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Julian the Apostate
- For other meanings of Julian, see Julian (disambiguation).
As a child he witnessed the murder of his family by his uncle 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.
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 Milan (355), made Caesar of the west and married to Constantius' sister Helena. In the years afterward he fought the Germanic tribes that tried to intrude upon the Roman Empire. He won back Cologne (356), defeated the Alamanni at 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 miltary 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 is called "The Apostate" because he reverted from Christianity to Paganism, suppressed the persecution of pagans and destruction of temples that had followed Constantine I's official encouragement of Christianity. (During his earlier years, while studying at Athens, he became acquainted with two men who later became both bishops and saints: Gregory Nazianzus and Basil the Great.) Constantine had not yet made Christianity the official state religion, which would not happen until Theodosius I in the 380s, but he 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. 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). The Orthodox Church retells the 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 Orthodox Church remembers them as Saints Juventinus and Maximos.
In his tolerance edict of 362, Julian decreed the reopening of pagan temples, the restitution of alienated temple properties, and called back the bishops that were exiled by church edicts. In his school edict Julian prohibits christian teachers from using pagan scripts e.g. the Illias. 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.
Sources state that Julian died in battle while fighting the Persians; he was so confident of victory that he was not wearing armour, and received a fatal wound from a dart or a spear. Libanius states that Julian was killed by one of his own soldiers, a Christian who resented his beliefs; this charge is not corroborated by Ammianus Marcellinus or other contemporary historians.
Considered apocryphal is the report that his dying words were "Vicisti, GalilŠe" ("Thou has conquered, Galilean"), supposedly expressing his recognition that, with his death, Christianity would become the Empire's state religion. The phrase introduces the 1866 poem "Hymn to Proserpine", which was Algernon Swinburne's elaboration of what Julian might have felt at the triumph of Christianity. Julian's life inspired both the play "Emperor and Galilean" by Henrik Ibsen and the historical novel Julian, by Gore Vidal (1964).
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 - a light-hearted account of his clash with some of his subjects
Against the Galilaeans - a critique of Christianity, only partially preserved
- The Julian Society
- The Emperor Julian
- Panegyric upon Julian by Libanius, who knew him well and admired him
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