Julian has continued to fascinate people down the ages. He tends to be viewed favourably. In life he must have had a lot of charisma to do many of the things he did. He has left enough of his own writing and there are enough eye witness accounts that you can feel that you have got to know him. He is talented, engaged, idealistic and with a great sense of humour. He is very likeable. Add to that a hero’s death and an against the odds struggle against history he becomes irresistible.
But there seems to be an almost universal consensus that he was somehow doomed to fail. The forces he was opposing were simply too strong and ultimately the things which Julian cared about were beyond saving even by someone as talented as him. The almost total triumph of the Christians, who Julian described as a sect of fanatics despicable to mankind and odious to the gods, has given that triumph an air of inevitability. Julian was brave, but he was trying to do the impossible. All his efforts were in the end nothing more than a futile gesture of despair in the face of inevitable defeat.***
I am not sure Julian can be condescended to quite so easily. In a very short reign he gave the Church one heck of a scare. Had he lived longer it is quite likely he would have broken its political influence completely. Paganism was not remotely moribund and with the reforms Julian planned – including switching state sponsored charity from the Church to the temples – could well have emerged strong enough to halt the growth of Christianity and even push it backwards. Look at how easily Christianity was later to decay in Egypt and Syria under Islam. All it took was a higher rate of tax on Christians to turn them from a clear majority to an ignorable minority. Julian lost and the Church won, but it was luck rather than any inherent virtue of Christianity that was responsible.
Let’s assume that he had not been killed in Persia and returned able to claim success. He had created the bond with the eastern legions like the one he had already done with the western ones and he was ready to go. Let’s assume that he rules for another 30 years giving him a reign comparable to that of Constantine. His military abilities keep the empire together and his grip on the army makes his position secure. What would he be likely to do? My feeling is that he avoids outright confrontation with the Christians, while continuing to come up with minor restrictions and controls that don’t make their lives impossible, but which limit their scope. Julian had already enacted legislation to hinder Christian teachers. This was not the kind of measure that would provoke a riot but it would reduce the attractiveness of the cult to an influential group. Fines for prior damage to pagan buildings would be another neat trick. If you joined a particular church you might find yourself personally liable for repairing previous vandalism. It would be much better not to get associated with them in the first place or distance yourself if you had already got involved.
He also reforms and overhauls paganism giving it a centralised command structure. With state patronage the pagan organisations can start to provide welfare services strengthening their prestige and also giving the government a handy tool for development policy. It would be easy to use a structure like this to bond say barbarian settlers within the empire. It also makes pagan religious practise an attractive career option for ambitious Romans.
How does Christianity cope with a situation like this? It is hard to see what response it could possibly make. It would be faced not so much with a direct challenge as a steady weight dragging it down. Relatively few people want to be martyrs – most just go with the flow.
But there are some people who court death for the cause they believe in. Could a bloody persecution have rebounded to the church’s advantage? Could their courage and dignity in the face of persecution have had the effect of making the Church more attractive?
Martyrs are in my opinion the most overrated class of humans in history. They are few in number and their motives are rarely understandable. The idea that the early Christian martyrs inspired people to join up is a deep seated one and may have been true in some cases. But we only have Christian sources to confirm it. On the whole it seems unlikely. The same story is told of Protestant martyrs in English history. But there were Catholic martyrs as well and they don’t seem to have had the same effect. Admittedly there were fewer of them, but surely they ought to have inspired some followers? A massacre of Christians might have shown enough dignity to win more converts, but it has to be said that it is hard to think of any well documented examples where this has happened for any cause. In fact in the later history of the empire bloody disputes between Christians were common and in those cases bloody persecution worked pretty well as a way of enforcing orthodoxy.
In any event while alive Julian was studious in avoiding creating martyrs whether from principle or calculation or a combination of both. He was also a quick learner – so if he had switched to a more robustly anti-Christian policy he would no doubt have monitored the effects and modified them accordingly.
But whether effective or counterproductive, direct persecution wasn’t the only tool in his pack anyway. As the emperor his powers of patronage were enormous. If he was unwilling to use the stick, he had plenty of carrot to use as well. So even if the church was well entrenched there was every chance that Julian could have turned it back.
In fact I think the biggest assumption that people make is the one that is most wrong. It simply wasn’t the case that Christianity had any superior qualities over Paganism.
The biggest weakness of Christianity has always been that it is basically not very well thought out. It is a hodgepodge of beliefs from a number of sources with a confusing central dogma that was cobbled together to meet the particular political needs of Constantine at one point in time. It has patched things up a bit over the centuries and some highly respectable brains have done their best to try and get it to make some sense. In the short run this rarely matters very much. As any salesman will tell you, the trick is to sell the sizzle and not the sausage. With good organisation and not too much competition Christianity does just fine. But it is always vulnerable to heresies, spits and schisms simply because it is so easy to look at the holy canon and come up with your own interpretation. The history of Christianity is pretty much the history of its fragmentation. The early church was split between the Arians and the Orthodox with smaller breakaway groups in abundance. The split between the Catholics and the Orthodox was protracted but was complete by the eleventh century. The Protestants broke away from the Catholics in the fifteenth century – modifying the Bible in the process. As recently as the Twentieth century we have seen the Evangelicals creating yet another new version of Christianity at odds with the rest of them.
At the time of Julian none of this mattered too much because the pagans were even more fragmented and in fact generally only worried about their own locality. But Julian’s neoplatonic framework offered a solution to this. If there is one true transcendent God who created all the lesser gods including all the regional ones, then there is no need for conflict between the different cults, and they could logically be united within a single framework.
This was clearly Julian’s plan and he had already laid down what he expected from the official priestly caste he intended to create. A state sponsored pan-pagan union would have all the advantages of the Christian church and would be quite likely to avoid the schisms. Julian was quite capable of finding the men he would need to write up a set of doctrines to fit his new conception of the old religion. His own writings could well have become part of the canon themselves.
So to my mind, Julian was not just an enemy of Christianity. He was the enemy. He was the one man in history who could have stopped it.
If he had succeeded much that was lost might have been saved. There is no reason why the great pagan statues of the ancient world could not have been preserved to this day. Much more of the literature of the classical age would have survived. Remember that we only know about the atomic theory of the Greeks by a handful of manuscripts. Some of Cicero’s writings only survived because the parchments were reused for standard ecclesiastical texts leaving tiny residues of the originals below.
The influence of Christianity on the development of Western thought and culture has been huge and about as negative as it is possible to imagine. I can’t believe that even the most devout church going enthusiast hasn’t at some point wandered around an art gallery and thought ‘not another bloody crucifix’. Christianity is very short of good stories. The story of Jesus himself is not only not very inspiring, it isn’t even particularly easy to work out what if anything it is supposed to mean. The cathedrals are impressive monuments and most people like them, but a big building is a big building and is really a monument to stone masonry rather than the religion that supposedly inspired it.
Above all it would bring us closer to our roots. Christianity has wiped out much of our traditional culture. I am writing this on a Wednesday. The name of the day preserves the name of Woden, but about him most of us know next to nothing. This is a huge shame. When there are major national occasions churches very naturally provide the focus for communities, but the dogmatism of Christianity is a huge barrier to us non-believers and to unorthodox believers. I envy the Japanese their national religion. Shinto is the model of the kind of national paganism I would like to have, that is encompassing and deeply rooted rather than divisive.
I don’t doubt that Julian’s pagan church would have had many of the same problems as the Church went on to have. It would have been a source of power and power breeds problems. The priests would no doubt have lined up with the most conservative elements in society and pursued their own interests. In this alternative version of history Christianity never gets into the position to do all the things like the crusades and the inquisition that have given it such a bad name. It is hard to imagine Julian’s reformed paganism being much worse, but it would probably still have been pretty bad. Julian might be remembered not so much as the man who saved us from Christianity but as the man who wrecked the toleration of early paganism. But the reality was that once the fanaticism had emerged it had to work itself out some way. It wasn’t inevitable that Christianity would triumph – and the emergence of Islam which now occupies much of the area where Christianity first spread proves this. But once the meme of highly organised fanatical centralised religions had developed, the choice was a stark one. Adapt to the new environment as Julian tried to do, or be wiped out as actually happened. It was Darwinian selection and you either grew teeth or got eaten.
But it would still have been better if Paganism rather than Christianity had triumphed. The dark ages would have been less dark and less long. Less blood would have been spilled. And we would have a lot more of our culture left. We wouldn’t have realised how close we came to losing it all, but that is the nature of history. Ultimately what if questions like this are pretty futile and we can never know how things would have turned out if events had been different. But there is one thing that a successful restoration of paganism would have achieved. Julian is known as Julian the Apostate as a deliberate slur by his enemies. But his admirers have coined the alternative name of Julian the Philosopher. I’m pretty confident that had he survived the war in Persia that is the name we would call him today.
He would have liked that.