When he died from a spear wound in June 363 AD, while on campaign in Persia, the Emperor Julian was only thirty-two years old. His reign as Augustus had lasted just nineteen months. His great project to restore the ancient faith of the “Hellenes” and to turn back the inexorable advance of the “Galilean” religion perished with him; what some had briefly hoped might be the first stirrings of a glorious revival of perennial truth now turned out to have been only the last spasm of a dying age. If anything, his reforms only hastened the Christianization of imperial culture, by inaugurating a new and anxious epoch of politically imposed religious uniformity.
Objectively speaking, then, Julian’s reign was at most a minor episode, poignantly and flickeringly ephemeral, leaving nothing of permanent significance behind—a momentary stammer in history’s verdict, meriting little attention. And yet, perhaps precisely because he stands out as so fruitless an anomaly in the narrative of Western history, he continues to exercise a rare fascination over historians, philosophers, theologians, and artists (to take nothing away from his considerable personal gifts).
For the Christians of late antiquity and the middles ages, of course, he was the great “Apostate,” a sort of vicar of Satan on earth. The sort of restrained admiration for him one finds in a few antique Christian writers was soon swept away by lurid legends of Julian the Sorcerer, who tore out children’s hearts or ripped fetuses from their mothers’ wombs in order to perform feats of black magic; or of Julian the demoniac, who pledged himself to the devil in exchange for worldly dominion; or of Julian the persecutor, steeped in the blood of the martyrs.
For certain Renaissance humanists, on the other hand—Lorenzo de Medici in particular—Julian’s enmity to the church was only the unfortunate consequence of those virtues that made him so intelligent, forceful, and estimable a prince. For various playwrights of the Golden Age theater of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century, as well as some of the playwrights in the Jesuit colleges of Germany, he was a kind of tragic hero, deeply deceived of course, but destroyed more by the susceptibilities of a noble nature than by any inclination towards evil.
To certain rationalists, Aufklärer, and philosophes of the eighteenth century, he was philosophy’s lonely champion, defiantly raising the torch of reason one last time amid the gathering gloom of the Christian “dark ages.” To a few Romantics, he was a proud rebel against the morbid tyrannies of religion. And, in the twentieth century, he became whatever took a writer’s fancy: for Nikos Kazantzakis an existentialist knight of the absurd, for Gore Vidal a deeply introspective and sexually adventurous enemy of Christianity’s rigors and repressions, and so on.
Of course, Julian did not kill babies or practice goetic magic. Neither was he on speaking terms with the devil. Christians under his reign generally had little cause to fear for their lives. On the other hand, while he was a gifted ruler, his errors of judgment were legion, his hatred of the Christians often degenerated into childish spite, and he was destroyed more by callow egotism than by tragic hubris.
Far from being any sort of rationalist, he was a particularly credulous religious enthusiast, who delighted in blood sacrifice, magic, astrology, and mystery; when he tried his hand at philosophy, the results were embarrassing. Not only was he not a rebel against religion’s chilly moralism; the faith he preached was notable principally for its joyless austerity. If anything, his
sense of the absurd was dangerously underdeveloped. And there is a great likelihood that he died a virgin.
Of course, had he lived longer, time’s slow levigations might have burnished his virtues and worn away at his vices; but the record is not encouraging on that score. During his year and a half in power, his malice towards the “Galilaeans” increased the more his pagan revival faltered, and his measures against the younger faith, official and unofficial, became increasingly vindictive; he even had two soldiers executed for refusing to remove the Christian labarum from their standards.
His treatment of cities that did not, to his mind, appreciate him adequately—such as Caesarea and Antioch—were marked by petulance and cruelty. In his final months, moreover, deluding himself that he was a second Alexander, he rejected Persia’s embassy of peace and led an invasion that was as pointless as it was unwinnable. By the end, despair had made him capriciously cruel; he even ordered the decimation of three cavalry squadrons whose only crime was that they had lost a few men in an ambush.
Having said all of this, however, I find Julian is an utterly absorbing, and even oddly attractive, personality—for any number of reasons. Chief among them, I suppose, is his sheer naïveté, his obviously earnest belief that he could communicate his deep spiritual fervor to his contemporaries, his certainty that the fire of general pagan devotion could be rekindled with only a little effort. I find it oddly moving.
His hatred of Christianity rose out of an always deeper reserve of genuine, guileless affection for the beauty and nobility of the pre-Christian order, and a profound faith in its invincible vitality. There was none of Nietzsche’s world-weary viciousness and ironic detachment in him.
I find it impossible not to be affected, moreover, by the simple pathos of Julian’s protest against what he saw as his culture’s progressive abandonment of the traditions that had sustained it from time immemorial. From his giddy eminence, he could look back over countless centuries of civilization, at a history of incomparable achievements in philosophy, the arts, law, warfare, and civil administration.
He also could look back to religious customs that mediated between the human and natural orders, that guarded innumerable sacred sites where human and divine stories intermingled, and that bore witness to a cosmos in which, as Thales said, “all things are full of gods.” But he could also see, all about him, temples deserted or destroyed, the gods not only forsaken but deprecated as demons, and the entire ethos of the empire slowly melting away.
If nothing else, it is a pathos that some of might find strangely familiar.
We now also live in the twilight of an ancient civilization, and many of us occasionally deceive ourselves that the course of history can be reversed. Christendom is quite gone, and the Christian culture of the West seems irrevocably destined for slow dissolution. The arts it inspired, the moral grammar it shaped, the shared stories and convictions by which it bound peoples together seem surely to belong to a constantly receding past.
If nothing else, those restive souls who feel some sort of reverence for that civilization—even those prepared to grant all the evils and failures inextricable from its history, and even those who acknowledge the deep corruption of the gospel it entailed—should be able to understand Julian’s anxiety, indignation, and implacable hostility towards the “Galilaeans.” Perhaps now, then, having had to suffer the trauma of modernity, both for good and ill, reflective Christians might be prepared to recognize that strange, compelling, and rather deluded man—Christian history’s most notorious “Apostate”—as someone who, as best he could, strove to “keep the faith.”
David B. Hart is a contributing writer of First Things. His most recent book is Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies.