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Julian the Apostate

Julian the ApostateAKA Flavius Claudius Julianus

Born: 331 AD
Birthplace: Constantinople
Died: 26-Jun-363 AD
Location of death: Ctesiphon, Mesopotamia
Cause of death: War
Remains: Buried, Tomb of Julian, Mersin, Turkey

Gender: Male
Religion: Pagan
Race or Ethnicity: White
Occupation: Royalty

Nationality: Ancient Rome
Executive summary: Roman Emperor, 361-63 AD

Julian, full name Flavius Claudius Julianus but commonly called Julian the Apostate, was born in Constantinople in 331, the son of Julius Constantius and his wife Basilina, and nephew of Constantine the Great. He was thus a member of the dynasty under whose auspices Christianity became the established religion of Rome. The name Flavius he inherited from his paternal grandfather Constantius Chlorus; Julianus came from his maternal grandfather; Claudius had been assumed by Constantine's family in order to assert a connection with Claudius Gothicus.

Julian lost his mother not many months after he was born. He was only six when his imperial uncle died; and one of his earliest memories must have been the fearful massacre of his father and kinsfolk, in the interest and more or less at the instigation of the sons of Constantine. Only Julian and his elder half-brother Gallus were spared, Gallus being too ill and Julian too young to excite the fear or justify the cruelty of the murderers. Gallus was banished, but Julian was allowed to remain in Constantinople, where he was carefully educated under the supervision of the family eunuch Mardonius, and of Eusebius, bishop of Nicomedia. About 344 Gallus was recalled, and the two brothers were removed to Macellum, a remote and lonely castle in Cappadocia. Julian was trained to the profession of the Christian religion; but he became early attracted to the old faith, or rather to the idealized amalgam of paganism and philosophy which was current among his teachers, the rhetoricians. Cut off from all sympathy with the reigning belief by the terrible fate of his family, and with no prospect of a public career, he turned with all the eagerness of an enthusiastic temperament to the literary and philosophic studies of the time. The old Hellenic world had an irresistible attraction for him. Love for its culture was in Julian's mind intimately associated with loyalty to its religion.

In the meantime the course of events had left as sole autocrat of the Roman Empire his cousin Constantius, who, feeling himself unequal to the enormous task, called Julian's brother Gallus to a share of power, and in March 351 appointed him Caesar. At the same time Julian was permitted to return to Constantinople, where he studied grammar under Nicocles and rhetoric under the Christian sophist Hecebolius. After a short stay in the capital Julian was ordered to remove to Nicomedia, where he made the acquaintance of some of the most eminent rhetoricians of the time, and became confirmed in his secret devotion to the pagan faith. He promised not to attend the lectures of Libanius, but bought and read them. But his definite conversion to paganism was attributed to the neoplatonist Maximus of Ephesus, who may have visited him at Nicomedia. The downfall of Gallus (354), who had been appointed governor of the East, again exposed Julian to the greatest danger. By his rash and headstrong conduct Gallus had incurred the enmity of Constantius and the eunuchs, his confidential ministers, and was put to death. Julian fell under a like suspicion, and narrowly escaped the same fate. For some months he was confined at Milan (Mediolanum) until at the intercession of the empress Eusebia, who always felt kindly towards him, permission was given him to retire to a small property in Bithynia. While he was on his way, Constantius recalled him, but allowed -- or rather ordered -- him to take up his residence at Athens. The few months he spent there (July-October 355) were probably the happiest of his life.

The emperor Constantius and Julian were now the sole surviving male members of the family of Constantine; and, as the emperor again felt himself oppressed by the cares of government, there was no alternative but to call Julian to his assistance. At the instance of the empress he was summoned to Milan, where Constantius bestowed upon him the hand of his sister Helena, together with the title of Caesar and the government of Gaul.

A task of extreme difficulty awaited him beyond the Alps. During recent troubles the Alamanni and other German tribes had crossed the Rhine; they had burned many flourishing cities, and extended their ravages far into the interior of Gaul. The internal government of the province had also fallen into great confusion. In spite of his inexperience, Julian quickly brought affairs into order. He completely overthrew the Alamanni in the great battle of Strassburg (August 357). The Frankish tribes which had settled on the western bank of the lower Rhine were reduced to submission. In Gaul he rebuilt the cities which had been laid waste, re-established the administration on a just and secure footing, and as far as possible lightened the taxes; which weighed so heavily on the poor provincials. Paris was the usual residence of Julian during his government of Gaul, and his name has become inseparably associated with the early history of the city.

Julian's reputation was now established. He was general of a victorious army enthusiastically attached to him and governor of a province which he had saved from ruin; but he had also become an object of fear and jealousy at the imperial court. Constantius accordingly resolved to weaken his power. A threatened invasion of the Persians was made an excuse for withdrawing some of the best legions from the Gallic army. Julian recognized the covert purpose of this, yet proceeded to fulfil the commands of the emperor. A sudden movement of the legions themselves decided otherwise. At Paris, on the night of the parting banquet, they forced their way into Julian's tent, and, proclaiming him emperor, offered him the alternative either of accepting the lofty title or of an instant death. Julian accepted the empire, and sent an embassy with a deferential message to Constantius. The message being contemptuously disregarded, both sides prepared for a decisive struggle. After a march of unexampled rapidity through the Black Forest and down the Danube, Julian reached Sirmium, and was on the way to Constantinople, when he received news of the death of Constantius, who had set out from Syria to meet him, at Mopsucrene in Cilicia (Nov. 3, 361). Without further trouble Julian found himself everywhere acknowledged the sole ruler of the Roman Empire; it is even asserted that Constantius himself on his deathbed had designated him his successor. Julian entered Constantinople on the 11th of December 361.

Julian had already made a public avowal of paganism, of which he had been a secret adherent from the age of twenty. It was no ordinary profession, but the expression of a strong and even enthusiastic conviction; the restoration of the pagan worship was to be the great aim and controlling principle of his government. His reign was too short to show what precise form the pagan revival might ultimately have taken, how far his feelings might have become embittered by his conflict with the Christian faith, whether persecution, violence and civil war might not have taken the place of the moral suasion which was the method he originally affected. He issued an edict of universal toleration; but in many respects he used his imperial influence unfairly to advance the work of restoration. In order to deprive the Christians of the advantages of culture, and discredit them as an ignorant sect, he forbade them to teach rhetoric. The symbols of paganism and of the imperial dignity were so artfully interwoven on the standards of the legions that they could not pay the usual homage to the emperor without seeming to offer worship to the gods; and, when the soldiers came forward to receive the customary donative, they were required to throw a handful of incense on the altar. Without directly excluding Christians from the high offices of state, he held that the worshippers of the gods ought to have the preference. In short, though there was no direct persecution, he exerted much more than a moral pressure to restore the power and prestige of the old faith.

Having spent the winter of 361-62 at Constantinople, Julian proceeded to Antioch to prepare for his great expedition against Persia. His stay there was a curious episode in his life. It is doubtful whether his pagan convictions or his ascetic life, after the fashion of an antique philosopher, gave most offense to the so-called Christians of the dissolute city. They soon grew heartily tired of each other, and Julian took up his winter quarters at Tarsus, from which in early spring he marched against Persia. At the head of a powerful and well-appointed army he advanced through Mesopotamia and Assyria as far as Ctesiphon, near which he crossed the Tigris, in face of a Persian army which he defeated. Misled by the treacherous advice of a Persian nobleman, he desisted from the siege, and set out to seek the main army of the enemy under Shapur II. After a long, useless march he was forced to retreat, and found himself enveloped by the whole Persian army, in a waterless and desolate country, at the hottest season of the year. The Romans repulsed the enemy in many an obstinate battle, but on the 26th of June 363 Julian, who was ever in the front, was mortally wounded. The same night he died in his tent. In the most authentic historian of his reign, Ammianus Marcellinus, we find a noble speech, which he is said to have addressed to his afflicted officers. Soon after his death the rumor spread that the fatal wound had been inflicted by a Christian in the Roman army. The well-known statement, first found in Theodoret (fl. 5th century), that Julian threw his blood towards heaven, exclaiming, "Thou hast conquered, O Galilean?" is probably a development of the account of his death in the poems of Ephraem Syrus.

From Julian's unique position as the last champion of a dying polytheism, his character has always excited interest. Authors such as Gregory of Nazianzus have heaped the fiercest anathemas upon him; but a just and sympathetic criticism finds many noble qualities in his character. In childhood and youth he had learned to regard Christianity as a persecuting force. The only sympathetic friends he met were among the pagan rhetoricians and philosophers; and he found a suitable outlet for his restless and inquiring mind only in the studies of ancient Greece. In this way he was attracted to the old paganism; but it was a paganism idealized by the philosophy of the time.

In other respects Julian was no unworthy successor of the Antonines. Though brought up in a studious and pedantic solitude, he was no sooner called to the government of Gaul than he displayed all the energy, the hardihood and the practical sagacity of an old Roman. In temperance, self-control and zeal for the public good, as he understood it, he was unsurpassed. To these Roman qualities he added the culture, literary instincts and speculative curiosity of a Greek. One of the most remarkable features of his public life was the perfect ease and mastery with which he associated the cares of war and statesmanship with the assiduous cultivation of literature and philosophy. Yet even his devotion to culture was not free from pedantry and dilettantism. His contemporaries observed in him a want of naturalness. He had not the moral health or the composed and reticent manhood of a Roman, or the spontaneity of a Greek. He was never at rest; in the rapid torrent of his conversation he was apt to run himself out of breath; his manner was jerky and spasmodic. He showed quite a deferential regard for the sophists and rhetoricians of the time, and advanced them to high offices of state; there was real cause for fear that he would introduce the government of pedants in the Roman empire. Last of all, his love for the old philosophy was sadly disfigured by his devotion to the old superstitions. He was greatly given to divination; he was noted for the number of his sacrificial victims. Wits applied to him the joke that had been passed on Marcus Aurelius: "The white cattle to Marcus Caesar, greeting. If you conquer, there is an end of us."

Father: Julius Constantius
Mother: Basilina

    Roman Emperor 361 to 26-Jun-363 AD


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