Flavius Claudius Iulianus
3 November 361 – 26 June 363 CE
26 June 363 CE
Julian the Apostate was born as Flavius Claudius Iulianus in 331 or in 332 CE in Constantinople. He ruled from 361 to 363 CE and became remembered as Julian the Apostate, because of his rejection of Christianity, in which he grew up as a child, later returning to traditional Roman cults.
Flavius Julian was the son of Julius Constantius (consul in 335 CE), who in turn was the half brother of Constantine I and his second wife Basilina, a woman with Greek roots. Both his parents were Christian. Julian’s grandfather from the father’s side was the emperor of the Western Roman Empire, Constantius Chlorus, who was married to Theodora. From his mother’s side, it was Julius Julianus – the prefect of the praetorians in the east (315-324) and consul in 325 CE, during the reign of Licinius. We do not know the name of grandmother form the mother’s side.
When in 337 CE Constantine the Great died, a serious turmoil took place. In order to stabilize and strengthen his position, Constantius II, son of the deceased emperor, soon after his death, order to slaughter his relatives who were coming from Chlorus’ second marriage. Eutropius, writing between 350 and 370 CE, claims that Constantius was rather to approve than to order the massacre. Two uncles and six cousins of Constantius were killed, including Dalmatius and Hannibalianus, the governors of Moesia and Pontus. Two brothers of the late emperor managed to avoid the massacre: Constantine II (elder) and Constans (younger) and three cousins: Gallus, Nepotian and Julian himself.
Then Constantius II met his brothers in Pannonia in the city of Sirmium to divide the Empire. Ultimately, Constantius received the eastern provinces, including Constantinople (from his father’s times the capital), Thrace, Asia Minor, Syria, Egypt and Cyrenaica. His brother Constantine II received: Britain, Gaul, Spain and Mauritania; when Constans had to settle for Italy, Africa, Illyria, Pannonia, Macedonia and Achaea.
Julian and Gallus were excluded from public life and were under guard during their youth. In addition, it was decided that they should be brought up in the Christian faith. It certainly resulted from his support for Arianism. The fact of saving two young heirs was probably caused by their young age and the persuasion of empress Eusebia, the second wife of Constantius. According to Julian’s notes, Constantius was supposed to later regret his decision to murder the family in 337 CE.
Julian initially grew up in Bithynia under the protection of his grandmother. At the age of seven, Eusebius, the Christian bishop of Nicomedia, the capital of Bithynia, region on the southern coast of the Black Sea, became responsible for Julian’s education. The boy spent two years there, and when Eusebius became a bishop of Constantinople, he moved with him to the Bosporus. Julian’s teacher was Mardonius – a Gothic eunuch and a Christian. Thanks to him, Julian not only got to know the old Greek-Roman culture, but also the sacred writings of Christians. When in 342 CE Eusebius died, both Julian and Gallus were transferred to the emperor’s villa in Macellum in Cappadocia. This is how Julian describes this time in his memoirs:
For we lived as though on the estate of a stranger, and were watched as though we were in some Persian garrison since no stranger came to see us and not one of our old friends was allowed to visit us; so that we lived shut off from every liberal study and from all free intercourse
– Julian, Letter to the Athenians
There, Julian met the Christian bishop George (called George of Cappadocia), who made classical books available to young Julian, which he in turn eagerly explored. In Macellum, Julian and his brother were probably also baptized. When Julian reached the age of 18, Constantius allowed him to leave Macellum and go to Constantinople and Nicomedia.
In Constantinople, Julian became a teacher (low position in the Christian church). His later works allow stating that he knew the Bible quite well and studied it eagerly. Later in 362 CE, when Julian was 31, he stated that he spent more than 20 years in concordance with Christianity, and thus to devote only 12 years to a good way of life, in concordance with the god Helios.
Julian, as he was a Christian, could not attend the school of rhetoric led by Lebanon, one of the greatest non-Christian intellectuals of the 4th century CE. However, despite the fact that he could not attend the lectures, observed his work and the school’s achievements.
In 351 CE Julian studied Neoplatonism in Asia Minor first under Aedesius, and then from Maximus of Ephesus. A spiritual breakthrough took place there. This is how Libanius related it:
[He] at last having got into company with those who were full of Plato, and hearing from them about the gods and genii, and those that had really created, and do maintain the universe, and what the soul is, and whence it came, and whither it goes, and by what things it is submerged, and by what is it captured, and by what it is weighed down, and by what it is elevated; also what are its bonds, and what its liberation
– Libanius, Libanius’ funeral oration upon the emperor Julian
At this time, Julian began to notice the antagonisms in the Christian environment. He was disturbed by dogmatic disputes full of aggression in the 4th century CE. The Arians – advocates of the theory that Jesus was the supreme creature of God – opposed the Orthodox who recognized Jesus as coessential to his Father. Julian was also struck by the ostentatious devotion of Constantius, whom he regarded as his father’s murderer.
Then in 354 CE Julian was called to Mediolanum (now Milan), where he served in court, and then in 355 CE to study in Athens. There he met two men who later became important figures of the Church: Basil the Great and Gregory of Nazianzus. The latter interpreted Julian’s arrival to Greece the following way:
At that time, therefore, I remember that I became no bad judge of his character, though far from being of much sagacity in that line; but what made me a true guesser was the inconsistency of his behaviour and his extreme excitability (that is, if he be the best diviner who knows how to guess shrewdly). A sign of no good seemed to me to be his neck unsteady, his shoulders always in motion and shrugging up and down like a pair of scales, his eye rolling and glancing from side to side with a certain insane expression, his feet unsteady and stumbling, his nostrils breathing insolence and disdain, the gestures of his face ridiculous and expressing the same feelings, his bursts of laughter unrestrained and gusty, his nods of assent and dissent without any reason, his speech stopping short and interrupted by his taking breath, his questions without any order and unintelligent, his answers not a whit better than his questions, following one on top of the other, and not definite, nor returned in the regular order of instruction.
– Gregory of Nazianzus, Second invective against Julian
During his stay in Athens, Julian also took part in the Eleusinian Mysteries which ha been losing its symbolism in the Mediterranean world (eventually banned in 391 CE by Theodosius). They belonged to the most important and sacred religious cults of the Greek world. In order to participate in the ceremonies man only had to speak Greek and be in the state of ritual purity. Anyone could have access to the initiation: regardless of social status (free and slaves), gender or origin. The possibility of obtaining initiation was associated with the so-called purity of heart. The mysteries’ secrets were never revealed. When in 340 CE Constantine II died during the campaign against his brother Constans, Constantius II became the only emperor of the West, and in practice 2/3 of the territory of the Empire. This state of affairs lasted until 350 CE, when Constans was murdered by forces loyal to the usurper Magnentius. Constantius II, as the only son of Constantine the Great who had survived, recognized himself as a sole ruler of the entire Empire. He decided to take back the western lands and unite Rome. He decided to march west, at the head of 40 000 people, to defeat the usurper. At that time, Constantius, wanting to strengthen his position, decided to make Julian’s brother, Gallus, emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire. To make sure that his cousin would not decide to stand against him, he gave him his sister, Constantine, for a wife. Gallus’reign was full of terror that led to the decision to remove him from the office and execute in 354 CE. Julian himself was summoned to the court on charges of a treacherous intrigue – allegedly connected with his brother, and later with Claudius Silvanus. In the end, Julian was cleared of all charges (this he owed mainly to empress Eusebia, and he was then very grateful) and went to Athens.
Caesar in Gaul
Constantius II, after defeating Magnentius and Silvanus, decided that he must entrust Gaul’s management to a trusted person. In 355 CE, Julian was called to Milan, where, on 6 November, the emperor appointed him Caesar of Gaul, sealing this fact by giving him his sister Helena to marry. Constantius, remembering the excesses and violent decisions of Gallus, ordered Julian to keep restraint and play the role of the puppet rather than the legal ruler. Julian went to Gaul at the head of a small retinue, and on the spot, he was expected to have Constantius’ prefects, who were to follow every move he made. Julian had no experience in military or administrative matters. At first, Julian was reluctant to take any political and military decisions, which were against his enlightened education.
The young Caesar, however, quickly adapted to new conditions. He proved to be an excellent administrator. He tried to help people by reducing huge taxes. However, he became above all an excellent commander. He drove the Germans out of the Rhine, in 356 CE he conquered the city of Colonia Agrippina (present Cologne) and won a great victory over the Alamanni at the battle of Argentoratum in 357 CE, although his forces were heavily outnumbered. The battle stopped the raging attacks of the barbarians on the territory of the Empire, at least for w while.
Julian’s successes, both in the administrative and military fields, on one hand, pleased Constantius, but on the other, were disturbing. What he disliked the most was the fact that Julian was gradually escaping from the control of the prefects faithful to Constantinus. At the end of 357 CE, Julian, within full glory of the victor, prevented the rise of taxes by the prefect of the pretorians Florentius and include the province of Belgica Secunda within his govern. Julian sought to win the support of the people and tried to prove to them that it was worth staying under the authority of the Empire. Julian’s good education enabled him to make sensible reforms and deal with corruption. Constantius, admiring Julian’s resourcefulness, decided to remove his close adviser Salutius from his circle, wanting to have at least some influence on his decisions.
Rivalry with Constantius II
In the fourth year of Julian’s reign, the Sassanid Emperor, Shapur II invaded Mesopotamia and captured the city of Amida (today’s Diyarbakir) after 73 days of siege. Constantius realizing how serious the situation was, demanded reinforcements from Caesar in the west in February 360 CE. Julian’s soldiers, who came from the Gallic territories (so-called petulantes), did not intend to march to the east, so in the favourite city of their leader – Lutetia (today’s Paris) – they proclaimed him Augustus. Despite the initial reluctance for this decision, Julian finally took the title. He decided, however, to write a letter to the emperor with the assurance of loyalty, but the emperor did not respond and immediately began to prepare himself to fight the usurper.
Julian then waged war with the Franks from June to August 360 CE. From November he officially began to use the title Augustus; the coins with the title were being minted, with time also without the image of Constantius. His fifth year in Gaul he celebrated with a big show of games.
In the spring of 361 CE, Julian led his army to the land of the Alamanni, where he also managed to capture their king – Vadomariusa. Fearing the simultaneous attack of Constantius’ and barbarian forces, Julian divided the army into two groups. One passed the Alps and walked along the Po valley; the other from the Rhine moved towards the Danube. Julian’s army managed to get some great fortresses, but the decisive battle with Constantius seemed inevitable. Constantius’ army marched from the east, and Julian was only waiting for the enemy and writing letters to the Greek cities in which he explained his actions. Unexpectedly, on 3 November 361 CE Constantius died of a fever attack. He appointed Julian his successor.
On 11 December 361 CE Julian entered Constantinople as an independent ruler, and despite the fact that he did not officially profess Christianity, he took part in the funeral ceremony of the former emperor in the Church of the Holy Apostles. As he then wrote: “This man was my friend and relative. When instead of friendship he chose hatred, the gods settled the conflict”. With Julian’s consent, Constantius was deified.
Julian began his reign with strong criticism of his further predecessor – Constantine I, whom he blamed for the state of the imperial administration and a departure from the ancient Roman tradition. He did not decide to restore the patriarchal system (initiated by Diocletian). He did not want to rule as an absolute autocrat. He referred to Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius. In his first panegyric to Constantius, Julian defined the ideal ruler as primus inter pares (“the first among equals”). Julian often took part in the Senate’s deliberations in Constantinople, where he spoke and took an active part in the debates. Generally, the senatorial state, both in Rome and Constantinople, could count on the emperor’s favour and had certain privileges. One of them was the law to imprison the senator only after proving he had committed a crime and had been excluded from the Senate.
Julian also introduced numerous exemptions to other classes. He freed the city doctors from many burdens, eased the tax system, gave up tribute in gold (a tribute which the city paid on a voluntary basis for various occasions, especially in the beginning of emperor’s reign).
Another very good decision was the decentralization of power to the lowest local authorities. In addition, the powerful institution of agentes in rebus – Roman imperial courier service -was abolished. It was a large group of officials who did not have clearly defined tasks, which made the most profits for spying and detecting alleged citizens’ conspiracies. This decision was particularly welcomed by the inhabitants of the Empire. Naturally, Julian placed his own people who guaranteed him loyalty in more important positions.
The imperial palace of his predecessors Julian considered ineffective, corrupt and expensive. Thousands of servants and eunuchs were released. In addition, the Chalcedonian tribunal was set up to deal with all forms of corruption. It consisted of four people, Julian and two supporters of the deceased ruler. As a result of its activity, several top-ranking officials (usual supporters of Constantius) were sentenced to death. Julian himself did not take part in the deliberations, as he wanted to avoid accusations of putting pressure. HE focused mainly on reducing bureaucracy and improving the efficiency of the Empire.
In addition, Julian made the first decisions regarding religion. He ordered the reopening of pagan temples and the celebration of non-Christian holidays. The Christian communities were ordered to give properties back to the priests of the old religion and restoration of overthrown altars, monuments and statues of old deities.
Julian was officially thrusting religious tolerance, in practice, he inflamed internal disputes. On 24 December 361 CE the enraged mob murdered bishop of Alexandria, Georgios, and the emperor blamed the inhabitants in a letter saying that the bestial action had blotted Alexander the Great’s memory and profaned the god who was the patron of Alexandria-Sarapis.
In just a few months, the emperor residing in Constantinople made many reforms in internal politics. With time, however, he began to focus on external enemies. His attention was particularly drawn to the Goths, who had hostile intentions from behind the Danube. Julian considered invading their territory and finally eliminating the threat. Finally, he decided to deal with the greater threat in the east – the Persians. Julian dreamed of avenging the fall of Amida and leading the legions far to the east, as Trajan once did.
In order to be able to command the troops in the east, Julian moved his main headquarters from the capital to Antioch in July 362 CE. He stayed there for nine months on-site in order to be able to carefully prepare the campaign against the Persians. The emperor probably chose the place, not by accident. In the past, emperors often chose this city as a collective point before heading east. In addition, Antioch was famous for many temples worshipping Greek and Roman cults, which also acted in its favour. Julian spent the time there on regulating the situation of the city and the region. In addition, he focused on religious matters.
Attitude towards Christianity
During his short reign, Julian sought to weaken and expel Christianity (legalized by Constantine the Great) from the Roman Empire and to raise the traditional religion of the ancient Romans to the rank of state religion. Realizing that the persecution of Christians in the first and second century only strengthened Christianity, Julian tried to weaken Christianity so that it would not seem to be more attractive than pagan cults. For example, in the year 362 CE while carrying school reform, he forbade Christians to teach in public schools (because they taught reading based on the Gospel), and in the Edict of tolerance, he restored the Christian bishops recognized by the rest of Christians as heretics to stir conflicts between Christians.
In addition, the ruler tried to introduce into the Roman religion those elements of Christianity, which were to make it more attractive and powerful, eg.:
- introducing a hierarchy of priests with the emperor standing at its head as the high priest (Pontifex Maximus) and subordinate high priests with authority over the priests of pagan cults;
- popularization of ceremonies similar to Christian services.
Julian was the last emperor professing the religion of the old Romans; both his uncle – Constantine (the Great) and the whole family already professed Christianity. Apparently, Julian did so, but after taking power – first as Caesar, then Augustus – he rejected the Christian religion, returning to the old cults (mainly Helios).
War with the Persians
Finally, after months of preparation and army gathering, despite unfavourable signs, on 5 March 363 CE Julian set out at the head of the legions to the east. Many people around him advised him not to do that. Persian King Shapur II was supposed to want peace with Rome, and the whole Empire was afraid of the cost of war.
Under his command, Julian had between 65-83 000 or 80-90 000 people – numbers depend on the sources. His army headed north toward the Euphrates. During the journey, Julian was offered help and reinforcements from local rulers, but he did not accept such offers. Julian only gave the order to the Armenian king Arsaces II to muster his army and be ready to help.
Julian gradually went through Persian territory without encountering strong resistance. On the way, people were robbing and destroying everything encountered on their way. More cities were conquered: on 13 May Maozomalcha was conquered after a severe siege. Despite many smaller victories, the Roman army still did not have a clear strategic goal. The capital city of Ctesiphon remained unconquered (despite winning the battle on 29 May 363 CE), and the army began to be run out of supplies, which could only be enough to return to Roman borders. The Persians used the tactics of scorched earth, which strongly affected the morale of the legionaries. In addition, the awareness of limited supplies and numerous Persian forces ultimately forced Julian to slowly retreat towards the border.
On the way back, his legions were constantly harassed by the enemy. The army suffered from lack of supplies and extremely hot weather. On 22 June, another battle took place in the Maranga. The Romans repulsed the attack of Persian archers and defeated the enemy. Despite the victory, the moods in the branches were weak.
Apparently, on the night of 25 – 26 June, a haemorrhage occurred in the emperor’s dream. Julian tried to propitiate the deities with sacrifices when, unexpectedly, a falling comet was noticed during the rites.
Shapur II with the gods Mitra (left) and Ahuramazda (right) – relief. Julian’s body is being stepped into the ground.
The next day Julian, riding at the head of his army in Maranga near today’s Samarra, did not put on his armour. At one point, it was reported to him that the Persians attacked the rear guard, so he caught the shield and went back. Manoeuvring between the squads, suddenly Julian felt that he was hit by a spear in the stomach, which lightly touched his arm, pierced the ribs and liver. With his right hand, he tried to pull out the blade, which, however, only hurt his fingers. Julian fell from his horse, and his soldiers moved him to the tent, where he lost a lot of blood.
No one could help him, and blood was still dripping from the wound. The soldiers were supposed to gather in the tent and sob loudly, when the emperor chastised them, saying that they could not weep over a ruler who was just moving towards heaven and the stars. Late at night he asked for cold water, drank it and after a few moments he died. He did not designate a successor. Before his death, he did not appoint a successor; as he explained:
This is enough for me to say since my strength is failing me; but I designedly forbear to speak of creating a new emperor, lest I should unintentionally pass over some worthy man; or, on the other hand, if I should name one whom I think proper, I should expose him to danger in the event of someone else being preferred. But, as an honest child of the republic, I hope that a good sovereign will be found to succeed me.
– Ammianus Marcellinus, Roman history, XXV.III.20
To this day, it is uncertain whether the emperor was killed by a Persian or perhaps a legionary who was a devoted Christian, religion rejected by Julian.
He was an educated man – a Neoplatonic philosopher brought up at the Academy in Athens. His passion for knowledge may be seen in the fact that even during the Persian expedition he took books and read them every day. In order to show that moral standards are not only binding on Christians, he ordered limitation of glamour and eastern luxuries, which characterized his predecessors, and he conducted an extremely strict and simple lifestyle.
Julian was the author of many writings in Greek, including eight speeches, two satirical works and a collection of several dozen letters. From Julian’s satirical works, the first, “Misopogon, Or, Beard-Hater” is the pasquil attacking the people of Antioch for their love of glamour. The second, “The Caesars”, is a satire that ridicules selected Roman emperors. Julian also wrote the three-volume work Contra Galilaeos, which is an attack on Christianity. It was possible to reconstruct his first book based on the answer written by Cyril of Alexandria “Against Julian the Apostate”.
Julian’s body was placed in a magnificent tomb in Cilicia near Tarsus. However, it has not survived till today.
The Catholic Church attributed to Julian the words: “Galilaee, vicisti” which means “You have conquered, O Galilean”, meaning Christ. This way, the Church wanted to present the death of the emperor as God’s punishment. It was also believed that the omen of his death was the appearance of the comet in the sky.
Julian was an outstanding commander and politician, and at the same time a lover of ancient culture, which was one of the reasons why he did not accept Christianity. He considered it to be something that was not suited to Roman and Greek culture, in which he grew up. It can be assumed that if not for the fatal death of the emperor, the Roman Empire could “postpone” its fall in history.
Certainly Julian was one of the best rulers in Roman history. Despite his short reign, he managed to make numerous internal reforms and led an active foreign policy. The king’s unexpected death was the beginning of the Empire’s fall.