Most people know that Constantine was the first Christian emperor. Lots of other things they think about him are wrong — for example, that he decided or helped to decide which books would be in the New Testament or that his conversion was just a political ploy. I deal with these in my book The Triumph of Christianity (Simon & Schuster, 2019). But this one’s right. He was the first Christian emperor.
It’s also right that nearly all the emperors after Constantine were Christian. I say *nearly* because of one brief but highly noteworthy exception: his nephew Julian, most frequently referred to as Julian the Apostate. Julian ruled for nineteen months in 361-63 CE. His short reign was highly significant: Julian tried to turn the empire back to the ways and worship of paganism. He is called “the Apostate” because he started out as Christian but then opted to worship the traditional gods of Rome. And he tried to enforce this view on his Empire. Here is how I describe how he did that (or tried to do that) in my book.
The Last Pagan Emperor
Julian spent his first six months as emperor in Constantinople, and then nine unhappy and turbulent months in Antioch, before marching against the Persians. He was killed early in the conflict, having ruled the empire for a mere nineteen months. It was, however, an eventful year and a half, especially for pagan-Christian relations. Upon ascending to the throne, Julian declared he had converted to paganism years earlier. (The very fact that he could understand paganism as a “religion” to which he could even convert shows just how much had changed by his time.) He made it one of his goals to reinstate traditional pagan sacrificial practices throughout the empire. That required him to suppress the burgeoning Christian movement.
We do not know why, exactly, Julian became such a passionate devotee of pagan traditions.
We do know that as a studious young man, in addition to reading Christian literature, he devoured the pagan classics and was drawn to the moral world they portrayed. Moreover, his bad experience with Christians may have made the difference. His ardent Christian cousin Constantius II had arranged for the murder of all his male relatives.
In some ways Julian’s passionate devotion to the pagan cause was driven by a now-familiar motivation: he indicates that the gods “say they will give rewards for our labors, if we do not grow slack.” He certainly was not slack. At the beginning of his reign he reopened pagan temples, restored pagan rites, and declared universal religious tolerance. More famous than these positive steps to rejuvenate traditional religion were the negative measures he took to strangle Christianity. Julian had no intention of persecuting Christians, imprisoning them, or making them martyrs. He was a good enough student of history to know how badly that would go. But he did rescind many of the benefits afforded Christians by his predecessors and reversed several of their policies.
Some of his actions were subtle. For example, his Arian cousin Constantius II had exiled a number of Christian leaders who did not toe the Arian theological line that he preferred. Julian brought them back from exile. This appears not to have been an act of tolerance: on the contrary, it was almost certainly an attempt to weaken the church by re-introducing vehemently opposed spokespersons back into communities that had earlier been rid of them. A disunified Christian movement posed far fewer problems to a pagan resurgence than a unified front.
Less subtly, Julian eliminated privileges accorded to Christian clergy since the time of his uncle Constantine: no longer were they exempt from participating in civil life or contributing their wealth to municipal causes. This move satisfied two needs: it weakened the elite clergy by draining a good bit of their resources, and it strengthened the governance of the cities. It also, of course, brought funds from the church into the municipal coffers.
Julian sometimes refused to provide justice for Christian leaders. In December 361, an Arian bishop named George was murdered by a pagan mob in Alexandria, Egypt. When Christians howled their objections, Julian chose not to penalize the culprits and explained why: he considered George “an enemy of the gods.” Julian would not order the deaths of Christian leaders, but he would not object to them either.
Possibly most insidious of all was an edict Julian published on June 17, 362, proscribing Christian instructors from teaching the pagan classics to schoolboys. Julian’s logic was that no one should teach what they did not believe; moreover, Christians were unqualified to teach the classics because they were themselves morally deficient. Christian teachers were given a choice: they could either acknowledge the gods or resign their positions. This policy may seem relatively benign but in fact it was unusually clever. No longer could Christians teach the principal subjects of instruction: grammar, rhetoric, and philosophy. That meant the next generation of elites would be trained exclusively by pagans. As ancient historian Glen Bowersock points out: “Julian knew perfectly well what he was doing. Within little more than a generation the educated elite of the empire would be pagan.”
In trying to devise steps to increase the attractiveness of the pagan traditions, Julian strove to make changes, particularly in light of what he considered to be the greatest appeal of the Christian tradition, its social programs: “Do we not observe that what has most of all fostered the growth of atheism [i.e., Christianity] is humanity towards strangers, forethought in regard to the burial of the dead, and an affectation of dignity in one’s life. Each of these ought, in my opinion, to be cultivated genuinely by us.” To provide pagan counterparts, Julian set up guest houses in cities and free distributions of wheat and wine to the poor. Clearly these policies were not simply driven by a good-hearted nature. They were an attempt to attract converts back into paganism and thus decimate the ranks of the Christians.
Among the many pieces of ancient literature that we greatly regret no longer having is a book, or possibly a series of books, that Julian himself wrote to attack Christianity. The work is commonly called “Against the Galileans,” and unfortunately it survives only in fragments quoted by a later Christian author, Cyril of Alexandria, in an effort to refute it. Julian was particularly well-positioned to attack Christians, their theology, and their Scriptures. He had been raised a Christian himself and had been an active participant in the Christian churches, even during the years when he was, for political reasons, disguising the fact that in his heart he was a pagan. Yet even as a pagan emperor he knew it was better to attack the Christian movement through words and arguments than through harsh measures of persecution. From his uncle Constantine he had learned to promote his views through persuasion rather than coercion. Many of his successors took a different view.