Julian the Apostate on Constantius

I imagine that most of us have read Ammianus Marcellinus.  The gloomy pall of the reign of Constantius, which opens the remaining books of that work, is almost palpable.  The atmosphere of suspicion and oppression, the constant denunciations, the fear of ordinary decent people confronted by people like Paul “the chain” … all this is horrifying.

It is interesting, therefore, to see how Julian refuses to attack Constantius in letter 13, which I scanned and placed online yesterday:

13. To Hermogenes, formerly Prefect of Egypt [361, Dec.? Constantinople]

Suffer me to say, in the language of the poetical rhetoricians, Ο how little hope had I of safety! Ο how little hope had I of hearing that you had escaped the three-headed hydra! Zeus be my witness that I do not mean my brother Constantius — nay, he was what he was—but the wild beasts who surrounded him and cast their baleful eyes on all men; for they made him even harsher than he was by nature, though on his own account he was by no means of a mild disposition, although he seemed so to many. But since he is now one of the blessed dead, may the earth lie lightly on him, as the saying is! Nor should I wish, Zeus be my witness, that these others should be punished unjustly; but since many accusers are rising up against them, I have appointed a court to judge them. Do you, my friend, come hither, and hasten, even if it task your strength. For, by the gods, I have long desired to see you, and, now that I have learned to my great joy that you are safe and sound, I bid you come.

The context of the letter is that Julian had been unexpectedly successful as general in Gaul.  This had roused the suspicions of Constantius, who had demanded that Julian send the best of his army to Constantius for service in the east.  Julian was promptly proclaimed emperor by the Gallic army. 

Constantius then had Julian proclaimed a public enemy, and made preparations to attack him.  This was a serious matter, for Constantius, although unlucky in foreign wars, had proven very capable at civil war.  But it came to nothing; as Julian marched east, Constantius died. 

Julian as the sole remaining member of the house of Constantine was accepted as emperor by everyone.  He set up a commission to enquire into the misdeeds of Constantius’ associates, and included several members of Constantius’ circle.  The hated Paul the Chain was burned alive, to universal rejoicing.

The verdict of Julian is interesting, thus.

… he was what he was.


4 thoughts on “Julian the Apostate on Constantius

  1. You know… Julian suddenly sounds a lot more geeky than I had imagined. All those self-conscious “Zeus be my witness” lines….

    It gives me the horrible feeling that he probably went through a stage of calling himself his equivalent of Morgan Seafire Wolfmoon.

  2. I’m sure you’re right. Julian’s life is that of a geek — all that conscious antiquarianism, the endless philosophy, in a young man is a sure sign.

  3. I am not so sure the Zeus references would have sounded all that odd at the time. Christianity was still the minority religion, so there would have been plenty of people around who would have still used the traditional forms. It doesn’t sound that out of the ordinary even today when somebody says ‘by Jove’. And atheists still use phrases like ‘God knows’ etc.

  4. The only way to find out is to look for sources before the period. But … by Julian’s time, paganism was pretty dead. Not that no-one believed in it; but Julian was trying to revive it, and had very little luck, even in his lifetime. I get the feeling that Julian, as with much else he did, is adapting a Christian “As God is my witness…” and deliberately paganising it. Remember he is not a pagan born and bred — in which case, I agree, it might be a sign of education — but a renegade from a Christian upbringing.

    It’s like the way he tried to do pagan sacrifices, and overdid it (as was commented at the time), ending up with vulgarity rather than devotion.

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