Behind the Times: The Life of Julian the Apostate
By Cameron Cross
Published Online (2002)
Introduction: One of the most legendary figures in the history of the late Roman Empire is that of Julian the Apostate. Although he died in his early thirties and was Emperor for a scant year and a half, his life enjoys a documentation rivaling that of other historical celebrities such as Diocletian, Constantine, and Theodosius the Great. It was neither the length nor the quality of his reign that kept him in the history books, but, as his sobriquet implies, his unorthodox religiosity. Following his agitated passage through life reveals an emperor unlike any other in the Roman Empire: Julian was not a soldier, nor a magistrate, but a philosopher, versed in the mysteries of Neoplatonism. As he became Emperor, his loyal devotion to Hellenism, coupled with his personal stubbornness and arrogance, degraded into megalomania and led him to the valleys of Ctesiphon, where he met his death in June of 363. His unique lifestyle and mystical personality was both the source of his notoriety and the cause of his downfall.
Fame cannot exist without an audience, however, and Julian’s external environment was volatile with political turmoil, court intrigue, and philosophical feuds. Born into this world of shifting alliances, Julian had a unique childhood and education that dramatically shaped every aspect of his later reign. The political circumstances that killed his family and drove him into exile as a boy must therefore be carefully examined as a major shaping influence on his future career. His subsequent devotion to philosophy was a result of this exile, and the impact that it had on his life is equally considerable. For this reason, no analysis of his life would be complete without a study of those philosophers and mystics whom he admired and sought to emulate later in his life.