Julian and Christianity: Revisiting the Constantinian Revolution

David Neal Greenwood, Julian and Christianity: Revisiting the Constantinian Revolution (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2021). 9781501755484.

Reviewed by Jeremy J. Swist, Brandeis University, jeremswist@brandeis.edu.

The emperor Julian, dubbed “the Apostate” by his detractors for rejecting the faith of his upbringing and attempting to stop the spread of the Christian “pandemic” accelerated by his uncle Constantine and his sons, reigned as sole Augustus only from November 361 CE to his death in battle against the Sassanid Persians in June 363.1 With no pagan successor to maintain his policies, their effectiveness was ephemeral: if anything, his untimely death confirmed Christians’ triumphalist sense of destiny in the fourth-century contest of “whose god(s) better guarantee Roman victory” before the Visigoths prompted Augustine to change the game entirely in the fifth. One would think that even at the time of Julian’s death, it would have been easy to laugh off his efforts as futile, doomed, and a temporary setback; but bishops, theologians, and ecclesiastical historians thereafter betrayed real existential terror and a vulnerability that had been exposed by an emperor whose words were greater weapons than those wielded by more conventional persecutors like Decius and Diocletian. Such anxiety persisted into the late eighth century, exhibited, allegedly, both by a monk who called the iconoclast emperor Constantine V “a new Julian,” and by that emperor who had the monk whipped to death in the hippodrome for it.2 Obsessive Christian efforts to condemn and refute Julian ensured that his reputation, for good or ill, became quite disproportionate to either the length of his reign or its effect on world history, and partly account for the preservation of much of Julian’s writings. Even before the Neoplatonist forerunners of the Italian Renaissance got their hands on his works, Julian’s corpus of orations, satires, and letters—four Budé and three Loeb volumes worth—earned a place for its literary merit among the works of pagan Greek literature to survive Byzantium.

In the modern day, it is this corpus of Greek prose, and not the menace of an Antichrist, that is the basis for Julian’s perennial magnetism as a figure larger than life, resulting in a rich tradition of scholarship and various attempts to impose upon such a complex and polarizing figure a uniform evaluation of his character, his intentions, or even the bare historical facts distorted by the ira et studium of his contemporaries, posterity, and even himself in the struggle to control his legacy. In the twentieth century, numerous monographs by the likes of Bidez, Bowersock, Athanassiadi, and Smith offered holistic interpretations of Julian’s political, philosophical, and religious system and program of enactment thereof;3 the twenty-first century has so far seen Julianic scholarship advance through several articles and a handful of volumes edited by Schäfer, Marcone, Baker-Brian and Tougher, and Rebenich and Ulrich-Wiemer.4 Monographs have also appeared in this century from Italian and German scholars such as Rosen, de Vita, Nesselrath, and Stöcklin-Kaldewey,5 but scholarly monographs in English have not kept pace in terms of offering a grand narrative (pace Murdoch).6 Of what’s available, Teitler’s is largely a (necessary) refutation of anti-Julianic sources,7 while Elm is admittedly more interested in Gregory of Nazianzus than Julian8 and, in any case, it has been a decade since its publication.

David Neal Greenwood’s Julian and Christianity endeavors to not only satisfy this need of a grand narrative, but also reorients the trajectories of the past five decades of scholarship on Julian by offering “a new perspective” that is simultaneously, if not paradoxically, built substantially on the foundations laid by early twentieth-century scholars such as Wright, Koch, and Cochrane (11–12). These foundations include notions that Julian attempted to found a “pagan church” in direct imitation of ecclesiastical hierarchies and charities; that he remade pagan deities such as Heracles, Asclepius, and even himself in the image of Jesus; and that he strove to be for paganism what Constantine was for Christianity. Greenwood draws ideas from these earlier scholars that, while acknowledged piecemeal and in passing by later scholars, have yet to be synthesized into an interpretive framework for approaching the sum of Julian’s thoughts and actions, namely, that: (1) Christianity, not paganism or philosophy, was the primary influence on the emperor’s conception of religion and his role in its “restoration” as emperor; and (2) that Julian deliberately and systematically modeled his program of dechristianization on Constantine’s very program of Christianization, including the emperor’s theological self-fashioning.

To support this compelling and provocative thesis, Greenwood marshals a rich array of literature and epigraphy written by Julian and his pagan and Christian (near-)contemporaries; additionally, he dates certain texts—especially Julian’s Symposium (a.k.a. The Caesars) to the Saturnalia of 361—in order to persuasively repudiate Bidez’s influential claim that the emperor evolved from “raisonnable, clément et tolérant” at the start of his reign into a fanatical “théocrate” and persecutor.9 Greenwood treats Julian as seriously as his contemporary detractors: as a theocrat fully in command of his rational faculties, with which he methodically pursued a totalizing program of dechristianization at least as far back as his acclamation as Augustus.

While Christianizing readings of Julian are hardly new, Greenwood’s most original and compelling contributions to scholarly debates are twofold. First, he contends that “the emperor drew much more heavily from Christianity than has been appreciated, appropriating both Biblical texts and theological concepts” (2), referencing not only Julian’s education under Christian bishops but also his competent involvement in christological controversies. Second, he argues that Julian borrowed the concept of “recapitulation” from Irenaeus of Lyons—namely, that Christ redeemed the world by reenacting the career of Adam—and applied it to himself vis-à-vis Constantine; much as Constantine was styled in messianic terms, so did Julian (and his proponents) style himself as a pagan savior and rival to Christ. The key difference is that Jesus, unlike Adam, resisted Satan’s temptations and rejected his offer of world domination in exchange for worshiping him; Julian, however, accepted the same terms of that offer from the gods.

Greenwood’s introduction previews and situates the book’s arguments in historical and historiographical contexts. These include brief biographical sketches of Julian’s early life that emphasize the trauma of the murder of Julian’s family by Constantius II upon Constantine’s death in 337, as well as the nature of Julian’s education under Arian bishops and later Neoplatonist philosophers, particularly those who practiced theurgy and fully integrated traditional pagan religions and theologies into a sophisticated metaphysical framework. It is the varying emphases of contemporary scholarship on Julian’s proactive commitment to either Hellenic polytheism or philosophical monotheism as the prime mover of the emperor’s thought and action that Greenwood vigorously challenges with his theory that Julian approached everything through a Christianizing lens.

Part I of the book, “Co-opting a Framework,” focuses on the two men against whom Julian’s imperial career is mostly a reaction: first, his cousin Constantius II, then his uncle and Constantius’s father, Constantine. Chapter 1, “The Problem of Constantius II,” paints the political, military, and literary activities of Julian’s caesarship from 355 to 360 as conspiring in a gradual run-up to a deliberately stage-managed rebellion against the Christian Augustus. While Julian’s Letter to the Athenians of 361 receives due attention for his self-advertisement as the virtuous pagan alternative to a vicious Christian Constantius, Greenwood highlights how the usurper Augustus broke with Constantius (while still in sheep’s clothing) in 360 by manipulating synods and courting Western Nicenes against the Homoians. Chapter 2, “The Problem of Constantine,” constructs the image and legacy of Constantine that Julian received and contended with upon his accession to sole rule in 361, particularly Constantine’s Christianization and depaganization program that he would attempt to invert and recapitulate. This program included the monumental construction of churches and a new Christian capital along with the destruction of temples and restrictions on sacrifice, as well as Julian’s self-fashioning as a “mimetic image” of the Christian god and parallel of Christ modeled on the Tetrarchy’s associations with Jupiter and Hercules—which, in turn, was modeled on Christianity, as Greenwood suggests, citing an article from half a century ago (32). Greenwood importantly notes that this characterization of the often inscrutable Constantine and his religious intentions, to which Julian responded, was largely crafted by his contemporary proponents such as Lactantius and Eusebius.

Part II, “Crafting a Religious Metanarrative,” consists of close readings of a sequence of Julian’s writings that introduce various aspects of his dechristianization program and the remodeling of pagan gods on Christian theological models as alternative saviors to be assimilated with Julian himself. Chapter 3, “Mocking the False Savior,” makes a convincing case that Julian’s satirical Symposium, with its unmitigated mockery of Jesus and Constantine as morally unfit models and saviors for the empire, inaugurated his sole rule in 361. In their place, as the next two chapters “Crafting the Salvific Heracles” and “Crafting the Salvific Asclepius” assert, Julian offered these two Hellenic demigods as protochrists and forerunners of Julian’s own earthly ministry and apotheosis. For both of these parallels, Greenwood claims that Julian took direct inspiration from Porphyry, who attempted to synthesize Hellenic theology in direct rivalry with Christianity.

Chapter 4 focuses on Julian’s Oration 7, in which he introduces a Heracles with deliberately Christ-like attributes such as bodily purity and the ability to walk on water. This deified savior serves as a prelude to Julian’s narrative of his own salvific mission as another son of Zeus-Helios sent to earn his own divinization by lifting the Christian darkness from the world. This narrative he presents in an autobiographical myth that, while inspired by Prodicus’s “Choice of Heracles” (Xen. Mem. 2.1.21–34), appears to have deliberate parallels with Jesus’s temptation in the desert from Matthew’s gospel (4:1–10). Chapter 5 similarly presents Julian as an avatar of the healer god Asclepius on the basis of his Hymn to King Helios, where Asclepius’s relationship to Helios is presented in strikingly Christianizing terms: he is preexistent with Helios and begotten by Helios to be the savior of the world. As with the Heracles material, Greenwood adduces evidence from Julian’s contemporary supporters such as Libanius, Himerius, and Eunapius, as well as some epigraphic evidence, in order to corroborate Julian’s own supposed claims to (semi-)divinity.

Part III, “Constructing a Legacy to Reflect the Narrative,” shifts from Julian’s self-presentation to his attempts to leave a mark on the religious landscape of the Roman Empire by overwriting Constantinian efforts to that effect. Chapter 6, “Constructing the Spatial Narrative in Constantinople,” briefly treats Julian’s efforts, largely on the evidence of Himerius, to rebrand the Christian birth city with the erection of pagan temples, particularly a Mithraic “pagan chapel” on the grounds of the imperial palace. Chapter 7, “Creating a Robust Religious Structure,” reentrenches Koch’s century-old theory of Julian’s inchoative founding of an “église païenne” as a direct imitation of and competitor to the priestly ethics, functions, and hierarchies of the Christian Church. Then, in Chapter 8, “Constructing the Spatial Narrative in Antioch and Jerusalem,” Greenwood turns to these two cities as scenes of the emperor’s physical overwritings—at Antioch through his restoration of the shrine of Apollo at Daphne by disinterring the bones of martyrs and his closing of the Great Church, and at Jerusalem through his abortive rebuilding of the Jewish Temple in order to invalidate the prophetic narratives of Christian supersession.

The book’s conclusion speculates on how Julian’s Persian campaign and hoped-for victory therein might have fit into his religious program, and whether he would have fulfilled the implicit threats made in the Misopogon and dialed up active anti-Christian persecutions. Some form of decisive victory would certainly have strengthened the emperor’s hold on the army and validated the theology, whatever its nature, behind his imperial self-fashioning. Julian’s aims to supersede Constantine would have been furthered even here, as the latter had been planning his own Persian campaign at the time of his death.

In the broader view, Greenwood is challenging an abundance of scholarship, only some of which he cites or acknowledges, that grounds Julian’s thought and action in Roman tradition and Hellenic Neoplatonism. Pace Callimachus, this crusade cannot be easily waged in 120 pages, which admittedly expands upon five separate journal articles previously published (to some it may seem more of a distillation, lesser than the sum of its parts). Without a more direct and thorough engagement with scholars such as Jay Bregman, John Finamore, and Dominic J. O’Meara, who place Julian’s work within wider and more inclusive intellectual and religious contexts of late antiquity, Greenwood’s methodology at times resembles the proverbial hammer to which everything is a nail, privileging Christianizing readings of every piece of evidence.

This is especially concerning given how meager and inaccurate Greenwood’s summary of Julian’s Neoplatonic influences and doctrines is in the book’s introduction (8). He writes that “Julian’s framework at its foundation had one god existing on three levels of reality as the One, Helios, and Zeus,” with an endnote citing only himself and a dissertation from 1896. This is a rather ham-fisted synopsis of Julian’s presentation of the procession of hypostases as thoroughly fleshed out in his Hymn to King Helios and studies thereon by John Dillon, Rowland Smith, and others:10 Helios, “the king of all,” was equal to the One and the source of all being, “King” Helios was the chief of the gods of Intellect and equal to both Zeus and Plato’s Demiurge, and the visible Helios was chief of the visible gods, i.e., the Sun and planets in the sensible cosmos. Julian claims to derive this system directly from the philosopher Iamblichus, whom the emperor cites frequently as his chief authority in matters theological, a fact that Greenwood ignores. One of the few times Greenwood does mention Iamblichus, he misrepresents him: on p. 87 he writes that Iamblichus presented Pythagoras “as the son of Apollo” in parallel to Julian’s presentation of Asclepius as such. The passage cited from the Vita Pythagorica contradicts this: it states that “this should not be accepted at all” and affirms a more nuanced, alternative view that “Pythagoras’s soul had been sent down under Apollo’s leadership, being either a follower or otherwise arrayed with the god in a yet more intimate way.”11 If Julian followed Iamblichus, he would have conceived of Asclepius in a similar way, as Finamore has shown in this very case.12 Also troubling is Greenwood’s characterization of Julian’s original Neoplatonist teacher Aedesius as part of the “traditional Plotinian and Porphyrian variety,” while his subsequent teacher Maximus was “a follower of Iamblichus” (8). While he had some disagreements with Iamblichus regarding theurgy, Aedesius in fact was not only Iamblichus’s star pupil, but also Maximus’s own teacher. This oversight seems either a misinformed or misleading attempt to play up the potential influence of Porphyry’s writings on Julian, for which Greenwood proffers unconvincing intertextual arguments later in the book, besides the implausibility that Julian drew more inspiration from a philosopher who categorically rejected theurgy and blood sacrifice (Porphyry) than the one whom he lionizes as his authority on those very matters (Iamblichus).

The one time Julian mentions Porphyry by name, ironically, goes unmentioned by Greenwood, and it occurs in the very centerpiece of his argument in this monograph, Oration 7 (at 222B), where the emperor prescribes how myths should be interpreted. If Julian had read Porphyry, as Greenwood claims, he would surely have read On the Cave of the Nymphs on the matter of allegorical interpretation. Julian’s autobiographical myth, where he depicts himself as the son of Helios, is taken out of context in this oration and interpreted literally by Greenwood despite Julian himself telling his audience to read it allegorically. Greenwood takes this literal reading and brings it up as gospel truth several times throughout the book in order to substantiate many of his other claims. Moreover, Greenwood’s signature argument that Matthew’s gospel is the key intertext of Julian’s autobiographical myth is harder to accept when he completely overlooks the myth recounted in Dio Chrysostom’s On Kingship (Or. 1.58-84): Zeus dispatches Hermes to lead Heracles to a mountain, where he is instructed to choose the path of true kingship or tyranny, whereupon Zeus entrusts him with the rule of the world. Greenwood even acknowledges (53) Dio’s oration as an influence elsewhere in Oration 7, and given its resemblance to Julian’s autobiographical myth, he would have needed to justify Matthew as a lectio difficilior potior.

On top of a few other instances where there are claims based on little or equivocal evidence or superficial readings of texts, my final major criticism concerns a glaring methodological contradiction. When discussing Constantine, Greenwood shrewdly notes (37) that we must separate the historical Constantine from the one constructed by his proponents and detractors. While Julian may not have made this separation himself in his recapitulation of Constantine, Greenwood routinely disobeys his own injunction in his presentation of Julian’s program, adducing the words of Himerius, Libanius, and Eunapius as assumedly harmonious with Julian’s own intentions, as though they were imperial mouthpieces lacking any independence of thought. This is doubly unfortunate given Greenwood’s acknowledgment of the independence of epigraphic evidence from imperial control (115).

Whatever the degree to which these problems with its argumentation undermine its central theses, Julian and Christianity makes a valid case that Julian’s deep familiarity with Christian texts, theology, and ideology should be taken seriously as a plausible influence upon his thought and action as a ruler, philosopher, and priest. It is worth reading by specialists in late antiquity, but is not and should not be intended as an introduction for readers unfamiliar with the basics of Julian’s life and works. Wrestling with so Protean a figure as Julian is a Herculean labor that deserves recognition, but the greatest challenge is not to fool oneself into thinking he has finally reverted to his true form when it turns out to be another disguise.

Table of Contents

I. Co-opting a Framework

1. The Problem of Constantius II (21–30)
2. The Problem of Constantine (31–40)

II. Crafting a Religious Metanarrative

3. Mocking the False Savior (43–54)
4. Crafting the Salvific Heracles (55–74)
5. Crafting the Salvific Asclepius (75–92)

III. Constructing a Legacy to Reflect the Narrative

6. Constructing the Spatial Narrative in Constantinople (95–99)
7. Creating a Robust Religious Structure (100–104)
8. Constructing the Spatial Narrative in Antioch and Jerusalem (105–17)

Conclusion: Endgame (118–23)


[1] Julian frequently conceived of Christianity as an infectious disease of the soul, and his mission as emperor to heal the empire of this malady. See Jeremy J. Swist, “Medicine in the Thought and Action of the Emperor Julian,” International Journal of the Platonic Tradition 12, no. 1 (2018): 26–33.

[2] Theophanes the Confessor, Chronicle 6253.432.

[3] Joseph Bidez, La vie de l’Empereur Julien (Paris: Belles Lettres, 1930); Glen W. Bowersock, Julian the Apostate (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978); Polymnia Athanassiadi-Fowden, Julian and Hellenism: An Intellectual Biography (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981); Rowland Smith, Julian’s Gods: Religion and Philosophy in the Thought and Action of Julian the Apostate (London: Routledge, 1995).

[4] Christian Schäfer, ed., Kaiser Julian “Apostata” und die philosophische Reaktion gegen das Christentum(Berlin: De Gruyter, 2008); Arnaldo Marcone, ed., L’imperatore Giuliano: realtà storica e rappresentazione(Firenze: Le Monnier università, 2015); Nicholas Baker-Brian and Shaun Tougher, eds., Emperor and Author: The Writings of Julian the Apostate (Swansea: Classical Press of Wales, 2012); Stefan Rebenich and Hans Ulrich-Wiemer, eds., A Companion to Julian the Apostate, Brill’s Companions to the Byzantine World 5 (Leiden: Brill, 2020).

[5] Klaus Rosen, Julian. Kaiser, Gott und Christenhasser (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 2006); Maria Carmen de Vita, Giuliano imperatore filosofo neoplatonico (Milan: V&P, 2011); Theresa Nesselrath, Kaiser Julian und die Repaganisierung des Reiches: Konzept und Vorbilder (Münster: Aschendorff, 2013); Sara Stöcklin-Kaldewey, Kaiser Julians Gottesverehrung im Kontext der Spätantike (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014).

[6] Adrian Murdoch, The Last Pagan: Julian the Apostate and the Death of the Ancient World (Stroud: Sutton, 2003).

[7] H. C. Teitler, The Last Pagan Emperor: Julian the Apostate and the War against Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).

[8] Susanna Elm, Sons of Hellenism, Fathers of the Church (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 61.

[9] Bidez, La vie de l’Empereur Julien, 261.

[10] John Dillon, “The Theology of Julian’s Hymn to King Helios,” Ítaca: Quaderns Catalans de Cultura Classica 14–15 (1999): 103–15; Andrew Smith, “Julian’s Hymn to King Helios: The Economical Use of Complex Neoplatonic Concepts,” in Baker-Brian and Tougher, Emperor and Author, 229–35.

[11] Iambl. VP 2.7–8 (my translation): παραιτητέοι γὰρ ἐνταῦθα Ἐπιμενίδης καὶ Εὔδοξος καὶ Ξενοκράτης, ὑπονοοῦντες τῇ Παρθενίδι τότε μιγῆναι τὸν Ἀπόλλωνα καὶ κύουσαν αὐτὴν ἐκ μὴ οὕτως ἐχούσης καταστῆσαί τε καὶ προαγγεῖλαι διὰ τῆς προφήτιδος, τοῦτο μὲν οὖν οὐδαμῶς δεῖ προσίεσθαι. τὸ μέντοι τὴν Πυθαγόρου ψυχὴν ἀπὸ τῆς Ἀπόλλωνος ἡγεμονίας, εἴτε συνοπαδὸν οὖσαν εἴτε καὶ ἄλλως οἰκειότερον ἔτι πρὸς τὸν θεὸν τοῦτον συντεταγμένην, καταπεπέμφθαι εἰς ἀνθρώπους οὐδεὶς ἂν ἀμφισβητήσειε τεκμαιρόμενος αὐτῇ τε τῇ γενέσει ταύτῃ καὶ τῇ σοφίᾳ τῆς ψυχῆς αὐτοῦ τῇ παντοδαπῇ.

[12] John Finamore, “Julian and the Descent of Asclepius,” Journal of Neoplatonic Studies 7, no. 1 (1999): 68–86.

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