BMCR 2007.09.36

Julian the Apostate. Debates and Documents in Ancient History series

, Julian the Apostate. Debates and documents in ancient history. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007. xiii, 201 pages : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm.. ISBN 0748618864 £19.99 (pb).

If in 1993 Walter E. Kaegi could lament that ‘the past ten years did not experience the profusion of biographies and collections of new and republication of older studies of Julian that appeared in the half-dozen years after 1975’,1 the same cannot be said in 2007. Rather, the last ten years have witnessed an extraordinary flourishing of works on Julian, ranging from academic studies to popular biographies and literary novels.2 Julian the Apostate, as part of the Debates and Documents in Ancient History series of the Edinburgh University Press, purports to offer a general and accessible introduction to the life and career of the emperor. Shawn Tougher (lecturer at Cardiff University, and already the author of three articles on Julian)3 describes his book as ‘an attempt to provide an indication of the different views of Julian that exist and to supply a selection of the key evidence utilised in the construction of these divergent interpretations of him’ (ix).

The book is divided into two parts: Part I (1-73), entitled ‘Debates’, contains an introduction followed by six chapters presenting ‘key areas’ in the life and reign of Julian; Part II (‘Documents’: 74-177), contains a selection of primary texts in translation, which are referred to in Part I through a system of internal cross-references. The six chapters of Part I unfold in a standard chronological progression: from Julian’s childhood (Ch.1) to his Persian campaign (Ch. 6), through the events which marked Julian’s personality and imperial career: his ‘Conversion’ (Ch. 2) and his military endeavours in Gaul (Ch. 3). Chapters 4 and 5, while still in line with the general chronology, are more thematic in character: they discuss the ‘imperial style’ of Julian (Ch. 4) and his religion (Ch. 5). Accompanying the volume’s historical overview of Julian are a timeline, a family tree of the emperor, and three maps of the Empire; a guided ‘further reading’ section, a section with ‘essay questions and exercise topics’, and a list of Internet resources.

Throughout the book, readers are encouraged ‘to make up their own minds’ (11) about Julian, and to assess the interpretations favoured by contemporary scholars in the light of the primary sources. While T. is aware of only being able to provide ‘a partial account’ (31) of the emperor, the account which he presents is intended to be as comprehensive of Julian’s different roles as possible. So while in Ch. 2 Julian is described as a curious student attending philosophy classes, in Ch. 3, he is ‘a super soldier and an economic whiz kid’ (33). T. emphasises the revolutionary character of both Julian’s economic policy in Gaul and of his reform of court finance (which reveals his ‘practical streak’ [46]). In the course of his discussions, T. raises many intriguing questions with regard to both the nature of Julian’s accession,4 and the scope, aims and methods of his campaign against the Persians. Less convincing is the author’s selection of what constitutes a central, controversial issue in other areas. One wonders, for instance, why T. would want to focus on Julian’s ‘imperial style’ without ever mentioning the related issue of Julian’s political philosophy. Similarly, T. devotes much of his book to discussing the ponderous ‘what if?’ question (‘Success or failure?’ [59-62]), yet never mentions Julian’s puzzling eccentricity with regard to divination, nor critically engages with the problem of his organisation of the pagan clergy.5 T.’s disregard for certain thematic areas is at least partially attributable to the notable absence of several items from his bibliography. This is particularly the case with recent international publications — something which reflects the decidedly anglophone prejudice of the book.6

If Part I represents an attempt to define the key themes in the study of Julian, Part II can be seen as an incentive for the reader to turn to the existing sources, in order to formulate personal thoughts on the issues raised. The primary texts of Part II cover a range of diverse literary sources, and include selections from Julian himself, Libanius and Eunapius, Ammianus and Zosimus, Eutropius and Festus; as well as the 362 panegyric of Mamertinus, excerpts from the Theodosian Code, four inscriptions, and several passages from Christian authors. To this literary material T. also adds the images of three coin types and a picture of the statue of Julian that now stands at the Louvre. Missing from T.’s otherwise exhaustive selection of sources are Julian’s oration Against the Uneducated Cynics (which conventionally precedes Against the Cynic Heracleius) and the important Latin inscription from Ma’ayan Barukh praising Julian as restaurator templorum.7 More regrettable still is the fact that T. mostly presents his choice texts in their standard English translations. Only in a few instances does the author offer his own adaptation of these translations (this is the case, for instance, with Julian’s own writing). The fact that the only author freshly translated by T. is Orosius surely represents a missed opportunity to provide a new English rendering of important primary sources (rather strikingly, the translations of Socrates and Philostorgius quoted by T. date to 1890 and 1855 respectively).

As a short description of the contents of Julian the Apostate should have suggested, the book is more about raising the right questions concerning the emperor than it is about providing the right answers. But while running out of problems with Julian is always unlikely, and while T.’s volume undoubtedly fulfils the useful task of presenting students with rich food for thought, a reader more familiar with the subject cannot avoid feeling that there is much missing from the book: that in some cases T. could have raised different questions and could have pointed to different issues. If Julian is so popular a historical figure among scholars today, devising an introduction to his life and reign undoubtedly constitutes a challenging task: the primary sources are many and conflicting, as are the various academic debates which revolve around them. As an introduction to the life and reign of Julian, T.’s book has the merit of engaging in the taxing job of tackling, condensing and presenting some of the key debates in the field to the inexperienced reader. However, T.’s volume is not entirely successful in its endeavour: while Julian the Apostate covers much ground in its 201 pages of source review and historical criticism, as an unambitious introduction to the fascinating and complicated figure of the last pagan emperor it has little to offer the reader that cannot already be found in standard introductions to the subject.8


1. W.E. Kaegi, ‘An Investigation of the Emperor Julian’, The Ancient World 24.1 (1993) 45-53, 49.

2. Among the most recent academic biographies of Julian are K. Bringmann, Kaiser Julian (Darmstadt, 2004) and K. Rosen Julian. Kaiser, Gott und Christianhasser (Stuttgart, 2006). The most recent fictional accounts of the emperor are M.C. Ford, Gods and Legions (New York, 2002) and R. Spector, Who Killed Apollo and Julian Augustus? (Colts Neck, NJ, 2006).

3. Cf. S. Tougher ‘In praise of an empress: Julian’s Speech of thanks to Eusebia’ in M. Whitby (ed.), The Propaganda of Power: The Role of Panegyric in Late Antiquity (Leiden, 1998) 105-23; Idem ‘The advocacy of an empress: Julian and Eusebia’, Classical Quarterly 48 (1998) 595-99; Idem ‘Julian’s bull coinage: Kent revisisted’, Classical Quarterly 54 (2004) 327-30.

4. Regrettably, T. — who describes Julian’s usurpation as the possible product of a ‘pagan conspiracy’— makes no reference here to Jean Bouffartigue’s seminal article ‘Du prétendu parti paiïen au prétendu fléau de Dieu: observations sur l’action antichrétienne de l’empereur Julien’ ( Rudiae 10 [1998] 59-90).

5. By implicitly following Asmus (1896), T. presents Julian’s letters to his priests as a conscious attempt on the part of the emperor to educate the clergy of his newly-established ‘pagan Church’ (58). As Mario Mazza has pointed out, however, the purpose of these letters (and hence the nature of Julian’s religious reform) is far less obvious. T. also takes no account of Peter van Nuffeln’s compelling suggestion that the so-called Letter to Arsacius might be a fifth-century fabrication. Cf. R. Asmus, ‘Eine Encyklika Julians des Abtrünnigen und ihre Vorläufer’, Zeitschrift für Kirchengeschichte 16 (1896) 45-71 and 220-52; M. Mazza, ‘Giuliano o dell’utopia religiosa: il tentativo di fondare una chiesa pagana?’, Rudiae 10 (1998) 19-42; P. van Nuffeln, ‘Deux fausses lettres de Julien l’Apostat (La lettre aux Juifs, Ep. 51 [Wright], et la lettre à Arsacius, Ep. 84 [Bidez])’, Vigiliae Christianae 56 (2002): 131-50.

6. Besides omitting the biographies of Julian mentioned above, and the important articles by Bouffartigue, Mazza and van Nuffeln, T. passes over a number of noteworthy works which have recently been published. On the significant issue of Neoplatonist theurgy, for example, the author refers to publications which are either outdated or incomplete: T. quotes E.R. Dodds and a 1985 article by Gregory Shaw, but refers neither to Shaw’s book Theurgy and the Soul (University Park, Pennsylvania, 1995) nor any of the more recent works on the subject by Emma Clarke and Carine van Liefferinge. Given T.’s willingness to include internet resources in his book, it might also have been worth mentioning M. Allisson, Les religions de l’empereur Julien: pratiques, croyances et politiques (Mémoires de l’Université de Neuchâtel, Faculté des Lettres et Sciences Humaines, Sciences de l’Antiquité), which has been published online.

7. Cf. W. Eck, ‘Zur Neulesung der Julian-Inschrift von Ma’ayan Barukh’, Chiron 30 (2000) 857-59.

8. Cf. (for instance) A. Cameron, The Later Roman Empire, AD 284-430 (Cambridge, Mass., 1993) Ch. 6; D. Hunt, ‘Julian’ in A. Cameron (ed.), The Cambridge Ancient History 13 (Cambridge, 1998) 44-77.