Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Julian - the love/hate relationship

Neither the letter C, they say, nor the
letter K had ever harmed the city.... We,
finding interpreters... learned that these
are the initial letters of names, the first
of Christ and the second of Konstantios.

Julian, Misopogon (The Beard-Hater)

The emperor Julian (Flavius Claudius Julianus) ruled from 361 to 363 AD. he was the ruler the Antiochenes loved to hate and in turn had his own love/hate relationship with the city. While his rule was only brief he has been a subject of fascination (and revilement) over the intervening centuries. This is largely due to his attempts to revive the pagan cults. Despite coming from the Constantinian dynasty, he was the last polytheist Roman Emperor and advocated the re-institution of Greco-Roman religious tradition over the Christianization of the Roman Empire which, if he had succeeded, would have been an undoing of the dynasty's founder's work.

He was most commonly known as Julian "the Apostate" by his detractors over the millennia. This was because of his rejection of Christianity, conversion to Theurgy (a late form of Neoplatonism), and attempt to "rid" the empire of Christianity. However he would only really be an Apostate if he had been a believer in the first place. Interestingly Julian sympathised with the Jews who called him Julian the Hellene. I wonder whether Julian in fact just represented the views (i.e. adhesion to the old gods) of a large portion of the population that had been suppressed actively, or tacitly, under the reigns of the first members of the Constantinian dynasty. 

The impression one gets of a pagan revivalist is of a lover of the pleasures, but in fact, Julian was seen as an extremely ascetic character. Writers over the ages have tried unfairly portray him as some sort of sybarite. This would be totally inconsistent with him having been tutored by Libanius. The tutor had in fact led Julian quite a dance playing hard to get when Julian wanted to obtain his services during Libanius' Constantinople period. It is ironical that the most vividly imaginative of Julian's later uninformed critics would probably have been Chrysostom fans. The common thread being that both Julian and Chrysostom were Libanius' students. Libanius returned the favor to Julian by being one of his strongest defenders in the literary world with orations and panegyrics.

An example of Julian's sternness is shown when upon his initial arrival in Antioch festival was in progress and he expressed his dismay and displeasure at the revelries he stumbled across.

Among his first actions as emperor, Julian reduced the expenses of the imperial court, removing all the eunuchs from the offices. He reduced the luxury of the court established with Constantius, reducing at the same time the number of servants and of the guard.

In order to prepare the army for the upcoming expedition against Persians, Julian spent the 362-363 winter in Antioch. His time there wasn't a happy one. At first, he tried to resurrect the ancient oracular spring of Castalia at the temple of Apollo at Daphne. After being advised that the bones of 3rd-century martyred bishop Babylas were suppressing the god, he made a public-relations mistake in ordering the removal of the bones from the vicinity of the temple. The result was a massive Christian procession. Shortly after that, when the temple was destroyed by fire, Julian hastily blamed the Christians and ordered severe investigations. He also shut up the chief Christian church of the city, before the investigations proved that the fire was the result of an accident (lightening).

After a food shortage in the city, his relationship with the citizens of Antioch worsened even more. He tried to fix the prices for grain and import more from Egypt. Then landholders refused to sell theirs, claiming that the harvest was so bad that they had to be compensated with fair prices. Julian accused them of price gouging and forced them to sell. Various parts of Libanius orations may suggest that both sides were justified to some extent while Ammianus blames Julian for "a mere thirst for popularity".

The emperor had a bizarre appearance with a scruffy unclean beard and a strange way of walking. Julian's ascetic lifestyle was not popular either, since his subjects were accustomed to the idea of an all-powerful emperor that placed himself well above them. Nor did he improve his dignity with his own participation in the ceremonial of bloody sacrifices. As David S. Potter commented:

"They expected a man who was both removed from them by the awesome spectacle of imperial power, and would validate their interests and desires by sharing them from his Olympian height (...) He was supposed to be interested in what interested his people, and he was supposed to be dignified. He was not supposed to leap up and show his appreciation for a panegyric that it was delivered, as Julian had done on January 3, when Libanius was speaking, and ignore the chariot races."


During an interlude in battle preparations he wrote up an Oration, the Misopogon (Beard-hater) which he nailed one morning to the Tetrapylon of the Elephants in front of the Imperial Palace. In this panegyric he satirised himself in a form of back-handed criticism of the Antiochene way of life. Finally he blames the people of Antioch for preferring that their ruler have his virtues in the face rather than in the soul.

In 363, Julian began a campaign against the Sassanid Empire. He died from a wound received during a retreat during the campaign. Some reports claim that his dying words referred to the Galilean having won, wishful thinking we suspect.

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