Flavius Claudius Iulianus Augustus, also known as Julian the Philosopher, was the last Emperor of the Roman Empire who publicly followed Hellenism, the religion of the Graeco-Roman world. He was a man of Illyro-Roman and Greek descent and ruled as what can be described as a Philosopher King similarly to that of Marcus Aurelius. He is known for having attempted to reform the Hellenic faith, which was sadly cut short due to his untimely death.
Birth & Childhood
Flavius Claudius Iulianus was born in the city of Constantinople on November 17th, 331 ACE. He was the grandson of Constantius Chlorus and the nephew of Constantine the Great.
Upon the death of Constantine, Constantius II, the late Emperor’s son and successor, had upon his accession ordered the massacre of all surviving male members of the imperial family. Few members were spared, among them Julian and his elder brother Gallus, who were deemed too young to be dangerous.
Julian’s boyhood was spent in something of a house arrest, although both he and Gallus were treated with the respect due to their noble births and as such were given an excellent education. The two boys were brought up with Christianity, and Julian was placed under the care of Eusebius, bishop of Nicomedia
On 351 ACE Gallus was invested by the emperor with the title of Caesar and appointed the governor of the East. Simultaneously Julian’s life became easier. He obtained more liberty to travel, and his inheritance was restored to him. On this year, Julian was permitted to go from Constantinople to Nicomedia, later on, Ephesus, a city that was staunchly Hellenic. It is on this year that Julian would convert to Hellenism. While in Ephesus, Julian’s to-be teacher, Maximus of Ephesus, wanted to prove to the young Julian that he would be a proper instructor for him, taking Julian and many others to the Temple of Hekate. Following the burning of incense and the singing of a hymn, the statue of the goddess began to smile and then to laugh aloud. The torches in her hands were set ablaze. Maximus of Ephesus animated the statue of Hekate in the temple. This, naturally, shocked the whole crowd and assured the young Julian of his conversion.
In 354 ACE, Gallus, whose administration had been doing poorly and only resulted in the upsetting of local officials, was put to death by order of Constantius II. Julian came to grief for his late brother, and would later write how though his brother was a poor politician, he didn’t deserve death.
The disgrace and death of Gallus put the young Julian in great danger. He was taken under a strong guard to Meliodonum, where he lived for roughly seven months surrounded by spies. Julian lived under the constant fear of sharing the same fate of the rest of his family. His friendship with Constantius’ wife Eusebia, however, saved him. Eusebia’s influence counteracted to some extent the informers, yes-men, and flatterers that Constantius surrounded himself with. Julian obtained an interview with the emperor and, having allayed his suspicions, was allowed to withdraw into private life at Athens. This nightmare turned into Julian’s dream.
Athens was, by now, a bit of a backwater; but this was beneficial for Julian since it raised no threat to Constantius. Soon Julian obtained no small reputation as a philosopher, attending lectures in Athens. Simultaneously he began to gain popularity for his gentleness and virtue. During his residence at Athens, Julian devoted himself to the study of Platonic philosophy and initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries.
Meanwhile, the anxieties of the Constantius were increasing. The empire was exposed to the invasions of the Persians to the East and the Germans to the north. Constantius took the advice of Eusebia and summoned Julian to Meliodonum for reasons then-unknown.
Upon the news, Julian was terrified. It is written that he pleaded to the Goddess Athene to end his misery before he’d be put before Constantius. Dying there and now, in Julian’s mind, would be better than any death that Constantius would subjugate him to. Julian later would write in his letter to the Athenians “What floods of tears I shed and what laments I uttered when I was summoned, stretching out my hands to your Acropolis and imploring Athena to save her suppliant and not to abandon me. Many of you who were there can back me up. The Goddess Herself is my witness that I even begged for death at her hands there in Athens rather than my journey to the emperor.”
On his arrival he found himself saluted with servile respect by those who had been the murderers of his father and brother. Bewildered, Constantinius told Julian something that made his blood run cold. He was not going to die; he was going to be Caesar, essentially “Deputy Emperor,” of Western provinces, as the official representative of Constantius. To Julian, this was worse than death. The title of Caesar was often a target for death. It is said that upon being given the purple cloak associated with royalty, Julian recited under his breath a quote from the Iliad:“By purple death I’m seized and fate supreme.”
Following custom, he ceremonially shaved his beard and exchanged the cloak of a Greek philosopher for the military garb of a Roman prince.
On November 8th 355 ACE Julian was proclaimed Caesar and was given the command of the provinces beyond the Alps:
- And, most importantly, Gaul.
Caesar in Gaul
After a short stay at the court, during which Julian difficulty in adapting himself to his new surroundings, he left for Gaul. Little did he know is that he was essentially given a warzone; Gaul was at this time suffering severely from the incursions from Germans, who had crossed the Rhine and burnt many cities, even capturing the provincial capital Colonia (known as Cologne, Germany in modern day). Julian could have, quite honestly, begun to take a life of leisure. However, he took his duties very seriously and started military training. Instead of living lavishly in his palace in Gaul in relaxation, he did the opposite. He made his bed and rations equivalent to that of an ordinary soldier. After a series of campaigns in the summers of 356 ACE and 357 ACE, Julian fought a battle against the Alemanni near Strassburg and, although outnumbered by nearly three to one, gained a great victory and even captured the enemy’s king. He invaded Germania in 358 ACE and 359 ACE. Julian established peace in Gaul and rescued 20,000 Roman prisoners from the Alemanni.
The career of Julian is remarkable proof that a real philosophic training will fit a man for any walk of life. The wisdom which he had acquired in the schools of Platonism was that of true virtue, and it stood the test of practical life. He acquired the habit of self-discipline. Temptations and luxuries that marked the Roman court during his time were powerless to corrupt his character; his food and bed weren’t more luxurious than those of a common soldier. His capacity as an administrator was equal to his efficiency as a general, and after securing the safety of Gaul he gained confidence and took a direct part in Gaul’s administration, taking measures to restore the region’s agricultural prosperity which had been substantially damaged by constant wars and invasions.
Through all this he never neglected philosophy. Among the men assisting him was Sallustius, who was his chief adviser in Gaul. Sallustius became a very close friend of Julian and was also both a soldier and philosopher, most famously known for his authorship of the Hellenic catechism “On the Gods and the World.”
Julian’s popularity increased in the provinces, and his fame spread over the empire. Constantius’ court favorites falsely insinuated to Constantius that Julian was aiming at securing the empire for himself. Constantius, paranoid as ever, became suspicious and planned to bring about Julian’s downfall.
In an order which reached Julian in April 360 ACE, Constantius peremptorily commanded that four of Julian’s best legions and some quantity of picked troops, which was largely the strength of the army in Gaul, were to instantly begin a march from Gaul to the East. The reason given was due to Persia, which was at the time once more threatening the eastern provinces of the Empire.
Such a command was fatal both to the safety of Gaul and the discipline of the troops. Most of the auxiliaries had received a pledge that they would not be obliged to serve beyond the Alps when entering on their voluntary service. Now they were not only being called to go beyond the Alps, but to the other side of the Empire. Trust was being broken
Julian nevertheless prepared to obey and endeavored to persuade the troops to follow suit. The detachments began to move amid an air of sorrow. A farewell address to the departing contingent was received in dead silence.
At midnight on the same evening a thunderous crowd of soldiers, armed with drawn swords and carrying torches, invaded the palace that Julian’s headquarters was located at in Lutetia (Modern day Paris) and proclaimed Julian as Augustus; Emperor of all of Rome.
Julian resisted as long as he could, but at dawn, he was dragged from his apartments, carried through the streets of Paris, and clamorously saluted as emperor. His refusals and pleas were in vain. It is said that he prayed to the Gods for guidance, and it is received a clear sign from above that he should submit to be crowned. His men held him up high upon a shield above the shouting soldiers. He was crowned as emperor with a military collar, the best available insignia.
Julian didn’t wish for bloodshed if it could be avoided, and therefore despatched to Constantius a letter suggesting merely that he should be officially recognized as emperor of Gaul. Constantius arrogantly rejected these proposals and demanded Julian’s complete submission. After some further barren negotiations, Julian sent to the emperor a letter openly refusing to abandon his claims. Julian simultaneously prepared for hostilities. However, not wanting to neglect the safety of Gaul, he continued to strike terror into the hostile Germans while conducting his ultimately fruitless negotiations with Constantius to keep the Germans at bay.
The die was cast, and Rome was set for civil war. Having irreversibly committed himself, he prepared to march against the capital of Constantinople. He divided his army into three parts and instructed the generals in charge of the first two divisions group up with him at Sirmium (modern-day Sremska Mitrovica). Julian, along with with three thousand picked men, plunged into the heart of the Black Forest and, after a rapid march over challenging and hostile territory, seized a fleet of lightships on the Danube river, traversed seven hundred miles in a mere eleven days, and arrived near Sirmium before his enemies even knew that he left the Rhine.
At Sirmium he regrouped with the other portions of his army as he had planned, and from there moved towards Constantinople. He sent explanatory letters to Athens, Rome, and other relevant cities, and was either publicly or privately acknowledged as emperor.
Constantius set out from Syria to defend his capital but died suddenly on his way at Mopsucrene near Tarsus on November 3rd 361 ACE due to an illness. Before his death, Constantius is said to have named Julian as his successor, and thus without the necessity of a bloody civil war, Julian became the undisputed master of the empire without a single major battle. This was a blessing from the Gods, and Julian’s dreams were coming true. He became Emperor at the age of 31.
It is during this time does Julian go public with his Hellenism. “I worship the Gods openly and the whole mass of the troops who are returning with me worship the Gods.” penned the new Augustus to his teacher Maximinus,“I sacrifice oxen in public. I have offered many great public sacrifices to the Gods as thanks offerings. The Gods command me to restore Their worship in the utmost purity and I obey Them, yes and with a good will.”
He made a triumphal entry into Constantinople on December 11th as the city’s first native Emperor. The officers of Constantius fled before him, but the inhabitants received him with joy. A few days later the body of Constantius was landed in the harbor and Julian’s first act as Emperor was to overlook his predecessor’s funeral. Clad in mourning and without his crown, Julian accompanied the funeral on foot as far as the church of the Holy Apostles. This would be the last time Julian would step into a church.
Following the funeral, he was quick to reform the imperial court. When forming his administration, he remembered the teachings of Plato; a government of flocks and herds is always committed to beings of a superior species and that the rulership of nations requires the divine guardianship of Gods and angels. As such, Julian aspired to the highest perfection, purified his soul from anger and desire, practiced the most meticulous self-control, and diligently sought to attain greater wisdom.
Soon after his entrance into Constantinople, he requested for a barber. A magnificently dressed official presented himself. “It is a barber that I want, not a receiver-general of the finances!” mocked Julian. The barber, in response, exclaimed that besides his large salary and valuable perquisites that he had a “daily allowance for twenty servants and twenty horses.” Julian fired him on the spot.
Since Emperor Diocletian decades prior, the entourage of the Emperor would be increasingly lavish. Rulers were closer to God than man. This was no different with Constantius, whose entourage included a thousand barbers, a thousand cup-bearers, and a thousand cooks, along with other officials who had increased their wealth by oppressing the public. In a single edict, Julian did away with all this and in one sweep dismissed the whole train, reducing the palace of Constantius to an immense desert. Furthermore, Julian set up a tribunal of six judges to deal with all charges against the officials of Constantius.
In the past, the growing Christian Church was in conflict with Hellenism. Upon the crowning of Julian, Christians expected a renewal of the persecutions that they had been once subjected by other Hellenic emperors. This never came, however; when the control of the empire was delivered into Julian’s hands, he displayed a religious toleration which had rarely been equaled by any of his predecessors.
It was a time when religious fanaticism was commonplace, and persecutions on both sides had increased resentment between the Christians and their opponents. Julian was different, though, and by a wise edict, extended to all the inhabitants of the Roman world freedom of religion. Bishops and clergy who were banished by Constantius, himself an Arian Christian, were even recalled from exile. The only hardships which he inflicted upon the Christians were to forbid them to insult their fellow-subjects by calling them idolaters and heretics and a requirement to restored the temples they destroyed back into the hands of pagans across the Empire. Julian even allowed the Jews to begin construction on the Third Temple.
Julian invited the leaders of the hostile sects to his palace and endeavored to persuade them to live together in peace. However, his efforts were powerless against the fanaticism of the rival sectarians. The Christians immediately began infighting among themselves again.
Following Hellenic custom, Julian assumed the office of Pontifex Maximus and became High Priest as well as emperor. He discharged its duties with enthusiasm and endeavored to restore Hellenism to full glory. A great revival of the ancient faith spread across the empire, especially in great cities like Alexandria and Baalbek, and Julian even began to lay the foundations for a reformation of the old religion, which would sadly never come to fruition due to his untimely death. He chose several priests and philosophers whom he most admired and trusted as his assistants, urging them in letters to keep the worship of the Gods pure from all those elements which had brought the ancient religion into disrepute. He appointed provincial High Priests and set up a charity for the poor. He set up laws regarding his new priesthood which allowed even the poor to become priests, as long as they were well-red, pious and lived simply.
He encouraged philosophy and learning but forbade the Christians from teaching grammar and rhetoric because they would, on the one hand, use Hellenic texts to teach students, but on the other hand, ridicule the texts and show no respect for the Hellenic religion and its sacred names.
Shortly after his accession, Julian visited Antioch and there became close friends with the orator Libanius, who would later compose his funeral oration. During his stay, Julian and the locals came into some degree of conflict; where the Antiochenes would often mock him for his beard and simple living. Rather than giving any bloody persecution, however, he simply published a tongue-in-cheek parody of himself and decided that he would eventually move his court to another city.
In 362 ACE Julian decided to make an expedition against the Persians and set out in March of the following year, which would prove to be his fatal mistake.
Perso-Roman War of 363
Even before the divine Julian begun the war, omens warned against it, with negative responses from both the Sibylline Books and the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi. Julian erred by going forward, and immediately issues set arise, with his spies giving him false information, whether accidentally or on purpose. His plans were upset by the treachery of the king of Armenia upon whose help he counted on. After capturing several cities he attempted to lay siege to Ctesiphon, the Persian capital, and though successful in battle he was unable to take it without the help of the Armenians. He was forced to burn his fleet behind him and began a march into the interior of Persia in search of the main army of the Persian king, Shapur II.
As Julian advanced, the Persians begun a scorched earth tactic by burning any supplies he could gather from cities ahead of him. This made it difficult for Julian to supply his men, and he fell back towards the friendly province of Corduene.
The main army of the Persians now appeared and harassed the retreating Romans, although they were unable to stop their march. At length, as the Roman army passed through some hilly country, the Persians fell upon the Romans both front and rear.
Julian was a wise and noble warrior, but on this day an error was made, and Julian rode into battle in the late afternoon without armor on horseback. When his guards were scattered, and the enemy routed, a Saracen auxiliary working under the Sasanians struck our beloved Julian, piercing through his ribs and hitting his liver while also clipping the wall of his gut. The bodyguards of the emperor immediately attacked the Saracen and decapitated him. Julian pulled the spear out, but fainted in the process, later recovering consciousness and climbing back onto his horse before passing out again. Roman Soldiers placed Julian on a shield and carried him to camp, where he was laid out on the lion skin and a straw bed in his tent where he received medical attention from his trusted personal physician, Oribasius.
Philostrogius writes that Julian had died after 3 days of suffering. If we count inclusively, as the Romans did, that places Julian’s death on June 28th, not June 26th. Instead, June 26th is to be remembered as a day a brave emperor had been injured in battle.
After spending three days going in and out of consciousness, the wounds on Julian’s side gaped wide, and the veins in his throat swelled up, obstructing his breathing. He asked for and drank some cold water, and at midnight was granted passage into Elysium, his corporeal bonds broken by Lord Serapis who placed him in the light of the sun’s divine rays, lifting him into henosis.
Memory of Julian
Injustice has been done by historians to the memory of Julian. His opposition to the Christian religion has been treated like a vice, and yet if he had acted in any other way under his own religious convictions, he would have been untrue to his own faith of Hellenism.
One of the great virtues of Julian is one often overlooked. Though he was himself as zealously religious as those who opposed him, and possessed every power and opportunity for oppressing and persecuting those with whom he disagreed, he instead used the utmost of his power to allow fair and legitimate means of open argument and discussion, something not even his Christian opponents would even grant to one another in a time where the early Christian church was already rent asunder with bloody schisms and infighting.
Among the most dominant traits of Julian was his enthusiasm. As a military leader, was an active, energetic, and brilliant commander, a strict disciplinarian, but one who was loved by his soldiers in the image of Julius Caesar. As an administrator, he possessed a remarkable capacity for work. He was equally efficient as a priest, an author, a prince, a general, and a magistrate.
He could pursue three separate trains of ideas and could write a letter, listen to a report, and dictate to a secretary simultaneously. In one day he would give audience to ambassadors, write a significant number of public and private letters, and still find time for the study of philosophy. His energy and diligence were so notable that his secretaries and servants had to rest on alternate days and work shifts.
His dress was simple, his food light and sparing, and he mainly subscribed to vegetarianism. He slept little but always spent part of the night in prayer and studying philosophy. As a priest, he didn’t despise the most humble duties connected with the worship of the Gods, and he didn’t act lazy with his practice.
In an age of high moral corruption, Julian maintained an example of high moral virtue as a paragon.
When acting as a judge, he was careful to obey the law to the letter, but as a legislator, he labored to make the laws better. Fifty-four laws enacted by Julian were included in the codes of Theodosius and Justinian.
In the words of Gibbon, “he labored to relieve the distress, and to revive the spirit of his subjects, and always endeavored to connect authority with merit and happiness with virtue.”
In the Invectives by Gregory of Nazianzen, Gregory’s fanaticism and violent dislike of the late Julian lead him to the wildest falsifications. The primary object of Gregory, who was among the young men with whom Julian attended lectures at Athens with, is to present Julian as the blackest of criminals. However, Julian was a popular Emperor among his people (beyond Antioch) that was known for his dutiful rule, and his friend Libanius crowns him as the greatest and most glorious of mankind in his funeral oration. In the modern day, Julian becomes more and more manifest, and he emerges from the splendors of Rome as one of the noblest rulers in the history of the world.
If Julian hadn’t been related to Constantine or an emperor, he would’ve gained popularity as a brilliant philosopher. His works, which were either composed in a camp while on active service or in the little leisure which the administration of the Roman Empire allowed, shows a powerful and active mind. Among his works are:
- Nine Orations – Among these the most important are those “Hymn to King Helios” and “Hymn to the Mother of the Gods.” Both these works are valuable contributions to theological speculation and display Julian’s education in Platonism.
- “Hymn to King Helios” is devoted to the King of the Gods, Zeus-Helios, in dedication to his friend Sallustius, author of “On the Gods and the World.”
- “Hymn to the Mother of the Gods” was written in a single night during the winter at Pessinus before the Persian expedition, where Julian restored the temple of the Great Mother there.
- Letters, of the most notable:
- Letter 21 is notable, which is addressed to the Senate and People of Athens when Julian was preparing to fight against Constantius as an explanation. In this letter, Julian relates much of his own life history, and it thus forms a valuable historical piece in the mind of the Emperor.
- Fragment of a letter to a priest, which explains some of Julian’s theology and plans for his reformed priesthood.
- A few poems
- Two parodies:
- “The Caesars,” a satirical production that stands as among the wittiest and amusing of ancient compositions. Julian describes a hand few of notable preceding Roman emperors (and Alexander the Great) coming up to take their places at a banquet prepared in heaven. Their faults, vices, and crimes are commented upon freely by the divine Silenus, after which each has to defend themselves. This cultivates to Marcus Aurelius being the superior Emperor of all. The moral brought forward is that a king who is also a philosopher is better than one who merely possesses a lot of wealth or physical courage only.
- “Beard Hater,” another satyrical composition directed against the impious and luxurious Antiochenes who had pettily insulted the imperial dignity by their open disregard of Julian’s wishes. They restored to ad hominem, making fun of his personal appearance and the simplicity of his way of life. Whereas another emperor might have avenged themselves with a bloody persecution, Julian was content with writing this satirical play, confessing ironically in the course of it his own offenses against the dictates of fashion.
- Lost Works
- “Against the Galileans,” a work that was either 3 or 7 books. Only a few fragments only have been preserved in Cyril’s reply.
- Memoirs of his Campaigns in Germany
- His Journal, in which he used to record the events of each day.
- Likely others.
All these works were composed in the timespan of seven years, give-or-take, and mainly during the last three years of his life when he ruled diligently as Emperor; which is a strong testimony to the energy and industry of one of the greatest of Roman emperors.
Influence on Julian Hellenism
Julian Hellenism takes, by large, a massive amount of influence from Emperor Julian. Julian is the namesake of Julian Hellenism, and his texts are seen as holy and divine. What remains of his writings are the basis of much of Julian Hellenism; along with the notable philosopher who influenced him, the divine Iamblichus Chalcidensis.
His feast day is November 6th, when he began his reign as Caesar.
“Emperor Julian.” The Shrine of Wisdom. 2001. Accessed September 22, 2017. http://www.shrineofwisdom.org.uk/.
Flavius Claudius Iulianus Augustus, and Wilmer Cave. Wright. The works of emperor Julian. London: Heinemann etc., 1962.
Murdoch, Adrian. The Last Pagan: Julian the Apostate and the death of the ancient world. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2008.