The unkindest cut of all

With any good history book, there are two questions. The first: What happened? Which is the whole point of reading the book. The second: Did this have to happen? Which is the question any historian worth his reading glasses leaves in his wake.

The most interesting thing about the Christianization of the Roman Empire, which in turn cemented its place as one of the world’s dominant religions, is that it was far from inevitable, and could have been turned back had thing happened a bit differently. If, for example, a late Roman emperor named Flavius Claudius Julianus had not met an untimely end, not even two years into his reign, during a campaign against the Persians. Though his predecessor Constantine had declared toleration for Christianity, Julian opposed the “Galileans,” mocked their doctrines and worked to restore pagan practices. Had his project not been halted by that spear-cut, the history of the Empire and the world would have been quite different.

All this is the reason this new biography of Julian — Adrian Murdoch’s The Last Pagan: Julian the Apostate and the Death of the Ancient World — will probably cause me to shove aside my summertime reference reading:

The battle that Julian picked—Christianity—was fought by the era’s greatest and most articulate thinkers. When the emperor Constantine accepted Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire in 313, he let loose a philosophy that was to pervade every aspect of political, social, cultural, and, of course, religious life right up to modern times. But that is all with the benefit of hindsight. Christianity did not become the official winner until seventeen years after Julian’s death. When Julian took the purple, the battle against Christianity was by no means over. The Christians were not a unified organization, splintered as they were into numerous groups; indeed, much of the empire was still pagan.

At a time when neither pagan nor Christian ideologies reigned supreme, the state of your soul was arguably the single most important issue of the day. Few were short of opinions on the last Roman emperor to oppose Christianity—seen most trenchantly in the way that he is still best known as the “Apostate,” the one who renounced Christianity—and it is of little surprise that both pagan and Christian apologists comment extensively on his reign, in Latin, Greek, Syriac, Arabic, and Armenian. For most writers then, as now, Julian is either monster or saint. He was just as Napoleon was to the Italian poet Manzoni: “an object of undying hatred and incomparable love.”

When news of his death broke, one of the emperor’s closest friends wailed: “Gone is the glory of good. The company of the wicked and the licentious is uplifted. . . . Now the broad path, the great doors lie wide open for the doers of evil to attack the just. The walls are down.” At the same time, a former fellow student from the university in Athens trumpeted the death of “the dragon, the apostate, the great mind, the Assyrian, the public and private enemy of all in common, him that has madly raged and threatened much upon earth, and that has spoken and mediated much unrighteousness against Heaven.” It is a cry that is as exultant as it is pitiless.

I was introduced to Julian through Gore Vidal’s novel, which remains my favorite among Vidal’s books. Vidal’s fiction can be a chilly affair, but his obvious admiration for the apostate emperor (and his scathing contempt for Christianity) warms every page. Julian was a prolific writer, and a good chunk of his work has survived, giving any researcher plenty of material to use. Vidal makes good use of it, along with the squabblings of two rhetoricians, Priscus and Libanus, who want to use the posthumous release of Julian’s works to fuel a last-ditch effort to unseat Christianity. This provides the novel with a surprisingly poignant conclusion.

I’ve just heard about an alternate-history fantasy novel that depicts a world in which Julian successfully re-paganized the Empire. Maybe I’ll read that one during my vacation as well.

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One thought on “The unkindest cut of all

  1. […] bunk, and that goes double for the NYTBR review that has launched it to success. And here’s a new biography of the emperor who tried to stop Christianity. Posted by stevenhart Filed in Sunday […]

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