Julian the Reformer – Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 22 Part 3

Unlike previous emperors, Julian did not spend much time in the Hippodrome

Julian managed to get a lot done in his short life.  It’s a shame he didn’t write a book on time management, I’d love to know how he was so productive, but he did write a lot.  Its a shame that more of his writings haven’t survived.  They aren’t as well written as the works of Caesar or Marcus Aurelius and his choice of subject matter isn’t particularly compelling.  But nonetheless you can still pick up his intelligence and perceptiveness. I get the feeling that he would have been pretty successful at anything to which he turned his mind. Getting to be the emperor of Rome was a bit of a lottery, but it was the kind of level that Julian was quite capable of handling.

He seems to have had remarkable abilities.  It is reported that he could simultaneously read one thing, dictate another and listen to a third.  I have never come across anyone who can come even close to doing this so I doubt this is the literal truth, but it isn’t hard to see why such a story would arise and be believed.  When you consider how much he achieved in the mere 16 months he was in Constantinople actively running the empire there is no doubt that he was pretty effective.  He certainly worked long hours and ran a team of secretaries working in a relay around him trying to keep up.

Above all he was focused.  Apart from the period he was married it is reported he never shared his bed with a woman.  And given the political nature of his marriage you could probably count that as work.  This was typical. He permitted very few distractions.  He disliked chariot racing which was the fashionable diversion in Constantinople at the time.  As emperor he had to show his face at the games but he cleared off as soon as he could, staying for only five or six races.  His predecessors had cheerfully whiled away the whole day sitting through the whole card of 24.

His dislike of sport sounds a bit geeky, as does his interest in philosophy and religion. He was also not impressed by the more superficial trappings of power such as fancy clothes.  He considered dispensing with the diadem – heavy, expensive and impractical.  He didn’t get that far, but he certainly dispensed with the more ridiculous make up and fancy clothes.  He also rejected being called Dominus.

His focus was helped by his spartan lifestyle.  He ate small amounts of plain food.  Some people describe him as a vegetarian, and he may well have been though it isn’t entirely clear that he was.  If he was a strict vegetarian he would have had difficulty taking part in the sacrifices that were a big part of his approach to religion.  Basically he lived to work and contrived his life to allow him to meet his goals.  He either had huge innate ability, or more likely had trained his brain to perform how he wanted it to.  We have already seen how he was able to make decisions quickly, respond to a changing situation and come up with creative solutions to the problems facing him.

His ability to transform himself to meet changing situations is in many ways the most impressive thing about him. Looking at his actions now he is on the throne it is hard to imagine that only a few years before he had been a junior emperor obediently following orders and hiding his own inclinations to avoid giving offence.

So how did this austere, able and disciplined man fit in with the customary way things were done in the protocol ridden and elaborate court of Constantinople?  Frankly not very well.  Since Diocletian the emperors had become increasingly distant figures surrounded with courtiers and gatekeepers.  This was the opposite of the way Julian wanted to work. It didn’t take long for Julian to run into practices he didn’t approve off.  On his arrival in Constantinople he started working more or less straight away. After a while, he called for a barber.  Julian was amazed at the sight of the foppishly dressed poltroon who arrived in front of him.  He instantly cried that it was a barber he wanted, not the chancellor of the exchequer.

But it was a fruitful encounter nonetheless.  Julian quizzed him about his remuneration.  It turned out that the emperor’s barber was on quite a tidy package including 20 servants and 20 horses.  Nice work if you can get it.  Julian of course was well aware of the excesses of the court.  He was already familiar with the sumptuous palaces built by Constantine and his successors.  They made liberal use of gold and marble.  Barbers and cup bearers weren’t even the half of it.  Numerous functionaries with obscure duties abounded.  Eunuchs were plentiful and ran many of the key functions.

Huge efforts went into gratifying the luxurious lifestyles of the emperors.  In their marble lined palaces they could enjoy exotic foods brought from around the world, fruits out of season, ice brought from distant mountain tops.  All in all, it sounds a bit like the kind of lifestyle that a modern commercial traveler could enjoy at the Marriott.

That so many people were employed in the service of one family would have been enough to offensive enough.  But there was outright corruption as well.  Some of the posts were simply purchased as a source of income.  As the abuses grew the numbers of people maintained at the public expense grew.  The household expenses of Constantine had equaled those of the legions.  And now this whole elaborate apparatus was under the control of a man who did not regard luxury as a priority.  He didn’t even sleep in a bed all that often.

But Julian’s contempt for the Constantinople establishment had plenty of sources besides philosophical puritanism.  He regarded himself as the champion of the people against the court.

Gibbon quotes a letter from Julian to a friend that encapsulates it.  “We are now surprisingly delivered from the voracious jaws of the Hydra.  I do not mean to apply the epithet to my brother Constantius. He is no more; may the earth lie light on his head! But his artful and cruel favorites studied to deceive and exasperate a prince, whose natural mildness cannot be praised without some efforts of adulation. It is not, however, my intention, that even those men should be oppressed: they are accused, and they shall enjoy the benefit of a fair and impartial trial.”

Julian had many objections to the way the court had developed under Diocletian and Constantine.  To the follower of Plato it was wrong in principle.  The ruler should be a servant and steward to the people, not a burden to them.  And to the soldier and man of action it was wrong in practice.  He knew only too well how interference from the favourites in Constantinople had hindered effective military operations on the borders.  And on top of these objections Julian also had personal issues with the specific personnel in post in the administration. It was chock full of his own personal enemies.  Men who had plotted against him, undermined his military actions threatening his life and the lives of his comrades, and who had connived at and profited from the destruction of the temples of his gods.

And now here they were, in his power.  There must have been some uneasy nights sleep in the palace once he took over.

But as his letter revealed, Julian had to live by his principles, and so the scoundrels would not be simply executed. They would get a fair and impartial trial as he put it.  In a manner of speaking, anyway.  Roman justice never had been a truly impartial judicial system like we have today and by Julian’s time it was well past its peak.  Over its history, the empire had maintained the outward forms of a republic while being first an absolute monarchy, then a military dictatorship before sliding into a proto-fascist police state.  The legal system had followed a similar trajectory with more and more lawyers and less and less justice.  But Julian did what he could.

He set up a commission of a few legal bigwigs and some military top brass to investigate the behaviour of key members of the Constantius administration.  It sat at Chalcedon, just over the Bosphoros from Constantinople.  The rules were simple.  The commission had complete authority to mete out punishments including death and confiscation.  It was rough justice.  Sentences were imposed immediately and there was no appeal. And proceedings were ‘guarded’ by troops who followed the cases and expressed their opinions about the merits of the accused.   This must have made it a bit of a bear garden.  The attitude of the men who had followed Julian from underdeveloped Gaul to the excesses of the men who had been spending their taxes can be imagined.  And while Julian may not have wished to appear to influence the judgements, it was pretty inevitable that he would do exactly that.

So it was rough justice, but mainly justice nonetheless.  The eunuch Eusebius appeared and was sentenced to death.  We have all come across schemers and plotters.  They usually get away with it.  I find that a moment’s reflection on the fate of Eusebius is a good antidote to the injustice of everyday life.  Backstabbing toadies rarely end up having to face up to the consequences of their actions, but Julian at least and completely unexpectedly had the chance to have revenge on the killer of his brother.  My inner need for justice and fairness can still be assuaged by remembering this story.

Others were condemned as well. Some were dispatched with popular approval.  Many of the favourites of Constantius were a long way from being favourites of the public over whom they had lorded it.  Others managed to attract some sympathy – Julian might have wanted to distance himself from the proceedings but it might have been better if he had been a bit more involved to prevent basic PR errors.  Florentius who had been up to his neck in the plot against Julian was given a highly deserved death sentence.  In this case justice was foiled when Florentius managed to escape. This must have been frustrating.  After Eusebius, I imagine he was the top name of Julian’s list of people that the commission of Chalcedon was supposed to get rid of.

There was an illuminating foot note to this case.  An informer arrived with information on his location.  But much as Julian must have wanted the traitor caught, he refused to use such means to capture him.

Julian could not easily re-establish the republic, but he could at least demolish the police state that Constantine had created.  The army of informers and spies was an innovation that the conservative Julian must have most objected to.  It was a million miles from the philosopher king ideal of Julian’s hero Plato.  But the world of the late empire was far from an ideal world.  It would have been very understandable if Julian had felt the necessity of behaving in the same way as his predecessors.  But that was not the Julian way. In his reform of the palace the spooks were the first to go.  And he didn’t bring them back even after there were attempts against his life.  A group of palace guards plotted to kill him.  The plot was discovered.  Constantius would have had them tortured to death.  Julian gave them a stern lecture, then punished only the ring leaders.  And even they were only exiled.

A lone youth with a sword who tried to kill Julian was treated less leniently and was executed.  This was the son of Marcellus, who had incurred Julian’s displeasure years before in Gaul.  If you have listened to the podcast on Julian in Gaul you’ll remember that he was the guy who had taken so long to relieve Julian from being besieged by the Allemani that by the time he got there they had given up and gone home.  Did Julian let this cloud his judgement?  It may well have done because afterwards Julian tried to make amends by returning some property that had been confiscated from the estate of Marcellus.

But it showed that Julian’s life was under genuine threat so it was an act of real courage to lower his own personal security.  And this was just the start. He also got rid of huge swathes of the palace staff.  This was done so quickly and brutally that Julian was criticised for failing to show compassion to the long standing servants who had worked loyally but who were now out of a job.  This habit of behaving according to his principles rather than what was politically acceptable is at once both the most infuriating and the most admirable about Julian. You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs and you can’t reform an empire without creating winners and losers.  But maybe a bit of humanity in the process could have been afforded without losing sight of the long term objective.

The state of the empire was such that is wasn’t always easy to even spot what the path of virtue should be.  One of the consequences of the demolition of the court was that people who had bribed officials had wasted their money.  A large group of them turned up from Egypt looking for a refund.  It is hard to say whether they were entitled to one or not.  Were they equally corrupt for participating, or were they simply doing what had to be done in good faith from their point of view.  It looks like Julian himself could not decide as he sent them to Chalcedon to await his judgement.  He then ordered the watermen not to bring them back.  Eventually their money ran out and they had to go home.  This was not exactly noble behaviour on Julian’s part.

But Julian was on a mission.  He was very well aware that the empire had a weakness that could easily prove fatal.  Everything revolved around the person of the emperor. Put the wrong man on the throne and things could go hideously wrong.  Look at the way Constantine had wrecked the state’s religion for example.  And even that wasn’t the worst that could be imagined.  Suppose a simultaneous attack from the barbarians and the Persians.  There was only one emperor available and he could not be in more than one place.  Diocletian’s solution of having multiple emperors hadn’t really worked.  Julian’s fertile but conservative mind had hit on the notion of decentralising power again.  If the self reliance and individual initiative that had characterised the republic could be restored, the need for an over mighty emperor would diminish.

Dispensing with the pomp and mystery of the throne was just the start.  Julian started acting in ways reminiscent of the earliest emperors.  When the consuls that he had appointed came to Constantinople to take up their posts, he greeted them personally and without any ceremony walked with them to the Senate.  This was radical behaviour compared to Diocletian and his successors who would rarely deem to even appear in public.  He went out of his way to undermine the absolute power of the office he held.  It was consciously done. He inadvertently, or more likely deliberately, performed the ceremonial release of a slave when a consul was present.  It was pointed out to him that it was a consul’s perogative to do so.  He instantly fined himself 10 pounds of gold and declared that he, as much as anyone else, was subject to the law.

Read this story carefully and you also spot another of Julian’s characteristics.  He was happy to be corrected by subordinates and actively encouraged feedback.  Again, it was a long time since any emperor had been willing to listen to direct criticism.

Gibbon is a bit condescending about Julian’s nods to the past.  This has set the tone for later historians who have often seen him in the light of an anachronistic throw back to a former era who was hopelessly out of touch with the world he lived in.  He was trying to behave like Hadrian or even Augustus long after the times had moved on.  I’m not so sure.  The centralised imperial system instigated by Diocletian and continued by all his successors, with the notable exception of Julian, was basically a really bad idea.  The running costs were outrageous and were sapping the strength out of the empire setting it up for long run decay.  And without a good strategist at the top it was pretty vulnerable to short term crises as well.  We know with the benefit of hindsight that it didn’t work and that the empire was indeed doomed without reform.  Julian’s radical reform programme might not have worked, but frankly it couldn’t have made things any worse than what actually happened.

But Julian was intelligent, knew the system well and had overcome many obstacles to achieve absolute power.  I think we should give him some credit.  Is it not possible that he could see a way forward for the empire.  His track record is, after all, impressive.  When he was sent to Gaul it was all but lost.  The barbarians were well on their way to carving out substantial kingdoms of their own.  Julian’s response was original, creative and successful.

One of his innovations was that he formed local militias to fight to protect their own locality.  If it could work in Gaul it could work elsewhere.  This was a major break with the past.  The emperors’ authority had rested on their monopoly of armed strength.  Arming the provincials would inevitably lead to a weakening of the centre and would need institutions dispersed throughout the empire.  What better model than the now very ancient republic?  But I don’t think Julian ever meant to literally bring back the institutions of the past.  I suspect that he had much more original reforms in mind.

Looked at in these terms, one of Julian’s otherwise rather random actions begins to make sense. He created a legal fiction that half the Senate of Rome had moved to Constantinople. Was he thinking in terms of developing an empire wide parliament that sat half the time in the two halves of the empire?  And was his esteem for consuls an indication that he intended some greater role for them in the future?  Imagine a set of elected consuls with military experience.  Wouldn’t these provide just the pool of able and experienced men needed to fill the vacant throne when the need arose?

Another reform was to widen eligibility for military service – another way of loosening the monopoly on armed strength that the legions had. It always seems one of the most amazing features of Roman history that at the same time that there was a shortage of manpower for the army a great many citizens were simply not allowed to join up.  It makes no sense, except from the point of view of maintaining the superiority of the emperors.

The western empire was not going to survive much longer, as we watch it disintegrate it will often be easy to imagine how differently things could  have gone if local militias and more officers had been available.

If Julian does get portrayed as having some kind of romantic yearning for past times that is partially because that is how he painted himself.  But that was a good cover and justification for someone whose real goal was creating a new kind of republic.  Julian portrayed himself as a conservative and may well have been one by inclination. But in reality he was a radical reformer.  Radical reforms have a poor track record of success, but if anyone could have pulled it off it was the heroic genius Julian.  If he had pulled it off he would have saved the Western empire.

His abilities were certainly not lost on his contemporaries, who universally acknowledged them.  I can’t beat Gibbon’s summing up.

Julian sustained adversity with firmness, and prosperity with moderation. After an interval of one hundred and twenty years from the death of Alexander Severus, the Romans beheld an emperor who made no distinction between his duties and his pleasures; who labored to relieve the distress, and to revive the spirit, of his subjects; and who endeavored always to connect authority with merit, and happiness with virtue. Even faction, and religious faction, was constrained to acknowledge the superiority of his genius, in peace as well as in war, and to confess, with a sigh, that the apostate Julian was a lover of his country, and that he deserved the empire of the world.




Thanks to Wikipedia for the image.

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