When Constantine the Great became the ruler of the entire Roman Empire in 324 CE, most of his relatives probably thought they would be set for life in positions of power and luxury. Actually, when Constantine died in 337, only a few people in the royal family benefited. The large empire was divided between Constantine’s legitimate sons, Constantine II, Canstans I and Canstantius II. These three brothers each adopted the title of emperor and ruled their own domains. Unfortunately for all of the other relatives and cousins who were not direct, legitimate heirs of Constantine the Great, their fate was very different. Instead of being seen as allies and kin, the three new emperors saw most of their family as rivals and enemies.
In 337, the year of Constantine’s death, the brothers carried out a great purge of relatives and rivals. One child named Julian was particularly affected by the bloodshed. He was born around 331, making him well shy of ten when Constantine the Great died. Julian’s mother, Basilina, had died shortly after the boy’s birth, so young Julian became an orphan when his father, Julius Constantius (a half-brother of Constantine the Great), was murdered on the orders of the new emperors. The deaths among Julians’ family did not end there—at least one of his older brothers was also executed in 341. After the initial purge, Julian and his brother, Gallus, were the only known male survivors left in their branch of the Constantinian family.
For whatever reason, Julian and Gallus were spared. Julian received an early education under the tutelage of Bishop Eusebius, a major church official in the court of Constantine the Great. The wife of Constantius II, interestingly named Eusebia, personally supported Julian’s more advanced education. A bright student, Julian utilized Eusebia’s patronage to study under prestigious teachers in places such as Nicomedia, Pergamum, Ephesus and Athens. In cities such as these, Julian became a pupil of some of the greatest educators of his age, including Niocles, Hecebolius, Libanius of Antioch, Aedesius and Maximus of Ephesus. During his studies (especially with Maximus), Julian found himself drawn more and more toward Rome’s traditional gods, especially the Mithraic cult of the Undying Sun. Julian’s eventual abandonment of Christianity in favor of the traditional gods of Rome led to the name given to him in history, Julian the Apostate.
While Julian was studying, the three emperors began to dwindle in number. Constantine II died in an ambush in 340, after he invaded Constans’ domain in Italy. Emperor Constans, himself, was executed a decade later, in 350, by a rebel named Magnentius. With the deaths of Constantine II and Constans, Constantius II became the sole ruler of the Roman Empire.
Even though Constantius II was now in control of the entire Roman Empire, he still wanted some help in overseeing his vast lands. This was especially needed because of all the rebellions breaking out in Gaul and around the Danube, as well as an ever-present threat from the Persian king of kings, Shapur II. To help manage the empire while he dealt with rebellions, Constantius II appointed Julian’s surviving brother, Gallus, as a caesar in charge of protecting the eastern provinces of the empire. Unfortunately, for Gallus, he ultimately did not impress either the men under his command or the emperor, and Constantius II had Gallus executed in 354.
With the death of Gallus, Constantius II had been involved in the deaths of Julian’s father and at least two brothers. Nevertheless, Constantius II must have felt he could control the young man, for he promoted Julian as his next caesar in 355. As the story goes, Julian arrived for his new position as caesar while still wearing his academic attire. Nevertheless, he transitioned well from the scholarly world into the role of military leadership. Julian quickly boosted his popularity by winning victories against the Alemanni and the Frankish people, located adjacent to Roman territory along the Rhine River. Meanwhile, Emperor Constantius II was busying himself with wars against the Sarmatians, Suebi and Quadi, along the Danube River, as well as his long-term rival, Persia.
The already tense relationship between emperor and caesar worsened around 360, when Constantius II demanded that Julian’s best troops be sent to the eastern front to fight against Persia. A call for reinforcements may seem reasonable and right for an emperor to make of his lieutenant, but this was the Roman Empire, where politics and safety were often determined by military power. Julian, therefore, quickly refused to give his best soldiers to the very emperor who had orchestrated the deaths of his father and brothers. Julian’s men were supportive of the insubordination, and quickly proclaimed Julian to be their emperor. The rebellious caesar was likely expecting a long and bloody civil war against his cousin, but victory came much quicker than he could have imagined. Shortly after learning of Julian’s rebellion, Constantius II died suddenly in 361, likely of illness or an embolism brought on by weariness or shock.
Once he was in power, Emperor Julian proclaimed that he wanted to rule as a philosopher-emperor, using Marcus Aurelius as his model. He instituted some admirable policies, including an increase in religious tolerance and education reform. Although religious tolerance and education are both great things, Julian’s policies were not applied equally to all religions and philosophies. His policy of tolerance largely excluded versions of Christianity supported by Constantine and his sons, for he allowed exiled bishops who were deemed heretical to return to power in the provinces of Rome. In education, Julian wanted teachers to be evaluated for their morality and eloquence, and unsurprisingly, Julian made sure to set the criteria in a way that left Christians at a disadvantage. In fact, Julian even tasked a man named Alypius to rebuild the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem around 362 and 363 just to spite the Christians. This project met a mysterious end when it was thwarted by a blast of fire—the pagan historian, Ammianus Marcellinus, wrote that balls of flame burst from the temple’s foundation and, alternatively, Christian sources said that fire rained down from the sky. Failing to rebuild the temple, Julian’s religious tolerance ran out, and he began persecuting his Christian population.
Even though he was an emperor who was initially brought up as a Christian, Julian the Apostate arguably turned into the most effective critic of Christianity in the Roman Empire. The highly educated Julian was an avid writer, and in his texts such as Against the Galilaeans, he used his knowledge of the Bible to attack Christianity’s most vulnerable spots. Some of his favorite tactics included highlighting inconsistencies in the different books of the Bible, and attacking Christianity’s ties to Judaism, labeling them as a Jewish heresy and not a fulfillment of prophecy.
Yet, the emperor’s reign was coming to a close. Along with his grudge against the Christians, Julian had another vice that was common to most Roman Emperors—he had a passion for war. Julian marched against King Shapur II of the Sassanians, leading possibly the largest Roman army ever fielded against Persia. He managed to push his way to the city of Ctesiphon, near modern Baghdad, but was defeated by the city’s defenses. In 363, while he and his army fled from the city, Emperor Julian was pierced by a spear or javelin and died from the wound. At the time of his death, Emperor Julian was still in his early thirties.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Top picture attribution: (Depiction of Emperor Julian (r. 360–363) on metal, cropped and modified, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, by Robert Louis Wilken. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984.
- The Byzantine Art of War by Michael J. Decker. Pennsylvania: Westholme Publishing, 2013.