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date: 19 January 2018

Julian 'the Apostate', Roman emperor

Julian ‘the Apostate’ (Iulianus, Flavius Claudius), emperor 361–3 ce, was born at Constantinople in 331, the son of a half-brother of Constantine I, Julius Constantius. After his father's murder in dynastic intrigues of 337, Julian was placed by Constantius II in the care of an Arian bishop (see arianism) and from 342 was confined for six years on an imperial estate in Cappadocia. He impressed his Christian tutors there as a gifted and pious pupil (see christianity), but his reading of the Greek classics was inclining him in private to other gods. In 351, as a student of philosophy, he encountered pagan Neoplatonists (see neoplatonism) and was initiated as a theurgist by Maximus (3) of Ephesus. For the next ten years Julian's pagan ‘conversion’ remained a prudently kept secret. He continued his studies in Asia and later at Athens until summoned to Milan by Constantius to be married to the emperor's sister Helena and proclaimed Caesar with charge over Gaul and Britain (6 November 355). Successful Rhineland campaigns against the Alamanni and Franks between 356 and 359 proved Julian a talented general and won him great popularity with his army. When Constantius ordered the transfer of choice detachments to the east the army mutinied and in February 360, probably with tacit prompting, proclaimed Julian Augustus (see augustus, augusta as titles). Civil war ensued in 361, but Constantius' fortuitous death late that year soon ended it and Julian, now publicly declaring his paganism, entered Constantinople unopposed in December. A purge of the imperial court quickly followed, drastically reducing its officials and staff. In his brief reign Julian showed remarkable energy in pursuit of highly ambitious aims. An immediate declaration of general religious toleration foreshadowed a vigorous programme of pagan activism in the interest of ‘Hellenism’: the temples and finances of the ancestral cults were to be restored and a hierarchy of provincial and civic pagan priesthoods appointed, while the Christian churches and clergy lost the financial subsidies and privileges gained under Constantine and his successors. Though expressly opposed to violent persecution of Christians, Julian overtly discriminated in favour of pagan individuals and communities in his appointments and judgements: measures such as his ban on the teaching of classical literature and philosophy by Christian professors and his encouragement of charitable expenditure by pagan priests mark a determination to marginalize Christianity as a social force. His attempts to revive the role of the cities in local administration by restoring their revenues and councils and his remarkable plan to rebuild the Jewish Temple at Jerusalem are best appraised in the light of this fundamental aim.

Julian's military ambitions centred on an invasion of Persia intended to settle Rome's long-running war with Sapor II. To prepare his expedition he moved in June 362 to Antioch (1), where his relations with the mainly Christian population deteriorated markedly during his stay. The expedition set out in March 363 but despite some early successes it was already in serious difficulties when Julian was fatally wounded in a mêlée in June 363. He left no heir (Helena died childless in 360, and Julian did not remarry), and after his death the reforms he had initiated quickly came to nothing.

Julian's personal piety and intellectual and cultural interests are reflected in his surviving writings, which show considerable learning and some literary talent. They include panegyrics, polemics, theological and satirical works, and a collection of letters, public and private. Of his anti-Christian critique, Against the Galileans, only fragments remain. His own philosophic ideology was rooted in Iamblichan Neoplatonism (see iamblichus(2)) and theurgy. How forcefully it impinged on his public religious reforms is controversial: on one view, they were directed more to the founding of a Neoplatonist ‘pagan Church’ than to a restoration of traditional Graeco-Roman polytheism, and their potential appeal to the mass of contemporary pagans was correspondingly limited.


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W. C. Wright, Julian. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1913–23.Find this resource:

J. Bidez and others, Oeuvres completes (Budé, 1924–64).Find this resource:


J. Bidez, La Vie de l'empereur Julien (1930).Find this resource:

G. Bowersock, Julian the Apostate (1978).Find this resource:

R. Braun and J. Richer (eds.), L'Empereur Julien: De l'histoire à la légende (1978).Find this resource:

P. Athanassiadi-Fowden, Julian and Hellenism (1981).Find this resource:

J. Bouffartigue, L'Empereur Julien et la culture de son temps (1992).Find this resource:

H. Bird, Classical Views 1982, 281 ff. (survey of research).Find this resource:

R. B. E. Smith, Julian's Gods (1995).Find this resource:

A. Cameron and P. Garnsey (eds.), Cambridge Ancient History 13 (1997), ch. 2 (D. Hunt).Find this resource:

K. Rosen, Julian. Kaiser, Gott und Christenhasser (2006).Find this resource:

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