Gore Vidal makes this history of the Roman Emperor Julian come alive, and he makes it clear that being on the fast track, by birth, to that role in life wasn’t pleasant. There was a short life expectancy for the Emperors of that time and Julian only made it to age thirty-two before being killed. From birth through adolescence and young adulthood, there were daggers pointed at him from his own family, and when Emperor there were plenty more from everyone. That was just part of the job description for being Emperor.
Vidal makes a portrait of an intelligent young man with the finest teachers of the world as his personal tutors, growing up within a protected palace. But the staff soldiers were more his captors than his protectors. Julian grew to adulthood being trained as a scholar and priest. His inclinations brought him to Athens to study philosophy, which seems innocent enough, but it brought him into direct conflict with the newly created state-sanctioned Christian Church. The state religion was then only some thirty years old. Even though he was being trained for a lead position in the Christian hierarchy he was personally inclined to revert to the Classic Greco-Roman traditions and philosophy. Because of that reversion he is now known as Julian the Apostate by Christians. It seemed no matter which way he turned his world was filled with enemies. The Roman world was in a state of turbulent transition, and the Christians were being successful taking over the power of the state. In that political situation a person is compelled to choose one side or the other and stick with it, but that inevitably alienates many of the people.
It was a difficult situation and Julian, like many heads of state, reconciles himself to the fact that he can be assassinated at any moment no matter what he does and no matter how careful he is. Vidal portrays Julian as an increasingly superstitious man performing more and more of the ancient traditions of ritual slaughter of animals and then reading their entrails for omens as to what decisions he should be making on profoundly complex political situations. All goes relatively well until, after defeating a Persian army and being granted a liberal division of the Tigris-Euphrates valley, he declines and continues the war in hopes of gathering all the world to India under his domain, like the area Alexander the Great had captured some five hundred years earlier. From that decision everything goes badly, and soon Julian was killed, possibly assassinated, and the Christians take over.
Julian: A Novelby Gore Vidal was my book club’s book of the month, and we are going to discuss the religious implications of how Julian’s behavior affected Christianity and the Western world for the next one thousand seven hundred years. It might be argued that with Julian’s death the Classic Greco-Roman world view ended, and what is known as the dark ages began.