Julian’s Hellenic Reformation


On November 3rd, 361 AD, Flavius Claudius Iulianus Augustus, also known as Julian the Philosopher or Julian the Great, was crowned Sole Augustus of the Roman Empire. His rule was marked by reforms that touched on and improved administration, economics and even human rights, but also, rather remarkably, a restoration of Hellenism as state religion. This was, however, no simple restoration of classical Hellenism; but a full reformation of the faith that would allow the faith to more than likely to succeed the test of time had he survived the war against Persia and had a fuller life to reign that would allow him to appoint successors. This reform had centralized Hellenism with a formal priesthood with strict hierarchy under a single leader, universalized charity, and an adoption of Iamblichean Platonism as the driving philosophy behind the religion of Rome.


Hierarchy of the Priesthood

Although there were already priests in Roman society, strict hierarchical order or organisational coherence was minimal at best. Much of Julian’s priesthood were built on pre-existing well-established networks of provincial priesthoods that were inherited from Antiquity, but with the aim to create a much more unified hierarchy.

Being a member of the priesthood was often a mere part-time occupation, and even what may be considered the most important office, the “Pontifex Maximus”, would often perform his duties alongside his political responsibilities. Both Gaius Julius Caesar and Octavianus (Augustus) had held the title of Pontifex Maximus, but in the most part it was purely for purely political purposes. During Rome’s era of the Empire, the Pontifex Maximus merely became one of many titles for the Emperor. Julian, however, intended to change the title of Pontifex Maximus back to a proper religious office. At the very top of the centralized priesthood was the Supreme Pontiff, or Pontifex Maximus, who was in-charge of religious matters as head of the state-endorsed religious organization. The Pontifex Maximus would be the one to appoint provincial High Priests.

Among the measures taken by Julian during the reformation of Hellenism was the appointment of provincial High Priests, mirroring the reforms of Maximinus II to an extent, but deprived of political powers. These High Priests would be in charge of the religious matters of each province, having the ability to appoint and manage their own priests under their authority. For this position, Julian writes “The qualities that are appropriate for one in this high office are, in the first place, fairness, and next goodness and benevolence towards those who deserve to be treated like this. Any priest who behaves unjustly to his fellow men and impiously towards the Gods or is arrogant, must either be given a warning, or be rebuked with great severity.”

Under the High Priests were the municipal priests that they had appointed. Metaphorically, these priests were the frontline troops in the battle to win the souls of the Roman Empire, with duties to sacrifice and pray on behalf of all humanity. They were additionally expected to help the old, the poor and the sick, while also providing and managing charity.


Functions of the Priesthood

As said prior, a large portion of Julian’s attempted reformation of Hellenism was to appoint High Priests for each province, whose primary concern was, first and foremost, furthering Hellenism. In general, the duties of priests were to help the old, the poor and the sick, while they also provided and managed charity.

Julian’s reformation of Hellenism introduced an emphasis on the personal piety of the priesthood. Hellenic priests were to shun places of ill-repute. They were expected to lead lives set apart; they and their families should be sedulous in honouring the Gods. Instead of indulging in the city-life, they were encouraged to withdraw into their temples. Priests were expected to organise works of philanthropy, but to be careful to keep their priestly vestments unspotted by the world. It was a blend of traditional ritual, myth and belief with the Platonist inner life that the divine philosopher Iamblichus had advocated decades prior. But the fact that Julian stressed inner devotion rather than, say, prominence in public life as the central qualification for priestly office, is what made this reformation truly differentiate from the priesthood of old; instead drawing similarities with something such as the Christian church. To Julian, one didn’t have to be an important individual to become a priest. Even the poor could be appointed, provided they were chaste and well-read. Instead, importance on inner devotion and holiness was stressed.

This importance on inner devotion and holiness was seen with on-duty priests. At the temples priests were to expected to preserve their purity through elaborate policy. They were to be careful not to wear the priestly garments in places where they might be sullied by ritual defilement; the clothes they wore in public were to be simple and non-flashy. They prohibited from entering the city’s more unsavoury quarters, such as the wine-shops and theatres. Divine favour was sustained by the practice of personal piety and inner holiness, with public value being given to personal virtue.

This went to the extent that one of the most striking features of Julian’s priesthood was that the priests were to be distant from politics; as Julian wanted the calling of a priest was to be thought of as holier than the calling of a civil officer. When the governor of Galatia arrived in a city, Julian told Arsacius, the High Priest of Galatia, that no priest was to go out to meet him or call on him in the ceremony of adventus (a ceremony held when a notable official would be formally welcomed by a city). In the case a governor or other state official were to visit the temples of the Gods, they would be expected to leave their armed guards outside the temple before they enter, as they had no jurisdiction within a temple. “You are the governor of that which is within” is what Julian wrote to a High Priest. Political officials were also expected to rise from their seats in the presence of a priest.



A large part of Julian’s reform was giving a hand to those less fortunate. Inspired by Christian charity, Hellenism was to adapt and take up the practice, Hellenes bring encouraged to practice philanthropy. Universal charity was introduced, where provisions were made available for the poor whether they were a Hellene or not. Hostels were to be furnished in every city as a means of forming a chain of confessional caravanserais, readily available for all to benefit from Hellenic benevolence. The job of the priests were extended to care for the ill fortunate, with priests holding the duties of helping the old, the poor and the sick while being the ones to manage and provide charity.


Philosophy & Theology

Julian’s reformed variant of Hellenism was, as one would expect, a polytheist religion, but also took on forms of panentheism and monism. Julian’s Hellenism was largely backed by the philosophy of Platonism, most particularly from Iamblichus, a Syrian philosopher who lived decades prior to Julian and had endorsed ritual imitation of the divine as a means of achieving henosis (unity with the divine). Many of Julian’s priesthood were expected to be educated in Iamblichean Platonism. A large aspect of Platonism was that it was a polytheist philosophy, with an insistence on the existence of all Gods, whether as guardian divinities of particular individuals and nations or lesser demiurges who aided the Celestial Demiurge, the Creator of All and King of the Gods, in the creation and maintenance of the universe. There was a need to honour & worship Gods at each level through theurgic ritual practise as a means of achieving henosis. It was on this basis that monotheists, who pushed a disbelief in other Gods or merely wrote them off as evil spirits unworthy of worship, were deemed to be atheists; for their subjective and solipsistic denial of divinity.

Platonism and other forms of approved philosophy was expected to be learned by priests. For this position, Julian writes “indeed on all accounts philosophy alone will be appropriate for us priests; and of philosophers only those who chose the gods as guides of their mental discipline, like Pythagoras and Plato and Aristotle, and the school of Chrysippus and Zeno. For we ought not to give heed to them all nor to the doctrines of all, but only to those philosophers and those of their doctrines that make men god-fearing, and teach concerning the gods, first that they exist, secondly that they concern themselves with the things of this world, and further that they do no injury at all either to mankind or to one another, out of jealousy or envy or enmity.”

Julian’s own personal view on Hellenism had a hierarchical pantheon of Gods, with a focus on the three suns. The first sun was Aion, who was Being-In-Itself; whom all took part in their essence. Following Aion was the second sun, Helios (who was seen as the same God as Zeus), the Celestial Demiurge and King of the Gods. Lastly there was the material sun, who was seen as the body of Helios. There were many levels of existence, each with their own Gods who ruled them.



“Again, the man who worships Zeus the God of Comrades, and who, though he sees his neighbours in need of money, does not give them even so much as a drachma, how, I say, can he think that he is worshipping Zeus aright? When I observe this I am wholly amazed, since I see that these titles of the gods are from the beginning of the world their express images, yet in our practice we pay no attention to anything of the sort. The gods are called by us “gods of kindred,” and Zeus the “God of Kindred,” but we treat our kinsmen as though they were strangers. I say “kinsmen” because every man, whether he will or no, is akin to every other man”

-Flavius Claudius Iulianus Augustus / Julian the Philosopher


“In every city establish frequent hostels in order that strangers may profit by our benevolence; I do not mean for our own people only, but for others also who are in need of money. I have but now made a plan by which you may be well provided for this; for I have given directions that 30,000 modii of corn shall be assigned every year for the whole of [the province of] Galatia, and 60,000 pints of wine. I order that one-fifth of this be used for the poor who serve the priests, and the remainder be distributed by us to strangers and beggars. For it is disgraceful that, when no Jew ever has to beg, and the impious Galilaeans support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us. Teach those of the Hellenic faith to contribute to public service of this sort, and the Hellenic villages to offer their first fruits to the gods; and accustom those who love the Hellenic religion to these good works by teaching them that this was our practice of old. At any rate Homer makes Eumaeus say: “Stranger, it is not lawful for me, not even though a baser man than you should come, to dishonour a stranger. For from Zeus come all strangers and beggars. And a gift, though small, is precious.” Then let us not, by allowing others to outdo us in good works, disgrace by such remissness, or rather, utterly abandon, the reverence due to the gods. If I hear that you are carrying out these orders I shall be filled with joy.”

-Flavius Claudius Iulianus Augustus / Julian the Philosopher


“First that they [the Gods] exist, secondly that they concern themselves with the things of this world, and further that they do no injury at all either to mankind or to one another, out of jealousy or envy or enmity.”

-Flavius Claudius Iulianus Augustus / Julian the Philosopher



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.

Oliver Nicholson (1994). The ‘Pagan Churches’ of Maximinus Daia and Julian the Apostate. The Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 45, pp 1-10 doi:10.1017/S0022046900016407