Julian Letters on Religion

Flavius Claudius Julianus (ca. 331-363) reigned as emperor for only nineteen months (361-363), but left a lasting impact on subsequent Christian conceptions of the imperial house. Although raised a Christian, Julian took the opportunity of his ascension to power to renounce his Christian upbringing and publicly declare himself a worshipper of the traditional gods of Greece and Rome. He called himself a "Hellene," emphasizing the link between traditional culture and cult; later Christians called him the "Apostate." Julian recounted his early attraction to non-Christian philosophy and religion; Maximus, to whom Julian writes plaintively in Letter 8, was an early charismatic influence in this respect. Julian supposedly pursued this religious vocation secretly until his rise to power (see his description in Letter 19, "To a Priest").

Once empowered, Julian's Hellenism comprised a rigorous program of religious restoration: the revival of defunct priesthoods; the funding of festivals and temple renovations; and the creation of a network of Hellene priesthoods that, perhaps ironically, mimicked the ecclesiastical structure of Christianity (see Letter 20, "To the High-Priest Theodore"). His zeal for religious revivalism was so great that even his fellow non-Christians, such as the favorable historian Ammianus Marcellinus, complained of (literal) overkill: "He has thoroughly soaked through the altars with an abundance of sacrificial blood, over and over again to the point of excess."

Julian's Hellenic revival was also distinctly anti-Christian: he wrote a lengthy treatise "Against the Galileans" (his preferred term for "Christians," emphasizing their backwater origins and lack of cultural tradition) and passed legislation barring Christians from teaching the "classics" of Greek literature (see Letter 36, one reconstruction of this edict). Julian also showed marked favor to the Jews, as a people with an impressive religious and cultural tradition. He allegedly permitted the Jews to rebuild their Temple in Jerusalem, so they, too, could resume sacrifice, and requested their prayers on behalf of his imperial person (see Letter 51). Although there is no particular reason to suspect Julian's sincerity in his respect for the Jews, there can also be little doubt that his brief favoritism toward the Jews was simultaneously a way of striking back at and weakening Christian claims of triumphalism.

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