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Julian the Apostate Paperback – February 15, 1997
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Bowersock has written the best narrative history of Julian's career...His success is due not only to the vivid style but to the command of the very wide variety of sources that enables him to derive new insights from unexpected facts. (W. H. C. Frend New York Review of Books)
The most reliable and lucid account available of Julian's haunting obsession...An extraordinarily good book about an extraordinary man. (George Steiner London Times)
Packed with skillfully deployed information and remarkable insights...The picture is drawn with an incisive vigor which is completely convincing, and with unusual elegance of style. (J. N. D. Kelly The Observer)
From the Back Cover
This portrayal of one of antiquity's most enigmatic figures offers a vivid and compact assessment of the Apostate's life and reign. Proceeding directly from an evaluation of the ancient sources - the testimony of friends and enemies of Julian as well as the writings of the emperor himself - the author traces Julian's youth, his years as the commander of the Roman forces in Gaul, and his emergence as sole ruler in the course of a dramatic march to Constantinople. In Bowersock's analysis of Julian's religious revolution, the emperor's ardent espousal of a lost cause is seen to have made intolerable demands upon pagans, Jews, and Christians alike.
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I truly don't know what problem this guy has with Julian. Every time he has more than one source of information he goes with the most insulting or critical one. For example: on page 107 he describes how two martyrs (Bonosus and Maximilianus) were beheaded for not removing the Christian symbol from their standards whereas it is just as likely that they were actually executed for criticizing the Emperor just before battle. He took the heavily biased stories from the Christians and takes them at face value while dismissing the pagan ones. In a similar vein he takes his description for Julian's behavior from possibly his greatest enemy Gregory of Nazianzus and says that it is essentially true.
Some examples of bias from his own words include: "when Julian died, all Christians and many pagans received the news with relief." That's right off of page 1 and the point is very debatable. Certainly he doesn't have the evidence to prove that. Julian's writings are described as being "petulant and self-righteous" and filled with his "unsettling laughter." (13) "Like them [Lenin and Mao-Tse-Tung who he's comparing him to], Julian was neither gregarious nor, in the social sense of the term, even civilized." (20)
Essentially, the way that Julian is described is as a dull, humorless, cruel, ascetic, self-righteous, unprincipled, puritanical, savage, bigot. I am using only words that Bowersock himself applies to Julian throughout the course of the book. This is not the language of an unbiased historian. To anyone who doubts that these traits do not describe, or at least dominate, Julian need only read his own writings. He has written three books worth of various works from orations to letters to satires. How Bowersock can describe the author of the Caesars as a dull and humorless person is beyond me. Sure it's not sidesplittingly hilarious, but the tone is very lighthearted throughout and you can feel the tongue kept very much in cheek. Bowersock however, takes it as a serious expression of Julian's beliefs even though Julian himself describes it as a comic work. The same goes for the Beard-Hater. Although that one is rather more bitter it can hardly be described as a "hectoring, injured, [and] repetitive" work filled with "Julian's unsettling laughter."
Until I read these works for myself I had no reason to doubt that his interpretation was true. Now I can't even see hints of his belief. Please don't take my word for this. Read those books yourself. They reveal a lot about the man's character and they are sometimes very entertaining. They are available in Loeb editions (Volume I,Volume II,Volume III) which are kind of expensive, but they are probably available for free online as well. So do yourself a favor and skip this book. Read one of the other excellent biographies. 'The Last Pagan' is probably the most readable of the two. Or read the works of the contemporary historian Ammianus Marcellinus (Volume I,Volume II,Volume III) or Julian's friend Libanius (Orations, Volume I,Orations, Volume II). These books will provide you with a much more accurate glimpse of the man who has come down through history as Julian the Apostate.
G.W. Bowersock's biography of Julian is highly critical of the pagan emperor, depicting him as a religious fanatic and ascetic revolutionary, comparing Julian to Lenin and Mao Zedong. Julian wasn't simply a Neo-Platonist philosopher, but also believed in the more murky parts of paganism: the efficacy of animal sacrifice, magic and oracles. The future emperor even had weird religious visions, and his entourage consisted of both educated pagan sophists and notorious theurgists. (It should be noted that Neo-Platonism at this point in time combined philosophy with theurgy, the latter being no better than magic in the author's opinion.) Julian quite consciously modelled himself on Socrates, and attempted to create a centralized pagan organization, in effect a kind of pagan church, with himself as high priest. The pagan church was to mimic the Christians in charity to the poor and the stranger, something Julian believed was the main reason for the success of Christianity.
Bowersock believes that the religious tolerance proclaimed by Julian at the beginning of his reign was a ruse, and that his real policy was to persecute the Christians. When a pagan mob at Alexandria killed the Arian bishop of the city, Julian criticized their actions but without interfering. More anti-Christian riots followed in other towns of the empire. Julian also banished Christian teachers from higher education by prohibiting them from teaching the Greek classics, such as Homer or Hesiod. Before Julian's fateful campaign against the Persians, during which the emperor was eventually killed, he unsuccessfully attempted to de-Christianize the Roman troops, executing or banishing officers who refused to accept the new pagan order. A more idiosyncratic project was Julian's attempt to rebuild the Jewish temple at Jerusalem, a project met with unease even by the Jews themselves. After a series of mysterious accidents, the plans had to be abandoned. One reason why "the apostate" wanted the Jewish temple reconstructed was to disprove the prophecies of Jesus about the destruction of the temple!
However, even Bowersock has to admit that Julian also carried out extensive and positive reforms: at one stroke, he did away with the truly Byzantine bureaucracy at Constantinople. The emperor also purged the informers, devolved power to the senate and the ancient cities, and attempted to curb other forms of corruption and abuse as well. The author is uncharitable to Julian's attempt to deal with a famine in Syrian Antioch by imposing price controls. Here, the problem was obviously that Julian interfered too little, rather than too much. Besides, Julian seems to have saved the good people of Antioch by forcing the bakers of the city to provide cheap bread for the inhabitants. (The old fox apparently understood the dictum that we don't get bread because of the benevolence of the baker!)
G.W. Bowersock believes that Julian the Apostate ultimately made himself impossible among both Christians and pagans. His attempts to revive paganism were met with incomprehension and scorn at Antioch, as were his hostility towards theatres and chariot-races, which he would rather have prohibited entirely. Still, it's difficult not to feel a certain sympathy with the ascetic emperor when he accused the Antiochenes of being ungrateful to him. After all, he had saved them from hunger and attempted to strongarm their rich elite. Perhaps the citizens of Antioch preferred their chariot-races...
"Julian the Apostate" is a well written book. A few chapters seem directed at fellow historians, but most of the book is relatively easy to read, and can be digested even by an average reader. It does help if you already have a working knowledge of Roman history.
Of course, the book is controversial (see the other customer reviews). Julian is usually painted in a much more positive light, as the tolerant reformer and philosopher-king. Still, it might be interesting to read a negative view of Julian as well, especially since Bowersock doesn't seem to be arguing from a Christian perspective.
For this reason, I give the book five stars. However, if Bowersock is right still remains to be seen...
By all means, check out the many other books that put Julian into a proper historical and religious context. He was a fascinating figure in Roman history, a man of many interests and talents (political, military, a devout Pagan, and a fine writer in his own right) and the last emperor to try and reverse the tide of Christianity loosed by his relative, Constantine.
God Against the Gods by Jonathan Kirsh (an excellent read not only about Julian but the historical context of the conflict between monotheism and polytheism)
Julian by Gore Vidal
Julian's Gods by Rowland Smith
The Last Pagan by Adrian Murdoch
Julian's own writings, including "Against the Galileans" & the three volume Loeb Classics series on Julian
The Later Roman Empire: A.D. 354-378 by Ammianus Marcellinus,
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There is nothing I can say that has not been said before about this book.Read more