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The Lost Cause

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 brother had been promoted Caesar or deputy to his cousin the reigning emperor Constantius. Gallus failed wretchedly and in November 354 was secretly executed on Constantius’s orders. Julian never forgave this, and the suspicions he had always felt that his cousin in some way had been responsible for the deaths of his father and other relatives fanned his resentments. But he kept them to himself.

His year at Athens university from 354-355 was notorious rather than successful. He was now a secret but convinced pagan. Most of his contemporaries were Christians. He had to be perpetually on his guard against spies ready to report the least sign of disloyalty to his cousin. The picture painted by his bitter critic Gregory of Nazianzus of Julian as an eccentric, having “an air of wildness, an uneven gait, a nervous glance, an abrupt and irregular manner of speech, and a very loud laugh,” may have been true enough. It shows a young man under intolerable tensions and perhaps also one deeply aware of the wrongs of society around him.

In November 355 Julian was rescued from this situation by the growing catalogue of military disasters in Gaul. Armies of Germanic tribes had breached the Roman frontier on the Rhine and like their nineteenth- and twentieth-century successors were almost at the gates of Paris. Julian was recalled to Constantius’s headquarters at Milan, proclaimed Caesar, mumbling a few Latin words of acceptance in reply, and then despatched to Gaul. Suddenly, all changed. He found his true calling as a military commander. He felt a rapport with his pagan Gallic troops that he had not found among his Christian contemporaries at Athens. By the middle of 357 the invaders had been routed and one of the classic Roman victories gained at Strasbourg. What now? Constantius was engaged in a losing defensive campaign on the eastern frontier against the Persians. He ordered Julian to send him reinforcements. The troops refused to go and Julian found himself raised on a shield, Germanic fashion, and proclaimed emperor at Lutetia (Paris) on May 22, 360. There followed months of negotiation, a dramatic march to the east to confront his rival, Constantius’s opportune death, and Julian’s triumphal entry into Constantinople on December 11, 361.

The eighteen months left to him were spent in frantic efforts at reform of every department of state—cuts in the bureaucracy, alleviation of taxation, aid to the peasants, the cities, and, above all, to the dying paganism of the eastern provinces of the empire. A pagan hierarchy was organized to rival the Christian. Pagan priests had to be as puritanical as their rivals. In his heart Julian remained a conservative romantic, a would-be imitator of Alexander the Great, conquering the world with the aid of the immortal gods. He moved his court to Antioch, and there he was bitterly disappointed. Antioch was a pleasure-loving but Christian city, whose landowners could only present him with a single goose for sacrifice to the gods. He allowed himself to be drawn into a competition in abuse with the citizenry, using language fitter for a gossip writer than an emperor. He mocked his alleged shortcomings, his famous beard “where lice scampered about,” but contrasted his straw pallet with the luxury of the Antiochians. He parted from them on the worst of terms. The Persian campaign was utterly misconceived and when after brilliant initial successes Julian was struck down in battle an audible sigh of relief went up from friend and foe alike. The meteor had run its course. His successor was a brawny soldier and a Christian.

Professor Bowersock has written the best narrative history of Julian’s career yet attempted. The Harvard seminar on Julian on which the book is based must have been worth attending. His success is due not only to the vivid style but to the command of the very wide variety of sources that enables him to derive new insights from unexpected facts. He is, for instance, one of the few historians to demonstrate how much Julian owed his successes in Gaul to the careful planning and support of Constantius himself. He shows Julian at his furious best as the demonic administrator of the first months of 362. He points out, too, how serious were the doubts of his commanders and soldiers alike when Julian set out from Antioch on March 5, 363 on his fatal advance on the Persians. A counterattack with the limited aim of recapturing positions lost in the previous five years of war would have been justified and probably would have been conceded by the Persians themselves, but the conquest of the Persian empire was a mirage and it destroyed him.

The sources for the study of Julian’s public career are among the fullest for any period in antiquity. Literature, laws, coins, and inscriptions are all available. The author knows how to use and compress them. Julian himself wrote a great deal—three volumes in the Loeb edition of classical texts. One can trace fairly accurately the stages in his alienation from Christianity. In the mid-fourth century Neo-Platonism was the bridge by which many intellectuals moved to Christianity. Julian reversed the process. He accepted the mysticism of that religion with its belief in a Supreme God emanating a creator god, but like Constantine before his conversion he identified this god with Helios, the sun. He moved one generation back in the religious history of his family. To this he added antipathy toward Constantine himself, for him not “the Great,” but a lecherous bounder whose crimes only Christ would condone. The Christians were “superstitious atheists,” the essence of whose religion was to “hiss at demons and make the sign of the cross on their foreheads.” The author is surely right in his belief that Julian always meant to try arguing conclusions with them, but was hindered by the weaknesses of paganism and the time needed for military preparations against Persia.

Bowersock’s book is a fine piece of narrative writing and one cannot ask for everything in 120 pages. Perhaps the author meant to leave the impression of Julian’s reign as an isolated episode. Yet even within this compass there are points to be explained. Why had paganism collapsed so completely in the eastern provinces of the empire? Julian himself was inclined to answer as a social historian would today. He tells the high priest Theodorus that social misery and economic hardship had alienated the people from the gods. In another letter he rubs the argument home by stating that it was “their pretended benevolence towards strangers and their care for the graves of the dead” that had increased atheism (i.e., Christianity). This is true, but it had gone on for a long time before Christianity seriously threatened the traditional religions of the Greco-Roman world. A clue is given by the near-contemporary historian Sozomen, who describes how in one city in Julian’s reign the thriving class of artisans (moneyers in an imperial mint) were Christians and their influence outweighed that of the former landed ruling class in the city. This was the pattern of events. Christianity came up from below; it was a popular movement, and Julian’s measures to revive paganism were a century too late.

In his day, Christians in the eastern provinces already felt they belonged to “the race of Christians,” a new Chosen People superior to Persians and other barbarians, destined to make Christianity the religion of mankind. Constantius II, missionary-minded himself, knew how to call on this loyalty, even from bishops and people who disagreed with his theology. Julian did not.

The author’s account of the Persian campaign is fast moving and has many new points such as the importance of the Persian ruse de guerre that induced Julian to order the burning of his supply fleet, on which a successful withdrawal from Ctesiphon depended. It is fascinating to read the speculations of contemporaries on how Julian met his end. Though it would seem that an Arab auxiliary in Persian service was responsible for the fatal blow, suspicions soon fell on Christians in Julian’s army. Later legend turned this to the Church’s advantage. Amid the Greek liturgical documents the reviewer found in 1964 littering the floor of the cathedral at Q’asr Ibrim in Egyptian Nubia was one that told of the soldier, St. Mercurius, martyr in a previous persecution, who was sent by God to rid the world of the blasphemous Apostate.

Did Julian’s reign deserve Athanasius’s scornful description of “a little cloud that will soon pass”? The author suggests that it does. He ends his book on the Persian battlefield. The curtain is rung down on heroic failure. But that is not quite so. Julian did not restore either the ruined cities or ruined paganism, but his rule had its effects. To begin with, quarreling Christians in the east found it best to rally to Athanasius and accept the Creed of Nicaea as their own. Unwittingly Julian killed Arianism. In the west, where paganism was stronger and Christian provinces such as those in North Africa rent by religious strife, Julian’s short reign had far-reaching results. The return of the exiled Donatist bishops in 362 produced exactly the situation in North Africa Julian hoped for. He knew from experience, his friend the historian Ammianus Marcellinus wrote, “that no wild beasts are such enemies to mankind as are Christians in their deadly hatred of each other.” The fourteen years of Catholic ascendancy established by the emperor Constans collapsed overnight. The scenes of exultation and desecration that accompanied this event are recounted by contemporaries. For the next thirty years the Donatist Church, representing the majority of North African Christians, reigned supreme. When Augustine appeared in the 390s he lacked the time to restore the Catholic position before the coming of the Vandal invaders. North African Catholicism never recovered its full strength. The history of the Mediterranean was profoundly modified as a result.

In Gaul, on the other hand, Julian’s victories over the Germanic tribes ultimately aided the Catholic Church. The battle of Strasbourg safeguarded the Roman frontier from serious attack for half a century. Behind these defenses a Catholic and episcopal Christianity developed, strong enough to survive the renewed onset of the barbarians in the fifth century. In Britain, on the contrary, Romano-Celtic paganism was given another generation’s respite. Christianity failed to become the religion of the majority of its inhabitants in Roman times, and Britain’s religious history diverged at this point from that of its Continental neighbors.

So Julian cannot be taken in isolation. The military disaster with which his reign ended decided for a century the issue of whether Roman or Persian influence would prevail in Armenia. The history of the years after the move of the center of gravity of the Roman empire to Constantinople needs looking at as a whole. It witnesses the beginnings of Byzantinism and the final cleavage of Europe into its eastern and western halves divided by language and religion. This is the pattern into which Julian’s eruption fits. Professor Bowersock’s fine monograph has pointed the way. The reviewer is not the only one who regrets missing his seminar.

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