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Julian the Apostate - Christianity and Paganism in the 4th Century
Category: Classical Mediterranean and Europe: Roman Figures
On June 16, 363 the Roman Emperor Flavius Claudius Julianus ordered the troops he had led on a campaign against the Sassanid Empire to break off the siege of Ctesiphon, the capital of the Persians, and to retreat to the safety of Roman territory.
He had finally listened to the advice and pleadings of his General staff, who had argued that the Roman army neither had the strength nor the logistic resources to besiege the city.
On their retreat the Romans were constantly harassed by Sassanid bands, attacking the slow-moving troops burdened with a cumbersome baggage train. Ten days later, on June 26, during yet another raid by the Sassanids, the Emperor himself got drawn into the skirmishes. During the fight, a spear hit Julianus in the stomach, he was brought back to his tent and after discussing matters of state and philosophy with his officers and advisers. He died a few hours later, 31 years old.
Flavius Claudius Julianus had spent a mere 20 month on the Roman throne, a negligible time that could have been a simple footnote in the chaotic history of the later Roman Empire. His name could have been forgotten amongst those of his illustrious predecessors, such as the great Constantine, and successors, such as the equally great Theodosius, if he hadn’t embarked in this short time available to him, on an ambitious project that secured his persistent fame and notoriety.
In these two years as Roman Emperor, Julian attempted nothing less than to restore the old pagan cults of Greek and Roman antiquity to their accustomed place in Roman society, and thus to revoke the process to install Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire that had began a few decades earlier when Constantine I had adopted the new faith.
Consequently, Julian has become a highly contentious figure in historiography, and the commentaries on his short reign are extremely polarised. On one side he has been vilified by Christian historians, like Gregory Nazianzen and Cyril of Alexandria, who condemned his Pagan sympathies and gave him the epithet “the Apostate” under which he has become known. On the other side he has been praised by the admirers of Classical antiquity, like Gibbon, as an heroic figure that had tried to salvage a golden age of civilisation.
It is somewhat ironic that two members of the same Imperial family became the two most known protagonists in the final struggle of two religious belief systems of the fourth century AD. Julian was the son of Constantine I’s half-brother, Julius Constantinus, born in 331 at the Imperial palace in Constantinople.
His uncle Constantine had initiated the two developments that would change the face of the Roman Empire dramatically. Not only had he moved the capital of the Empire to its new location at the Bosphoros, on the crossroads of the Western and Eastern parts of Roman territories and therefore shifted the centre of power out of its ancient seat, he also became a convert to the new religion that had spread throughout the Empire in the last few centuries.
There has been much speculation about Constantine’s motives for adopting Christianity. One could subscribe to the legend that he suddenly saw the Christian Cross in the sky before the Battle at the Milvian Bridge and convinced by the power of the one Christian god embraced both symbol and faith. With the cross painted on the shields of his soldiers he was able to beat his rival Maxentius for the reign of the Western Empire the very next day. But in reality his reasons seem far more profane.
That he really had some sympathies for the Christian belief must be assumed, even if for a while he held his spiritual options open. (The exact date of his final conversion to Christianity is of course still debated; the most persistent version is that of Constantine’s baptism on his deathbed in 337 by the (Arian) Bishop Eusebios of Nicodemia.). But a mild sympathy for the Christian cause does not appear strong enough to account for Constantine’s decisive break with the Roman past. At a closer look, his reasoning seems to have been informed by simple political calculations.
The first one was indeed simple enough, as the de facto ruler of the Western half of the Empire that was still mainly pagan with very few important pockets of Christianity; he also had to win over the population of the East which by then had a far larger number of Christian believers. To profess sympathy for their faith would increase his popularity and his cause immensely. But apart from this short term outlook, Constantine’s analysis of the state of the Empire seems to have come to another and more significant conclusion.
The Empire had undergone immense changes since its zenith under the “Five Good Emperors”. Its former monolithic structure that had well functioned till the end of the 2nd century had been crumbling away steadily; its coherence had been broken by continuous civil wars, by constant attacks of barbarian tribes on its borders, and by the fact that it had become too big and too complex to be ruled by one authority, the Emperor, from one location, Rome. Diocletian had famously attempted to remedy that, to make the administration more efficient by dividing the Empire into various parts that would be governed by semi-independent rulers under his supremacy. But this “Tetrarchy” scheme had failed already during his lifetime, and after his death normal business had resumed, his heirs apparent had fought each other for supremacy and the Empire had further suffered in the civil wars of the early 4th century.
Out of this internal strife, Constantine planned to come out victorious. To confront the existing problems of an unruly and seemingly ungovernable, divided Empire, he came up with a rather ingenious solution.
Christianity had come a long way from its humble beginnings in the first century AD as a tiny Jewish sect in Palestine that had congregated around its local Messiah. The sect was one of the many that seemed to promise deliverance from the Roman yoke. Since then Jesus' message, or to be more precise that of his initial followers' message, had spread quickly around the Roman world, making use of the excellent means of communication the Empire had to offer.
By the beginning of the 4th century, the Christian Church, despite all Imperial persecutions (the most recent under Diocletian), was firmly established, being the fastest growing amongst a number of competing religious cults that had entered the Empire from the East. It was still a small minority in the Empire, but had made significant inroads in all circles of the society. Its main bases were the many cities of the Empire. Their urban population had been enthusiastic converts to the new religion that not only could offer spiritual redemption from an increasingly precarious existence in troublesome times, but also possessed a sizeable charity network that provided practical help for the poor and needy. But it wasn't only the message itself that had advanced Christianity; the Church had a highly efficient structure that oversaw its growth. It was strictly hierarchically organised, with a clearly defined chain of command. At its head was the Bishop of Rome, naturally, as he resided in the capital of the Empire.
The rise of the monarchic structure of the Church, which mirrored the exclusive authoritarian powers of the monotheistic ”one” god, went parallel with a similar development in the Empire itself. The last pretensions of the Republican Age had been thrown overboard by Diocletian, who had himself called “Dominus et Deus” (Lord and God) and thus introduced a formerly unknown absolutism into the Empire.
When Constantine entered the race for the imperial crown, he must have realised that there was a unique opportunity to combine the two authorities into a hopefully unified Empire: an absolutist monarch at his head, and the equally authoritarian Church that was the stable social and political factor in an otherwise deeply divided Roman Empire. To secure the support of the Christian Church, or even to create an identification of Church and state, would increase his chances immensely. After his probable victory he could inject a stabilising element into an Empire that had been in great danger to fall apart.
And thus Constantine became an open sympathiser of the new religion, possibly more for opportunistic political reasons than for spiritual ones. After his victories in 312, with or without the help of the Christian god, and in 324 at Chrysopolis over his Eastern rival Licinius, who had restarted the persecutions of Christians in the Balkans, he succeeded to unite the Empire under his sole rule. Although Constantine fell short of declaring Christianity as the state religion of his Empire, the Edict of Milan in 313 that removed all restrictions on the Christian faith, and surely after 324, it became the state religion in every way other than in name. The old pagan religion was still tolerated, but the new one was now officially promoted. Constantine granted the Church and its clergy numerous privileges and supported the building of new places of Christian worship.
The council of Nicaea in 316 which under Constantine’s firm chairmanship had denounced the Arian heresy and adopted the “Nicene Creed”, was a further step in unifying the almost official religion and the Empire itself.
The young Flavius Claudius Julianus grew up at his uncle’s court in Constantinople, the new capital of the Empire, which by now was an entirely Christian city.
He was six when Constantine died in 337. Within a short time he became a victim of the power-struggle that set in almost immediately after the Emperor's death.
The old Emperor, having proven to be wise in his choice of Christendom as his professed religion, was less so when it came to choosing his successor. He left the Empire divided between his three sons, Constantine II, Constantius II and Constans and rather predictably the three brothers soon began to quarrel over their heirloom. But before they set out to fight each other, they removed any other possible contenders from the scene. Julian's father, Julius Constantius, was murdered a few months after Constantine I's death together with other members of his family, but Julian and his elder half-brother Gallus surprisingly were left alive, a rather merciful act by their cousins, compared to later Byzantine dynastic struggles.
For a while Julian and his brother stayed in Constantinople, but later were sent to exile in Cappadocia and from there they could watch as Constantine's sons eliminate each other until in 350 Constantius II emerged as the sole survivor.
It is somewhat unclear when the adolescent Julian first came in contact with the philosophical ideas that were to shape his later religious convictions. An important role in his education is attributed to the eunuch Mardonius, his mother's slave, who is said to have instilled a love for Greek poetry and mythology into the young Julian. The Emperor Constantius, on the other hand did everything he could to give his young cousin a solid Christian education. Julian was taught by a succession of Christian bishops, but they couldn't have left a deep impression on him. On the whole it seemed to have been rather counter-productive. When his exile was lifted in 350, Julian left Cappadocia for Nicodemia, a city in Asia Minor not far from Constantinople, where he began more to undertake more serious studies under the classic Hellenistic philosophers Libanius and Maximus of Ephesos.
Whilst Julian enjoyed his lectures at Nicodemia, his brother Gallus was called back to Constantinople by Emperor Constantius who was about to travel to the Western half of his Empire and thus needed someone to look after the Eastern part while he was away. In 351 Gallus was thus appointed Caesar and married to one of the Emperor's sisters. Gallus spent a few years on the Eastern front fighting the Sassanids and dealing with the unruly population of Syria and Palestine, not terribly distinguishing himself, on the contrary. His lack of diplomatic skills led to a serious riot amongst the people in Antioch.
Not entirely happy with his Caesar's performance, Constantius recalled him to his court in Italy and on his way there, Gallus was arrested and on the Emperors' orders executed in Pula, Istria in 354.
Thus Julian, apart from the Emperor himself became the only remaining male member of the Imperial dynasty and he must have feared for his life when a suspicious Constantius ordered him to come to Milan. But instead suffering the same fate as his brother, Julian was sent into exile again, this time to Athens, then a sleepy provincial town in Attika. For Julian, this could hardly have been a punishment. Although Athens' intellectual life was a pale shadow of its former glory, it still harboured some of the few remaining philosophical schools that still taught the classic Hellenistic syllabus.
Julian seemed to have enjoyed his stay tremendously, dedicating himself to further studies, participating in philosophical discussions. It has been claimed that during his stay he was introduced into the Eleusian mysteries.
Unfortunately for him his blessed exile was short-lived, only a year later, in 355, the Emperor, now probably concerned with the question of his succession, appointed him Caesar, married him to yet another of his sisters and despatched him to Gaul which was beleaguered by the frequent advances of Germanic tribes. Against expectations, Julian who had no previous military experience, proved to be a success, he defeated the Alemanni near Argentoratum (Strasbourg in 357) and chased the survivors back across the Rhine. A year later he led a short and successful campaign against the Franks in today's Belgium.
In between campaigns Julian devoted himself to the reconstruction of the Roman administration in Gaul, where he proved himself an capable and efficient administrator. Against all odds, Julian became rather popular amongst his subjects who had suffered long from corrupt provincial governors.
So popular indeed, that Emperor Constantius became increasingly jealous and worried about a potential rival, a feeling not entirely unjustified as Julian's troops had once before proclaimed Julian as Augustus after the Battle of Argentoratum, an offer that he had politely declined.
In 360 Constantius must have decided that it would be safer if Julian came to stay in close vicinity to him, and thus called the young Caesar and his troops to the East, to participate in the drawn out wars against the Persians.
Julian's army simply refused, most of his men came from Gaul and had no intention to leave home and family, and in Lutetia, the modern Paris, they once again raised Julian on the shield. This time, Julian had little choice to accept. He did so hesitantly but eventually agreed after he came to understand that his soldiers were an instrument of the gods who had assigned him with the task to restore them to their rightful place, as he later put it in a letter to his old teacher Maximus.
The next few months saw a stalemate between the two Emperors. Both were still busy with fighting their respective enemies, but in the summer 361 Julian decided to resolve the situation. The death of his wife, Constantius' sister, might have him freed from the last personal obligations to his cousin, and thus he and his army set off to the East after all, this time into a looming civil war. On the Eastern front, Constantius secured an unfavourable truce with the Persians and journeyed west to meet the usurper in battle.
In November 361, Julian's army was encamped in Dacia when news reached him that Constantius had died unexpectedly of perfectly natural causes in Cilicia, allegedly naming him as his successor.
And thus Flavius Claudius Julianus, at the age of 29, found himself undisputed ruler of the Roman Empire. A month later, on December 11, 361, he triumphantly entered Constantinople.
If and how deep Julian had kept his pagan sympathies under wrap so far, is somehow unknown. During his stay in Gaul and during his campaigns against the Germanic tribes, he is said to have openly shown his adherence to the old gods, frequently asking their advice or performing sacrifices to win their support in battle. Apparently this was partly responsible for his great popularity amongst his men.
Perhaps Gaul had been too remote, or Julian had been secretive enough about his religious activities that news of his Pagan sympathies could have reached the Eastern Empire, so it came as a little surprise to his new subjects in Constantinople and other main Christian cities in the East that as soon as he was safely installed on the throne, Julian came out as a Pagan.
A sign of the times to come was Julian’s first great initiative, the purge of the previous Imperial administration that the new Emperor found corrupt and inefficient. A large number of Constantius’ bureaucrats were cleared out, and replaced by Julian’s men, and amongst the high-ranking new advisors were some of Julian’s old teachers, all of them not known for their Christian beliefs.
As soon as the dust that usually clouds changes in government had settled and his and that of his administration's power was cemented, Julian could embark on his ambitious plan, to turn back the wheels of time and to re-install paganism as the dominant religion of the Empire.
The strategy had to be twofold. On one hand the position of the Christian Church had to be weakened, and on the other the status of the pagan cults had to be resurrected and strengthened.
It seemed that the first task could be more easily accomplished. Julian had been brought up as a Christian in name and had been involved in the affairs of the state deep enough to have been able to realise what the strengths and weaknesses of the Church were.
Its strength was founded on the efficiency of its hierarchical organisation over an ecclesiastical network in all major cities of the Empire, the attractiveness of its rituals, the simplicity of its belief for new converts and its extensive charitable works.
Its main weaknesses lay possibly in the predilection for factional struggles amongst its clergy over seemingly negligible and absurd theological details, something that in the past sometimes broke the Church apart.
Julian thus started here first, he issued an edict that would secure the right to pursue any religion in the Empire, be it pagan or Christian, and most importantly, be it one of the many different interpretations of Christianity that despite the efforts of the Council of Nicaea were still in circulation. Julian’s edict of religious toleration of 361, naturally has been praised by his apologists as a document that demonstrates the moral superiority of paganism when it came to tolerate competing religions, something Christianity did not exactly excell in. While this is certainly true and while Julian only continued the Roman pagan tradition to allow the veneration of gods other than those of the Roman Olympus as long as it didn’t interfere with the correct observation of the necessary rites and sacrifices, there certainly was another motive behind it.
The Council of Nicaea in 325 had come out firmly in support of the Anasthasian over the Arian interpretation of the nature of the Christ. Consequently it anathemised the latter. But Arianism was far from defeated. On the contrary, it had spread out to convert many of the migrationist Germanic tribes. Even in the Empire itself, it had undergone somewhat of a renaissance. Constantius had been an unashamed Arian and had used his influence to promote Arian bishops into prominent positions and to dismiss those that adhered to the Nicene Creed, as with Pope Liberius in 355. At the time of Julian’s succession the fight was still continuing, and the Emperor must have had the hope that if he, unlike his predecessors who had taken sides, would not interfere in the strife, but even guarantee that not of the two factions would be preferred before the Imperial law against the other, so that Trinitarism and Arianism would tear another apart. Bishops expelled by Constantius were thus reinstated and Julian's expectations were not disappointed. The two sides soon engaged in furious infighting.
Arianism was only the tip of the iceberg. There existed a myriad of smaller, localised sectarian beliefs and groups that with a bit of encouragement could emerge and further split the Christian Church.
The next blow to be dealt to Christianity was to cut the bonds between Church and state that had been established under his predecessors: the Christian clergy had been granted a number of privileges, free travel on the Imperial transport system or payment of their salaries by the Empire, for example. In many instances Christian authorities performed semi-official administrative and legal duties; the building of Churches had been subsidised from the Imperial coffers. Julian put a hold to all this, all under the pretext to create equal conditions for Paganism and Christianity, but mainly to weaken the influence of the Church.
Another of Julian's measures, potentially the most damaging for the Church, was yet another edict that disallowed the teaching of Classical Greek and Roman texts by Christian teachers. Julian argued that the philosophical and literary works of antiquity could not be taught by men who did not believe in the basic premise they contained, men who not only did not believe in the existence of the Pagan gods, but who would come to condemn such beliefs.
Although hardly affecting the majority of Christians, this act was directed against the Christian elite, those who could afford to send their children to the mainly private rhetoric and grammar schools. As attendance of such schools was a pre-requisite for entrance in the Imperial service, Christians were presented with a dilemma, either being educated by professed Pagans or forgoing chances of a lucrative career. That the schools and universities were populated with Pagans teachers and professors secured another position that gave Julian the ability to select their teaching staff. Many of the Christian teachers were expelled or left on their own accounts, other came up with the ingenious solution to translate Christian texts into classical literary forms, e.g. the gospel was written in the style of Plato's dialogues, in order to circumvent Julian's edict.
But whilst the weakening of the Church in the hope that it would lose power and influence could possibly be achieved with a series of Imperial edicts, Julian was still represented with the problem of what to put in place of Christianity once it had been pushed back to the margins. He had to offer an alternative that could satisfy the obvious spiritual needs of his subjects, an alternative both in ritual form and intellectual content.
He was aware that it wasn't enough to return to the Paganism of old, which although still existent, had over long centuries been reduced to a mechanical observance of now largely meaningless rituals. In the 4th century the Pagans of the Empire would still perform the same rites as their ancestors had done, would sacrifice to the gods, would venerate their ancestors, would seek out their future in the entrails of Chickens. But they would do so, because it always had been done this way, not necessarily out of strong belief.
There can be no doubt that Julian sincerely believed in the Pagan theology he professed. His education in content and form of classic Hellenistic literature and philosophy, his intimate contact with some of the leading Pagan intellectuals of his age, his own reflections, as dilettantish as they may have been, must have installed in him a deep sense of the intellectual and moral superiority of every aspect of he classic Hellenistic culture over the Judaeo-Christian that was threatening to usurp the former.
Although the manner in which he treated Christianity leave the suspicion that many of his prejudices were born out of intellectual snobbery, and furthermore were the result of experiences made in his childhood and youth when his family was killed and exiled by Christian members of the Constantine dynasty.
Whatever his motives were, Julian tried hard to come up with a Pagan equivalent to a Christian theology that was simplistic, comprehensible and coherent enough to have attracted a large following.
Greco-Roman Pagan religion never had possessed a doctrinal theology, it had been a summation of cults that paid homage to a large and ever changing and ever growing variety of gods. In the 3rd and 4th centuries, the cults of the divine Emperor was added, and a number of Eastern cults, like Mithra and Isis veneration, had permeated into Roman society. Pagan religion had become even more complex and confusing.
After a long and notable decline in the intellectual life of the Roman Empire, a group of thinkers appeared in the late 3rd century that had attempted to revive classic Greek philosophy, claiming to base themselves on the teachings of Plato.
Some of Julian's teachers had belonged to this school, Libanus and Maximus, and thus the young Emperor looked for inspiration for his rejuvenation of Paganism from the Neo-Platonists of his age.
Neo-Platonism was a combination of various strands of classic Greek philosophy, next to Plato its adherents referred themselves to the Stoic and Sceptic schools, and all merged with religious and mystic elements from Eastern cults, amongst them Judaism and Gnosticism, into a speculative system. At its heart was Plotinus' doctrine of the “Ur-One” and its forms of mind, soul and matter from which a manifold of lesser beings would originate. The Syrian philosopher Iamblichus had added a whole cosmos of minor terrestrial gods to the Neo-Platonist belief system and attempted to create a coherent polytheistic theology, complete with elements of ritual magic, that was able to compete with the Christian.
Julian’s own religious beliefs were informed by Iamblichus, but under the influence of Eastern sun cults, he incorporated the sun as symbol of the various incarnations of the “Ur-One” into the Neo-Platonist metaphysical speculations. He believed in the existence of three Suns, the lesser material sun that is the reflection of the intellectual sun which in turn is the reflection of the supreme sun, the spiritual “one” that is beyond the scope of human understanding.
His own basic religious theories are outlined in his work “Hymn to King Helios”, one of a whole series of philosophical tractates by the Emperors pen of which few have survived. The best known of Julian's work is “Against the Galilaeans”( Julian's term for Christians), an Anti-Christian pamphlet in which he used his in depth knowledge of the Christian faith to criticise it from within. The work includes a number of Bible quotations. The work however has survived only in adulterated fragments, cited by a couple of Christian writers in their furious replies to Julian's attack on their belief.
Julian's contributions to Neo-Platonist philosophy are negligible, and had no implications in the further evolvement of the school that via detours later influenced Christian theology until the Middle-Ages. His subjects watched with amusement as their Emperor doubled up as Philosopher - they might never have come to read his works, but they could see the flowing Socratean beard he had sprouted and wore proudly as outward symbol of his Hellenistic Pagan sympathies. (Julian answered his fashion critics in another preserved work, “ The Beard Hater”.)
Having attempted to initiate something like a Pagan theology, Julian needed now to establish an organisation that could propagate the belief, and thus he looked for his next inspiration into a rather unexpected direction. Julian chose the Christian Church as the model for his Pagan one.
The pagan religion had never possessed an organisation or administration nearly as structured as the Christian Church. The performance of religious rites had always largely been private, without the absolute need for an intermediate between the individual and its gods. Although there had been priests in the Roman society, there had never been a strictly hierarchical order or organisational coherence. Priesthood was in many cases a part-time occupation, and even the nominal high-priest in Rome, the “Pontifex Maximus” performed his duties alongside his political responsibilities. Both Caesar and Octavianus had famously been part-time “Pontifex Maximus” in the Republic, for purely political reasons. In the Empire the title had become one of the many of the ruler.
Julian took the duties implied in this title far more serious, he saw himself as the active head, the “Pontifex maximus” of a new Pagan Church, that would be organised as the Christian was.
He planned to establish a hierarchical Pagan Church, with Pagan Priests and Bishops that would lead and direct a Pagan congregation. This new Pagan clergy was supposed to lead an exemplary life, including the high-priest, Julian, who is said to have lived a rather austere and frugal life, to a point that his appearance became somewhat lacking of cleanliness.
He went even further to imitate the Christian rites: hymns were introduced into Pagan celebrations, and the interiors of the newly restored Pagan temples were decorated after Christian fashion, presumably minus the Christian symbols. Pagan temples were also to be engaged in charitable works, like their Christian counterparts, and Julian made funds available to distribute food and clothing in the name of the Pagan gods, a concept previously unheard of in Roman society, in whihc charity had been a private affair, not always for altruistic motives but mainly as a self-glorification of rich and influential citizens.
(Less Christian were the animal sacrifices for which Julian developed an obsession and which were performed on a previously unknown scale under his reign. His succession to the throne was celebrated with a whole series of sacrifices, due to the total lack of Pagan temples in Constantinople mainly performed in Christian churches.)
Most of Julian's plans to restructure the Pagan religion in form or content never came to anything, be it through the lack of general enthusiasm or financial means, or through the lack of time available to him.
15 months into his reign, in March 363 Julian left Antioch with a 60.000 strong army and advanced against the Sassanid Empire. The fight against the Sassanids had been going on almost continuously ever since the early 3rd century, with a whole succession of Emperors going to the East to war, to secure the Roman borders or to raid Persian territory.
One can only guess what induced Julian to try his luck in the East. For years the conflict had been inconclusive and rather inactive, and no immanent danger had appeared that necessitated the presence of a large army or even the Emperor in person in the East. The most plausible explanation must be that Julian embarked on his campaign to raise his popularity, to achieve a great victory against the Persians that would increase his standing amongst the populace of the East where Julian's Pagan reforms had met the strongest opposition.
Julian duly invaded the Sassanid Empire, but a couple of months in the sweltering heat of Mesopatamia, and the amounting logistic difficulties forced the Emperor to terminate the siege of Ctesiphon, capital of the Sassanids, and to return to Roman territory. On the way home, Julian was mortally wounded and died after a reign of less than two years. His body was carried back to Constantinople and buried in the Church of the Holy Apostles.
The exact circumstances of his death became the topic of extensive speculations, Christian writers, sworn enemies of Julian have claimed that the Emperor died by the hand of a Christian soldier in the ranks of the Roman army, who was presumably seeking revenge for the measures Julian had taken against the Church, whilst writers sympathetic to the Emperor have always refuted the idea, presumably refusing to give the Christians satisfaction for having accomplished Julian's death.
Apocryphal are probably the last words that Julian is said to have spoken:” Vicisti, Galilaee” (“You won after all, Galilean”), but true they certainly were.
A few decades after Julian's untimely death and the last stand of Paganism, in 393 Theodosius I banned all public Pagan activities and elevated Christianity to the official state religion of the Roman Empire. The empire remained Christian until its end in 1453 at the hand of the Ottomans.
It is somehow futile to speculate if Julian’s attempt to restore Paganism to the state religion of the Roman Empire had been successful, if he had had more time. But the signs are that even if he had reigned for longer than just twenty months, either his Pagan reforms would have found very little resonance amongst the Christian people of his Empire, unless it had been forced upon them, or that his reforms would have been damaging and disastrous in the long term.
There is no indication that the intellectual attraction of his Neo-Platonist Pagan theology reached further than to those parts of the intellectual elite that were still steeped in the Hellenistic traditions. Here, Julian was preaching to the already converted.
Any other conversions to his new paganism seemed to have occurred more for political and opportunistic reasons, and even those on a relatively small scale.
The majority of the Christian population of the East ignored Julian’s effort, belittled it or were openly hostile to it. During a tour of his Eastern provinces in 362, the people of Antioch, one of the oldest and most important Christian cities of the Empire, received the Emperor with outspoken animosity. The people refused to take part in all hastily arranged Pagan celebrations and left Julian pondering about his chances of success to restore Paganism. Christianity had already taken deep roots.
In the long run, his policies could have proven damaging or even disastrous for the Empire. After centuries of civil wars, dynastic quarrels and continuous barbarian invasions, the factors that had once secured the coherence of the Empire had worn out, neither the Roman military power nor the concept of a Roman commonwealth where a “Pax Romana” could guarantee peace and prosperity could held the Empire together any longer.
That at least the Eastern half survived for more than another thousand years after Julian’s death in 363 was down to the ability of Constantine I to identify a new factor that could restore such coherence. Christianity installed a new sense of common identity in an ethnically and politically diverse Empire, it would give the various social and ethnic groups a cohesion they desperately needed. The unity of Christian religion and Roman state in the later Empire would mean that the fate of both would become inseparably linked, and the Empire would never be in greater danger than in those times when the unity was suspended.
Julian’s attempt to sever this link would certainly have renewed and increased the divisions in the Empire, in view of the mutual intolerance that Christian sects showed each other, it is safe to predict that theological disputes would have turned into civil conflicts that would have destabilised the Empire even further. That the Christian aristocracy of the Empire would have eventually rebelled against a Pagan Emperor is equally probable. What the Roman Empire needed was above all unity, and Julian would have achieved the exact opposite.
Constantine I showed great foresight when he enlisted the new religion into the service of the state, Julian showed great recklessness when he tried to dismiss it again
On June 26, 363 a well aimed spear ended his quixotic experiment.
A.A. Vasiliev, History of the Byzantine Empire, Madison 1928
Chas S. Clifton, Julian the Apostate in the “Encyclopedia of Heresies and Heretics”, Santa Barbara, 1992
Madeline Clark, Emperor Julian and Neoplatonism in “Theosophic Perspectives”, Pasadena, 1997
Geoffrey Barraclough, The Christian World, A Social and Cultural History, London 1981
G.Weber/A. Baldamus, Geschichte des Mittelalters, Vol I, Stuttgart, 2000