Abstract for 2013 Heartland Graduate Workshop in Ancient Studies

The Emperor Julian the Apostate’s brief reign from 361-363 CE is widely viewed as an abortive attempt to restore the status quo before the adoption of Christianity as the de facto state religion of the Roman Empire. While nominally a revival of the old cults, the renaissance envisioned by Julian reflected a new interpretation of Greco-Roman religious culture through the lens of his Neoplatonic philosophy and Mithraic religion. Reflecting a metaphysics of plurality out of unity, Julian endeavored to impose upon the diversity of civic, martial and mystery cults throughout his empire a uniform, ecclesiastical framework, atop which sat Julian as philosopher-priest and -king. Below him operated a priestly hierarchy in descending degrees of provincial jurisdiction, all of them initiates of a single esoteric philosophy and preachers of the ancient myths as their gospel. As natural mediators between humanity and divinity, their practice of philanthropia competed with Christian charity in taking credit for the blessings that heaven showers upon the world.

Julian’s Pagan Church was organized not merely as a reflection of the Roman political infrastructure to uphold the “sacred laws of the gods,” but rather one side of the same coin. A revival of civic cults and public worship he saw as the key to reinvigorating political life in the many cities of the empire, not only to restore their prominence by decentralizing the post-Diocletian bureaucracy, but also to contrast the apolitical, Christian ethos that he claimed drove people to “seek out deserts instead of cities.” Julian’s reconnection of civic ritual to political authority was also a means to concentrate power in the hands of pagans aristocrats, while his law against Christian pedagogy channeled the path to office through exclusively pagan educators.  His ideal of Hellenic paideia, as at once a literary, philosophic and religious education coevolutionary with the political virtues and destiny of the Roman res publica, was essentially a closed system that needed no outsider religion to bring it salvation. The piety that inspired the heroes, poets, orators and philosophers of a halcyon past was sufficient to secure prosperity for the sensible world he ruled below from the providence of the intellectual gods above.

As Plato’s politeia analogizes the constitution of one’s soul to that of the state, and as it was the creed of Neoplatonism to make one’s soul “likened to God,” so Julian saw his idiosyncratic catechism fundamental to constructing a Pagan City of God, built on the cardinal virtues of an idealized classical Athens and republican Rome, and not the vices of Christian Antioch and the Flavian court. A pagan clergy would be the vehicle of Julian’s quixotic quest to bring the fourth century after Christ back to the fourth century before.


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