In June 363 a demoralised and tired Roman army was marching deep in the territory of the enemy Sassanid Empire in what is now modern Iraq.
The retreating army was dangerously low on supplies in the sweltering heat of a Mesopotamian summer. Soldiers burdened by a slow-moving baggage train were under constant harassment from mounted Sassanian raiders, picking them off with missiles.
The column was heading north along the bank of the Tigris to the safety of Roman territory, having given up besieging the Sassanian capital Ctesiphon and losing their campaign objective.
The Emperor Flavius Claudius Julianus, better known to us as Julian, leading the column, was told of another attack on the rear guard.
Julian turned toward the back of the column, not taking the time to don a breastplate. He galloped into the melee, which had quickly become a battle. Sassanid horsemen and elephants had broken into Roman lines.
The left flank of the column had retreated from the Sassanian attack. Julian rallied them back into formation. The Sassanids, seeing the Romans reform, decided to retreat. Julian led a charge of Roman cavalry toward them, with his guards trailing behind him, calling on him to pull back.
A rain of missiles fell over the charging Romans. In the chaos a spear pierced the emperor’s lower ribs and ruptured his stomach. He dropped his sword and tried to draw the weapon from his ribs but the blade cut through his fingers. He lost consciousness and fell off his horse. He died three days later from a lacerated liver, he was just 31 years old.
Whether it could be called bravery or madness, Julian’s last act is one of those moments where historians wonder… what if? Julian was the last pagan emperor, who in his short reign of just twenty months began to turn the tide against Christian hegemony in the Roman Empire.
Had he survived, we can only speculate — living as we are in an age when Presidents still pose outside churches holding a bible — as to how different history would be.
A Philosopher King
Julian has had a terrible reputation in the centuries since. He was vilified as “Julian the Apostate” by Christian historians for his renunciation of the faith in which he was brought up.
But Julian is one of the outstanding emperors if you measure him by valour or intelligence. He was a superb commander and evidently a brave warrior. He was also a gifted statesman, a principled reformer and a notable philosopher.
While Marcus Aurelius is heralded as the great philosopher-warrior king, Julian is all but forgotten by the public at large, despite his extraordinary personality and the achievements he made in such a short lifespan.
Julian was born into the Constantinian dynasty, the first Roman dynasty to embrace Christianity and install it as the semi-official state religion. He was the nephew of Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor. When Constantine died in 337 his sons started to quarrel over succession.
Julian’s older cousin Constantius II ordered the assassination of Julian’s parents as he consolidated power by ruthlessly removing any remaining family members. The orphaned child and his older half-brother, Gallus, spared from death, were exiled from public life while Constantius and his brother Constans divided the Empire between themselves.
Having been unable to have a son of his own, the emperor decided to appoint Gallus as his heir after Constans had been murdered by a usurper in 351. Gallus ruled as Caesar (the second in command of the empire) in the east but proved to be incompetent and unpopular. The ruthless Constantius — suspecting him of disloyalty — had him recalled to Italy and executed, leaving Julian as the only male left in the Constantinian bloodline.
Constantius spared Julian, perhaps thanks to the urgings of his own wife Eusebia, as heir presumptive to the throne. The problem was that, unlike Gallus, Julian seemed unsuited to rule. He had a philosophic disposition, wearing a beard and scruffy clothes like a Greek philosopher.
Julian was raised a Christian while in exile and given a Christian education by a succession of bishops. But thanks to his guardian, a Germanic slave named Mardonius, the young boy also developed a passion for Ancient Greek culture. While his half-brother Gallus had ruled as a bloodthirsty Caesar, Julian studied philosophy in Nicomedia and Athens.
Caesar in Gaul
In 355, the Emperor had Julian marry one of his sisters and trained in military fighting and command. He appointed him as Caesar in Gaul in November of that year, a province that had been under constant attack from Germanic tribes. It was perhaps hoped that helping to govern the troubled province and leading a western army against the Germanic kings would shape Julian into Emperor-material.
The plan was successful, perhaps too successful. Julian proved to be an outstanding military leader and a competent administrator. He proved enormously popular with his Gallic subjects, to the chagrin of the province’s prefect, Florentius, who was supposed to keep Julian in check, and the Emperor himself, who was jealous.
Julian recaptured many lost Roman settlements along the Rhine, including Colonia Agrippina (modern-day Cologne). In the climax of his campaigns against the Germanic invaders, he defeated and captured the Germanic king Chnodomarius at the Battle of Strasburg.
Julian won this battle with just 13,000 men against a Germanic force three times the size. The Roman troops, despite heavy desertions, drove the tribesmen into the Rhine, where they were captured, slaughtered or drowned. Chnodomarius attempted to desert his troops, but was intercepted by Julian’s men and sent to Constantius in chains as a prize.
Constantius officially claimed the victory himself, despite being nowhere near the battlefield. But Julian had secured the frontiers of Gaul and won the loyalty of the province. Annoyed by Julian’s popularity, Constantius began to cut him out of communications with his generals and administrators in Gaul.
In 359 the Persian Sasanian Empire, led by Shapur II, had made military incursions into the Roman Empire. Constantius travelled east to assemble an army in Antioch (in modern-day Turkey). Perhaps using the war as an opportunity to diminish Julian’s military standing, the Emperor requested half of his Gallic troops but made the request to Julian’s generals, not to Julian himself.
The Gauls, unwilling to leave their homeland to fight in Asia, started an insurrection. They gathered in Paris and called out for Julian to lead them as “Augustus” — the Emperor. The young Caesar appeared in an attempt to calm them but was held aloft on a shield, the traditional Frankish way of proclaiming a new king.
Despite initially feigning reluctance to be emperor, the young Caesar had long-harboured thoughts of revenge on his cousin and taking the throne. He eventually accepted his army’s wishes and proclaimed himself Augustus, igniting a civil war.
Julian was now leading an insurrection and declared a public enemy by the man whom he believed had murdered his parents. Constantius was forced to return from the east with a vastly superior army to save the western half of his Empire.
A Modest Emperor
Julian was facing the same fate as his brother. He later professed to have hoped that he had “scared” the emperor so they may talk in a more civil way. But a twist of fate saved Julian’s life and handed him an empire: the emperor died from a fever on the way back.
Constantius had no choice but to name his only male blood relative as his successor. Julian was made sole emperor and entered Constantinople, the capital of the Roman Empire at the time, in triumph.
In a short space of time as emperor, Julian made an astonishing series of reforms and changes to the imperial court. He was disgusted by the extravagance, bloated bureaucracy and corruption surrounding the Constantinian court.
He dismissed hundreds of civil servants and made reforms to end centralised control of the Empire from Constantinople. He reduced the burdensome taxes placed on the cities and cancelled arrears in land taxes.
Unlike the Constantines before him, Julian did not want to rule as an autocrat, he reverted to the original notion of the Emperor as “first among equals”, subject to the law. To the astonishment of his court, Julian appeared in the Senate regularly to debate as a politician, putting himself at their level as Augustus, the first Roman Emperor, did in the first century B.C.E.
This model of governance would have seemed ancient in 362. Since the reign of Diocletian (284–305), the emperors modelled themselves on the kings of the east — as all-powerful and fearsome, absolutist dictators-as-gods.
The Roman Senate had, by then, little power compared to the Imperial administration. Julian’s humble method of governing and ordinary appearance harked back to the second-century zenith of the Roman Empire — the era of the Nera-Antonine dynasty (Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antonius Pius and Marcus Aurelius).
This was, of course, deliberate; Julian was well-schooled in history and sought to return the empire to past glory through good governance. In the winter of 361, Julian composed a short fictional comic tract in which the gods assessed his predecessors in a popularity contest. Julian shows a clear preference for the example of Marcus Aurelius and Hadrian, two emperors well-known for their love of philosophy.
When called up to be judged, Marcus enters heaven, according to Julian’s story:
“looking excessively dignified and showing the effect of his studies in the expression of his eyes and his lined brows. His aspect was unutterably beautiful from the very fact that he was careless of his appearance and unadorned by art; for he wore a very long beard, his dress was plain and sober, and from lack of nourishment his body was very shining and transparent like light most pure and stainless.”
It was Julian’s religious and philosophical ideas that makes him most controversial, even today. Julian was raised a Christian but had secretly embraced the old pagan way.
Influenced by the Neoplatonist philosophers Plotinus and Iamblichus, Julian had taken to the worship of Helios, the sun god, as an emanation of the Neoplatonic “One” — the supreme unity at the heart of all existence. He believed all gods to be emanations of “the One” as a Godhead, including the Christian God.
The Roman Empire before Constantine, despite its cruelties, had a religious tolerance that would surprise people today. Faiths from all cultures around the world were allowed their place in Roman society, and there were only occasionally persecutions when state security was seen as threatened.
The reason why Christianity was persecuted is that it obstinately refused to recognise any other gods; Christian “exclusivity” was viewed as a kind of spiritual terrorism that could bring misfortune by angering the gods. But even the persecutions of the Christians were sporadic rather than systematic in the religion’s infancy.
Dozens, perhaps hundreds of gods were worshipped in Rome. Even eastern religions like the veneration of Isis (Egypt), Yahweh (Judea) and Mithras (Persia), viewed with suspicion by the state, were given shines and temples in Roman cities.
A significant part of Christianity’s success was its hierarchical ecclesiastical structure with appointed bishops, priests and deacons leading the “flocks” of increasing numbers of followers. Even when banned, the religion flourished in secret, its promise of a better afterlife was attractive to the poor.
Constantine the Great, Julian’s uncle, likely embraced Christianity for practical, rather than spiritual reasons. The creed had become so ingrained in the lower orders of society — even among his own troops — that he perhaps had no option but to embrace it to win power in a protracted civil war.
The edict of Milan in 313 made Christianity a legitimate religion and from 324 it became the de facto state religion, giving the Constantinian emperors a strong basis to rule. The Christian faith’s lack of tolerance for other religions led to a systematic purge of other faiths.
Temples and shrines to pagan gods were converted into churches or destroyed. The Constantines looted sacred pagan objects from all over the Roman Empire. Exquisite statues of the gods were taken from Greece to be decapitated and their heads replaced with Constantine’s.
Julian’s sin was simply to wish to return back to the Roman Empire’s religious tolerance. He declared an edict of religious toleration in 361, securing religious freedom for Roman citizens. As well as the pagan religions, all forms of Christianity were now tolerated, not just the previously state-sponsored interpretation of the creed.
It was a move that was principled in its even-handedness, but also tactical — demonstrating the moral superiority of Julian’s paganism versus Constantius’s persecutions. Julian wrote:
“I had imagined that [the Christians] were under greater obligations to me than to my predecessor. For in his reign many of them were banished, persecuted, and imprisoned, and many of the so-called heretics were executed […] all of this has been reversed in my reign; the banished are allowed to return, and confiscated goods have been returned to the owners.”
Julian also ended the favouritism granted to the Christian faith — state subsidies for the religion (at least partly paid for by raiding pagan temple coffers) were ended and the automatic administrative authority granted to Christian bishops was rescinded.
Julian went further to ban Christian teachers from teaching the Classical Greek and Roman texts, a move that sought to release the iron grip of Christianity on the education system.
While Julian tolerated Christianity and made no systemic attempt to violently persecute Christians (as many Roman emperors had before), he made his disdain for the religion very clear.
He used his extensive knowledge of Christianity to write a book called Against the Galileans that pointed out inconsistencies and contradictions in the faith. Julian referred to Christians as “Galileans” to delegitimise their claim to a universal religion and emphasise the religion’s origin in what was a the time a backwater of the empire. His refutations are snobbish and pedantic, betraying the notion that his contempt for Christianity was more intellectual than spiritual.
He thought the religion and its texts to pale in comparison with the likes of Homer and Plato. He complained that the sacred texts of the Bible were written in a simplistic and vulgar Greek and that the Roman Empire had been torn away from a Hellenistic golden age of great literature and philosophy.
But as much as he criticised Christianity, he also took inspiration from its successful organisational model to attempt to build a similar structure for pagan religions. He also attempted to establish charity-giving through pagan temples, complaining that Christian charity had lured pagans into churches. “They attract them,” he wrote, “as children are attracted, with cakes.”
His attempts to resurrect state pagan rites was poorly received in eastern cities where Christianity had been firmly established. When he decided to reside for a time in the city of Antioch, the large Christian population made him feel largely unwelcome.
By then the philosopher-king lived an ascetic lifestyle; his beard, celibacy, small retinue and modest style failed to impress a population used to the opulent spectacle of the Constantines. Julian wrote a tract, The Beard-Hater, satirising himself and mocking people’s shallow expectations of their leaders.
War in the East
Before any of his religious reforms could take firm root, Julian took up his cousin’s unfinished business and built an army of ninety-five thousand men with the logistics of eleven hundred riverboats to march into Persia against the Sassanids.
It’s unclear why Julian chose to go to war with the Sassanids as soon as he did, but his recapture of lost Roman lands would have made him popular with the eastern part of the Empire.
Julian was initially successful; his army easily defeated the Persian forces in several battles and sieges. The Emperor, according to Gibbon’s account, was upstanding in decency toward his enemies and a humble companion to his troops.
“When the Romans marched through the flat and flooded country, their sovereign, on foot, at the head of his legions, shared their fatigues and animated their diligence. In every useful labour the hand of Julian was prompt and strenuous; and the Imperial purple was wet and dirty, as the coarse garment of the meanest soldier.”
But when Julian’s army reached Ctesiphon, the heavily-fortified and well-stocked capital city, they realised they were not well equipped enough to take it. They had won a battle at the gates of the city, but failed to make the victory decisive.
For all the Romans knew, the massive Sassanid army was still at large and returning to relieve the siege, meaning Julian’s army would have to fight on two flanks.
Julian had his boats burned so they would not fall into the possession of the Sassanids, and led his army deeper into Sassanid territory to force an open battle.
Shapur cleverly held back as Julian’s weighed down army marched into a wilderness. His forces flooded plains, drove away cattle and burned crops to restrict the Emperor’s supplies. Wherever Julian looked, Edward Gibbon tells us, he “beheld the melancholy face of a smoking and naked desert.”
To make matters worse the Christian King of Armenia, Tiranus, who was supposed to join Julian with thousands of reinforcements and supplies, had betrayed him.
Given the lack of provisions, Julian’s generals eventually persuaded him to give up and retreat north. The searing heat and hunger were making his troops faint. Seeing the Romans retreat, the Sassanids dispatched a large army under the command of Shapur’s sons to harass them.
It was the fateful Battle of Samarra in which Julian had been mortally wounded. He was taken away from danger by his guards, but in his tent he acknowledged he was on the verge of death. The young emperor gave a long speech as a farewell to his loyal soldiers, reflecting on his short but eventful reign.
“I die without remorse, as I have lived without guilt. I am pleased to reflect on the innocence of my private life; and I can affirm with confidence that the supreme authority, that emanation of the Divine Power, has been preserved in my hands pure and immaculate. Detesting the corrupt and destructive maxims of despotism, I have considered the happiness of the people as the end of government. Submitting my actions to the laws of prudence, of justice, and of moderation, I have trusted the event to the care of Providence. Peace was the object of my counsels, as long as peace was consistent with the public welfare; but when the imperious voice of my country summoned me to arms, I exposed my person to the dangers of war, with the clear foreknowledge that I was destined to fall by the sword.”
Julian died as his army was trapped by the River Tigris, their means of crossing the river had been burned. The Romans were surrounded and facing total annihilation. Perhaps unaware that his enemies had run out of food, Shapur sent emissaries to negotiate a peace. Jovian, a general appointed as successor to Julian, accepted a costly and humiliating peace with the triumphant Persian King. For the final time, the Persians had defied the ambitions of Rome.
In just a few decades, the emperor Theodosius banned pagan public rituals and made Christianity the state religion. Julian’s experiment with religious freedom and return to old Roman values was over.
It’s unlikely that Julian would have been successful in supplanting Christianity with his preferred Helios cult, but had he beaten the Persians, or even survived, he may have succeeded in re-establishing religious and cultural tolerance across the Roman Empire.
The bishop Gregory argued that Julian had been sent as a divine punishment for Christian laxity. One bishop claimed Christ himself ordered Julian’s death from heaven, and the task carried out by a saint, Mercurius.
As the Centuries passed, ever more fantastical tales of Julian’s evil were propagated, of how he personally martyred many saints. The more likely story that he refused to punish any Christians wishing to be martyred was equally presented as evidence of his cunning malevolence. He was damned either way to be a “second Nero”, a “Pope of Satan”. But his own writing, and the testimony of unbiased sources, shows us a merciful and idealistic — if rather aloof — philosopher:
“It is by reason that we ought to persuade and teach men,” he wrote, “not by blows, or insults or bodily injury … for, I believe, we ought to teach, not punish the foolish.”
Roman Christianity proceeded to annihilate its philosophical and cultural rivals over the decades and centuries since Julian’s death. Books were burned, heretics executed, temples stripped bare and statues toppled. Antisemitism and the cruel myth of “blood libel” took hold.
Schisms of faith — unthinkable in Roman culture — led to brutal wars. “No wild beasts are so dangerous to men as Christians are to one another,” was a joke Julian made about Christian theological in-fighting, but he was partly right.
It’s a miracle that so many classical texts from the pagan world have survived, and it’s likely that works of Plato wouldn’t have if later Christian thinkers didn’t appropriate his ideas. The magnificent Pantheon temple that tourists flock to see in Rome to this day was saved only by virtue of being sanctified as a church, other temples were left to ruin.
While Christian Europe fell into dark ages, more religiously tolerant Caliphates of Islam emerged and flourished into a golden age. It took until the Renaissance, when the classical world was rediscovered and appreciated, that Christian Europe started the climb back to enlightenment.
Modern republics like the United States and France owe their separation of church and state and protection of religious freedoms to the example of the classical world, to an antiquity of reason and toleration of which Julian was the last representative.
Thank you for reading. I hope you learned something new.
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