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JULIAN: Emperor religious philosopher

Coin of Giuliano Imperatore

The emperor Julian lived 32 years and reigned for less than three.

The historical sources are essentially constituted by:

- Ammianus Marcellinus (335-about 400), official of Julian during the campaign of Persia. The Antiochean Ammianus wrote "The histories", a continuation of the work of Tacitus. Near to the political and religious ideal of the pagan aristocracy of Rome, he was not contrary to Julian, but he expressed his dissent over some provisions, comprised the famous edict on the teaching of rhetoric.

- The Antiochean philosopher Libanius (?-393) author of discourses and letters that constitute the greater source of information on the oriental part of the Roman empire in the IV century. He was friend of Julian.

- The father of the Church Gregory of Nazianzus (330-389), classmate of Julian in Athens. Many of his discourses, letters and an autobiography are still consultable.

Julian, emperor philosopher, wrote letters and studies that constitute a good source to know his thought.

Salustius, who was collaborator of Julian, wrote an treatise of philosophy of the religion entitled De diis et mundo, a text that gathers the opinion of the pagans of the IV century on religion.

For information on the behavior of the Christian emperors toward the paganism we refer to: Edicts of Theodosius and Arbogast.

For information on the dynasty of Constantine we refer to Constantinian Dynasty.

To have an example of the legislation of Constantine we refer to Edicts of Constantine on the abducted women.

Place: Roman Empire

Epoch: 332-363 AD

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The origins

Flavius Claudius Julianus was born in 332 in Constantinople.

His father was Julius Constantius stepbrother of the emperor Constantine. Julius Constantius and his brother Dalmatius were sons of Constantius Chlorus, prefect of the Praetorium of Maximianus, the August of the west Empire, and of Flavia Maxima Theodora, the daughter of Maximianus. On the contrary Constantine was the son of Constantius Chlorus and of Helen, daughter of the owners of a station of change. Helen had been repudiated when Constantine had decided to marry Theodora.

In 288 Constantius Chlorus became prefect of the Praetorium of Maximianus. In 293 he was named Caesar by Diocletianus. In 305 he became August after the resignations of Maximianus. He died in 306 at Eboracum (today's York) in Britain.

The mother of Julian, Basilina, was the daughter of Julius Julianus, prefect of the Praetorium of emperor Licinius who governed from 308 to 324. Basilina was the second wife of Julius Constantius. She died few months after the birth of Julian.

At the death of Constantine I, on 22 May 337, his sons Constantine II, Constantius II and Costans became emperors. Immediately they started the massacre of the relatives descending by Theodora. Their cousins Dalmatius the Youth and Annibalianus, sons of Dalmatius, were put to death. Also their uncles Dalmatius and Julius Constans were killed. Only their cousins Julian and Gallus got safe, because of their young age.

At Nicomedia

In 337 Julian, a five year-old baby, was sent to exile to Nicomedia, in Anatolia, and was left to the bishop Eusebius (?-342). At Nicomedia Julian knew Mardonius, of Goth origin, who had been guardian of his mother Basilina. Mardonius was a Christian who loved the classical literature.

In Cappadocia

In 342 Julian, a ten year-old boy, was sent to Macellum, a place in the mountains of Cappadocia, under the control of George, bishop of Cesarea, who had a rich library with the works of Neoplatonic philosophers. Also his brother Gallus was sent to Macellum.

At Constantinople

In 348 the exile ended. Gallus was named Caesar of the East Empire. Julian, sixteen years old, could move to Constantinople to continue his studies with Nicolas, a pagan and Hecebolius, a Christian who adhered to paganism, but at the death of Julian he preferred to return to the Christianity.

In Neoplatonic circles

But the behavior of Julian allowed suspects and he was sent to exile to Nicomedia, where the Neoplatonic philosopher Libanius was teaching. Hecebolius uselessly tried to prohibit the study of philosophy to Julian.

Julian moved to Pergamum to study with the philosopher Aedesius, the successor of Iamblichus at the head of the Neoplatonic school. He made Eusebius and Chrysanthius's acquaintance, students of Aedesius. Afterwards he went to Ephesus to study with the philosopher and theurgist Maximus, who initiated him to the mysteries of the god Mithra.

Julian started to receive philosophers and poets in his villa in Bithynia, inherited by his maternal grandmother. His behavior again became suspect and the bishop Aetius was sent to check the situation.

The death of Gallus

In 354 Gallus was accused of conspiracy and was executed in Milan in November of the same year.

At Como

The emperor Constantius II also suspected of Julian, 22 years old, who was imprisoned in Como. Freed for intervention of the empress Eusebia, he was arrested again under the accusation of plot with Silvanus, commander of Gallia.

To Athens

Freed again for intervention of Eusebia he was confined to Athens, where he arrived in the summer of 355. He was welcomed in philosopher Priscus's house. He listened to the Christian Proaresius and the pagan Imerius. He had as fellow student Gregory of Nazianzus, future bishop.


In the autumn of 355 Eusebia convinced Constantius II to confer to Julian the title of Caesar (November 6th 355) to intervene in Gallia, submitted to frequent attacks by the Alamanni, who had invaded part of the territory.

Constantius gave in wife to Julian his sister Helen.

In Gallia

In Gallia Julian could bring only four collaborators with him, among whom the medical Oribasius, who wrote an Encyclopedia of Medicine. All the other companions were spies of Costantius II.

In 356 Marcellus, the military commander of Gallia faithful to Constantius, began the campaign for the recapture of Cologne informing Julian only after the troops had set off.

Julian, with few hundred cavalrymen, attacked and won the Germans near Augustodunum (today's Autun). Then Marcellus granted to Julian to become part of his command.

During the siege of Senonae (today's Sens) Julian succeeded in rejecting the assault of the Germans, although he was in serious numerical inferiority. Marcellus was nearby, but he didn't intervene, perhaps hoping that Julian was defeated. The missed intervention cost him the place. He was replaced by Severus.

In 357 Julian defeated at Argentoratum (today's Strasbourg) the Alamanni. The Roman army was composed only by 13.000 men. The Alamanni were many thousands. At the end of the battle the hostile army was destroyed and the king of the Alamanni had been made prisoner. Gallia could finally live in peace.

Between 358 and 360 Julian lived at Lutetia Parisiorum (today's Paris) interesting himself of the administration of the country. He reduced the taxes, despite the protests of the prefect of the praetorium Florentius. He pursued the corruption of the imperial officials.

In the government of Gallia Julian had a precious collaborator in Saturninius Secondus Salutius, of Gallic origin, by many identified with the Salustius author of the essay "On the gods and on the world".


In January of 360 arrived the order, emanated by Constantius, to transfer half of the armies, that were at protection of the border with Germans, in Syria to begin the campaign against the Persians. The troops refused to obey and proclaimed Julian Augustus Emperor.

They began some negotiations that lasted many months. In this period Eusebia died. The Alamanni crossed the Rhine, were defeated and their king was captured. He revealed that it had been Constantius to incite him to attack Gallia.

Then Julian began a march toward Constantinople with 3.000 men. He defeated Lucilianus and entered as a triumpher to Sirmius (today's Sremska Mitrovica). He reached Naissus (today's Nis), the city of Constantine. He occupied the Pass of Succi to block the way toward Constantinople. He sent letters to Rome, Athens and Corinth to get their support. It was about to begin the civil war.

But on November 5 Constantius II died of illness at Mopsucrenae, near Tarsus in Cilicia. On the deathbed he named his heir right Julian, the last relative remained.

On December 11 360 Julian entered Constantinople. He was 28 years old.

The trials

A special court was constituted for judging those people who had committed crimes during the kingdom of Constantius. Saturninius Salutius was called to be at the head of it. But the meddling general Arbizione revealed himself the most powerful man. The trials finished in January of 362.

Few were the death sentences: Apodemius, Paulus and minister Eusebius. The prefect of the praetorium Florentius was condemned in absentia. The conviction of Ursulus, an officer in charge of the cash and disliked by the troop, was contested by many. Gaudentius, ancient opponent of Julian and Artemius, ex governor of Egypt guilty of serious crimes were also sentenced to death.

Reforms of the court

Every luxury was eliminated by the imperial court. Great part of the personnel was dismissed. Julian remained with 17 collaborators.

He reduced the guard.

The personnel in charge of the secret police was also reduced.

Shows were banished at court, except for New Year's Day. Julian loved neither the theater nor the games of the circus.

Consuls and senate

He named consuls for the year 362 Mamertinus and Nevitta.

Having, by mistake, performed a consular function, he inflicted to himself a fine of 10 gold pounds.

He gave back many powers to the Senate of Constantinople.

Autonomy to the cities

Julian issued an edict to return civil and religious power to the cities.

The lands that State and Church had stolen were returned to the city authorities.

The privilege of the Christian clergy, who was exempted to contribute to the management of the cities, was eliminated.

Free transports

He reduced the right to benefit from some free service of transport of state. The bishops stopped traveling at the expenses of the contributors.


Julian established that the taxes had not to be receive with force, but it would be necessary to submit to the good wish of citizens.

He prescribed an extension of outstanding taxes.

He established that the tax collectors every five years would have had one year of exemption from the job. In such way they could have been tried for their possible embezzlements. The guilty ones of peculation would have been submitted to torture.

Freedom of religion

With the edict of February 4 th 362 the freedom of religion was proclaimed, denied by the previous Christian emperors (particularly the edicts of 353 and 356) and that would also have been denied by the following Christian emperors up to the declaration of the Christianity as religion of state made by Theodosius and to the definitive suppression of the paganism after the battle on the Frigidus river. There will pass more than thousand years before people return to speak of freedom of religion in the West.

Toward the pagans

Julian called to collaborate his Neo-platonic teachers Maximus and Priscus.

Salustius wrote an essay of philosophy of the religion: De diis et mundo.

The pagan temples were reopened. The properties forfeited by the Christian emperorswere returned to them.

Benefits were granted for the reconstruction of the destroyed temples.

Pagan monasteries and a pagan clergy were constituted.

Julian stated the right readings for the clergy: Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, the school of Crisippus and Zeno.

He did not recommend indecent poets as Archilochos and Hipponax, the ancient comedy, the erotic writers, the works of Epikuros and Pyrrhon.

The two lists coincide with those of Basilius, Christian bishop of Caesarea of Cappadocia.

Toward the Christians

He exhorted the Christians to stop their internal discords. He allowed the reentry of those people who had been declared heretics and forced to the exile.

The subsidies granted to the Christian churches were eliminated.

He forced those people who had destroyed a church belonging to an opposing sect to reconstruct it at their own expenses.

On 17 June of 362 an edict (Codex Theodosianus, XIII, 3, 5) prohibited to the Christian teachers to teach the rhetoric.

The rhetoric made part of the classical tradition and Julian held ethically unacceptable to publicize values to which he didn't stick.

"Magistros studiorum doctoresque excellere oportet moribus primum, deinde facundia". "The teachers in the studies and the doctors are needed to excel first in the customs and then in the eloquence".

"I think that it is absurd that those people who have to comment the classical authors despise the gods by them honored".

Libanius writes: "He held in fact that the letters and the cult of gods were as brothers".

This was the only action of Julian that limited somehow the liberty of the Christians.

After the death of Julian, the Christians took possession of classical literature, but they separated the letter from the spirit, the rhetorical discourse from the way of living, the form from the human and religious content.

Toward the Hebrews

He began the reconstruction of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem.

Christians and pagans

Sporadically local episodes of violence happened between Christians and pagans.

At Alexandria the Aryan bishop George, at the news of the sentence of Arthemius with whom he had tightly collaborated, was killed by the crowd both for political that religious reasons. Julian addressed a letter of blame to the Alexandrines.

At Arethusa, in Phoenicia, the Christian bishop Mark destroyed a pagan temple and inflicted many damages to the pagans. Julian condemned him to reconstruct the temple. The bishop refused and he was pursued by the crowd.

Against the cynics

Against the cynical philosophers who, even though belonging to the same pagan environment of Julian, had criticized his politics he wrote a treatise.

At Antiochia

Julian went to Antiochia to organize the expedition against the Persians.

He knew that the god Apollo, in his temple of Daphne, didn't pronounce prophecies anymore since when Gallus had built the Christian church of S. Babylas in front of the temple. He ordered that the remains of Babylas were removed from the church. The Christians organized a demonstration. The demonstrators were arrested and shortly after released.

But on 22 October of 362 the temple of Apollo was set on fire. It was never proved that they had been the Christians. No persecution was started against the Christians.

The campaign of Persia

Julian inherited a state of hostility with Persia. Constantius II had lost a lot of fortresses and had died while he was preparing a new war.

Julian took back the ancient ideal of Alexander the Great: the union of the West with the East.

On 5 March of 363 the army of Julian left Antiochia bound for the Euphrates. Another army with 30.000 men, commanded by Procopius, was sent in the direction of the Tigris. Unfortunately the two armies will never meet.

On March 27 Julian reached Callinicus where he met the fleet coming from Samosata.

On April 1 he went beyond the Euphrates and cut the bridge. Then through an artificial channel he passed the fleet from the Euphrates to the Tigris.

On May 29 Julian inflicted an awful defeat to the Persians near Ctesiphon, their capital.

In a council of war it was decided not to besiege Ctesiphon and to aim to a field battle with Sapor, king of the Persians, going towards the hostile army. The ships were set on fire.

The Persians set on fire the harvests to starve the Roman army. They began also to make rapid raids to disturb the advance of the Romans.

Julian was forced to go up again the Tigris. The advance was turning into a retreat.

At Manrosa the Romans defeated again the Persians. But the supply was scarce.

The death

On June 26, toward midday, the Roman army in march was attacked by the Persians.

Julian went out in the open to fight in the middle of his soldiers. In the hurry he didn't put the cuirass. The Persians were put to flight. Julian dashed off in pursuit.

Suddenly he was stricken by a lance to the liver. Brought in his tent he was assisted in his last hours by the philosophers Maximus and Priscus with whom he entertained in noble and elevated conversations. In the night Julian serenely died.

His body was brought to Tarsus where he was burnt and buried in front of emperor Maximinus Daia's grave. According to Libanius he was buried in Athens close to Plato.

The assassin of Julian

The name of the assassin of Julian has never been identified.

The Persians didn't give any reward to anyone of their soldiers for the killing of the hostile emperor.

The ecclesiastical historian Philostorgius affirms that it was a Saracen who fought beside the Persians.

The bishop Gregory of Nazianzus doesn't exclude the possibility that it could be a Roman soldier.

The philosopher Libanius asks himself if it has not been a Christian lance.

Actuality of Julian

The emperor Julian is today still object of hard debates, as it is testified by an article appeared on a Catholic daily paper on the occasion of the exit of a new edition of the essay of Salustius"On the gods and on the world". We refer to SWIF - Site Italian Web for the Philosophy.


Bibliographical references:

Antichità classica

Ammiano Marcellino

Le storie

Brown P.

Il mondo tardo antico

Cameron A.

Il tardo Impero Romano
Il Mulino

Gibbon E.

Declino e caduta dell'Impero Romano

Marcone A.

Costantino il Grande

Marcone A.

Giuliano l'Apostata
Giunti - Lisciani


Sugli dei e il mondo


Internet references:

Internet ancient history sourcebook

The Emperor Julian

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

The Julian Society