious would to him.
It is unfair that Julian is still known to us primarily for attributed and spurious dying words. That tradition has the wounded and dying emperor filling his hand with blood, flinging it into the air and crying: “Thou hast conquered, O Galilean!” But then the history, as ever, was written by the winning side. Whether the Galilean actually won or not, it is perfectly possible to go beyond an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations and look not just at Julian’s death but, beyond that, to his life, to see how he was a product of his time. It was a narrow—one might even say lucky—victory for the Galilean, and Julian might just as easily have entered the history books as Julian the Philosopher rather than as Julian the Apostate.