A Shocking Story

Christopher Kelly

  • The Last Pagan Emperor: Julian the Apostate and the War against Christianity by H.C. Teitler
    Oxford, 271 pp, £22.99, April 2017, ISBN 978 0 19 062650 1

In November 361, after the sudden death of the emperor Constantius II, his cousin Flavius Claudius Iulianus became the undisputed ruler of the Roman world. Twenty months later, Julian himself lay dying. In early April 363, 100,000 Roman troops had crossed the frontier and marched eastwards through Mesopotamia. The campaign was a disaster, dogged by bad luck, incompetence and a failure to appreciate either the difficulties of the terrain or the strength of the enemy. A demoralised Roman army, dangerously short of supplies and with Persian forces moving ever nearer, began a slow retreat in the searing summer heat. On 26 June at Samarra (fifty miles north of modern Baghdad) the rear of the Roman marching column, then straggling over four miles, was suddenly attacked. Julian rushed to bring reinforcements. In his haste he did not stop to strap on full body armour. The Romans forced the Persians to fall back, but in the confused pursuit the emperor’s unprotected chest was pierced by a spear. The assailant was never identified. That night – still deep in enemy territory – Julian died of his wounds.

Fifty years earlier, Julian’s uncle, Constantine, had been the first Roman emperor to give his official blessing to Christianity, transforming the fortunes of a marginalised and persecuted sect. The powerful now professed allegiance to Christ; the elites of the Mediterranean world soon followed; cathedrals were built in cities across the empire; bishops consolidated their authority over the Church; orthodoxy was disputed and defined; heretics were discovered and condemned. Christianity’s success wasn’t certain, immediate or total. Strong imperial support for the new religion – whether cynically or spiritually motivated– was a bold and remarkable choice. To many nervous contemporaries, converting to Christianity must have seemed risky. Certainly, no one at the beginning of the fourth century could have predicted that Constantine had taken the first steps towards the establishment of Christendom.

Julian was the only Roman emperor after Constantine to reject Christianity. Like all members of the imperial family, he was raised a Christian. Following Constantine’s death in May 337, the six-year-old Julian was overlooked in the dynastic butchery that eliminated his father and other blood rivals of Constantine’s son and successor, Constantius II. Excluded from his cousin’s court, Julian grew up far away on an estate near Caesarea (modern Kayseri) in Cappadocia. Perhaps it was as a bored teenager in rural Turkey that he first strayed from Christianity, or perhaps as a student excited by the philosophy of Plato and its later elaborations. Julian was later to claim that he had faked his Christianity long after he chose to seek spiritual fulfilment in the worship of the old Greek and Roman gods. Certainly, in his undergraduate days he liked to think of himself as a closet pagan. To affirm his philosophical credentials he grew a beard. But the lapse was not so well known, even by his family – or perhaps not taken so seriously – that it prevented the uncompromisingly Christian Constantius from appointing Julian (now clean-shaven) his deputy in the western half of the empire, where he was in charge of successful campaigns along the Rhine frontier. After Constantius’ unexpected death, Julian, now with the support of an army, swiftly consolidated his imperial position.

For the twenty months of his reign, the emperor actively opposed Christianity. The Church historian Sozomen, writing eighty years after Julian’s death, offered a narrative of his reign punctuated by accounts of Christians showing extraordinary heroism in the face of pagan persecution. The righteous always knew that God was on their side. The stray spear that killed the emperor at Samarra was further evidence of providential intervention in Roman history. Some claimed it had been thrown by a Christian fighting for the Persians, or perhaps by a renegade Roman soldier. Others believed God had taken no chances. John Malalas, the author of a sixth-century chronicle of the world that began with the Creation, reported a dream in which a bishop transported to heaven witnessed an enthroned Christ instruct the martyr-saint Mercurius: ‘Go forth and kill the emperor Julian, who is against the Christians.’ According to Sozomen’s version, ‘when the emperor was pierced, he took some of the blood that flowed from the wound and tossed it up into the air, as if he had seen a vision of Christ and intended to fling it at him, in order to reproach him for his slaughter.’

Julian’s successor, the emperor Jovian, who led the defeated army back from Persia, was a Christian with no interest in reviving the worship of the old gods. Almost immediately after Julian’s death, Gregory, the bishop of Nazianzus (a small town in central Turkey), one of the cleverest theologians and finest preachers of his generation, completed two vituperative orations which elaborated the Christian case against him, arguing that he had been sent as divine punishment for Christian laxity. Ever merciful, ‘like one who dries up a poisoned stream’, God had reduced the sentence to a mere twenty months. Julian’s brief reign stood as a sharp warning of the consequences of impiety. The emperor’s sacrilege had threatened the future of the Roman Empire: an army had nearly been lost in a humiliating Persian expedition. Gregory aimed to expose Julian’s shortcomings as ruler, general, philosopher and religious thinker, and to celebrate his demise. ‘Listen to these words, all people; lend your ears, all you inhabitants of earth. I call you … all you powers of heaven, all angels whose work is the fall of the tyrant and who have defeated the dragon, the Apostate … the common adversary and enemy of all.’ For Gregory, Julian’s rejection of Christianity was key to understanding the emperor: ‘now an enemy of Christ, he had once been a disciple … who had proclaimed and heard of the things that lead to salvation.’ Julian had seen the Truth, and chosen to renounce it. His repudiation of his childhood faith was a defining fall from Grace. As Susanna Elm put it in Sons of Hellenism, Fathers of the Church (2012), ‘Gregory made Julian the Apostate.’

The Last Pagan Emperor: Julian the Apostate and the War against Christianity does not, despite its subtitle, collude with Gregory of Nazianzus in the making of ‘Julian the Apostate’. Rather, Hans Teitler follows the best recent scholarship to suggest that Christian narratives of Julian’s ‘war against Christianity’ are tendentious and exaggerated. The Last Pagan Emperor examines the accounts of Christians martyred after confrontations with the emperor. Some of these stories are known only from versions circulating centuries later. A few of Teitler’s targets are easy pickings. I’m not sure, for example, that anyone ever gave much credence to the 11th-century French tale of St Elophius. The emperor (spurred on by the devil), during a heated altercation with this pious Christian, is said to have instructed him to choose his burial place. Elophius indicated a nearby hillside; Julian ordered him decapitated on the spot. Elophius then picked up his head and walked over to his grave. The cephalophorous saint having made his point (although it is not entirely clear what that point was) left behind a confused and enraged emperor.

In the face of a long series of fantastical and violent accounts of martyrdom, Teitler keeps a completely straight face. Reviewing the story of the virgins of Gaza who, according to Sozomen, were violated, disembowelled, stuffed with barleycorn and fed to pigs, Teitler judiciously remarks: ‘A shocking story. Is it true? Certainly not totally.’ Are the pigs or the barleycorn the giveaway? The son of a certain Anthimus, according to a seventh-century collection of healing miracles, suffered from unbearable pain in his testicles and couldn’t urinate. Anthimus demanded that the boy spend the night in the crypt of a church which housed the relics of St Artemius, who had been martyred under Julian. ‘In the night in question,’ Teitler writes, ‘the holy martyr appeared in a dream to Anthimus’ son in the shape of his father. “Undress yourself and show me what you have.” The young man obeyed, whereupon Artemius pinched his testicles so vehemently that the boy woke up and screamed aloud.’ But he could once again piss freely. ‘A shocking story. Is it true? Certainly not totally.’ Nor, as Teitler’s careful investigations show, is it likely that Julian had anything to do with Artemius’ martyrdom.

It might seem a somewhat profitless exercise to try to read saints’ lives seriously. Even Teitler passes swiftly over the one in which Julian is made pope by Satan. It is unsurprising that not much stands up to scrutiny, but the cumulative result is important. Teitler’s patient unpicking of stories told by Sozomen and other Church historians – in turn recycled and elaborated in the Christian mythography of the Middle Ages – emphasises that they do not provide credible accounts of Julian and his interaction with Christians. They are better understood as part of a long narrative of triumphalism, describing the inevitable, inexorable rise of Christianity and the defeat of its religious rivals. Read out in church on the feast days of the saints they commemorate, they reveal a great deal about Christian self-presentation – and very little about Julian.

There is no compelling evidence for a widespread persecution of Christians actively or personally prosecuted by Julian. Certainly an unknown number of Christians died for their faith. Some were murdered by those who felt emboldened by the emperor’s lack of support for the Church. Some martyrs – like St Elophius – are probably later fictions. Some Christians were killed by other Christians. One of Julian’s early policies was to permit the return of clerics exiled by Constantius II because of their heretical beliefs. Their homecoming sometimes provoked riots. Other Christian groups, no longer banned or suppressed, violently asserted their cause. Julian can be criticised for failing to restrain these lynch mobs (both pagan and Christian); but this is still distant from an imperially sponsored pogrom, and even further from a personal involvement in making martyrs. ‘Riots because of religious disputes did occasionally occur,’ Teitler concludes, ‘but for a general persecution under Julian, let alone for a persecution ordered by Julian, there is absolutely no evidence in reliable sources.’

For those willing to suffer for their beliefs, the emperor was frustratingly reluctant to oblige. Some Christians objected to this passivity, alleging that Julian had deliberately deprived Christians of the opportunity for martyrdom. ‘It was solely from envy of their glory that instead of employing fire and sword against the Christians,’ Sozomen wrote, ‘he abandoned violent measures … for he reckoned that paganism would be better advanced by a personal and unexpected display of patience and mildness.’ Julian was no second Nero, an uncomplicated and cheerfully enthusiastic persecutor, who, Christian tradition imagined, threw diehard believers to the lions to liven up a dull afternoon in the amphitheatre. (Again very unlikely to have been the case. But that is another story. It is best to rehabilitate Roman emperors one by one.)

Despite the lack of any widespread persecution, there should be no doubt that Julian was a committed anti-Christian. He intended to repeal Constantine’s legislative and financial support of Christianity: pagan temples were reopened, restored and rebuilt; tax exemptions for clerics revoked. Julian’s polemical tract Against the Galileans set out his objections to Christianity, attacking it with all the passionate obsession and bitterness of a former believer. Substantial passages survive: Against the Galileans was extensively excerpted by the fifth-century bishop and propagandist Cyril of Alexandria, who provided his readers with a fully worked out rebuttal to Julian’s objections.

One of Julian’s chief complaints was Christianity’s exclusivity and seeming lack of interest in offering salvation to those who had lived before Christ. ‘At last God sent them Jesus, but to us no prophet, no oil of anointing, no teacher, no herald to announce his love for humanity which should one day, though late, reach us also … But if he is the God of all of us, and creator of all equally, why did he neglect us?’ Christianity had no convincing claim to be a universal religion. Its appeal was geographically and socially circumscribed, the limited preserve of illiterate Palestinian peasants on the shores of the Sea of Galilee – hence, for Julian, Christians were always ‘Galileans’. Nor was he impressed by Gospel miracle stories. ‘Yet Jesus who won over the worst among you has been known for little more than three hundred years, and during his lifetime he achieved nothing worthy of record, unless anyone thinks that to heal the deformed and the blind in the villages of Bethsaida and Bethany is an impressive achievement.’ Jesus was just another johnny-come-lately who jostled in the crowd of wonder-workers in the Roman world, with their commonplace claims to have exorcised evil spirits and cured the sick. ‘They were satisfied if they could fool servants and slaves.’

Most important, Julian argued, Christianity did not offer any new or sophisticated insights into the human condition or the nature of the divine. The stories of Old Testament patriarchs were uninspiring: tawdry tales of domestic squabbles, family misadventures, and minor political and military rivalries. Moses and his successors had produced no great literature, or profound philosophy, and hadn’t established a Mediterranean-wide empire. For Julian, the path to enlightenment ran arrow-straight through a millennium of classical learning. Ancient Greek political and cultural heroes – some obscure even to his readers – provided uplifting exemplars: ‘Aristeides, Cimon, Thales, Lycurgus, Agesilaus or Archidamus; or should I cite instead the whole class of philosophers, generals, artists and lawgivers?’ Is the Galileans’ ‘so-called wisest man, Solomon, at all comparable with our Phocylides, Theognis or Isocrates?’ Truth and moral guidance were to be found in classical literature, especially in Homer and the philosophy of Plato and Socrates. There was no need to turn to ‘that new-fangled Galilean god’; no need to read the Evangelists, whose stunted prose and uncertain grasp of grammar would shame a schoolboy. ‘From studying your texts no one could attain to excellence or even to ordinary goodness, while by studying ours everyone would become better than before, even though they were completely lacking any natural ability.’

Only a handful of Julian’s arguments against Christianity have any lasting resonance. Many of his debating points (at least as redacted by his opponents) seem pedantic, snobbish and self-satisfied. Julian is clearly a supporter of a classical education, although his arguments are hardly about widening participation. Certainly those who teach Plato and Homer in the 21st century would be hard pressed to claim that their students are ethically superior, or noticeably closer to the divine.

Thanks to hostile Christian preservation, a great deal of Julian’s writing survives. Sadly, there is little imperial competition: a brief and boastful account of My Achievements by Augustus, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations (ponderous pensées on human frailty by an apologetic autocrat) and some embarrassingly poor poetry by Hadrian. Julian is represented by a dozen lengthy treatises or orations and more than seventy letters, which hold out – and this is Julian’s endless fascination for historians – the possibility of understanding his personal motivations and religious beliefs. Julian is better known, and disliked in more detail, than any other individual who held power in the ancient world.

Two tracts, To King Helios and To the Mother of the Gods, offer the best insight into his conception of the divine. They are neither as intelligent nor as subtle as Gregory of Nazianzus’ writings on the complexities of the Trinity. Julian presents a rather clumsy pastiche of ideas drawn from Neoplatonism and a wide range of traditional beliefs and practices. The focus, sometimes fuzzy, of To King Helios is a form of solar henotheism: that is, a recognition of Helios, the Sun God, as an emanation of the Supreme Deity, without excluding a pantheon of other, lesser divinities. What is perhaps most remarkable in Julian’s religious writing is its decisive shift away from the pluriformity of traditional polytheist belief. If Julian renounced Christianity, he also rejected a world full of gods worshipped in a wide variety of rituals without the strictures of a complex theology based on holy texts or the close regulation of an empire-wide organisation. Julian’s paganism was prescriptive. Narrowly conceived, it was founded on a sacred canon centred on Homer, Plato and other Greek classics. It envisaged an organised priesthood (distinguished for its personal restraint and moral integrity) engaged in philanthropy and charitable works. ‘For when the poor were neglected and forgotten by our priests, then I think the impious Galileans observed this and devoted themselves to philanthropy … From Zeus came all beggars and strangers; and any gift is precious, even though small.’ (The last sentence is a quotation from the Odyssey.) ‘The comparison with the organisational structure of the Christian church,’ Teitler writes, ‘urges itself upon us.’

Above all, Julian set out to theologise paganism. He offered (to take one example) the following explanation of the relationship between Helios and the Supreme Deity: the One who ‘reveals to all existence, beauty, perfection, wholeness and irresistible power, because of the primal substance that abides in it, produced … Helios the most mighty god, proceeding from itself and in all things like unto itself.’ This exegesis runs parallel to the formulations developed by three hundred Christian bishops convened, at the prompting of the emperor Constantine, in 325 at Nicaea (modern Iznik, just south of Istanbul). Their propositions were crystallised in the Nicene Creed, which remains the cornerstone of Christian belief: ‘I believe in one God the Father Almighty … And in one Lord Jesus Christ … begotten of his Father before all worlds, God of God, light of light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.’

Julian’s pagan credo was not copycat Christianity. All contemporary thinkers wrestled with similar problems of finding a technically exact language to express their understanding of the nature of god, the creation of the universe, the relationship of humanity and divinity, and the possibility of salvation. Julian proclaimed a radical paganism – an attempt to work out a set of unified and coherent non-Christian beliefs justified by a canon of sacred texts, supported by an institutional structure and explicated by a doctrinal theology. It is difficult to tell how widely his sense of the divine was shared. Certainly it must not be assumed that his ideas represent some broad consensus of non-Christian belief. One (too cynical?) view might be that a faith-oriented person in the fourth century AD in search of a religion with an emphasis on institutions, a reliance on holy texts and a complex and well-developed theology would be more likely to embrace Christianity than Julian’s reformed paganism.


A key practice clearly out of step with current thinking, but to which Julian was devoted, was animal sacrifice. He believed it was an essential component of ritual observance. Among his first acts on becoming emperor was to repeal the prohibition imposed by Constantine and confirmed by Constantius II. Julian sacrificed at every opportunity, and at least twice a day, at dawn and dusk. His detractors ridiculed him as ‘sacrifice-mad’, ‘butcher’, ‘bull-burner’, ‘seller of meat’. Even his supporters joked that if he were to return victorious from Persia there would be an empire-wide shortage of livestock. It’s true that some non-Christians, particularly in rural areas, sacrificed – though only the wealthiest could afford to offer up a bull. Few, even after the lifting of the legal ban, shared Julian’s passion or his insistence on its importance. But sacrifice was not made compulsory. The emperor was not prepared to enforce his convictions, despite his clear frustration with his co-religionists. While preparing for the Persian expedition in the eastern Mediterranean city of Antioch in late 362, he had been eager to sacrifice to Apollo at a famously beautiful temple in Daphne, Antioch’s most exclusive suburb:

I imagined, like a man seeing things in a dream, what the procession would be like: sacrificial victims, libations, hymns to the god, incense… . When I went inside the sacred precinct, I found no incense, not a barley-cake nor any animal … When I inquired what the city intended to sacrifice in celebration of the annual feast of the god, the priest said: ‘As things stand the city has made no preparations … but I have brought with me from my own house a goose.’

Whatever the ritual preferences of Julian’s fellow believers (perhaps they chose to pray or burn incense or pour libations), Christians promoted an image of pagan religiosity fixated on animal sacrifice. One secret rite, it was said, required initiates to stand in a dark pit secured by a wooden grille. They were then showered with the blood of a bull freshly slaughtered on the altar above. But there is no good evidence that this kind of practice was a regular or central part of pagan worship. Blood-drenched devotees glistening with gore are the stuff of Christian fantasy. The imagined close connection between pagans and animal sacrifice is one of the great and lasting successes of Christian polemic. In Julian’s obsession that fiction seemed, if only briefly, to be realised. For Christians, Julian was a perfect pagan.

It is not difficult to see how those in the fourth century disaffected with Christianity might have regarded Julian, with his esoteric theology and preference for blood sacrifice, as yet another religious nutter. That helps shape an answer to Teitler’s teasing counterfactual: ‘To be sure, Julian’s reign as sole emperor did not last long, not even twenty months, a rather short period compared to the 25 years during which his uncle and total opposite Constantine (312-37) ruled as Augustus – one does wonder what would have happened if Julian had reigned as long as his uncle.’ A case can be made that, outside Julian’s sycophantic circle of philosophers and holy men, few pagans, no matter how much they disliked Christianity, would ever have found the emperor’s religion attractive. But that is significantly to underestimate the sheer pulling power of autocracy. These were the strongly held views of a Roman emperor. When Constantine announced his support of Christianity in 312, the overwhelming majority of people in the Roman Empire must have regarded his newfound piety as disturbing and bizarre, and (as Julian complained) uncomfortably déclassé. If Constantine had ruled for only twenty months, Christianity might have faded away, a footnote to the long and varied cultic history of the Roman Empire. In that sense, Constantine and Julian are not total opposites. They both pursued the same policy: to revolutionise the religion of the Roman world.

Julian’s project came a generation too late. By the 360s, every small town across the Mediterranean had a church, a congregation and a bishop. Christianity was the religion of the imperial family and most of the empire’s ruling elite. (Few of these smart urban Christians were as fanatical as the monks and ascetics who emerged in the fourth century as the shock troops of their new faith.) It would have taken considerable force to dislodge it. And force – as The Last Pagan Emperor convincingly argues– was precisely what Julian declined to use. He preferred persuasion to persecution. As Teitler observes, ‘Julian thought that paganism would be better promoted by a policy of leniency vis-à-vis the Christians than by punishment.’ Or as Julian explained, ‘it is by reason that we ought to persuade and teach men, not by blows, or insults or bodily injury … for, I believe, we ought to teach, not punish the foolish.’

Perhaps Julian was wrong. Perhaps he should have waged war against Christianity. Perhaps an empire-wide campaign of compulsory animal sacrifice and a systematic and brutal suppression of Christianity would have furthered his cause. Certainly, it remains a deep and lasting irony that the Julian of Christian tradition is a vicious persecutor, condemned for the very policy he rejected. Looking back, Christian historians – smug in the knowledge of what would happen next – offered a twofold version of Julian: he was both a menacing threat and a loser. He conquered neither Christianity nor Persia. He was both the last great test of Christian commitment and the last great obstacle to the Christianisation of the Roman Empire. He both defined paganism and personified the risks of a loss of faith. On this, Christians – orthodox and heretic – could agree. Above all, Julian’s double image as persecutor and failure lent a brilliant and deceptive clarity to an unbroken narrative of the inexorable rise of Christianity after Constantine. The now safely dead emperor was presented as a dangerous deviant all believers could unite in condemning: the more intolerant and unsuccessful his rule, the more perverse his rejection of his former faith, the greater the martyr-inspired victory. For a Christianity triumphant, the invention of ‘Julian the Apostate’ was a godsend.