Constantine's decision to recognize Christianity as an official religion of the Roman Imperium was a signal disaster for classical civilization. While seeming to gain internal stability, the Edict of Milan in A.D. 313 permanently undercut the foundations of Roman cohesion and social structure. Historians have seen in this edict everything from profound religious conviction to crude political expediency. After rising in power during a period of turmoil within the Empire, Constantine remained aloof whilst rivals fought for the imperial throne. When he felt strong enough, he allied himself with Licinius, the emperor in the East, against Maximin and Maxentius. While Licinius vanquished Maximin, Constantine moved on Rome, the stronghold of Maxentius. According to Eusebius of Caesarea, when Constantine met Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge on the Tiber near Rome, he saw a flaming cross in the sky inscribed with the words, In Hoc Signo Vinces – "In this sign you shall conquer." Constantine adopted the cross as his standard, defeated Maxentius and became emperor in the West in AD. 312. Constantine and Licinius met in Milan and issued the Edict. In AD. 315 and 324 Licinius challenged Constantine, losing both times and perishing in the second effort.
Though politically astute, Constantine failed to grasp the deeper implications of nurturing Christianity. Throughout imperial history, Rome displayed great tolerance for all religions, sects and cults. When her armies annexed a new territory, they were followed by administrators whose chief task was to discover everything that could be known about the local pantheon, its customs, commandments, feast-days and rituals. Romans hesitated to give even unintended offence to the gods, and they believed that all religions deserved respect because they pointed to divinitas, the divine something sensed in the highest heavens and in the human heart. Once the local religion was understood, it was given a formal interpretatio Romana, in which each deity was correlated with a god sacred to Rome. Thus the gods of all people could be honoured and even welcomed into the Eternal City. When Romans first came in contact with Jews, whose religion was wholly exclusive and resistant to an interpretatio Romana, they were shocked. A religion that aggressively rejects any validity to other perspectives denies the gods that move and uplift peoples all over the earth. To the Roman mind, such religions – those of the Jews, Christians and some Manichees – were anti-religions and a form of atheism. The intolerance and spiritual presumption implicit in such beliefs were offensive to the Roman sense of the divine afflatus that suffuses every facet of natural order and all aspects of human institutions.
The emperor Constantine seems to have had no inclination to foist religious exclusivity upon the diverse peoples of the Imperium, but he overlooked a fundamental feature of the religion he elevated to imperial honours: Christianity from the beginning fully intended to destroy the ancient gods and their worship. To the early church, Greek and Roman, Celtic and Egyptian, Thracian and Phoenician deities were real enough, and actually were demons and fallen angels who took men to the fiery gates of perdition. This theology carries the social implication that the solidarity of the Roman Empire was built upon devils and fit only for damnation, an inevitable conclusion that Constantine failed to grasp or chose to ignore: deicide leads to fratricide. Whilst Constantine overlooked the grave consequences of the Edict of Milan for Roman society, classical art and science, and for paideia and humanitas, the implications were not lost on his fanatical and less perspicacious successors. Rome was not destroyed by the barbarians who sacked it with a remarkable reverence; it was demolished by Christian Byzantine emperors who seized its art and ornamentation and pulled its iron architectural supports for construction in Constantinople, 'leaving the great marble temples and palaces to fall rapidly into ruin.
Constantius Chlorus had been selected by the emperor Diocletian as a junior colleague. The price of his elevation to imperial power was his repudiation of his wife Helena, a barmaid from Asia Minor, and his marriage to Flavia Maxima Theodora, the daughter of Diocletian's co-ruler Maximian. Whilst Helena nurtured her son Constantine and her grudge against Constantius, Theodora gave birth to Dalmatius and Julius Constantius, the father of Julian. Constantius became emperor and was succeeded after considerable political and military struggles by Constantine, who made his mother first lady of the Empire. She banished the sons of Theodora to house arrest in the provinces far removed from political influence. Constantine trusted none of his kin and ordered his eldest son Crispus assassinated and his second wife Fausta suffocated in her bath. And yet, after having laboured to unify the Empire, he appointed no successor. After months of negotiation, during which time Constantine lay in state at Constantinople, his three surviving sons, Constantine II, Constantius II and Constans, divided the Empire amongst themselves. Constantius II, always fearful of challenge, claimed that Eusebius, Bishop of Nicomedia, had given him a will found by soldiers in the hands of Constantine, in which the dead emperor charged Theodora's sons with poisoning him. Soldiers were dispatched to slaughter Dalmatius and his sons; Julius Constantius and his eldest son were also killed, perhaps in Julian's presence. They spared Julian, who had been born in AD. 331 and was only five years old, as well as his elder brother Gallus, who was very ill and presumed to be dying. Julian was exiled to Nicomedia, where he was placed under the guardianship of Bishop Eusebius, who had given the infamous 'will' to Constantius II. The introduction of Flavius Claudius Julianus to the dangers of imperial power and the sordidness of Christian politics was not forgotten as he grew to manhood.
In Nicomedia, Julian had the comfort of a loving and devoted grandmother and Mardonios, a strict but upright teacher. Whilst these days were relatively peaceful for Julian, Constantius grew more fearful in Constantinople. Constantine II, feeling shorted in the division of the Empire, marched on Constans and was killed. Suddenly Constantius ordered Julian away from his friends and teachers and sent him under guard to Marcellum, an imperial estate near Mount Argaios in Cappadocia. There he had good teachers and great luxury, but he was permitted no companion his own age and was forbidden all travel. During his six years of isolation at Marcellum, Constans died, Constantius became sole emperor and married Julian's half-sister, and Julian learnt the causes of his father's murder. He secretly rejected Christianity and its institutions and embraced the more philosophical teaching of the neo-Platonic philosophers, an affirmation of the One, the theophany of which is an open-textured pantheon.
In AD. 351 Gallus was summoned to Sirmium and proclaimed Caesar. As head of operations against Persia, he arranged to meet Julian and grant him freedom to travel. After attending the lectures of Libanius at Nicomedia, Julian sought out Aidesios, the direct disciple of Iamblichus at Pergamum. Aidesios directed him to his own disciple Eusebios, who taught him that the soul gains its immortal source through the gradual awakening of the spiritual intellect. Having warned Julian of the sinister side of theurgy, he described how Maximus, "one of the older and more advanced students" of Aidesios, could animate statues and raise fire by invocation, and soon Julian set off for Ephesus to study under Maximus. Though such activity was strictly outlawed in the Empire, Maximus courageously taught Julian the Chaldean Oracles and the secret commentary of Iamblichus. While professing Christianity and studying in great secrecy, he sought and earned initiation by Maximus. The events in the crypt of Hekate-Cybele, the goddess whose hands held the torches of Divine Fire, remain a mystery, but this experience was the singular high point of Julian's life. For three years Julian studied ancient philosophy and theurgy while moving in public with Christian circumspection.
In AD. 354 Constantius, suspicious of the success of Gallus in the East and preyed upon by plotters of different persuasions, summoned Gallus to Milan. Before he reached the emperor s headquarters, he was arrested and beheaded. Former friends and associates rushed to save themselves by becoming informers, and soon Julian, deeply shaken by his brother's execution, was ordered to Milan. When the ship carrying him docked in Alexander Troas, Julian took the opportunity to visit the site of Troy. When he asked Pagasios, Bishop of Troas, to show him the sights, he was surprised to find that the bishop had preserved the ancient shrines intact. A fire burned on the altar of Hector, and when Julian asked the meaning of this, the bishop replied, "Is it strange that the people of Ilion should show their respect for their distinguished fellow-citizen, just as we show ours for the martyrs?" Pagasios was known for having demolished the tomb of Achilles, but Julian found it in perfect order. When they entered the temple of Athena and the bishop did not make the sign of the cross or utter the hiss that protected Christians from the evil spirits that haunted ancient sacred sites, Julian knew he had met a fellow Initiate of the Mysteries. He left Troy with the realization that the old religion of the philosophers was not dead for everyone, but only veiled. When he reached Milan, Julian easily disposed of the formal charges brought against him and yet was placed under house arrest. Unexpectedly, Eusebia, warm, cosmopolitan and recently married to Constantius, used her influence to gain Julian's release and banishment to Athens. Thus Constantius fulfilled Julian's deepest desires without knowing it.
In Athens, Julian visited the Academy founded by Plato and the Peripatus where Aristotle had lectured. Secretly, he entered the Eleusinian Mysteries and emerged with the promise of spiritual rebirth and the potential for self-conscious immortality. These happiest of days for Julian were ended within a few months by an order for him to return to Milan. Once again, Eusebia intervened, this time to persuade the emperor that Julian's apolitical upbringing and scholarly interests deprived him of political support and disinclined him to imperial aspirations. Constantius was desperate, childless, and now threatened with war at both ends of the Empire. The sinister impulsiveness which drove him to slay real and imagined enemies now led him to make Julian Caesar with responsibility for protecting Gaul, Britain and Spain.
Julian was not pleased with an office the last five occupants of which had met the fate of his brother Gallus. The historian Ammianus Marcellinus wrote that Julian's only words at his coronation in AD. 355 were from Homer: "Purple death and mighty fate overwhelmed him." But Julian had been close to death during his life, and he was unafraid. Perhaps not even Eusebia knew that Julian's model emperor was the tough and noble Stoic, Marcus Aurelius. As soon after his coronation as weather permitted, Julian set off for Gaul with officers and aides picked by Constantius. Allowed to take only four of his long-time servants, he chose Euphemerus, an African who shared Julian's initiations into the Mysteries and held his secret, and Oreibasios of Pergamum, a physician who held to the ancient religion and who carefully hid Julian's personal papers amongst his copious medical notes to keep them from the prying eyes of spies. To everyone's surprise, Julian proved to be an able strategist and brilliant tactician. Four major campaigns against the Franks and Germans secured the frontiers, and several well-timed raids induced them to honour the peace treaties they signed.
Constantius ordered Julian's chief generals to send the best four regiments and three hundred troops from each of the remaining units to the East, and he ordered Julian not to interfere. To avoid any suggestion of fomenting a rebellion, Julian allowed the officers chosen by Constantius to gather and billet the troops. They chose to centre them around Paris, against Julian's advice, in A.D. 360. No sooner were these Gallic regiments informed of their destination than they mutinied and proclaimed Julian emperor. The die was cast: in AD. 361 he began to march eastward with his willing and enthusiastic legions. Constantius turned west and hurried through Cilicia to face Julian. He had barely started when he saw a headless corpse beside the road and took it to be an evil omen. By the time he reached Tarsus, he had a fever. Though he pressed on, within a few miles he collapsed and died in agony on November 3, naming, some said, Julian as his successor. Messengers rushed to Julian and informed him that the Eastern legions had sworn allegiance to him, and Julian the Emperor entered Constantinople in triumph on December 11, 361.
Constantius had eliminated every conceivable rival, and Julian ascended the throne without challenge. Having thought long and clearly upon the imminence of death, he had also meditated upon the possibility of becoming emperor. For him three imperial goals were paramount: restoration of the ancient spiritual philosophy to its deserved place, economic and administrative reform of the Empire, and the return of pillaged temple property. By establishing a tribunal of generals from the Eastern and Western armies to investigate subversion and injustice, the armies were united under Julian, the hated spy system dismantled and the emperor shown to be fair-minded and even-handed. Most of the vast staff of eunuchs and courtiers exhibited an opulence that deeply shocked the new ruler, and he simply dismissed them. Major offices were given to individuals of tested competence, without prejudice because of previous loyalties or of religious conviction. Though displeasing to those who lost their sinecures, Julian's reforms were immediately and immensely popular among all social ranks. Philosophers and men of professional skills in art and science were brought into an imperial administration formerly run by many poorly educated bureaucrats. At every point, Julian wished not to destroy, but to make rational. In March 362 Julian issued a series of laws returning imperial lands to the cities from which they had been taken, cancelled the annual gold tribute of cities to the emperor's purse, forgave back taxes and reduced the rates of land taxation, expedited the judicial process, and in general strove to eliminate inequities and abuses. During the same period, Julian issued a remarkable edict of religious toleration. All religious activity was safeguarded by the emperor; since there was no distinction between Christian and other beliefs, all Christians previously found heretical were welcomed back to their churches and offices; state subsidies were withdrawn from the Christian clergy so that all groups might be on an equal footing; and the law required that temple property seized by Christian groups had to be returned or indemnified. Sweeping reforms cannot wholly avoid violence and abuse, but Julian vigorously condemned instances as and when they occurred. Temples were reopened, hierophants returned to places of honour, sacrifices were conducted publicly, and the church was allowed free operation but forbidden to force conversions. Given the scope of Julian's administrative, economic and religious reforms, he was remarkably successful: the Empire changed gears smoothly and grew stronger and healthier daily. But Julian knew that the blow struck at the roots of the Graeco-Roman world by Constantine could not be healed by social reforms alone. The minds and hearts of the citizenry had to be regenerated through civic and spiritual education.
For Julian, education involved nurturing the old values through a restoration of paideia and humanitas. Christianity had not produced any literature outside of the scriptures and polemical tracts, and it chiefly relied on classical texts for the education of its converts. The affairs of the Empire were conducted in Greek, and anyone wishing to rise in public office or civil service had to know the language. Grammar and rhetoric were taught through a study of ancient authors. Christians were in the untenable position of educating students in demonic literature. On June 17, 362, Julian issued a sweeping edict on education. Spiritual culture, he declared, is the offspring of a rational mind, not mere eloquence, and a rational mind seeks to discern good and evil, beauty and ugliness. An individual who teaches one thing and believes another is both uncultured and dishonest. Almost everyone will find regrettable gaps in himself, but dichotomous practice as a policy is intolerable. Thus, the edict declared, one must believe what one teaches, or cease to teach it. Regarding teachers, Julian concluded:
The clergy were outraged. By requiring elementary ethical and intellectual consistency, Julian had exposed the fundamental contradictions in the Christian Roman Empire.
Apollonius of Tyana had introduced sacerdotal reforms on the basis of universal principles and Ammonius Saccas had demonstrated philosophically the essential unity of all spiritual aspiration, but neither endeavour had reached the great masses of human beings. Julian wrote a number of treatises which attempted to render mythic symbolism into a coherent doctrine which could be the basis of a regenerated spiritual impulse. In his Hymn to the Sovereign Sun and his Hymn to the Mother of the Gods, he used the Plotinian concept of the One and the Iamblichian teaching on magic to show that the Roman Sol Invictus, the Greek Apollo, the Egyptian Osiris and the Persian Mithras are one spiritual reality, just as Magna Mater, Demeter, Cybele and Isis are one. This aspect of educational reform, Julian knew, would take decades to establish securely. Time was not on his side.
The Persian front was unstable, and Julian soon realized that he would have to fight there. Hardly had he published his edict on education than he set out for Antioch to gather and provision an army. In that great agrarian city he discovered that those who worked the land were not those who owned it. A drought had produced a crop failure, and the urban landlords were selling stored grain to the farmers at ruinous prices. Julian was horrified at this egregious display of human greed. He instituted price controls with strict enforcement and thereby prevented starvation and also earned the enmity of the upper class. They rebelled by rejecting and obstructing his religious reforms. Rather than use his autocratic power to silence dissent, he penned a satire, Misopogon, 'Beard-Hater', named after the fun made of his beard. In it he derided the frivolities and trivial lives of the effete moneyed classes who expected to live in luxury by cruelly exploiting peasants and slaves. Having deliberately scandalized the Antiochans and embarrassed the whole Empire, the emperor who refused to take seriously the imperial title left for the Persian front. Julian sent Procopius due east to join the army of Arsaces, King of Armenia and an ally. The combined force would be large enough to be mistaken for the main attack. Julian took the chief army southeast towards the Euphrates River. Julian's military genius shone once again, and he brought his army through a series of victories to the walls of Ctesiphon, only to be halted by the Persian army.
Julian wanted to push into Persia itself, but his generals refused on the grounds that the forces of Procopius had not joined them. No one knew quite where King Shapur was with his forces or from what quarter he might attack. The army began to withdraw slowly northward towards Armenia to meet Procopius, but the road was hot and barren. Persian units destroyed all food and shelter in their path, and soon the Romans felt trapped. Only then did Shapur appear and give battle. The Roman army held its own for several days but could not win a decisive victory. On June 26 the army was attacked in the rear as it marched, and Julian rode back to rally his men. They soon sent the Persians fleeing, but Julian rode after them ahead of his bodyguard and was wounded in the side by a spear. Carried to his tent, his loyal physician Oreibasios soon realized that the wound was mortal. Julian at first rejected this conclusion because he had once been told by an oracle that his end would come in Phrygia, a province in Asia Minor. But when he asked for the name of the place where his army had encamped, he was told – Phrygia. Julian fell silent for a long while. Then he called his chief generals together and delivered a death-bed speech in which he refused to name a successor. He called Maximus and Priscus to his side to discuss the inherent nobility of the soul. Suddenly the wound opened and began to bleed severely. Julian asked for a draught of cold water, drank, lay back quietly, and yielded his mortal frame.
Thus on June 27. 363, Julian died at the same age as Alexander the Great. The spear that killed Julian was very likely Roman. The imperial robe was offered to Salutius Secundus, Julian's close friend, an adherent of the Mysteries who nevertheless had objected to Julian's religious reforms. Knowing that he was a compromise candidate, he declined because of age and ill health. No one wanted Procopius, who, though a kinsman of Julian, was generally disliked. Finally Jovian, the Christian commander of the imperial guard, was selected. To extract the demoralized troops from a tenuous position, Jovian accepted peace terms that guaranteed safe passage for the army, handed over King Arsaces to the Persians, and relinquished the five provinces conquered by Diocletian. Procopius met the retreating army at Nisibis and accompanied Julian's body to Tarsus where it was buried. Procopius had an inscription carved on the marble facing of Julian's tomb:
Here lies Julian after the strong-flowing Tigris, both a good king and a brave soldier.
Christian propagandists set to work at once to blacken Julian 's name. But here and there, in rural towns and ancient cities, inscriptions can still be found that express a different view. The emperor who would not use violence against his opponents, who understood the Empire and loved its common people, had won a place in the human heart that rewritten history could not wholly eradicate. The deep feeling he called forth from many at all levels of society is perhaps best captured in the simple inscription that survives at Pergamum: