[The following is a guest post from Eric Scott. Eric Scott is a second-generation Wiccan, raised in the St. Louis-based coven Pleiades. He writes about paganism for Patheos in his Family Traditions column, and also serves as a contributing editor at Killing the Buddha. His fiction and memoir have appeared in The Scribing Ibis, Caper Literary Journal, and Ashé! Journal. He used to sing in a Taoist glam rock band. Find him on Facebook and Twitter.]
Today marks 1,650 years since Julian the Apostate became Roman Emperor. The story still seems farfetched: when Julian was five, his family had been murdered on the orders of his relative, the emperor Constantius II. Yet that same Constantius would eventually name Julian his Caesar in 355 and his successor as Augustus in 361 – though admittedly, Julian had already been proclaimed Augustus by his army in 360 and he had been marching to Constantinople when Constantius died. He was the heir of the world’s first Christian dynasty, a man raised by bishops and monks to carry on the Arianism of his relatives. And he shocked the empire by revealing himself as a pagan, and then set about restoring the worship of the gods of Olympus to an empire that had abandoned them.
I first studied Julian while taking a course called “The History of Christian Thought.” It was the sort of course you had to be a hardcore theological nerd to enjoy; most of the material consisted of bishops arguing over minutia and excommunicating each other. Julian stood out, though, a figure cut from another sort of cloth: a philosopher, a general, a philanthropist, and a strangely humble ruler. He was a Renaissance man a thousand years before the Renaissance.
He was also, of course, a pagan, and moreover, the last pagan emperor, which makes him a romantic figure to pagans in the modern day. I remember reading his plans to restore paganism to Rome: he asserted that the reason Christianity had become so popular was because the Church spent so much time feeding the poor. Julian’s response was not to close down the churches or outlaw Christianity, but to make the pagan temples even more charitable than the churches. He refused the idea of persecution. “It is by reason that we ought to persuade and instruct men, not by blows or insults or physical violence,” he said in one of his letters.
When we reached that point in the course, I could see a little shiver of happiness run through some of my classmates, most of whom had identified themselves as evangelical Christians in some way or another. The professor, who also served as a pastor on the weekends, assured us in a gentle voice of the relief the bishops felt when Julian died: “that little cloud has quickly passed away,” as St. Athanasius said.
A quote that has stuck with me is the first paragraph of W.H.C. Frend’s chapter on Julian in his book The Rise of Christianity:
“The world has always warmed to its fallen heroes. Hector rather than Achilles, Robert E. Lee and not Ulysses S. Grant, stir the imagination of posterity, however lost or wrong headed the causes they championed. They fill the Valhalla of our fantasies. The emperor Julian is in a similar class… [He] bent every effort during a reign of twenty months in a hopeless effort to restore the old religion. His death in battle at the age of thirty-two in a grandiose scheme to conquer the Persian Empire and emulate Alexander the Great seems only to add stature to what objectively was a wasteful and futile endeavor.”
Nearly all scholars suggest that Julian’s attempt to revitalize paganism was doomed from the start, that the tide of history had swung in Christianity’s favor and it would have been impossible for him to swing it back. I have always thought that opinion put a lot of weight on a reign of less than two years. What if Julian had succeeded in his Persian campaign, or at least survived? What if he had lived to be an old man, an emperor with the three decades Constantine had? How differently would our histories read?
I suppose there isn’t any point in fantasizing about a world in which Julian had triumphed. He didn’t; further, even if he had, the paganism he espoused was very different from what modern pagans practice, even Hellenic reconstructionists. There is a danger of feeling too much affinity with a figure like Julian. But nonetheless, he embodied many of the virtues our communities admire. Of all Roman Emperors, he was perhaps the greatest champion of religious freedom. He was a great scholar and a notable writer. He was humble, and preferred simplicity over decadence.
And one more: he was a person who had been so educated in Christianity that he had even held a minor position in the church as a young man, who had seen first-hand the sort of power Christianity held in the empire – Constantius, the emperor who had murdered Julian’s family, was a zealous Arianist – and knew just how institutionalized it had become. And yet he turned away from it and embraced the gods of Olympus. Julian was the last pagan emperor, true, but more than that, he was the only emperor who had been born a Christian and died a pagan. Most pagans living today can empathize with his situation.
1,650 years away, Julian enters Constantinople as the sole emperor of the Roman Empire, about to try his best to change history. I am proud of him: proud of him as a pagan, and proud of him as a human being. And as we modern-day pagans continue our work of restoring the old gods, I like to think that Julian would feel proud of us, too.