The life, and the reign, of Flavius Claudius Iulianus, was brief but eventful. As the grandson of Western Emperor Constantius Chlorus, and the half-brother of Emperor Constantine the Great, Flavius was always likely to become a powerful man although his elevation to the role of the emperor was almost as much an accident as it was by design. We know him as Julian the Apostate, a name he received because he renounced Christianity and became a Pagan.
Julian was a Christian for over half of his life but ultimately reverted to Theurgy. Private letters to Libanius showed that Julian had been a secret Pagan for a long time. The future emperor complained that his cousin, Constantius II, forced Christianity on him. According to A. H. M. Jones, Julian developed a love of Greece’s literature and mythology and loathed the new religion which he believed was an example of “pernicious vanity.”
Julian was only sole emperor for little over 18 months, and an ambitious campaign against the Sassanid Empire cost him his life and threw the empire into turmoil. Julian was the last non-Christian Roman emperor, but his reign was far too short for him to make an impact on his goal to restore Rome to its halcyon days of Pagan glory.
Julian was born Flavius Claudius Iulianus in Constantinople in June 331 or 332. As well as having blood relations to emperors, Julian’s father was consul in 335. Both of his parents were Christians, so there was no early indication of his reversion to paganism. Julian survived a purge conducted by his Arian cousin, Constantius II, in 337. The newly crowned emperor wanted to remove perceived threats to his crown, so he ordered the murders of the majority of Julian’s family. Overall, Julian and his half-brother Gallus were the only male descendants in his direct family to avoid death. Julian’s mother also died when he was still young.
The difficult circumstances of his youth meant Julian needed to find solace and he did, in the form of learning. Along with Gallus, Julian was excluded from public life, and the two boys were exiled to Macellum in Cappadocia in 342 after the death of their guardian, Eusebius of Nicomedia. By all accounts, Julian became obsessed with the philosophical writings of Plato and believed these ideas should be followed in politics and daily life.
The lure of paganism was proving too strong for Julian to resist and he was initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries sometime in the mid-350s. This was a significant step because these initiations were the most famous ancient Greek secret religious rite. The site, Eleusis, just 15 miles away from Athens, was known for celebrating ideas of the afterlife some five centuries before the birth of Christ. It was a clear sign that Julian was abandoning Christianity although he tried to keep it a secret to avoid the wrath of Emperor Constantius II.
Meanwhile, there was a real battle for power occurring as Constantius II eventually became sole emperor in 350 when his brother, Constans, died fighting against a usurper named Magnetius. The emperor needed support, so he handed Gallus the role of Caesar of the East in 351. He began a reign of terror and angered the emperor by holding a chariot race in Constantinople’s Hippodrome. Gallus crowned the winner, an honor usually reserved for emperors. Constantius ordered the execution of Gallus in 364. While he changed his mind, one of his senior officers ensured the news didn’t reach the executioners. Julian was also accused of involvement with Gallus but was eventually cleared when empress Eusebia spoke up for him. Soon, the man of learning was thrust into the spotlight.