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Thread: Julian the Apostate, the most fascinating "what if" in late Roman history

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    Default Julian the Apostate, the most fascinating "what if" in late Roman history

    Julian the Apostate, a nephew to Constantine the Great, reigning 40 years after the former Christianized the empire through imperial edict, was the last pagan emperor of Rome, and indeed the last major non-Christian head of state in Europe until the 20th Century.



    He is given the moniker "Apostate" for this attempt to revert the empire to paganism by revoking the pro-Christian edicts of his uncle.

    Unfortunately for the 31 year old Julian, the last of the Constantinian Dynasty, he would die long before his ambitious plans could come to fruition. His successors, all Christian emperors of the typical late imperial mold reversed Julian's plans almost as soon as he died.

    To summarize, Julian pushed for the following reforms:
    • The equalization of all religions under the law. No religion was to receive preferential treatment, no religious intolerance was sanctioned
    • A return the Principate style of imperial rule. Julian styled himself as "first among equals" and involved himself in Senatorial affairs more than any emperor since Marcus Aurelius. He ended all the trappings of the Emperor as a semi-divine, inapproachable figure. Basically turning the clock back on Diocletian's reforms.
    • The consolidation of paganism with a lowercase "p" to paganism with an uppercase "P". In other words, the melding of the old pagan cults into a unified religion in the same model as the Christian Church.


    Julian is often compared in character to Marcus Aurelius and Hadrian, indeed he is very much a blend of the two. He combines Hadrian's philhellenism with Marcus Aurelius' Stoicism, scholasticism, and militaristic determination.

    But alas, the spear of destiny that caught him in the liver on that fateful day in Iraq in June 363 CE meant that none of his potential was realized.

    And it leaves us with perhaps the most fascinating question in late Roman history:

    • What would have happened if Julian had lived, extricated himself and his army from Sassanid territory and into allied Armenia?
    • How would the Roman Empire have changed?
    • Would the clock really be rolled back to the era of the Principate, could this even be possible?
    • Would Christianity, already fractured and divided, implode, and become naught more than an aberration in Europe's history?
    • Would the Western Roman Empire have lasted longer (if you assume there's merit in Gibbon's thesis that Christianity was the cancer that killed the Empire)?



    Personally, I am of the opinion that had Julian lived and been allowed to reign unopposed for another 30-40 years (he was only 31 after all), he would have been successful in turning back the clock on most things.
    The macro-trend of the Empire from a pan-national, centralized state to a loose collection of provinces supported by a pre-feudal system would continue, but the process would be slowed as Emperors reconcile with the Senate and the people rather then just the army and the Chuch.
    The Western Roman Empire would still fall, but without Christianity to inspire Islam's founding, the Eastern Roman Empire would persist for many more centuries, eventually becoming one of the modern states of a pre-nationalist Europe.
    And indeed the very nature of Europe would be different as religion would never become a major political factor, the Church would never assume political influence, and the wars and struggles of religion, both within the Church and against Islam would never come to pass
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    Default Re: Julian the Apostate, the most fascinating "what if" in late Roman history

    In his honor I always keep the Western Roman Empire pagan when I play BI .

    Although to be honest, I imagine his reign would have had to be very long and stable to actually have any hope of stopping the spread of Christianity in the Empire...things that I don't think he was gonna be lucky enough to get.
    Last edited by DarthShizNit; July 25, 2014 at 05:49 PM.

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    Default Re: Julian the Apostate, the most fascinating "what if" in late Roman history

    Although an interesting topic, this doesn't belong here. It belongs in the alternate history sub-forum.

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    Default Re: Julian the Apostate, the most fascinating "what if" in late Roman history

    Indeed. Moved from the VV to the Alternate History subforum.

    Also, great OP, looking forward to this discussion.


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    Default Re: Julian the Apostate, the most fascinating "what if" in late Roman history

    I've bashed his Mesopotamian campaign pretty hard in the past. But even I must admit that his administration ironed out lots of the wrinkles in Constantine's and Constantius II administrations. I envision this being sort of like Aurelian's reign. I really do think that a united Pagan church with the right type of missionary work could manage to survive in the Roman Empire. I won't jump ahead and assume that it could beat out Christianity though.

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    Default Re: Julian the Apostate, the most fascinating "what if" in late Roman history

    Quote Originally Posted by Lord Oda Nobunaga View Post
    I've bashed his Mesopotamian campaign pretty hard in the past.

    Yes I remember that, if IIRC we had an interesting debate on the subject.

    Anyway, perhaps the only certain scenario if Julian lived is the non persecution of pagans.With emperors following Julian, pagans had really no protection left and even suffered some organized persecution by the state which greatly accelerated Christianity's victory.

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    Default Re: Julian the Apostate, the most fascinating "what if" in late Roman history

    By the time Julian became emperor, there were already large areas of the empire - mostly concentrated in the east - that were heavily Christian. That was especially the case for the largest cities, where these ideas could spread quickly in the public forum. Had Julian's reign been longer, he probably would have delayed the inevitable, but Christianity was on the rise regardless of him. Given the growing proportion of citizens who were Christian, there would almost certainly be more Christian emperors to follow.

    And Jupiter/Zeus could only look down in disappointment, shaking his head at this development.

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    Default Re: Julian the Apostate, the most fascinating "what if" in late Roman history

    We don't know if Christians were the majority or not, probably they were about the same as the pagans in the east and certainly the minority in the west.Anyway, it took centuries for Christianity to get there, all the options were open IMO if Julian reigned long and if he granted the succession to a pagan; indeed it seems that when Julian died the Empire was first offered to a pagan and Jovian was elected only after a refusal.

    What we know for certain is that pagans were many for quite a long time, both in the smallfolk and the elite, indeed by the wording of the Theodosian edict (which aspired to persecute pagans) there were a lot of pagans who only pretended to be Christians.

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    Default Re: Julian the Apostate, the most fascinating "what if" in late Roman history

    I don't believe that Julian, or anyone for that matter, could have created "P"aganism.
    There are some religions with similar premises like Shinto, but that gains cohesion by originating and developing exclusively within a very closed culture and population.

    Even had he restricted state "P"aganism to just the Greco-Roman pantheon, it would still have had a hard time achieving anything approaching the level of theological cohesion that Christianity enjoyed. Of course, by the 4th Century, the Eastern cults of Sol Invictus and Mithras were more popular anyway. And their inclusion with the likes of Jupiter and Apollo would be... problematic if one wishes to hold any level of continuity.

    But I also don't believe that paganism needed to become "P"aganism to overcome Christianity. As many have said, the victory of Christianity over all other cults was mainly due to the sponsorship of the state, especially with the ascension of the Theodocians. They went so far as to permanently remove the Altar of Victory herself from the floor of the Senate in Rome, a sacrilege just considering the historical factor alone. There's no arguing that Christianity was very much forced upon the Romans, particularly in the West.

    The Church owes most of its initial success to the depredations of the Crisis of the Third Century. A religion that emphasizes the power of the powerless and the charity of the Almighty tends to catch on when it seems the world is falling apart. But after the restoration of Imperial stability (of sorts at least) under Diocletian, Christianity lost its biggest selling point. And I believe that had Constantine (of whom I have a very low opinion, but I will get to that at another time) not promoted the Church at the point of a spartha, the Church would eventually have died out as all the other three Tetrachs were staunch opponents of Christianity.

    Christianity's greatest blow against the late Empire in the West was unintentional, but fatal none the less. Since the time of Julius Caesar, the title of Pontifex Maximus had always been with the Emperor himself, meaning that Church (or temple rather) and state were unified in the man of the Augustus. But with the bishop of Rome taking on the title after the ascension of Constantine, the state lost its direct support from the Church. Odoacer and Ricimer would not have found it so easy to depose or assassinate their respective Emperors if the Emperor himself was also considered one of the untouchable clergy.

    With that being said though, had Christianity not spread to the Germanics to begin with, native Germanic paganism would have made any Roman paganism meaningless, and the fall of the West might have been hastened.
    Last edited by Ecthelion; July 27, 2014 at 12:21 AM.
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    Default Re: Julian the Apostate, the most fascinating "what if" in late Roman history

    Julian really is a fascinating character. He was an extraordinarily able man for his time, and yet may be one of the few men who wore the purple that didn't really want it, at least not at first. Reading about his brief career, you can't help but be impressed at how such a young man could've been raised from obscurity to such military and administrative success, except of course for the ill-fated invasion of Persia. However, live or die, I don't think that ultimately Julian could've changed much. I'm a believer in the 'Zeitgeist', or spirit of the times, and I think that Greco-Roman Paganism had really run its course at this point.

    Ecthelion mentions the Crisis of the Third Century was a big motivator for Christianity catching on. There may be some truth to that, but for the average Illyrian peasant there wasn't much going for him even in the good times. He was born, if he was lucky he reached adult hood, married a village girl, and worked in a field until he died in what we'd probably consider middle age today. The appeal of Christianity, as much as its gentleness, and its charity, was probably the appeal of a worthwhile afterlife that was accessible to anyone no matter your station. The promise of something better.

    Perhaps there was also something in the self sacrifice of the Christian martyrs, men and women who let themselves be nailed to crosses, be burnt alive, or fed to lions all without renouncing their beliefs. It may sound corny to today's nearly agnostic world, but I can only imagine that seeing such men in person would've been a striking impression.

    Perhaps simply the Pagan priests of Julian's day were looked upon much how the priests, or the Catholic church are widely viewed today - corrupt, arrogant, old men. Relics. Christianity was the new thing.

    Ultimately, if Julian had survived to return from Persia he could've been killed a weak later by a conspirator's dagger, or a poison cup. Or he could've died of pneumonia one cold night in Constantinople. In the end he was one man, and for all the status and acclaim we tend to give individuals from that time, you must never forget that even an Emperor can only do so much to affect the lives - and beliefs of tens of millions of people.

    Quote Originally Posted by Ecthelion View Post
    Christianity's greatest blow against the late Empire in the West was unintentional, but fatal none the less. Since the time of Julius Caesar, the title of Pontifex Maximus had always been with the Emperor himself, meaning that Church (or temple rather) and state were unified in the man of the Augustus. But with the bishop of Rome taking on the title after the ascension of Constantine, the state lost its direct support from the Church. Odoacer and Ricimer would not have found it so easy to depose or assassinate their respective Emperors if the Emperor himself was also considered one of the untouchable clergy.
    I have to say, out of all of the arguments I've heard about Christianity contributing to Rome's fall, this is one of the strangest. Emperors were routinely murdered by their guards and their rivals since the time of Caligula, with many fatal entries between him and poor Romulus Augustulus. I've never heard the Emperor's position of Pontifex Maximus ever being a deterrent to would-be assassins. Certainly it didn't help Julius Caesar.

    If you want to argue about Christianity contributing to Rome's Fall, I think there are some things to be said. The replacement of martial values with those of charity, piety, and focus on religion undoubtedly took some of the fighting spirit out of the Roman people. Also consider that the best and brightest men started to go into the clergy, rather than political/military careers, and as a result did not father legitimate children. This was a problem in Europe really up until the last Century. I also know that a late Roman Emperor (Anthemius maybe...) tried to pass laws forbiding the consignment of young, fertile daughters to the nunnery - because families were sending their daughters there rather than marrying them off to risk breaking up the family estate in dowries.

    ---------

    I also want to mention that I've read two books on Julian that (while novels) were very entertaining reads - Julian by Gore Vidal, and Gods and Legions by Michael Curtis Ford.

    Both of these books, however, portray Julian as becoming increasingly unhinged from reality...part paranoia, and part self-absorption in his legacy and importance. Whether these were literary devices to try and explain Julian's seemingly wreckless behavior in the Persian campaigns conduct, or the circumstances around his death, I'm not sure. Does anyone have any interesting information on how true these portrayals might have been?

    Certainly I think they're possible, the stress of being an Emperor, and a good one who really tried could probably get to anyone. And doubtless the Christians around him had plots, and doubtless he overworked himself. In any case, if he was descending into a paranoia, or bi-polar personality then I can only imagine he would've eventually become self destructive and his plans for restoring Paganism would be even more doomed.
    Last edited by Revan The Great; August 30, 2014 at 11:55 PM.

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    Default Re: Julian the Apostate, the most fascinating "what if" in late Roman history

    Whether Christianity is the cause for the fall of the Roman Empire, I rather doubt it.

    It could be a cause.

    Or it might be just symptomatic.

    A society in decline might start to resort to adopting new forms, including religion, if it or it's individual members feel that this is more relevant to their current needs, whether spiritual or otherwise.
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    Default Re: Julian the Apostate, the most fascinating "what if" in late Roman history

    Christianity and Empire were perfectly compatible as the Easter Roman Empire proved by surviving another 1,000 years after the fall of the Western Roman Empire.

    As for Julian succeeding to turn the tide on Christianity, that could have very well happened. The success of Christianity wasn't due to some theological superiority. The overwhelming majority of the Christians had (and have even nowadays) a very vague representation of what their religion actually stood for. Just like the believers of any sizable religion, by the way.

    The "dogma savvy" believers are the majority only in the embryonic stages of a religion, when the said religion is more of a cult.

    The more adepts the religion gets, the harder is to keep all the members at the same level of knowledge. That is because the more people join, the less time per capita is left for the "dogma savvy" ones to indoctrinate the converts. It is just like in schools, where past 20-30 pupils per teacher the quality of education degrades abruptly.

    Also keep in mind most people aren't simply smart enough to understand the theological subtleties of any sophisticated religion.

    So for practical reasons it didn't matter at all that the pagan gods were many and their dogmas sometimes butted heads.

    What did ensure the methodical spread of Christianity was the welfare program. It was the best organized one compared to what all the other competing religions had. Many other gods favored charity, but only the Christians were supposed to engage in welfare redistribution every time they met to pray. For the other gods the "aid" was distributed less frequently and wasn't so tightly linked to indoctrination.

    The Christians first prayed and engaged in theology discussions before handing out food, while most of the pagan aid probably happened like it happens in the non-Abrahamic religions existing nowadays: either the rich sometimes walked the streets distributing food or money or the poor came to the temples to pick up food whenever they felt like it, without any guarantee they would get any.

    It seems that Julian realized the welfare program was Christianity's main competitive advantage and had started to organize the pagan institutions along the same lines. But since he died before his reforms attained the necessary critical mass, nothing much came out of his efforts.
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    Default Re: Julian the Apostate, the most fascinating "what if" in late Roman history

    Quote Originally Posted by Dromikaites View Post
    It seems that Julian realized the welfare program was Christianity's main competitive advantage and had started to organize the pagan institutions along the same lines. But since he died before his reforms attained the necessary critical mass, nothing much came out of his efforts.
    That definitely was a motivation for many to join the religion. However, theologically and ideologically speaking Christianity also had its great appeal. That's precisely why Julian wished to adopt the Neoplatonic ideas of Plotinus about The Transcendent One and promote it as a new state religion.

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    Default Re: Julian the Apostate, the most fascinating "what if" in late Roman history

    2189
    Some people need a spelled out spiritual crutch, which is why there's an upsurge in conversions in Europe.
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    Default Re: Julian the Apostate, the most fascinating "what if" in late Roman history

    Quote Originally Posted by Ecthelion View Post
    Christianity's greatest blow against the late Empire in the West was unintentional, but fatal none the less. Since the time of Julius Caesar, the title of Pontifex Maximus had always been with the Emperor himself, meaning that Church (or temple rather) and state were unified in the man of the Augustus. But with the bishop of Rome taking on the title after the ascension of Constantine, the state lost its direct support from the Church. Odoacer and Ricimer would not have found it so easy to depose or assassinate their respective Emperors if the Emperor himself was also considered one of the untouchable clergy.
    I had never realized this. Very good point. The divinity of the Emperor in a pagan cult didn't prevent assassinations, mainly because the Romans knew that an Emperor was only deified after they were dead.

    But the Christian mindset was very different. A member of the clergy was seen as a messenger of God, not merely a leader of worshipers. Killing the Pontifex Maximus would be like killing the Oracle of Delphi, in one respect. IMHO, that's part of the reason why assassination rates dropped in the "Byzantine" era - because the Emperor was the head of the church. Although, admittedly, there was a greater mindset of killing is wrong that was promoted by Christianity, while the Pagans quite enjoyed their more violent stories. Just look at the kill counts of figures in the Illiad, or by comparison to another culture, Beowulf.

    Also consider that the best and brightest men started to go into the clergy, rather than political/military careers, and as a result did not father legitimate children. This was a problem in Europe really up until the last Century. I also know that a late Roman Emperor (Anthemius maybe...) tried to pass laws forbiding the consignment of young, fertile daughters to the nunnery - because families were sending their daughters there rather than marrying them off to risk breaking up the family estate in dowries.
    This is also very true. I wouldn't argue that Christianity detracted from martial virtue, there were other factors having a much larger effect on that. But the big effect, as you mentioned, was that the best and brightest men were going into clergy careers rather than military or administrative careers.
    Last edited by Magister Militum Flavius Aetius; February 19, 2015 at 07:57 PM.
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    Default Re: Julian the Apostate, the most fascinating "what if" in late Roman history

    Quote Originally Posted by Ecthelion View Post
    I...
    Christianity's greatest blow against the late Empire in the West was unintentional, but fatal none the less. Since the time of Julius Caesar, the title of Pontifex Maximus had always been with the Emperor himself, meaning that Church (or temple rather) and state were unified in the man of the Augustus. But with the bishop of Rome taking on the title after the ascension of Constantine, the state lost its direct support from the Church. Odoacer and Ricimer would not have found it so easy to depose or assassinate their respective Emperors if the Emperor himself was also considered one of the untouchable clergy. ...
    Ricimer cheerfully executed the Bishop of Piacenza. Gratian is the last emperor to take the office of Pontifex Maximus (although he repudiated it later). Leo I was the first pope to taker the title IIRC, and by that time the Western Empire was definitely on the rocks.

    I am really unsure of your point. The church never supported the office of Pontifex Maximus until it was adopted by the pope. The PF was not the head of the pagan religious apparatus, and when the capital began shifting lost importance like so many Roman institutions. I think it was a rusted-on honorific by the time it was suppressed as a pagan office, and was adopted by the pope in an attempt to bolster his status vs the eastern church (Leo was a Petrine supremacist).
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    Default Re: Julian the Apostate, the most fascinating "what if" in late Roman history

    To be quite honest I don't really admire Julian as much as I used to. For starters, the anti-clerical fever of my youth generally cooled down. Not to say I'm becoming a bible thumper, just that I've come to accept the role and value of religion in the structure of society. Christianity, for all its flaws, presented a more organized system of beliefs than the haphazard assortment of polytheistic and pagan beliefs which often held little universal appeal outside of a specific ethnic group. Perhaps instead of trying to forcibly fight its spread, it would have been more prudent to preserve ancient learning and culture within the framework of a newly emerging Christian social order.

    But even so, Julian did a number of very questionable acts. His behavior in Antioch doesn't inspire much admiration, and many of his attempts to intervene in social and religious affairs were ill thought out, and had disastrous consequences. For instance his tendency to force an outcome by short changing one side ended up harming the other as well, which caused both pagans and Christians to despise him. While not a cruel leader, he was certainly ego driven and shortsighted, sick with a crave for glory later in life, repeating the career of Crassus instead as he wanted, Alexander's. The incursion into Mesopotamia was nothing but sheer madness at a time when the Empire needed crucial internal re-structuring and reform. He was a tragically heroic figure with many great qualities, but unfortunately, a third rate politician and statesman. Rome needed a cold, calculating practical mind capable of putting aside prejudices and adopt to the realities of a changing period. It needed someone who above all else, re-built the foundations of a functioning state. In Roman history the perfect example of such a man was Augustus. This Julian wasn't.
    Last edited by Carl Jung was right; May 29, 2015 at 08:23 PM.

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