Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.04.24 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.04.24

Nicholas Baker-Brian, Shaun Tougher (ed.), Emperor and Author: The Writings of Julian the Apostate.   Swansea:  Classical Press of Wales, 2012.  Pp. xxi, 384.  ISBN 9781905125500.  $110.00.  

Reviewed by Hagith Sivan, University of Kansas (


Does it take one author to know another? Perhaps like Gore Vidal, Julian would have entitled his memoirs a palimpsest. Both men grew up in a “house of Atreus” and both ultimately proved to be failed politicians, one to act as an emperor by right of birth, the other to constitute himself as a shadow emperor by right of maternal remarriage. In 2009 an assembly of scholars approached and probed Julian as an object of literary analysis. The outcome is impressive, comprising of 19 wide-ranging articles.

The brief introduction by the editors is nicely complemented by Jacqueline Long’s “afterword” which acts as a summary-commentary on all the papers in this volume. This is a welcome feature of the collection. The new Julian emerges as a versatile and manipulative author, albeit somewhat pedantic and demanding. He is a man entitled to an analysis usually accorded to an accomplished author with literary sensibilities determined by his upbringing and career. The degree to which it is possible to separate the man from the author, the emperor from his writings, and Julian from his Christian imperial family and successors is, however, not simple to determine.

The first three essays focus on Julian’s “family” orations, the two speeches to Constantius and the one to Eusebia. Shawn Tougher deals with Julian the family panegyrist, specifically with the first panegyric on Constantius II (Or 1). He links it with two other near contemporary works of the same nature, Themistius’ first two orations (both addressed to Constantius), and Libanius Or. 59, all three perhaps providing models for a young prince contemplating a similar literary venture. The difference was subtle yet powerful. Themistius and Libanius could perform their presentation in the traditional role of a panegyrist. They did not have to rewrite a family history. Julian was too close to the subject and hence was also “deliberately subversive” (p. 29). Hal Drake follows the panoply of Homeric heroes that Julian enlisted in his second speech to Constantius in order to magnify the virtues of the addressee. Pondering the date, fate, and the circumstances of the oration Drake boldly asserts that we need to read the oration as a parody, a light hearted literary composition composed to while away the harsh Parisian winters. It never made its way to the court or to Constantius. A game of words, the second oration to Constantius was a caricature. As such, it complemented the “limited and one sided picture that we have of Constantius and his court” (p. 43). Ammianus evidently had a worthy forerunner. Completing the portrait of this somewhat dysfunctional imperial family Liz James analyses the speech of thanks to Eusebia, Constantius’ wife and Julian’s patron at the court. This is an important speech, not the least since, as James correctly notes, it is the only surviving panegyric about a woman.1. With a slight adaptation of the iconic rules laid down by Menander on the composition of panegyrics, Julian’s oration managed to depict a generic empress. James examines several propositions: the speech as a critique of Constantius, as “implicitly critical of Eusebia” herself, and as a piece geared to an audience that shared with the author a “complicit silence”, an understanding that the words heard did not match up to a reality check (pp. 52-4). Was Julian in a position to criticise, openly or otherwise, the imperial couple? Was the imperial couple too obtuse to comprehend the criticism? Perhaps, then, the speech was written “retrospectively” (p. 54), after the parties were safely in their grave. Julian’s Eusebia is ultimately an image that reflects its creator more than the woman created, a construct that falls somewhere between the empress presented by Ammianus and the counter picture preserved in Christian sources.

A retrospective campaign was conducted by Gregory Nazianzen in his battle of words with Julian, as Susanna Elm ably argues both in her contribution to this volume and in her book on the subject. Analysing the clash between these two worthy opponents, the one quite dead, Elm shows how the posthumous war ranged, battlefield by battlefield, and how the winner scored only because he and the defeated party were so evenly matched. “Without paganism” there could be “no Christianity”, and without Julian the Hellenist no Gregory the theologian (p. 15).

Mark Humphries sets out to save from oblivion Julian’s letter to the Athenians, dispatched from Naissus when the shadow of a civil war was looming large. It is a rare document that outlines a justification for usurpation and, if need be, for a civil war. A similar message was sent to other cities, in itself an act of unparalleled originality. One wonders whether Julian’s true weakness resided in the compulsive habit of an author to explain and justify every move. Emperors rarely do. In his perspicacious analysis of the text Humphries traces the artful way in which Julian recast his opponent, transforming the benevolent ruler of his earlier panegyrics into a tyrant who ought to be deposed for the general good. As an appeal for support the Letter was a masterpiece of propaganda. It was not put to the test. Its efficacy cannot be measured.

Two other contributors focus on other pieces of Julianic correspondence (Watt, Trapp), providing fresh insights into the person, the genre, and the larger literary-political context in which these were composed

Jill Harries correctly asks which pieces of Julian’s vast literary output, especially his legal rulings, is likely to have been the authentic words of the emperor himself. She shows that the editors of the Theodosian Code who incorporated Julian’s laws in the Code elected, perhaps perversely, to ignore Julian’s intentions while incorporating the rules that he had promulgated. Harries peruses the fine line that Julian had to tread. As member of Constantine’s family he could not afford to ignore the laws of his predecessors. But he could engage in covert criticism (p. 132). She concludes with the observation that Julian’s laws reflected his personality and style to a much greater degree than the laws issued by any of his imperial successors.

Three articles address the public image of the emperor as reflected in inscriptions, coins and artistic objects (Salway, López Sánchez, Varner). Salway includes a useful summary of the inscriptions that relate to Julian’s reign, concluding that the genuine voice of the emperor rarely came through. López Sánchez follows Julian’s coinage, stage by stage, focusing on the Arlesian mint and on the famous bull coinage, both less idiosyncratic than had been assumed. In fact, the coins conformed to established patterns of imperial coinage rather than to the emperor’s personal preferences. Varner analyses the iconography of Julian portraiture on both coins and statues, tracing their artistic genealogy back to Aeneas, Numa, Marcus Aurelius and Pythagoras. The fine analysis offers a welcome corrective to the image of Julian the Hellenist. When need be, the emperor Julian knew how to conduct himself as a Roman.

Another mini-collection of challenging articles focuses on literary expressions of Julian’s religion, from his hymns to the Mother of the God (Liebeschuetz) and to Helios (A. Smith), through his speeches against the Cynics (Marcone), his composition against the “Galileans” (Hunt) and the Misopogon (Baker-Brian). Liebeschuetz examines the Hymn to the Mother of the Gods as a centrepiece of Julian’s program of religious revival over which he was to preside as a grand priest. Both this Hymn and the one to Helios “represent a systematic intellectual apology for the paganism that Julian was seeking to revive”. With a sure hand Liebeschuetz paints a broad canvass as he pulls together strands from Neoplatonism, the Chaldean Oracles, the Cynics, allegorical interpretation, Attis, Cybele and Helios, festival and myth interpretation, and Christianity. By way of conclusion, Liebeschuetz allows the emperor, his audience, and modern readers to share the lovely final prayer to Cybele. “Grant me that I may have true knowledge… and that the close of my life may be painless and glorious”. Was it?

I am not sure how painful or painless was Julian’s death but he certainly enjoyed a remarkable afterlife as a noted wit, whose Caesars found cheerful translators and appreciative audiences in the 16th-18th centuries. Rowland Smith’s fascinating post mortem of Julian’s Caesars provides a testimony, if one is needed, that although the movement lost, the man ultimately won. Centuries after his brief reign Julian became a malleable underdog, a model of enlightened tolerance for Voltaire (p. 310). It was the ultimate apotheosis as Flavius Claudius Iulianus was transformed into Mr Julian the Apostate, a gentleman whom Henry Fielding paired with other ingeniously created denizens of the Elysian Fields.

This is a volume that ought to be read by any student of Julian and, indeed, by any student of late antiquity. In view of the high quality of the contributions, I suspect that it would have been useful, and original, to include a portion or even the whole of the discussions that must have followed each presentation.


1.   See also my comments in Galla Placidia. The Last Roman Empress (Oxford 2011).

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