Julian’s failure

January 16 2008

The Roman Emperor Julian set himself to reinstate and reinvigorate by peaceful means the religion and culture of Hellenism when these had been pushed to the wall by a Christianity that had been enjoying an Imperial patronage since the conversion of Constantine. The moment when Julian was enabled to put this policy in hand upon his receipt of the news of the death of the Emperor Constantius while Julian himself was on the march from Gaul to Constantinople was separated by an interval of no more than fifteen months (December, A.D. 361-March, A.D. 363) from the moment when the new master of the Hellenic World marched on eastwards into the domain of the Sasanidae on a campaign in which he was to lose his life. These fifteen months were all the time that Julian had for putting his policy into effect; yet, short though this span was, it was long enough to see the Apostate’s original policy change in two respects. Instead of being able to restore the pre-Constantinian régime and pre-Christian dispensation in their authentic shapes, Julian found himself constrained to wage his cultural and religious war on Christianity by organizing a pagan Antichurch on a Christian pattern which was as alien as Christianity itself was from the genuine Hellenic êthos; and at the same time Julian failed to live up to his ideal of an enlightened tolerance. He was quickly disappointed of his romantically unrealistic expectation that, as soon as the Christian Church was deprived of its recent advantage of enjoying official support, a Hellenism that had really been moribund long before the conversion of Constantine would recapture its lost ground by the use of no other weapons than its own intrinsic merit and charm. In his treatment of his Christian subjects Julian had already crossed the line dividing a contemptuous toleration from a hostile discrimination before his activities in the field of domestic affairs were suspended by his departure for the Persian War; and, if it had been his fate to return victorious, it is difficult to believe that he would not have blackened his reputation sooner or later by crossing, in turn, the further line between discrimination and persecution.

Adrian Murdoch’s The Last Pagan is now in paperback.

According to a tradition, Julian imprisoned St Basil, Bishop of Caesarea, whom had he had met when they were students in Athens. Whereupon Basil’s fellow-Cappadocian St Mercurius (martyred 250) appeared to Basil in a vision and claimed anachronistically to have speared Julian to death.

mercurius.jpg

A Coptic icon

A Study of History, Vol VI, OUP, 1954

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