Last Updated on December 3, 2023 by Vladimir Vulic
Life: AD 332 – 363
- Name: Flavius Magnus Magnentius
- Born in AD 332 at Constantinople.
- Became emperor in February AD 360.
- Died in Mesopotamia on 26 June AD 363.
Julian was born in AD 332 at Constantinople, the son of Julius Constantius, who was a half-brother of Constantine the Great. His mother was Basilina, the daughter of the governor of Egypt, who died shortly after his birth.
His father was killed in AD 337 in the murders of Constantine’s relatives by the three brother-emperors Constantine II, Constantius II, and Constans, who sought to not only their co-heirs Dalmatius and Hannibalianus but also all other potential rivals killed. After this massacre, Julian, his half-brother Constantius Gallus, Constantine’s sister Eutropia, and her son Nepotianus were the only remaining relatives of Constantine left alive, other than the three emperors themselves.
Christian Education of Julian the Apostate
Constantius II placed Julian in the care of the eunuch Mardonius, who educated him in the classical tradition of Rome, thereby instilling in him a great interest in literature, philosophy, and the old pagan gods. Following these classical tracks, Julian studied grammar and rhetoric until he was moved from Constantinople to Nicomedia by the emperor in AD 342.
Constantius II evidently didn’t like the idea of a youth of Constantine’s blood being too close to the center of power, even if only as a student. Soon after, Julian was moved again, but this time to a remote fortress at Macellum in Cappadocia, together with his half-brother Gallus. There, Julian the Apostate was given a Christian education. Yet his interest in the pagan classics continued undiminished. For six years, he stayed in this remote exile until he was allowed to return to Constantinople, although only to be moved back out of the city soon after by the emperor and returned to Nicomedia once more in AD 351.
After the execution of his half-brother Constantius Gallus by Constantius II in AD 354, he was ordered to Mediolanum (Milan). But permission was soon granted for him to move to Athens to continue his extensive studies. In AD 355, he was already recalled. With trouble brewing in the east with the Persians, Constantius II sought someone to take care of the problems on the Rhine frontier for him.
Becoming a Ceasar
In AD 355, Julian was elevated to the rank of Caesar, was married to the emperor’s sister Helena, and was ordered to take to the Rhine to repel invasions by the Franks and Alemanni. Even though completely inexperienced in military matters, he successfully recovered Colonia Aggripina by AD 356 and, in AD 357, defeated a vastly superior force of Alemanni near Argentorate (Strasbourg). Following this, he crossed the Rhine, raided German strongholds, and gained yet further victories over the Germans in AD 358 and 359.
The troops quickly took to Julian, a leader who, like Trajan, endured the hardships of military life alongside the soldiers. But also, the general population of Gaul appreciated their new Caesar for the extensive tax cuts he introduced. Even though Julian proved to be a talented leader, his abilities earned him no sympathy at the court of Constantius II. While the emperor was suffering setbacks at the hands of the Persians, these victories by his Caesar were seen only as embarrassments.
Hailed as an Emperor
The jealousies of Constantius II were such that it is believed he was even forming plans to have Julian the Apostate assassinated. But, the military predicament of Constantius II with the Persians required urgent attention. And so he demanded Julian to send some of his finest troops as reinforcements in the war against the Persians. But the soldiers in Gaul refused to obey. Their loyalties lay with Julian, and they saw this order as an act of jealousy on behalf of the emperor. Instead, in February AD 360, they hailed Julian as emperor.
Julian the Apostate was said to be reluctant to accept the title. Perhaps he wanted to avoid a war with Constantius II, or it was the reluctance of a man who never sought to rule anyway. In any case, he can’t have possessed much loyalty to Constantius II after the execution of his father and half-brother, his exile in Cappadocia, and the petty jealousies over his apparent popularity.
Negotiations With Constantius II
At first, he sought to negotiate with Constantius II, but in vain. And so, in AD 361, he set out for the east to meet his foe. Remarkably, he vanished into the German forests with an army of only about 3’000 men, only to reappear again on the lower Danube shortly after. This astounding effort was most likely made in order to reach the key Danubian legions as soon as possible to assure their allegiance in that knowledge that all European units would surely follow their example. But the move proved unnecessary as news arrived that Constantius II had died of illness in Cilicia.
Earning the Name Julian ‘the Apostate’
On his way to Constantinople, Julian officially declared himself a follower of the old pagan gods. With Constantine and his heirs having been Christian and Julian having, while still under Constantius, officially still adhered to the Christian faith, this was an unexpected turn of events. It was his rejection of Christianity that gave him his name in history as Julian ‘the Apostate’.
Shortly after, in December AD 361, Julian entered Constantinople as the sole emperor of the Roman world. Some of Constantius II’s supporters were executed, others were exiled. But Julian’s accession was by no means such a bloody one as when the three sons of Constantine had begun their reign.
The Christian church was now refused the financial privileges enjoyed under previous regimes, and Christians were excluded from the teaching profession. In an attempt to undermine the Christian position, Julian favored the Jews, hoping they might rival the Christian faith and deprive it of many of its followers. He even considered the reconstruction of the Great Temple at Jerusalem. Even though Christianity had established itself too firmly in Roman society to be successfully dislodged by Julian’s means, the moderate and philosophical nature of Julian the Apostate did not allow for violent persecution and oppression of the Christians, and so his measures failed to make a significant impact.
The Return of Paganism
One might argue that if Julian had been a man of the fiber of Constantine the Great, his attempted return to paganism might have been more successful. A ruthless, single-minded autocrat who would have enforced his desired changes with bloody persecution might have succeeded. Large parts of the ordinary population were still pagans. But this high-minded intellectual was not ruthless enough to use such methods. Indeed, the intellectual Julian the Apostate was a great writer, second only perhaps to the philosopher emperor Marcus Aurelius, composing essays, satires, speeches, commentaries, and letters of great quality.
He is clearly Rome’s second-ever philosopher-ruler after the great Marcus Aurelius. But if Marcus Aurelius was weighed down by war and plague, then Julian’s greatest burden was to be that he belonged to a different age. Trained classically and learned in Greek philosophy, he would have made a fine successor to Marcus Aurelius. But those days had gone, and now this distant intellect seemed out of place, at odds with many of his people and certainly with the Christian elite of society.
His appearance only further reinforced the image of a ruler of a bygone age. In a time when Romans were clean-shaven, Julian the Apostate wore an old-fashioned beard reminiscent of Marcus Aurelius. Julian the Apostate was of athletic, powerful build. Though vain and prone to listen to flattery, he was also wise enough to allow advisors to correct him where he made mistakes.
The Rise of Rome Under Julian the Apostate
As head of government, he proved an able administrator, seeking to revive the cities of the eastern part of the empire, which had suffered in recent times and had begun to decline. Measures were introduced to limit the effects of inflation on the empire, and attempts were made to reduce bureaucracy.
Like others before him, Julian the Apostate also cherished the thought of one day defeating the Persians and annexing their territories into the empire. In March AD 363, he left Antioch at the head of sixty thousand men. Successfully invading Persian territory, he had, by June, driven his forces as far as the capital Ctesiphon. But he deemed his force too small to venture on capturing the Persian capital and instead retreated to join with a Roman reserve column.
Sudden Death at the Battlefield
On 26 June AD 363, Julian the Apostate was hit by an arrow in a skirmish with Persian cavalry. Though a rumor claimed he was stabbed by a Christian among his soldiers. Whatever the cause of the injury, the wound did not heal, and Julian the Apostate died. At first, he was, as he had wished, buried outside Tarsus. But later, his body was exhumed and taken to Constantinople.
People Also Ask:
Why did Julian become an apostate?
Julian (born A.D. 332), the nephew of the first Christian emperor, Constantine, was trained as a Christian, yet he is known as an apostate because when he became emperor (A.D. 360), he opposed Christianity.
Was Julian the Apostate assassinated?
Julian the Apostate, though baptized, oppressed the Church and intended to restore the cult of pagan idols in the Roman Empire. He was murdered by an anonymous assassin in AD 363 during a military excursion to Persia. His death reverberated in the Empire, provoking many comments and speculations.
What if Julian the Apostate survived?
With his fierce determination, brilliant mind, and vast imperial power, I think Julian could have reversed the growing influence of Christians in the Roman world and strengthened the old ways still followed by most Romans in his day.
What were the last words of Julian?
According to the fifth-century Greek church historian Theodoret, Julian had flung blood from his wound into the air and said: “You have conquered, Galilean [Jesus]!”
What did Julian do to Christians?
Not surprisingly, this incipient fanaticism soon led from apparent toleration to outright suppression and persecution of Christians. Pagans were openly preferred for high official appointments, and Christians were expelled from the army and prohibited from teaching classical literature and philosophy.
What was Julian the Apostate known for?
Julian (born ad 331/332, Constantinople—died June 26/27, 363, Ctesiphon, Mesopotamia) was Roman emperor from ad 361 to 363, nephew of Constantine the Great, and noted scholar and military leader who was proclaimed emperor by his troops.
Historian Franco Cavazzi dedicated hundreds of hours of his life to creating this website, roman-empire.net as a trove of educational material on this fascinating period of history. His work has been cited in a number of textbooks on the Roman Empire and mentioned on numerous publications such as the New York Times, PBS, The Guardian, and many more.