Tuesday 30 August 2016

Written in Water 20: Beard-Hater

Bearded men and ideologies unpopular with the establishment, eh?
In June 363CE Julian, the Emperor of Rome, led a cavalry charge against a defeated Persian army. Only shortly before, Julian had won a victory outside the walls of the Persian capitol Ctesiphon, making his campaign in Persia the most successful the Romans had ever managed.

Maybe that made him reckless.

A strap broke on his breastplate; he shrugged it off, threw the offending piece of armour away.

And a spear came from nowhere, and lodged in his side, and he fell, and that night, in his tent, Julian died, discoursing with his comrades about the immortality of his soul, as Socrates had.

And the Roman army found itself far from home with no leader, and no clear route home.

And that was how Julian the Apostate, the last pagan Emperor of Rome, died.

When Constantine died, in 337, the Emperor's three surviving sons, Constantine II, Constantius II and Constans (the eldest, Crispus, had gone from heir apparent to erased from the records thirteen years before, and no one knows why), carved up the Empire among themselves. One of the first things they did, these Christian emperors, was to have all of their male relatives executed. None survived the massacre except for Gallus and Julian, the two youngest sons of Constantine's half-brother Julius, who, orphaned, grew up under house arrest in Cappadocia, far from the action of Empire.

Julian, the younger of the two, conceived early on a hatred for the hypocrisy of the Christian emperors who had done this to his family, and mainly Constantius, who, it was accepted, had given the order.

In Julian's own words:
Our fathers were brothers, sons of the same father. And close kinsmen as we were, how this most humane Emperor treated us! Six of my cousins and his, and my father who was his own uncle, and also another uncle of both of us on the father's side, and my eldest brother he put to death without trial...

...they tried to convince us that Contantius had acted thus, partly because he was deceived, and partly because he yielded... to an undisciplined and mutinous army...

How shall I describe the six years we spent there?

For we lived as though on the estate of a stranger, and were watched as though we were in some Persian garrison, since no stranger came to see us and not one of our old friends was allowed to visit us; so thsat we lived shut off from every liberal study and from all free intercourse, in a glittering servitude and sharing the exercises of our own slaves as though they were comrades.

For no companion of our own age ever came near us or was allowed to do so... And indeed whatever cruelty or harshness was revealed in (Gallus's) disposition was increased by his having been brought up aming those mountains.

It is therefore, I think, only just that the Emperor should bear the blame for this also, he who allotted to us against our will that sort of bringing up. As for me, the gods by means of philosophy caused me to remain untouched by it and unharmed; but on my brother no one bestowed this boon.
Julian, Letter to the Athenians, 270-272 trans. W.C Wright
(Emphasis mine)

It's significant that these are his own words. No Emperor of Rome, none of them, writes about himself with as much vulnerability as Julian; only Marcus Aurelius, 200 years before, actually writes anything of substance at all. And between this and the wild controversies that surrounded this intensely divisive figure, no other Roman emperor between Constantine and the Western Empire's final fall is so well documented, no reign, especially a reign as brief as Julian's, just short of twenty months, gives us so much text.

And yet, for all that, all of that disproportionate historiography, Julian's reign ends in mystery. It ends in myth.

But it begins in isolation. Julian says that the gods – gods plural, no one single God – enabled him to escape the trauma of seeing his father and older brother slaughtered in front of his eyes. It didn't. Of course it didn't. He lived with that his whole life.

We deal with things like this in different ways. Two kids can grow up in the same situation, seeing the same things, and wind up completely different people. So Julian, turned against Christianity by the murderers of his father and brother, takes solace in pagan philosophy. Gallus, the older boy, winds up lost, lost to cruelty, lost to violence.
I thought I'd better include one authentic representation.

OK, look. Its taken me a week to write this post, and part of that is that I really have so much material. When I wrote about Magnus Maximus the other week, I pretty much covered most of the important facts. But there are books and books about Julian, more material about a man who was Emperor for nineteen months and three weeks than there is about all the other fourth and fifth century emperors post-Constantine put together.

People loved him, people hated him. Ammianus Marcellinus, the last great Roman historian, knew him and wrote about him with fairness and sensitivity. The fathers of the Christian Church, terrified that persecution might come back fought him with every ounce of hate they could muster.

I'm not going to tell the whole story.

Constantius, last man standing of the Sons if Constantine, needed an heir. He chose Gallus, and Gallus proved to be far, far too efficient, far too ruthless, and Constantius invited Gallus to Rome to be crowned Emperor beside him and had him executed on his arrival.

Julian, next in line, sent to war with no experience, hit the books, went through basic training, and ate with the men. The men loved him. He began to win. And then one day the army declared they'd rather him than Constantius.

He wrote a letter saying he'd never meant for it to happen, but paranoid to the end, Constantius declared war, Julian marched, and when he got there he found that Constantius had died of natural causes.

So he was Emperor again. He didn't have to hide.

Smartly, he issued an Edict of Toleration, allowing all expressions of Christianity, no matter what their theological opinion, equal freedom to pursue their religion.

From experience he knew that no wild animals are as hostile toward people as most Christians are vicious towards each other.
Ammianus Marcellinus, XXII. 5. 4
But he also banned Christian teachers from teaching pagan literature. Which effectively excluded Christians from teaching.

Unrest began; a certain horror began to take root among Christian leaders of all camps. Persecution had ended forty years ago, but it was still a terror. He'd only been Emperor a couple of months. He was a war hero. He was a terrible, terrible threat.

Constantius had been preparing for an invasion of Persia. I don't know if Julian knew what a terrible idea this was.

But he was obliged to carry it through. Over the winter of 362-3, he made his preparations in Antioch.

Now Antioch was, in many ways, an important place for both pagans and Christians: an historic shrine of Apollo; the place where the Christian Church first took the name Christian. The birth of Christianity as a religion.

Every interaction with the people of the city seemed to be soured with frustration. He tried to revive the temple of Apollo at Daphne; it had been replaced by a shrine to a martyr named Babylas. Julian ordered the local Christian community to dig up the relics of the martyr. And when the time came to remove them, rather than take them away quietly, they did it in full carnival style, singing and dancing. 

Still, Julian thought, there is still chance to consecrate the temple. But the visions dancing in front of his eyes, of beautiful white bulls, of sacrificial blood flowing like rivers, of choirs of acolytes, were to be disappointed. No one approached the restoration of the temple with the enthusiasm he did.    
But when I entered the shrine, I found that there is no incense, and not so much as a cake, not a single beast for sacrifice. For the moment I was amazed and thought I was still outside the shrine, that you were waiting for the signal from me, doing me that honour because I am supreme pontiff. But when I began to inquire what sacrifice the ccity intended to offer to celebrate the annual festival in honour off the god, the priest answered, "I have brought with me from my own house a goose as an offering to the god...
Julian, Misopogon 362 (trans WC Wright)

See, Julian was outraged, but he wasn't the same sort of man as his predecessor. Constantius would have killed the lot of them. Julian wrote an angry poem, which still survives. It's called Beard-Hater (Misopogon), and it's a petulant sort of thing, a long complaint that no one really understands the old ways, or him.

In a lot of ways, it's sort of a sign that he was too good for where he ended up, that honourable behaviour and trust in the people working for him would never be rewarded (I'm thinking again of a present-day bearded ideologue, who has refused to coerce his constituency into getting into line and is paying the price).

People started to turn against him. Although initially popular, Julian's way of talking to ordinary people seemed alien to a public used to distant, powerful leaders of the highest social classes. They didn't like his old-fashioned but strongly held and sincere political views. They didn't like his attempts to be down to earth. They hated the way he made publicity gaffes. They really didn't like his beard. It's easy and trivial to keep comparing him to Jeremy Corbyn at this point, but frankly that's never stopped me.
They laughed at him and called him an ape-man, and they said he was a little man spreading out his narrow shoulders, and wearing a beard like a goat, striding about like Otus and Ephialtes (who Homer says were giants). And they called him "the butcher" instead of the devotee, because of how many animals he sacrificed, and right then he deserved that...
Ammianus Marcellinus XXII.14.3
(The fact that Ammianus really loved the man shouldn't be underplayed: even his allies had reservations about him.)

Time came to start the invasion of Persia. Entire books have been written about the Persian campaign and to be honest, I don't really care about battles and tactics all that much. The main thing is it went well, so well, better than any Roman invasion of Persia that had ever been conducted. An arguable tactical error meant that the Roman army had to turn back after reaching Ctesiphon, but this was the best the Roman had ever done.

And then the spear.

Who threw it?

It could have been a lucky shot from a retreating Persian. At least one version describes a Saracen on the Persian side who paid for getting close enough to hit the Emperor with his life. In retrospect that's easily the most obvious solution.
Where did that shot come from?
The theories got pretty wild pretty quickly.

Libanius, the pagan Greek writer who delivered Julian's official eulogy, claimed that a Christian member of Julian's staff had assassinated him, and most non-Christian writers latched on to that; but Ammianus, a pagan and a supporter of Julian, doesn't say any such thing. And Ammianus was actually there, present at the scene, as was a man named Oribasius, whose account we have third-hand.

It didn't matter. Christians latched onto the idea that something else happened. Some agreed with Libanius, but some took it farther. The bishop (and later Saint) Basil of Caesarea, one of Julian's most bitter enemies, celebrated the pagan Emperor's death; a chronicler writing in the 530s claimed that this happened to Basil (and thanks to my friend Robert Beattie for finding this for me):

That same night Basil, the most holy bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia, saw in a dream the heavens opened and the Saviour Christ seated on a throne and saying loudly, "Mercurius, go and kill the emperor Julian, who is against the Christians". St. Mercurius, standing before the Lord, wore a gleaming iron breast-plate. Hearing the command he disappeared, and then he re-appeared, standing before the Lord, and cried out, "The emperor Julian has been fatally wounded and has died, as you commanded, Lord." Frightened by the cry, bishop Basil woke up in confusion; for the emperor Julian held him in honour both as an eloquent man and as his fellow-student, and wrote to him frequently. St. Basil went to church for the morning service, summoned all his clergy and told them of his mysterious dream, and that the emperor Julian had been fatally wounded and had died that same night. They all entreated him to be silent and to tell nobody of such news.
John Malalas, Chronicle 13.25, trans. E. Jeffreys et al.

(The legend is apparently an adaptation of a slightly earlier one where another bishop wished death on Valens at Adrianople, so it's not even original. It doesn't matter. People took it to heart.)
Mercurius kills Julian.
Even while he was on his deathbed, the myths began to gather around him. His last words were, it was said, much later, "You have won, Galilean"; of course there was no proof of this. It didn't matter. The story stuck (I'm reminded of the persistent legend of Darwin's supposed deathbed recanting, which, without any real basis, still gets passed about among enthusiastic creationists).

For all that the nineteen months and three weeks of Julian's reign are documented, it seems that even he couldn't escape falling prey to the collapse of history.

The Roman army went home, humiliated. And Julian's successor Jovian barely had time to restore Christianity to its place as the state religion before dying of food poisoning, on the way to his coronation.