The Troubled Reign of Emperor Julian: The Last Pagan Emperor

Emperor Julian the Apostate was Rome’s last pagan leader. He came to power after many years of Christian rule and did his utmost to topple the Christian faith.

Jan 25, 2021By Alice Bennett, MSt Late Antique and Byzantine Studies, BA Ancient History
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A coin featuring Emperor Julian and his signature beard, 355-63 AD; with detail from A Pagan Sacrifice by Garofalo, 1526


According to the official line, in AD 312 the Roman emperor Constantine had a vision of the Christian cross at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. He supposedly saw the words “In this sign conquer.” The story passed into legend and Rome’s monarchy became Christian. 


From Constantine I onward all Roman emperors had been part of the Church and Constantine’s impressive rule solidified that fact. One upstart, Emperor Julian, known to history as Julian the Apostate, would rebel against the new religion.


Emperor Julian’s Youth

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A Solidus depicting Constantine the Great, 336-37 AD, via the British Museum, London


The young Julian grew up in a difficult environment that probably tested his nerve from a young age. So much so that his early life is sometimes used to explain his hatred of Christianity.


Julian was part of Constantine the Great’s extended family. While many people admire Constantine for his impressive reign as emperor, his sons were quite unsavory.


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The family’s internal struggles for the throne upon Constantine’s death were bloody. Julian’s entire family were victims of infighting and Julian’s father and stepbrother were murdered in the process.


Julian himself grew up as a sort of prisoner in this paranoid environment. He was kept for much of his youth locked away from the world in Cappadocia, under the watchful eye of his tutor, a Christian bishop. Julian’s closest friend at this time was a philosopher and household slave, Mardonius. He served as a sort of father figure for Julian during his confinement and was probably influential in turning Julian towards classical learning.


Although Julian took an active role in the church in his youth, as soon as he was able he traveled to Greece to learn philosophy. He would spend his formative years studying intensely and while in Greece he secretly corresponded with one of the leading pagan intellectuals of the day, a man named Libanius


Ascension To Roman Emperor: Julian The Apostate

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A coin featuring Emperor Julian and his signature beard, 355-63 AD, via the British Museum, London


Despite being a sort of political prisoner, Julian would eventually be appointed to high office. The Roman emperor Constantius, his cousin, needed a junior colleague, to handle the enormous administrative problems created by a large empire. 


Constantius was running out of family members at this point, so he chose Julian’s brother Gallus, then Julian himself as a colleague. When Gallus died not long after his appointment, Julian awkwardly showed up in Milan in 355, to take the position. Constantius seems to have been blissfully unaware that Julian a.) hated him for murdering his family, and b.) had adopted pagan beliefs while he was in Greece.


In his early years as Caesar, Emperor Julian was stationed in Gaul and commanded a great deal of respect for his performance there. He recaptured lost Roman lands in a series of victories remarkable for a man with no military experience. 


Following a rebellion against an order to send Gallic troops East, the Western legion “forced” Julian to take the imperial diadem in order to become a true Roman emperor, an Augustus. Whether this treasonous act would have been the end of Julian, we’ll never know because Constantius died almost immediately. Julian was now the sole emperor.


After presiding over Constantius’ Christian funeral, Emperor Julian immediately revealed his true faith to the public, shocking his Christian contemporaries.  


Rebuilding The Temple, Undermining Christianity

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The Presentation of Jesus at the Temple by James Tissot, 1886-94, via the Brooklyn Museum 


Upon taking the throne, Emperor Julian resolved to undo the work of Constantine’s family and return Rome to the pagan religion. But how best to undermine the now extremely popular Christian faith?


Julian understood that martyrs were central to Christianity. Many early Christian heroes had been killed for their faith, an act which had strengthened people’s devotion to the Church. Julian would have to defeat their religion through more cunning methods. He started an intellectual war against Christianity instead, hoping persuasion would succeed where punitive measures had failed. 


Julian ensured that competing sects of Christianity were allowed to practice their faith and asked that exiled bishops be recalled. Christianity had been badly split between the orthodox and Arian sects, a split he hoped would rip the Church apart when left to fester.


He would primarily attack Christianity in his writings, leveraging the debating skills he had gained from his education. In one of his works, the Caesars, Julian attacks Jesus for preaching forgiveness. He effectively argues that Christianity attracts people who have no interest in self-improvement but want to be absolved from all their wrongdoings. In his Against the Galileans on the other hand, he attacked Christian dogma as unrealistic and superstitious.


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The Purification of the Temple by Jacopo Bassano, ca. 1580, via the National Gallery, London


He would also make paganism the religion of high office again. He instituted a law that Christians were banned from the teaching profession. Julian’s reasoning was that no Christian with any scruples could teach school children using classical texts such as Homer, because they did not believe the stories they were teaching.


Probably the most incredible thing he did was an attempt to rebuild the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. This was not a symbolic act of tolerance towards Judaism. Jesus had foretold the destruction of the Jewish temple which occurred in AD 70. By rebuilding it he hoped to prove that Jesus had been wrong. 


What makes Emperor Julian’s reign so interesting is that he opened up an actual debate about the relative virtues of different religions. This lively atmosphere of discussion would not survive long without him, as many later Christian emperors would crush the conversation. His ascension to the throne would also reveal a deep religious split amongst the intellectual elite in the empire.


The New Pagan Church

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A Pagan Sacrifice by Garofalo, 1526, via the National Gallery, London


Julian appears to have been convinced he would change public opinion in time. But he knew that in order to undermine Christianity, he would have to establish a pagan alternative to the Church. 


Christianity had many advantages over traditional classical religion. It had a central philosophy which was laid out in a collection of unassailable writings. “Paganism” on the other hand wasn’t really an organized belief system at all, it was just “everything else.” The word pagan is actually a pejorative term, meaning something like a country bumpkin, or hick.


Rome had absorbed both foreign gods and mystery cults. The Romans had simply added gods to their pantheon as they found them, and myths about the traditional Roman gods varied enormously.


Worse still, many noble ideals from the Roman intellectual philosophical tradition were actually at odds with myths about the gods themselves. The pagan gods of the Greco-Roman pantheon seemed to subscribe to a “might is right” philosophy if anything. Many educated late Roman thinkers saw Christ as an embodiment of the virtues they were moving towards, in contrast to the old religions. 


It was not difficult for bishops to depict Christianity as a form of moral progress. Julian was well aware of this problem, so he decided to create a new pagan church with concrete moral precepts.


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The Rape of Europa by François Boucher, ca. 1732-35, via the Wallace Collection, London


Julian got a friend and philosopher, Sallustius, to write a catechism outlining a new pagan belief system for his new church to use. Sallustius’ document is extremely interesting and favors a philosophical and non-literal interpretation of pagan myths. Philosophy and religion had to be brought together to create a serious competitor to Christian dogma. 


Julian’s brand of philosophy was a form of Neoplatonism, a school of thought which attempted to reconcile competing philosophical traditions into one god-given series of revelations. Ideas found in Plato were applied heavily to pagan religions. Anybody who has read classical philosophy in any depth might find this idea completely ludicrous, but it was an attempt to construct a coherent non-Christian world view, by finding common threads shared by non-Christian writers. 


Julian came down hard on pagan priests who did not have the moral standards exemplified by Christians bishops. He ordered them to behave themselves and to stay away from taverns and disreputable forms of entertainment. He wanted pagan priests to perform acts of charity and provide for the poor the way the Christians did, as it was one of the keystones of their popularity. He decided pagan priests should preach and that they should be given a stipend to do so. 


The Other Philosopher Emperor

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Bust of Marcus Aurelius, Julian’s hero, ca. 170-80 AD, via the British Museum, London


In order to set an example to the public, Emperor Julian very publicly acted out the role of philosopher emperor in an attempt to emulate the great Marcus Aurelius. He even grew an at the time deeply unfashionable beard, to mimic him. Julian was the first Roman emperor since Marcus Aurelius to produce substantial philosophical writings, and we have more writing from him than any other emperor.


In his works, Julian explored the nature of kingship and celebrates his heroes, Alexander the Great, Marcus Aurelius, and Trajan as models of what an emperor should be.


It is partly the rare possibility of getting into the mind of a Roman ruler that makes Julian such an interesting figure. However, although most people have heard of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, few people have heard of the satirical Caesars of Emperor Julian. His scribblings would not make him popular.


Julian’s very public philosophical discourse appears to have been quite controversial and he is painted by pagans and Christians alike as a bit of a fanatic. Julian was quite serious about the ideals he proposed in his writings and he took many steps towards living like a philosopher.


When he became sole emperor, he immediately dismissed almost all of his staff, doing away with court ceremonial. After his wife died, he chose to live as a celibate and an ascetic. Emperor  Julian may have defended paganism in its death throes, but he did not defend the warmer earthier side of these ancient traditions.


One of his books, Misopogon, which means beard-hater in Greek, was written in response to the people that mocked him for his philosophical pretensions. His book seems to suggest that most people found his harsh lifestyle and distaste for sensuality annoying rather than noble. 


The Public Response 

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The Banquet given by Romulus to the gods with Caesar, Augustus, Trajan, and Marcus Aurelius by Bernard Picart, 18th century, via the British Museum, London


Julian is fairly consistently portrayed as a laughingstock both in our extant sources and by many modern historians. He was awkward and had some strange ticks, such as holding his head at a weird angle. 

On the other hand, a lot of the sources we have from this period were written by Christians, whose accounts of the heathen emperor can hardly be trusted. One of Julian’s study mates was the early church father and eminent theologian Gregory Nazianzen. Gregory trashed Julian’s character, saying that he recalled the young emperor had been awkward, weird, and of a nervous disposition. 

There is probably at least some truth in this unflattering portrait. For all of Julian’s enthusiasm, he appears to have struggled to court the public and this is nowhere more clearly shown than the time he spent at his chosen residence of Antioch

While he was in Antioch pushing for paganism, his subjects appear to have been unamused, insulted, and deeply unenthusiastic about his impenetrable brand of esoteric philosophy. 

In spite of Emperor Julian’s attempts to deal with Christianity calmly and rationally, tensions started to rise in the divided eastern city, which had a large Christian population. The conflict reached a head when a Christian martyr buried on temple lands was dug up on Julian’s orders. 

Riots ensued and somehow the offending temple burnt to the ground. Julian responded by closing Antioch’s main church. Several people died in the chaos and the Christians got more martyrs — something Julian had been trying to avoid.


Afterlife And Legacy Of Emperor Julian


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The martyrdom of St. Bibiana, an apocryphal story about Julian the Apostate by Sebastiano Conca, ca. 1718-22, via the British Museum, London

We can only speculate as to what would have happened if Julian had lived longer, with religious tensions already boiling over, but Julian would soon die while at war against Persia

It seems very likely that had Julian lived a long time, European history might have been completely different, or at least bumpier in its route to Christian orthodoxy. The Roman emperor’s short reign was put down to divine intervention by the Christians.

Julian was Caesar for six years and sole emperor for just two. In spite of this fact, his life is extremely well documented, and we have a detailed picture of him, from both his own writings and the writings of others.

His actual impact on history was negligible. Instead, his legacy has been a symbol for people of various religious and political stripes.

He was turned into a hero by many writers who have held anti-Christian views. He remained a villain to the Church, and later apocryphal stories about him would paint him as a monster. The great American writer Gore Vidal would write a novel about him in the 60s, which served as a meditation on religion and the decline of Roman culture.

Although Julian is frequently mocked and considered a failure by many, it is easy to feel sorry for him as a person. His writings do not reveal him to be a brilliant thinker or a masterful politician, but many people are touched by his sincere devotion to various classical ideals which were fading fast. 


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By Alice BennettMSt Late Antique and Byzantine Studies, BA Ancient HistoryAlice has a BA in Ancient History and an MSt in Late Antique and Byzantine studies from the University of Oxford. She is a contributing writer and editor and is particularly passionate about the promotion and protection of historical and archaeological knowledge. In her spare time, she can be found wandering the woods or lurking around ancient monuments, taking photographs.