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Old June 26th, 2013, 08:56 PM   #1

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'You have won, Galilean' - the Death of Julian the Apostate


Flavius Claudius Julianus was born in 332, at Constantinople. His father, Julius Constantius, was a half-brother of Constantine who was executed during the purge that followed Constantine's death in 337. Five year-old Julian was placed in the care of a eunuch, who gave him a Classical education. In his late teens and early twenties, Julian also studied under the Neo-Platonist Maximus, under whose influence he converted to paganism in the early 350s.

In 355 Julian was made Caesar (junior emperor) and married Helena, daughter of the reigning emperor Constantius (son of Constantine I). He spent the mid-late 350s campaigning against Germanic tribesmen, particularly the Alamanni, winning several noted victories. His popularity with the troops aroused the jealousy of Constantius, however. The Emperor attempted to reduce Julian's army, but this resulted in a mutiny, and Julian's proclamation as Augustus. Constantius died of an illness in 361 before the inevitable military confrontation; as a result, Julian became the unchallenged ruler of the Roman Empire.

Under Julian, the pagans and Jews of the Empire enjoyed freedom of worship - which had been restricted under the previous emperors. This earned him everlasting infamy, as well as the cognomen Apostatus. Unlike some of his more distant predecessors, Julian refrained from openly persecuting Christians; however, he discriminated against the Church and even engaged in an abortive attempt to rebuild the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem.

Julian spent the second half of his short reign planning an attack on Sassanid Persia. In March of 363 he penetrated Persian territory with an army of 65,000 men; in its ranks was his admirer and future historian, Ammianus Marcellinus. Despite initial successes, Julian did not feel strong enough to attack Ctesiphon itself, and withdrew.

The Persians adopted a scorched-earth policy, and the Romans were fast running out of supplies. Their column was harassed by Persian cavalry, both horse-archers and lance-armed savaran. A series of running battles concluded at Samarra on June 26th, 363.

The Persians launched a surprise assault on the Romans, including in their own force a detachment of Indian elephants. Julian himself rode into the battle, carrying nothing but a sword and shield, wearing no armor. Sometimes this has been interpreted as overconfidence or contempt for the Persians; more likely Julian was simply caught up in the heat of the moment as he tried to rally his beleaguered troops. There is also a tradition, preserved especially by Gregory of Nazianzus, that Julian was looking for death.

Whatever the explanation, Julian's refusal to don his armor was a fatal misjudgment. He was stabbed with a spear (apparently a kontos - heavy cavalry lance), the weapon piercing his side and rupturing his intestines. Julian was carried away from the battle, and was examined by his personal physician, Oribasius. Initially it looked as though the Emperor would survive, but late in the evening the wound began to bleed profusely, and Julian died.

Several legends surround the death of Julian. Ammianus tells us that he knew he was dying, but, a philosopher to the end, gave a discourse to his attendants. Another, almost certainly bogus tradition claims that Julian's last words were 'you have won, Galilean!' This was, of course, a reference to Jesus Christ, and his belief that the hopes of Greco-Roman paganism would die with him.

Controversy surrounded the issue of just who killed Julian. Theories abounded almost from the moment the Emperor died - possibly suspects included a Persian horseman, a 'Saracen' auxiliary in either Roman or Persian service, or a Roman legionary who was disgusted with the retreat from Ctesiphon, or with Julian's paganism. Ammianus largely avoids the issue, whereas Libanius describes the murderer as a Taienos, a Greco-Syrian word denoting an Arab. The church historian Philostorgius blames a 'Saracen' lancer in the Persian army, who was vengefully cut down by Julian's companions immediately after striking the blow.

The question of who killed Julian - and why he fought unarmored in the first place - will remain one of history's mysteries. What cannot be denied, is that Julian made the last great, and ultimately doomed, effort to redeem pre-Christian classical religion and philosophy.
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Old June 26th, 2013, 09:02 PM   #2

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Would not be shocked one bit if he was taken out by one of his own soldiers.
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Old June 28th, 2013, 12:41 PM   #3

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I interviewed FL Light this week, who translated Antigone to English. One of the topics we discussed was the Emperor Julian. Light had written some sonnets in praise of Julian's restoration of paganism. During this discussion, I was under the impression that Constantine made Christianity the state religion, and that Julian turned around and reestablished the worship of the traditional pantheon as the state religion. But your post makes it seem more as if Julian was in favor of freedom of religion for everyone.

Which was it? The replacement of one religion over another, or the grant of freedom from state religion? I am confused.
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Old June 28th, 2013, 01:28 PM   #4
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Originally Posted by Aya Katz View Post
I interviewed FL Light this week, who translated Antigone to English. One of the topics we discussed was the Emperor Julian. Light had written some sonnets in praise of Julian's restoration of paganism. During this discussion, I was under the impression that Constantine made Christianity the state religion, and that Julian turned around and reestablished the worship of the traditional pantheon as the state religion. But your post makes it seem more as if Julian was in favor of freedom of religion for everyone.

Which was it? The replacement of one religion over another, or the grant of freedom from state religion? I am confused.
Under Constantine, Christianity didn't become the state religion, it just lost its former 'outlaw' status, and became one of the tolerated, and favored, religions of the state. Julian wasn't so much into the traditional pantheon as his brand of paganism was not in most ways the 'traditional' Roman religion, and he was in most ways in favor of religious freedom. What I believe he was trying to do was halt Christianity's growing influence, rather than eliminate it and replace it with something else.
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Old June 29th, 2013, 07:53 AM   #5

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Originally Posted by auhcxam View Post
Under Constantine, Christianity didn't become the state religion, it just lost its former 'outlaw' status, and became one of the tolerated, and favored, religions of the state. Julian wasn't so much into the traditional pantheon as his brand of paganism was not in most ways the 'traditional' Roman religion, and he was in most ways in favor of religious freedom. What I believe he was trying to do was halt Christianity's growing influence, rather than eliminate it and replace it with something else.
So there was no "one and only" state religion, but there was a list of tolerated religions you could choose? And another list of prohibited religions?
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Old July 2nd, 2013, 01:54 PM   #6
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So there was no "one and only" state religion, but there was a list of tolerated religions you could choose? And another list of prohibited religions?
There was no "one and only" state religion until Theodosius established Nicene Christianity as the State Religion.

Before that there wasn't so much as a list of tolerated religions, as there was a sort of case-by-case exclusion of religions that were offensive to Roman sensibilities: such as those that practiced human sacrifice, for example. Basically the Romans did not go around making up a list of religions that they approved of, but generally tolerated everything unless they had a reason not to.
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Old July 2nd, 2013, 04:48 PM   #7
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There was no "one and only" state religion until Theodosius established Nicene Christianity as the State Religion.

Before that there wasn't so much as a list of tolerated religions, as there was a sort of case-by-case exclusion of religions that were offensive to Roman sensibilities: such as those that practiced human sacrifice, for example. Basically the Romans did not go around making up a list of religions that they approved of, but generally tolerated everything unless they had a reason not to.
I think there is a slight misnomer in the definition of the term 'Religion' and its use in the ancient world. There definitely was a state religion in Rome, in both the republic and empire. Rome had state priests, publicly funded temples, publicly funded religious festivals.

The difference was there was no conception of one religion vs. another, there was just the divine world. The Romans rejected some practices which were deemed to be socially unacceptable and subversive, but it is not the 'religion' they banned it was simply the ritual. The notion that the cult of Bacchus or whatever constituted worship of a god who did not exist was alien to the Romans.

It's why Christianity was perceived to be so dangerous, its why the Christians were labelled atheists; they denied the existence of the wider divine world. Its really only since the rise of the monotheisms who deny the validity of one another that the notion of different ‘religions’ has taken hold.

So perhaps what Julian did was weaken the favorable position Christianity had enjoyed under Constantine, in matters such as the use of the imperial post by Bishops, rather than pick one state religion over the other.
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Old July 24th, 2013, 12:41 AM   #8

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The theory is, that Julian's granting of religious freedom for all beliefs in his empire, including all variations of Christianity that stood in dogmatic conflict with Constantine's Nicene Orthodoxy, was mainly motivated by the, not totally unjustified, hope that these Christian currents would fight each other to the death, and thus disgraced by fraticide would simply sink into insignificance, leaving Paganism as the only credible alternative.
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Old July 24th, 2013, 04:59 PM   #9
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simply sink into insignificance, leaving Paganism as the only credible alternative.
I'm uncomfortable with the generality of this statement. "Paganism" (perhaps Graeco-Roman Polytheism is a more politically correct term) was not one simple organised alternative but simply an umbrella term for 'everything else' in the ancient world. There were a common set of rituals which bound most competing cults, such as animal sacrifice, but this did not constitute a discreet ideology; Judaism shared many of these ritualistic practices.

Thus there was not one simple alternative, but hundreds, the only difference is these alternatives were not mutually exclusive in the same was Christianity was/is.
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Old July 25th, 2013, 01:00 AM   #10

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Originally Posted by hypernova View Post
I'm uncomfortable with the generality of this statement. "Paganism" (perhaps Graeco-Roman Polytheism is a more politically correct term) was not one simple organised alternative but simply an umbrella term for 'everything else' in the ancient world. There were a common set of rituals which bound most competing cults, such as animal sacrifice, but this did not constitute a discreet ideology; Judaism shared many of these ritualistic practices.

Thus there was not one simple alternative, but hundreds, the only difference is these alternatives were not mutually exclusive in the same was Christianity was/is.
You are of course right that "paganism" is no more than an umbrella term that doesn't reflect the disparities and complexities of existing poly-theistic religions in antiquity.
However, Julian had realised that the major weakness of Graeco-Roman polytheism ( and all its incorporated elements) was the lack of any organisational structure and the absence of doctrinal texts, the presence of which in the Christian Church had surely contributed to its success.
Julian's long term strategy therefore had been to model a reformed poly-theism along the lines of Christianity, copying many elements that had attracted people and their rulers to it: strong administration, charitable work, a coherent doctrine influenced by neo-platonism and a sun cult, hymns and full-time priests in hierachial order with Julian himself as the "pontifex maximus".
In other words, the myriad strands of late antiquity paganism were to be unified into a cohesive religion that could deliver a credible alternative, once Christianity had discredited itself.
Then came the spear.
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