Vol. 3, Chapter I (Cont’d) – Julian the Apostate, and the Reaction of Paganism. a.d. 361-363



These agree in all the principal facts, even to unimportant details, but differ entirely in spirit and in judgment; Julian himself exhibiting the vanity of self-praise, Libanius and Zosimus the extreme of passionate admiration, Gregory and Cyril the opposite extreme of hatred and abhorrence, Ammianus Marcellinus a mixture of praise and censure.


1. Heathen Sources

Juliani imperatoris Opera, quae supersunt omnia, ed. by Petavius, Par. 1583; and more completely by Ezech. Spanhemius, Lips. 1696, 2 vols. fol. in one (Spanheim gives the Greek original with a good Latin version, and the Ten Books of Cyril of Alex. against Julian). We have from Julian: Misopogon (Μισοπώγον, the Beard-hater, a defence of himself against the accusations of the Antiochians); Caesares (two satires on his predecessors); eight Orationes; sixty-five Epistolae (the latter separately and most completely edited, with shorter fragments, by Heyler, Mog. 1828); and Fragments of his three or seven Books κατὰ Χριστιανῶν in the Reply of Cyril. Libanius: Ἐπιτάφιος ἐπ ̓ Ἰουλιανῷ, in Lib. Opp. ed. Reiske, Altenb. 1791-97. 4 vols. Mamertinus: Gratiarum actio Juliano. The relevant passages in the heathen historians Ammianus Marcellinus (l.c. lib. xxi-xxv. 3), Zosimus and Eunapius.

Juliani imperatoris Librorum contra Christianos quae supersunt. Collegit, recensuit, prolegomenis instruxit Car. Joa. Neumann. Insunt Cyrilli Alexandrini fragmenta syriaca ab Eberh. Nestle edita. Lips., 1880. Kaiser Julian’s Bücher gegen die Christen. Nach ihrer Wiederherstellung übersetzt von Karl Joh. Neumann. Leipzig, 1880. 53 pages. This is Fasc. iii. of Scriptorum Graecorum qui Christianam impugnaverunt religionem quae supersunt, ed. by Neumann.


2. Christian Sources (All in Greek)

The early church historians, Socrates (l. iii.), Sozomen (I. v. and vi.), Theodoret (I. iii.). Gregory Naz.: Orationes invectivae in Jul. duae, written some six months after the death of Julian (Opp. tom. i.). Cyril of Alex.: Contra impium Jul. libri x. (in the Opp. Cyr., ed. J. Aubert, Par. 1638, tom. vi., and in Spanheim’s ed. of the works of Julian).



Tillemont: Memoires, etc., vol. vii. p. 322-423 (Venice ed.), and Histoire des empereurs Rom. Par. 1690 sqq., vol. iv. 483-576. Abbé De la Bleterie: Vie de l’empereur Julien. Amst. 1735. 2 vols. The same in English, Lond. 1746. W. Warburton: Julian. Lond. 3d ed. 1763. Nath. Lardner: Works, ed. Dr. Kippis, vol. vii. p. 581 sqq. Gibbon: l.c. ch. xxii.-xxiv., particularly xxiii. Neander: Julian u. sein Zeitalter. Leipz. 1812 (his first historical production), and Allg. K. G., iii. (2d ed. 1846), p. 76-148. English ed. Torrey, ii. 37-67. Jondot (R.C.): Histoire de l’empereur Julien. 1817, 2 vols. C. H. Van Herwerden: De Juliano imper. religionis Christ. hoste, eodemque vindice. Lugd. Bat. 1827. G. F. Wiggers: Jul. der Abtrünnige. Leipz. 1837 (in Illgen’s Zeitschr. f. Hist. Theol.). H. Schulze: De philos. et moribus Jul. Strals. 1839. D. Fr. Strauss (author of the mythological “Leben Jesu”): Der Romantiker auf dem Thron der Caesaren, oder Julian der Abtr. Manh. 1847 (containing a clear survey of the various opinions concerning Julian from Libanius and Gregory to Gibbon, Schlosser, Neander, and Ullmann, but hiding a political aim against King Frederick William IV. of Prussia). J. E. Auer (R.C.): Kaiser Jul. der Abtr. im Kampf mit den Kirchenvätern seiner Zeit. Wien, 1855. W. Mangold: Jul. der Abtr. Stuttg. 1862. C. Semisch: Jul. der Abtr. Bresl. 1862. F. Lübker: Julians Kampf u. Ende. Hamb. 1864.

Alb. De Broglie (R.C.), in the third and fourth vols. of his L’église et l’empire romain au quatrième siécle. Par., 4th ed., 1868. (Very full.) J. F. A. Mücke: Flavius Claudius Julianus. Nach den Quellen. Gotha, 1867 and 1869. 2 vols. (Full, painstaking, prolix, too much dependent on Ammianus, and partial to Julian.) Kellerbaum: Skizze der Vorgeschichte Julians, 1877. F. Rode: Gesch. der Reaction des Kaiser Julianus gegen die christl. Kirche. Jens, 1877. (Careful, partly against Teuffel and Mücke.) H. Adrien Naville: Julien l’apostate et sa philosophie du polythéisme. Paris and Neuchatel, 1877. Comp. his art. in Lichtenbergers “Encyclop.,” vii. 519-525. Torquati: Studii storico-critici sulla vita … di Giuliano l’Apostata. Rom., 1878. G. H. Rendall: The Emperor Julian: Paganism and Christianity. Lond., 1879. J. G. E. Hoffmann: Jul. der Abtrünnige, Syrische Erzählungen. Leiden, 1880. (Old romances reflecting the feelings of the Eastern Christians.) Comp. also art. on Jul. in the “Encycl. Brit.,” 9th ed., vol. xiii. 768-770 (by Kirkup); in Herzog2, vii. 285-296 (by Harnack); in Smith and Wace, iii. 484-524 (by Prebendary John Wordsworth, very full and fair). Julian The Emperor, containing Gregory Nazianzen’s Two Invectives, and Libanius’ Monody, with Julian’s extant Theosophical Works. Translated by C. W. King, M. A. London, 1888. With notes and archeological illustrations (pp. 288).


Julian the Apostate

Notwithstanding this great conversion of the government and of public sentiment, the pagan religion still had many adherents, and retained an important influence through habit and superstition over the rude peasantry, and through literature and learned schools of philosophy and rhetoric at Alexandria, Athens, etc., over the educated classes. And now, under the lead of one of the most talented, energetic, and notable Roman emperors, it once more made a systematic and vigorous effort to recover its ascendency in the Roman empire. But in the entire failure of this effort heathenism itself gave the strongest proof that it had outlived itself forever. It now became evident during the brief, but interesting and instructive episode of Julian’s reign, that the policy of Constantine was entirely judicious and consistent with the course of history itself, and that Christianity really carried all the moral vigor of the present and all the hopes of the future. At the same time this temporary persecution was a just punishment and wholesome discipline for a secularized church and clergy.

Julian, surnamed the Apostate (Apostata), a nephew of Constantine the Great and cousin of Constantius, was born in the year 331, and was therefore only six years old when his uncle died. The general slaughter of his kindred, not excepting his father, at the change of the throne, could beget neither love for Constantius nor respect for his court Christianity. He afterwards ascribed his escape to the special favor of the old gods. He was systematically spoiled by false education and made the enemy of that very religion which pedantic teachers attempted to force upon his free and independent mind, and which they so poorly recommended by their lives. We have a striking parallel in more recent history in the case of Frederick the Great of Prussia. Julian was jealously watched by the emperor, and kept in rural retirement almost like a prisoner. With his step-brother Gallus, he received a nominally Christian training under the direction of the Arian bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia and several eunuchs; he was baptized; even educated for the clerical order, and ordained a Lector. He prayed, fasted, celebrated the memory of the martyrs, paid the usual reverence to the bishops, besought the blessing of hermits, and read the Scriptures in the church of Nicomedia. Even his plays must wear the hue of devotion. But this despotic and mechanical force-work of a repulsively austere and fiercely polemic type of Christianity roused the intelligent, wakeful, and vigorous spirit of Julian to rebellion, and drove him over towards the heathen side. The Arian pseudo-Christianity of Constantius produced the heathen anti-Christianity of Julian; and the latter was a well-deserved punishment of the former. With enthusiasm and with untiring diligence the young prince studied Homer, Plato, Aristotle, and the Neo-Platonists. The partial prohibition of such reading gave it double zest. He secretly obtained the lectures of the celebrated rhetorician Libanius, afterwards his eulogist, whose productions, however, represent the degeneracy of the heathen literature in that day, covering emptiness with a pompous and tawdry style, attractive only to a vitiated taste. He became acquainted by degrees with the most eminent representatives of heathenism, particularly the Neo-Platonic philosophers, rhetoricians, and priests, like Libanius, Aedesius, Maximus, and Chrysanthius. These confirmed him in his superstitions by sophistries and sorceries of every kind. He gradually became the secret head of the heathen party. Through the favor and mediation of the empress Eusebia he visited for some months the schools of Athens (a.d. 355), where he was initiated in the Eleusinian mysteries, and thus completed his transition to the Grecian idolatry.

This heathenism, however, was not a simple, spontaneous growth; it was all an artificial and morbid production. It was the heathenism of the Neo-Platonic, pantheistic eclecticism, a strange mixture of philosophy, poesy, and superstition, and, in Julian at least, in great part an imitation or caricature of Christianity. It sought to spiritualize and revive the old mythology by uniting with it oriental theosophemes and a few Christian ideas; taught a higher, abstract unity above the multiplicity of the national gods, genii, heroes, and natural powers; believed in immediate communications and revelations of the gods through dreams, visions, oracles, entrails of sacrifices, prodigies; and stood in league with all kinds of magical and theurgic arts. Julian himself, with all his philosophical intelligence, credited the most insipid legends of the gods, or gave them a deeper, mystic meaning by the most arbitrary allegorical interpretation. He was in intimate personal intercourse with Jupiter, Minerva, Apollo, Hercules, who paid their nocturnal visits to his heated fancy, and assured him of their special protection. And he practised the art of divination as a master. Among the various divinities he worshipped with peculiar devotion the great king Helios, or the god of the sun, whose servant he called himself, and whose ethereal light attracted him even in tender childhood with magic force. He regarded him as the center of the universe, from which light, life, and salvation proceed upon all creatures. In this view of a supreme divinity he made an approach to the Christian monotheism, but substituted an airy myth and pantheistic fancy for the only true and living God and the personal historical Christ.

His moral character corresponds with the preposterous nature of this system. With all his brilliant talents and stoical virtues, he wanted the genuine simplicity and naturalness, which are the foundation of all true greatness of mind and character. As his worship of Helios was a shadowy reflection of the Christian monotheism, and so far an involuntary tribute to the religion he opposed, so in his artificial and ostentatious asceticism we can only see a caricature of the ecclesiastical monasticism of the age which he so deeply despised for its humility and spirituality. He was full of affectation, vanity, sophistry, loquacity, and a master in the art of dissimulation. Everything he said or wrote was studied and calculated for effect. Instead of discerning the spirit of the age and putting himself at the head of the current of true progress, he identified himself with a party of no vigor nor promise, and thus fell into a false and untenable position, at variance with the mission of a ruler. Great minds, indeed, are always more or less at war with their age, as we may see in the reformers, in the apostles, nay, in Christ himself. But their antagonism proceeds from a clear knowledge of the real wants and a sincere devotion to the best interests of the age; it is all progressive and reformatory, and at last carries the deeper spirit of the age with itself, and raises it to a higher level. The antagonism of Julian, starting with a radical misconception of the tendency of history and animated by selfish ambition, was one of retrogression and reaction, and in addition, was devoted to a bad cause. He had all the faults, and therefore deserved the tragic fate, of a fanatical reactionist.

His apostasy from Christianity, to which he was probably never at heart committed, Julian himself dates as early as his twentieth year, a.d. 351. But while Constantius lived, he concealed his pagan sympathies with consummate hypocrisy, publicly observed Christian ceremonies, while secretly sacrificing to Jupiter and Helios, kept the feast of Epiphany in the church at Vienne so late as January, 361, and praised the emperor in the most extravagant style, though he thoroughly hated him, and after his death all the more bitterly mocked him. For ten years he kept the mask. After December, 355, the student of books astonished the world with brilliant military and executive powers as Caesar in Gaul, which was at that time heavily threatened by the German barbarians; he won the enthusiastic love of the soldiers, and received from them the dignity of Augustus. Then he raised the standard of rebellion against his suspicious and envious imperial cousin and brother-in-law, and in 361 openly declared himself a friend of the gods. By the sudden death of Constantius in the same year he became sole head of the Roman empire, and in December, as the only remaining heir of the house of Constantine, made his entry into Constantinople amidst universal applause and rejoicing over escape from civil war.

He immediately gave himself, with the utmost zeal, to the duties of his high station, unweariedly active as prince, general, judge, orator, high-priest, correspondent, and author. He sought to unite the fame of an Alexander, a Marcus Aurelius, a Plato, and a Diogenes in himself. His only recreation was a change of labor. He would use at once his hand in writing, his ear in hearing, and his voice in speaking. He considered his whole time due to his empire and the culture of his own mind. The eighteen short months of his reign Dec. 361-June 363) comprehend the plans of a life-long administration and most of his literary works. He practised the strictest economy in the public affairs, banished all useless luxury from his court, and dismissed with one decree whole hosts of barbers, cup-bearers, cooks, masters of ceremonies, and other superfluous officers, with whom the palace swarmed, but surrounded himself instead with equally useless pagan mystics, sophists, jugglers, theurgists, soothsayers, babblers, and scoffers, who now streamed from all quarters to the court. In striking contrast with his predecessors, he maintained the simplicity of a philosopher and an ascetic in his manner of life, and gratified his pride and vanity with contempt of the pomp and pleasures of the imperial purple. He lived chiefly on vegetable diet, abstaining now from this food, now from that, according to the taste of the god or goddess to whom the day was consecrated. He wore common clothing, usually slept on the floor, let his beard and nails grow, and, like the strict anachorets of Egypt, neglected the laws of decency and cleanliness. This cynic eccentricity and vain ostentation certainly spoiled his reputation for simplicity and self-denial, and made him ridiculous. It evinced, also, not so much the boldness and wisdom of a reformer, as the pedantry and folly of a reactionist. In military and executive talent and personal bravery he was not inferior to Constantine; while in mind and literary culture he far excelled him, as well as in energy and moral self-control; and, doubtless to his own credit, he closed his public career at the age at which his uncle’s began; but he entirely lacked the clear, sound common sense of his great predecessor, and that practical statesmanship, which discerns the wants of the age, and acts according to them. He had more uncommon sense than common sense, and the latter is often even more important than the former, and indispensable to a good practical statesman. But his greatest fault as a ruler was his utterly false position towards the paramount question of his time: that of religion. This was the cause of that complete failure which made his reign as trackless as a meteor.

The ruling passion of Julian, and the soul of his short but most active, remarkable, and in its negative results instructive reign, was fanatical love of the pagan religion and bitter hatred of the Christian, at a time when the former had already forever given up to the latter the reins of government in the world. He considered it the great mission of his life to restore the worship of the gods, and to reduce the religion of Jesus first to a contemptible sect, and at last, if possible, to utter extinction from the earth. To this he believed himself called by the gods themselves, and in this faith he was confirmed by theurgic arts, visions, and dreams. To this end all the means, which talent, zeal, and power could command, were applied; and the failure must be attributed solely to the intrinsic folly and impracticability of the end itself.

I. To look, first, at the positive side of his plan, the restoration and reformation of heathenism:

He reinstated, in its ancient splendor, the worship of the gods at the public expense; called forth hosts of priests from concealment; conferred upon them all their former privileges, and showed them every honor; enjoined upon the soldiers and civil officers attendance at the forsaken temples and altars; forgot no god or goddess, though himself specially devoted to the worship of Apollo, or the sun; and notwithstanding his parsimony in other respects, caused the rarest birds and whole herds of bulls and lambs to be sacrificed, until the continuance of the species became a subject of concern. He removed the cross and the monogram of Christ from the coins and standards, and replaced the former pagan symbols. He surrounded the statues and portraits of the emperors with the signs of idolatry, that every one might be compelled to bow before the gods, who would pay the emperors due respect. He advocated images of the gods on the same grounds on which afterwards the Christian iconolaters defended the images of the saints. If you love the emperor, if you love your father, says he, you like to see his portrait; so the friend of the gods loves to look upon their images, by which he is pervaded with reverence for the invisible gods, who are looking down upon him.

Julian led the way himself with a complete example. He discovered on every occasion the utmost zeal for the heathen religion, and performed, with the most scrupulous devotion, the offices of a pontifex maximus, which had been altogether neglected, although not formally abolished, under his two predecessors. Every morning and evening he sacrificed to the rising and setting sun, or the supreme light-god; every night, to the moon and the stars; every day, to some other divinity. Says Libanius, his heathen admirer: “He received the rising sun with blood, and attended him again with blood at his setting.” As he could not go abroad so often as he would, he turned his palace into a temple and erected altars in his garden, which was kept purer than most chapels. “Wherever there was a temple,” says the same writer, “whether in the city or on the hill or the mountain top, no matter how rough, or difficult of access, he ran to it.” He prostrated himself devoutly before the altars and the images, not allowing the most violent storm to prevent him. Several times in a day, surrounded by priests and dancing women, he sacrificed a hundred bulls, himself furnishing the wood and kindling the flames. He used the knife himself, and as haruspex searched with his own hand the secrets of the future in the reeking entrails.

But his zeal found no echo, and only made him ridiculous in the eyes of cultivated heathens themselves. He complains repeatedly of the indifference of his party, and accuses one of his priests of a secret league with Christian bishops. The spectators at his sacrifices came not from devotion, but from curiosity, and grieved the devout emperor by their rounds of applause, as if he were simply a theatrical actor of religion. Often there were no spectators at all. When he endeavored to restore the oracle of Apollo Daphneus in the famous cypress grove at Antioch, and arranged for a magnificent procession, with libation, dances, and incense, he found in the temple one solitary old priest, and this priest ominously offered in sacrifice — a goose.

At the same time, however, Julian sought to renovate and transform heathenism by incorporating with it the morals of Christianity; vainly thinking thus to bring it back to its original purity. In this he himself unwittingly and unwillingly bore witness to the poverty of the heathen religion, and paid the highest tribute to the Christian; and the Christians for this reason not inaptly called him an “ape of Christianity.”

In the first place, he proposed to improve the irreclaimable priesthood after the model of the Christian clergy. The priests, as true mediators between the gods and men, should be constantly in the temples, should occupy themselves with holy things, should study no immoral or skeptical books of the school of Epicurus and Pyrrho, but the works of Homer, Pythagoras, Plato, Chrysippus, and Zeno; they should visit no taverns nor theatres, should pursue no dishonorable trade, should give alms, practise hospitality, live in strict chastity and temperance, wear simple clothing, but in their official functions always appear in the costliest garments and most imposing dignity. He borrowed almost every feature of the then prevalent idea of the Christian priesthood, and applied it to the polytheistic religion. Then, he borrowed from the constitution and worship of the church a hierarchical system of orders, and a sort of penitential discipline, with excommunication, absolution, and restoration, besides a fixed ritual embracing didactic and musical elements. Mitred priests in purple were to edify the people regularly with sermons; that is, with allegorical expositions and practical applications of tasteless and immoral mythological stories! Every temple was to have a well arranged choir, and the congregation its responses. And finally, Julian established in different provinces monasteries, nunneries, and hospitals for the sick, for orphans, and for foreigners without distinction of religion, appropriated to them considerable sums from the public treasury, and at the same time, though fruitlessly, invited voluntary contributions. He made the noteworthy concession, that the heathens did not help even their own brethren in faith; while the Jews never begged, and “the godless Galileans,” as he malignantly styled the Christians, supplied not only their own, but even the heathen poor, and thus aided the worst of causes by a good practice.

But of course all these attempts to regenerate heathenism by foreign elements were utterly futile. They were like galvanizing a decaying corpse, or grafting fresh scions on a dead trunk, sowing good seed on a rock, or pouring new wine into old bottles, bursting the bottles and wasting the wine.

II. The negative side of Julian’s plan was the suppression and final extinction of Christianity.

In this he proceeded with extraordinary sagacity. He abstained from bloody persecution, because he would not forego the credit of philosophical toleration, nor give the church the glory of a new martyrdom. A history of three centuries also had proved that violent measures were fruitless. According to Libanius it was a principle with him, that fire and sword cannot change a man’s faith, and that persecution only begets hypocrites and martyrs. Finally, he doubtless perceived that the Christians were too numerous to be assailed by a general persecution without danger of a bloody civil war. Hence he oppressed the church “gently,” under show of equity and universal toleration. He persecuted not so much the Christians as Christianity, by endeavoring to draw off its confessors. He thought to gain the result of persecution without incurring the personal reproach and the public danger of persecution itself. His disappointments, however, increased his bitterness, and had he returned victorious from the Persian war, he would probably have resorted to open violence. In fact, Gregory Nazianzen and Sozomen, and some heathen writers also, tell of local persecutions in the provinces, particularly at Anthusa and Alexandria, with which the emperor is, at least indirectly, to be charged. His officials acted in those cases, not under public orders indeed, but according to the secret wish of Julian, who ignored their illegal proceedings as long as he could, and then discovered his real views by lenient censure and substantial acquittal of the offending magistrates.

He first, therefore, employed against the Christians of all parties and sects the policy of toleration, in hope of their destroying each other by internal controversies. He permitted the orthodox bishops and all other clergy, who had been banished under Constantius, to return to their dioceses, and left Arians, Apollinarians, Novatians, Macedonians, Donatists, and so on, to themselves. He affected compassion for the “poor, blind, deluded Galileans, who forsook the most glorious privilege of man, the worship of the immortal gods, and instead of them worshipped dead men and dead men’s bones.” He once even suffered himself to be insulted by a blind bishop, Maris of Chalcedon, who, when reminded by him, that the Galilean God could not restore his eyesight, answered: “I thank my God for my blindness, which spares me the painful sight of such an impious Apostate as thou.” He afterwards, however, caused the bishop to be severely punished. So in Antioch, also, he bore with philosophic equanimity the ridicule of the Christian populace, but avenged himself on the inhabitants of the city by unsparing satire in the Misopogon. His whole bearing towards the Christians was instinct with bitter hatred and accompanied with sarcastic mockery. This betrays itself even in the contemptuous term, Galileans, which he constantly applies to them after the fashion of the Jews, and which he probably also commanded to be given them by others. He considered them a sect of fanatics contemptible to men and hateful to the gods, and as atheists in open war with all that was sacred and divine in the world. He sometimes had representatives of different parties dispute in his presence, and then exclaimed: “No wild beasts are so fierce and irreconcilable as the Galilean sectarians.” When he found that toleration was rather profitable than hurtful to the church, and tended to soften the vehemence of doctrinal controversies, he proceeded, for example, to banish Athanasius, who was particularly offensive to him, from Alexandria, and even from Egypt, calling this greatest man of his age an insignificant manikin, and reviling him with vulgar language, because through his influence many prominent heathens, especially heathen women, passed over to Christianity. His toleration, therefore, was neither that of genuine humanity, nor that of religious indifferentism, but a hypocritical mask for a fanatical love of heathenism and a bitter hatred of Christianity.

This appears in his open partiality and injustice against the Christians. His liberal patronage of heathenism was in itself an injury to Christianity. Nothing gave him greater joy than an apostasy, and he held out the temptation of splendid reward; thus himself employing the impure means of proselyting, for which he reproached the Christians. Once he even advocated conversion by violent measures. While he called heathens to all the higher offices, and, in case of their palpable disobedience, inflicted very mild punishment, if any at all, the Christians came to be everywhere disregarded, and their complaints dismissed from the tribunal with a mocking reference to their Master’s precept, to give their enemy their cloak also with their coat, and turn the other cheek to his blows. (Mat_5:39, Mat_5:40) They were removed from military and civil office, deprived of all their former privileges, oppressed with taxes, and compelled to restore without indemnity the temple property, with all their own improvements on it, and to contribute to the support of the public idolatry. Upon occasion of a controversy between the Arians and the orthodox at Edessa, Julian confiscated the church property and distributed it among his soldiers, under the sarcastic pretence of facilitating the Christians’ entrance into the kingdom of heaven, from which, according to the doctrine of their religion (comp. Mat_19:23,Mat_19:24), riches might exclude them.

Equally unjust and tyrannical was the law, which placed all the state schools under the direction of heathens, and prohibited the Christians teaching the sciences and the arts. Julian would thus deny Christian youth the advantages of education, and compel them either to sink in ignorance and barbarism, or to imbibe with the study of the classics in the heathen schools the principles of idolatry. In his view the Hellenic writings, especially the works of the poets, were not only literary, but also religious documents to which the heathens had an exclusive claim, and he regarded Christianity irreconcilable with genuine human culture. The Galileans, says he in ridicule, should content themselves with expounding Matthew and Luke in their churches, instead of profaning the glorious Greek authors. For it is preposterous and ungrateful, that they should study the writings of the classics, and yet despise the gods, whom the authors revered; since the gods were in fact the authors and guides of the minds of a Homer, a Hesiod, a Demosthenes, a Thucydides, an Isocrates, and a Lysias, and these writers consecrated their works to Mercury or the muses. Hence he hated especially the learned church teachers, Basil, Gregory of Nazianzen, Apollinaris of Laodicea, who applied the classical culture to the refutation of heathenism and the defence of Christianity. To evade his interdict, the two Apollinaris produced with all haste Christian imitations of Homer, Pindar, Euripides, and Menander, which were considered by Sozomen equal to the originals, but soon passed into oblivion. Gregory also wrote the tragedy of “The Suffering Christ,” and several hymns, which still exist. Thus these fathers bore witness to the indispensableness of classical literature for a higher Christian education, and the church has ever since maintained the same view.

Julian further sought to promote his cause by literary assaults upon the Christian religion; himself writing, shortly before his death, and in the midst of his preparations for the Persian campaign, a bitter work against it, of which we shall speak more fully in a subsequent section.

III. To the same hostile design against Christianity is to be referred the favor of Julian to its old hereditary enemy, Judaism.

The emperor, in an official document affected reverence for that ancient popular religion, and sympathy with its adherents, praised their firmness under misfortune, and condemned their oppressors. He exempted the Jews from burdensome taxation, and encouraged them even to return to the holy land and to rebuild the temple on Moriah in its original splendor. He appropriated considerable sums to this object from the public treasury, intrusted his accomplished minister Alypius with the supervision of the building, and promised, if he should return victorious from the Persian war, to honor with his own presence the solemnities of reconsecration and the restoration of the Mosaic sacrificial worship.

His real purpose in this undertaking was certainly not to advance the Jewish religion; for in his work against the Christians he speaks with great contempt of the Old Testament, and ranks Moses and Solomon far below the pagan lawgivers and philosophers. His object in the rebuilding of the temple was rather, in the first place, to enhance the splendor of his reign, and thus gratify his personal vanity; and then most probably to put to shame the prophecy of Jesus respecting the destruction of the temple (which, however, was actually fulfilled three hundred years before once for all), to deprive the Christians of their most popular argument against the Jews, and to break the power of the new religion in Jerusalem.

The Jews now poured from east and west into the holy city of their fathers, which from the time of Hadrian they had been forbidden to visit, and entered with fanatical zeal upon the great national religious work, in hope of the speedy irruption of the Messianic reign and the fulfilment of all the prophecies. Women, we are told, brought their costly ornaments, turned them into silver shovels and spades, and carried even the earth and stones of the holy spot in their silken aprons. But the united power of heathen emperor and Jewish nation was insufficient to restore a work which had been overthrown by the judgment of God. Repeated attempts at the building were utterly frustrated, as even a contemporary heathen historian of conceded credibility relates, by fiery eruptions from subterranean vaults; and, perhaps, as Christian writers add, by a violent whirlwind, lightning, earthquake, and miraculous signs, especially a luminous cross, in the heavens, so that the workmen either perished in the flames, or fled from the devoted spot in terror and despair. Thus, instead of depriving the Christians of a support of their faith, Julian only furnished them a new argument in the ruins of this fruitless labor.

The providential frustration of this project is a symbol of the whole reign of Julian, which soon afterward sank into an early grave. As Caesar he had conquered the barbarian enemies of the Roman empire in the West; and now he proposed, as ruler of the world, to humble its enemies in the East, and by the conquest of Persia to win the renown of a second Alexander. He proudly rejected all proposals of peace; crossed the Tigris at the head of an army of sixty-five thousand men, after wintering in Antioch, and after solemn consultation of the oracle; took several fortified towns in Mesopotamia; exposed himself to every hardship and peril of war; restored at the same time, wherever he could, the worship of the heathen gods; but brought the army into a most critical position, and, in an unimportant nocturnal skirmish, received from a hostile arrow a mortal wound. He died soon after, on the 27th of June, 363, in the thirty-second year of his life; according to heathen testimony, in the proud repose and dignity of a Stoic philosopher, conversing of the glory of the soul (the immortality of which, however, he considered at best an uncertain opinion); but according to later and somewhat doubtful Christian accounts, with the hopeless exclamation: “Galilean, thou hast conquered!” The parting address to his friends, which Ammianus puts into his mouth, is altogether characteristic. It reminds one of the last hours of Socrates, without the natural simplicity of the original, and with a strong admixture of self-complacence and theatrical affectation. His body was taken, at his own direction, to Tarsus, the birthplace of the apostle Paul, whom he hated more than any other apostle, and a monument was erected to him there, with a simple inscription, which calls him a good ruler and a brave warrior, but says nothing of his religion.

So died, in the prime of life, a prince, who darkened his brilliant military, executive, and literary talents, and a rare energy, by fanatical zeal for a false religion and opposition to the true; perverted them to a useless and wicked end; and earned, instead of immortal honor, the shame of an unsuccessful Apostate. Had he lived longer, he would probably have plunged the empire into the sad distraction of a religious civil war. The Christians were generally expecting a bloody persecution in case of his successful return from the Persian war. We need, therefore, the less wonder that they abhorred his memory. At Antioch they celebrated his death by festal dancings in the churches and theatres. Even the celebrated divine and orator, Gregory Nazianzen, compared him to Pharaoh, Ahab, and Nebuchadnezzar. It has been reserved for the more impartial historiography of modern times to do justice to his nobler qualities, and to endeavor to excuse, or at least to account for his utterly false position toward Christianity, by his perverted education, the despotism of his predecessor, and the imperfections of the church in his day.

With Julian himself fell also his artificial, galvanized heathenism, “like the baseless fabric of a vision, leaving no wreck behind,” save the great doctrine, that it is impossible to swim against the stream of history or to stop the progress of Christianity. The heathen philosophers and soothsayers, who had basked in his favor, fell back into obscurity. In the dispersion of their dream they found no comfort from their superstition. Libanius charges the guilt upon his own gods, who suffered Constantius to reign twenty years, and Julian hardly twenty months. But the Christians could learn from it, what Gregory Nazianzen had said in the beginning of this reign, that the church had far more to fear from enemies within, than from without.


5. From Jovian to Theodosius. a.d. 363-392

I. The heathen sources here, besides Ammianus Marcellinus (who unfortunately breaks off at the death of Valens), Zosimus and Eunapius (who are very partial), are: Libanius: Ὑπὲρ τῶν ἱερῶν, or Oratio pro templis (first complete ed. by L. de Sinner, in Novus Patrum Grace. saec. iv. delectus, Par. 1842). Symmachus: Epist. x. 61 (ed. Pareus, Frcf. 1642). On the Christian side: Ambrose: Epist. xvii. and xviii. ad Valentinian. II. Prudentius: Adv. Symmachum. Augustin: De civitate Dei, l. v. c. 24-26 (on the emperors from Jovinian to Theodosius, especially the latter, whom he greatly glorifies). Socr.: l. iii. c. 22 sqq. Sozom.: l. vi. c. 3 sqq. Theodor.: l. iv. c. 1 sqq. Cod. Theodos.: l. ix.-xvi.

II. De la Bleterie: Histoire de l’empereur Jovien. Amsterd. 1740, 2 vols. Gibbon: chap. xxv-xxviii. Schröckh: vii. p. 213 sqq. Stuffken: De Theodosii M. in rem christianam meritis. Lugd. Batav. 1828. Tillemont: Hist. des empereurs, tom. v. A. De Broglie, l.c. Victor Schultze: Gesch. d. Untergangs des gr. röm. Heidenthums, i. 209-400.

From this time heathenism approached, with slow but steady step, its inevitable dissolution, until it found an inglorious grave amid the storms of the great migration and the ruins of the empire of the Caesars, and in its death proclaimed the victory of Christianity. Emperors, bishops, and monks committed indeed manifold injustice in destroying temples and confiscating property; but that injustice was nothing compared with the bloody persecution of Christianity for three hundred years. The heathenism of ancient Greece and Rome died of internal decay, which no human power could prevent.

After Julian, the succession of Christian emperors continued unbroken. On the day of his death, which was also the extinction of the Constantinian family, the general Jovian, a Christian (363-364), was chosen emperor by the army. He concluded with the Persians a disadvantageous but necessary peace, replaced the cross in the labarum, and restored to the church her privileges, but, beyond this, declared universal toleration in the spirit of Constantine. Under the circumstances, this was plainly the wisest policy. Like Constantine, also, he abstained from all interference with the internal affairs of the church, though for himself holding the Nicene faith and warmly favorable to Athanasius. He died in the thirty-third year of his age, after a brief reign of eight months. Augustin says, God took him away sooner than Julian, that no emperor might become a Christian for the sake of Constantine’s good fortune, but only for the sake of eternal life.

His successor, Valentinian I. (died 375), though generally inclined to despotic measures, declared likewise for the policy of religious freedom, and, though personally an adherent of the Nicene orthodoxy, kept aloof from the doctrinal controversies; while his brother and co-emperor, Valens, who reigned in the East till 378, favored the Arians and persecuted the Catholics. Both, however, prohibited bloody sacrifices and divination. Maximin, the representative of Valentinian at Rome, proceeded with savage cruelty against all who were found guilty of the crime of magic, especially the Roman aristocracy. Soothsayers were burnt alive, while their meaner accomplices were beaten to death by straps loaded with lead. In almost every case recorded the magical arts can be traced to pagan religious usages.

Under this reign heathenism was for the first time officially designated as paganismus, that is, peasant-religion; because it had almost entirely died out in the cities, and maintained only a decrepit and obscure existence in retired villages. What an inversion of the state of things in the second century, when Celsus contemptuously called Christianity a religion of mechanics and slaves! Of course large exceptions must in both cases be made. Especially in Rome, many of the oldest and most respectable families for a long time still adhered to the heathen traditions, and the city appears to have preserved until the latter part of the fourth century a hundred and fifty-two temples and a hundred and eighty-three smaller chapels and altars of patron deities. But advocates of the old religion — a Themistius, a Libanius, and a Symmachus — limited themselves to the claim of toleration, and thus, in their oppressed condition, became, as formerly the Christians were, and as the persecuted sects in the Catholic church and the Protestant state churches since have been, advocates of religious freedom.

The same toleration continued under Gratian, son and successor of Valentinian (375-383). After a time, however; under the influence of Ambrose, bishop of Milan, this emperor went a step further. He laid aside the title and dignity of Pontifex Maximus, confiscated the temple property, abolished most of the privileges of the priests and vestal virgins, and withdrew, at least in part, the appropriation from the public treasury for their support. By this step heathenism became, like Christianity before Constantine and now in the American republic, dependent on the voluntary system, while, unlike Christianity, it had no spirit of self-sacrifice, no energy of self-preservation. The withdrawal of the public support cut its lifestring, and left it still to exist for a time by vis inertiae alone. Gratian also, in spite of the protest of the heathen party, removed in 382 the statue and the altar of Victoria, the goddess of victory, in the senate building at Rome, where once the senators used to take their oath, scatter incense, and offer sacrifice; though he was obliged still to tolerate there the elsewhere forbidden sacrifices and the public support of some heathen festivities. Inspired by Ambrose with great zeal for the Catholic faith, he refused freedom to heretics, and prohibited the public assemblies of the Eunomians, Photinians, and Manichaeans.

His brother, Valentinian II. (383-392), rejected the renewed petition of the Romans for the restoration of the altar of Victoria (384). The eloquent and truly venerable prefect Symmachus, who, as princeps senatus and first Pontifex in Rome, was now the spokesman of the heathen party, prayed the emperor in a dignified and elegant address, but in the tone of apologetic diffidence, to make a distinction between his private religion and the religio urbi, to respect the authority of antiquity and the rights of the venerable city, which had attained the dominion of the world under the worship of the gods. But Ambrose of Milan represented to the emperor, in the firm tone of episcopal dignity and conscious success, that the granting of the petition would be a sanctioning of heathenism and a renunciation of his Christian convictions; denied, that the greatness of Rome was due to idolatry, to which indeed her subjugated enemies were likewise addicted; and contrasted the power of Christianity, which had greatly increased under persecution and had produced whole hosts of consecrated virgins and ascetics, with the weakness of heathenism, which, with all its privileges, could hardly maintain the number of its seven vestals, and could show no works of benevolence and mercy for the oppressed. The same petition was renewed in 389 to Theodosius, but again through the influence of Ambrose rejected. The last national sanctuary of the Romans had hopelessly fallen. The triumph, which the heathen party gained under the usurper Eugenius (392-394), lasted but a couple of years; and after his defeat by Theodosius, six hundred of the most distinguished patrician families, the Annii, Probi, Anicii, Olybii, Paulini, Bassi, Gracchi, etc., are said by Prudentius to have gone over at once to the Christian religion.


6. Theodosius the Great and His Successors. a.d. 392-550

J. R. Stuffken: Diss. de Theod. M. in rem. Christ. meritis. Leyden, 1828. M. Fléchier: Histoire de Theodose le Grand. Par. 1860.

The final suppression of heathenism is usually, though not quite justly, ascribed to the emperor Theodosius I., who, on this account, as well as for his victories over the Goths, his wise legislation, and other services to the empire, bears the distinction of the Great, and deserves, for his personal virtues, to be counted among the best emperors of Rome. A native of Spain, son of a very worthy general of the same name, he was called by Gratian to be co-emperor in the East in a time of great danger from the threatening barbarians (379), and after the death of Valentinian, he rose to the head of the empire (392-395). He labored for the unity, of the state and the supremacy of the Catholic religion. He was a decided adherent of the Nicene orthodoxy, procured it the victory at the second ecumenical council (381), gave it all the privileges of the state religion, and issued a series of rigid laws against all heretics and schismatics. In his treatment of heathenism, for a time he only enforced the existing prohibition of sacrifice for purposes of magic and divination (385), but gradually extended it to the whole sacrificial worship. In the year 391 he prohibited, under heavy fine, the visiting of a heathen temple for a religious purpose; in the following year, even the private performance of libations and other pagan rites. The practice of idolatry was therefore henceforth a political offence, as Constantius had already, though prematurely, declared it to be, and was subjected to the severest penalties.

Yet Theodosius by no means pressed the execution of these laws in places where the heathen party retained considerable strength; he did not exclude heathens from public office, and allowed them at least full liberty of thought and speech. His countryman, the Christian poet Prudentius, states with approbation, that in the distribution of the secular offices, he looked not at religion, but at merit and talent, and raised the heathen Symmachus to the dignity of consul. The emperor likewise appointed the heathen rhetorician, Themistius, prefect of Constantinople, and even intrusted him with the education of his son Arcadius. He acknowledged personal friendship toward Libanius, who addressed to him his celebrated plea for the temples in 384 or 390; though it is doubtful whether he actually delivered it in the imperial presence. In short this emperor stood in such favor with the heathens, that after his death he was enrolled by the Senate, according to ancient custom, among the gods.

Theodosius issued no law for the destruction of temples. He only continued Gratian’s policy of confiscating the temple property and withdrawing entirely the public contribution to the support of idolatry. But in many places, especially in the East, the fanaticism of the monks and the Christian populace broke out in a rage for destruction, which Libanius bitterly laments. He calls these iconoclastic monks “men in black clothes, as voracious as elephants, and insatiably thirsty, but concealing their sensuality under an artificial paleness.” The belief of the Christians, that the heathen gods were living beings, demons, and dwelt in the temples, was the leading influence here, and overshadowed all artistic and archeological considerations. In Alexandria, a chief seat of the Neo-Platonic mysticism, there arose, at the instigation of the violent and unspiritual bishop Theophilus, a bloody conflict between heathens and Christians, in which the colossal statue and the magnificent temple of Serapis, next to the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus in Rome the proudest monument of heathen architecture, was destroyed, without verifying the current expectation that upon its destruction the heavens would fall (391). The power of superstition once broken by this decisive blow, the other temples in Egypt soon met a similar fate; though the eloquent ruins of the works of the Pharaohs, the Ptolemies, and the Roman emperors in the valley of the Nile still stand and cast their twilight into the mysterious darkness of antiquity. Marcellus, bishop of Apamea in Syria, accompanied by an armed band of soldiers and gladiators, proceeded with the same zeal against the monuments and vital centres of heathen worship in his diocese, but was burnt alive for it by the enraged heathens, who went unpunished for the murder. In Gaul, St. Martin of Tours, between the years 375 and 400, destroyed a multitude of temples and images, and built churches and cloisters in their stead.

But we also hear important protests from the church against this pious vandalism. Says Chrysostom at Antioch in the beginning of this reign, in his beautiful tract on the martyr Babylas: “Christians are not to destroy error by force and violence, but should work the salvation of men by persuasion, instruction, and love.” In the same spirit says Augustin, though not quite consistently: “Let us first obliterate the idols in the hearts of the heathen, and once they become Christians they will either themselves invite us to the execution of so good a work [the destruction of the idols], or anticipate us in it. Now we must pray for them, and not exasperate them.” Yet he commended the severe laws of the emperors against idolatry.

In the west the work of destruction was not systematically carried on, and the many ruined temples of Greece and Italy at this day prove that even then reason and taste sometimes prevailed over the rude caprice of fanaticism, and that the maxim, It is easier to tear down than to build up, has its exceptions.

With the death of Theodosius the empire again fell into two parts, which were never afterward reunited. The weak sons and successors of this prince, Arcadius in the east (395-408) and Honorius in the west (395-423), and likewise Theodosius II., or the younger (son of Arcadius, 408-450), and Valentinian III. (423-455), repeated and in some cases added to the laws of the previous reign against the heathen. In the year 408, Honorius even issued an edict excluding heathens from civil and military office; and in 423 appeared another edict, which questioned the existence of heathens. But in the first place, such laws, in the then critical condition of the empire amidst the confusion of the great migration, especially in the West, could be but imperfectly enforced; and in the next place, the frequent repetition of them itself proves that heathenism still had its votaries. This fact is witnessed also by various heathen writers. Zosimus wrote his “New History,” down to the year 410, under the reign and at the court of the younger Theodosius (appearing in the high office of comes and advocatus fisci, as he styles himself), in bitter prejudice against the Christian emperors. In many places the Christians, in their work of demolishing the idols, were murdered by the infuriated pagans.

Meantime, however, there was cruelty also on the Christian side. One of the last instances of it was the terrible tragedy of Hypatia. This lady, a teacher of the Neo-Platonic philosophy in Alexandria, distinguished for her beauty, her intelligence, her learning, and her virtue, and esteemed both by Christians and by heathens, was seized in the open street by the Christian populace and fanatical monks, perhaps not without the connivance of the violent bishop Cyril, thrust out from her carriage, dragged to the cathedral, completely stripped, barbarously murdered with shells before the altar, and then torn to pieces and burnt, a.d. 415. Socrates, who relates this, adds: “It brought great censure both on Cyril and on the Alexandrian church.”


7. The Downfall of Heathenism

The final dissolution of heathenism in the eastern empire may be dated from the middle of the fifth century. In the year 435 Theodosius II. commanded the temples to be destroyed or turned into churches. There still appear some heathens in civil office and at court so late as the beginning of the reign of Justinian I. (527-567). But this despotic emperor prohibited heathenism as a form of worship in the empire on pain of death, and in 529 abolished the last intellectual seminary of it, the philosophical school of Athens, which had stood nine hundred years. At that time just seven philosophers were teaching in that school, the shades of the ancient seven sages of Greece, — a striking play of history, like the name of the last west-Roman emperor, Romulus Augustus, or, in contemptuous diminutive, Augustulus, combining the names of the founder of the city and the founder of the empire.

In the West, heathenism maintained itself until near the middle of the sixth century, and even later, partly as a private religious conviction among many cultivated and aristocratic families in Rome, partly even in the full form of worship in the remote provinces and on the mountains of Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica, and partly in heathen customs and popular usages like the gladiatorial shows still extant in Rome in 404, and the wanton Lupercalia, a sort of heathen carnival, the feast of Lupercus, the god of herds, still celebrated with all its excesses in February, 495. But, in general, it may be said that the Graeco-Roman heathenism, as a system of worship, was buried under the ruins of the western empire, which sunk under the storms of the great migration. It is remarkable that the northern barbarians labored with the same zeal in the destruction of idolatry as in the destruction of the empire, and really promoted the victory of the Christian religion. The Gothic king Alaric, on entering Rome, expressly ordered that the churches of the apostles Peter and Paul should be spared, as inviolable sanctuaries; and he showed a humanity, which Augustin justly attributes to the influence of Christianity (even perverted Arian Christianity) on these barbarous people. The Christian name, he says, which the heathen blaspheme, has effected not the destruction, but the salvation of the city. Odoacer, who put an end to the western Roman empire in 476, was incited to his expedition into Italy by St. Severin, and, though himself an Arian, showed great regard to the catholic bishops. The same is true of his conqueror and successor, Theodoric the Ostrogoth, who was recognized by the east-Roman emperor Anastasius as king of Italy (a.d. 500), and was likewise an Arian. Thus between the barbarians and the Romans, as between the Romans and the Greeks and in a measure also the Jews, the conquered gave laws to the conquerors. Christianity triumphed over both.

This is the end of Graeco-Roman heathenism, with its wisdom, and beauty. It fell a victim to a slow but steady process of incurable consumption. Its downfall is a sublime tragedy which, with all our abhorrence of idolatry, we cannot witness without a certain sadness. At the first appearance of Christianity it comprised all the wisdom, literature, art, and political power of the civilized world, and led all into the field against the weaponless religion of the crucified Nazarene. After a conflict of four or five centuries it lay prostrate in the dust without hope of resurrection. With the outward protection of the state, it lost all power, and had not even the courage of martyrdom; while the Christian church showed countless hosts of confessors and blood-witnesses, and Judaism lives to-day in spite of all persecution. The expectation, that Christianity would fall about the year 398, after an existence of three hundred and sixty-five years, turned out in the fulfilment to relate to heathenism itself. The last glimmer of life in the old religion was its pitiable prayer for toleration and its lamentation over the ruin of the empire. Its best elements took refuge in the church and became converted, or at least took Christian names. Now the gods were dethroned, oracles and prodigies ceased, sibylline books were burned, temples were destroyed, or transformed into churches, or still stand as memorials of the victory of Christianity.

But although ancient Greece and Rome have fallen forever, the spirit of Graeco-Roman paganism is not extinct. It still lives in the natural heart of man, which at this day as much as ever needs regeneration by the spirit of God. It lives also in many idolatrous and superstitious usages of the Greek and Roman churches, against which the pure spirit of Christianity has instinctively protested from the beginning, and will protest, till all remains of gross and refined idolatry shall be outwardly as well as inwardly overcome, and baptized and sanctified not only with water, but also with the spirit and fire of the gospel.

Finally the better genius of ancient Greece and Rome still lives in the immortal productions of their poets, philosophers, historians, and orators, — yet no longer an enemy, but a friend and servant of Christ. What is truly great, and noble, and beautiful can never perish. The classic literature had prepared the way for the gospel, in the sphere of natural culture, and was to be turned thenceforth into a weapon for its defence. It passed, like the Old Testament, as a rightful inheritance, into the possession of the Christian church, which saved those precious works of genius through the ravages of the migration of nations and the darkness of the middle ages, and used them as material in the rearing of the temple of modern civilization. The word of the great apostle of the Gentiles was here fulfilled: “All things are yours.” The ancient classics, delivered from the demoniacal possession of idolatry, have come into the service of the only true and living God, once “unknown” to them, but now everywhere revealed, and are thus enabled to fulfil their true mission as the preparatory tutors of youth for Christian learning and culture. This is the noblest, the most worthy, and most complete victory of Christianity, transforming the enemy into friend and ally.