Sacred kingship


“Offer more fervid prayers for my reign to the Most High God, the Creator, who has deigned to crown me with His own immaculate right hand.”
-Flavius Claudius Iulianus Augustus, Emperor of Rome
Art by Lothar Zhou

Sacred kingship is the doctrine that a ruler derives their right to rule directly from the will of the Gods. It is a doctrine that was held in periods throughout the Graeco-Roman world, and was prominent under Emperor Julian.

It’s important to note that the divine Emperor Julian’s theory of kingship wasn’t a cosmocratic theory reminiscent of the later Byzantine Empire, where the title of Emperor was sanctioned by God. Rather, it’s properly understood that it’s the will of the Gods that makes one a leader. There is a subtle but essential distinction; because it’s the nature of the specific person that the Gods will to make a leader, rather than the title of leader itself being something that is divine. Though a proper leader could be a bearer of divine inspiration, the ruler’s nature isn’t explicitly related to the nature of the Gods, because this potentiality is true of any human being. A leader is a leader because of their own person, and as their own person, they should strive to embody the ideal Philosopher King.

In the divine Julian’s letter “To the Cynic Heracleios,” he outlines some principles of a wise ruler. A wise ruler should treat their friends honorably, love their subjects as the Gods love them, and to put the worship of the Gods before all other goods. They are warned not to become a slave to desire, whether their own or another’s.


Princely Virtues

Aside from partaking in Piety and the Four Virtues which ultimately cultivates into Justice, the divine Julian often writes about various virtues and principles that a proper ruler should subscribe to and hold dearly.



Civilitas is the behavior a proper leader should take as primus inter pares, or “first among equals.” A proper ruler acknowledges their place as a citizen partaking in a society of citizens, and as such the freedom and standing of individual citizens are to be protected by law rather than the whim of an autocrat. Civilitas involves a voluntary sacrifice by the leader to be act as a citizen rather than a tyrant. This connects heavily with humanitas, the willingness to act as a fellow-mortal rather than some sort of divinity.



Parrhesia is the private aspect of civilitas, and is one’s openness to conversation. It is frankness in communication and a refusal to allow disparities in social status to deter one from speaking one’s mind. This principle enables a leader to better commune with those they rule over without strict formality; however, this should not be abused. Making use of this for bragging rights, or making false pretenses because a leader spoke to them, shows a lack of propriety. Because of this, the practice is often limited to like-minded people of culture- but can extend to not-so like-minded peoples.



Humans are by nature social creatures and, therefore, should show kindness to their fellow man. This is understood as Philanthropia, or philanthropy. It is a virtue that Emperor Julian writes to a priest that is to be practiced before all others, and involves a deep caring for the less fortunate and poor. Emperor Julian went about to great lengths to accomplish this, having set forward provincial charity plans for the unfortunate; both Hellenes and non-Hellenes alike.

Philanthropy not only extends to the good, but also to the nefarious. In practice, giving mercy to the wicked means a ruler exercises forbearance in the face of provocation.



Flavius Claudius Iulianus Augustus, and Wilmer Cave (France) Wright. The works of the Emperor Julian. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006.

Plato, and Benjamin Jowett. The complete works of Plato. United States?: Akasha Pub., 2008.

Plato, and John M. Cooper. Plato: Complete Works. Vancouver: Access and Diversity, Crane Library, University of British Columbia, 2015.

Smith, Rowland. Julian’s Gods: Religion and Philosophy in the Thought and Action of Julian the Apostate. London and New York: Routledge, 1995

Wallace-Hadrill, Andrew. “Civilis Princeps: Between Citizen and King.” The Journal of Roman Studies 72 (1982): 32-48. doi:10.2307/299114.