I posted about the book on Julian the Apostate that I was reading back in November, but never got around to posting how the rest of the book went. I’ll pore over what I read this year (less than I’d hoped) once it’s next year, and just highlight some of the fun from Julian for the moment…
I got a kick out of the observation that, in early Roman Christianity, the imperial religion was:
… mostly an urban phenomenon that had been carried along Mediterranean shipping lanes from the Middle East. In many cities Christianity was little more than a veneer. There is a difference between signing up to something and believing it… (131-132)
Murdoch goes on to note that the paganism that got folded into Christianity was as much the practice of ostensible Roman converts who, coming from a (more inclusive, less orthodoxy-infused) pagan cultural background, saw no problems celebrating Saturnalia or distributing on Easter the painted eggs that were, of course pagan fertility symbols. Usually, people who talk about the paganization of Christianity–me included–see it as a ploy by the Church… but there’s an element of cultural practice out in the streets.
The Christians in Antioch, by the way, pissed of Julian not by being too prissy, but because they were Christian in name only. Julian was busily trying to invent a pagan orthodoxy so that paganism could become a state religion, and what he found in Antioch–a sort of nominally Christian Babylon–horrified him. He was so horrified when the locals mocked him in the arena, that he responsed with a written satire titled “The Beard Hater” (a disdainful reference to the beard he wore, as a conscious neo-pagan stylistic choice: here’s an English translation of Julian’s text). It was, basically, his grandoise way of flipping the bird at the whole city of Antioch on his way out.
Julian was rather creative in his effort to stamp out Christianity, by the way. One of his strategies was to declare that the only people allowed to teach classics had to be vetted by the Emperor… and then, soon after, to declare that only pagans would be allowed to teach the Classics. Christians, of course, were horrified: teaching was a major route of access to new converts, and they tended to put a Christian spin on the classics that would no longer be possible. But Julian went further than that: he also started cultivating relationships with the Jews, and even started rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem–yes, the so-called Third Temple–as a way of discrediting Christian prophecy. Of course, he was having pagan temples reinstated or rebuilt all over the Empire, but Jerusalem was special: it was part of his agenda to wipe out Christianity. He also happened to like the Jews because, even though they were just as monotheistic as the Christians, they were perceived by Romans as more tolerant than the “fanatical” Christ-worshippers.
(He died in Persia before the project got very far, but a lot of preparations had been undertaken and some work done in 363, in the area now called “Solomon’s Stables.” The Romans treated it as a high-priority project, and spent a lot of money crafting “mattocks, shovels, and baskets of silver as this was specified by Jewish law.” It’s tantalizing to imagine how history might have gone if he’s survived his Persian misadventure, and apparently several alternate-history novels imagine precisely that. In any case, it was a much better time to be a Jew in the Roman empire than in the centuries previously, or those to follow, and with the Christians and pagans squabbling with one another, it feels to me like a wonderful moment in history to set a “Jews with Swords” type story, as Chabon dubbed his own novel Gentlemen of the Road… which, no, I have not yet read.)
There’s a rather surprising moment that came when Julian’s army Anatha, which had been an “important trading hub on the Euphrates since 2200 B.C.” The Romans had taken it over briefly, but not for long: it’d almost always been under Persian rule. So anyway, when Julian’s army took the city, the defenders were not slain, but instead–following their surrender–they were exiled. Among them was one particularly interesting figure, another of the sort about whom many questions spring to mind:
It is easy to think of the [Roman] imperial campaigns in Persia in isolation, but among the locals was a soldier who had been left behind, sick or injured, after the emperor Galerius’s campaigns sicty-six years previously. Now, presumably over eighty, the an had gone native and had acquired several wives, but he maintained enough loyalty to the eagle to be one of the leaders of the surrender. (172)
Though a later passage by Murdoch is confusing, I think what happened was that, sadly, later on when they entered the city, Julian’s army apparently discovered the unnamed man’s family all strung up in retaliation to the very same surrender.
The book discusses Julian’s death, which, frankly, has been an unsolved mystery, though Murdoch’s guess is pretty good: Julia was speared by someone in the Persian army, who was then taken out quickly by Julian’s bodyguards. But what’s more interesting is the lore and legends that grew up around Julian–including a fascinating account of his death a few days after the wounding (and some insight into classical surgical practice and techniques). Murdoch also goes into a wonderful account of the legends surrounding Julian’s eventual failure, including an account that he had a vision of Mars falling from the sky, and a visitation by some other god who had also visited him Gaul–the former visit to encourage him to greatness, the latter to bemoan his impending doom and then abandon him. Christians crowed at what they felt was a punishment by their god; pagans mourned him even as they remained uneasy about his, er, pagan fundamentalism; but the Christians won out, in the empire, and Julian’s reputation did not recover until more recent times, when he became an icon of tolerance and of resistance to Christianity during the Enlightenment.
Murdoch also discusses some of the poetry and fiction written about Julian, including several as-yet unperformed operas. Most interesting to me were:
- Somerset de Chair’s Bring Back the Gods (1962), apparently written as a sort of “Boys’ Own Adventure” styled narrative of “a sort of pagan Field Marshal Montgomery. No self-indulgences and 100% fit.”
- Gore Vidal’s Julian (1964) a very sympathetic telling of his Persian campaign in the form of a dictated diary.
- Michael Curtis Ford’s Gods and Legions (2002), which apparently depicts a much more human Julian, especially during his time in Gaul.
- John M. Ford’s The Dragon Waiting (1983) which doesn’t depict Julian directly, but is an alt-history in which his resurrection of paganism in the Empire succeeded.
- Brian Stableford’s short story “The Mandrake Garden” is inspired by a letter by Julian to Callixeine, a faithful pagan priestess who had endured the persecutions of Constantine and Constantius, Julian’s direct successors (and his own oppressors as well).
As for Murdoch’s book, well… I did put it down in the middle, and it took me a while to come back to it. Which is to say: there are two sides to Julian, but also not a lot of information. For me, the paganism of Julian is fascinating, but the military stuff, much less so. I think Murdoch does as much as can reasonably be expected with the material, and I think the book was worth the read, but somehow I can’t shake a sense of disappointment. Maybe it’s just that the story of Julian is ultimately disappointing: young man withstands the slaughter of family, rebels against the emperor, becomes emperor, aggressively reinstitutes paganism in the Roman Empire, then marches off into Persia to conduct an ill-considered campaign for no good or apparent reason, and dies without getting done much of what he wanted done.
It’s a disappointing story in itself, and though Murdoch tells this story well, it’s hard to end the tale with a sense of great satisfaction, Maybe that’s why I feel drawn toward one of these other depictions of Julian: he was a figure with so much potential, but what he achieved is, ultimately, pretty limited. The what-ifs for us, like the mythic tales told of him immediately after his passing, seem inevitable, and one feels as if perhaps a fictional treatment might offer more satisfaction, even if it is pulled out of the air.
One thing about the Murdoch book, though: I rather felt as if he shifted modes once he got into Julian’s campaigns in Gaul: suddenly, the paganism was almost irrelevant. I would have liked to know how it affected him militarily, in terms of religious-military practices, in terms of his attitude toward his Teutonic enemies, towards his men. The mode shift seemed to lead away from his paganism–which, to me, is his most defining trait–and full-on toward his military background, and I felt as if the paganism got dropped too suddenly.
Oh, and for those reading following my posts on Ezra Pound’s The Cantos, Julian does come up in the Cantos, in CII. It’ll be a while before I read that!