You are Winning, O Julian

Rome’s last pagan emperor was Julian, who died in 363. Christianity had been officially tolerated before he occupied the imperial throne, though he tried to reverse this. Knowing that all-out persecution appeared to strengthen the church, he subtly attempted to make its membership more onerous. He forbade Christians to study classical literature, asserting “If they want to learn literature, they have Luke and Mark: Let them go back to their churches and expound on them". He removed privileges formerly given to bishops and decreed freedom of religion for all faiths, which, though sounding pleasant to our modern ears, was designed to encourage the old paganism. Some sources say he even tried to create an empire-wide pagan church, with a centralised priesthood and Platonic theology. In 363 he even attempted to rebuild the Jewish Temple at Jerusalem, not so much for the Jews but to irritate the Christians. Incidentally, an earthquake, ‘fires’ and the emperor’s own death prevented construction.

In 364, Julian died, either by the hand of a Persian or a home-grown assassin. His dying words, as he clutched some blood-soaked sand and cast it upwards, were reported as "You have won, Galilean".

This enigmatic saying could mean several things. It may have anticipated his successor, Jovian, who undid his religious policies and restored to Christianity its legal protections. Or was he acknowledging that Jesus Christ, hailing from Galilee, would outlive the dying emperor and his pagan ways. It may also be an enlightened admission that Christ’s church would prevail though the very gates of hell issue forth against it. In one respect, Julian was right: paganism never did make the great come back. As time went on, belief in the old gods died out, and the Galilean reigned supreme.

Yet I wonder if we might say to that dying soldier: "You have won, Julian". The state church which recovered from Julian’s blows soon showed symptoms of the very paganism he had sought to promote. The old gods crept back through saint-worship, the old idols through the churches’ love of statues, the powerful imperial priesthood in the Church’s upper clergy. Furthermore, as the twentieth-century wore on, Western society pursued the very de-Christianisation that Julian so fervently desired. Churches emptied, disdainful attitudes grew among intellectuals and politicians’ dismissal of faith would have met with the old emperor’s approval.

I think Julian won in the end. Yet the Galilean is soon to return, after which Julian’s ambitions will be dashed once and for all.

Image by Couleur from Pixabay