religion in the thought and action of Julian the Apostate by Rowland Smith, Routledge, 1995 ISBN 0 415 03487 6
reviewed by Gregory White
University College Dublin
This was an interesting and informative, but sometimes difficult book. As the title suggests, it deals with the religious views of the emperor Julian, as expressed both in his writings and in his religious policy. The difficulty for me stemmed from the sections (notably in chapters 4, 5 and 6) which deal with Julian's interest in Neoplatonism. Fortunately, the book deals with more than Julian's philosophical interests. Indeed, the main theme of the work is that Julian was much more in tune with the polytheism of his pagan contemporaries than has sometimes been supposed.
Smith's Julian is less an isolated philosopher-fanatic than an emperor with philosophical interests and a love for Greek culture and Greek religion, for whom the link between these two is inseparable. According to Smith's reading of Against the Galilaeans, for example, Julian's arguments against Christianity are cultural rather than philosophical, and stem from his conviction of the superiority of the origins of Greco-Roman culture to those of Christianity. His opposition to the alleged contamination of Hellenism by Christianity was the inspiration behind the infamous edict banning Christians from teaching classical literature.
Smith acquits Julian of having been a persecutor in the violent sense; he insists that the incidents that took place during his reign were the result of individual cities. This is being perhaps too lenient; Julian was certainly no Diocletian, but the venom of some of his pronouncements cannot but have contributed to the emotional climate that led to these regrettable incidents. After all, there must be some truth behind the horrors described by Gregory of Nazianzus, who is describing recent events.
It is significant that the majority of these violent incidents were sparked off by the damage or desecration by certain Christians of pagan temples or cult images. Julian's concern for the temples and images of the gods shows the importance of tradition in his plans for the restoration of paganism. While Smith allows that Julian's Neoplatonism led to monotheistic or henotheistic themes in his philosophic writings, he disputes the suggestion that this made Julian's brand of paganism unattractive to the majority of pagans, and denies that Julian may have been closer to Christianity than he perhaps realised. Julian's interest in theurgy, which has contributed to assessments of the emperor as a fanatic, is relegated to his private religious life; according to Smith, its public role has been exaggerated.
We are also reminded that an interest in Neoplatonism and in theurgy was not as rare as one might think. Smith quotes the response of an oracle of Apollo at the beginning of the 3rd century, which, due to the philosophical nature of its language, was mistaken at one time for a fragment of the Chaldaean oracles. In fact the oracle was answering the community of the city of Oenoanda. Julian's interest in the nature of divinity was by no means unique. The same is considered true of his interest in mystery religions. Smith comments that they were in no way incompatible with established paganism. The ceremonies at Eleusis, for example, were at least partly of a public nature. Likewise, although Julian's interest in the cult of Cybele was to a large extent inspired by the association of the goddess with theurgy, the cult itself had been an important part of established pagan practice. Mithraism was different in that it was a private cult. Despite the numbers of its adherents it was not integrated into traditional religion. Smith allows that Julian was an initiate of Mithraism, but not that it played an important role in his reign.
Julian's concern for philanthropia is also attributed to his respect for tradition. Smith stresses that this concept had a distinguished classical pedigree. Indeed, some of Julian's fellow Neoplatonists left their ivory towers and distinguished themselves by their concern for the affairs of both city and empire. Julian was certainly not unaware of Christian charitable activity, and strongly wished that paganism would surpass Christianity in this regard. Nevertheless, his inspiration also stemmed from concepts of philanthropia in classical philosophy and from the public expenditure that was an inseparable part of civic life.
Perhaps Smith minimises the extent to which Julian was influenced by Christianity. Some degree of influence was certainly not unusual for a cultivated pagan of the period. The fact that pagans and Christians shared a sizeable common ground puts some of Julian's debt to Christianity in perspective. Smith is right to show that Julian's efforts were capable of winning more support than has sometimes been suggested. Certainly, a moderate pagan such as Ammianus (writing, we must remember, under an increasingly Christian empire),criticises some of Julian's excesses. These excesses were shared by many other pagans.
I would not recommend this book as an introduction to Julian. Large sections are not easy reading for those, such as myself, uninitiated in the subtleties of Neoplatonism. Nevertheless, Smith's main point is both clear and relevant: Julian's efforts were by no means doomed to failure, because they struck a sympathetic chord with many of his subjects.