Julian and the Pagans – Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 23 Part 3

Constantine’s adoption of Christianity and the ramifications of it triggered off a full scale religious crisis in the empire that was to last for the whole of the fourth century. As Julian came to the throne Christians were already fighting other Christians and it was only a matter of time before other religions resorted to violence as well. What would Julian do about it? To everyone’s surprise his first edict was one of tolerance. His approach looked good on paper.  Everyone was free to follow whatever spiritual path that suited them.  Full religious freedom was good news for most people on a personal level. Jews and pagans had a whole series of irksome restrictions lifted. The previously non-favoured brands of Christianity also were able to worship in freedom.

Announcing universal freedom of worship and stopping religious persecution was a great start. Letting people believe what they choose so long as they respect other people’s right to do the same is a very sound policy. Tolerance is a good thing for its own sake. But it was also just what the empire needed. The energy being consumed by religious fanaticism was desperately needed to defend the empire from the very real external threats it faced.  If Julian could have succeeded in creating genuine religious tolerance he would have been the greatest emperor that had ever lived at any time in any empire. Given the previous history, in particular the partial policies practiced by Julian’s uncle Constantine and his sons, it was never really going to be possible. But even an unsuccessful but sincere attempt would have been admirable.

But what Julian did next made it crystal clear that he was not an even handed monarch concerned only for his subjects’ well being. By identifying himself so strongly with one particular faction it was impossible for Julian to appear completely impartial. And he didn’t try very hard with the pretence either. Characteristically, he did something that nobody else in his position would have done and which nobody would have expected. He wrote a book. His three volume work ‘Against the Galileans’ attacked the very core of Christian belief. Nobody likes being criticised. It hurts a lot more when it is, as this was, done very well. And when it comes directly from the hand of the man in charge with the power of life and death it is still more alarming.

Knowing Julian, it is entirely possible to believe that he thought that his book would actually win people back to their old gods. This seems naive at first, but it might have served just that purpose. It was after all a pretty powerful message about how to win the favour of the new ruler. This message was not lost on the professional career bureaucrats that were now a feature of the imperial organisation. They were less concerned about whether a doctrine was true than whether it is expedient. So it isn’t surprising to see some officials switching to paganism with the new regime, and later switching right on back when the tide turned again. It is always worth remembering that even at times of great religious controversy the vast majority of people couldn’t care less and simply follow the line of least resistance. These people don’t make it into the pages of history books, but they probably enjoy their lives more and in most cases those lives last longer.

In any case, Julian was soon promoting his fellow pagans calling on his religious network to staff his court as far as he could. Apart from his immediate circle Julian did not immediately purge the Christians. It wasn’t really possible given that they were so well established in the government organisation. In any case his official line was that all his subjects were free to chose their religion. But the sincere Christians were no doubt disgruntled even when they weren’t actually being replaced. The Christians had been highly influential for 40 years and had no doubt got used to it. Their position changed very quickly. They had enjoyed favourable legal treatment, direct revenues from the government and the pleasure of being able to persecute their opponents. All these great advantages disappeared overnight.

However, they remained a formidable power, particularly in the East. By now, they may even have actually formed a majority in the provinces of Syria and Egypt. Julian’s response was to try and create what we would probably nowadays call a rainbow coalition against them.

Julian was to show favour to traditional pagans, not just the neoplatonic elites. This was natural enough. But he was also indulgent to Mithraism and to the Jews. In contrast he attempted to foster the divisions between the Christians, which must have seemed like an easy strategy. In the event, in the face of a common enemy the Arians and the Orthodox were able to some extent to bury their differences for the time being. Looking back on this it isn’t hard to see how this revealed the true motives of the different factions, whose deep seated theological differences suddenly became less important once who got to benefit from the imperial largesse was no longer at issue.

He certainly indulged his own particular religious inclinations to the full. His particular special deity was the Sun, and he sacrificed personally to him at sunrise and sunset. But he didn’t neglect the stars and the Moon, which he also regularly worshiped. He assisted in ceremonies when he was able to, taking the role of a simple functionary in the temple. He would bring the wood, and sometimes carry out the sacrifice of the animal and with his own hands examine the entrails. And if his personal life was Spartan, there was nothing modest about his worship. Oxen would on some occasions be sacrificed by the hundred.

Augustus had acquired for himself the role of Pontifex Maximus some three hundred and fifty years before. The wily founder of the empire had used this position in charge of the Roman’s state religion as a means to bolster his power and authority. Julian took it seriously as a sacred duty. He supported temples throughout the empire with the liberal grants that had previously been funding the official church. The revival of the ancient religion was popular with lots of the subjects of the empire. One pagan writer praises the revival of religious practices that could now be performed openly and without danger recording the rapture of the votaries as the sacrifice gained the favour of the gods and provided them with a congenial supper.

Julian surrounded himself with advisors on heavenly matters, many of whom were drawn directly from the circle who had initiated him into the cult in secrecy all those years before. This might well have been his biggest mistake. At least one of his confidants was later put on trial to explain his sudden acquisition of great wealth. It turned out that even Platonic philosophers find the allure of wealth hard to resist. But Julian needed these people for what he probably regarded as the most important project of his life. His aim was to put the pagans on a footing that would enable them to resist Christianity in the long run. Paganism wasn’t really a single religion. It was a whole load of different cults, some quite closely related to each other, some less so. Julian had a Neoplatonic framework that gave them all a single theoretical underpinning. But that was all it was, just a theory. There was no reflection of this theory on the ground in the organisation of the temples and other religious activities. Julian proposed to fill this gap. He had in mind a hierarchy of priests all reporting back into him as the Pontifex Maximus. The state had funded a lot of religious activities in the past and Julian proposed to put the whole thing onto a much more organised footing. He certainly had some very clear ideas about the way the priests should behave. They would have to be upstanding moral characters, beyond reproach. They needed to chose their friends wisely. This being Julian, he was interested in what they had in their libraries. Philosophy and history were okay. Satires were not approved of.

This brings up one point that Gibbon only makes the most fleeting of references to. Julian was in no way narrow minded and was supportive of other religions and was a huge enthusiast for learning in general. That his chief animosity was directed towards the Christians is understandable. Their intolerance of anyone else’s beliefs was the biggest threat to his vision after all, quite apart from the fact that for a lot of his life they had been trying to kill him.

But he also disliked the Epicureans, the Skeptics and other atheist philosophers. They weren’t organised and didn’t cause any trouble so they never became an issue. Unlike the Christians these people had no problems at all going through the motions of worship for the sake of a quiet life. Previous pagan emperors had not given them a second thought. The fact that Julian was highlighting them shows how deeply he had imbibed his ideology and for me makes clearer than anything else how for all his desire to restore the past he was far more a radical than he was a conservative. It is also ironic that the belief system that was ultimately to triumph was the one that made the least noise. As is often the case, it is the quiet ones you have to watch.

Julian was well aware that one of the Christians’ big plus points was their distribution of charity indiscriminately. It must indeed have infuriated both him and other pagans. Taxes were raised from everybody then passed to the church for distribution to the poor, building up the reputation of the church in the process. Julian planned to take this idea and simply transfer it to the temples. So you can see why he was concerned about the character of the people who he was going to have on the front line of this new project. This was in fact the weakest point in the plan.

Julian might have been at least partially blind to the defects on his own side, but he was well aware of the ins and outs of Christian controversy and had a keen idea of how this weakness could work to his advantage. He invited the leaders of the main Christian factions to the palace for dinner. This would have been a politically sound and statesmanlike thing to do, to reach out to the different groups in his empire and to establish a relationship with each of them. But he invited them all at the same time, knowing full well that they were at loggerheads with each other. On cue, arguments broke out and voices were raised. Julian was as keen as anyone on a good argument and would no doubt have liked to join in, but his voice was soon drowned out by the noise of the assembled clerics. In the end he resorted to shouting ‘hear me, hear me. The Alemanni have heard me. The Germani have heard me!’

Julian was contemptuous of the Christians and it is not hard to agree with him. Given that they set such a low base it wasn’t hard to outclass them, but it has to be said that while Julian’s behaviour wasn’t as bad it wasn’t a huge amount better.

A glaring example of the way he was anything but even handed in practice was his handling of the army.  The army of the West had taken Julian’s enthusiasm for paganism in general and sacrifices in particular to heart.  I imagine modern soldiers might be tempted too.  It involved chanting and dancing girls followed by roasting an ox which the participants got to share a portion of.  It sounds a bit more fun than a sermon and prayers.  The eastern legions had not had the same experience and were used to fighting under Christian symbols.  Julian had these replaced with the traditional ones obliging Christian soldiers to commit sacrilege when going about their normal duties.  This seemed to go well and there is no indication that Julian was in any danger of a Christian inspired religious mutiny.  His successful exploits against the barbarians in the west stood him in good stead here.  But to really cement his hold over the true power in the empire a successful campaign against the Persians would be just the trick.  With that under his belt Julian’s position would be strong enough to cope with any crisis, up to and including a civil war.

Given the raised passions it wasn’t long before a crisis arose. In fact it was almost straight away, and in exactly the place that would have been predicted – the hot bed of religious controversy and strife: Alexandria.  That is where we we’ll be going for the next podcast.

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.


Filed under Gibbon, Julian the Apostate

2 Responses to Julian and the Pagans – Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 23 Part 3

  1. Joe

    Have you read Gore Vidal's Julian? Recommended?

  2. I haven't yet, but I intend to. Thanks for the recommendation.

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