Julian and the Christians

Gregory of Nazianzus

Alexandria was one of the major cities of the Roman empire, and one that would have appealed to Julian.  It was founded by Alexander the Great, who was one of Julian’s heroes.   It was also the centre of a major pagan cult, that of Serapis.  (If you are wondering who Serapis was, he was created by the Greek founders of Alexandria as an amalgam of Greek and Egyptian elements so as to appeal to both ethnic groups.  Cynical manipulation of religion for political purposes has a long history.)  And the intellectual achievements of the Alexandrians rivalled those of Athens.  Basically it was his kind of place, or rather it would have been had it not also been an important centre of Christian thought as well.  

When we last looked at Alexandria, the popular but wily and politically motivated Athanasius had been banished and replaced as archbishop by somebody willing to go along with the Arian sympathies of the then emperor Constantius. That person was George of Cappadocia who was just as unsuitable but for totally different reasons.

George had come from a poor background and made his fortune, or the start of it, supplying the army with bacon. When Athanasius was banished by Constantius George became the patriarch in his place with the support of the Arian faction. His exact position on the divinity of Christ hasn’t been recorded, but his businesslike approach to maximising his income has.   In an age where honesty was a rare commodity, he took corruption to a degree which earned the contempt of just about everyone.  His targets had included the pagans as well as his co-religionists, coming up with the claim that the church actually owned the land in the city and so everyone with any property was liable to pay him ground rent.  Even people with a complete disinterest in the theological disputes of the time – which was probably most people – would not have failed to have an opinion on that kind of thing.   He clearly needed to be sorted out, and the removal of George from his post was announced in Alexandria at the same time as Julian’s accession to the throne.

So George ended up in prison.  But as is often the case in these kinds of situation, events went at their own pace, not the one the authorities tried to set.   With the removal of the Arian appointee who should turn up and reclaim the vacant seat but Athanasius.  This was definitely not what Julian had in mind and he had to send a rapid clarification explaining that when he had said that dissident bishops were restored to their seats, that didn’t include known criminals like Athanasius.

Julian was well aware of the abilities of Athanasius and the last thing he wanted to do was to let him loose to provide the church with effective leadership.  Meanwhile developments in the crisis continued.  The pagans who had suffered badly at the hands of George’s extortion could not wait for the natural course of justice. They stormed the jail and killed George themselves.  Gibbon suggests that after his death George became the origin of the famous St George, dragon slayer, paragon of knightly virtue and patron saint of a great many places including of course England.  This was a reasonable enough idea in the light of what Gibbon knew, as this was then the earliest use of the name George.  Since then a couple of churches dedicated to a St George that predate George of Cappadocia’s death – one by 16 years – have been discovered.  This clears St George of being a dodgy bacon trader, which for a patriotic Englishman like myself is a relief, though it does mean that we have no idea who he actually was or whether he even existed.  But potential non-existance has not harmed his career as a saint and he continues to attract fans from most Christian denominations and even some Muslims.

Getting back to Alexandria, it is hard not to sympathise with the pagans, but no state can tolerate people taking the law into their own hands no matter how provoked they might be.  And Athanasius had prudently kept the Christian faction out of the action, enabling the episode to be portrayed, quite accurately, as one where a Christian had been killed by a pagan mob.   This was a potentially dangerous situation.  Julian’s response was self indulgent and inflammatory.  He mildly rebuked the pagans saying that although they had good cause they should not have behaved in such a way.  But given their Grecian heritage and their love of the gods he generously pardoned them.  Having given his own side a license to kill, he then moved against the man who might have been able to diffuse the situation.  Athanasius was banished again – though he must have been getting used to it by now.

Athanasius was a tricky character and was just about the polar opposite of Julian. Where Julian was full of intellectual curiosity, Athanasius was unimaginative but effective.  Julian cared about ideas, Athanasius was a political operator.  Above all, Athanasius was intent on destroying everything Julian wanted to save.  It is no wonder that Julian wanted him out of the way and preferably dead.

But Athanasius was at least able to deliver some kind of peace deal, so it might well have been better to have at least tried to negotiate with him.  Much might have been gained by a more measured approach trading a degree of acceptance for the Church for the promise of good behaviour by its members.  But compromise was not the spirit of the time and Julian was set on confrontation.

And confrontation there was.  Temples were attacked by the Christians even though they no longer had any official blessing to do so.  There is something uniquely horrible about the deliberate destruction of other people’s religious images.  The destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Afghan Taliban in 2001 is recent enough to recall just how horrific such behaviour is.  These huge monuments were dynamited on the orders of extreme muslim clerics in a triumph of righteous indignation over fellow feeling and respect for others. The statues were 1500 years old and can never now be replaced.  The classical world was full of monuments as old in their time as the Budhhas were in ours. The destruction of many of these by the Christians must have been profoundly shocking for the sincere pagans and non-believers alike.  With a pagan back on the throne the Churches were now attacked.  If Church sources are to be believed, which they generally aren’t, the Christians themselves were attacked too.  But the attacks on pagan monuments continued as well.  In Pessinus the alter of Cybele was overturned almost in the presence of Julian himself.

We are familiar with the pattern of sectarian violence from so many places around the world. In fact as I am working on this piece, from Egypt itself comes a transparent attempt by somebody to convert a political crisis into a religious one by carrying out attacks against the Coptic Christians.  The Egyptians seem unwilling to go along with this and their pro-democracy protestors are remaining non-factional.  This is greatly to their credit.  It is impossible to give the same credit to Julian.  This was his reaction to trouble breaking out in Edessa. The Arian Christians had attacked the Valentinian Christans and the magistrates had struggled to restore order.  Rather than follow judicial procedure to identify and punish the specific wrong doers, Julian simply confiscated the Church’s property in Edessa. The money was distributed among the soldiers.   Meanwhile Julian engaged in the sort of thing that many democratic politicians probably wish they could get away with by telling his opponents exactly what he thought.   “I show myself,” says Julian, “the true friend of the Galilaeans. Their admirable law has promised the kingdom of heaven to the poor; and they will advance with more diligence in the paths of virtue and salvation, when they are relieved by my assistance from the load of temporal possessions.”  His light tone did not continue. “Take care, how you provoke my patience and humanity. If these disorders continue, I will revenge on the magistrates the crimes of the people; and you will have reason to dread, not only confiscation and exile, but fire and the sword.”

The Roman Empire wasn’t a cuddly place and being equally ferocious to all parties would probably have been tolerated, and even approved of.  But pagan atrocities were indulged while Christian ones were not.  It is hard not to interpret this as indicating that Julian was quite prepared to use violence to achieve his religious ends.  I suspect he did not have any plans for a widespread violent crackdown on Christianity, but I think that was not for any other reason than that he thought it wouldn’t be the most effective means of achieving his ends.  At the same time as handling day to day politicking with his opponents he also brought in a policy that would have had a long term weakening effect.  He banned the use of the classical Greek texts by teachers unwilling to accept that the Gods in those texts were true.  This had the effect of preventing Christians from teaching.  This was a serious blow against the propagation of Christianity.  Getting them young is still one of the main strategies used to keep the faith going. It rankles with me that my taxes subsidise what are known as ‘faith based schools’, or schools which promote irrational nonsense as I like to think of them.  Julian’s move was a subtle one, because the study of the great works of ancient literature was a passport into the civil service, so passing up on it would be a tough thing to do.

Julian also applied financial pressure, again using what looked like a long term strategy to starve out Christianity rather than directly confront it.  The Church had already lost the patronage of the state more or less from day one of his reign, and this was bad enough. He also stopped people leaving their property to it – which cut off another major source of income.

His third prong was a very clever one.  Individual Christian leaders were made liable for repairing the damage done to pagan places of worship.  It was hard to argue with the justice of this.  It also had the effect of hitting the Christian leadership without offering them the chance of martyrdom.  Perishing by the sword for refusing to renounce your beliefs has a certain romantic appeal.  Ending up potless due to criminal damage charges doesn’t have the same resonance.

So Julian’s campaign against the Christians was well thought out and implemented with energy.  If it had a weakness it was that Julian was sincere in his paganism.  He was intelligent and worldly wise, but he underestimated the strength of his opponents, probably because he thought he actually had the heavens on his side.  He also grossly overestimated the strength of his own faction.  Converts are often very zealous.

This was made most clear in his visit to Antioch.  He went to Syria to visit the famous temple of Apollo.  This had been founded by one of Alexander the Great’s generals and was renowned as a beautiful location five miles outside the city itself.  The vast statue of Apollo filled a huge portion of the temple overawing worshippers.  It was located in a shady grove of laurels and cypresses offering shade from the harsh Syrian sun, with numerous streams flowing through keeping the leaves in the trees green and making it even more idyllic.  The laurel tree was sacred to Daphne, who in legend had been loved by Apollo, but who got herself turned into a laurel to escape his clutches. There was also a spring which supported a shrine to Daphne and which was famous as an oracle that rivalled that of Delphi. The situating of places of worship for Apollo and Daphne so close together had an obvious romantic attraction for young couples.  Gibbon manages to put it decorously.

“the senses were gratified with harmonious sounds and aromatic odors; and the peaceful grove was consecrated to health and joy, to luxury and love. The vigorous youth pursued, like Apollo, the object of his desires; and the blushing maid was warned, by the fate of Daphne, to shun the folly of unseasonable coyness.”

Julian knew all about this famous religious centre and was anxious to see it.  No doubt he imagined white robed youths celebrating with music and dancing overseen by a cadre of priests presenting burnt offerings to the beneficent deities in heaven.  And where better to get council on the momentous events in which he was playing a part than in the prophetic springs of Daphne.  But his information was out of date.  When he arrived he found that it had fallen into disrepair and neglect.  There was only one priest in attendance.  And he could only rustle up a single goose as a sacrifice.  For the devout Julian it must have been a heart breaking visit.  And there was worse to come.  The site had been desecrated by having a Christian saint interred on the holy ground.  Rebuilding the temple would be a long job, but the sacrilegious burial at least could be dealt with quickly.  He ordered the body to be removed and sent to a church in the city of Antioch.

The saint in question was Saint Babylos who was supposed to have been killed during the persecution of Decius.  The return of his body was turned into a major demonstration by the Christians who turned out in great numbers to accompany the bones and sing hymns leaving Julian in no doubt that they had a very high level of support in the city.  That night a huge fire broke out destroying the temple of Apollo.  There is some doubt raised by some accounts as to whether the Christians were indeed responsible for the fire.  Right.  If it was an accident, you have to say that was one heck of a coincidence.  Julian at any rate had no doubt that his religion had suffered a terrorist attack and reacted.

Or to be more accurate, overreacted.

The cathedral in Antioch was closed and its wealth was seized.  To try and find the culprits – and some valuables that had been hidden – a few church officials were tortured and one of them beheaded.  Torture was standard legal procedure at the time, so nobody thought much about that, but the beheading was a bit harsh.
It was not ordered by Julian and he later condemned it.  There are a number of martyrs in the Catholic canon who are supposed to have been killed by Julian, but this is the closest he got to ever actually killing a Christian simply for his faith.  Having said that, Julian’s actions raised the temperature of the issue. This led to many avoidable deaths.

But although Julian was not the monster his enemies later portrayed him as, it has to be said that his time in Antioch was the low point of his career.  He had been popular in Gaul, where Christianity had not yet made much progress and his paganism was not much of an issue.   In Constantinople and Egypt faction fighting was already in progress and so he had ready made adherents and supporters simply by choosing a side. Antioch wasn’t like that.  Religious change had been a bit more steady and organic there.  It had been a haven of peaceful coexistence of pagans and Christians before Julian’s visit.  He was probably unconcerned about upsetting the Christians, though even on the narrowest of tactical considerations provoking a group that posed no threat while there was already trouble elsewhere was hardly a good move. But he didn’t really hit it off with the pagans either.  Being traditionalists they didn’t really take to his novel brand of paganism and he ended up arguing with them as well.  In turn they mocked his beard, which given his power was a braver mover than it sounds.  When Julian finally left on his way to Persia he left made a promise never to return. I doubt many were too disappointed.

Julian never did return to Antioch as we’ll see in the next episode.If you want to follow my extended review of Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire from the beginning (and who wouldn’t?) it starts with Augustus founding the empire.

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Filed under Gibbon, Julian the Apostate

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