I’ve recently read some really good books, and am working out just what I want to say about them, but in the meantime, I’ve just started on a biography by Adrian Murdoch’s titled The Last Pagan: Julian the Apostate and the Death of the Ancient World. Julian is, basically, as the book suggests, the last great pagan emperor of Rome, which… well, given my occasional musings on how European history might have been different had paganism resisted being steamrolled by Christianity–perhaps, by more effectively co-opting elements of it, in the way Christianity actually did to paganism–the topic excited me.
Two things have stuck out for me, in the first third of the book, which is as far as I’ve read so far.
First is the fact that Greece and the Near East seem to have been for Julian what Rome and even in many ways a lot of Western Europe seems to North Americans today: a kind of crumbling, past-its-prime, tourist-trappy mess. Julian was sent to Athens, excited to be going to a center of learning and culture, and though Julian was not disappointed, others–the well-heeled Romans who finished off their educations there–likely were:
Horace may have mentioned its “academic groves of blissful green” but if Julian was being honest he might have admitted that Athens was a little past its prime and living off bygone glory. It is easy enough to imagine a student becoming increasingly disillusioned on his arrival. The road from Piraeus, the city’s port, to the gates of Athens was long, hot, and flanked by the now distinctly tatty Long Walls. And as he passed the Dipylon Gates into the city the sights that greeted him were of decay not elegant classicism. But that was irrelevant to Julian…
Best of all, initiation into the Cult of Eleusis–something that is remembered in the modern world as a sacred, occult sort of organization–probably as much because of its secretive nature as anything else–was, in the time of Julian pretty much the equivalent of going to Burning Man or Lollapalooza, except of course that one vowed to keep the proceedings a secret, on pain of death. Still, it seems like everyone who went to Athens at the right time of year (save the most uptight of Christians) indulged in the ceremony. Apparently Eleusis was, at least for visiting Romans, another of the standard and popular Athenian tourist attractions!
Elsewhere, a trip to Novum Ilium (“New Troy”) proved to not so dissimilar from plenty of tourist attractions today:
In the hands of the citizens of Novum Ilium, the city of Hector and Priam had long become a tourist trap, the Trojan War Experience, designed to fleece young Roman aristocrats. They were shown to the spot where the Greek fleet hand landed, where Achilles had killed Hector, and were Achilles himself died, before they went on to look at the tombs and temples to the fallen heroes.
Never mind that Novum Ilium wasn’t built upon the ruins of Troy: when did history ever get in the way of a good scam?
The other thing that is fascinating is that, early in his military career, Julian seems to have done really well… despite spending most of his young immersed in books of all sorts. It seems quite certain some of those books dealt with military strategy, and also, quite surely, prescribed a very hardcore training regimen for soldiers, which Julian himself would have followed as well. (He made a show of sleeping on a “under a rough rug and blanket” rather than silk sheets and a duvet, to convince his soldiers he was really in the same boat with them, despite his noble heritage.) The men seem to have responded, and his early career, at least, seems to have involved kicking prodigious amounts of Germanic ass around the countryside, at the behest of the emperor Constantius II–the ruler who’d murdered all of Julian’s family to ensure his place at the head of the Empire, and who’d kept Julian a prisoner (albeit a pampered one) from childhood pretty much until the day he was unleashed on the Germanians.
I’m eager to get back to the pagan side of Julian’s life, but I can’t help but be impressed at how well he did as a military leader, given his bookish youth.