A short history of Byzantium

A short history of Byzantium: No. 22 The Last Pagan Emperor

Julian is such an interesting character that it is impossible to ignore him, even though some tend to treat him as a blip or anomaly in Romano-Byzantine history. This highly intelligent individual dared to be different, choosing the sun-god Helios over Christ, and in so doing even tried to smite Christianity’s rise. For that reason alone I believe he deserves my attention! We know all that we know about him, primarily from his extensive writings and the fourth century narrative history from Amminianus Marcellinus, the Roman historian. All in all, he stands, in my opinion, as one of late antiquity’s best-known Roman rulers.

The very brief reign of Julian, as sole Augustus of the Roman Empire, was first and foremost memorable for his attempts to deliver Christianity a body-blow so harsh, that he hoped it would collapse during his lifetime. Julian’s rejection of Christianity was an accumulation of events that occurred during his childhood and upbringing, which in turn set the course for his revenge against the men who favoured its cause. Julian believed that Christianity had weakened the Empires strength and vigor, in favour of feminine qualities of compassion and gentleness. To make matters worse, Julian witnessed the decay of Imperial office. His cousin, Constantius, had done the most harm, his rule characterized by excess and debauchery, where everyone it seemed could be brought for their loyalty.

Putting aside Julian’s hatred for Christianity for the moment, as much as he wished for the Romans to return to the favour and worship of the old gods of ancient Rome, it was just as important that he first clean up the bureaucratic mess left behind by his cousin Constantius. It was therefore with renewed vigor that Julian set about to stamp his authority upon the empire. Roman cities were prompted to reassume powers that were taken away by Constantius central government and in Constantinople itself, a large broom was swept by Julian to declutter the excess of staff, chamberlains and other household servants in the Great Palace of Constantinople. This was just the beginning of what was still to come. Those who were implicit in the death of Julian’s family and still around were arrested, tortured and summarily executed. A tribunal across the Bosphorus at Chalcedon also dealt with many of Julian’s enemies. Most of these were ministers and advisors who had abused their powers during Constantius reign. As you can imagine, Julian wasn’t sympathetic, condemning many to death, even burning some alive. Those who were lucky to survive the purge were imprisoned or banished for a period of time.

Once Julian was satisfied that he had rid himself of the corrupt backbone of Constantius’ legacy, he set about introducing wide-ranging reforms in the government and administration. Interestingly, Julian increased the power of the Senate, something of a throw back to the days of the old republic. (Julian frequently sat amongst the senators, participating in proceedings.) Importantly, Julian also tackled changes to the taxation system. He tightened expenditure and offered Romans relief from the burden of heavily collected taxes. For example, he cancelled land taxes that were owed in arrears and made the tribute in gold by the cities called the aurum coronarium, collected by every new emperor, a voluntary payment rather than a compulsory tax.


Emperor Julian presiding at a conference of pagan leaders (priests) by Edward Armitage, 1875.

His reforms helped Julian to become popular, but his greatest reform was still yet to come and it was something that would turn heads and cause Christianity enormous heartache. In the year 362, an edict of toleration was proclaimed by Julian, which declared that all religions in the empire were once again equal before the law. Across the empire the ban on pagan practices was lifted, temples were reopened and their wealth restored that was once confiscated by the church. To add further insult to injury, Julian ordered bishops that were declared heretics by the church, to teach once again in their communities. History had told Julian that persecutions of the past had not worked. So instead Julian exuberantly hoped that the Arian and Nicene factions would tear each other apart. When that didn’t work, Julian promoted pagans over Christians in public offices and banned Christians from teaching in the empires schools. He even went as far as to protect those who committed violent act against the Christians from prosecution. Unfortunately, Romans including many of Julian’s friends, had thought that by now he had gone too far. He was starting to lose the hearts and minds of his subjects. Pagans alike thought he had gone mad, in particular with his frenzy of animal sacrifices. Soon they thought that there would be no livestock to eat. (Julian would receive the unflattering nickname of “the butcher” for his actions.)


To ‘rescue’ the situation, Julian would turn his attention to Persia. For unclear reasons, Julian decided to resume a new war against one of Rome’s greatest foes – Sharpur II. Some believe it was always his intention, upon becoming Augustus, to seek out new glory. Like his heroes from Rome’s glorious past, Julian may have wanted to emulate Trajan’s military campaigns in Mesopotamia?  While others believe, like myself, it was surely to win over his subjects towards paganism, arguably in the same vain his uncle Constantine had won many great battles for Christianity. So, in the spring of 362, he headed for the magnificent city of Antioch to make his preparations. He was greeted warmly by the populous, but soon they became bitter and disappointed by Julian’s pagan rhetoric and temple sacrifices. When they started to mock his beliefs and even scribed satirical verses about his beard, Julian took his revenge in the most unconventional manner by responding in kind with his Misopogon (‘Beard hater’).

“People don’t let anyone think your satires offend me. I have myself supplied the ammunition with my goatish chin. I could, I suppose, make it as smooth and bare as those of your pretty young men, and of all women, though they are naturally beautiful. However, even when old you try to emulate your sons (and your daughters) by your soft and prissy lifestyles and your mincing manners, so you carefully smooth your cheeks, and ever so delicately hint at being male.”

Despite his efforts to remain calm in the face of mockery, he ‘turned up the heat’ on Christians in other ways, which included reaching out to the Jews of the empire. Julian ambitiously ordered the Temple of Jerusalem to be rebuilt to cast Jesus as a false prophet. In Judeo-Christian historiography, the temple wouldn’t be rebuilt until the end of days, and unfortunately for Julian it would remain that way, when an earthquake shattered the foundations of the new project. It appeared the harder Julian tried to reverse Christianity’s fortunes, the less successful he was with his own endeavour to elevate paganism.

This see-saw battle between Julian and Christians came to a head, when he made an official visit to the famous Temple of Apollo, and was horrified to learn that a Christian martyr had been buried nearby its limits. Julian had the sarcophagus of the martyr exhumed immediately on his orders. Riots, of course, followed by angry mobs, arrests were made and troublemakers were summarily executed. However, just when public order was finally restored, the Temple of Apollo was mysteriously burned to the ground, infuriating Julian once more. He immediately blamed the Christians for the fire and as punishment closed the Great Church of Antioch and confiscated their gold plates. This back and forth angst between the Antiochian’s and Julian simply couldn’t continue without a greater revolt breaking out. So it was in the nick of time, that Julian in early 363, was finally ready to mount his campaign against the Persians to everyone’s relief. Though, upon his exit from the city of Antioch, Julian would have one last swipe at its citizens.

1280px-duraeuropos-palmyragate (1)

Julian’s army passed by these ruins of Dura Europos (pictured here is the Palmyrene Gate), on their way to the Persian capital, with very little incident.

After travelling for some time along several different routes, Julian’s army eventually crossed the Euphrates and followed it in an eastward direction all the way to the west bank of the Tibris. Months of marching finally brought them beneath the walls of Ctesiphon, the Persian capital. In a lot of ways, Julian faced conditions as a commander that he had not yet experienced. As successful he was as a campaigner in Gaul, Persia would become his Achilles heal. Here too, up against a seasoned veteran like Sharpur II, Julian would learn every quickly about life and death. Sharpur employed scorched earth tactics in many of his campaigns and this one against Julian it was no different. There was, of course, the obvious task of burning or carrying off crops to prevent them from being used by the enemy, but Sharpur also in this case, smashed Persian dams to flood fields and routes of escape.

At first, Julian didn’t seem daunted by the challenge ahead, as his army successfully defeated the Persians, underneath the walls of their capital Ctesiphon. However, Julian was soon unable to progress any further in taking the city, partly because he had didn’t have a large enough siege train to capture it, and importantly because reinforcements he was expecting did not arrive. After what seemed like a promising start, Julian was left with no choice but to retreat, when he heard that a large Persian force was closing in. Some modern historians like Lars Brownworth and Adrian Goldsworthy quickly point out to general readers that Julian’s campaign had all the tell tale signs of a tragedy even before it began. It is therefore of no surprise to read that the end of Julian’s campaign would soon spell complete disaster for the empire. Julian like other Roman commanders, in his retreat was plagued with supply problems and constant harassment from enemy units. It didn’t help that Julian destroyed almost the entire supply barges. But it would have been next to impossible to pull them up against the Tigris currents. Retreating up the Tigris, instead off the way he originally came via the Euphrates, was another mistake. But maybe that was part of Sharpur’s genius by flooding the original route, to stop a quick retreat by Julian’s legions.

For a little over a week, the retreating Roman’s were harassed by the Persian’s, to the point where things became critical. Then on the 26th of June 363 AD, the unimaginable happened when Julian was stabbed in the side by a spear. It all happened so quickly, as Julian leaped from his tent, when another rearguard attack by the Persians demanded his attention. Jumping straight into the thick of it, he forgot to fully strap on his armour. The head of the spear pierced his liver and Julian quickly realized it was a fatal blow. His soldiers without delay attended to Julian lying in the dust. They pulled the spear out causing Julian to bleed out before carrying him back to his tent. But there was nothing that could be done to save their fallen emperor. Julian died in the late hours just before midnight and according to legend, he was last heard to say Vicisti Galilaee! – ‘Thou has conquered, Galilean!’


With his death, all hope of a pagan revival, completely dissipated into insignificance. Did the Christians or ‘Galileans’, as Julian liked to call them, really triumph over Julian’s plans for a new pagan state? In the end I suppose it did. Julian’s new religious reforms were abandoned, Christians were invited back into the fold of government and teaching; and the church regained nearly of all of their old privileges. Interesting is the reaction from the church after his death too. Christian writers in the years after his death generally denounced Julian, as a man they identified with the anti-Christ. They even let rumors persist that the fatal spear that struck Julian’s side, came not from a Persian, but a Christian soldier in his army. Other legends also came to claim that it was Saint Mercurius, pictured here (left) on this coptic icon, who killed Julian, in defense of the Christian faith.

It is interesting to hypothesize what sort of Roman empire it might have become had Julian lived to old age? He truly believed that Christianity had corrupted Roman life and virtue to the core. There were ominous signs though that Julian’s brand of paganism simply would not have attracted enough support. Many pagans already were perplexed by his bizarre religious behavior, in particularly his relentless thirst for animal sacrifice.

For such an extraordinary intelligent individual, one has to wonder why he tried to push his pagan beliefs upon an empire already heading down a new path. Maybe he thought that there was still hope for a return to the glory days of Marcus Aurelius? Or was his pagan reaction simply revenge against Constantius and his collaborators? After all, his family was murdered and he was locked away and never considered imperial material, not until Constantius was desperately looking for a reliable and loyal Caesar. Julian to his credit found success beyond all poor expectations of him. His rise as Caesar was remarkable, but his short reign as sole Augustus was a failure.

Nonetheless, regardless of his failure to turn back the clock to a more pagan past, and the posthumous attacks on Julian’s character by the church, it is surprising to think that we are still talking about him today. Equally amazing is that his works, which include the Misopogan and Against the Galileans, have survived for all prosperity despite his scathing critique of Christianity. It must say something at least about the compromise made between Christianity and Hellenism or Christianity and paganism not to destroy his work?

Even if the church loved to hate Julian, there were still those who truly admired him. One of those admirers was the soldier historian, Ammianus Marcellinus. He was Julian’s friend and contemporary but not shy enough to criticize Julian in his writings where he saw fit.  Another admirer was the Greek-speaking teacher of rhetoric, Libanius, who had many interesting things to say about Julian. I believe Libanius’ small passage below sums up how many other admirers too, may have felt about Julian the Apostate:

“His reputation spreading at once over the world, every soldier loved the man that was a lover of action; men of letters loved him also…. he so terrified the natives that they begged leave to change their residence and become a part of the Roman dominion, thinking it more desirable to live under him than in their own country.”

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.
Libanius: Funeral Oration on Julian. Click here for link.
Ammianus Marcellinus, The Later Roman Empire: AD 354-378, Selected and translated by Walter Hamilton, Penquin Classic, 1995.
Adrian Murdoch, The Last Pagan: Julian the Apostate and the death of the ancient world, Sutton Publishing, 2005.
John Julius Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, Viking, 1988.
Shaun Tougher, Julian the Apostate, Edinburgh University Press, 2007.
Photo credit: The header image is the detail of a Sassanian relief showing the prostrate figure of Emperor Julian. The portrait of Julian on a bronze coin from Antioch is used under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 license and the Palmyrene Gate, the main entrance to the city of Dura Europos, is used under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 license.

1 comment on “A short history of Byzantium: No. 22 The Last Pagan Emperor

  1. Wonder how many people fell asleep during the funeral oration (as per your link to LIBANIUS’ FUNERAL ORATION UPON THE EMPEROR JULIAN) and did they serve tea and cakes afterwards?

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