Julian ‘the Apostate’: antiquity’s most prolific self-publicist

  • Themes: Books, History

The brief reign of the Roman emperor who broke with Christianity remains compelling and controversial.

'Julian the Apostate Presiding at a Conference of Sectarians' by Armitage Edward.
'Julian the Apostate Presiding at a Conference of Sectarians' by Armitage Edward. Credit: Artepics / Alamy Stock Photo

Julian: Rome’s Last Pagan Emperor, Philip Freeman, Yale University Press, £18.99

In antiquity, the promotion and reception of a ruler’s image was a key factor in the acquisition and retention of power. Within the Roman Empire, an emperor’s success in navigating the choppy waters stirred by political opponents and public opinion depended to a large extent on whether or not his image connected with audiences across the empire. Images of emperors came in various forms. From the widely distributed portrait of an emperor on the head of a bronze coin to the colossal statues of them located in the empire’s most prestigious locations, few in the Roman world would have remained oblivious to the looks and style of their emperor as the avatar of imperial power.

The word, both spoken and written, was also instrumental in influencing the wider population’s impression of their rulers. Speeches of praise (Panegyrics) honouring the achievements of emperors were composed and delivered by orators handpicked by the imperial court to commemorate important events (military victories, for example) and anniversaries (jubilee celebrations) in an emperor’s reign. Writings bearing the emperor’s name were also central to the broader dissemination of a ruler’s style and political agenda, with legal constitutions (‘laws’) being the most widely practised form of writing associated with the emperor. The most important of these, addressing matters of universal importance such as food inflation – e.g. the ‘Prices Edict’ of Diocletian – were memorialised ‘on stone’ as inscriptions and placed for public consumption in the markets and forums of the empire.

There is an ongoing debate among scholars about the extent to which the emperor had a direct hand in shaping how he was represented on coins and in statuary, speeches and laws. Did, for example, Constantine I personally oversee the composition of every law issued in his name? This was unlikely to have been the case, although the more important the matter in hand, the more likely the emperor advised his secretaries, administrators and officials about the precise formulation of his portrayal.

Questions of image and authorship loom large in the case of one of Late Antiquity’s most controversial rulers. Flavius Claudius Julianus, otherwise known as Julian ‘the Apostate’, lays claim to being one of the most prolific self-publicists of the ancient world. Julian reigned for a brief period of time, first as Caesar (appointed in AD 355) and then as Augustus (from 361-363). His epithet was applied first by Christian authors soon after his death to brand Julian’s memory with the crime – in their minds – of having rejected the Christianity of his youth.

All Roman emperors wrote down (or dictated to their secretaries) their thoughts on justice, governance, religion and foreign affairs in the form of laws as a requirement of the imperial office. Julian also wrote ex officio, but was driven by different ends to those of his predecessors. He wrote in order to fulfil his own sense of identity as a polemicist, satirist, journalist and correspondent, and he produced by the end of his life a body of work that exceeded any composed by previous or, indeed, future holders of the Roman emperorship.

Julian was the product of an educational culture (paideia), which created elite young men driven by ideals of philosophical morality, rhetorical and literary finesse and a burning desire for self-promotion and advancement. He was also a member of the most powerful imperial family, the Constantinian dynasty. As a result, Julian harnessed his educational ideals for the service of the imperial office and directly contributed to the creation of his own image.

Or, more correctly, images, which were contingent on contexts that arose unexpectedly and were frequently unwelcome. To take one notable example, while wintering in Paris in February 360, Julian found himself thrust to the forefront of imperial politics when his own troops, angered by their treatment at the hands of Constantius II (the senior emperor, son of Constantine I and cousin to Julian), acclaimed Julian as a rival Augustus. At this point in time, Julian was Constantius’ Caesar, first appointed in November 355 with the express purpose of serving Constantius’ interests in Gaul as his subordinate emperor. According to the unwritten rules governing imperial appointment and succession, only the senior emperor (the Augustus) could grant such a promotion. Julian’s troops had set their Caesar on the unenviable course of becoming known to the world as a tyrant, a word that the political vocabulary of Rome used to identify someone who had usurped imperial authority. Julian may very well have been a willing usurper, but he was certainly an unwilling Augustus. He maintained a desire to cooperate with Constantius until the political inertia was removed from the situation by Constantius’ mobilisation of his troops in the east to terminate the rebellion.

Waiting for war and holed up in Naissus (Niš in modern Serbia), the ancestral city of the Constantinian dynasty, in mid-361 Julian wrote a series of letters to the governing councils of those cities in the empire – the Senate at Rome, and the councils of Corinth, Athens and Sparta – which he regarded as centres of cultural excellence and power (he had personal connections with both Athens and Corinth, and his recently deceased wife was buried in Rome). Only his Letter to the Council of the Athenians survives intact, although this text alone is sufficient for us to see at first hand Julian’s attempts to solve the problem in public relations presented by his seeming lack of legitimacy as an Augustus appointed by his own troops. Julian’s strategy in the Letter is simple: Portray his cousin, Constantius II, in the bleakest possible terms in order to convince his readers that, should it come to it, Julian would be justified in taking on Constantius in a civil war.

Offering a personal account of the dynasty, Julian alleges that the emperor had his father murdered along with the majority of the adult male members of his family in the unstable time following the death of Constantine I (Julian’s uncle) in May 337. Such a charge was warranted, although Constantius’ brothers (also both emperors) and the army almost certainly had key roles to play in this action. For Julian’s purposes, however, only Constantius had familial blood on his hands. Julian and his half-brother Gallus – the youngest children of Julius Constantius, the half-brother of Constantine I – were not targeted because Julian was an infant and Gallus was too sick. Instead, according to the Letter, Julian and Gallus were forcibly exiled to ‘a certain farm’ in Cappadocia, where they spent six years in isolation as prisoners denied both an education and the company of contemporaries.

A contextual investigation of these claims in Julian’s Letter to the Athenians of the type carried out by historians such as Klaus Rosen and John Vanderspoel has revealed that Julian’s narrative of his early years was largely fabricated in order to exaggerate Constantius’ tyrannical qualifications. The place of exile, the farm, was an imperial residence in Macellum, a richly endowed estate with close links to the nearby city of Caesarea in Cappadocia. Far from being prisoners at the emperor’s pleasure, both Julian and Gallus were given and made the most of the opportunities presented to them as members of the first family of the reigning Christian dynasty. Julian was granted full access to a neighbouring bishop (George), with whose extensive library he became deeply acquainted with over the years, a fact which Julian himself admits in another of his letters. Both Gallus and Julian were also granted the time and resources to build a martyr church honouring the local saint, Mamas, in Caesarea. At the time of their ‘exile’ (from 346 to 351) Julian and Gallus were young men – Julian was around sixteen years old, Gallus about twenty. Gallus himself was recalled from Cappadocia to Sirmium in March 351 and appointed Caesar by Constantius – hardly the move of someone intent on suppressing his relatives. Viewed in this way, the brothers in Macellum were treated as ‘Princes-in-Waiting’, schooled in the arts of governance and war, and readied for imperial service.

Philip Freeman’s new biography, Julian: Rome’s Last Pagan Emperor, treads a fine line between on the one hand simply repeating Julian’s image of himself and on the other engaging critically with Julian’s public persona in order to expose the contexts which defined his life and short reign. Freeman’s point of departure is the standard one in biographies of Julian: here was an emperor, the last pagan ruler of Rome, who sought to row back the tide of Christianity’s influence across the empire and undo the Christianisation of Roman society initiated by Constantine I in gratitude for his endorsement by the God of the Christians which led directly – so the ‘propaganda’ goes – to the defeat of his rival Maxentius  (not Maximinus as stated on p. 15) outside Rome in October 312. The appeal of Julian to biographers derives from his apparent exceptionalism and the romantic ideals behind his failed efforts to reintroduce the worship of Rome’s traditional gods. Yet, this is a misreading of the immediate context for Julian’s life and specifically his heritage as a Constantinian monarch.

The time of the Constantinian dynasty, beginning in July 306 and the accession of Constantine I and ending with the death of Julian on campaign against the Sasanians of Iran outside Ctesiphon in June 363, witnessed the infiltration of theology into imperial affairs whereby emperors perceived religion to be an instrument of unity with the potential to bind the population of the empire together. The figure of the emperor himself had previously been the connective tissue holding together competing interests within the empire but the gradual erosion of the authority of the office of emperor during the turbulent years of 235 to 284, a period characterised by a high turnover of rulers coupled to episodes of domestic and foreign instability, led to a crisis in confidence about the potential of the emperor alone to promote unity. Diocletian and Maximian, the emperors who began the task of reorganising the empire from 284, recognised the power of religion, specifically the power of the gods, to unite the interests of people in the common cause of being Roman and duly aligned their own public personas with those of Jupiter and Hercules as tutelary gods. While the political system introduced by Diocletian – the Tetrarchy (the ‘Rule of Four’) – failed, Constantine learnt the tutelary lesson of the Tetrarchs. It was Constantine’s god, rather than the framework, which Julian rejected, choosing instead his own divine partner in the guise of Helios (admirably covered in chapter six of Freeman’s book).

Julian’s proposed religious changes to the theological landscape of the empire were not exceptional at all then. Indeed, he followed in the footsteps of his Christian uncle by swapping one god for another. As an emperor he was a curious blend of tradition, romance and innovation, all aspects of his reign which Freeman’s study captures very effectively. Freeman adopts a chronological approach to the organisation of his material. The first chapter (‘A Cross in the Sky’) sets the scene, covering the rise of Constantine and his endorsement of Christianity. It captures the emergent Christian factionalism of Constantine’s reign, although it is not correct, as Freeman claims, that all Constantine’s sons by his wife Fausta – Constantine II, Constantius II and Constans – favoured Christianity of the ‘Arian variety’.

The intra-Christian disputes in the period of Constantine’s successors were exacerbated to a large extent by emperors favouring individuals or parties of bishops associated with one or the other side; in the case of Nicene-leaning bishops endorsed by Constans or ‘Arian’-leaning clergy championed by Constantius II.

There is Julian’s infancy and adolescence up to the point of his Caesarship in 355. There is a lot of ground covered here, though the issues presented by the sources are notoriously complex. Freeman heads for safe shores by sticking closely to Julian’s narrative of events. The image of Julian that emerges here is the one of committed student, entranced by Greek literature and philosophy (specifically of the Neoplatonic kind), and reluctant Caesar once called to serve by his murderous cousin, Constantius, who forever remained suspicious of him. This image is carried over into the next chapter (‘Gaul’) dealing with his time on campaign against a range of Rhineland tribes and confederacies. Julian’s lack of experience in leadership and military affairs is emphasised, while Julian’s judgement from the time of his Letter to the Athenians is retrojected to the mid-350s to suggest that Constantius set Julian up to fail against the Germani. This ‘Julianic view’ of the Caesar’s campaigns in Gaul found their way in one form or another into the Res Gestae of Ammianus Marcellinus who, writing some thirty years after Julian’s reign, remained a cheerleader for Julian’s cause, a work which Freeman follows faithfully in this chapter. In recent times a number of commentators, notably the publications by John Drinkwater, have substantially revised Julian’s narrative on Gaul, while others, including Alan Ross, have highlighted the perils and pitfalls in handling Ammianus on Julian as a mine of objective details. Still, Freeman does a good job in conveying the achievements of Julian in the region, including the high-point of the Roman victory against the Alamanni at Argentaratum (Strasbourg) in 357.

A range of competing political, court and military interests drove Julian’s usurpation of Constantius in 361, but Freeman privileges only two: Julian’s feelings of injustice towards Constantius as the prime instigator of the family murders of 337, and an urgent desire to restore worship of the traditional gods in order to curtail the empire’s decline brought about by worship of Christianity. In fact, Julian closes his Letter to the Athenians with the claim of wanting to avoid civil conflict against Constantius and stick with the settlement granted to him at the time of his appointment in 355. Claims regarding Constantius’ fitness to govern or the unsuitability of Christianity to fulfil the material success of the empire carried rhetorical force for Julian in building the case for his position in mid-361 and should probably not be viewed as motivating factors underpinning the Gallic rebellion. As thing turned out, Constantius’ death from illness in November 361 curtailed the impending imperial crisis.

The most successful section of the book offers a close reading of a number of Julian’s writings – notably the Hymn to King Helios  and the Hymn to the Mother of the Gods – to reveal the distinctive, highly syncretic nature of Julian’s religious ideals. For Freeman, Julian was a militant pagan revivalist set on promoting his own understanding of Rome’s religious heritage at the expense of the Christian church. An edict to restore pagan practices issued by Julian at the beginning of his sole reign is considered central to this reform agenda. As recent research has established, however, the existence of a single universal edict restoring the moribund temples and a blanket call to reinstate animal sacrifice was unlikely to have ever been issued by him (no such edict exists). It would have been too incendiary to launch an initiative of this kind so early in the emperor’s reign. Instead, the evidence suggests that targeted legislative action was Julian’s preferred strategy. The infamous ‘School Law’ of June 362, which sought to eliminate Christians from teaching in the empire’s schools by applying a religious test, is certainly one such example aimed at inflicting maximum damage on Christianity and its influence in the empire. Freeman’s interpretation of it as instrumental in Julian’s scheme to degrade Christianity is entirely apposite in the context of the discussion (although the tricky relationship connecting the primary sources for this initiative are not touched on).

Freeman exaggerates Julian’s militancy in his claim that he took a ‘harsher stance’ in the face of mounting Christian intransigence towards his reforms. The claim of ‘persecution’ alleged against the Christians of his old stomping ground, Caesarea in Cappadocia, is clearly drawn from the image of Julian as persecutor conjured up by Christian authors in the fifth century (notably, Sozomen of Constantinople). By contrast, near contemporaries (including his former associate, Libanius) maintain that the emperor was lenient in his punishment of the city’s populace, which had done nothing to stop the Temple of Fortune from being destroyed in a riot. Indeed, Julian’s reticence to bring the full weight of his authority crashing down onto the shoulders of the empire’s Christians is revealed in his treatment of Antioch, the flourishing metropolis of Rome’s eastern territories.

There is an interesting backstory brought to light by recent scholars (notably, Beth Digeser) to Julian’s time in Antioch, which Freeman only partially covers. Julian, his court and the army arrived in Antioch in July 362 to begin preparations for the border war in the east against the Sasanians. In a city with strong Christian credentials, Julian did not hesitate to show his respects for Antioch’s pagan past. His attendance at the temple of Apollo in the suburb of Daphne was clearly a devout act, although the site had personal ‘family’ history for Julian. It had been transformed recently by Gallus during his brief reign as Caesar into a Christian site memorialising the local martyr Babylas when he moved the relics of the city’s former bishop to a purpose-built church in Daphne. Gallus’ own act of piety was almost certainly influenced by the contested history of the area as the oracle of Apollo at Daphne had earlier been implicated by Constantine I in the events of the (so-called) Great Persecution of Christians initiated by Diocletian in 303.

This particular Apollo had blamed Christians directly for the failure of a ritual divination performed at the site and Diocletian had acted accordingly by writing the ‘edicts of blood’ (quoting the words of Constantine himself), which began the persecution. Gallus’ translation of Babylas’ bones was an act of punishment – an act of Constantinian vengeance – intended to close the mouth of the oracle once and for all. Julian now sought to undo his brother’s initiative by removing the relics and purifying the sacred grove in order to allow the oracle to flourish once again. Some months afterwards in October 362 the complex at Daphne suffered a major fire which Julian blamed on the Christians. It mattered little it seems that another party may have been accidently responsible for the destruction of the temple (so we are informed by Ammianus, a former resident of the city) and Julian’s relations with Antioch turned from bad to worse from this point onwards.

Julian’s lack of sensitivity in dealing with conditions in the city (such as food shortages), caused by the population increase brought about by his billeted army, contributed to public acts of ridicule from Antioch’s citizens about his legitimacy and fitness to govern. As Freeman describes, Julian responded with the satirical work, the Misopogon, a work of self-satire in which Julian lampooned his own physical appearance – his woolly philosopher’s beard lending the work its title as ‘The Beard-Hater’ – together with his background and guiding principles. It is most certainly a ‘harangue’, but it is also one of Julian’s most important political works, which tells readers a great deal about the integrity and sincerity that Julian brought to his office. Its tone and length – it would have taken over two hours to read it aloud – suggests that it was not really intended to connect with its audience, which itself may tell us something about the militant nature of Julian’s convictions.

Freeman offers a fair overview of Julian’s doomed expedition against the Sasanians, which led to his death on 26 June 363. Following closely the narrative of Ammianus, Freeman highlights the errors made by Julian and his officers, which presented him with very few options once his troops were deep into Sasanian territory. Killed by a javelin strike to his liver, the circumstances of Julian’s death left the Romans little time to grieve for their lost emperor.

Julian’s council was forced hastily to appoint Jovian, a senior military officer and adviser to Julian, as the new Augustus. Jovian was given the unenviable task of extracting the army from the dire straits which it found itself in, something he was only able to achieve by ceding territory and Rome’s trading monopoly in the east to the Sasanians in a treaty that surrendered the gains achieved by Diocletian’s Caesar, Galerius, in 298.

The matter of succession and the ultimate end of the Constantinian dynasty with the death of Julian are discussed briefly. Julian was buried in a purpose-built mausoleum in a location just beyond the city walls of Tarsus in Cappadocia. The location, chosen by Julian, may very well have been a final snub to Antioch, although as one of Julian’s Christian opponents (Gregory of Nazianzus) reveals, the configuration of the funerary complex included a temple dedicated to his eternal memory, an arrangement which would appear to have intentionally aped the mausolea of previous pagan emperors. One final irony for this committed pagan emperor was that, many years later, Julian’s body was exhumed and transferred to lie alongside his imperial Christian relatives in the Church of the Holy Apostle in Constantinople, the ancient city on the Bosphorus repurposed by his Christian uncle in 330 and Julian’s birthplace. The dynasty had at last reclaimed its most errant family member.

The appeal of Julian will endure, as Freeman rightly notes, and this biography will certainly assist in keeping interest in him alive. While not as detailed or as critical of Julian’s self-image as some recent biographies, Freeman’s book goes a long way to explaining why we continue to pay attention to this long-deceased emperor of Rome.


Nicholas Baker-Brian