Neoplatonism and politics: the case of Emperor Julian
The final attempt to revive pagan polytheism in the 4th c. AD, pivoted on Neoplatonic philosophical theology, especially in its Iamblichean version.
Julian’s brief sojourn on the imperial throne of Constantinople (361-363) brought, for the first and only time in its history, on the verge of acquiring far-reaching political and religious influence. The emperor’s premature death, however, put a final end to plans to revitalize the Roman Empire by mustering the values of Hellenism. From this time forth, Platonism succeeded in exerting, if at all, political influence only in the context of the appropriation of Neoplatonic ideas, concepts, and schemes of thought by dominant Christianity.
Flavius Claudius Iulianus Augustus was born in Constantinople in 331. He was the child of Constantius, half-brother of Emperor Constantine (272-337), and Basilina, a devout Christian of Greek origin, who died a few months after giving birth to her son. Julian received a Christian upbringing, growing up in Bithynia and then in Cappadocia (where he remained in exile for six years due to dynastic feuds within his family). At the age of twenty, he started studying philosophy in Pergamum under Aedesius and Chrysanthius, both students of, and at Ephesus under Maximus of Ephesus, who introduced the young man to theurgy. Julian furthered his studies in Athens, studying along and , where he was also initiated into the Eleusinian mysteries. His love for Hellenic culture led him to renounce the Christian faith and wholeheartedly embrace the ancestral gods of Greece and Rome. In 355 Julian was made Caesar of the western part of the Empire, and, following a number of impressive military exploits against the Germanic tribes, he was proclaimed augustus by his troops (360). In December 361, Julian entered Constantinople as emperor. He remained on the throne for one and a half years, until he was mortally wounded while campaigning against the Sassanids. He was to be the last pagan Roman emperor.
In his brief stay on the throne of the Roman Empire, Julian brought forth huge changes. In February 362, he issued an edict proclaiming religious tolerance throughout the Empire, and ordered the reopening of the ancient temples. Four months later he forbade the teaching of works of Classical education by Christians. His goal was to impede the misappropriation and distortion of the works of ancient poets and philosophers; restore the worship of the traditional gods; reinvigorate polytheism through a Neoplatonic-influenced philosophical understanding of the importance of rituals; and create a hierarchy of pagan clerics in the model of the Christian Church.
A significant portion of Julian’s writings survives today. His letters shed light on the political and intellectual climate of his era. Of his several epideictic speeches, composed on various occasions, two prose hymns stand out: To King Helios and To the Mother of the Gods. These works, together with his anti-Christian manifesto Against the Galileans (cf. the clash between Christians and Platonists in the 2nd-4th cent.), reveal the emperor’s religious beliefs. Finally, worthy of mention is the Misopôgoôn, a peculiar, self-sarcastic text posted on the walls of Antioch by Julian himself, in response to its citizens’ indifference to the emperor’s project of political and religious revival.
Among Julian’s extant letters some seem to have been written by a namesake, and are addressed to Iamblichus. In these letters, the concept of Hellenism, which up to then had primarily linguistic, ethnic, and religious import, acquires new meaning: that of elevated refinement, and deep culture (in accordance with what is claimed in a much older passage from[Paneg. 50]). The author of these letters holds that Iamblichus has succeeded where everyone before him had failed: he unified the mythical, poetic, philosophical, and religious beliefs of the ancient Greeks under a unitary theory, and formed an educational program that was at once theoretical and moral (Ep. 79 Wright, 405d-406a). This is precisely how Julian understood the significance of Iamblichus’ Platonism.
The emperor believed that the traditional cults, as interpreted by Iamblichus and his disciples, in fact constituted an ecumenical religion of great radiance and elevated spiritual content. To Christian monotheism Julian juxtaposed a sun-cult, clearly influenced by Mithraism, to which the various traditional gods of Hellenism could be subsumed as particular aspects and manifestations of an intelligible Sun; this in turn was the mediated creation of the Neoplatonic One. Julian sought to turn this henotheistic, Iamblichean in inspiration, sun-cult into the new political and religious ideology of the Roman Empire. Employing language reminiscent of the Nicene Creed, Julian writes (Hymn to King Helios 141d-142a):
This then we must declare, that King Helios is One and proceeds from one god, even from the intelligible world which is itself One; and that he is midmost of the intellectual gods, stationed in their midst by every kind of mediateness that is harmonious and friendly, and that joins what is sundered; and that he brings together into one the last and the first, having in his own person the means of completeness, of connection, of generative life and of uniform being: and that for the world which we can perceive he initiates blessings of all sorts, not only be means of the light with which he illuminates it, adorning it and giving it its splendour, but also because he calls into existence, along with himself, the substance of the Sun’s angels; and that finally in himself he comprehends the ungenerated cause of things generated, and further, and prior to this, the ageless and abiding cause of the life of the imperishable bodies [i.e. the heavelnly bodies] (trans. by Wilmer Cave Wright).
Sallust, Julian’s political partner and friend, composed a brief extant treatise entitled On the Gods and the Universe, which can be considered as indicative of the kind of philosophical theology advocated by Julian. Although this layman’s handbook to the Neoplatonic universe lacks intellectual sophistication and complex metaphysical distinctions, it is manifestly influenced by Iamblichean Neoplatonism. A characteristic example is the proof of the supra-essentiality of the first principle (ch. 5):
The First Cause must be one, since the unit is superior to all other numbers, and surpasses all things in power and goodness, for which reason all things must partake of it. [...] Now if the First Cause was soul, everything would be animated by soul, if intelligence, everything would be intellectual, if being, everything would share in being. Some in fact, seeing that all things possess being, have thought that the First Cause was being. This would be correct if things that were in being were in being only and were not good. If, however, things that are are by reason of their goodness and share in the good, then what is first must be higher than being and in fact good. A very clear indication of this is that fine souls for the sake of the good despise being, when they are willing to face danger for country or friends or virtue. After this unspeakable power come the orders of the gods (transl. by A.D. Nock).
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- Murdoch, A. The Last Pagan: Julian the Apostate and the Death of the Ancient World. Stroud, 2005.
- Nock, A.D. Sallustius: Concerning the Gods and the Universe. Cambridge, 1926, ανατ. 1988.
- Rosen, K. Julian: Kaiser, Gott und Christenhasser. Στουτγάρδη, 2006.
- Koch, W. Revue belge de philologie et d’histoire. 1927.