Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Misopogon - Julian vs the Antiochenes

One of the most famous documents ever concocted in Antioch and directed at the local populace was the Misopogon (or the Beard-hater) written by no less than the Emperor Julian. Its text in English and Greek can be found here:

Julian was, with Marcus Aurelius, the most literate of the Roman Emperors, who tended to be a rather brutish lot. When they ran to any culture at all (beyond an appreciation of architecture) it tended to end up almost cartoonish or kitschy as can be noted in the actions of Nero and Elagabalus. Robert Graves in his "I, Claudius" would have us believe that Claudius was some form of frustrated academic. Maybe so, but his works have not survived to enlighten us either way. Amongst the worst must be ranked Jovian who burnt down the books from the library at Antioch in a spasm of faux religious zeal.

While Marcus Aurelius has come down through history as an enlightened humanist, he was also of the warrior disposition and led the Roman forces in various campaigns. Julian had a fair amount in common with Marcus Aurelius but has received little credit and much opprobrium due to his attempts to "wind back the clock" by reviving the "old gods" (we shall not call it paganism). But was he winding back the clocks? He may in fact have just been representing the will of the majority, or at least a large minority, who had been religiously disenfranchised when Constantine, and most particularly his successors, foisted Christianity upon the Empire as the State religion. What had been a rich and relatively tolerant religious regime for hundreds of years suddenly became monotheistic and monolithic. 

We have always found it hard to believe that Julian was a lone wolf in his campaign and that he was reintroducing the "old gods" for his own predilection. That would have been shallow indeed for reviving all the temples and rites for merely one person was clearly impractical. It looks more like he was giving voice to the frustrations of a largish chunk of the general population, in some parts maybe the majority. 

This has relevance when coming to look at the Misopogon, which was posted at the Tetrapylon of the Elephants in front of the Imperial Palace in Antioch's Island quarter in early 363. This satiric note was an address by the Emperor to the people of Antioch whom, he felt, had impugned and insulted him. Critics over the intervening centuries have attacked Julian for lowering the Imperial prestige by engaging in a literary dialogue with his detractors using (false?) modesty and self-deprecation. I frankly think the work is quite daring and certainly illuminating. He was addressing his work not to po-faced churchmen but to the pleasure-seeking Antiochenes who clearly oscillated between religiosity and a penchant for races and theatres. Hypocrisy was alive and well in early Christian Antioch. Indeed his self-criticisms focus upon sleights made of his looks which remind me of the attacks upon Jimmy Carter for wearing a cardigan and urging others to do so (to conserve energy in the 1970's crises). They did not like Julian's scraggly beard, his clothes or his way of walking. The "style-police" were clearly in the ascendancy. 

If anything the chief takeaway from Julian's essay is that the Antiochenes having found religion had not found piety and were as frivolous and fashion-loving as ever. They were censorious of the serious side of life and yet wallowed in swinging censers (to coin a pun) and the embroidery of ecclesiastical robes. Well he may have said "Apres moi, le deluge" for within 180 years, they were all swept away by earthquakes, famines, invasions and the forced march to "Better-than-Antioch". 

Despite it all, one suspects that Julian had a sneaking admiration for the Antiochenes. His former tutor, Libanius, was ensconced there and, despite being a devotee of the old gods, was an ardent fan of the city in competition, or comparison, against all others. If Julian had lived beyond his ill-fated campaign against the Persians he might have chosen to spent his time in Antioch (or Rome), but almost certainly not Constantinople. This might have had very interesting consequences for the evolution (or indeed the eclipse) of Christianity. As so many who adhered to the Constantinian conversion were fair-weather followers there might have been a long term drift to the favoured religion if Julian had remained the source of power and prestige for decades after, instead of mere months. The eventual heir(s) might have continued and consolidated this trend. Instead the oafish Jovian was followed by the intellectually limited Valens and history evolved in the way we now have things. 




craig said...

Christianity was not the state religion before Julian. I don't know what's wrong with the word "paganism", its merely a descriptive term. Finally, if Julian were in any way reflecting the will of the majority of Romans, why did he bitch so much about how poorly his revival was received?

ayseblgn said...

Dear Craig,
You are right about Christianity not being a state religion before Julian... One has to wait for the next century...
I am bored about scholars who constantly nag about the terminology: terminology is a tool to communicate, not the subject matter!!! yet, it is a discussion on methodology and theory, and we are commenting on a blog... I liked the remark a lot, as it indicates that the writer is significantly aware of the academic discussions, and that is why I am such a big fan of this blog!!!
But there are lots of other factors concerning the reaction against Julian... It will be too simplistic, but I tend to think it was Julian as an emperor who was rejected in Antioch, not really his revival...