Julian The Apostate


Julian, the son of Constantius, who was a half-brother of Constantine the Great, was born in the year 331. He was therefore but six years old when the massacre, which followed close upon the death of his uncle, cut off his father, an older brother, and others of his relatives. Nothing but his tender years saved him from being numbered with the victims. He was educated in Constantinople until about 344, when he was sent, with his brother Gallus, [More strictly speaking, a half-brother, as was also the one who fell in the massacre.] to Cappadocia. Here the brothers remained for six years, in a kind of honorable imprisonment, under the tuition of clergymen. Soon after the close of this interval, Gallus was raised to the rank of a Cæsar, and Julian obtained permission to study in Nicomedia, under the condition, however, that he would not hear the celebrated heathen rhetorician Libanius. Julian, in appearance, observed this condition, and, moreover, gave ostensible indications of a Christian zeal by serving as a reader in the church; but it is understood that he studied the orations of Libanius in secret, and had communication with distinguished apostles of heathenism, among whom was Maximus. The fall and execution of Gallus, in 354, endangered the life of Julian; but he was rescued by the kind interposition of the Empress Eusebia, and was even allowed to pursue his studies in Athens. An unexpected summons soon called him from this retreat; and, honored with the rank of a Cæsar, he was sent to command the legions in Gaul. Success attended his arms in that quarter. On the exhibition of jealousy by Constantius, his enthusiastic troops proclaimed him Augustus; and he was already on the march for the East, to contend for the sole rule, when the death of Constantius (in 361) left him the undisputed master of the whole Empire. The hand of a professed heathen now swayed the sceptre over the heads of Christians.

It is hardly to be counted an occasion for surprise, that the apostasy of Julian should have become incorporated into the very name by which he is known in history. That a member of the family which had brought Christianity from the horrors of the Diocletian persecution, and enthroned it in the palace of the Caesars, -- a nephew of the great Constantine, -- should turn his back upon the triumphant faith and espouse heathenism, could not fail to produce a profound impression. To the minds of Christians it was as if Antichrist had suddenly come forth from the very centre of the Church.

Yet the apostasy of Julian was no miracle of caprice, no event to which antecedents cannot be assigned. On the one hand, it was a strange charity which Julian had received from Christianity, or rather from its unfaithful representatives. To a Christian emperor he owed it (such at least was his own belief) that his dearest friends had been slaughtered. [In a letter to the Athenians, Julian gives an account of the massacre, in which be indicates no doubt, about the responsibility of Constantius, though he charitably mentions such considerations as might extenuate his guilt.] Thus orphaned, he became an object of suspicious tutelage. An obvious attempt was made to hold him aloof from heathen culture and influence. All the instincts of independence in his nature were challenged to elect the forbidden field. And to this bent his spiritual advisers were able to offer no proper antidote through a positive commendation of Christianity. They were probably themselves destitute of a true inner acquaintance with the Christian system, and were incompetent to lead their pupil, even to the threshold of the truth as it is in Christ.

While thus repelled by unworthy representatives, and by a false image of Christianity, Julian felt the positive attractions of classic heathenism. By an alliance with Neo-Platonism, the classic system had gained a new lease of life, especially among the rhetoricians and their pupils in the East. A romantic veneration for the past naturally took delight in reviewing the old mythologies, and at the same time a philosophizing temper could find satisfaction in giving to these mythologies some recondite interpretation. Not a little patronage was awarded these devotees of classic literature; and they were able to gather flourishing schools at Miletus, Ephesus, Antioch, Athens, and other places. They were not, in general, men of great profundity; but they had polish and pretension on their side. They prided themselves on being the representatives of culture in the Empire. Christianity was decried as barbarous and uncouth,-a religion for the ignorant multitude. All the truth which it contained, they claimed to have also in their system, only in much finer form. Like some of the pretentious critics of later times, they set themselves over against Christian coarseness as the school of refinement and wisdom, moving amid the chaste ideals of classic taste and beauty.

The prepared heart of Julian easily succumbed to the lure of this cultured heathenism. When he made open declaration of his faith, as he was on the eve of contending with Constantius for the supremacy, he had already been a secret devotee of the heathen religion for about ten years, had received, indeed, an induction of the most positive and solemn type; having first been made a proselyte by Maximus at Ephesus (352), and subsequently, during his stay at Athens, having been initiated into the Eleusinian mysteries.

The initiation is commonly placed at this date. See, among others, Friedrich Rode, Geschichte der Reaction Kaiser Julians; and G. H. Rendall, The Emperor Julian. The date in question is thought to be favored by Eunapius (Vitæ Sophist., Maximus). John Wordsworth, on the other hand (article on Julian in Smith and Wace), concludes from the reference of Gregory Nazianzen (Orat., iv. 55), that the initiation did not occur till Julian became heir to the imperial dignity, and was ready to declare his espousal of heathenism. Gregory's account, it is true, appears to favor the latter date. But a question may be raised as to whether in his rhetorical effusion he was careful to observe the chronological order of events.

The main features of the system to which he became an enthusiastic convert are happily set forth in the following description by Milman: "Julian's religion was the eclectic paganism of the new Platonic philosophy. The chief speculative tenet was Oriental, rather than Greek or Roman. The one immaterial, inconceivable Father dwelt alone. Though His majesty was held in reverence, the direct and material object of worship was the great sun, the living and animated and beneficient image of the immaterial Father. Below this primal Deity and His glorious image, there was room for the whole Pantheon of subordinate deities, of whom, in like manner, the stars were the material representatives, but who possessed invisible powers, and manifested themselves in various ways, through prodigies and oracles, the flights of birds, and the signs in the sacrificial victims." [History of Christianity] In other words, Julian was devoted to the classic system, colored and interpreted after the peculiar fashion of Neo-Platonism.

As emperor, Julian made it his leading aim to restore the heathen faith and worship. In laboring for this result, he was not above the use of material inducements. He felt that there were proselyting expedients aside from arguments. Even his friend Libanius allows his use of gifts and honors, as bribes, to win adherents to his religion; nay, he unblushingly commends such a policy. "Through a little gain," be says, "the soldier obtains a greater gain, acquiring, through gold, the friendship of the gods, upon whom depends the fortune of war." [Quoted by Neander.] A peculiar specimen, surely, of the elevation of this class of men above the Christianity which they affected to despise!

But the chief dependence of Julian in his restoration efforts was placed upon the following means: (1) a systematic degradation of Christianity; (2) a thorough reformation send re-organization of heathenism. He looked upon violence as a very doubtful means of propagandism. His knowledge of history persuaded him that to make martyrs would be a dangerous and ill-advised course. He assumed, at once, to grant religious liberty to all parties. This course, however, so far as the contending sects of the Christians were concerned, was dictated more by policy than by a spirit of toleration. Such, at least, is the verdict of the heathen writer Ammianus, who affirms that Julian gave equal freedom to all the different parties of the Christens, in order that by their contentions they might weaken and cripple each other. [Lib. XXII.] Something, of course, is to be conceded to the obvious inconvenience which would have been imposed upon Julian in an attempt to discriminate between different factions in the Church. It was as convenient as politic to treat all alike. But the attitude of the pagan Emperor toward all classes of Christians is better described as one of equal intolerance, than as one of equal tolerance. To humble, to degrade, and to limit the rival system as far as possible, was a design pursued by him with unremitting diligence. He withdrew the revenues which had been appropriated to the support of the Christian ministry, and bestowed them upon his own priesthood. He ordered that reparation should be made for the spoliations of heathen temples which had occurred during the preceding reigns. To stamp Christianity as the religion of ignorance, he forbade Christians to appear as teachers of the classics; at any rate, he passed a law that no one should take the office of a teacher in these things without a permit from the government, and laid down principles which practically closed the vocation against loyal Christians. To exclude Christian teachers from the schools was, in large measure, equivalent to excluding also the children of Christian parents, since the latter could not help fearing the influence of schools dedicated to heathenism. "Let them,'' he scornfully said of the Christian instructors, "go to the churches of the Galileans to expound Matthew and Luke." The edict was as contemptuous in tone as tyrranical in conception. Even a heathen historian speaks of it as something which ought to be buried in everlating silence. [Illud inclemens, obruendum perenni silentio. (Ammianus, Lib. XXII.)] With kindred aim, he excluded Christians from important offices, and advanced pagan devotees to positions of trust. He also used his opportunity to heap sarcasms upon the Christians. As the decree on education illustrates, he gave a loose rein to this evil license even in his official communications. "Galileans" was the name under which he habitually stigmatized the adherents of Christianity. In a spirit of indifference to the scruples of Christians, if not with the positive design to perplex their consciences, he surrounded his own image with the images of the gods, so that Christians could not offer the customary token of respect to the imperial bust without at the same time rendering a seeming acknowledgment to the heathen deities. [Gregory Nazianzen assumes (Orat., iv. 81) that the arrangement was purposely adopted to put the Christians in a dilemma. But perhaps, as Randall suggests, the primary design of Julian was to give open and striking confession of his own faith, rather than to perplex his opponents.] In all this there was, it is true, no drawing of the sword; yet it was well nigh as remote from genuine tolerance as a Diocletian edict. Moreover, it is not improbable that Julian, had he held the throne long enough, would have resorted to open violence. His dealing with Athanasius shows the venom rankling in his heart. As his own words indicate, he banished him from Egypt for no other cause than his too powerful antagonism to heathenism. [Epistles vi., xxvi., and li. in select works of Julian, as given by John Duncombe, are directed against Athanasius.] "The death of Athanasius," says Gibbon, "was not expressly commanded; but the prefect of Egypt understood that it was safer for him to exceed than to neglect the orders of an irritated master. The archbishop prudently retired to the monasteries of the desert; eluded, with his usual dexterity, the snares of the enemy; and lived to triumph over the ashes of a prince, who, in words of formidable import, had declared his wish that the whole venom of the Galilean school were contained in the single person of Athanasius." [Chap. xxiii.]

Julian expected much also from a reform of heathenism itself. He believed that there was virtue enough in the system to insure its triumph, if only its professors would be earnest in living out and advocating its principles. He set himself an eminent example of this theory. Not only did he sacrifice with surprising assiduity and liberality, sending perchance a hundred oxen to the altar in a single day, [Ammianus, Lib., XXII.] but he cultivated a strict morality, put aside ostentation, and lived with a plainness in marked contrast with the style of his Christian predecessors. He endeavored to re-organize the heathen priesthood somewhat after the plan of the Christian hierarchy. He ordered that the best men, those strictest in life and most benevolent in temper, should be chosen for the office of priests; and that in this office they should hold themselves aloof from all impure associations, avoiding the theatre and tavern and every kindred place, and giving themselves entirely to things sacred. It was urged, also, that they should take pains to instruct the people, and look carefully after the poor. Here the reviler of Christianity was evidently copying its precepts and customs; indeed, he made no secret respecting his model, declaring that it would be a shame if the heathen were negligent towards their own poor, while Christians were accustomed to extend their benefactions even to the unfortunate outside of their own ranks. [Epistle to Arsacius, High-priest of Galatia.]

It was just in this direction of reform that Julian experienced the most humiliating failure. He counted upon a moral earnestness that was by no means to be found among the heathen of his day. The spirit which makes martyrs, or even self-denying advocates, of a cause, did not exist in their midst. Many of his own party became weary of his exhortations and ascetic restrictions. In Antioch, especially, whither he came in 362, his revival efforts met with flat indifference. The people were ready to admire and to praise him as emperor, but they wanted no yoke of devotion bound to their necks. Some did not hesitate even to assail the imperial devotee with their sarcasms. His long philosophical beard was commented on, and it was said that it ought to be cut off and manufactured into ropes. [Misopogon, Julian's satirical work against the Antiochians.] In particular, his excessive sacrificing was satirized. The image of a bull and an altar upon his coins was interpreted as a symbol of his having desolated the world. [Socrates, Hist. Eccl., iii. 17.] The remark was handed about, that, if Julian should return victorious from his contemplated Persian expedition, the breed of horned cattle must infallibly be extinguished. [Ammianus, Lib. XXV.] The Emperor, on his part, devoted a special treatise to the satirizing of the Antiochians.

It was during his stay at Antioch, and under the imbittered feelings of his poor success, that Julian began to employ his pen in an elaborate treatise against the Christian faith, a task which he continued during his Persian expedition. From the extracts of his work which have been preserved in the reply of Cyril of Alexandria, it would seem to have reproduced the principal arguments of the earlier heathen critics. In spirit it was closely akin to the work of Celsus. Some of his strictures -- as, for example, his comments on the magical virtue attributed to baptism, and the reverence paid to the tombs of the martyrs -- had, no doubt, a basis in the corruptions of the age. But, on the whole, he appears scarcely superior to Celsus in respect of fairness. He complains of the poverty of the Bible in general, declaring it totally incompetent to develop manly strength and wisdom. He makes capital out of the anthropomorphisms of the Old Testament, denies that its prophecies forshadowed such a being as Christ is figured to have been, and takes the Christians to task for ceasing to follow its sumptuary and ceremonial prescriptions. The doctrine of a divine incarnation he treats with as little respect as did Celsus before him. The dogma of Christ's divinity, he says, was introduced by John, who thus contradicted the teaching of the other evangelists. He does not impute moral turpitude to Christ, or deny His miracles. At the same time he disparages His life as being an unedifying spectacle of weakness and futility. Julian's criticisms indicate, perhaps, a rather larger acquaintance with the letter of the Bible than that which had been acquired by the older apologists for heathenism. But evidently to its spirit, to the grand movement of revelation which it exhibits, to the lofty ideals which it lifts above men's spiritual horizon, he was as blind as they.

While, as the above indicates, Julian reprobated the religion of the Old Testament, he nevertheless showed no little consideration for the Jews. Indeed, his treatment of them was in marked contrast with his scorn and oppression of the Christians. One can hardly escape sharing the conviction of early Christian writers, that his friendliness toward the Jews found a special stimulus in the known fact of their hostility to Christianity. "He sent for them," says Theodoret, "and asked them why they did not offer sacrifices according to the injunctions of the law. When they told him that sacrifices should be offered only at Jerusalem, this impious man commanded them to rebuild their temple, foolishly imagining to confute the prediction of the Lord concerning it." [Hist. Eccl., iii. 20. Compare Philostorgius, Hist. Eccl., vii. 9.] His patronage of the enterprise was carried even to the extent of furnishing means. But the attempt to restore the temple proved utterly abortive, the workmen being frightened away by the breaking out of flames from the excavations, and by still other prodigies, if the writers of that and the succeeding age can be trusted. [Ammianus, Lib. XXIII.; Gregory Nazianzen, Orat., v. 4; Rufinus, Hist. Eccl., i. 38, 39; Sozomen, Hist. Eccl., v. 22; Theodoret, Hist. Eccl., iii. 20; Philostorgius, vii. 14.]

In the year 363 Julian, having completed his preparations, started upon his Persian expedition. There was a feeling that in the issue of this campaign a judgment from God would be revealed, either to the signal advantage of heathenism or of Christianity. The reply of a Christian to Libanius indicates what some were expecting from the ruling of Providence. "What is the Son of the Carpenter doing now?" asked the rhetorician sarcastically. "The Creator of the universe," responded the Christian, "whom you deride, and call the Son of the Carpenter, is now preparing a bier." [Theodoret, iii. 23.] A horseman's spear, or javelin, prepared the fulfilment. Julian ended his career beyond the Tigris. It is tradition, rather than authentic history, which has put upon his dying lips the words, "Galiean, thou hast conquered!" Theodoret, it is true, ascribes to him this exclamation. But it is unmentioned by Socrates, and Sozomen substitutes for it a symbolical act. "When he was wounded," writes the latter historian, "he took some of the blood that flowed from the wound, and threw it up into the air, as if he had seen Jesus Christ, and intended to throw it at Him, in order to reproach Him with his death. Others say that he was angry with the sun, because it had favored the Persians, and had not rescued him, although, according to the doctrines of the astronomers, it had presided at his birth; and that it was to express his indignation against this luminary that he took blood, and flung it upwards in the air." [Hist. Eccl., vi. 2.] The Arian historian Philostorgius describes the act of Julian much in the same way as Sozomen, but accepts the interpretation last mentioned. "The wretched Julian," he says, "took up in his hands the blood which flowed from his wounds, and case it up toward the sun, exclaiming,'Take thy fill;' and he ridded curses upon the other gods as villains and destroyers." [Hist. Eccl., vii. 15.] On the other hand, Ammianus represents the wounded Emperor as receiving his fate with equanimity, and indeed as spending his last hours in a philosophic discourse, in which he expressed entire satisfaction with his life and conduct and future prospects. [Lib. XXV.] If this account be true, the resignation of Julian greatly exceeded that of some of his heathen friends. Libanius even went so far as to reproach the gods for allowing such a man as Constantius to reign twenty years, while the time allotted to Julian was scarcely twenty months. Amid these conflicting accounts, history call afford to be comparatively silent. No dying expression of personal chagrin and mortification is needed to emphasize the defeat of the Apostate. He thought to stand forth in history, covered with glory, as the restorer of classic heathenism. He stands, in fact, a monument of its irretrievable overthrow. The stronger his efforts to revive the fallen system, the more conclusive he made the evidence that the breath of life had departed.

Though exhibiting many brilliant qualities, Julian stood far below the first rank in greatness. He lacked the self-abandon which belongs to the highest type of character. In his acting and in his writing, he reminds too much of one practising before a mirror, and calculating upon effect. Again, his dedication of his best efforts to a utopian scheme speaks against the soundness of his judgment. He seemed unable to grasp the fact that classic heathenism was dead, and that Christianity must take its place. He described Constantine's work as the planting of Adonis gardens, whose bloom would soon wither. [The representation occurs in his ingenious work entitled The Cæsars.] The estimate applied rather to his own work. The words with which Athanasius cheered discomfited Christians, on the eve of his exile, were abundantly fulfilled: "Nubicula est, transibit" ("It is only a little cloud, it will pass over "). Strauss was not far out of the way in naming Julian "the romancer upon the throne of the Cæsars." He acted emphatically the part of a romancer or enthusiast in his veneration for, and attempted restoration of, an obsolete past.