BMCR 1997.03.22

Julian’s gods : religion and philosophy in the thought and action of Julian the Apostate

, Julian's gods : religion and philosophy in the thought and action of Julian the Apostate. London and New York: Routledge, 1995. xvii, 300 pages. ISBN 9780415034876.

Rowland Smith’s Julian’s Gods is something of a paradox. On one hand, by eschewing the biographic approach that has long dominated Julianic studies in general and recent Julianic scholarship in English-speaking countries in particular and opting instead for a thematic treatment of Julian’s thought and action with respect to Hellenic culture and religion, Smith has produced perhaps the most original book on Julian ever written in English.[1]On the other hand, Smith’s repeated reliance on the arguments and conclusions of others—particularly those of specialists in fields tangential to the study of Julian himself—will doubtless lead some to dismiss Julian’s Gods as excessively derivative. Whatever justice there is in either verdict will depend on a careful consideration of Smith’s method and its results, a precis of which follows.

In a preface, Smith describes his interest as “the texture of Julian’s cultural mentality in its extended sense,” explaining that “… the reader could take ‘Julian’s gods’ to refer not only to a set of deities, but to a cultural pantheon in which the guiding lights and heroes of Julian’s Hellenism also found a place: ideals of human achievement, conduct and knowledge that he commends in his writings; the myths and texts that enshrine or explain them in his eyes; the humans he calls ‘godlike’ for what they had written or done” (p. xvi). He also anticipates what will be his recurring disagreement with fundamental features of the portraits of Julian painted by Glen Bowersock and Polymnia Athanassiadi.

Chapter 1, an introduction entitled “The Emperor and the writer,” sketches Julian’s life and considers Julian the writer, whose works reveal, in Smith’s words, “a man of refined taste for whom philosophy and literature were obvious modes of discourse between educated persons” (p. 10). Here and in what follows, Julian’s Gods takes issue with Bowersock’s portrayal of Julian’s personality as “a pathological figure, uneasy in his personal relationships and essentially humorless, and prone to use the written word as a substitute for genuine social contact” (p. 10). On the contrary, Smith discerns in the breadth of Julian’s literary interests and in his attention to the demands of various literary genre—to “modes of discourse”—justification for the verdict that “If Julian was not a great writer, he was certainly not an indifferent one, and he can often be read with fondness: there is a peculiar blend of vivacity and eloquent learning to be found in much of what he wrote, and a good deal that is charming and touching” (p. 15).

Smith’s focus falls next on what Julian’s writing suggests about his views on religion and philosophy and their relationship to one another. Here three central issues emerge: the degree to which Julian was a philosopher; Julian’s notion of what religion involved and how this “theology” correlates with Julian’s “devotional interests and practices” (p. 17); and the connection between Julian’s “philosophic affiliations” and his pagan restoration—all three, Smith contends, best addressed through the careful reading of what Julian wrote after his accession. The resultant dependence on so much evidence produced in so short a span—about eighteen months—precludes for Smith the sort of “intellectual biography” produced by Athanassiadi and necessitates the thematic approach which he adopts in Julian’s Gods.

This said, Smith’s next chapter, entitled “Julian’s Education and Philosophical Ideal,” deals primarily with the intellectual development of Julian prior to his elevation in Paris. During that period, Smith holds, Julian received in intermittent doses a conventional upper-class education with no particular philosophical emphasis or any unusual degree of depth. He studied through doxographies the works of Plato, Aristotle, and various representatives of the major philosophical schools (developing along the way an abhorrence of Skeptic and Epicurean teaching). The result was “a learned man with an abiding interest in philosophy and a high regard for philosophers,” but bereft of “a specialist’s philosophic knowledge or expertise” (p.35)—a man for whom philosophy and public virtue in action were inextricably entwined and evidenced in such important concepts as parrhesia and philanthropia, yet, at the same time, a man convinced of the fundamentally hieratic nature of philosophy and philosophers, a notion which grew from his philosophical studies in general and which was reinforced by his exposure to the Chaldaean Oracles, to Iamblichus’ commentary on the same, together with that philosopher’s Protrepticus, Pythagorean Life, and On the Gods, and to Porphyry’s Against the Christians. This Julian was neither a devotee of theurgy to the degree alleged by Athanassiadi, nor, as Bowersock asserts, isolated by his intellectual training from the sensibilities of his subjects.

Chapter 3, on Julian’s two orations against the Cynics, critiques the view of Athanassiadi that Against the Uneducated Cynics (Or. 6) is an exposition of Neoplatonic doctrine with respect to paideia and argues against her position that, when paired with Or. 7, Against the Cynic Heraclius, it was Julian’s response to a philosophic school whose tenets he viewed as offensive in their own right, one which he thought had the potential to undermine his planned pagan renaissance. Instead, Smith finds Orations 6 and 7 little more than a series of commonplaces, precisely what one would expect of works produced within the space of a few days—the latter, in fact, Julian’s rejoinder in very controlled circumstances to Heraclius’ recent portrayal of himself as Zeus and of Julian as Pan. Both pieces, pace Athanassiadi, are nothing more than “an oratorical display of learning and skill in the manipulation of a familiar repertoire of literary invective” (p. 90), the product of Julian “practicing philosophy none too rigorously in a well-established style of cultural discourse” (p. 91).

Chapter 4 investigates the Chaldaean Oracles and its influence on Julian’s thought and action. Therein Smith reviews theories about the origin and genesis of this text, and, although noting that certainty is impossible, inclines toward the view that the form in which ancient Neoplatonists knew it was the result of an incremental process to which their own exegesis contributed. An important reflection of this imposition of Neoplatonic concerns onto the Chaldaean Oracles was the intricate soteriological theory its revelations inspired, an integral part of which Smith holds to have been the elevation of the soul through theurgy, particularly as espoused by Iamblichus in reaction to Porphyry’s telescoping psychic theory. It was not just the Chaldaean Oracles but equally Iamblichus’ exegesis to which Julian accorded canonical status.

Smith (pp. 109-113) posits a connection between Iamblichus’ interpretation of the Oracles and a rise in anti-Christian sentiment during the early fourth century. This shift, Smith thinks, had some effect on Julian, though one hardly so great as to lead him to plan the foundation of a pagan church whose ritual would reflect a Neoplatonic orthodoxy, as Bidez, Bowersock, and, most pointedly, Athanassiadi have alleged. Instead, Smith finds the model for Julian’s “pagan church” in the legislation of Maximinus Daia, and notes that, despite the Neoplatonic connections of some of Julian’s appointees to priesthoods, nowhere does Julian mandate to them the studies or practices associated with theurgy. Rather, says Smith (p. 113), Iamblichan theurgy “was part of [Julian’s] personal credo, but not the whole of it. It belonged principally to the philosophic piety of the private man, telling him how the universe cohered and the happy fate that awaited his soul. … We need not think on that account that he wished to transform the ancestral cults of the Empire into an earthly monument to the One God of the philosophers.”

This interpretation of Julian’s relationship to the philosophy of Iamblichus is central to Smith’s subsequent Chapters 5 through 7, on Mithraism, the Metroac worship, and Christianity, respectively. Smith initially attempts to set the cults of Mithras and Cybele within a cultural framework, distinguishing, in the process, between speculative interest in the mysteries and actual initiation and participation.

It is no surprise that the massive researches of Cumont on Mithraism left an indelible impression on his colleague Bidez, and, given the immense and largely justified influence of Bidez’ La Vie de l’Empereur Julien, that Mithraism has been accorded a prime position in Julian’s thought, as, for example, by Athanassiadi. Though Bowersock voiced a succinct demurral, it is Smith, drawing upon recent trends in Mithraic scholarship, who offers the first detailed critique of what has become the generally accepted view of a close connection between Julian and Mithraic doctrine. Smith rightly cautions against a narrow emphasis on alleged soteriological aspects of Mithraism and the assumption that initiation into the cult necessarily entailed any deep commitment to active involvement. Philosophical interests, in Julian’s case based on Iamblichan Neoplatonism, appear to Smith to have prompted the Emperor’s interest in the mysteries in general and in Mithraism in particular. Mithraic ritual provided a subject for philosophical exegesis but did not substitute for theurgic rites linked by Iamblichus to the divine revelations of the Chaldaean Oracles. Indeed, Smith raises important doubts about the date of Julian’s acknowledged initiation into the cult of Mithras, placed by Athanassiadi in 351, and demonstrates the role played by modern identifications of Mithras with the god Helios in attempts to link this initiation to Julian’s involvement with Neoplatonic theurgy, his “conversion” to paganism, or his initiation in the Eleusinian Mysteries during his brief stay in Athens. As for the Mysteries of Cybele, though a precise date for Julian’s initiation is beyond recovery, an early formal involvement on his part is suggested by the prominence of the cult of Magna Mater at Ephesus and by the association of Hecate, so important to theurgic ritual, with Cybele (pp. 137-138).

If Mithraic doctrine did exert any significant influence on Julian, Smith reasons, it would be most evident in the Hymn to King Helios. Chapter 6 tests this hypothesis in light of current notions of Mithraism. The result is a convincing case that almost all of what has generally been taken to reflect Mithraism in the Hymn actually derives from Julian’s understanding of the Chaldean Oracles and from Iamblichan theurgy. In addition, Chapter 6 offers good reasons to grant the cult of Cybele pride of place over that of Mithras in Julian’s mind. Especially interesting is Smith’s contrast of Mithras—a relatively modern cult, popular among soldiers and thought to have Persian origins—to Sol Invictus and to Cybele, whose Phrygian origins linked her to those of Rome, who was protector of the Roman state, possessor of cult centers throughout the West, including Rome herself, and patroness of pious Emperors. Little wonder, says Smith (p. 178), that it was not through the mysteries of Mithras but through Cybele and her cult that Julian thought “the Empire could be cleansed of ‘the stain of atheism’ (Or. 5.180b).”

“Stain of atheism” refers, of course, to Christianity, Julian’s relationship to which is the subject of “The Apostate Against the Christians,” Chapter 7 of Julian’s Gods. Three closely connected topics occupy Smith’s attention: Julian’s conversion, his criticism of Christianity, and his anti-Christian political measures. As for the first, Smith raises important questions, any answers to which the nature of the evidence makes problematic at best. Was Julian a devout and committed Christian in his youth? Should Julian’s recollections of presages of his devotion to the gods during his Christian childhood be taken at face value or are they the retrojections of a would-be born-again pagan? What role did the literary conventions of conversion narrative play in the testimonia about Julian’s apostasy? Did personal hatred for certain of his Christian relatives and childhood contacts contribute to his pagan conversion? Finally, and most important, is there any discernible link between the range of probable answers to such questions and Julian’s anti-Christian thought and actions?

Julian’s Against the Galilaeans understandably occupies a central position in Smith’s analysis of Julian’s objections to Christianity. Smith observes that Julian couches his attack on Christian revelation in long-standing, derivative argumentation and suggests that Julian viewed Christian revelation based on a “once-and-for-all incarnation of God” as impossible to square with a Neoplatonic notion of revelation reconcilable with traditional Greco-Roman polytheism. Julian’s excoriation of the Old Testament god of the Jews reflects some of the same features. His comparison of the creation story of Genesis to Plato’s Timaeus, his charge against the Jews of a narrow, exclusive religiosity, and his indictment of the Jewish god in contrast to the classical theoi as a protector and provider all have more to do in Smith’s eyes with Julian’s traditional polytheism than with philosophy. The same is true of what Smith (p. 197) sees as Julian’s three charges against Christianity: the rejection of the good in Greek and Jewish traditions, the claim of Christ’s divinity, and the “repulsive and impious” nature of Christian religious practices. In sum, he maintains (p. 207) that Against the Galilaeans “… was written out of deep hatred for Christian thought and practice, and the social effects they had had throughout the Empire. To Julian, these were most palpable in the indifference of Christians to the cult of worship of the ancestral gods, and in their assumption that they could participate in the Greek republic of letters and yet deny what he saw as its religious core: a multiplicity of gods manifesting themselves in helpful epiphanies in return for the honours paid to them by mortals.”

He sides with a modified version of Bowersock’s characterization of Julian as an implacably intolerant persecutor, committed from the first to the eradication of Christianity. Bidez’ thesis of an initial tolerance Smith explains as a misreading of the caution with which Julian, of necessity, had to move in the early portion of his reign. He had, after all, inherited Constantius’ administration, commanders, and legions which had fought under the sign of the cross and the labarum. But once confident that he could act, Julian did. In a series of laws he revoked property and privileges granted the church by his Christian predecessors, working concurrently to restore the losses of pagan cult. In Antioch—partly as a response to the provocations of the Antiochenes and in reaction to particular problems elsewhere, partly in his anticipation of the help from the gods required for success against the Persians—Julian’s anti-Christian feelings intensified. Yet his conception of his goal was unchanged. His aim was as it had ever been: “the eradication of Christianity as a social force in the Empire” (p. 215). Thought and action became one as Julian, Hellene and Emperor, strove to merit the title restitutor of religio Romana, imperium Romanum, and, ultimately, the orbis terrarum. In a brief conclusion (pp. 219-224), Smith reiterates his major points.

Smith’s method is workmanlike. He carefully defines particular issues in Julianic scholarship closely linked to some other specialized field, summarizes the views on those same issues as expounded by students of Julian and his reign, and then shows how those views often depend on dated scholarship. So, for example, Cumont’s Iranian Mithraism and Athanassiadi’s understanding of the significance of Mithras for Julian fall before the findings of Roger Beck, R. L. Gordon, and Robert Turcan, Metroac cult as explicated by Maarten Vermaseren filling much of the resultant void.[2] More broadly, Smith plays off the immense scholarship of A. D. Nock and Jean Bouffartigue’s now-fundamental L’Empereur Julien et la culture de son temps.[3]

My own reaction is that Julian’s Gods is greater than the sum of its parts. At the most it undermines, at the least it challenges some fundamental tenets of Julianic scholarship. I would urge experts in Mithraic and Metroic studies and in Iamblichan Neoplatonism to evaluate Smith’s conclusions and the specialized scholarship upon which they rest. If this is done, regardless of whether or not Smith’s conclusions are confirmed (and I suspect that in most cases they will be), Julian’s Gods will have done the salutary service of calling into question what had become or were rapidly becoming the givens of Julianic studies. That in itself is no small accomplishment. But, over and above this, Julian’s Gods should be warmly welcomed for Rowland Smith’s positive contributions to our understanding of Julian’s mentalité and its implications for the study of Late Antiquity.[4]


[1] Between 1976 and 1981 three biographies of Julian appeared in English: Robert Browning, The Emperor Julian (Berkeley, 1976); Glenn W. Bowersock, Julian the Apostate (Cambridge, 1978); Polymnia Athanassiadi-Fowden, Julian and Hellenism (Oxford, 1981). Two significant exceptions to the biographical approach are Gerald H. Rendall The Emperor Julian, Paganism and Christianity (London, 1879), and William J. Malley, Hellenism and Christianity: the conflict between Hellenic and Christian wisdom in the Contra Galilaeos of Julian the Apostate and the Contra Julianum of St. Cyril of Alexandria (Roma, 1978). Notable dissertations are Conrad M. Rothrauff, The Philanthropia of the Emperor Julian (University of Cincinnati, 1964), and Scott G. Bradbury, Innovation and Reaction in the Age of Constantine and Julian (University of California at Berkeley, 1986).

Perhaps as a result of the high standard set by Johannes Geffcken, Kaiser Julianus (Leipzig, 1914), and, most famously, Joseph Bidez, La vie de l’Empereur Julien (Paris, 1930), European scholarship has taken a markedly different course and produced a series of monographs on special topics; for example, Wilhelm Ennslin, “Kaiser Julians Gesetzgebungswerk und Reichsverwaltung,” Klio Beiträge zur alten Geschichte XVIII (1923); Georg Mau, Die Religionsphilosophie Kaiser Julians in seinem Reden auf König Helios und die Göttermutter (Reprint of 1907 ed.; Rome, 1970); Cornelius J. Henning, De eerste schoolstrijd tussen kerk en staat onder Julianus den Afvallige (Nijmegen, 1937); Edgar Pack, Stadte und Steuern in der Politik Julians, Collection Latomus 194 (Brussels, 1986); and, most recently, Hans-Ulrich Wiemer, Libanios und Julian (Munich, 1995).

[2] As it is, in her brief introductory comments to Julian: An Intellectual Biography (New York, 1992), the paperback edition of Julian and Hellenism, Athanassiadi remarks (p. xiv): “I have over-emphasized Julian’s Mithraism and, although this is an issue on which on the whole reviewers kept silent, I feel that I may have distorted the balance of Julian’s religious belief, especially in his imperial years, by making him lean too heavily on the cult of Mithra.”

[3] Collection des Etudes Augustiniennes, Série Antiquité-133 (Paris, 1992).

[4] A few errors mar Julian’s Gods: on p. 25 mathemae spoudaion (all Greek is transliterated) appears as the nominative (?) of μαθήματος σπουδαίου; p. 175, Nicomachus thrice becomes Nihomachus; p. 233, nn. 34 and 36, and p. 288 Vanderspoel becomes Vander Spoel; p. 234, n. 51, Nestor for Nestorius; p. 243, n. 183, lamblichus for Iamblichus; p. 244, n. 16, Dicks for Hicks; and, p. 245, n. 24, Heraclius for Heraclitus.

In the 60 pages of notes and eight pages of bibliography, the latest reference is to the 1993 2nd edition of Robert Turcan’s Mithra et le Mithriacisme (Paris). However, even allowing for the time between finishing Julian’s Gods and its publication, there are some surprising omissions, among the most notable Alla Madre degli dei e altri discorsi, introduction by Jacques Fontaine, text by Carlo Prato, translation and commentary by Arnaldo Marcone. (Fondazione Lorenzo Valla, 1987); David Ulansey, The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries (New York, 1989); Robert J. Penella, Greek Philosophers and Sophists in the Fourth Century A.D.: Studies in Eunapius of Sardis (Leeds, 1990); and Julian and the Rebirth of Hellenism, The Ancient World 24.1 (1993), most of which is devoted to Julian and several contributions to which are closely connected to Smith’s concerns.