A short history of Byzantium

A short history of Byzantium: No. 19 Julian the Apostate.

By the end of Constantine’s reign, there were an estimated twenty-four million Christians living in the Roman Empire. These numbers alone sound impressive, particularly given the fact that thirty years earlier, there were only some six million Christians. With Christianity encouraged, nurtured and openly celebrated under Constantine and later his son Constantius II, in time Christianity would give Rome’s old gods a huge kick in the teeth and eventually deliver it, its last nail in the coffin. This was, of course, officially some time away and while pagans were allowed to still worship in their temples, there was always hope that someone was still brave enough to reverse the fortunes of Christianity. This someone was Flavius Claudius Julianus, better known to us as Julian the Apostate. But before Julian would openly reject the Christian God of his cousin Constantius, it is worth our while to trace back his story and how he came to worship not Christ but the pagan god Helios.

When Julian was still only five years of age, his whole world was turned on its head. In a family massacre, instigated by his older cousin Constantius, he lost everything that was dear to him. Amongst the victims of the purge were cousins, uncles and his father Julius Constantius. It is unclear whether Julian and his brother Gallus, the only two survivors, actually witnessed Constantius’ soldiers commit the horrendous murders. Though, what is clear is that the massacre had a profound effect on him. It would be a day he would never forget.

As fate would have it, Julian and his brother Gallus were spared an untimely death because of their young age. It seemed that Constantius had after all, a hint of humanity, in spite of all indications that he was a tyrant. Nonetheless, with whatever shred of compassion Constantius possessed, he sent the boys to Nicomedia, under the watchful eye of Bishop Eusebius as their tutor.

Under Eusebius, Julian received a formal education in the scriptures and he even took part in services and prayer. Under virtual house arrest for the better part of his youth, he exercised great self-control and to everyone’s surprise appeared pious and humble. In secret though, he despised Jesus Christ and it was matched by his hatred for his cousin Constantius.

If we are to read between the lines, is it not fair to assume that Julian’s rejection of Christianity was because of what Constantius did to his family? A Christian was supposed to be understanding, loving and forgiving, but it unfortunately appeared that Constantius did not share these traits. Cut from the same cloth as his father, Constantius outwardly appeared self-absorbed, spoilt, bad-tempered and worse still, a murderer. Therefore, if presumably even Christians could behave in this manner, did not Julian have every right to find solace in something else? That something else happened to be the old religions of Rome. (Interestingly later, when Julian became Caesar, he deeply frowned upon Christianity’s virtues of forgiveness and gentleness. He saw how weak and disorganized the empire had become under Christian rulers. He would call upon old Roman virtues to readdress the gluttony of corruption that had set in during the rule of Constantine’s sons. An iron fist Julian thought, would put into line those who had transgressed.)

Upon Eusebius death in 342, Julian and Gallus were moved in exile to Macellum, in Cappadocia. With no one to keep them company, not even other children, Julian became obsessed with books that talked about pagan gods and old customs. He was also quite accomplished and well versed in Greek literature and philosophy by the time he was eighteen or nineteen years of age. With a desire to learn more, he asked for permission to travel and study in philosophical schools in Constantinople. (It was during this same time that Gallus was recalled to the imperial court by Constantius in 350 AD.) In time he travelled to other cities across the Aegean, reading, listening and debating with important philosophers of the day. He subsequently fell under the spell of many philosophers, including Libanius, a famous philosopher who was a proud and self-confessed pagan.


This Illumination is the middle section of the Vatican copy of Ptolemy’s Astronomy, which shows the universe ruled by the Sun God, Helios. This byzantine calendar was created during the eighth century for medieval astronomers. They too, like Emperor Julian, believed the sun was king.

Julian’s own personal views on religion, by the time he reached the famous School of Athens, were virtually set in stone. It is assumed that while in Athens, he secretly finally rejected Christianity and adopted a form of paganism called Neoplatonism. Central to his pagan beliefs was his worship of the sun god Helios.

“For I am a follower of King Helios. And of this fact I possess within me, known to myself alone, proofs more certain than I can give. But this at least I am permitted to say without sacrilege, that from my childhood an extraordinary longing for the rays of the god penetrated deep into my soul….”

If Julian could have spent the rest of his life with his head buried in books, we probably wouldn’t be talking about him today? But with his fate primarily in the hands of his cousin, it wouldn’t be long before Constantius would call upon Julian. When his brother Gallus failed miserably as Caesar and was subsequently killed by Constantius, Julian was next summoned to Milan. With his brother’s death on his mind, you can understand why Julian was hesitant to meet with Constantius. He prayed to the gods to bring him death than rather have to come face to face with his cousin. But Julian was not a stupid man, he realized that he could not ignore the Emperor’s summons, no matter how much he hated him.

On arrival to Milan, Julian would learn that he would become the new Caesar in Gaul. He had no real ambitions or desire to become Caesar, he loved his philosophical life far too much, but did not what to disappoint his cousin. He dutifully had his hair trimmed and his scholars beard shaved and was announced as Caesar, on the 6th December 355, in pomp and circumstance by Constantius:

“Most beloved brother, you have attained while still young the distinction marked out for you by your ancestry, and this, I admit, increases my glory, since to bestow power almost equal to my own upon a noble kinsman gives me a juster claim to be exalted than my power itself. Be then my partner in toil and danger, take upon yourself the government of Gaul….”

Following a parade in front of his new army, Julian’s soldiers cheered excitably and banged their shields against their knees in approval. Julian could not have hoped for a greater reception. A few days later he was quickly married off to his cousin’s sister Helena. Immediate following that was sent to restore order along the Rhine frontier.

Along the frontier, he saw how bad things had deteriorated in the absence of stability. Civil war had invited trouble and destruction. Barbarian tribes had invaded Roman territory at will. Julian decided then and there, that he would serve as Caesar with honour and duty. In his whirlwind tour of the frontiers, he was greeted with goodwill and warmth. When he reached Vienna, he was greeted with more of the same, except for a passing comment in the crowd by a old blind women, who openly seemed to rejoice in the presence of Julian. Roman historian, Ammianus Marcellinus, recorded the account and best explains it here below: 

“…,they saw in his arrival the remedy for all their troubles and felt that a guardian angel had appeared to shed light on their lamentable situation. It was on this occasion that a blind old women asked who had arrived, and being told that it was the Caesar Julian, cried out: ‘This is the man whom will restore the temples of the gods.’ ”

Little did they know, Julian would try to do such a thing years later once Constantius was dead. For now, he kept his pagan secrets to himself. 

Notes and Further Reading:
Lars Brownworth, Lost to the West, Crown, 2009.
Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edited, Abridged and with a Critical Foreword by Hans-Friedrich Mueller, The Modern Library, 2013.
Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of the West: The Death of the Roman Superpower, Wiedenfeld & Nicolson, 2009.
“For I am a follower of King Helios…”, Michael Maas, Readings in Late Antiquity: A Sourcebook, Routledge, 2000, p. 314.
“Most beloved brother, you have attained…” & “They saw in his arrival the remedy…”, Ammianus Marcellinus, The Later Roman Empire: AD 354-378, Selected and translated by Walter Hamilton, Penquin Classic, 1995, p.82-83.
John Julius Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, Viking, 1988.
Photo creditEvery effort has been made to trace and acknowledge appropriate credit. I am unsure of the copyright status of the images used, however, they appear to be in the public domain. If not, I make use of both images under the rational of fair use. It enables me to makes an important contribution to the readers understanding of the article, by providing the reader with a visual stimulate, which could not practically be communicated by words alone.

4 comments on “A short history of Byzantium: No. 19 Julian the Apostate.

  1. Nice. I think Julian is a particularly fascinating subject, seeing as how his life is so intertwined with the fortunes of both Roman Christianity and Paganism. Looking forward to the next part!

  2. really interesting thanks for sharing !

  3. Great read! Are you familiar with Gore Vidal’s treatment of Julian? Do you know how historically accurate it is?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: