The Roman emperor Julian (331-363), or Flavius Claudius Julianus, tried to turn the Roman world from Christianity to a reformed paganism and thus earned the sobriquet "the Apostate."

Julian was born at Constantinople, the son of Julius Constantius, half brother of Constantine the Great. When Constantine died in 337, nearly all his relatives except his three sons were killed, and Julian and his half brother Constantius Gallus were spared because of their extreme youth. The boys were confined to a castle in Cappadocia, where they lived until 351, and were given a monkish education. Julian idealized the ancient Hellenic world and was attracted by Greek literature and philosophy; he despised what he considered the falsity and hypocrisy of Christianity.

By 351 Constantius II was Constantine's sole surviving son, and he brought Gallus out of retirement and made him the administrator of the East. Julian remained in retirement, but when Gallus proved to be cruel and incompetent and was executed, Julian was summoned to the court in Milan to free himself of suspicion of treasonable involvement with his half brother. Exonerated, he went to Athens to pursue his philosophical studies. By 355, however, Constantius again found the problems of empire too much for a single person. He recalled Julian from his studies, gave him the title of Caesar (successor-designate), married him to Helena, the Emperor's sister, and sent him to Gaul to protect it from the Germans.

The Soldier

In Gaul, Julian proved unexpectedly successful and popular. Constantius surrounded him with spies and aides, who often hindered Julian's work, but he rapidly became a competent general and drove the Germans out of Gaul and beyond the Rhine. Further, he rejected the financial policies of Constantius's ministers, which called for increasing levies on the Gauls. Instead, he insisted on a firm but honest administration of the current system. In 5 years he managed to reduce the tax rate by better than two-thirds, yet providing sufficient funds for government operations.

Julian's successes and his popularity with soldiers and civilians apparently aroused Constantius's suspicion. He was engaged in a campaign against the Persians and used this as a subterfuge to weaken Julian. He ordered Julian to dispatch to him the flower of his Gallic army. But many soldiers were local recruits and unwilling to serve so far from their homelands. Further, they suspected that this was a first step by Constantius to accord to Julian the same fate as Gallus. The soldiers therefore mutinied and proclaimed Julian emperor. After fruitless refusals, Julian was forced to accede, though he attempted to placate Constantius with apologies and explanations. Constantius headed west to dispute Julian's position but died in Cilicia in November 361. Julian thereupon entered Constantinople the following month as sole emperor.

Emperor and Reformer

Julian remained in Constantinople 5 months, instituting for the whole empire many of the reforms he had effected in Gaul. He cut to the bone the multitude of court functionaries, drastically reduced the national spy system, and encouraged home rule by the municipalities of the empire by restoring public property to them and strengthening the local councils to administer them.

The most dramatic of Julian's reforms concerned religion. Upon his elevation to power, he at once acknowledged his own religious beliefs, which amounted to a syncretization of pantheism, sun worship, and philosophy. He did not persecute the Christians, but he ordered them to restore the temples they had destroyed and removed from their clergy their special privileges and subsidies. He naturally gave preference to pagans in his own service; and his numerous celebrations of religious sacrifices provided quantities of meat for the soldiers, who seem to have enjoyed this turn of affairs. By protecting the Jews and by allowing freedom of expression to the various heretical Christian groups, he weakened the Church, for the Christians were thereby encouraged to destroy themselves with their interminable theological squabbles.

In 362 Julian amassed an army of 65,000 with which to continue the Persian War. In March 363 he marched down the Euphrates to the Persian capital of Ctesiphon and defeated the Persian army. But the victory was not decisive, and the enemy harassed his troops as he marched north to join a supporting force. In one of these battles, on June 26, 363, he was mortally wounded.

The Writer

Julian was a prolific writer, and 8 of his orations, 73 genuine letters, a criticism of the emperors from Caesar onward, a satire on the people of Antioch, and various fragments and epigrams are extant. Julian's style is somewhat pedantic, but his letters are interesting, for they reveal the ideal condition toward which he was trying to direct the pagan church.

Julian was far superior to his contemporaries as an emperor and as a man. His rule was just and humane. What the effect on the Christian Church would have been had he enjoyed a long reign is disputed. But contemporaries noted that many gladly returned to paganism, especially those who had recently converted for political purposes.

Further Reading on Julian

The Works of Emperor Julian was translated for the Loeb Classical Library by Wilmer Cave Wright (3 vols., 1913-1923). Francis A. Ridley, Julian the Apostate and the Rise of Christianity (1937), places him in the setting of the totalitarian state and Universal Church. Another useful study is Giuseppe Ricciotti, Julian the Apostate (trans. 1960).

Additional Biography Sources

Bowersock, G. W., Julian the Apostate, London: Duckworth, 1978.

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