The Emperor Julian 2

I left the story of the Emperor Julian yesterday as he was entering Constantinople to be made Emperor. Today I will write of what Julian did as sole Emperor of the Roman Empire.

Emperor Julian the Apostate

Julian decided that as Emperor, he would help to bring back the old traditions that had made Rome great. The early emperors had pretended that Rome was still a republic and made a great show of consulting the Senate and ruling within the laws. They were not dictators or kings, just the first citizens (princeps) of Rome. Over the centuries, times had changed and the pressures of foreign invasions and civil wars with usurpers had seemed to make it necessary for the Emperor to be an autocrat, ruling by decree. To avert assassinations, the later Emperors encouraged people to believe them to be more than human, the pagan Emperors became gods, the Christians, God’s representatives on Earth. Elaborate ceremonies had developed and Emperors now wore magnificent robes and had golden crowns. They kept courts full of servants and officials. Julian decided that all of this was unnecessary and expensive. He dismissed all of the useless courtiers who were cluttering the palace and tried to live the simple and virtuous life of a philosopher king.



Julian also sought to bring back the old Pagan religion of Greece and Rome. He reorganized the various priesthoods to make them more like the Christian clergy and encouraged acts of charity. He was so enthusiastic a participant in the old rites of sacrifice that his subjects started to refer to him as “the Butcher”. Julian did not persecute the Christians, except to forbid Christians from teaching classical literature on the grounds that they didn’t believe in the old gods. Julian knew that past persecutions had only strengthened the Christians, and in any event by then there were too many Christians for the church to be suppressed. What Julian did instead was to proclaim complete freedom of religion.It should be recalled that part of the reason Constantine had supported the Christians was to give the Roman people something to unify them. It did him and his sons no good if the Christian sects fought among themselves, so he and later Emperors liked to establish one sect as orthodox and others as heretics to be suppressed. Julian hoped that the sects would fight among themselves and so weaken and discredit Christianity.



The Roman Empire still had an unresolved war with the Persians, so Julian decided to prepare for a campaign to the east. The city of Antioch was chosen to be the staging ground for the campaign and Julian traveled there in May 362. He stayed in Antioch for nine months overseeing preparations. It was not a pleasant time for him. Antioch boasted one of the oldest Christian communities in the Empire and by then a majority of the citizens were Christians. They did not like their pagan Emperor, especially after he made the public relations blunder of moving a saint’s remains in order to restore a pagan temple.They also did not know what to make of an Emperor who eschewed ceremony and tried to portray himself as their equal.  He did nothing to repair the damage to his relations with the people and even composed a satire called “the Beard Hater” which savagely mocked the Antiochenes. Everyone was relieved when it was time for Julian and his army to march to war.



Julian was confident and ambitious about the upcoming campaign. This was not to be a mere border war as the Romans and Persians or Parthians had been fighting for centuries. Julian wanted to settle matters with the Persians. Julian believed that if he could be the new Julius Caesar in the west, he could be the new Alexander the Great in the east.



He began the campaign in march 363. At first Julian was as successful against the Persians as he had been against the Germans. He was able to bypass or defeat the Persian forces sent against him and won a major battle at the Persian capital of Ctesiphon. He was unable to capture the city however, and his officers were growing increasingly uneasy over the likelihood of the Roman supply lines being cut off by the Persians. .This was a dangerous possibility because  the withdrawing Persians had waged a scorched earth policy making it difficult for the Romans to live off the land of their enemies and  in order to engage the Persian forces defending Ctesiphon, the Romans had had to cross the Tigris, which now lay between the Roman army and Roman territory. Julian was somewhat reluctant to abandon his conquests but upon receiving news of a large Persian army approaching to relieve Ctesiphon, he agreed to withdraw. The Romans fought another battle with the Persians at Samarra.The battle was indecisive but Julian was mortally wounded. He managed to live for two days and then died of his wounds. His last words were allegedly,”You have won, O Galilean.” If he didn’t actually say this, he might as well have.



Julian's Campaign
Julian’s Campaign

The Roman army, still pursued by the Persians and on the wrong side of the Tigris, quickly selected a Christian named Jovian to be the new Emperor. In order to permit the Romans to return to their territory, Jovian was obliged to make a treaty with the Persians that was very much in their favor. He restored Christianity to a privileged position but he only reigned eight months before dying of natural causes. From Jovian’s time onward, Rome was to be a Christian Empire, and the old pagan religion faded away. By 380, the Emperor Theodosius I made Christianity Rome’s official state religion and ended all support of competing faiths. The Olympic Games were ended and pagan temples were destroyed. The Galilean had won.



I have to wonder if Julian would have been more successful if he had lived longer. I doubt it. He was working against all the trends of his times and against the beliefs of his most prominent subjects.  I do not doubt that Constantine’s conversion to Christianity was sincere, but he was a shrewd enough politician to see that Christianity was the future of the Western world. The Christians were better organized than any competing faith and their religious doctrine was more appealing. Even without Constantine’s support, the Christians were becoming a majority, especially in the Eastern Empire. Julian would have been a better Emperor if he had not tried to spend so much effort in reviving a dead past.





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