The last pagan

A 19th century depiction of Julian presiding over a religious discussion

The last pagan

Julian: An Intellectual Biography

Polymnia Athanassiadi, Routledge, 2014, 272pps, £80

HENRY HOPWOOD-PHILLIPS wishes that an important biography of “Julian the Apostate” was better-written


I had imagined in my mind the sort of procession it would be… But when I entered the shrine I found there no incense, not so much as a cake, not a single beast for sacrifice. For the moment I was amazed and thought that everything was still outside the shrine and that you were awaiting a signal from me… But when I began to enquire what sacrifice the city intended to offer, the priest answered: ‘I have brought with me from my own house a goose but the city has made no preparations’ (XII.361d-362b)

This passage on the festival of Apollo at Antioch, often given to undergraduates in gobbet form, has typically set the tone for how well we believe the last pagan Roman Emperor, Julian, and his grand projet – the restoration of a pagan universe and the establishment of a Hellenist empire – was received. It is a view confirmed by historians from Ammianus in the fourth century down to G. W. Bowersock in the twentieth.

Polymnia Athanassiadi, in this 2014 reprint of her 1981 book, is a little more ambitious. Well versed in all Julian’s works, from his early panegyrics down to Contra Galileos, and interpreting several of them in a more biographical fashion than has conventionally been the case (too many, she argues, have been perceived as passionless imperial communiques), she sets to explore the interior landscape of Julian’s life.

Julian is of more than merely academic interest today mainly because of the ideological climate in which he operated. Both the reader and Julian inhabit a period that has disclaimed its past but cannot fathom a future still submerged. Analysts of many stripes identify the fourth century as the nearest equivalent to our own. To give but one example, Rodney Stark has established that the early Christian birthrates of that century proved decisive in precipitating the supremacy of Christianity, and used this evidence to infer that contemporary secular birth rates may suffer a demographic winter.

In such an environment the past becomes political, interpretations matter. And in Julian’s age both paganism and Christianity pondered at crossroads. Some in the former camp were for a puritanical and monolithic faith that monopolised Greek wisdom, treating it as coextensive with Greek religion, but others preferred an ancient pluralism. Christians meanwhile could not decide whether the Classics were trifling, vain and profane, or simply truth unfurnished by revelation.

Characteristic of this age of abstraction is Origen, who took Hellenist logic to the heart of Christianity in powerful works of exegesis, and Iamblicus who forced platonic logic through an Eastern gauze. This period of both cross-fertilisation and stunning intolerance has split the greatest minds. Burckhardt famously saw the monks and ascetics emerging as great restorers of civilisation, Nietzsche saw them as paragons only of the “Last Man”.

Julian’s complex character then to some extent reflects the age. Held as hostage in “glittering servitude” by his relative the Emperor Constantius in his youth, the Augustus had also killed most of the boy’s nearest and dearest (including Gallus his older half brother) to ward off insurrection. The young lad was constantly having to break off study of his first and only love, philosophy, to have his loyalty or orthodoxy challenged (both amounted to the same thing). Then when he finally took up the Caesarship, he found himself plunged into a civil war by mutinous troops and an intransigent cousin.

Perhaps Athanassiadi’s biggest achievement is to unlock a character who too often attracts a lazy and inaccurate label (radical or reactionary) or has several contradictory ones (anachronistic and revolutionary) thrown at him. She does this by unpacking his motivation, his actions and their results separately. Usually taken together, the result is a muddle, but when untangled a greater depth emerges.

Julian’s motivation was certainly reactionary. Mardonius, his Gothic tutor, had impressed upon him the importance of Homeric simplicity. In his childhood Julian had implored his master to take him to the races. Mardonius replied,

Oh you have a taste for the races do you? Well there’s one in Homer, very skilfully described. Take a book and study it!

Homer’s realm eventually became, in the platonic order of things, more real, more true, than Julian’s own. It was in this spirit that he banned Diocletian’s innovatory proskyenesis and gave back the res publica its libertas, restoring to the oikumene its proper units.

Julian’s actions, however, were radical. The rehabilitation of the priesthood, from purveyors of curses frowned upon by the middle classes to something resembling the Christian clergy, the exclusion of Christians from the armed forces and education, the loosing of heretics upon the orthodox flock, the decentralisation of government, the portrayal of the emperor as a second Ascepelos in the midst of adrasteia (disease/decay) made him the pagan equivalent of what Constantine the Great had rarely dared to be.

The results of these actions were innovatory. Julian, though in many ways an anathema to what would become the byzantine model, laid deep foundations for it. The idea that the salvation of souls (in Julian’s mind through paideia) was just as key to the state as the proliferation of romanitas was new. The link between piety and the health of the state was not new but its priority was. Julian’s pronouncements on issues from icons to traditions were to be reproduced almost verbatim by Constantine Porphygenitos six centuries later, and his prose was still being touted as a model in reprints by Arethas of Caesarea in the tenth century.

A late Roman pagan artefact

If this tripartite key is a significantly new and welcome approach to unlocking Julian as a man, sometimes the manner in which he is unpackaged can leave the reader reeling. In the preface we are assured

I hope that… this book may be of some interest to a wider public. As a general rule, I have translated or paraphrased all Greek and Latin in the text, though very occasionally, single words, which I hold to be absolutely untranslatable, appear in the text in Greek without adequate explanation, for I felt that such an explanation would have required a whole volume.

I lost count the number of times this claim was transgressed. The text can be impenetrable. Just four examples should suffice. First, the author describes Julian ‘using one contemptuous diminutive’ when describing his first official audience with Constantius, before writing ‘small cloak’ in ancient Greek, with a footnote to paludamentum, nowhere is an English rendering such as enrobing or cloaking to be found. Secondly, instead of writing ‘Ammianus states bluntly that Julian was predisposed to the worship of pagan deities’, Athanassiadi prefers to quote the entire paragraph of XXII.5.I en bloc in Latin (no translation). She uses levitas instead of the obvious English equivalent, and has a penchant for pretentious allusions such as ‘ebrius doctor‘ from Augustine’s Confessions – a reference she assures us is ‘famous’ in the footnote.

Although the author’s psychological analysis throws up valuable details on events such as the tutorship of George of Cappadocia, the Paris coup and the Antioch debacle, it does occasionally throws up duds. Glib references to Julian ‘knowing where to seek a patch of sunshine’ when ‘clouds gathered above his head’ and forays into pop-psychology when Julian moves from Neoplatonism towards Mithraism because

Julian longed to see a few directing signs and some milestones recording his spiritual progress

remind the reader that the author’s approach isn’t uniformly productive.

This book contributes a great deal to our understanding of Julian from a new and exciting angle, and it will surely be snapped up by academics on that basis. Its information and thrust are good enough to take to a general audience, though perhaps Athanassiadi should consider another reprint, this time in English.

HENRY HOPWOOD-PHILLIPS works in publishing


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