Flavius Claudius Julian (Constantinople, November 6, 331) was a Roman emperor and philosopher, the last openly pagan ruler, who tried, unsuccessfully, to reform and restore the classical Roman religion, now syncretically fused with the Greek religion and by Julian united to Mithraism and the cult of Sol Invictus, after it had fallen into decline in the face of the spread of Christianity.
A member of the Constantinian dynasty, he was Caesar in Gaul from 355; a military pronouncement in 361 and the simultaneous death of his cousin Constantius II made him emperor until his death in 363 during the military campaign in Persia. He did not go to Rome in his brief reign, but ruled from Milan first and then from Constantinople, the official capital since 330.
To distinguish him from Didius Julianus or from Julian of Pannonia, usurper of the time of Carinus, he was also called Julian II, Julian Augustus, Julian the Philosopher or Julian the Apostate by the Christians, who presented him as a persecutor but, although personally opposed to Christianity, there were never anti-Christian persecutions (even if the emperor issued discriminatory policies against Christians). Julian manifested tolerance towards other religions, including Judaism, to the point of ordering the reconstruction of the Jewish temple of Jerusalem according to a program of restoration and strengthening of local religious cults to the detriment of Christian monotheism; the attempt of reconstruction, however, was abandoned.
In the fiscal and administrative field Julian continued the policy that he had held when he governed Gaul. He reduced the tax burden, fought against bureaucratic corruption through a more careful selection and tried to restore a role to the administration of cities.
With the death of Giuliano the dynasty of the emperors costantiniani was extinguished and ended the last attempt of western imperial expansion in East.
Julian wrote numerous works of philosophical, religious, polemical and celebratory character, in many of which he criticized Christianity. Its philosophical inspiration was in great part neoplatonica.
When Constantine I took the power in 306, the first care of his mother Helen, the ex-lady and concubine of Constantius Chlorus whom he had abandoned for Theodora, was to remove from the court the half-brothers of her son, Dalmatius, Hannibal and Julius Constantius to Toulouse, in the Narbonne Gaul, a city that already then boasted to be a prestigious center of culture. These were the sons of Costanzo Cloro and of his second wife Flavia Massimiana Teodora, stepdaughter of the emperor Massimiano (acquired great-grandfather of Giuliano), and therefore half-sister of the emperor Massenzio, the rival defeated by Costantino at the Milvio Bridge, of which Giuliano was great-grandson.
Twenty years later, when Helena was given the title of Augusta by her son, Julius Constantius was in Italy, married to the Roman noblewoman Galla, who gave him three children, the youngest of whom, Gallus, was born in Etruria around 325. Julius Constantius, after having sojourned in Corinth and having remained a widower, found himself in Nicomedia near his own sister Constance, widow of the emperor Licinius, where an influential place was occupied by the patrician Julius Julian, already governor of Egypt and prefect of the Praetorium from 316 to 324. A lover of literature and a relative of Bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia, Julius Julian had given his slave Mardonius a first-class education and had entrusted him with the education of his daughter Basilina.
Julius Constantius obtained the consent of the family to the wedding with Basilina, which was blessed by the bishop Eusebius, and from their union in Constantinople, at the end of 331 was born Flavius Claudius Julianus: he was named Julianus as his maternal grandfather, Flavius as all members of the family of Constantine, and Claudius as the alleged founder of the Constantinian dynasty, Claudius II the Gothic, according to what propaganda the current ruler of the Western world in order to ennoble the obscure origins of his parents.
Basilina died a few months after the birth: it was said then that she had dreamed of giving birth to a new Achilles, without having known whether to interpret in a good-wishing sense the premonition of the birth of a son who was heroic, but of short life and violent death. Julian brought with him the nostalgia of a figure that he could not know and he will dedicate to her one day a newly founded city, Basilinopolis.
After the death of his mother, in the last years of his reign, Constantine adopted a policy of conciliation towards the other branch of the imperial family, granting them functions of responsibility in the management of power. In 333 Theodora”s son, Dalmatius, was appointed consul, then the homonymous son was made Caesar and finally the other son Hannibal, given the unusual title of King of Kings, was sent to watch over the insecure borders of Asia: Julian had thus become the grandson of three emperors and cousin of four Caesars.
The sudden death of Constantine in May 337 opened a tragic succession. According to Philostorgius, Constantine was poisoned by his brothers while he was near Nicomedia. Discovered the conspiracy, the emperor drew up a will and delivered it to Eusebius of Nicomedia ordering to deliver it only in the hands of one of his direct heirs. In the will Constantine asked for justice for his death and divided the empire among his sons. The other sources do not speak about the poisoning of Constantine but they explicitly mention that the will was delivered in the hands of his son Constantius, who was in the East and was the first to reach Nicomedia. He, or, with his endorsement, his generals, had all the male descendants of Constantius Chlorus and Theodora exterminated: the father, the elder half-brother, an uncle and six cousins of Julian were suppressed. Julian, then only six years old, and his other half-brother Gallus were spared, perhaps because, ill, he was considered dying. Of course, the memory of the massacre will never abandon Giuliano: “All that day was a massacre and by divine intervention the tragic curse came true. They divided the patrimony of my ancestors with the edge of the sword and everything was turned upside down”, saying he was convinced that it was the god Elio to lead him away “from the blood, from the tumult, from the cries and from the dead”.
When he became an adult, Julian traced the origin of all the evils of his descendants to Constantine”s lust for power: “ignorant as he was”, Constantine believed “that it was enough to have a large number of children to keep the substance” that he had accumulated “without intelligence”, not caring “to make sure that the children were educated by wise people”, so that each of his children continued to behave like their father, with the desire to “own everything by himself to the detriment of others”.
Formation of Giuliano
The three sons of Constantine divided the kingdom, assuming the title of Augustus: the second son Constantius II, who had put a mortgage on the kingdom having attended, the only one of the brothers, the funeral of his father, got the rich eastern provinces, the eldest Constantine II the western ones, excluding Italy, which with Africa and the Balkans were assigned to the third son Constant I, subordinate to his older brother and deprived of the right to make laws.
Constantius II removed the surviving cousins from the court: Gallus was sent to Ephesus, while Julian, deprived of his father”s property, was transferred to Nicomedia, in the surroundings of which his maternal grandmother owned a villa where the child spent his summers: “in that deep calm you could lie down and read a book and occasionally rest your eyes. When I was a child, that house seemed to me the most beautiful holiday place in the world”. It was one of the happiest periods of his life: entrusted for a short time to the care of Bishop Eusebius, who in the autumn of 337 had already been promoted to the chair of Constantinople, in Nicomedia an encounter took place that would have great importance for his education, the one with the eunuch Mardonius, already preceptor of his mother, who was charged with providing for his education.
Mardonius was an old Scythian – as the Goths were called in the East – who had been perfectly integrated in the late-antique society for many years and who felt an authentic veneration for Greek culture: from him Julian learned classical literature and especially Homer, who opened his imagination to the fabulous world of epic through a constant and rigorous application. According to the pedagogical use of the time, considered the most suitable for the formation of a true cultured person, Julian had to learn by heart long passages of Homer and Hesiod, so that that poetic, moral, civil and religious universe was intimately imprinted in his spirit and, with the help then of the knowledge of the oratorical prose of Demosthenes and Isocrates, he ended up thinking and expressing himself according to the mentality and language of the classical tradition.
Giuliano himself remembers those years of apprenticeship: “my pedagogue taught me to keep my eyes on the ground, when I went to school he elaborated and almost sculpted in my soul what at that time was not at all to my taste but that, by dint of insistence, ended up by making me seem agreeable, accustoming me to call seriousness being rough, wisdom being insensitive, and strength of mind resisting the passions he admonished me by telling me: – Don”t let your theater-going peers drag you into being passionate about shows. Do you love horse racing? There”s a beautiful one in Homer. Pick up the book and read it. Do they tell you about mimes and dancers? Let me tell you. The young Phaeacians dance much better. And there you”ll find the cithode Femio and the singer Demodoco. And to read, in Homer, certain descriptions of trees is more pleasant than to see them in real life: I saw in Delos, by the altar of Apollo, a young palm sapling rising to the sky. And you will read of the wild island of Calypso, of the cavern of Circe and of the garden of Alcinoo”.
Dead by now, in 341, both the bishop Eusebius and Constantine II, who had come to armed conflict with his brother Constant I, the emperor Constantius, perhaps suspecting that the surviving brother could use the two cousins to his damage, sent Gallus and Julian in the extremity of Cappadocia, in the imperial estate of Macellum: deprived of his beloved tutor Mardonius, with a half-brother very different from him in character and interests, Julian was kept for six years in a luxurious but oppressive isolation: “what should I say about the six years spent in that estate of others, like those whom the Persians keep under guard in fortresses, without any stranger approaching, nor was it allowed to any of the ancient acquaintances to visit us? We lived excluded from all serious teaching, from all free conversation, reared in the midst of a splendid servantry, practicing with our slaves as with colleagues.” Their supervisors also had the task of giving, of the tragic events that had marked their childhood, the “official” version, which naturally excluded any responsibility of Costanzo.
The “little serious teaching” was probably the study of the Old and New Testaments, in which, however, he had to take an interest and make rapid progress, if it is true that soon there was nothing more to teach him. One of his teachers was Bishop George of Cappadocia, an Arian presented by ancient sources as a scheming careerist. He was not, however, an ignoramus, as his orthodox rival Athanasius claimed, since George possessed an excellent library not only of Christian authors, of which Julian gladly took advantage and, after George”s death in 362, tried to have himself sent from Alexandria to Antioch. If it is not doubted that then Julian was sincerely Christian, it is not given to know with how much intimate conviction Julian had adhered to the Christian religion that he professed, as it says, until the age of twenty years, and it is unknown if he ever received the baptism.
In 347 the two young half-brothers received a brief visit from Constantius: probably the emperor was favorably impressed by their behavior, because at the end of the year he called Gallus back to court and, shortly after, Julian too. In Constantinople he was entrusted again to Mardonius and began the superior studies under the pagan grammarian Nicocles of Sparta, cultured Hellenist who interpreted allegorically the Homeric poems, which gave him, in addition to lessons in metrics, semantics and literary criticism, also teachings of history, geography and mythology.
Nicocles will be with Julian at the court of Antioch and, always faithful to himself and to the emperor, he will carry at his own risk the mourning for his death, unlike the other master of rhetoric Ecebolius, a Christian who became a pagan to please him, except to return to Christianity after the death of Julian. Perhaps Julian was thinking about him writing that some rhetoricians, “when they have nothing to say and nothing to draw from their own matter, continue to bring up Delos and Latona with her children and then the swans with their shrill song echoing among the trees and the dewy meadows full of tall grasses When did Isocrates ever use them in his panegyrics? When did the other authors of antiquity who, unlike those of today, were sincerely devoted to the Muses?”.
Giuliano, at the age of twenty, was “of medium height, with straight hair, a shaggy pointed beard, with beautiful flashing eyes, a sign of lively intelligence, well marked eyebrows, a straight nose and a rather large mouth, with a pendulous lower lip, a thick curved neck, broad shoulders, well built from head to toe, so as to be excellent in running”. He was an extrovert, with simple manners and was happy to be approached, without showing the haughtiness and detachment common to the characters of high rank.
It was perhaps for fear that Julian would become too popular in Constantinople that Constantius, in 351, removed him from the court and sent him to study in Nicomedia, with the prohibition, expressed by the teacher Ecebolius, to attend the lessons of his rival Libanius, the famous pagan rhetorician, of whom Julian obtained the notes of the lessons and became, as his youthful orations show, an open imitator, and maintaining a clear trace of his style even in his more mature writings. The rival rhetoricians Proeresius, Acacius of Caesarea and Tuscianus of Phrygia did not hesitate to reproach Julian for his predilection for the archaizing atticism of a master who pretended to ignore the research of modern rhetoric.
At the completion of his cultural education was still missing the study of philosophy: among the philosophical schools in vogue at the time there was the Neoplatonic philosophy, inaugurated by Plotinus and continued with different results by his direct students Porphyry and Jamblico. All reality is conceived as an emanation of the absolute divine entity, the One: the supreme task of man is to try to go back to that unity, reaching the mystical assimilation with the divine. However, there are different ways to achieve absolute knowledge, according to different philosophical schools: through the rationality of thought, or through contemplation or even using, as the school inaugurated by Jamblico, divination and magical practices.
Giamblico, following in this Giuliano the Theurgist on which he had written commentaries, had introduced in the neoplatonic philosophy a theurgy founded on the ancient theology of the Oracoli caldaici, diffused in the II century from Giuliano the Caldeo and from the son Giuliano the Theurgist, a spiritual discipline in which it was essential the recourse to actions, to words and ritual sounds, from the magical power to evoke gods and demons, to purify the soul of the mýstes, allowing him finally to unite to the divinity. However, the mantic is not a science or an art that anyone can learn: it is a gift reserved for a select few.
Looking for a man who had such sapiential gifts, Julian was directed from Nicomedia to Pergamum, where there was the neoplatonic school held by the successor of Jamblichus, the old Aedesius of Cappadocia, who, in turn, advised him to attend the lessons of two of his students, Eusebius of Mindo and Crisantius of Sardis. From the lessons of Eusebius he learned of the existence of a theurgist named Maximus, apparently capable of amazing wonders.
Convinced of having finally found the man he was looking for, in 351 Julian went to Ephesus to meet him and from him he was first instructed, together with Crisantius, in the Jambican theurgy. As Libanius writes, from them Julian “heard about the gods and the demons, about the beings who, in truth, created this universe and keep it alive, he learned what the soul is, where it comes from, where it goes, what makes it fall and what raises it, what depresses it and what exalts it, what imprisonment and freedom are for it, how it can avoid one and reach the other. Then he rejected the nonsense he had believed until then in order to install in his soul the splendor of truth.” and was finally initiated into the mysteries of Mithras.
The initiation rite constituted an emotionally very intense experience, of which it is only possible to imagine the scenography: “the darkness crossed by sudden flashes of light, long silences broken by murmurs, voices, cries, and then the din of music cadenced by a repetitive rhythm, scents of incense and other fragrances, objects animated by magic formulas, doors that open and close by themselves, statues that come to life and lots of torchlight”.
This was the first of the seven degrees of the initiatory path to the mysteries, whose purpose was the search for spiritual and moral perfection, to be carried out according to a planetary ascent that was to lead the purified soul of the initiate up to the sphere of the fixed stars, the “divine kingdom placed beyond time and space that condition with their laws the cosmic and human sphere. Having reached the final stage of apogenesis, now free from the cycle of death and rebirth – or, in Mithraic terms, completely saved – the pater
One day, Julian will want Maximus with him, electing him as his spiritual guide. With the initiation to the mysteries of the unconquered Sun, he realized an aspiration he had been tending to since he was a child: “since I was a child, an immense love for the rays of the god was inherent in me, and I addressed my thoughts to the ethereal light so much that, not tired of always looking at the Sun, if I went out at night with a pure and cloudless sky, immediately, forgetting everything, I turned to the celestial beauties and at the same time he believed to catch, of his own existence, the necessity that made it an essential part of the whole: “whoever does not know how to transform, inspired by divine frenzy, the plurality of this life into the unitary essence of Dionysus runs the risk of seeing his own life flow away in multiple directions, and with that fray and vanish will be forever deprived of the knowledge of the gods that I judge more precious than the dominion of the whole world”.
Meanwhile, in 350, new political and military scenarios had appeared in the West: the commander of the imperial guard Magnentius had ousted and killed the emperor Constant. In order to react to this unexpected threat, Constantius considered it necessary to appeal to his closest relatives: on March 15, 351, he appointed Gallus as Caesar, marrying him off to his sister Constantia, as a seal on an alliance, albeit a precarious one, and entrusting him with the control of the eastern territories of the Empire. He then set out to face the usurper Magnentius in a difficult but ultimately victorious war.
Gallus, on his way to Antioch, stopped in Nicomedia, where in the meantime Julian had returned, and became suspicious of his half-brother”s new philosophical and religious suggestions: to have clearer information about this circumstance, he sent immediately afterwards to Julian the Arian Aetius, founder of the sect of the Anomeans, and therefore supporter of the only human nature of Christ, so that he could tell him about his behavior. Julian, even if he wanted to hide his spiritual turn by pretending to be a practicing Christian – so much so that he was appointed reader of the church of Nicomedia – had an amiable understanding with this intelligent theologian who, even if he probably understood the secret convictions of the young prince, sent to Gallus reassuring reports about Julian, who, once emperor, hosted him several times at court.
Moreover, it was very difficult, beyond any precaution, not to be aware of the opinions of Julian who in that period entertained in the house of Nicomedia and in the nearby villa inherited from his grandmother a numerous company of “friends of the Muses and of the other gods” in long conversations cheered by the wine of his vineyard. From Julian”s letters we know some of the names of his guests: Libanius, the rhetorician Evagrius, a friend of Maximus, Seleucus, who became high priest and wrote two books about his Parthian campaign, the writer Alipius and “the wonderful Arete”, a disciple of Giamblico, who perhaps initiated Julian to the Phrygian mysteries. In those banquets they did not fail to formulate projects in the not impossible case that one day Julian would rise to the throne of the Empire: “he aspired to give the people their lost perspective and especially the cult of the gods. What moved his heart the most were the ruined temples, the forbidden ceremonies, the overturned altars, the suppressed sacrifices, the exiled priests, the riches of the sanctuaries distributed to miserable people”.
These hopes seemed to have an abrupt and definitive end. Constantius II, informed of the criminal excesses to which Gallus and his wife Constantine were indulging in Antioch, invited the couple to Mediolanum (Milan) in the fall of 354. While Constantine, suffering from fever, died in Bithynia during the trip, Gallus, when he arrived in Noricum, in Petovio – the current Ptuj – was dragged to Fianona, near Pula, and beheaded in the prison where Crispus had already been killed by his father Constantine. As for Constantine, she was awaited by a curious posthumous destiny: this “singular heroine, who made flow, she alone, more human blood than many ferocious beasts would have shed”, was sanctified as a “virgin” and her remains were deposited in a famous Roman mausoleum named after her, where her sister Helen, wife of Julian, was also buried.
Julian, writing afterwards on those facts, attenuated the responsibilities of Gallus in the events of which he would have been responsible, considering that his brother had been provoked and not considering him worthy of the death sentence; he also points out as he had not even been allowed to defend himself in a regular process and emphasizes the nefarious influence of the officials of the court of Costanzo, the praepositus sacri cubiculi Eusebio, first of all, the tribunus scutariorum Scudilone, the comes domesticorum Barbazione, the agens in rebus Apodemio and the notarius Pentadio.
Immediately after the execution of Gallus, Julian was summoned to Mediolanum. One can imagine with what spirit he undertook the journey, during which he wanted to visit a place dear to his imagination, the Ilio sung by Homer, where Pegasio, a bishop who called himself Christian but who secretly “adored the Sun”, favored the cult of Hector, whose bronze statue “shone, all shiny with oil” and accompanied Julian to visit the temple of Athena and the presumed tomb of Achilles.
From Anatolia he embarked for Italy: arrived in Mediolanum, he was imprisoned and, without being able to obtain an audience with the emperor, he was accused of having plotted with Gallus to the detriment of Constantius and even to have, as an adolescent, left Macellum without permission. The inconsistency of the accusations, the intercession of the influential rhetor Themistius and the intervention of the generous and cultured empress Eusebia put an end after six months to the imprisonment of Julian, to whom was imposed to reside in Athens, where he arrived in the summer of 355. No “imposition” could have gratified him more: it was “as if Alcinoo, having to punish a guilty Phaeacius, had put him in prison in his gardens”.
The great city, although stripped during the centuries of most of its masterpieces of art and deprived of the extraordinary characters that had made it the intellectual capital of the Western world, nevertheless maintained intact the suggestion that derived from its memories and remained a center of culture favored by the many students who attended its schools. Much success had the teaching of rhetoric, already held by Julian the Sophist, and now by his old pupil, the Armenian Christian Proeresius, prodigious orator who had for rival the pagan Imerio, settled in Athens from the original Prusia, and initiated together with his son to the Eleusinian mysteries.
As already in Ephesus Massimo had advised him, Julian in September went to Eleusi, where in the temple of Demeter and Persefone, completed the purifications of ritual and crowned with myrtle, participated in the symbolic meal, drank the ciceone and met the famous hierophant who explained the complicated symbolism of the ceremony and introduced him to the mysteries. He then visited the Peloponnese, saying that he was convinced that philosophy had not abandoned “neither Athens, nor Sparta, nor Corinth and its sources wet the thirsty Argos.
In Athens he frequented above all the neo-Platonic philosopher Priscus, the student of Aedesius, who invited him in his house and introduced him to his family: as emperor, Julian wanted him with him and Priscus, who will be present with Maximus at his deathbed, consoling his extreme hour, “reached the extreme old age, disappeared together with the Greek temples”.
He also met, but only in passing, the Christians Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nazianzus, who left a poisonous portrait of Julian: “I did not foresee anything good by seeing his neck always in movement, his shoulders jolting like the plates of a scale, his eyes with an exalted look, his uncertain gait, his insolent nose, his coarse and convulsive laughter, the movements of his head without reason, his hesitant speech, the questions asked without order or intelligence and the answers that overlapped each other like those of a man without culture.” But if we do not take into account, in this portrait, the intentional caricature, it remains simply the common image of a shy man, awkward when he feels observed and who gets excited and blushes when he has to speak in public.
Already in the autumn of that 355 he received unexpected orders to present himself again in Mediolanum. It is understandable that the command of a capricious and suspicious tyrant like Constantius must have upset him deeply: “What torrents of tears I have shed” – he wrote to the Athenians – “what groans, my hands raised towards the Acropolis of your city, invoking Athena The goddess herself knows better than anyone that in Athens I asked her to die rather than return to court. But she has not betrayed her supplicant nor forsaken him She has guided me everywhere, and everywhere she has sent me the guardian angels of Helios and Selene.”
While in October Julian was sailing towards Italy, Constantius II got rid of general Claudius Silvanus, commander of the legions stationed in Gaul, the sixth usurper of his kingdom, by deception and murder. But the problems with the fearful Germanic tribes, in that border region, had worsened: Franks and Alemanni overcame the frontiers conquering the Roman strongholds, while to east the Quadi entered in Pannonia and in East the Sasanids pressed on Armenia, and once again Julian was made to wait at the doors of Mediolanum, almost that the court was deciding in those days of his destiny.
In a night spent in the anguished uncertainty of a fate that he feared marked, he appealed to the gods, who in his thoughts spoke to him, reproaching him: “You who consider yourself an estimable man, a wise man and a righteous, do you want to escape the will of the gods, do not allow them to dispose of you at their pleasure? Where is your courage? What do you do with it? It is to be laughed at: here you are ready to grovel and flatter for fear of death, while it is your faculty to throw everything behind you and let the gods do as they please, entrusting to them the care of taking care of you, just as Socrates suggests: to do, as far as possible, what depends on you, and all the rest leave it to them; do not try to obtain anything but receive with simplicity what they give you.”
And Julian attributed to his abandonment to the divine will the decision that the court took in his regard. On Eusebia”s advice, Julian was granted the purple of Caesar that Constantius dressed him on November 6, 355 in Mediolanum in front of the lined up troops: “A just admiration welcomed the young Caesar, radiant with splendor in the imperial purple. One could not cease to contemplate those eyes that were terrible and fascinating at the same time and that physiognomy to which emotion gave grace”. Then he took his place on the chariot of Costanzo to return to the palace, murmuring, in the memory of the destiny of Gallus, the verse of Homer: “Prey of the purple death and of the inflexible destiny”.
As long as he remained at court, although Caesar, his condition as a guard did not change: “locks and guards at the doors, examine the hands of the servants so that no one would hand me notes from friends, foreign servants!”. However, he also had four trusted servants at his disposal, including the doctor Oribasius and the secretary Evemero, “the only one who was aware of my faith in the gods and secretly practiced it with me,” who also took care of the library given to Julian by the empress Eusebia. Almost nothing is known of the African Evemero, while Oribasio was always to his side and kept a diary used then by the historian Eunapio. Equally little is known of Helen, the sister of Costanzo that these gave in bride in those days to Julian: she passed like a shadow in the life of her husband, that of her it practically never speaks. She had a stillborn child and at least one miscarriage: Christian, she died in Vienne in 360 and was buried in Rome, next to her sister Costantina.
On December 1, 355, Julian, with an escort of 360 soldiers, left for Gaul. He had not had a specific military preparation: he tried to acquire at least a theoretical experience through the reading of Caesar”s Commentaries – also a way to refine his not high knowledge of Latin – and of Plutarch”s Parallel Lives. His powers were strangely limited: the military command would be exercised by Marcellus, while the prefecture was Florentius and the questura was exercised by Salustius, who would be accountable only to Constantius. It is clear that the emperor continued to distrust his cousin and had taken away as many powers as possible in fear of his usurpation. The procession passed through Turin, crossed the Alps through the Monginevro pass, arrived in Briançon and finally reached Vienne, where Julian established his residence.
After the winter, in June 356, he marched to Autun, then to Auxerre and Troyes, where he dispersed a group of barbarians and from here he joined Reims with the army of Marcellus. Suffered a defeat from the Alamanni, it recovers chasing them up to Cologne, which was abandoned by the enemy. Since winter had come, he retired to the entrenched camp of Sens, where he had to endure a siege without Marcello bringing him help. Denounced the behavior of that magister militum to the emperor, Costanzo II removed Marcello from the assignment, replacing him with Severo and finally entrusting the command of the whole army of Gallia to Giuliano.
The following summer decided an attack beyond the frontier of the Rhine, predisposing a plan of bypass of the enemy to realize with the aid of the 30.000 men arrived from Italy to the command of the general Barbazione, but the plan failed for the hard defeat suffered from these, as a result of which the general left the army returning to Mediolanum. The Alamanni, commanded by Cnodomarios, tried to take advantage of the favorable moment attacking Julian near Strasbourg: after that Julian in person reorganized and brought back in battle the Roman heavy cavalry in rout, the Alemanni, superior in number, tried to break through the center of the Roman line-up, that resisted with difficulty: then, the disciplined Roman infantry recovered and won the battle, putting in escape the Alamanni beyond the Rhine. The commander Cnodomario, made prisoner, was sent to the Milanese court as a war trophy: he died a few years later, prisoner in Rome, in an imperial house on the Celio hill.
Julian took advantage of the victory of Strasbourg, overcoming the Rhine and devastating the enemy territory, up to reoccupy the ancient Roman garrisons that had fallen for years in enemy hands. Then he concluded a truce, obtained the restitution of prisoners and turned against the Frankish tribes that in the meantime raided the territories of northern Gaul, forcing them to surrender after a long siege in two fortifications near the Meuse. Finally, the Romans could retire, in late winter, in the camps established in Lutetia Parisiorum, the current Paris.
This is how Julian describes it: “The Celts call this town the Parisii. It is not a large island, located on the river, and a wall surrounds it all around, wooden bridges allow passage on both sides, and the river rarely falls or swells, in general it remains the same in summer and winter, offering a very sweet and pure water to those who want to see it or drink it. Precisely because it is an island, from there especially the inhabitants must draw water near them grows a good vine, there are also some fig trees that have arranged protecting them in winter While on the right bank stretched a forest, in addition to the island on the Seine, the left bank of the river was also inhabited and there were houses, an amphitheater and the camp of the troops.
In the following spring of the 358 Julian resumed the hostilities against the Salian Franks, in the Toxandria – the actual Flanders – to which he imposed the status of auxiliaries and, exceeded the Meuse, rejected the Camavi Franks beyond the Rhine. When it came to march again against the Alamanni, the army refused to obey, protesting for the non-payment of wages. In reality, Julian had few resources: he succeeded to sedate the protests and to overcome the Rhine, recovering Roman prisoners and requisitioning the material – iron and lumber – to rebuild the old destroyed garrisons. A fleet, in part reconstructed and in part coming from Britannia, allowed the supplies going up from the sea of the North the two greater rivers of the Meuse and the Rhine.
The following year he continued the work of defending the borders and crossed for the third time the Rhine to obtain the submission of the last Alemannic tribes: his historian writes that Julian “after he had left the western provinces and for all the time that he remained alive, all the people remained quiet, as if they had been pacified by the caduceus of Mercury”.
The historians of the time agree in giving of Gaul, before the arrival of Julian, an image of desolation, due both to the frequent raids of the barbarians, that the Roman defenses did not succeed to contrast, provoking so the abandonment of the territories next to the oriental frontiers, and to the exasperation of the fiscal impositions, that affected the whole nation, and to the general crisis of the economic system of slavery, worsened since the III century, that involved all the Roman world and in particular the Western Empire.
The large landowners and wealthy citizens abandoned the cities, leaving the artisan and commercial activities to decay, preferring the safer residences of the province and investing in the latifundium that was enlarged to the detriment of small property. The lesser wealth produced by the provinces made intolerable the taxation that was fixed by the state by decree for fifteen years – the indictio – and the lower income caused the imposition of a new taxation, the superindictio.
This land tax, the capitatio, was fixed per capita, i.e. per family unit and amounted in those years to 25 solids, and was often evaded by large owners, who could ensure impunity or, at most, enjoy in time of favorable amnesties.
In 358 the prefect Florentius, of forehead to the smaller receipts perceived regarding the previewed revenue, imposed an additional tax to which Julian opposed, declaring that he would have “died rather than to give its consent to such measure”. After recalculating the necessary revenues, Julian demonstrated that the taxes collected were sufficient for the needs of the province and opposed, on the one hand, the prosecution of taxpayers in Belgian Gaul, particularly affected by the invasions, and on the other hand, the granting of amnesty to the rich tax evaders of the other provinces.
According to Ammiano, Julian reduced by two thirds the capitatio: when Julian arrived in Gaul “the testatum and the land tax burdened each one in the measure of twenty-five gold pieces; when he left, seven pieces were more than enough to satisfy the exigency of the treasury. For this reason, as if the sun had begun to shine again, after a dreary period of darkness, there was dancing and great joy.”
He also dealt with the administration of justice, presiding over the appeal processes according to the ancient imperial tradition, and showing the scruples necessary for the plaintiffs to provide evidence of their accusations: in fact, “who will be innocent if it is enough to accuse?”, he replied to the exclamation “who will be guilty if it is enough to deny?” said by the accuser and sending the official Numerian acquitted. In 359, however, did not want to favor the prefect Florentius in a trial involving him, leaving the case to his friend and adviser, the quaestor Salustius, that the imperial court ended up to dismiss at the instigation of the same Florentius.
Salustio”s departure was a hard blow for Julian: “What devoted friend is left for the future? Where will I find such frank simplicity? Who will invite me to prudence with good advice and affectionate rebukes, or will incite me to do good without arrogance, or will know how to speak to me frankly after putting aside all rancor?”
The one for his friend Salustio is the fourth of the panegyrics composed by Julian. The other three were composed, always in Gaul, one for the empress Eusebia and two for Constantius. To Eusebia he had expressed in 356 his own gratitude for the protection that she had granted him and for the interest shown for what he loved: the possibility to settle in Athens, the philosophical studies, the books received in gift.
If the oration for Eusebia is sincere, the two orations dedicated to Costanzo can certainly not be considered so, but they are equally interesting. In the first, composed at the same time as the one for Eusebia, he portrays Constantius as “a citizen subject to the law, not a monarch above it”: a blanketly ironic statement that not only does not correspond to reality, but expresses a conception opposite to that set forth by Constantius himself, who in his Letter to the Senate had theorized about a society without laws – which he considered to be expressions of the perversion of human nature – the figure of the emperor, the incarnation of divine law, being sufficient to regulate the civil human assembly according to justice.
The second panegyric for Constantius was composed shortly after the victory of Strasbourg, which Constantius had attributed to his own merit: in fact, the oration opens by mentioning the Homeric episode of the clash between Achilles and the supreme leader Agamemnon who, “instead of treating his generals with tact and moderation, had resorted to threats and insolence, when he had taken away from Achilles the reward of his valor”. On the other hand, Julian admonishes himself and at the same time assures Constantius of his loyalty when he recalls that “Homer admonishes generals not to react to the insolence of kings and invites them to bear their criticism with self-control and serenity.”
In the panegyric, the question of the legitimacy of the sovereign is also addressed, which Julian expresses in an apparently contradictory way. On the one hand, in fact, the legitimacy of royal power derives from dynastic descent: if in fact Zeus and Hermes had legitimized the Pelopids who had reigned over a part of small Greece for only three generations, all the more reason why the descendants of Claudius the Gothic – among whom Julian included himself – who had reigned over the whole world for four generations, must be considered legitimate sovereigns.
On the other hand, however, the law is born of Dike and is therefore “sacred and fully divine fruit of the most powerful of deities”, while the king is not the “incarnation of the law”, but only the guardian of the divine word. Therefore, since the ruler is not the incarnation of the law, i.e. of virtue, the legitimacy of sovereignty does not have its source in birth, which cannot in itself guarantee the virtue of the sovereign: he “should keep his gaze fixed on the king of the gods, whose servant and prophet he is”. The good sovereign has three basic tasks to perform: to administer justice, to ensure the welfare of the people and to defend them from external aggression.
The panegyric also contains an open profession of faith, which also sounds like a threat: “Often men have stolen Helium”s votive offerings and destroyed his temples: some have been punished, others have been left to themselves because they were deemed undeserving of the punishment that leads to repentance.” According to Julian, the popular religion is right to sustain the real existence of the divinities, but the wise man does better, neoplatonically, to consider the divinities symbolic expressions of spiritual realities and truths. Julian concludes by inviting Costanzo not to give in to arrogance and not to give credit to the calumnies of the advisors: “Terrible thing is calumny! It devours the heart and wounds the soul, more than iron can wound flesh!”
In January of 360 Constantius II, to face the pressure of the Persians in the eastern frontiers, sent in Gaul the tribune and notarius Decentius to ask not directly to Julian, but to the general Lupicinus the auxiliary troops fighting under the Roman insignia composed by Celts, Eruli, Petulanti and Batavi, and to the tribunus stabuli Sintula part of the personal guard of Julian, to employ them against the constant Persian threat. More than half of the army of Gaul would thus have been put at the disposal of Constantius.
Because of the absence of Lupicinus, engaged in Britannia, Julian had to deal with Decentius. Even though he had promised that those troops would not be employed in other regions of the Empire, apparently Julian collaborated with Decentius: the chosen troops would be concentrated in Lutetia before leaving for the East. The reaction of the soldiers and their families was not long in coming: “the population believed to be on the eve of a new invasion and the rebirth of the evils that had been extirpated with great effort. The mothers who had given children to the soldiers showed them the newborns who were still breastfeeding and begged them not to abandon them”.
Greeted the army gathered in Campo di Marte, Julian then entertained with the commanders for the farewell banquet. That night, great clamors rose up to the windows of the palace where Julian still lived with his wife Helen: “while the cries became louder and louder and the whole palace was in turmoil, I asked the god to show me a sign, and he immediately satisfied me and ordered me to surrender and not to oppose the will of the army”. The sign sent him by Zeus would have appeared that same night, during the sleep, in the form of the Genius Publicus, the Genius of the Empire: “For a long time I observe the threshold of your house, eager to increase your dignity. Many times I have felt rejected and turned away. If you drive me away again, I will leave forever.” From the story of Ammiano Marcellino it seems that the rebellion was imposed to Julian by the soldiers, but according to Eunapio the things went differently: “Sent in Gaul with the title of Caesar not so much to reign there as to find death under the purple, plotting against him a thousand intrigues and a thousand plots, Julian had the hierophant of Eleusi come from Greece and, after having celebrated with him certain rites, he felt encouraged to overthrow the tyranny of Constantius. He had as confidants in this enterprise Oribasius of Pergamum and a certain Evemero”, and he used six other conspirators to incite the revolt of the soldiers.
The morning after, hoisted on the shields – a barbaric ritual – and with the torc (decorative collar) of an insignia-bearer on the head to act as imperial diadem, he was brought in triumph by the soldiers, to each of whom he promised the usual donation of five solids and a pound of silver. While Florentius, Decentius and the men remained faithful to Constantius left Gaul, Julian began to negotiate with the emperor. In a letter sent to Costanzo, signing himself Caesar, he made a report of the events, remarking that he had not had any part in the uprising, that it had been provoked by the request of transfer of the troops: he promised equally collaboration for the Parthian war, offering a limited military contingent and asked that he was recognized full autonomy in the government of the Gaul; he would have also written him a second letter, accusing him openly to be the responsible of the massacre of his relatives.
Constantius rejected every agreement, ordering him not to exceed his prerogatives and, at the same time, incited Vadomarius, king of the Alemanni, to invade Gaul: according to Julian, Costanzo “raises us against the barbarians; he proclaims me near them his open enemy; he disburses money so that the Gallic nation is destroyed; writing to his own in Italy he orders to watch against who comes from Gaul; on the frontiers, in various cities, he makes to collect three million medimmi of wheat he sends me a certain Epitteto, a Gallic bishop, to give me assurances on my personal safety”.
Julian, after having conducted a surprise attack against the Actuarians Franks in order to make the Rhenish frontier more secure, went up the river to Basel and settled in Vienne, where on November 6 he celebrated the fifth anniversary of his election as Caesar. At the same time he had the mint of Arles mint a gold coin with his effigy and the imperial eagle: on the back was a tribute to the “virtue of the army of Gaul”. In those days meanwhile died his wife Elena – following a few months the disappearance of the Empress Eusebia – so that now the two rivals had nothing in common. Issued an edict of tolerance for all the cults, Julian still maintained a fake devotion for the Christian confession, praying publicly in church on the occasion of the Epiphany feast.
In the spring of 361 Julian had Vidomarius arrested and deported to Spain: believing that he had secured Gaul, he drew the auspices for the decisive adventure against Constantius, which were favorable to him, so that in July he began the advance towards Pannonia. He divided the troops in three parts, putting himself at the head of a force, small but extremely mobile, of about 3.000 men, that crossed the Black Forest, while the general Jovian crossed the northern Italy and Nevitta crossed the Rezia and the Norico. Without meeting resistance, Julian and his troops embarked on the Danube and on October 10 landed in Bononia, from where they reached Sirmio, one of the residences of the court, which surrendered without a fight.
The garrison of Sirmio was sent in Gallia but it rebelled, stopping itself to Aquileia, that was besieged by the forces of Gioviano. Julian continued, together with the army of Nevitta, for Naisso, in Illyria, the city of birth of Constantine, and from here in Thrace: left to the general Nevitta the task to garrison the strategic pass of Succi (Succorum angustia) near the Emo mountain, returned to Naisso, establishing there the winter quarters. From here he sent messages to Athens, to Sparta, to Corinth, to Rome, explaining, from his point of view, the events that had provoked the conflict. The message to Rome, then afflicted by a famine against which Julian took measures, was not welcomed by the Senate, scandalized by the irreverence shown by Julian against Constantius. The message to the Athenians, the only one preserved in its entirety, concludes wishing an agreement with which Julian would consider himself “paid for what I currently own”; if instead Costanzo would decide, as it seems, for the war, “I will also know how to operate and suffer”.
There was no need of it: in Naisso he was reached, towards the half of November, by a delegation of the army of the East that announced him the death of Constantius, happened on November 3 in Mopsucrene, in Cilicia, and the submission of the eastern provinces. It is said, without certainty, that in extremis Constantius had designated Julian his successor; Julian addressed letters to Maximus, to his secretary Euterio and to his uncle Julius Julian, to whom he wrote that “Helios, to whom I turned for help before any other god, and the supreme Zeus are my witnesses: I have never wished to kill Constantius, on the contrary, I have wished the opposite. Why then did I come? Because the gods commanded me to, promising me salvation if I obeyed, the worst misfortune if I did not.”
With the conviction of being the bearer of the mission of restorer of the Empire assigned to him by Helios-Mithra, he immediately left for Constantinople: as soon as he arrived in the capital, on December 11, he ordered the erection of a mithraeum in the interior of the imperial palace, giving thanks to the god who would be from this moment on the inspirer of all his actions. At the end of the year, he proclaimed general tolerance towards all religions and all cults: pagan temples were reopened and sacrifices were celebrated, while Christian bishops who had been driven from their cities by the mutual disputes between the Orthodox and the Arians returned from exile. Even if religious tolerance was in accordance with the demands of his spirit, it is probable that with regard to Christianity Julian had calculated that “tolerance favored disputes between Christians. Experience had taught him that there are no beasts more dangerous to men than Christians are to their co-religionists.
Warmly welcomed by the capital of the Empire, Julian paid homage to the corpse of Constantius, accompanying it to its final resting place in the Basilica of the Holy Apostles. He fulfilled in this way the formal act of an apparently legitimate succession so much so that he now allowed himself to call his predecessor “brother”, elevated by the Senate to the apotheosis, wishing that “the earth would be light” to the “most blessed Constantius”.
He used deference to the Senate of Constantinople, having it ratify his election, granting tax exemptions to its members, appearing at their assemblies, and refusing the title of Dominus, while with his own friends he maintained traditional comradeship.
Merciful towards the deceased emperor, Julian was however inflexible towards the “black souls” of his advisors. After the investigation conducted by the magister equitum Arbizione, a tribunal gathered in Chalcedon and presided by Salustio condemned to capital punishment the chamberlain Eusebio, the informers Paolo Catena and Apodemio – the latter two were burned alive – the comes largitionum Ursulo, the ex-prefect of Gaul Florentius, who however managed to escape, and the officials Gaudentius and Artemius, while Taurus got off with exile in Vercelli and Pentadio was acquitted.
At the same time, he reduced the court staff to the bare essentials: drastically reduced the notarii, the bureaucratic staff, removed eunuchs, confidants and spies – the agentes in rebus and the so-called curious – to the chancery he called Maximus” brother, Nymphoidanus, and his collaborators were Salustius, Euterius, Oribasius, Anatolius, Mamertinus and Memorius. In addition to his spiritual guides Maximus and Priscus, he entertained or invited to court his old masters Mardonius, Nicocles and Ecebolius, his uncle Julius Julian, the Christians Caesarius, physician and brother of Gregory of Nazianzus, Aetius and Proeresius. His military lieutenants were the magistri equitum Jovianus, Nevitta and Arbition, and the magister peditum Agilon, an Alemannic.
The thinning of the central bureaucracy went in the direction of a decentralization of the administrative machine and a revitalization of municipal functions. Already the highest expression of classical Greek civilization, the polis had continued to enjoy, even in the Hellenistic kingdoms and then in the Roman Empire, administrative autonomy through the curiae, their municipal councils, which had also ensured the development of social and cultural activities of local populations. From the third century, however, the economic crisis, inflation, tax increases and the tendency to centralize central power, with the progressive growth of the bureaucratic staff of the state and the avocation to it of local prerogatives, had caused a slow decline of urban centers.
The administrative councils of the municipalities were made up of noble citizens, the curiales or decurions, who had to deal with finances, distributing the land tax and ensuring its collection with their personal property, construction, with the maintenance of roads, the recruitment of soldiers and the provision of food and military housing, post stations, worship, civil status and criminal jurisdiction of the city, with the task of providing for the arrest and detention of offenders.
The decurions preferred to escape from these obligations, the more affluent ones getting a job in the high state bureaucracy, in the Senate and in the court, the less favored ones in the low administration and in the army and both, since the fourth century, in the ranks of the Church in which they were guaranteed exemptions and privileges – so much so that Constantine himself had to take measures to put a stop to the exodus of curiales in the ecclesiastical ranks – others still selling their property and making customers of landowners, or even emigrating among the “barbarians”.
In front of the depopulation of the curie, Julian inserted in the curial rolls the noble citizens also for maternal descent and the enriched plebeians, lowering at the same time the burdens on the curie. On March 13, 362 were published six laws which established the restitution of land confiscated from municipalities in favor of the State and the Church together with compensation for the damage suffered, were exempted from the curiales not traders from the tribute in precious metal – the collatio lustralis – were invited Christian priests and other citizens who had joined corporations to avoid civic obligations to return to the curiae, under penalty of a heavy fine, and were entrusted to the decurions, removing them from the senators, the collection of taxes. In April Giuliano made optional the aurum coronarium, a tax that weighed on the decurions, establishing the maximum in 70 gold staters, cancelled the back taxes, with the exception of the collatio lustralis, and transferred the care of the stations of mail and the cost of the maintenance of the roads – the de itinere muniendo – from the municipalities to the possessores.
He tried to fight the corruption of numerarii, the accountants of the municipal administrations, and the system of suffragium, the practice of buying public offices from influential people, the so-called suffragatores: but that this practice was so rooted and widespread as to be almost impossible to eradicate is demonstrated by the fact that Julian had to limit himself to decree that those who had paid money without obtaining the requested favor, could not claim the return of money or gifts provided. He also tried to shorten the judicial process of the processes, whose length was often a condition of illegal compromises, repealing the possibility of obtaining frequent postponements and decentralizing the same judicial apparatus.
On the whole, Julian led a deflationary economic policy, aimed at raising the conditions of humiliores, through the reduction of the prices of essential goods, trying at the same time not to displease the interests of the privileged classes – merchants and landowners – distributing the burdens of city administration among a greater number of possessores and reducing their taxes.
Julian and the myth of the heroes: towards the eastern campaign
In the classicism the historical figures that had accomplished great enterprises were assimilated from time to time to gods (theòi), heroes (héroes) or demigods (hemìtheoi), a product of the descent of the divinity on the earth, or epiphany, that Julian, resuming Plotinus and Giamblico, indicates as “pròodos”, the procession from the sky to the earth accomplished by Asclepius, generated by Zeus and manifested among the men for means of the vivifying energy of Elio.
Dionysus, Heracles and Achilles, as paradimatic figures and examples to imitate, had exerted a great appeal on Alexander the Great and Caesar, inspiring them to great undertakings. The first succeeded in carrying out the conquest of the Middle East, the second died while preparing the war against the Parthians. In both cases the enterprises were also the product of the will to realize a myth, to give concreteness to the epiphany and in the Alexandrian project Alexander-Achilles-Herakles-Dionysus are the different persons of a single nature: the divine one.
Themistius of Constantinople compared Julian to Dionysus and Heracles, and Julian wrote to him that “you have made my fear greater and you have shown me that the undertaking is in all things more difficult, saying that by the god I have been assigned to the same place where previously Heracles and Dionysus were, who were philosophers and at the same time reigned and cleansed almost all the land and the sea from the evil that infested them. Also Libanius compared Julian to Heracles, and for Ammianus Julian was “vir profecto heroicis connumerandus ingeniis”.
The same Julian in the oration Against the cynical Heraclius associates Mithras to Heracles, guided in his enterprises by Athena Pronoia, the savior of the world and therefore interprets his own mission, in imitation of that model, in a soteric key as mediator and “savior of the inhabited world”. Heracles and Attis, starting from a semi-divine condition, reach the perfect union with the divine and the soul of Heracles, once freed from the carnal envelope, returns intact in the totality of the Father. The war, interpreted in a soteriological key, assumes the aspect of a purifying mission of the earth and the sea entrusted by the gods to Heracles and Dionysus. In this context, the project of conquering Persia matures as an adaptation to a divine will already revealed and of which there is a trace in Virgil”s Aeneid, which interpreted the expansionism of Rome in this way.
At the approach of the summer solstice Julian, rejected the advices of who would have wanted that he dealt with the Goths, left Constantinople moving slowly in direction of Syria. It was from these frontiers that for centuries the greatest threat to the Empire loomed, that of the Persians, the enemies never defeated by the Romans, who two years before, under the command of Sapore II had put in flight the legions of Constantius II and conquered Singara and Bezabde. Only the news of the arrival of a new emperor on the shores of the Bosphorus, preceded by the fame of the victories obtained over the Germans, had been able to stop the ambitious King of Kings on the banks of the Euphrates, waiting perhaps to understand the actual value of that new opponent and favorable auspices that would push him to resume the advance.
For his part, Julian was convinced that the omens could not be more favorable to him: the theorist Maximus had interpreted oracles that designated him as the revived Alexander, destined to repeat his deeds of destroying the ancient Persian Empire, to reach as a ruler those lands from which came the cult of Mithras, his tutelary deity, to eliminate once and for all that historical threat, and to bear the title of “winner of the Persians”.
Julian crossed Chalcedon and stopped in Larissa, where the tomb of Hannibal could still be seen. Arrived in Nicomedia, he realized the destruction caused by the earthquake of the year before, tried to alleviate with donations the difficult conditions of its inhabitants and saw again some friends. He then went to Nicea and Ancyra, where a column still remembers his passage, and reached Pessinunte to pray to Cybele in her famous sanctuary. Here two Christians vilified the altars of the goddess and Julian abandoned the city, outraged by so much affront. He returned to Ancyra and from here to Tiana, in Cappadocia, where he wanted to meet the pagan philosopher Aristoxenes, after having expressly invited him so that he could finally see, as he wrote, “a pure Greek. Until now I have only seen people who refuse to make sacrifices or people who would have liked to offer them, but did not even know where to start.” He also met Celsus, his old fellow student and governor of Cilicia, with whom he continued on to Tarsus and from there reached Antioch.
Antioch festively welcomed Julian, who saw him again and wanted Libanius with him, celebrated the Adoniae festivities and, to please the Antiochesi, lovers of festivals and entertainment, ordered against his customs a show at the hippodrome, reduced taxes by one fifth, pardoned the unpaid arrears, added 200 curiales, chosen from among the wealthiest, in the city council, so that public expenses were better distributed and granted state land to private cultivation.
But the harmony between the austere emperor and the inhabitants of the frivolous city was destined to break down. His hostility to licentious shows, his devotion to the gods and frequent sacrifices could not be appreciated in a city with a Christian majority. Also the calming imposed to the prices of the food did not obtain the hoped results, because the decrease of the prices irritated the merchants and made to thin out the products in the markets, damaging all; to the scarcity of the grain, to whose price he imposed the decrease of a third, Julian provided at his expense with great imports from Egypt, but the speculators made hoard of it, reselling it out of the city at increased cost or leaving it in their deposits, waiting for an increase of its price.
Soon epigrams began to circulate that mocked his appearance, which appeared bizarrely neglected to be that of the most powerful and feared man, his unfashionable beard, shaggy hair, behavior not at all hieratic rather, strangely easygoing, “democratic”, austere habits, lack of sense of humor, a seriousness that appeared excessive in their eyes, his own pagan faith.
Moreover, Julian himself seemed to change during his stay in Antioch. According to Ammianus Marcellinus, he usually let his friends and advisers moderate his emotional character that dragged him to impulsiveness; with the beginning of the preparations of the Persian military campaign and the approach of the expedition, he increased the propitiatory rites to guarantee his success: “He flooded the altars with the blood of countless victims, coming to sacrifice up to one hundred oxen at a time, along with flocks and white birds from every part of the Empire causing a disbursement of money unusual and onerous anyone who declared himself, rightly or wrongly, an expert in divinatory practices, was admitted, without any respect for the prescribed rules, to consult the oracles was careful to the song and flight of birds and every other omen, and tried by any means to predict events.
Near the city, in a valley full of woods and water, stretched the suburb of Daphne, where there was a sanctuary dedicated to Apollo, represented by an ivory statue carved by Briasside, and lapped by the source Castalia, that the legend claimed to be talking. Closed by Constantius and gone to ruin, there was built a chapel where the remains of the bishop Babila had been buried. Julian, who even before arriving in Antioch had asked his uncle Julius Julian to restore the temple, when in August fell the anniversary of the feast of the god, went to Daphne and had the bitter surprise to see that the city council, formed mostly of Christians, had not prepared any celebration. Not even Julian”s votive questions were answered by the statue of the god or by the Castalia fountain, until the surgeon Eusebius thought he understood the reason: the presence of the bishop”s sepulchre was responsible for the silence of the gods. The remains of Babylon were thus exhumed, to the great scandal of the Christians, and buried in Antioch.
Shortly after, in the night of 22 October, the temple of Dafne was completely destroyed by a violent fire. The investigations aimed at discovering those responsible came to nothing, but Julian was convinced that it was the Christians who had destroyed the sanctuary and as a reaction he closed the cathedral of Antioch to worship.
The events that opposed Julian to the citizens of Antioch, or at least to the Christian notables of the city, are exposed by him in the writing Misopogon (The enemy of the beard), composed in January or February of 363. It is a writing that eludes a precise classification according to traditional literary canons. The autobiographical notes, in which he recalls the rigorous education he received as a child and the life of rough simplicity that made him appreciated by the barbarian populations during the period he spent in Gaul, are intended to emphasize the incompatibility of his person with a city like Antioch in which instead “one revels in the morning and revels at night.
This behavior is the expression and the result of freedom, a freedom that Julian does not intend to repress, because this would be in contrast with his own democratic principles: in contrast with Julian”s principles is the use that Antiochens make of freedom, which ignores the canons of classical balance and Hellenic wisdom, a freedom that denies “every servitude, first that of the gods, then that of the laws, and third, that of the guardians of the laws”.
The Antiochians saw in him a bizarre character, bearer of obsolete values and therefore an anachronistic sovereign, reacting to his initiatives, even those that intended to favor them, now with indifference, now with irony, now with contempt: “the majority, not to say the totality of the people, who profess disbelief in the gods and see me attached to the dictates of the religion of the homeland, have me in hatred, the rich, to whom I prevent to sell everything at a high price; all then, hate me because of the dancers and theaters, not because I deprive them of these delights, but because I care less about these delights than the frogs of the swamps”.
But Julian seems to believe that the behavior of the Antiochians is dictated solely by ingratitude and wickedness: his measures taken to alleviate the economic situation of the city seemed to want to “turn the world upside down, because with such a genius indulgence only encourages and increases the innate wickedness. And so, “of all evils I am the author, because I have placed benefits and favors in ungrateful souls. My stupidity is to blame, not your freedom.”
On March 5, 363 Julian started his campaign against the Sasanians, leaving with an army of 65,000 men from Antioch, abandoned in the hands of Adrastea: this time he was accompanied to the village of Litarba by a large crowd and by the Antiochian Senate, which tried in vain to obtain condescension from him. He appointed as governor of Syria a certain Alexander of Heliopolis, a hard and brutal man, because those “greedy and insolent people” did not deserve better. He rejected with contempt a letter from the Persian king Sapore, offering a peace treaty, and, greeting Libanius, headed for Hierapolis, crossed the Euphrates and reached Carre, of sad memory, where he offered sacrifices to the god Sin, worshipped there. It is said that here he secretly appointed his cousin as his successor, “the handsome, great and sad Procopius, with his figure always curved, his gaze always on the ground, whom no one has ever seen laughing.” That night, as if to reinforce the sad forebodings on the outcome of the war, in Rome burned the temple of Apollo Palatine, perhaps also burned the Books of the Cumaean Sibyl.
In Carre he divided the army: 30.000 men, under the command of Procopio and Sebastiano, were sent to north, in Armenia, to join to the king Arsace, to go down again for the Corduene, to devastate the Media and, coasting the Tigris, to rejoin then in Assiria with Giuliano that meanwhile, with his 35. 000 men, would have gone down to south along the Euphrates, where a great fleet under the command of Lucilliano sailed to sight bringing provisions, weapons, siege machines, barges.
On March 27, the day of the feast of the Mother of the gods, Julian was in Callinicum, on the Euphrates: he celebrated the rite and received the homage of the Saracens, who offered him the support of their celebrated cavalry. Crossed the Syrian desert, Julian reached Circesium, the last Roman outpost before the Sasanian kingdom, at the confluence of the Euphrates with the river Khabur. A letter of Salustio begged him in vain to suspend the enterprise: all the auspices were contrary. A porch, collapsed at the passage of the troops, had killed dozens of soldiers, a lightning bolt had incinerated a horseman, of ten bulls, led to the sacrifice, nine had died before reaching the altar of Mars.
Crossed the river Chabora, the invasion of the sasanide kingdom began: 1.500 guides preceded the vanguard and were disposed to the flanks of the army. To the right, Nevitta skirted the left bank of the Euphrates, in the center was the infantry of the veterans of Gaul commanded by Julian, to the left the cavalry commanded by Arinteo and Ormisda, the elder half-brother of Sapore passed to the Romans, to which the kingdom was promised; Vittore, the Germanic Dagalaifo and Secondino of Osroene held the rear guard.
Reached Zaitha on April 4, Julian paid homage to the mausoleum of the emperor Gordian, penetrated to Dura Europos, city abandoned for years, and easily obtained the surrender of the fort of Anatha, which was destroyed; in the town they found an old Roman soldier with his family, remained there since the time of the expedition of Maximian. Burned Diacira, evacuated by the inhabitants, entered Ozagardana and destroyed it. After a day of rest, the Romans spotted in the distance the Persian army that was attacked and forced to flee. Passed Macepracta, they arrived in front of Pirisabora, surrounded by irrigation canals, and began the siege that ended with the surrender, looting and burning of the city. To every soldier were distributed 100 silique: of forehead to the discontent of the army for a currency that maintained only the two thirds of its nominal value, Julian promised the riches of the Persian kingdom.
Overcome the fields flooded by the Persians in retreat, set fire to Birtha, the rams had reason of the fortifications of Maiozamalcha: penetrated through the breaches of the walls and through an underground gallery, the soldiers made slaughter of the inhabitants. The commander was held hostage and of the booty, Julian took for himself a mute boy “with a graceful and elegant expression”.
It was the first days of June: Julian visited the ruins of Seleucia. The Tigris was to few kilometers; while the fleet, through a channel of junction with the Euphrates, entered in the Tigris, the army overcame of impulse the great river on whose left shore the troops of Surena waited for him, decided to exploit the superior strategic position: but they were defeated, turned in escape, and forced to shelter between the walls of the capital Ctesiphon. In front of the imposing bastions of the city, the council of war was held and it was decided to renounce to the siege: the army of Sapore would have been able to surprise the Romans engaged in the siege, that they would have risked to be taken between two fires. It came true so another ancient oracle: “no Roman prince can go beyond Ctesiphon.
It would have been necessary that the forces of Procopio had arrived to join with those of Giuliano, but of Procopio there was no news. Julian, determined to catch up with him and, if possible, to surprise and face Sapore in a decisive pitched battle, turned to the north, after having set fire to most of the fleet with weapons and provisions, because the ships had difficulty in going up the river, and having incorporated his 20,000 soldiers to use them in the fighting on land. The march was made tormenting by heat, guerrilla warfare, thirst, and hunger, because the Persians burned crops in the lands the Romans crossed.
The 16 June finally appeared to the horizon the army of Sapore, that however it limited itself to follow from far away the troops of Giuliano, refusing the open combat and engaging only short raids of cavalry. The 21 June the Roman army stopped to Maranga for a standstill of three days. Julian employed as usual the free time from the military occupations reading and writing. The night of June 25 he seems to see in the darkness of his tent a figure: it is the Genius Publicus, the one who had appeared in the exciting night of Lutetia and had invited him not to miss the opportunity to take power. Now, however, his head is veiled in mourning, he looks at him without speaking, then turns and slowly fades away.
The morning after, in spite of the contrary opinion of the haruspices, he made to remove the tents to resume the retreat toward Samarra. During the march, near the village of Toummara, a fight broke out in the rearguard: Julian rushed in without wearing the armor, threw himself in the fray and a javelin hit him in the side. He immediately tried to extract it but fell from his horse and fainted. Brought to his tent, he revived, he thought he was better, he wanted his weapons but his strength did not respond to the will. He asked the name of the place: “it”s Frigia”, they answered him. Julian understood that all was lost: once he had dreamt of a blond man who had predicted his death in a place with that name.
The prefect Salustio rushed to his bedside: he informed him of the death of Anatolio, one of his dearest friends. Julian wept for the first time and the emotion took over all the bystanders. Julian recovered: “It is a humiliation for all of us to mourn for a prince whose soul will soon be in heaven to mingle with the fire of the stars”. That night he took stock of his life: “I must not regret or feel remorse for any action, both when I was an obscure man and when I had the care of the Empire. The gods paternally granted it to me, and I preserved it immaculate for the happiness and salvation of my subjects, equitable in conduct, and opposed to the license that corrupts things and customs.” Then, as it is worthy of a philosopher, he conversed with Prisco and Massimo about the nature of the soul. His spiritual guides reminded him of his destiny, fixed by the oracle of Helios:
Feeling suffocated, Julian asked for water: as soon as he had finished drinking, he lost consciousness. He was 32 years old and had reigned less than twenty months: with him, the last Greek hero died.
Salustio refused the succession and then the purple was granted to Jovian. This stipulated with Sapore the peace, with which the Romans yielded to the Persians five provinces and the strongholds of Singara and Nisibi. It was resumed the retreat during which they finally met the army of Procopio: this was charged to carry up to the doors of Tarsus the body that, according to the wishes of Julian, was buried in a mausoleum beside a small temple on the banks of the river Cidno. Opposite, stood the tomb of another emperor, Maximinus Daia. The following year, Jovian passed through Tarsus and had an inscription carved on the tombstone:
Some historians believe that the sarcophagus containing the remains of the emperor was later transported from Tarsus to Constantinople, or before the end of the fourth century, The sepulchral urn was placed in the church of the Holy Apostles, where at that time the emperors were buried. In the tenth century, the emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (912-959), in a book describing ceremonial procedures, to the catalog containing the list of the sepulchres of the distinguished deceased, includes that of Julian with commentary:
A porphyry sarcophagus preserved in the Archaeological Museum of the city is still identified with that of Julian; the displacement of Julian”s remains from the tomb of Tarsus is still a matter of debate among scholars.
“Letter to Themistius”
As soon as he had news that Julian was the new emperor Themistius, the rhetorician and philosopher of the court of Constantius, who had already benevolently interceded in his favor during the difficult years of the relationship between the two cousins, sent him a letter in which, not failing to offer him his services – perhaps in fear that the planned renewal of the offices of the court could compromise his career – reminded Julian that his subjects expected from him legislative works even greater than those accomplished by Solon, Pittacus and Lycurgus.
Of course Julian, in his answer, declares “to be aware of not having at all, neither of possessing by nature nor of having subsequently acquired, any eminent quality, except the love for philosophy”, from which he has learned, however, that it is fortune, the týche, and chance, the autómaton, that dominate individual life and political events. Quoting Plato, Julian believes that a sovereign must therefore avoid pride, the hýbris, trying to acquire the art, the téchne, of seizing the opportunity, the kairós, offered by fortune. An art that is such that it is proper to a demon rather than a man, and therefore we must obey “that part of the divine that is in us” when we administer “public and private things, our homes and cities, considering the law an application of Intelligence.”
Julian quotes Aristotle”s condemnation of government based on hereditary law and of despotism, in which a single citizen is “master of all the others. Since, if all are equal by nature, all are necessarily entitled to equal rights”. To put a man in government means to be governed by a man and a ferocious beast at the same time: it is rather necessary that reason be put in government, which is like saying God and laws, because law is reason free from passions.
In practice it derives, as Plato says, that the ruler must be better than the governed, superior to them in study and nature, who by all means and as much as he can must pay attention to the laws, not those created to cope with momentary contingencies, but those prepared by whom, having purified his intellect and heart, having acquired a thorough knowledge of the nature of government, having contemplated the Idea of justice and having understood the essence of injustice, transposing the absolute into the relative, legislating for all citizens, without distinction or regard for friends and relatives. Better would be to legislate for posterity and foreigners, so as to avoid any private interest.
Julian refuted the affirmation of Themistius, who claimed to prefer the man of action to the political philosopher, basing himself erroneously on a passage of Aristotle: between the active and the contemplative life, the latter is certainly superior, since “by training not many, but even only three or four philosophers, you can bring to the human race greater benefits than several emperors put together can do”. So Julian, not without irony, could also decline the offer of collaboration addressed to him by the philosopher Themistius. As for himself, “aware of not possessing any special virtue, except that of not believing to have the most beautiful virtues”, Julian put everything in God”s hands, so that he could be excused for his failures and could appear discreet and honest for the eventual successes of his government work.
In reality, his conception is different from what may appear in his letter to Themistius or, at least, will be expressed differently in his writings shortly after: the good ruler is not simply the philosopher who knowing the idea of good is able to make good laws, but he is the one who is invested with a mission that only the gods can have given him. Why he expressed here the classical idea of power, instead of the contemporary idea of absolute and hereditary monarchy, has been interpreted as the result of the fear caused by the immense power that fortune had placed in his hands: “the loneliness of power did not fail to frighten him. In order to recover the sense of his own identity, he resorted to what was most his: education and cultural background. Although alone and confused, he could in fact perceive a strong bond of solidarity with the countless generations that, like him, had used Homer and Plato to give full awareness to their emotions and acquire a deeper awareness”. Fearful of the blind power of Tyche, he tried to exorcise it, left aside contemporary political doctrine and “turned to the great masters of his youth”.
“Against the Cynical Heraclius”: the theocratic conception of government.
The occasion to present his doctrine was given to him by the public speech held in Constantinople in March 362 by Heraclius, an itinerant philosopher of the sect of the Cynics, to which Julian himself had attended. Heraclius, irreverent as all the Cynics, exposed a myth, presenting himself as Zeus and Julian – who notoriously grew a goat-like beard on his chin – as Pan, alluded to Phaethon, the son of Phoebus who, inexperienced in driving the Sun”s chariot, had fallen miserably, and involved in his allegories Heracles and Dionysus, two figures very dear to Julian.
In one myth, Julian replies, it is said that Heracles had challenged Helios to a duel and the Sun, recognizing his courage, gave him a golden cup over which the hero had crossed the Ocean: Julian writes in this regard to believe that Heracles had rather “walked on the water as if he had been on dry land,” and pointing out that “Zeus with the help of Athena Pronoia had created him savior of the world and had placed at his side this goddess as a guardian later raised him to himself, thus ordering his son to come to him,” explicitly denouncing the Christians of copying in favor of Christ the Hellenic myths. Another example of Christian imitation is taken from the representation of Dionysus, whose birth “was not really a birth, but a divine manifestation,” who appeared in India as a visible god “when Zeus decided to grant all mankind the principles of a new state of affairs.”
Julian knows well that the myths are not real tales, but a disguise of the doctrine of the substance of the gods, which “does not bear to be thrown with naked words into the impure ears of the profane. The very secret nature of the mysteries, even if not understood, is useful, for it cures souls and bodies and causes the appearance of the gods.” In this way, “the divine truths are insinuated by means of enigmas with the disguise of myths.” Not only, but “what in the myths is improbable, is exactly that which opens the way to the truth: in fact, the more paradoxical and portentous the enigma, the more it seems to admonish us not to entrust ourselves to the naked word, but to toil around the truth reposed, without tiring ourselves before this mystery, illuminated under the guide of the gods”, does not illuminate our intellect to the point of bringing our soul to perfection.
Similar concepts are expressed by his friend Secondo Salustio in his On the gods and the world: the myths “incite us to search imitate the set of inexpressible and ineffable things, invisible and manifest, evident and obscure, present in the essence of the gods. Veiling the true sense of the figurative expressions, they protect them from the contempt of fools the apparent absurdity of such fables makes the soul understand that they are only symbols, because the pure truth is inexpressible”.
The myth told by Heraclius was instead, according to Julian, not only improper and impious, but also lacking of originality, and Julian wants to present him an example of how it is possible to build a myth that is at the same time new, instructive and relevant to historical facts. It is a story that starts from Constantine, whose ancestors worshipped Helios, but that emperor and his sons believed to guarantee themselves the eternity of power by betraying the tradition and entrusting themselves to the Christian god: “the temples of the ancestors were demolished by the sons, already despised by their father and stripped of their gifts, and together with the divine, human things were profaned”. Zeus was moved to pity for the sad conditions of men fallen in impiety: he promised to his daughters Hosiótes and Díke, Religion and Justice, to restore them on earth and pointing Julian to Helios, he entrusted him saying: “that child is your son”.
Helios, the god protector of the Flavians and Athena Pronoia, the Providence, raised him and Hermes, god of eloquence and psychopomp, the conductor of souls who introduces the initiate to the mysteries of Mithras, guided the young man who lived in solitude and “advanced along a flat road, solid and all clean and full of fruit and flowers abundant and good, as the gods love, and plants of ivy, laurel and myrtle. When they reached a mountain, Hermes said to him: “On the summit of this mountain the father of all the gods has his throne. Be careful: there is great danger. If you know how to adore him with the greatest piety, you will obtain from him what you want”. One day Helios told him to come back among the mortals to win and “purge all the impieties of the earth and call in rescue me, Athena and all the other gods”, and pointing him from above the land where there were herds and shepherds, he revealed to him that most of the shepherds – the rulers – were evil “because they devour and sell the cattle” bringing back little earnings of the much that has been entrusted to them.
Finally, the young man agreed to dissolve from a life until then turned only to the study and contemplation showing ready to engage in the mission entrusted to him. Helios, after having provided him with a torch, symbol of eternal light, the helmet and the aegis of Athena and the golden caduceus of Hermes, guaranteed the assistance of all the gods until he remained “devoted to us, faithful to friends, human to subjects, commanding and guiding them for the best. But never yielding to the point of making yourself a slave to your own and their passions will persuade you to forget our precepts. As long as you abide by them, you will be worthy and acceptable to us, an object of respect for the good who serve us and of terror for the wicked and ungodly. Know that the mortal body was given to you so that you might fulfill this mission. Out of respect for your ancestors, we wish to purify the house of your fathers. Remember therefore that you have an immortal soul that descends from us, and if you follow us, you will be a god and with us you will contemplate your father.”
The writing of Julian expresses, through the myth, a theocratic conception of government and also reveals how Julian does not conceive the role of the emperor as émpsychos nomos, personified law that, as such, is above the laws that are imperfect because human: for Julian the laws have a divine origin and, through Plato, emphasizes that “if there is one who is distinguished by fidelity to the laws in force and in this virtue wins over all the others, he must also be entrusted with the function of servant of the gods.
“Against the Ignorant Cynics”: the cultural unity of Hellenism.
In Heraclius Julian had attacked the figure of certain modern philosophers, “stick, cloak, moustache and then ignorance, pride, impudence”, because of which “philosophy had become despicable” and they had appropriated, according to him illegitimately, the name of a doctrine, that of Diogenes of Sinope and Crates of Thebes, of a very different and noble nature.
A few months later, another of those itinerant philosophers attacked the figure of Diogenes, painting him as a boastful fool and mocking certain anecdotes circulating about that philosopher. Giuliano”s answer intends to revalue the dignity of the cynic philosophy, “that is not the most vile nor the most despicable, but on the contrary comparable to the most illustrious”, inserting it in the Greek cultural tradition and showing how it can be at the same level of the most famous Hellenic schools.
In fact, Helios, by sending through Prometheus the divine gift of fire, intended to make all beings participants of the “incorporeal reason” and therefore of the divinity itself, albeit in a different measure: to things he granted only existence, to vegetables life, to animals the sensory soul and to men the rational soul. This pushes man to philosophy, which, although defined in a different way – art of arts or science of sciences – consists in “knowing himself”, which is equivalent to saying in knowing that part of the divine present in every man. And as it is possible to reach Athens through the most different ways, so it is possible to obtain the knowledge of oneself through different philosophical speculations: “therefore no one must separate philosophy into many parts or divide it into many species, or better, of one philosophy must not make many. As there is only one truth, so there is only one philosophy.”
Therefore the Cynic philosophy belongs by right to this unique movement of search for truth, which is “the greatest good for gods and men”, the knowledge of the “intimate reality of existing things”: in spite of the rough simplicity of its appearance, Cynicism is like those statues of Silenus that, banal in appearance, hide in their interior the image of a god. And finally, the creator of the Cynic philosophy was not Antisthenes or Diogenes, but it was the one who created all the philosophical schools, “the one who for the Greeks is the author of all beautiful things, the common guide, the legislator and the king, the god of Delphi”.
As for Diogenes, according to Julian “he obeyed the god of Pytho and he did not regret his obedience, and it would be wrong to take as a sign of impiety the fact that he did not attend temples and did not worship images and altars: Diogenes had nothing to offer, neither incense, nor libations, nor money, but he had a fair notion of the gods and this alone was enough. For he worshipped them with his soul, offering the most precious good, the consecration of his soul through his thought.”
It may seem strange that an emperor felt compelled to intervene in an apparently trivial controversy sparked off by an obscure sophist: in reality, the problem Julian had at heart was the reaffirmation of the unity of Hellenic culture – literature, philosophy, mythology, religion – as part of the legal and institutional apparatus of the Roman Empire. The defense of the unity of Hellenic culture is the condition of the maintenance of the political institution and an attack to the unitary values expressed by that culture is perceived by Julian as a threat to the foundations of the Empire itself.
“Hymn to the Mother of the Gods”
That the unity of the Empire was favored by the ideological and cultural unity of the subjects had already been understood by Constantine who, convening in 325 the Council of Nicea, had intended that Christianity be founded on dogmas shared by all the faithful built with the tools made available by Greek philosophy. In the same way, Julian intended to establish the principles of Hellenism, seen as a synthesis of the traditions inherited from the ancient Roman religion and of Greek culture, elaborated in the light of Neoplatonic philosophy. Under this aspect, Julian”s program intended this hymn, together with the one dedicated to Helios, as two fundamental moments on which to hinge the refoundation of the religious and cultural tradition of the empire. To the Hymn to the Mother of the gods was entrusted, therefore, the role of an exegetical review of the Greek myths on the basis of the mystery doctrines that Julian had deepened in his Athenian studies.
The Hymn to the Mother of the gods, Cybele, also called Rea or Demeter, the Magna Mater of the Romans, is addressed to those who must deal with the education of the faithful: it is the writing that a pontifex maximus addresses to the priests of the Hellenic cults. The hymn opens with the description of the arrival in Rome from Phrygia of the statue of the goddess, after her cult had already been accepted in Greece, “and not by any race of Greeks, but by the Athenians,” writes Julian, as if to emphasize the extreme credibility of the cult of the goddess. And credible appears to Julian also the miracle that occurred when the priestess Clodia made the ship navigate again on the Tiber and it remained motionless despite every effort of the sailors.
To the figure of Cybele is associated, in a well-known myth, that of Attis. Everything, as Aristotle had taught, is the union of form and matter: in order that things are not generated by chance, opinion that would lead to Epicurean materialism, it is necessary to recognize the existence of a higher principle, the cause of form and matter. This cause is the fifth essence, already discussed by the philosopher Senarchus, which gives the reason of the becoming, of the multiplication of the species of beings and of the eternity of the world, the “chain of eternal generation”. Well, Attis represents this principle, according to Julian”s personal conception: he is “the substance of the generating and creating Intellect which produces all things up to the extreme limits of matter and contains in itself all the principles and causes of the forms joined to matter”.
Cybele is “the motherless Virgin, who has her throne next to Zeus, and is truly the Mother of all the gods.” The myth of her union with Attis, judged obscene by Christians, is actually meant to signify that she, as Providence “who preserves all things subject to birth and destruction, loves the creator and producer cause of them, and requires her to procreate preferably in the intelligible world and demands that she be addressed to her and cohabit with her, demands that Attis not mix with any other being, so as to pursue the preservation of what is uniform and to avoid inclining into the material world.”
But Attis lowered himself to the extreme limits of matter, mating in a cavern with a nymph, a figure in which the myth overshadows “the moisture of matter”, more precisely “the last incorporeal cause existing before matter”. Then Helios, “who shares the throne with the Mother and creates everything with her and provides for everything”, commanded the Lion, the principle of fire, to denounce the degradation of Attis: the emasculation of Attis is to be understood as the “brake placed on the unlimited thrust” of generation, so that it is “held within the limits of defined forms”. Attis” self-violation is the symbol of purification from degradation, the condition of the ascent upwards, “to what is defined and uniform, possibly to the One itself”.
As the myth outlines the cycle of the degradation and purification of the soul, so it corresponds to the cycle of nature and the religious rituals that are associated with it and celebrated in the spring equinox. On March 22nd the sacred pine tree is cut, the day after the sound of trumpets reminds us the need to purify and rise to the sky, on the third day “the sacred harvest of the god is cut” and finally can follow the Ilarias, the festivals that celebrate the successful purification and the return of Attis to the side of the Mother. Julian links the cult of Cybele to the Eleusinian mysteries, which are celebrated on the occasion of the spring and autumn equinoxes, and explains to the priests the meaning of the precepts that the initiate must observe in order to approach the rite with a pure soul.
Having reaffirmed the intrinsic unity of the Hellenic cults, combining Heracles and Dionysus with Attis, recognizing in Attis the Logos, “out of his mind, because he married matter and presided over its creation, but also wise, because he was able to order and change this filth into something so beautiful that no art and human ability could ever equal”, Julian concludes his writing by raising a hymn to Cybele:
Edict on teaching and religious reform
In his writings Julian had implicitly shown that it was necessary to maintain a close link between Hellenism and Romanitas as a condition of the health of the Empire, which seemed to have been fully realized in the age of the Antonines. Since then, however, there had followed a long period of slow decline during which new religious instances, originating in a world largely alien to traditional Hellenic values, had asserted themselves until obtaining full legitimacy with Constantine. The Christian bishop Eusebius himself had exalted the new order constituted by the political institutions of the Empire and by the evangelical doctrine, whose fusion had been arranged by God for the good of all humanity.
This conception presupposed a fracture in the historical evolution of the Greco-Roman world and, together with the abandonment of ancient cults and the temples where they were celebrated, questioned the whole Hellenic culture, whose destruction could be feared. Julian”s conception is exactly the same and opposite to Eusebius” one: the whole Greco-Roman culture is “the fruit of divine revelation and its historical evolution took place under God”s watchful eye. Thanks to the revelation of Apollo-Helio, the Greeks had elaborated an admirable religious, philosophical and artistic system, perfected later by the similar people of the Romans, who enriched it with the best political institutions that the world had known”.
The health of the Empire corresponds to that of its citizens, which is substantiated, on a spiritual and intellectual level, with episteme, authentic knowledge, which is achieved through proper education, paideia. The knowledge of Greco-Roman culture elevates the human being to self-knowledge, which is the condition for higher knowledge, that of divinity, which corresponds to individual salvation. In this path, the Hellenic culture is conceived by Julian in its totality, without distinction between sacred and profane culture: “the study of sacred texts makes any man better, even the most inept. If a gifted man is initiated to the study of literature, he becomes a gift of the gods to humanity, because he will rekindle the flame of knowledge, or he will found public institutions, or he will put the enemies of his people to flight, or he will travel by land and sea, thus proving to have the temper of the hero”.
In application of these principles, on June 17, 362, Julian issued an edict by which he established the incompatibility between the profession of Christian faith and teaching in public schools. The idea of Julian was that public teachers should be distinguished first of all for morality and then for professional ability. The mechanism that would guarantee this morality passed through the municipal councils that would have to produce a certificate of the requirements of the candidates. This certificate should, eventually, then be ratified by the emperor.
The law had been prepared to defend the reasons for Hellenism from Christian polemic and was particularly insidious because, without being an open persecution, it persuasively presented the reasons for the incompatibility between Greco-Roman culture and Christianity that were actually shared by a substantial representation of Christian intellectuality.
At the same time, Julian was concerned to establish a pagan “church”, organized according to hierarchical criteria that recalled the Christian ones: at the top was the emperor, in his capacity of pontiff maximum, followed by high priests, each responsible for each province which, in turn, chose the priests of the different cities. We know from his letters some names of the provincial leaders appointed by Julian: Arsacius was the religious head of Galatia, Crisantius of Sardis, with his wife Melita, of Lydia, Seleucus of Cilicia and Theodore of Asia, as well as we know the names of some local priests, a Theodora, an Aeschius, a hierarch at Alexandria in Troas, a Calligena of Pessinunte in Phrygia.
The first requirement of every priest had to be morality, without any preclusion of origin and wealth: one of the causes of the backwardness of the Hellenic religion in the consideration of the population was precisely the poor morality of many priests, which in this way made the ancient rituals lose credibility. If those priests were so despised, they were feared because of their reputation as dispensers of anathemas of terrible effectiveness: a dubious virtue, since it contributed to their isolation, that Julian himself tried to challenge arguing that a priest, as such, could not be the representative of a demon, but of God, and therefore was the dispenser of benefits obtained through prayer, and not of curses launched through an obscure demonic power.
The priests should therefore be honored “as ministers and servants of the gods, because they perform, in our stead, the duties towards the gods and it is to them that we owe much of the gifts that we receive from the gods. For they pray and sacrifice in the name and on behalf of all humanity. Therefore it is right to honor them even more than the magistrates of the state and even if there are those who believe that equal honors should be given to priests and magistrates, since they are the custodians of the laws and therefore in some way servants of the gods, however, the priest should be held in higher esteem because he celebrates sacrifices on our behalf, brings offerings and is in front of the gods, we must respect and fear the priest as the most precious thing belonging to the gods.
With these words Julian attested to the importance attached to images as vehicles of devotion to the divinity and respect for the imperial authority in which he intended to summarize the political, cultural and religious unity of the state. It is known that he had himself represented as Apollo, with the figure of his deceased wife as Artemis next to him, in two golden statues erected in Nicomedia, so that the citizens would honor the gods and the Empire in those statues, and generally “he always wanted to be represented with Zeus next to him, who came down from the sky on purpose to offer him the imperial insignia, the crown and the purple robe, while Ares and Hermes kept their eyes fixed on him, to indicate his eloquence and skill in weapons”.
“Hymn to Helium the King”
During his unhappy stay in Antioch Julian wrote in three nights, just before the winter solstice, the Hymn to Helios the King, dedicating it to his friend Salustius, prefect of Gaul, in his turn author of a short treatise on the gods; Julian”s intention is to provide a clear and solid doctrinal apparatus to the Hellenic religion, to dictate a sort of catechism for the “pagan church” of which he, as emperor and pontiff maximum, was in that moment the head. This writing followed the Hymn to the Mother of Gods in which Julian formulated an exegesis of the Greek myths on the basis of the mystery doctrines to which he had dedicated himself during the period spent in Athens. In this case the solar monotheism, using the same philosophical tools that Christianity was using, should have been opposed to the monotheism of the Galileans that, according to Julian, had the serious defect of being totally extraneous to the Roman culture and tradition and therefore of upsetting the structure of the Empire from its foundations.
Plato had still stated that the universe is a single living organism, “all filled with soul and spirit, a perfect whole made up of perfect parts”: the unification between the intelligible world and the sensible one is accomplished by Helium, who is “between the immaterial purity of the intelligible gods and the immaculate integrity of the gods of the sensible world”, as well as the light spreads from the sky to the earth keeping itself pure even coming into contact with material things.
The substance of Helios is summarized as follows: “Helios the King proceeded as a single god from a single god, that is, from the intelligible world which is one unifies the lowest with the highest, contains in itself the means of perfection, union, the vital principle and uniformity of substance. In the sensible world is the source of all benefits contains in itself the eternal cause of generated things
One cannot fail to see the consonance of these statements with the Christian dogma of Christ-Logos, mediator between God and man and bringer of salvation, and here Helios appears as the mediator of man”s spiritual growth: “As to him we owe life, so by him we are also nourished. His most divine gifts and the benefits he gives to souls by dissolving them from the body and raising them to god-like substances, the subtlety and elasticity of the divine light, granted as a sure vehicle to souls for their descent into the world of becoming for us is better to have faith in than demonstration of.”
Dionysus, celebrated as the son of Helios, together with the Muses alleviates human labors; Apollo, “who does not differ at all from Helios”, spreads oracles, gives men inspiration, orders and civilizes cities; Helios has generated Asclepius, the universal savior, and has sent Aphrodite to Earth to renew the generations; and from Aphrodite descends Aeneas and from him all the successions of world governors. The Hymn concludes with a prayer to Helios:
In Antioch Julian also wrote the satire The Caesars and three books of anti-Christian polemic, the Against the Galileans: the work has been lost and it was possible to reconstruct only a part of the first book on the basis of the quotations contained in the Contra Iulianum, the replica composed by Cyril of Alexandria after the death of the emperor, and a few other fragments in Theodore of Mopsuestia and in Areta. Julian, writing the Against the Galileans, must have had in mind the work of Celsus – later reconstructed in part by Origen”s Against Celsus – and the fifteen books Against the Christians by the philosopher Porphyry, of which few fragments remain.
It is known that Julian had promoted the reconstruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, which however did not come true, because an earthquake interrupted the works just begun and they were not resumed after the death of the emperor. Certainly Julian”s initiative proceeded from a political calculation – to oppose a renewed Jewish force to the expansion of Christian propaganda could be useful – but it also derived from his conviction that every people enjoyed the protection of a god, assigned by the superior divine will, who was the expression and guarantor of the specific cultural and religious identity of that ethnic group.
In fact, Julian writes that the god common to all “distributed the nations to national gods and citizens, each of whom governs his own part in accordance with his nature”. To the particular faculties of each god correspond the essential tendencies of the different ethnic groups and so, “Ares governs the warlike peoples, Athena those who are warlike and wise, Hermes those who are cunning” and in the same way we have to explain the courage of the Germans, the civilization of the Greeks and Romans, the industriousness of the Egyptians, the softness of the Syrians: whoever wanted to justify these differences with the case, would deny then the existence in the world of the Providence.
On the other hand, Christians do not represent any ethnic group: they “are neither Jews nor Greeks, but belong to the Galilean heresy”. In fact, at first they followed the doctrine of Moses, then, “apostatizing, they took their own way”, putting together from the Jews and the Greeks “the vices that were bound to these peoples by the curse of a demon; they took the denial of the gods from Jewish intolerance, the light and corrupt life from our indolence and vulgarity, and dared to call all this perfect religion”. The result was “an invention put together by human malice. Having nothing divine about it, and exploiting the unreasonable part of our soul which is inclined to the fabulous and the puerile, it succeeded in having a construction of monstrous fictions held as true”.
Plato explains the generation of mortal beings differently: the God who created the intelligible gods entrusted them with the creation of humans, animals and plants because, if he had created them himself, they would have been immortal: “so that they may be mortal and this universe may be truly complete, take care, according to nature, of the constitution of the living, imitating my power that I put into action when I generated you”. As for the soul, which is “common to immortals, is divine and governs in those who wish to follow you and justice, I will provide the seed and the beginning. For the rest, you, weaving the mortal into the immortal, produce animals and beget them, raise them by providing nourishment, and when they perish, receive them back into you.”
The Caesars or Saturnalia is a satirical dialogue in which Julian tells a friend the story of a party given by Romulus in the house of the gods, to which the Roman emperors are invited: it is a pretext to outline the many vices and few virtues of each. The procession of guests is opened by the “ambitious” Julius Caesar, followed by the “chameleon-like” Octavian, then Tiberius, grave in appearance but cruel and vicious, who is sent back to Capri by the gods; Caligula, “cruel monster”, is thrown into Tartarus, Claudius is a “body without a soul” while Nero, who claims to imitate Apollo with his zither, is drowned in the Cocytus. They follow the “stingy” Vespasian, the “lascivious” Titus and Domitian, bound with a collar, then Nerva, “handsome old man”, welcomed with respect, before the “pederast” Trajan, loaded with trophies, and the severe and “engulfed in the mysteries” Hadrian. Enter also Antoninus Pius, Lucius Verus and Marcus Aurelius, welcomed with great honor, but not Commodus, who is rejected. Pertinace mourns his own death, but not even he is really innocent; the “intractable” Septimius Severus is admitted with Geta, while Caracalla is expelled with Macrinus and Heliogabalus. The “foolish” Alexander Severus was admitted to the banquet but the “effeminate” Gallienus and his father Valerian were not accepted; Claudius the Gothic, “high and generous soul”, was warmly welcomed and Aurelian was allowed to sit at the banquet only because he had done himself good by instituting the cult of Mithras. Probus, Diocletian, Galerius and Constantius Chlorus were welcomed, while Caro, Maximian, “turbulent and disloyal”, Licinius and Magnentius were expelled. Constantine and his three sons finally entered.
We have tried to find in this text the reasons that had already determined in Julian the decision to move war to Persia. This parade of emperors is a sort of summary of Roman history and luck has a fundamental role in assigning the success of the initiatives: “only when Pompey was abandoned by good fortune, which had favored him for so long, and was left without any help, you had the better of him,” exclaims Alexander to Caesar. But Rome did not set its boundaries to the limits of the Earth only with the help of Tyche, of good luck: pietas was necessary and the choice in favor of Marcus Aurelius confirms that this is the virtue favored by Julian and the gods.
However, there were also Christians who were able to distinguish the anti-Christian Julian from the governing Julian. Prudentius wrote about him: “Just one of all the princes, of what I remember as a child, was not less than a very brave leader, founder of cities and laws, famous for rhetoric and military valor, good advisor for the country but not for the religion to be observed, because he worshipped three hundred thousand gods. He betrayed God, but not the Empire and the City”. while John of Antioch, in the seventh century, called him the only emperor who had governed well.
From the Middle Ages we know that Saint Mercury of Caesarea, invoked by Saint Basil the Great, would have killed Julian, who was made the protagonist of gruesome episodes of quartering of children and disembowelment of pregnant women. In the twelfth century, in Rome, the statue of a faun who persuaded Julian to renounce the Christian faith was still on display, while in the fourteenth century an edifying representation was composed in which Saint Mercury kills the emperor but, in return, the rhetorician Libanius converts, becomes a hermit, is blinded and then is healed by the Virgin Mary.
Of course, all commentators emphasize the failure of the pagan restoration: “He despised Christians, to whom he reproached above all the ignorance of the great works of Hellenic thought, without realizing that Christianization and democratization of culture were fatal aspects of the same phenomenon, against which the aristocratic cult of reason, wisdom, humanitas, nothing could have done. Convinced of the superiority of the pagan culture and of the religion of the gods, he thought it was enough to give an organization to be opposed to that of the Christian churches, in order to ensure its victory. His was only a dream, destined to break against the young vitality of the new Christian world”.
But his attempt at religious reform should not be considered the reactionary dream of an intellectual in love with ancient culture: it was rather the conviction of a politician for whom the classical paideia was the cement of the Empire”s unity and prosperity. This conception is expressed in Against the Cynical Heraclius: it was Zeus himself, faced with the disaster of his immediate predecessors, who had entrusted him with the mission of restoring the State, as the Genius Publicus had revealed to him in Paris. His was a divine mission that, as such, made him a theocrat and whose fulfillment guaranteed his individual salvation.
The political principles that resulted were not at all reactionary, on the contrary they were “as foreign to classical culture as they were organic to Byzantine culture. Paradoxically, although he went down in history as the one who had dreamed of reviving obsolete religious practices and forms of government, it was Julian himself who made a definitive break with the religious and political schemes of the past. His cult for unity, integrity and order were Byzantine in all respects. He never thought, not even for a moment, to associate anyone to his power, because he considered himself the only representative of God on Earth and if God is immortal, so is his earthly representative”. And as God”s power is not limited by any boundary in the Universe, so can have no boundaries the power of his representative on Earth: hence the enterprise of Persia, which in fact had no contingent political motivations.
The Byzantine emperors resumed the inspiring principles of his sovereignty and their bishops fully supported them: Patriarch Anthony II declared that “the Church and the Empire are united, so it is impossible to separate them,” and Justinian, by prohibiting pagan teachers from teaching and dissolving the glorious Academy of Athens, reaffirmed Julian”s cultural fundamentalism in an extreme form, without this time anyone daring to make any criticism. Even Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus, at the end of the first millennium, criticized his predecessor and colleague Roman I Lecapenus for not keeping “the traditional customs in contrast with the principles of the ancestors” not respecting the principle of the ethnic particularity of each nation, as stated by Julian in Against Galileans.
But since in his lifetime Julian did not succeed in realizing any of his projects – not the conquest of Persia, not the religious reform, not even that of the Empire, because the concession of a wide administrative autonomy to the cities was revoked by his successors – history would have had few reasons to remember him, and instead has raised him among its major protagonists. Perhaps this happened because “his fate was able to touch the hearts and minds of men”, and legend, “which is the language of the heart and imagination, has always depicted him as a man who lived searching, fighting and suffering, presenting him now as a demon, now as a saint”.
Primary sources in critical editions