Mike Aquilina

Sympathy for a Devil (or, Julian Fries)

Friday May 26th 2006, 4:16 am

Constantius knew that envy was the leading cause of death among Roman emperors. His father, Constantine the Great, had killed both a wife and a son whom the old man suspected of scheming after the throne. And Constantine had succeeded marvelously, managing to die serenely in his bed, quite soon after baptism, at the end of a long and prosperous reign.

Constantius decided to do one better. He would strike pre-emptively and eliminate everyone in the family who might reasonably wish for the purple robe. The closer the kinship, the greater the temptation to grab for succession. Constantius murdered nine family members, including his father’s half-brother and most of the man’s children. Two small boys were spared, one of whom was a precocious child not yet six. His name was Julian.

Constantius and his brothers were not up to the standard of their illustrious father, and they soon fell into the old habit of battering each other across the Empire. Eventually Constantius emerged as the sole Emperor. Unlike his father, he was not willing to trust the consciences of his subjects. “This accursed tolerance shall cease,” he proclaimed, and he began to issue edicts against the pagans every bit as harsh as Diocletian’s had been against the Christians. In 353, he ordered all the pagan temples closed.

Instead of destroying paganism, the edicts united the remaining pagans in their implacable hatred of Christianity. The pagan philosophers, in particular, used all their arts to make the new religion seem ridiculous to their students. One of those students was young Julian, the survivor of the imperial family’s purge.

Julian was a brilliant young man. He studied at Athens, where he was a classmate of two Fathers of the Church, St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory Nazianzen. Julian entered military and civil service, where he soon established himself as a superb general and a keener intellectual than his famous uncle. The soldiers respected him, and when, in 360, Constantius ordered all Julian’s best troops to head east to fight the unpopular Persian war, the soldiers revolted and proclaimed Julian emperor.

Julian set out at once to defeat Constantius, but while Julian was on his way Constantius conveniently died. Julian had been raised a Christian, but his pagan teachers had infected his mind with a romantic notion of the glories of the pagan past. And to all those legends of ancient honor and glory he could compare the rank behavior of his Christian cousin — his father’s murderer — Constantius.

Immediately upon taking the throne, Julian proclaimed the return of paganism as the official religion of the Empire. By turning from Christianity back to paganism, Julian earned himself the nickname “Julian the Apostate.”

It was a strange new kind of paganism, though. At first Julian contented himself with ordering the pagan temples to be reopened. But soon he began to build a pagan church modeled on the Christian Church, with its own pagan liturgy, its own philanthropic charities, and its own church administration. The true religion had so far eclipsed the false that even a confirmed pagan could not imagine returning to the old ways unaltered. He even tried to send out pagan missionaries to infuse the Empire with an enthusiasm for paganism. They only succeeded in converting the sycophants and hangers-on who wanted to get ahead at court. Still, Julian did his level best, himself composing a polemical book against the religion of “the Galileans.” It became one of the more effective anti-Christian tracts of antiquity.

At first Julian seems to have intended merely to re-enact the universal tolerance of the Edict of Milan, although with a strong official preference for paganism. But bit by bit he slid down the slope into persecution. First he prohibited the Christians from teaching classical literature — the foundation of every Roman’s education — in their schools. If the Christians didn’t believe in the gods of Homer and Virgil, he reasoned, what right did they have to teach those authors? Then he ordered the Christians to return the pagan properties that had been given to them by previous emperors. Inevitably Christians began to rebel against his administration, and inevitably he was forced to take action against them. Soon he found himself a persecutor.

Meanwhile, the Persian war continued. Julian was remarkably successful as a military leader, but the Persians had good generals too. After a number of victories, Julian suffered a humiliating defeat in 363. As his army was retreating, Julian was wounded in a cavalry battle. He looked and saw that the wound was mortal, and at that moment he must have realized that pagan Rome could not outlive him. The Christians would have the last word.

“You win, Galilean,” he said as he fell from his horse.