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Who Was Julian the Apostate?

In the AD 330s, 40s, and 50s, everything seemed to be going the church’s way. Successive emperors and co-emperors (Constantine II, Constantius II, Constans I, Gallus Caesar) continued in the tradition of Constantine the Great. They tolerated paganism (mostly) and cemented Christianity’s place in the empire. 

Yet, it is a sign of just how fragile this transition period was that a young, bright emperor in the early 360s could rapidly reverse Christianity’s fortunes. Bishops woke up one day to find themselves shut out of the halls of power and their people put squarely on the back foot. The old religions would once again take center stage.

It was all thanks to Julian the Apostate.

Emperor Julian’s Pagan Revival

Flavius Claudius Julianus (AD 332–363) was born in Constantinople in the last years of Constantine’s reign. He was, in fact, Constantine’s nephew and the cousin of the great intervening senior emperor, Constantius II, who ruled from 337 to 361. Although raised in a Christian household, Julian abandoned his faith at age twenty. He had read widely in both Christian and pagan literature, as was the norm among Christian intellectuals of this time. In fact, it was one of his Christian tutors, George of Cappadocia, who had introduced him to the works of the classical pagan tradition. Reflecting later, Julian would describe George’s library as “very large and complete and contained philosophers of every school.” Indeed, when

Julian became emperor in 361, he demanded that George’s entire library, every single volume, be brought to him, on pain of “the severest penalty” to the poor man charged with the task.¹

In any case, after studying for a time in Athens and elsewhere, Julian zealously embraced Greek philosophy and literature, initiated himself into venerable religious cults of Greece, and was a devotee of “theurgy,” a magical practice designed to unite the human soul with the divine. He even published a “Hymn to the Mother of the Gods” (i.e., Cybele): “Grant to the Roman people in general that they may cleanse themselves of the stain of impiety [i.e., Christianity]; grant them a blessed lot, and help them to guide their Empire for many thousands of years!” his hymn pleads. “Grant me virtue and good fortune, and that the close of my life may be painless and glorious, in the good hope that it is to you, the gods, that I journey!”² 

Julian begins to deconstruct the church’s influence

When Julian became emperor in AD 361 at age thirty, he set about dismantling the position of the church in society. He did not persecute the “Galileans,” as he called them, in the manner of earlier emperors. But he used every other available means. He flushed Christians out of his imperial court, rescinded the tax exemptions of Constantine, banned Christian academics from teaching (more on that in a moment), and published tracts ridiculing them. He also did everything he could to revive the glories of the old religion, building and refurbishing temples, sponsoring pagan priests in various cities, and, in the words of Rowland Smith of the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, “overtly discriminated in favor of pagan individuals and communities in his appointments and judgments.”³ 

His “measured” approach to oppressing Christians is captured well in a brief letter to an imperial administrator named Atarbius: “I affirm by the gods that I do not wish the Galileans to be either put to death or unjustly beaten, or to suffer any other injury; but nevertheless I do assert absolutely that the god-fearing must be preferred to them.”⁴

It seems that Julian was true to his word: he did not order the violent persecution of Christians. He did, however, sometimes turn a blind eye. In the city of Alexandria in northern Egypt in the first year of his reign, a massacre of Christians took place. Apparently prompted by Christians mocking the pagan gods in public, a mob “assailed the Christians with whatever weapon chanced to come to hand, in their fury destroying numbers of them in a variety of ways . . . [the text lists the gruesome methods].” They then descended on the main church of Alexandria and dragged Bishop Georgius outside. They “fastened him to a camel, and when they had torn him to pieces, they burnt him together with the camel.” The usually fair-minded Socrates Scholasticus, the Christian scholar who records the event, half-acknowledges that Georgius had it coming: for “he had been exceedingly obnoxious to all classes, which is sufficient to account for the burning indignation of the multitude against him.”⁴ 

A pagan writer from the period, Ammianus Marcellinus, also tells us that Bishop Georgius was “forgetful of his calling, which counseled only justice and mildness” (a nice description of Christianity on a good day!). He adds that even local Christians “burned with hatred for Georgius.”⁶ He must have been a piece of work! In any case, my point is that when Emperor Julian heard about the killings, which involved many more victims than Georgius, he did almost nothing about it. He wrote to the city scolding them for disorderly conduct that was beneath the dignity of so great a city.⁷ There were no further consequences, and no one was brought to justice.

On one occasion Julian blamed the Christians for a destructive fire in the great temple to Apollo at Daphne near Antioch. He had the great church of Antioch closed as punishment, even though our pagan source—Ammianus again—concedes the rumor was untrue.⁸ 

On another occasion the emperor seized all the property and goods of the church of Edessa (a long-Christian city near the Syrian-Turkish border) and, with dripping sarcasm, explained that he was really just helping Christians achieve their own high ideals: “Since by their most admirable law they are bidden to sell all they have and give to the poor, in order to aid those persons in that effort, I have ordered that all their funds, namely, that belong to the church of the people of Edessa, are to be taken over that they may be given to the soldiers, and that its property be confiscated to my private purse.”⁹

Just when I find myself almost admiring Julian’s wit and verve, I recall that his most famous action against the Christians was designed to deal a decisive blow to their intellectual progress in Roman society. On 17 June 362, he decreed that all “masters of studies”—the equivalent of schoolteachers and university lecturers—had to be approved directly by him.¹⁰ Julian was effectively banning Christian instructors from all schools. (Christians would return the compliment one hundred and sixty years later, when Emperor Justinian would sack pagan professors.) 

Julian explained his measures in a letter on the matter. He thought it was shameful to have professors of the divine traditions of the Greeks who did not themselves affirm the Greek divinities: “what is that but the conduct of hucksters,” he wrote. “I think it is absurd that men who expound the works of these [Greek] writers should dishonor the gods whom they used to honor.”¹¹ A number of Christian professors in prominent positions had to resign. One was the celebrated Victorinus at the academy of Rome, whose very public conversion to Christianity a decade earlier had caused a sensation. Another was the gifted Armenian philosopher Prohaeresius at the venerable academy of Athens.¹² (Many are unaware today that longsuffering Armenia was the first nation to embrace Christianity officially¹³). 

Today’s perception of the church as opposed to “secular” scholarship does not fit with our ancient evidence. Christian philosophers were, in fact, one key factor in the church’s success among pagan elites. That’s what Emperor Julian was trying to stop.

Julian’s Pagan Welfare Program

The other thing Julian tried to stop was Christianity’s virtual monopoly on charitable services among the destitute. This emperor provides some of the best evidence we have for the pervasiveness of church-run welfare programs in the fourth century. On the one hand, Julian castigated Christians for their “philanthropy.” On the other, he tried to emulate them by establishing similar programs in pagan temples, explicitly based on the church model. In a letter to an unknown pagan priest—a kind of director of priests—Julian writes about the disease of Christianity, and its antidote:

We must pay special attention to this point, and by this means effect a cure. For when it came about that the poor were neglected and overlooked by the [pagan temple] priests, then I think the impious Galileans [Christians] observed this fact and devoted themselves to philanthropy. And they have gained ascendancy in the worst of their deeds through the credit they win for such practices. . . . The Galileans also begin with their so-called love-feast [open meals], or hospitality, or service of tables—for they have many ways of carrying it out and hence call it by many names—and the result is that they have led very many into atheism.¹⁴

Julian frequently calls Christians “Galileans” to mark their origins in the backwaters of Palestine. He also calls them “atheists” because they deny the noble gods of Greece and Rome. In any case, the emperor wants pagan priests to be active in charitable works, just like the Christians. He wants to beat the church at its own game.¹⁵ In a speech before the Roman senate, Julian berated the noblemen for allowing their women to sponsor Christianity’s efforts to feed the poor: “Every one of you allows his wife to carry everything out of his house to the Galileans, and when your wives feed the poor at your expense they inspire a great admiration for godlessness [i.e., Christianity] in those who are in need of such bounty.”¹⁶

The theme is even clearer in another of Julian’s letters, to Arsacius the high priest of Galatia, the year before the emperor’s death. In it, the emperor marvels at the rapid return of pagan religion, which he had brought about in the last year. Then he laments that, nonetheless, Christianity continues to thrive because of its charitable services. His solution is to demand the establishment of a similar welfare program in the traditional temples:

No one a little while ago would have ventured even to pray for a change of such a sort or so complete within so short a time [a reference to his own work in the last twelve months or so]. Why, then, do we think that this is enough, why do we not observe that it is their [Christians’] benevolence to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead and the pretended holiness of their lives that have done most to increase atheism? I believe that we ought really and truly to practise every one of these virtues. And it is not enough for you alone to practise them, but so must all the priests in Galatia, without exception. Either shame or persuade them into righteousness or else remove them from their priestly office.¹⁷

There is passing reference in the above quotation to a dimension of Christianity’s charity in ancient times that is often overlooked. Julian mentions the Christians’ “care for the graves of the dead.” He is referring to the extraordinary burial services of the church in the second to the fourth centuries.

The Church as a Burial Society

Tourists to Rome nowadays often visit one of the several major underground catacombs on the outskirts of the ancient imperial capital. To us all these years later, they seem rather creepy—miles of caves with row after row of niches cut into the walls where the dead were laid to rest. But to ancient people these were a godsend.

One of the great terrors of ancient life was the thought of dying without a proper burial. To be left to the elements or wild beasts was horrific. And that is exactly what happened if you were not wealthy enough to afford a burial site or if you had not paid your monthly fees to a funerary union, whose purpose was to collect your body upon death and guarantee you a decent burial. They would even collect your body if you died on a faraway business trip. Documentation for such unions has survived, so we know they were not cheap: the joining fee alone was the equivalent of about a month’s wages for a day laborer, and the monthly dues were about half a day’s wages.¹⁸

The Christian solution was to offer their own free burial service, part of which can still be glimpsed in the vast catacombs of Rome. Literally hundreds of thousands of people were buried there. A few years ago I walked through the Catacomb of Priscilla in Rome, filming a scene for a documentary. What is striking—once you get used to the creepy atmosphere—is the sense of “family” expressed in this burial system. You were laid to rest amongst your fellow believers, young and old, rich and poor alike. 

Traditional Roman burial grounds, just like traditional Roman life, usually observed strict boundaries between the classes, separating nobles from the plebs with a wall, fence, or border stones. Not so in the Christian catacombs. We can tell that some wealthy Christians were buried there. Tomb designs and funerary art make that obvious. But there is a surprising absence of any separation between rich and poor. An important archaeological analysis by John Bodel in 2008 observes, “The novelty in the catacombs is that the two forms of burial [rich and poor] are integrated with each other and housed within the same undefined space.” What we see is “a heterogeneous mixture of persons of different wealth and status with no distinctively unifying beliefs about the representation of privilege in burial.” A Christian catacomb was thus “a world of its own, without normal parameters.”¹⁹

The church’s “care for the graves of the dead,” as Emperor Julian put it, was not a mere practical necessity. Christians saw it as a fitting expression of one of the most basic thoughts in the Jewish-Christian view of reality: every man, woman, and child was made in the image of God. In his account of the faith written for Roman intellectuals, Lactantius (AD 240–320) contrasts the opinion of certain pagan philosophers with the demands of Christianity:

The last and greatest duty of piety is burial of strangers and paupers, something which those [pagan] experts in justice and virtue have never discussed. . . . What is in the balance is an idea. We will not therefore permit a creature made in God’s image to fall prey to wild beasts and birds: we will return it to the earth whence it came; unknown to us he may be, but we will fulfil his kinsmen’s duty.²⁰

It is an interesting argument. The Christian duty to grant even strangers and paupers a proper burial might not provide any practical benefit to the departed. But it pays due honor to the idea that human beings are creatures made in God’s image, valuable to the Father of creation, if not to anyone else.

Julian’s Last Gasp

Julian detected that such Christian charities were a key to the growth of the church—to the “increase in atheism”—and so he tried to launch his own welfare system. In the letter to Arsacius quoted a moment ago, the emperor advises that he has provided the equivalent of millions of dollars from the imperial treasury to ensure its success:

I have but now made a plan by which you may be well provided for this; for I have given directions that 30,000 modii of corn shall be assigned every year for the whole of Galatia [= 59,400 dry gallons, weighing more than 2 tons], and 60,000 pints of wine [= 28,000 litres]. I order that one-fifth of this be used for the poor who serve the priests, and the remainder be distributed by us to strangers and beggars. For it is disgraceful that, when no Jew ever has to beg [because of the Jewish welfare system], and the impious Galileans support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us.²¹

Julian’s program was short-lived. On 26 June 363, as his armies progressed toward their goal of invading Persia in the east, he was hit by an arrow and died later that evening. His sudden death signaled the end of the campaign to revive paganism and to send Christianity back into obscurity. His welfare program in the temples never took off. Who knows what happened to the money and resources dispatched to Arsacius!

One of our ancient sources, admittedly written by a gloating Christian named Theodoret of Antioch, says it was reported that Julian clutched his wound on the battlefield, “filled his hand with blood, flung it into the air and cried, ‘Thou hast won, O Galilean’!”²² Whatever the truth of this report, Julian’s death did mark the day the “Galilean” won.

Julian’s immediate successor was his own general, Jovian. He died the following year (AD 364), apparently overcome by the fumes of his charcoal stove, but not before officially reversing Julian’s anti-Christian policies. The empire, again split, was left to Valentinian in the west and his brother Valens in the east. Valentinian’s decade-long reign (AD 364–375) has been described as “tolerant of pagans and most heretics,”²³ and overlapped with the first year of the bishopric of Ambrose of Milan (AD 374), a man who was not renowned for tolerance.

Discover more about Christian history

This post is taken from John Dickson’s Bullies and Saints. In it, Dickson examines Christian history for answers to questions like: Is religion a pernicious force in the world? Does it poison everything? Would we be better off without religion in general and Christianity in particular?

Dickson gives an honest account of the mixed history of Christianity, the evil and the good. He concedes the Christians' complicity for centuries of bullying but also shows the myriad ways the beautiful melody of Christ has enriched our world and the lives of countless individuals.

  1. Julian, “To Porphyrius,” Letter 38.411c (Wright, Loeb Classical Library 157), 123.
  2. Julian, “Hymn to the Mother of the Gods,” Oration 5 (Wright, Loeb Classical Library 13), 436.
  3. Rowland B. E. Smith, “Julian,” Oxford Classical Dictionary, 800.
  4. Julian, “To Atarbius,” Letter 37.376c–d (Wright, Loeb Classical Library 157), 123.
  5. Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History 3.2–3, in The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers², trans. A. C. Zenos (New York: Cosimo, 2007), 2:79.
  6. Ammianus Marcellinus (AD 330–400), History 22.11.5–10 (Rolfe, Loeb Classical Library 315), 259–63.
  7. Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History 3.3 (Zenos, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers²).
  8. Ammanius Marcellinus, History 22.13.1–3 (Rolfe, Loeb Classical Library 315).
  9. Julian, “To Hecebolius,” Letter 40.424c (Wright, Loeb Classical Library 157), 127.
  10. Theodosian Code, 13.3.5 (Phar, The Theodosian Code).
  11. Julian, Letter 36.422b–424d (Wright, Loeb Classical Library 157), 117–23.
  12. See the Introduction in the Loeb Classical Library edition of Julian’s works (pages VII–LXIII).
  13. “Armenia,” Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 106.
  14. Julian, Fragment of a Letter to a Priest 305b–d (Wright, Loeb Classical Library 29), 337–39.
  15. So also Wilmer Cave Wright, The Works of the Emperor Julian, Vol. 2, Loeb Classical Library 29 (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1913) 295.
  16. Julian, Misopogon (“Beard-hater”) 363a (Wright, Loeb Classical Library 29), 491.
  17. Julian, “To Arcacius, High-priest of Galatia,” Letter 22.429c–431b (Wright, Loeb Classical Library 157), 67–73.
  18. For the documentation and discussion see Wilken, “Christianity as a Burial Society,” in The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, 31–47.
  19. John Bodel, “From Columbaria to Catacombs: Collective Burial in Pagan and Christian Rome,” in Commemorating the Dead: Texts and Artifacts in Context. Studies of Roman, Jewish, and Christian Burials, ed. Laurie Brink and Deborah Green (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2008), 177–242.
  20. Lactantius, Divine Institutes, 6.12.25–31 (Bowen and Garnsey, Lactantius, Divine Institutes).
  21. Julian, “To Arcacius, High-priest of Galatia,” Letter 22.429C–431B (Wright, Loeb Classical Library 157), 67–73.
  22. Theodoret, Ecclesiastical History, 3.20 (Jackson, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers²).
  23. R. S. O. Tomlin., “Valentinian I,” Oxford Classical Dictionary, 1576.

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