• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

Draconian Dreams: Julian the Apostate and the Pagan Police-State



It’s easy to line Catherine Nixey between the crosshairs. Almost as undemanding, perhaps, as it was it was for her to portray the ascendency of Christianity as “an exceptional account of murder and vandalism.” Yet the sad fact remains that The Darkening Age (2018) was unusual more for its strident, polemical tone than for its anti-Christian narrative, which was fairly mainstream.


Even today, we are burdened with prejudices that are more accurately traced to the eighteenth century Enlightenment than late antiquity. Why is paganism always considered Christianity’s fun, hedonistic and liberal counterpart, for instance? And why is the faith always cast as some sort of prototype to ISIS, the village scold, or a corruptive influence on romanitas?


As a corrective, we should cast our glance back at Julian. In the fourth century we see a very different world: the emperor’s paganism was gullible, politics reactionary, morals puritanical, and his ability to slaughter whole cities in the name of piety unencumbered by a higher conscience. Meanwhile, Christian cities brimmed with joie de vivre, appeared more tolerant in the face of persecution, and exuded all the energy required in a faith that attempted to systematise its truths.


C. P. Cavafy summarised the cultural framework of late antiquity much better than Nixey when he scribbled (over a century ago) that:


“… Notorious life of Antioch,

delectable, in absolute good taste.

To give up all this, indeed, for what?

[Julian’s] hot air about the false gods,

his boring self-advertisement,

his childish fear of the theatre,

his graceless prudery, his ridiculous beard?”[1]


Indeed, even Gibbon – who did so much to set up the confrontation of virtuous paganism versus vice-laden Christianity – had to admit that there was something a bit fanatical and fraudulent about Julian, an emperor who:


“Sought to obtain the effects, without incurring the guilt or reproach, of persecution.”[2]


A persecution that set himself against old school mates such as Gregory of Nazianzus who believed Hellenistic philosophy could be fused to the Semitic truths. A view inimical to Julian who saw the aspects of Hellenism in a more holistic manner; to rip the pagan religion from the heart of Hellenism was no more understandable to him than subtracting Hinduism from the average Indian’s notion of his identity today.


To most modern readers, it’s rarely the grand kulturkampf that irks. Instead, feelings of uneasiness tend to stem from Julian’s unsympathetic personality, which reveals a pompous man of nervous temperament; a man who manages to be superstitious and calculating, abstemious in food and sex, and yet easily wounded in pride – a kind of dehydrated Kim Jong-Un. Worse, the paganism on whose behalf he so desperately proselytised rarely rose above a nice-but-dim popularisation of Iamblichus’ teaching – the first neo-platonist to prefer magic and ritual to reason.


There’s a fair strain of hypocrisy thrown into the mix, too. His first tutor, Mardonius – who he constantly waxed poetic about – was a Scythian eunuch who was most likely a Christian. The main part of his teenage library was salvaged from the Arian bishop, George of Cappadocia, who was killed in a riot at Alexandria. His very survival on the Bithynian estates of his grandmother was due in no small part to the fact he’d been effectively placed in the hands of another bishop, Eusebius of Nicomedia.



Still, Julian preferred his pagan masters, even when they hated one another. And we’re not talking about the big-shots of philosophy but rather the wizards of theurgy like Maximus of Ephesus. A man whose chief claim to fame was his record of making a statue of Hecate laugh and breaking a love-spell that had been cast on Sosipatra.[3] Anecdotes like this make it imperative to remember that the intellectual substructure of these thinkers was less the ascent of Plotinus’ Enneads than the turgid and obscure hexameter oracles composed in the reign of Marcus Aurelius known as the Chaldean Oracles. In other words, this pagan world was based no more or less in a flurry of spirits, demons and angels than its Christian counterpart.


When Julian became Augustus how did he reward his early Christian mentors? With a barely-concealed hostility. When Alexandria rioted, Julian inflicted no punishment, transparently hoping that the conflict would eliminate the enemy of his gods. Christians were effectively banned from teaching thanks to being “deficient in character” according to his edict. They had their promotions stalled at court and in the army, too. Moreover, even pagans who refused to tow his line (orthodoxy and orthopraxy were not unique to Christianity) such as the Cynics, for instance, were side-lined.


Elsewhere, he tactically allied himself with Jews, whose monotheism he found repulsive. This increased the number of sacrifices performed across the empire (Julian’s number one policy initiative) and enabled him to consult them on a momentous proposition: the restoration of Jerusalem’s Temple (led by an ex-governor of Britain, Alypius). This would usefully prove the prophecy of Christ that not one stone of the temple would be left upon another (Matt 24:2, Mark 13:2 and Luke 19:44) false and provide Julian with an anti-Christian fifth-column throughout the empire.


As a result of such provocations, parts of the east (such as Gaza and Emesa) revolted. And the state’s habit of turning riots into massacres was nowhere demonstrated more clearly than in Caesarea which was effectively sacked by troops after Julian refused to accept that its Christian faction had prevailed over the opposition in an uprising.


Wrath unabated, Julian continued to troll Christian communities using all means available. A single example of his petulance will suffice to get the measure of the man. To Edessa – seat of the Abgarid kings and an early centre of Syriac Christianity – he sent a letter which cited with supercilious irony that because the poor found it easier to pass into the Kingdom of God rather than the rich, the emperor felt honour-bound to confiscate all the money and land of the Christians in the region.


Later, applying the same language of his edict against teachers of the Galilean faith to the legal profession, he tightened the noose on lawyers with Christian convictions; took to destroying churches dedicated to martyrs in case they interfered with the divine radio-waves of neighbouring pagan oracles; eulogised the people of Emesa for burning Christian tombs and so on.


Finally, Julian’s unstoppable zeal met the immovable object of Antiochean piety in the summer of AD 362. The climax, however, took the form not so much of a confrontation than a scene that oozed gentle contempt. Approaching the shrine of Apollo at Daphne, the emperor had expected sacrificial animals, libations and choruses; the people adorned in their finest pagan frippery. Indeed, Julian rather naively thought a festival in hiding awaited his signal.[4] When the signal was given, however, a comically dismal vision appeared: a lonely old local priest who’d brought a single goose for slaughter.


The tractate he probably composed in reaction to this incident, Against the Galileans, is lost but much of it can be re-assembled from Cyril of Alexandria’s extensive critique. It accused the Christians of lacking a consistent theology, possessing a penchant for innovation (aimed at the cult of the martyrs) and generally being hypocrites (for preaching universal love while condemning heretics). But like those who’ve felt as though they’re on the winning side of history’s many culture wars, the Christians of Antioch hardly felt needled to respond in kind and simply lampooned the emperor for his silly beard and eccentric opinions.


Observing that comedy beat paths where his intellectual stratagems failed, Julian changed tack. Or at least he attempted to change tack. The Misopogon was meant to be an exercise in self-deprecation that indicated he had enough integrity and humour to bear attacks on his person and message. The problem was he didn’t or that if he did he was ultimately too thin-skinned to let either shine. Instead, his tone slid into a hectoring, badgering and injured voice that annoyed everybody who encountered it.



At this point Julian could have saved his ideological battles for another day or, more specifically, any day after his Persian campaign. The Church, however, gained martyrs when the emperor decided that the standard-bearers of two important units (the Ioviani and Herculiani) who refused to remove the labarum from their standards should be beheaded. And somehow managed to alienate many of his pagan friends too by pitching his wily house-philosophers against the potency of negative omens, portents that ominously included an earthquake in Constantinople, warnings in the Sibylline Books, the washing up of Salutius the Prefect’s corpse en route, a march past the tomb of Gordian III (who died on campaign against the Persians), a dead lion (the symbol of kings) in the deserted city of Dura-Europus (captured by the Sassanians in AD 257), and so on.


Dying in a military encounter that involved a Saracen in the Persian army rupturing the emperor’s femoral artery with a spear, Julian’s march east had resulted in the Roman army only managing to escape annihilation (mostly thanks to an intelligent scorched earth policy by the Persians) by abandoning Mesopotamia and Nisibis to the Sassanians.


Back in the Roman Empire, his legacy went down like a cup of cold vomit. Few protested when it was suggested that the reactionary prude (and his pagan Indian summer) needed to be booted to a tomb in Tarsus. At least until enough time had passed for a little annex of the Church of the Holy Apostles to be set aside for him – pointedly and permanently exiled from the two mausolea of the orthodox Roman Emperors.


Recommended Book:

P. Athanassiadi, Julian: An Intellectual Biography (2014)


[1] C. P. Cavafy, “Julian and the Antiochians,” Collected Poems trans. E. Keeley & P. Sherrard (1992).

[2] E. Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. II (1830) 365.

[3] Eunapius, Lives of the Philosophers and Sophists, 413.

[4] Or was Julian simply in denial? To Aristoxenus the emperor wrote “Show us a man among the Cappadocians who is a pure Hellene (a pagan). For so far I have seen only those who do not wish to sacrifice, or else a few who want to but do not know how” (Julian, Lettres [Bidez], no.78 [375c] to Aristoxenus).

[5] I’ve attempted to avoid military matters here to address the intolerant strain of paganism that Julian preached, but it’s hard to avoid the fact that Julian’s burning of his ships (at the prompting of a Persian who pretended to be a defector) while deep into Persian territory was a stupid move.

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