Like other heroes of lost causes, the emperor Julian will always have his admirers. General Lee surrendering the Army of Virginia to Grant’s forces at the Appomattox Courthouse, Julian killed in battle against the Persians—both symbolized irrevocable defeat of the cause they had nobly championed. In Julian’s case, the cause was that of Greco-Roman paganism against Christianity. If Greco-Roman paganism did not die with him, its restoration became infinitely less probable. The “Galilean” triumphed, whether or not the world was to grow cold with his breath.
Julian’s life and reign were both short. He was born at Constantinople in 331, the nephew of Constantine the Great. Six years later, after the latter’s death, his father, elder brother, uncle, and three cousins all fell victim to a military putsch. He was spared on account of his age, his half brother Gallus escaped through ill-health. For a few years he was placed under the guardianship of the able but unreliable Eusebius, bishop of Nicomedia on the Asiatic side of the Bosphorus, and then, on Eusebius’s death in circa 340, his education was entrusted to the court eunuch Mardonius. From him he learned of the works of Homer and Hesiod and “of all men Mardonius was the most responsible” for his love of the classics.
He was not destined to stay in the capital. In 341 Gallus and he were removed to the isolation of an imperial estate in Cappadocia on the arid high plateau of Anatolia. It was a pleasant enough spot but entirely isolated, and there Julian spent nearly seven years. He immersed himself in reading culled largely from the pagan and Christian works of Bishop George, ill-fated rival of Athanasius, who met his death at the hands of an Alexandrian mob on Christmas Eve 361. His library, however, served the young prince well. “While some men had a passion for horses or wild beasts,” he wrote, “from childhood I had a longing to acquire books.” His formal education remained Christian and he was by now a Reader in the Christian Church.
In 348 he was recalled to the capital, free to pursue learning in the schools of Constantinople. He balanced his studies carefully by becoming a pupil of two of the great pagan philosophers of the day, Libanius and Nicocles, and a rather half-hearted Christian named Hecebolius. He had become converted to a mystical form of Neo-Platonism, substituting in his mind the creative force of the sun for the creative force of the Divine Word and becoming increasingly contemptuous of Christianity. How could the crucified Galilean be equated with the divine power itself? His question was relevant enough at the time. None of the dominant Alexandrian theologians, even Athanasius himself, could give an answer to anyone who was not already convinced on other grounds. A tour of the classic sites of Troy and Pergamum in Asia Minor was followed by a short spell at the university of Athens. By this time his luckless half …