The Last Pagan Emperor

Abbot Giueseppe Ricciotti’s fascinating study of the last pagan emperor, popularly known as “Julian the Apostate” (331-363), is well worth reading. The book was first published in 1960, and later reissued as a paperback. According to a contemporary Kirkus Review:

It is a “critical narration” that aims “to display in equal light… [Julian’s] many laudable qualities and his numerous defects”.… Original sources are cited and quoted from…. The personality of the Emperor Julian and the theological and historical background of his life are fascinating as seen through the author’s vivid reconstructions.

The author ably conveys the nuances and paradoxes of this tragic, and rather pathetic, figure. Julian was physically strong—he could endure the regimen of soldiers on campaign—but he was also awkward looking, frequently referred to by detractors as an “ape” and a “nanny goat” (because of his pointed beard). Morally he was quite austere, at least in the things that most Roman rulers could be faulted for. On the other hand, he was prone to anger and vindictiveness.

Ricciotti contends that Julian was not truly an “apostate,” in that the Christians whom he grew up with in fairly unedifying surroundings were Arian heretics (who dominated the Eastern Empire at that time) and often violently opposed to orthodox believers. On the other hand, he does not hesitate to state that the emperor became an intolerant fanatic in his treatment of the Church. Fortunately, the last wave of anti-Christian persecution was brief and sporadic.

It is interesting that at this stage of imperial culture many pagans had reached a modus vivendi with their Christian neighbors. Libanius, the famous polytheist teacher, was friends with Julian; nevertheless, he had occasion to defend some “Galileans” against the emperor’s oppressive measures. Ricciotti makes it clear that Julian’s last-ditch attempt to revive paganism was doomed not only from the point of view of an ascendant Christianity. Many pagans were frankly bemused by his attempt to create a pagan hierarchy with a strict moral code and liturgy—a sort of mirror image of his monotheistic rivals.

Nor was Julian a pagan in the mold of the Stoics or the high-minded Plotinus, the late neo-Platonic metaphysician. Rather, he adopted the crudest forms of frenzied and superstitious worship practiced by the popular mystery cults of Mithras and other deities. To his credit he was brave, hardworking and something of a reformer. As newly appointed Caesar in Gaul, he was successful in reducing the tax burden, eliminating corrupt administrators and defeating hitherto successful Germanic invaders. It is hard not to sympathize with him as he contended with the scheming of his vicious, nominally Christian, cousin Constantius II. Julian’s attempt to conquer Persia (which ended in his death) was a brilliant failure. It is to Ricciotti’s credit that he not only deals with psychological and intellectual topics, but his military detail is fascinating and well researched.

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