Julian the Apostate

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Flavius Claudius Julianus (331/332June 26, 363), was a Byzantine emperor who ruled from 361 to 363. Commonly referred to as Julian the Apostate in Christian sources for his supposed conversion to a late form of Neoplatonic Hellenism.

Early years

He was the son of Julius Constantius by his second wife, Basilina. His paternal grandparents were Constantius Chlorus and his second wife, Flavia Maximiana Theodora. His maternal grandfather was Caeionius Iulianus Camenius. Julius Constantius was also a half-brother of Emperor Constantine the Great.

As a child, Julian witnessed the murder of his family by his Christian cousin Constantius II, the later emperor (337). This, as he stated, was the beginning of his scepticism toward Christianity. He and his half-brother Gallus were kept in the imperial domain of Macellum.

Rise to power

After his brother Constantius Gallus was made Caesar of the east (351) and executed (354) by Constantius II, Julian was called to the emperor in Mediolanum (Milan), in 355, made Caesar of the west and married to Constantius' sister Helena. In the years afterwards he fought the Germanic tribes that tried to intrude upon the Empire. He won back Colonia Agrippina (Cologne) in 356, defeated the Alamanni at Argentoratum (battle of Strasbourg) and secured the Rhine frontier for some 50 years. In 360 Constantius ordered Julian to send Gallic troops to his eastern army. This provoked an insurrection that led his troops to proclaim Julian emperor, and to a very swift military campaign to secure or win the allegiance of others. Civil war was avoided only by the death of Constantius II, who in his will recognized Julian as his rightful successor.

Julian and religion

Julian is called by Christians "The Apostate" because they believe he converted from Christianity to Paganism. He himself, as attested to in private letters between him and the Rhetorician Libanius, had Christianity forced on him as a child but had never really accepted any religion until his reading of the Homeric poems, some of the most important texts for the Greek Religion. After this conversion to Hellenism he devoted his life to protecting and restoring the fame and security of this more ancient tradition as well as other religious traditions such as Judaism from Christian persecution.

He suppressed the persecution of pagans and destruction of temples that had followed the Christian Roman Emperor Constantine I's official encouragement of Nicene Christianity. (During his earlier years, while studying at Athens, he became acquainted with two men who later became both bishops and saints: Gregory Nazianzenus and Saint Basil.) Though Constantine had legalized Christianity, it was not declared the official state religion until Theodosius I in the 380s. Constantine and his immediate successors had prohibited the upkeep of pagan temples, and many temples were destroyed and pagan worshippers killed during the reign of Constantine and his successors. The extent to which the emperors approved or commanded these destructions and killings is disputed, but it is certain they did not prevent them.

Julian's religious status is a matter of considerable dispute. He did not practice normative civic paganism of the earlier empire, but a kind of magical approach to classical philosophy sometimes identified as theurgy and also neoplatonism. Whatever his personal practices, they were not Christian. According to Socrates Scholasticus, Julian believed himself to be Alexander the Great in another body via transmigration of souls, as taught by Plato and Pythagoras (Book III, Chapter XXI of his writings).

Many of Julian's actions sought to harass and undermine the ability of Christians to organize in resistance to the re-establishment of pagan acceptance in the empire. The Orthodox or Catholic Church retells a story concerning two of his bodyguards, who were Christians, that when Julian came to Antioch he gave orders to sprinkle all the food in the marketplace and the water wells with blood from idol worship. This would have left the Christians in that town with nothing to eat or drink without violating their beliefs. The two bodyguards opposed the edict, and were executed at Julian's command. The Eastern Orthodox Church remembers them as Saints Juventinus and Maximos.

In his school edict Julian prohibits Christian teachers from using pagan scripts e.g. the Illias, that formed the core of Roman education. This was an attempt to remove some of the power of Christian schools by alienating their students from Roman society, not to mention a satirical attack at what Julian may have viewed as a hypocrisy: Christian schools teaching the Bible as the sole source of knowledge while simultaneously teaching classical pagan texts as well, knowledge of which was needed for success in Roman society.

In his tolerance edict of 362, Julian decreed the reopening of pagan temples, the restitution of alienated temple properties, and called back Christian bishops that were exiled by church edicts. The latter was an instance of tolerance of different religious views, but may also have been an attempt by Julian to widen a schism between different Christian sects, further weakening the Christian movement as a whole.

After his arrival in Antiochia in preparation for the Persian war, the temple of Apollo burned down. Since Julian believed Christians to be responsible, the main church was closed.

In 363 Julian, on his way to engage Persia, stopped at the ruins of Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem. In keeping with his effort to foster religions other than Christianity, Julian ordered the Temple rebuilt. A personal friend of his, Ammianus Marcellinus, wrote this about the effort:

Julian thought to rebuild at an extravagant expense the proud Temple once at Jerusalem, and committed this task to Alypius of Antioch. Alypius set vigorously to work, and was seconded by the governor of the province; when fearful balls of fire, breaking out near the foundations, continued their attacks, till the workmen, after repeated scorchings, could, approach no more: and he gave up the attempt.

The failure to rebuild the Temple has been ascribed to an earthquake, common in the region, and to the Jews' ambivalence about the project. Sabotage is a possibility, as is an accidental fire. Divine intervention was the common view among church historians of the time. [1] [2]


In 362 Julian started his campaign against the Persians, moving from Constantinople. One year later, on June 26, 363, Julian died in the victorious but inconclusive battle of Ctesiphon; he was so confident of victory —or merely eager and forgetful— that he was not wearing armour, and received a fatal wound from a dart or a spear. Libanius states that Julian was assassinated by a Christian who was one of his own soldiers; this charge is not corroborated by Ammianus Marcellinus or other contemporary historians. Julian was succeeded by the short-lived Emperor Jovian.

Considered apocryphal is the report that his dying words were "Νενίκηκας με Ναζωραίε!" ("Thou hast defeated me, Nazarene!"), supposedly expressing his recognition that, with his death, Christianity would become the Empire's state religion.

Julian as a writer

Julian wrote several works in Greek, some of which have come down to us.

  • Hymn to King Helios
  • Hymn to the Mother of the Gods
  • Two panegyrics to Constantius

The above are hard for the modern reader to digest. The religious works contain involved philosophical speculations and the panegyrics to Constantius are formulaic and elaborate in style.

The following works, on the other hand, are quite accessible and readable.

  • Misopogon or :Beard Hater:- a light-hearted account of his clash with some of his subjects after he was mocked for his beard and generally scruffy appearance for an emperor
  • The Caesars - a humorous tale of a contest between some of the most notable Roman emperors, including Alexander the Great for good measure. This was a satiric attack upon the recent Constantine the Great of whose worth, both as Christians and as leaders of the Roman Empire, Julian severely questions.
  • Against the Galilaeans - a critique of Christianity, only partially preserved, thanks to Cyril of Alexandria's rebuttal Against Julian.

The works of Julian were edited and translated by Wilmer Cave Wright as The Works of the Emperor Julian (3 vols.). London, 1923.

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