Julian the Apostate: The Incredible Life and Death of the Last Pagan Emperor of the Roman Empire
Julian the Apostate: The Incredible Life and Death of the Last Pagan Emperor of the Roman Empire

Julian the Apostate: The Incredible Life and Death of the Last Pagan Emperor of the Roman Empire

Patrick Lynch - February 12, 2018

Julian the Apostate: The Incredible Life and Death of the Last Pagan Emperor of the Roman Empire
The Story of the Iliad – Wikimedia Commons

A Pagan Emperor

Once Julian learned of Constantius’ death, he marched towards the empire’s capital city, Constantinople, and arrived there on December 11. Although he was openly a pagan at this stage, he still gave the former emperor a Christian burial. However, he quickly moved to restore paganism within the empire, and he restored the ritual of sacrifices. He also purged the royal court. All eunuchs, spies, and barbers were sacked as the new emperor moved to surround himself with people he could trust.

Then, he began the process of removing the importance of Christianity and relegating it to what it was before. One of his first acts was to issue an edict to state that all temples damaged during Constantine’s Christian experiment would be rebuilt. His School Edict removed the influence of Christian clerics in education. For example, they were no longer allowed to use the Iliad as a tool of learning.

Julian developed an edict designed to offer freedom of religion on February 4, 362. It proclaimed that every religion was equal in the eyes of the Law and also declared that the empire would return to its original eclectic mix of religions. It proved to be a dangerous move to oppose the new emperor’s edicts. Two bodyguards in Antioch apparently opposed an edict that forbade the veneration of Christian relics. They were executed for their troubles. However, Julian was up against it because Christianity had spread to the fringes of the empire and these citizens had no intention of abandoning what they saw as the religion of gender equality and social justice.

Julian the Apostate: The Incredible Life and Death of the Last Pagan Emperor of the Roman Empire
Model of Jerusalem in the Second Temple Period – Wikipedia

Death of the Apostate

Julian spent relatively little time in Constantinople. Within five months of returning as sole emperor, he left for Antioch and lived there until March 363. Then, he decided to embark on a dangerous campaign against the Sassanid Empire. En route to Persia, he stopped at the ruins of the Second Temple in Jerusalem and ordered a rebuild. However, the project was unsuccessful for reasons historians can’t agree upon. Perhaps the Jews in the city were ambivalent towards the project, or else an earthquake ruined the emperor’s plans. Other theories include sabotage and accidental fire.

In any case, Julian continued on his journey. He wanted to regain the cities lost to the Sassanids under the reign of Constantius II. He brought an army of 90,000 men with him and had initial success by defeating a larger Persian army at the Battle of Ctesiphon, the Sassanid Empire’s capital. Alas, he was unable to take the city. Furthermore, his general, Procopius, did not march on the city with his 30,000 men as planned.

Julian decided on a strategic retreat, but he was fatally wounded by a spear thrown by one of the pursuing Persians during a minor skirmish. He made the mistake of surrounding himself with too few men and was also guilty of not wearing his battle armor. Although he was treated by his personal physician, Julian was not able to recover, and he died at Maranga in Mesopotamia on June 26, 363. His successor, Jovian, signed a disadvantageous treaty with the Persians. Jovian died within nine months and was succeeded by Valentinian I.

One has to wonder if the premature death of Julian the Apostate changed the entire course of history. He was only in his early thirties when he died. Had he lived to reign for 30+ years, he may have succeeded in eliminating Christianity as a major religion in the empire. Remember, pagan beliefs such as Zoroastrianism still survive today so it is not a stretch to say these beliefs could have taken over at that time. How different would Europe, and the world, look now?

 

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

A Tale of Three Cities: Istanbul – Bettany Hughes

From Rome to Byzantium: The Fifth Century AD – Michael Grant

Cambridge Ancient History

The Roman History of Ammianus Marcellinus – Ammianus Marcellinus

Ammianus Marcellinus – Encyclopedia Britannica

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