Adrian Murdoch’s The Last Pagan: Julian the Apostate and the Death of the Ancient World is — finally! — available in an affordable U.S. edition. To celebrate, I’m re-running my review of that book and Murdoch’s more recent biography, The Last Roman: Romulus Augustulus and the Decline of the West.
Julian, known as “the Apostate” (who ruled from 361–363), was arguably the last Roman emperor to cling to Rome’s classical heritage. Romulus Augustulus (475–476) was simply the last Roman emperor. The Scottish historian Adrian Murdoch’s two most recent books, The Last Pagan and The Last Roman, examine these two very different emperors, both of whom ruled after Christianity’s “triumph.”
A fellow of the British Royal Historical Society, Murdoch is also a prominent journalist, covering international affairs and economics in the mainstream press, so he brings to his books the depth of a professional historian and the readability of a newspaper’s front page. His books are not confessionally Christian histories—not in the least—but neither are they the hatchet jobs Christians have come to expect from secular historians in recent centuries.
A Puny Rome
Hollywood has just released its own version of the story of Romulus, The Last Legion, so perhaps it is best to begin with a discussion of The Last Roman.
Barely pubescent, Romulus ruled for only ten months as a mouthpiece for his father, a power-brokering general in the Roman army. The child-emperor, easily removed by a barbarian warlord, is an apt image of the empire at its end. Even his nickname—Augustulus, “little Augustus”—suggests the puniness of fifth-century Rome compared to its first-century glory.
Murdoch traces Romulus’s movements through the rest of his probably long life. The former emperor seems to have retired to a monastery well stocked with books, ending his life as “an old man in a library in Campania, corresponding with leading intellectuals of the day, his early life and elevation to power becoming an increasingly indistinct memory.”
Since so little is known about Romulus, Murdoch must sketch his life in chiaroscuro, finding the boy’s life, and then the man’s, in the shadows of the barbarian conquerors Odovacer and Theoderic. And the shadows are dark indeed. Against recent historians who argue that the transition from Roman to barbarian rule went fairly smoothly for common folk, Murdoch counters that it was close to catastrophic, beginning with pillage and ending in lawlessness.
Murdoch is at his best when describing battles, raids, campaigns, and diplomatic missions. Religion he declares beyond the scope of his study, though he does touch lightly on the differences between the Arian barbarians and the Catholic Romans, and how these played out in the decades after the fall. Along the way he tells the tragic story of Boethius, the most famous victim of Theoderic’s growing suspicion of Nicene Christians.
All the ancient voices in this book sound human, a rare quality attributable to Murdoch’s ease with ancient languages and his ability to turn a phrase in English. He manages even to replicate wordplay: “Cattily, the poet Martial wrote that women would arrive in the region as a Penelope, the famously chaste wife of Odysseus, and leave a Helen, the much chased wife of Menelaus.”
The Potent Apostate
The Last Roman is an important book for its development of the symbol of Rome’s fall in the boy-emperor Romulus. But the more potent book by far is the biography of the more potent ruler, Julian, The Last Pagan.
Though he ruled for less than three years, Julian looms colossal in memory and imagination. He was born in 331 (or 332) into a brutal family and a bloody business. His father was Emperor Constantine’s half-brother. Murdoch notes that, after Diocletian’s retirement in 305, “Julian’s family spent a great deal of the next fifty years developing ingenious ways to kill each other.” The motive was usually intrigue, plots for accession, or just the suspicion bred by such an atmosphere.
In 326, one year after the Council of Nicaea, Constantine ordered the execution of his wife and eldest son. The three remaining sons succeeded their father in 337 and rather quickly dispatched almost all their male relatives. Two young boys were spared, five-year-old Julian and his teenage brother Gallus. Julian was too young to be a threat and Gallus too sickly.
Though Julian continued to live the privileged life of the imperial family, he kept the memory of that purge, whose victims included his own father. The imperial family was officially Christian by this time, and the hypocrisy was not lost on Julian, who was himself raised a Christian, and was a schoolmate of St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory Nazianzen. His cousin the emperor Constantius, the murderer of his family, professed the doctrine of Jesus Christ.
Julian learned to keep his thoughts to himself. Constantius was his patron, and alienation from him meant certain death. Julian studied philosophy and rhetoric at Athens and secretly investigated the “old religion,” the pagan mysteries. Though he kept up his exterior practice of Christianity, his mind and heart belonged to the old gods.
Appointed to leadership in the military, he rose rapidly with some stunning campaigns in the western provinces and barbarian lands. He gained a reputation for toughness; for, unlike other generals, he shared the hardships of his troops and rewarded them handsomely. All this made for tenacious loyalty. Not surprisingly, in 360 they declared him emperor.
Julian’s Mirror Image
Julian began his march toward Byzantium to confront Constantius. But Constantius died in 361, before their forces could meet.
Then began the reign that gave Julian his place in history. Murdoch notes that Julian did some things extremely well—tax reform, for example, and military leadership. But no one remembers Julian as a tax reformer or even much as a general.
He is remembered as “the Apostate,” and Murdoch gives a fascinating analysis of his religious ideas and practical reforms. He made vast sums available to restore temples that had fallen into disrepair over a generation of Christian hegemony. He promoted pagans to prominent positions in the capital and boosted the wages of the pagan priesthoods.
He tried, at least in the beginning, to include Christians in his dawning era of toleration, but the Church’s big names were wary. Pagan restoration became the keynote of Julian’s rule.
Yet, as Murdoch makes clear, Julian’s paganism was not really the old religion. It was, rather, a mirror image of Christianity. It was an anti-Church, a reactionary project.
Julian himself recognized Christianity’s influence on his ideas. You can take the emperor out of the Church, but you can’t take the Church out of the emperor. Murdoch says: “Julian’s attempts at creating a pagan doctrine betray his Christian upbringing. . . . By the very fact of his early education, he was already, as he would have put it, polluted.”
Whereas the old religion had been a riot of gods, cults, and feasts, Julian strove, in a very Roman way, to impose unity and uniformity on worldwide polytheism. It was the religious equivalent of herding cats.
In Julian’s schema, the emperor himself served as a sort of pope over a hierarchy that mirrored the Catholic structure of metropolitans, bishops, and priests. He set up pagan philanthropies in imitation of Catholic charities. He urged his clergy to lead lives of virtue and preach philosophy to the people. Julian himself had chosen to lead a celibate life after the death of his wife. As Murdoch puts it: “He wanted the pagans to out-Christian the Christians.”
Julian’s Coming Out
His pagan “coming out” climaxed during an extended stay in Syrian Antioch, a city of a half-million people situated en route to the battlegrounds where he would meet the Persians.
While in Antioch, he renewed the pagan practices, though he was hardly satisfied with the priests’ performance and showed himself to be as prissy and uptight as the most over-educated diocesan liturgist. And if the pagans were tepid in their response to Julian, the Christians were downright contemptuous. Murdoch does not miss the irony of a pagan prig enraged by his encounter with a city full of Christian sensualists.
Julian’s experience in Antioch led to harsher strictures on Christians. He banned believers from teaching grammar, rhetoric, and philosophy. This, says Murdoch, was Julian’s “master stroke.” Banished from the public square, Christianity could be minimized as a cultural force. He “had marginalised Christianity to the point where it could potentially have vanished within a generation or two, and without the need for physical coercion.”
It was not to last, however. As Julian shook the dust of Antioch from his feet, he marched his troops to their devastating defeat at the hands of Shapur II of Persia. Murdoch is superb in his systematic yet suspenseful narrative of that miserable campaign.
On that battlefield at the Persian frontier, Julian fell, and with him the eastern empire began to crumble. Some (Christian) histories portray the emperor struck by a spear and crying out, “Thou hast won, O Galilean!”
Yet Julian the Apostate lives in our collective memory. For some, he is the archetype of the ideological dictator, the bloodless wonk whose ideas justify his bloodletting. For others, he is a romantic anti-hero—the rebel against the inevitable.
He survives in spite of his utter lack of the qualities that make Nero and Caligula—and even Constantine—perennial subjects of potboiler novels and gory flicks. In contrast to other emperors, Murdoch says, Julian’s story usually bogs down with “an excess of philosophy and too little sex.” To Murdoch’s credit, the story never bogs down in his telling.
For Murdoch, Julian’s death was—like the deposition of Romulus—a critical moment in the fall of the empire: “To all intents and purposes we can say that paganism died as a credible political and social force in the last days of June 363.”
In ends such as these, Christians found their beginnings.