A Most Unusual Emperor: Thoughts on Gore Vidal’s novel “Julian”

Julian was a Roman emperor in the fourth century, famous for trying to halt the spread of Christianity. I first heard about him in a course I took at university called “The Fall of the Roman Empire and Rise of the Barbarian Tribes.” It was a very good course and my professor, a dashingly energetic and handsome man, made all the more interesting. While he didn’t give much time to describing Julian in greater detail, he suggested we read Gore Vidal’s novel “Julian” if we were wanted to learn more. I bought a used copy and it sat on my bookshelf for two years until now, when I finally got around to reading it this fall.

What a fascinating book. Keeping in mind that it is a novel, and therefore historical fiction based on limited facts, it was still easy to see what an unusual ruler Julian was. He was a lover of philosophy, devoted to the Greek classics, well-read and learned. He wrote prolifically, dictating steadily for hours on end as scribes kept his thoughts and philosophies in order. He was also an intensely religious man, a follower of Hellenism and the old Greek gods via the religious sect of “Mithraism.” I recognized names such as Helios, Ares, Demeter, and Cybele from long-ago lessons in mythology. Julian’s personal mission as Emperor was to convert the Empire back to Hellenism and eradicate Christianity as much as possible, which he believed to be an exceedingly corrupt and violent sect. Julian died in his early thirties, so his mission was never completed and whatever headway he had made was undone by his Christian successors.

What I found particularly interesting was seeing how early Christianity was portrayed from the opposite side, that of its enemies and detractors. Up until now, my knowledge of that time period came from the Bible and the apostle Paul’s work in Rome, from Christian historians, from historical novelists highlighting the persecution of Christians by the Romans, or else fairly objective academic sources — never from the vantage point of someone who really disliked the Christians. The character Julian looks at all the ways in which Christians stole from ancient religious sects:

“The Christians slyly incorporated most of the popular elements of Mithras in to their own rites. Modern Christianity is an encyclopedia of traditional superstition. The Persian hero-god Mithras was born on December 25th, with shepherds watching his birth. Then Mithras is called up to heaven, after celebrating a sacramental last supper. The Mithraic code of conduct is more admirable than the Christian. Mithraists believe that right action is better than contemplation. They favour old-fashioned virtues like courage and self-restraint. They were the first to teach that strength is gentleness. All of this is rather better than the Christian hysteria which vacillates between murder of heretics on the one hand and a cringing rejection of this world on the other. Nor can a Mithraist be absolved of sin by a sprinkle of water.”

All in all, it was a great read. I’m usually not a big fan of military history, and this book had plenty of that, but it was the background on religion and philosophy and just the fascinating story of a very different sort of man that intrigued me. Has anyone else read this book or any other Gore Vidal novels, for that matter? What do you think?

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4 thoughts on “A Most Unusual Emperor: Thoughts on Gore Vidal’s novel “Julian”

  1. I read the book years ago and it is hardly military history, It is a typical Vidal anti-religious rant. (although he claimed he spent ten years researching it). I enjoyed it!

    1. So anti-religious rants are typical of him?! Intriguing. Perhaps the book wouldn’t be classified officially as military history, but there certainly was more in it than I would normally choose to read. I’m not used to military books of any kind.

  2. I read “Creation” by Vidal in the early 1980s when it first came out. It’s a dim memory, but I do remember loving it. It was about an explorer in the ancient world who went all over India, China, and the Middle East, and it drew a fascinating picture of life in those different places. Lots of interesting cultural and philosophical discussion among the characters which I found enlightening (I was in my early 20s at the time). I’ve often thought about re-reading it, but I’m kind of afraid that I would ruin the enchantment of my memory of it.

    1. That sounds really neat. I love stories of travellers in ancient times. It could ruin the memories you have, but likely you’d discover far more in that book than you ever picked up at the time of initial reading.

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