Tuesday, December 31, 2013


Attilio Mastrocinque, Giuliano l'Apostata, Discorso su Helios re. Studia classica et mediaevalia, Bd 5. Nordhausen: Verlag Traugott Bautz, 2011. Pp. iii, 113. ISBN 9783883091020. €20.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Francesco Massa, Labex HASTEC/ Laboratoire d'études sur les monothémes, Paris (f.massa@tin.it)

Version at BMCR home site

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

Attilio Mastrocinque here publishes the Italian translation and commentary of one of the most interesting writings by Emperor Julian, the Hymn to King Helios. Mastrocinque's work is particularly useful to historians of religion and philosophy of Late Antiquity since Julian's work is a theological treatise, composed on the occasion of the feast in honour of the Sun god—which was celebrated on December 25th—and aimed at defining the nature of this supreme god and his intervention in the world. The objectives of the commentary, stated in the brief Preface, are in the first place to highlight the "political purpose of Julian's cosmological and theological thought" (p. VIII), and secondly, to point out the effects of Julian's thought on the political organization of the empire.1

The translation and commentary are preceded by an Introduction, which begins with a section dedicated to the life of Julian, from his origins in Macellum, Cappadocia, until his death in the battle against Shapur II, in 363 CE. Mastrocinque then focuses on the sources of Julian's treatise on the Sun, stating that the author himself admitted his debt to Iamblichus, and that he certainly knew the Chaldean Oracles and their comments. Mastrocinque is particularly interested in establishing whether and how religious doctrines on the Sun—widespread in the fourth century—had influenced the thought of the emperor (p. 6). Ample space is dedicated especially to Mithraism, which happens to be the author's field of expertise.2 Mastrocinque does not believe that the Hymn to King Helios was a Mithraic treatise, since a broad range of components have merged into the philosophical and theological speculations of the emperor; but the importance of the teachings of Mithraism in Julian's thought cannot be underestimated.

Mastrocinque then analyzes the contribution of Julian's text to the study of the religions of the Roman Empire. The importance of this Hymn comes from the fact that it is the most important theological text ("a unique and irreplaceable work", p. 14) that allows for a reflection on the "solar religion" that, from the time of Aurelian, had placed the Sun at the top of the empire's pantheon. The Hymn is divided into three parts: the origin and substance of Helios, the activities and powers of the god, his property and his patronage of Rome. At the basis of Julian's theology there was the division between hyper-cosmic gods (the first principles) and cosmic gods (those who belong to our world); the supreme Sun god corresponded to the absolute Good, and cosmic gods represented his mediators, who put him in relation with the Earth. Mastrocinque notes that this system also corresponds to Julian's view on political theology, because the emperor, like the Sun (and like Mithra), was placed at the summit of the Cosmos, and his court revolved around him (p. 17). In addition, Mastrocinque realizes that this vision could be accepted by Christians, on the basis of an identification between the Sun and Christ: see, for example, the mosaic of the vault of the tomb of the Julii in the Vatican Necropolis, where Christ, crowned by rays of sunlight and dressed in a fair tunic, is depicted on a chariot drawn by white horses, holding a large globe in his left hand.

The last part of the introduction is devoted to the political value of Julian's treatise. The term βασιλεύς, attributed to the Sun, was perfectly in line with the name used to refer to the figure of the emperor in the Greek language. The speculations around Helios were not merely the result of a personal philosophical interest; on the contrary, knowledge of solar theology was to serve as an inspiration for the good emperor and for the reforms of the empire (p. 19). Mastrocinque proposes a parallel with Constantine's political theology, stating that the latter "had understood his monarchy as an earthly replica, or an earthly emanation of Jesus Christ's monarchy in the Kingdom of Heaven, and bishop Eusebius of Caesarea [...] clearly expounded this theory" (p. 19). However, a significant difference exists between the two situations, because Constantine's political theology is the work of a Christian bishop who presents the figure of the emperor as the one who must embody both regnum and sacerdotium, and does not coincide completely with an emperor who continues to nourish—albeit subdued—a relationship with the Pagan tradition of the Empire. Julian's text, instead, is proof of the perfect coincidence between theology and politics, between a philosophical reflection and the political project of the emperor.

The volume reproduces the Greek text of Christian Lacombrade (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1964), from which Mastrocinque's divergences are explained in the notes. The Italian translation is found in the first part, along with the commentary notes, while the second part contains the Greek text, without critical apparatus.

The notes not only provide the reader with numerous cross-references to other works of the literary and philosophical tradition but are also essential to understand a particularly complex text, especially in passages of a more strictly philosophical nature.3 All the elements highlighted in the introductory pages are reflected and further explored in the notes: this is the case of the aspects related to Mithraism, even if they are not directly explained by Julian, as it happens with Serapis (n. 114 , p. 40), Ananke (n. 121, p. 42), the "central" position occupied by Helios (n. 137, p. 45), and the political significance of Julian's theology, such as the centrality of the Sun, to which corresponds, on Earth, the centrality of the emperor (n. 141, p. 47, cf. also n. 195, p. 65). Of great interest is the comment on the relationship between Helios and the other gods, among whom Apollo and Dionysus play an important role, because the Sun is able to reconcile the many aspects of traditional gods. Mastrocinque emphasizes the complementarity between Apollo and Dionysus, referring to the alleged alternation between the two deities in presiding over the shrine of Delphi (n. 159, p. 54 and n. 192, p. 64). However, the problem of the complementarity between Dionysus and a solar deity (Apollo and/or Helios) is not tightly linked to the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi, where even Dionysus was such an important deity that he deserved to occupy one of the two pediments of the temple. The question is linked to a philosophical interpretation already espoused by the Stoics: some fragments of Cleanthes, in fact, allow for an identification of an ancient interpretation in which the divine figures of Dionysus and Apollo were assimilated into Helios (SVF I frr. 540 -541, 546).

Mastrocinque's comment to Emperor Julian's Hymn enriches the important bibliography dedicated to a key figure of the mid-IV century with an innovative and extremely useful work, especially for studies on solar religion and on Mithraism in Late Antiquity.

Table of Contents

1. La vita di Giuliano
2. Le fonti del trattato di Giuliano sul Sole
3. L'apporto del trattato di Giuliano sul Sole per lo studio delle religioni dell'impero romano
4. Il valore politico del trattato sul Sole
5. Nota al testo
Parte prima: Traduzione e commento: Flavio Claudio Giuliano Augusto, Discorso su Helios re
Parte seconda: Flavius Claudius Iulianus Augustus, ΕΙΣ ΤΟΝ ΒΑΣΙΛΕΑ ΗΛΙΟΝ
Scelta bibliografica
Indice dei nomi personali e geografici


1.   A first observation concerns the choice to call Emperor Julian "the Apostate" in the book's title: despite the widespread use of such title, even in scientific literature, perhaps it might have been preferable to avoid it in favour of the more neutral and adequate of "Emperor Julian".
2.   See, for example, Studi sul Mitraismo (il Mitraismo e la magia) (Roma: G. Bretschneider, 1998) and Des mystères de Mithra aux mystères de Jésus (Stuttgart: F. Steiner, 2009).
3.   See, for example, the explanation of the articulate philosophical system that is the basis of the emperor's thought (n . 85, pp. 30-31).

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