Julian the Apostate was the Emperor of the Roman Empire in 331/332, and a descendent of Constantine the Great, the famous first Christian Emperor of Rome. A typical child of a royal family can expect a privileged upbringing, and Julian received one, until Constantine’s death when his entire family was murdered by his cousin Constantius II; Constantine’s son, because they were potential rivals to his claim of the throne. Julian’s life was spared because of his youth, and the boy was sent instead into quasi-exile, where he was given a formal and thorough education. He became such a bookworm that his ambitious and homicidal family seemed to forget that he existed at all, and he was allowed to travel throughout Greece to learn more about Christianity, literature, and history.
What Julian actually learned about though, was pagan philosophy, and he secretly foreswore the Christianity of his uncle. Before Constantine, the official religion of the Roman empire were the pagan deities of old; Jupiter, Mars, Venus, and so on. For the past 300 years, Christianity had merely been a small sect of heretical Jews who had made excellent scapegoats whenever something went wrong with the empire. Their message had grown more popular over the centuries. Ancient life was a nasty, squalid, and brutal affair, with rape, murder, and sudden death a daily and completely expected occurrence. The Christians preached and believed in eternal salvation, an afterlife of unceasing pleasure, which stood in stark contrast to real life and the more dismal afterlife of the pagans. As their message spread, followers converted, and by Julian’s time the empire was close to half Christian and half Pagan.
His uncle Constantine was the first Roman leader to acknowledge he had abandoned the old gods, and was now a follower of Christ.
To the old guard of the empire, this was an outrage; the equivalent of Barack Obama announcing himself to be a Scientologist during his inauguration address. The old gods had nurtured, strengthened, and watched over the empire’s expansion over lesser peoples and their pathetic gods; to turn their backs on them now was blasphemy, and risked offending their delicate sensibilities and inciting their wrath. Everyone knew that the Roman greats, like Julius and Augustus were deities themselves. To deny them, was to deny the empire, and to forsake the Roman gods was to turn your back upon Rome itself.
Julian was no doubt influenced by his education in the classics, which at that point in the world, was the only type of education that existed. Ancient philosophers and writers encompassed more than poems and mythology. It encompassed a set of ideals that the entire Western World was and is based on. How one should behave, in private and in public. What was virtuous. What a leader should do to remain virtuous and earn the admiration of those he ruled over. Essays and poems about morality, plays that probed the human psyche, and the seedlings of natural science and academic history were all part of the humanities, and it is a pool of literature that still today holds its place amongst the world’s greats.
But another difference between the two faiths had undermined the liberality of education. Paganism was more plural, and open. Pagan faiths believes in almost all gods, and even the gods that believers did not worship were respected. A Roman travelling in Athens would certainly pay tribute to Apollo and Zeus, and a Greek travelling to Carthage would no doubt say a prayer to Baal. Christianity on the other hand, was the direct descendent of the Jewish religion, which claimed only one deity existed, and Yahweh guarded this claim jealously. As worshippers of the son/incarnation of this Supreme Being, Christians could not be expected to tolerate, or even take seriously, anyone who did not acknowledge His supremacy.
How could anyone who did not know the savior of the world, the all powerful God taken into human form, have anything relevant to say about how to live?
Thus, many Christians discarded the writings of the ancients because they weren’t about Christ, as nothing that didn’t directly deal with Christ could be of any importance. Christian elites and intellectuals now given positions of power because of Constantine’s conversion began to ignore the classics, and leadership and society gradually became ignorant of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Virgil, Aeschylus and Lucretius, all the while encouraging their followers and students to do the same. Julian however, absorbed all of these men and the lessons they taught, and would have spent his entire life learning more, had he not been summoned to Constantinople by the emperor.
The Roman world itself was falling apart around this time, its borders too large, it army too disorganized, and its leadership too corrupt; one emperor could no longer hold the damned thing together. So Julian was summoned to Constantinople and the emperor, the man who had years ago murdered his entire family, declared Julian to be the Caesar of the Western half of the empire. He was hoping Julian would remain a mere bureaucrat, but ambition had been fired was fired by studies of the campaigns of Alexander the Great, the diaries of Julius Caesar, and the histories of Plutarch, and Julian set about quickly and successfully pacifying Gaul, before openly challenging his cousin for rule of the entire empire.
There is no telling what when on in Julian’s head with this appointment, or when his ambition was fired, though it is certain that he had not forgotten the massacre of his family by his Christian cousins; but whether it was homicide, or reason that turned him away for Jesus, Julian’s end goal was clear: establish himself as the head of the empire and to bring back the pagan heritage of glory days past to restore Rome’s rightful spot of world supremacy.
Before the civil war could be fought however, his cousin died, and Julian was given the title of Augustus, the sole emperor of the entire Roman world.
Leadership is always a mixed blessing, and the Roman empire was turning sour. The world Julian inherited could be aptly compared to the city of Detroit. Still functioning, but rotting from the core, and its still visible glory days long past. There’s a thousand reasons for this, but one of the main ones was the lack of quality of leadership. The best Roman emperors, Augustus, Marcus Aurelius, Trajan, Hadrian had all be extremely learned in the humanities, and though they were tyrants, they ruled as beneficent philosopher kings. That was no longer the case; even philosopher kings can have entitled, jealous, ambitious sons who inherit the throne.
What the Roman world was getting at the most crucial point of its existence was greedy, uneducated, decadent princes who had no interest in anything but obtaining the purple; then enjoying the perks of leadership, while shirking all of its duties.
Julian intended to change that by reestablishing the empire’s pagan heritage, and bring about a return to the classics, and like Ron Paul, his beliefs were so traditional that they had become radical. Instead of being persecuted, Pagan beliefs and literature returned to the forefront of the Roman world, and Julian did his best to bring the learned and the church back to the wisdom of the Athenian and Roman philosophers. Universities and Churches were required to teach the greats, and churches and priests who did not comply were defrocked. Shrines to the old gods were reinstated with their ancient glory, and pagans could sacrifice without fear of Christian retribution.
Sadly, before more progress could be made Julian died, falling in Persia while leading his army into battle, his reign lasting just under 2 years.
The western empire collapsed forever less than 100 years later.
Obviously Rome fell for many reasons, and Julian probably wouldn’t have been able to save it, but an empire returning the pagan philosophers to the former prestigious position could have postponed it, or perhaps made the decline softer and the transition to modernity smoother.
Upon the fall of Rome, the entire Western half of the empire (that is to say, all of western Europe) succumbed to barbarism, ignorance, and violent tribal warfare for the next…1000 or so years. Ancient philosophy went out the window completely, and those who attempted to teach it were put to the stake for their troubles. Most of the leaders of barbarian tribes and emerging kingdoms of France, Germany, and Austria were illiterate, and for several hundred years literacy was something to be scoffed at by those in charge. The Dark Ages descended onto Europe and an unprecedented era of savagery, ignorance, and intolerance followed.
There was no central church in Pagan institutions, no authority to hold back science, and the pagan philosophers encouraged and promoted free thinking, and questioning authority. That was gone, and again, people who brought this up were given gruesome deaths for their troubles. Creativity, commercialism, and industry were almost forgotten, and slavery: mental and physical was the world men and women knew for a thousand years.
Julian’s reputation of course was butchered by his successors, and he was immediately denounced for his paganism, and has been seen as something of an infamous character for almost all of history. Nowadays he is mostly forgotten; in a society that is becoming more and more secular, and less and less historically literate, who really cares about a short lived emperor who served in the fading days of a corrupt and dying empire.
But Western society was retarded by a millennium because of Rome’s collapse, and the stifling superstition that held it in place. We could be colonizing Mars by now, could have landed on the moon in the 1700′s, or had Facebook during the Civil War. It is worth remembering the lesson of Julian, who reminds us that some works of literature should not be forgotten or abandoned, that sometimes a return to the basics is important, and that any faith that preaches the value of ignorance should be dismissed.