Julian the Apostate: his reign was for only two years and though he died in his early thirties, he was a hardcore—“fundamentalist,” we could say—Pagan who tried his best to stem the Christian tide and revive Paganism.
In 357 one of the most dramatic shifts in governmental policy came with the storage of the Alter of Victory, placed in a Roman senate house by Augustus himself, when a Christian emperor ordered the pagan artifact withdrawn.
Emperor Julian, a relative of Constantine, would rule from 361-63 and though would not call himself an apostate, was reverently opposed to all things Christian. While during his youth he was sympathetic to Christian teachings, later, under the teachings of Pagan instructors, he would side fervently with Pagan rites. In 355 he is appointed ‘ceaser,’ a junior emperor in the Western half of the Roman Empire; as a junior assistant, he does well for himself and is victorious in his military adventures in Gaul—modern day France—as he drives the Germanic tribes back across the border. Some years later, in 361, Julian becomes emperor of the whole realm when his contender for the throne dies unexpectedly on his way to confront Julian during the short lived civil war.
Julian was very flamboyant about his paganism; he would hold large-scale animal sacrifices to commemorate the death of his political rival for the throne, something which hadn’t been seen in public for several decades. As another symbolic gesture, he would grow a beard—Socrates like—as a link connecting him with the great pagan philosophers; from this effort many treatises are written, both for and against Julian’s beard. Julian, being sensitive to some of the criticisms which Christians lob his way, writes a whole book in defense of his beard.
Julian, however, does many non-symbolic, practical, actions as a pagan emperor. For one, he finds the altar of victory, the one that had been placed in storage, and moves it back into the Roman senate house. Writing extensively on the philosophical matters of religion and the problems of the world, Julian declares all forms of religious worship to be legal—a cynical move designed with the hopes of the Christian sects destroying one another now that they were legal entities.
As a ruler, however, Julian understood that he could not turn back the clock. What had transpired underneath Constantine could not be reversed. So he made reforms; Julian understood that there had been specific reasons for why Christianity had been attractive and so he makes a carrot and stick approach: the carrot is social benefits while the stick is punishments; the idea was to make Christianity a uncomfortable religion to openly practice while paganism an attractive option.
Paganism, before Julian, had been decentralized. There was nothing like an ecclesiastical hierarchy which dominated Christian organization. But Julian understood that this tight form of organization was a strong attribute to Christian usurpage of pagan power. Julian drew up plans for inventing a pagan church that had operated in the same fashion as Christian churches: priests would be full time, like in the Christian churches, devoted exclusively to their religious nature, and serve the local population in the same manner of Christianity.
Another one of Julian’s idea for pagan reform was to over-haul the idea of philanthropy. Before Julian, both paganism and Christianity had a strong impulse on charity but the two concepts were very different. Roman philanthropy was geared toward entertainment (circuses, baths, gladiator shows, etc.) and undertaken exclusively by the wealthy; everything, however, was wholly self-serving to bring honor to those who were charitable. This is in strong contrast to Christian philanthropy where the obligation to give fell on every member of the congregation is expected to give financial assistance to the destitute; Julian’s plan, accordingly, was to make this form of Christian charity the defining aspect of pagan charity.
Unfortunately, Julian ambitious plans for a pagan church and re-amped charity structure modeled after Christianity (the carrots), never came to fruition. The sticks, however, costing far less than the carrots, did come into existence.
Julian withdraws financial support for Christian churches and instead redirects it to pagan temples which he re-opens throughout the Empire. He also overlooks pro-pagan violence against Christians. But his most controversial policy was regarding education. In 362 he forbid Christians from the teaching of Greek literature; it should be pagan who teach pagan works. Christians could teach their own scriptures at their own schools if they so chose. What this aimed to enforce was a driving of Christians from the teaching profession entirely; Greek literature, after all, was at the heart of Roman culture and passing tests regarding said literature was the only route to a good social standing. By decreeing that only pagans could teach Roman texts, Julian was effectively banishing Christian educators to the margins of professionalism. (Some Christians, desperate to remain teaching, went as far as to re-write the whole of the Holy Bible with an emphasis on comedy, tragedy, or even Homeric epic in order to comply with Julian’s decrees.) At the end, however, Julian’s short life prevented these educational, religious, and philanthropic reforms from taking root or even beginning at all.
Julian’s reign was one which was disliked even by pagans, and indeed, everyone.
By the time of Julian’s rule, the Empire had been ruled by several generations of Christian rulers, it had been, in other words, the norm and people had acclimated their attitudes respectively. Julian’s reforms were very brute and so constituted a radical shift in societal expectation and operation. Some of Julian’s opposition rested on supporters being uncertain of how Julian’s reforms and support would be considered with the next emperor in power, and so they decided to lay low for a while and wait and see how things turned out. Other opposition came from the personality of Julian—well educated pagans and pagan philosophers found Julian very ostentatious; they thought his beard silly, his large-scale animal sacrifices unseemly and pandering, while his attempts at making paganism great again and intellectually stimulating a pale, sad attempt at revitalizing their religion.
Julian understood that the moral force which would act as a fulcrum to him becoming more popular in the Empire, and thus able to gain the popular support needed for his reforms to take root, lied within military conquest. He had some success in Gaul in the 350s and so was known as a competent commander, but he had a problem—Rome had no real enemies. So he launched an invasion of the Persian Empire, the long-time Roman rivals. Julian amassed the largest army in Roman history and invaded the Persian Empire in 363. The entire undertaking was a fiasco with Julian spending much time meandering around Mesopotamia before ultimately being killed by a spear in battle.
Of course, there was some debate on who killed Julian. Christians claimed that it was a secret Christian solider of his army who killed him; pagans claimed that he was killed by the enemy (so as to not give Christians the satisfaction), while others held obtuse opinions besides, like a pagan member of his own army with very bad aim. Regardless, the invasion was a debacle and we can only guess how Julian’s reign would have turned out had his invasion been a success and had his policies been enacted with gusto, with force.
At the end, Julian’s office extended the imperial office to another pagan but this pagan declined in taking up the mantle of the imperial office; he thought that a pagan emperor would not be very welcomed, so he turned it down, thus allowing the next in line, a Christian, to take up the mantle of the imperial office once more. Once in office, the Christian emperor(s) restores the financial benefits which had been stripped from the Christian churches, he withdraws state support of pagan temples, and lifts the restriction of the teaching of Greek texts, while the Altar of Victory is placed back in storage. However, the one aspect of Julian’s rule which would persevere for some time would be his decree concerning the legality of all religions; it would not be until 391-2, with the passage of a series of laws which make paganism illegal, that Julian’s legacy is fully effaced. Thusly, Julian the Apostate was destined to be the last pagan emperor, while his various enactments are repealed after his death, marking the end of an odd period of Roman history.