Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.02.16


ALSO SEEN: Athanassiadi, Polymnia. Julian: An Intellectual Biography. London and New York: Routledge, 1992. ISBN 0-415-07763-X. Pp.xxii, 249. $16.95 (pb).


Reviewed by James J. O'Donnell

This is a reprint of the book already known as Polymnia Athanassiadi-Fowden, Julian and Hellenism (Oxford U. Press, 1981). The work is altered by the substitution of a new bibliography constructed on a different plan from that of the first edition (and incorporating work published since 1981) and a 13 page preface entitled 'Why a Reprint?' which promises to eschew a spirit of aggression or self-defence; in fact the preface does not address the question of the need for a reprint and confines itself to aggressive self-defence.

The author's research supervisor has characterized the book as 'the work of an admirer, but with much of interest on the intellectual side of Julian's personality', which is a fair characterization; the author herself reacts in the preface against charges of having served as a hagiographer. It is indeed refreshing to read so candid a book, one that lets us feel what it would be like to be an admirer of Julian and to see the late antique world from that perspective.

What is striking on rereading, however, is precisely the geography on which the discussions of such a book are played out. Julian remains a figure of far greater potency in our time than he ever was in his own, and great things are at stake when he is spoken of: feelings run high, enthusiasms are engaged, and Gore Vidal's really quite unexceptional screed must set some kind of record for continuous readership for a historical novel about an otherwise neglected period. This book symmetrically disresembles the austere skepticism of Glen Bowersock's essay of 1978 (and he has taken the field to chastise this volume on more than one occasion), but both are animated by the same sense of urgency: what to make of Julian matters. There are other students of late antiquity, notably Peter Brown, for whom Julian remains mercifully on the sidelines, but all our brave ideas about struggling through to a post-Christian world in which these old factions and old policies are laid to rest are confuted by this oddity, this undigestable hybrid, in whom all the excesses of Christianity and the 'paganism' it forced into being through its fears come together. We are forced to read of him as saint or monster: I hope if we could meet him he would turn out to be actually rather mild-mannered, pedantical, and boring -- rather like ourselves!