Tuesday, March 13, 2018


H. C. Teitler, The Last Pagan Emperor: Julian the Apostate and the War against Christianity. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. Pp. xxxiii, 271. ISBN 9780190626501. $29.95.

Reviewed by Marco Alviz Fernández, UNED, Madrid (malviz@bec.uned.es)

Version at BMCR home site


As the author clearly claims in the Preface, this book does not aim at being a biography of Julian the Apostate. And he warns, "there are several important aspects of Julian's rule that I shall either not address at all or touch only in passing" (x). It focuses instead on the relationship of the emperor with the Christians; that is to say, Teitler challenges long-held assumptions and opts for a thematic treatment of the matter. He looks into the reliability of the Christian authors who claimed that there was a bloody persecution under his rule. More poetically, he tries to measure the accuracy of the assertion of Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria that Julian was a "small cloud that would soon pass over" (4).

The study, the result of decades of research in the field of Late Antique Literature and History, is structured in eighteen short but captivating chapters and provides in each an insight into the development of this indelible historical figure. The book is written in an easy-to-read prose that will please students and scholars alike, whether familiar or not with the characters and texts treated. Almost fifty pages of notes, sixty-six of bibliography, and a useful index close the book.

Chapters 1 to 4 approach the context of Julian's apostasy, which was the unexpected turning point of his religious thought. In spite of the ambivalence of Constantine the Great, Christianity had finally reached the imperial court; however, Julian gave up Christianity secretly as soon as 351, but he did not make public his paganism until the death of his kinsman and rival Constantius II in November of 361. And yet, as Teitler states, especially striking is the fact that once Julian became sole emperor he tried to found a pagan church with special concern for the sick and the poor. Nevertheless, the author argues, it seems that it was his permissive attitude against pagan violence that brought about more negative reactions from Christians. It is exceedingly remarkable how Julian already realized that "it was through poor relief and charity that the 'Galilaeans' had won many adherents" (29), precisely a theme to which Peter Brown has dedicated a recent trilogy. 1 And, as Julian would be aware of, it was a bishop's task to express concern about charitable works as, in Rapp's words, "a patron of the poor and needy," a philanthropy that was also assumed by him. 2

Teitler devotes several chapters to the most significant topics of his religious policy, i.e., the reopening and restoring of the pagan temples (ch.6), the relegalization of the sacrifices (ch.7), the School Edict (ch.8), or the alleged iconoclasm of Julian (ch.10). As concerns pagan temples, inscriptions are the main source for revealing Julian as templorum restaurator or restitutor sacrorum. In Chapter 7, Teitler proves that Julian did not impose sacrifices by force, although it is also true, he adds, that the law issued by Constantius II in 356 that established capital punishment to those who sacrifice or worship images was only a deterrent. Regarding the question of the labella and the compulsory sacrifices imposed by Decius, Teitler firmly stresses that "anyone who refused was killed" (56). Surprisingly, the author follows the Christian tradition. However, according to the latest studies, death penalties were "relatively rare," so it can be assessed that "the persecution of Decius (…) was less lurid than many modern accounts (and later Acta) might lead us to believe."3 Thirdly, a Christian misinterpretation by which the School Edict of Julian was understood as a form of persecution is highlighted here by the author; it was only, he maintains, a prohibition for Christian teachers in the field of classics.

In the remaining chapters Teitler deals with an issue that undoubtedly shapes his book. He revives two concepts originally coined by two French scholars of the beginnings of the 20th century that go hand in hand: "passions épiques" and "Julianisation." The first was defined by the Bolandist Hippolyte Delehaye (1859-1941) and is exemplified in the book by more than a dozen case studies, they are basically "tales of suffering that are largely fictitious" (42); the second, by the historian of religions Albert Dufourcq (1872-1952), is, in Teitler's words, "the tendency [of Christians authors] to ascribe to Julian all sorts of crimes and to describe him as a harsh and cruel persecutor of the Christians" (138).

Chapter 5 handles the curious story of Artemius, an Arian dux Aegypti who paradoxically became an orthodox martyr. Another "witness" was the priest Basil of Ancyra, whose passio was, as Teitler makes clear, rather fictitious (ch.9). Some Christian authors tell how the comes Orientis Julianus —Julian's uncle— was punished by God for urinating against the main altar of the Great Church of Antioch (ch.11). Chapter 12 deals with the indifference of pagans from Caesarea towards the advance of Christianity within the city and the resilience of those from Gaza. Concerning the unpleasant stay of Julian in Antioch, despite his bad experience there he did not seem to have ordered the execution of the priests Eugenius and Macarius (ch.13). As Chapter 14 states, it is also of dubious historicity the martyrdom of two standard-bearers who allegedly refused to remove the sign of Christ from their labarum. A sharp example of the use of sermons as a weapon against the pagan emperor is that of John Chrysostom, as Teitler conclusively demonstrates in chapter 15. The last instance of "passion épique" is that devoted to Elophius in chapter 17, a story of a cephalophorus martyr from as late as eleventh century.

As the book unambiguously expounds, not only are these martyrologies of uncertain historicity or have numerous chronological irregularities, but also they are manipulated and exaggerated to the point that they even locate the emperor executing people in places where he never set foot, for instance Rome (ch.16). Thus, it could be inferred that these "'many thousands of Christians' [who] lost their lives as a result of Julian's persecutions" (130) were only a natural way of blackening his reputation by means of unfounded accusations, neither of which, as Teitler attests, can be charged to the pagan emperor due to insufficient evidence.

For a better understanding of the image of Julian the Apostate, as the book concludes with a chapter entitled "Praise and Blame" (ch.18), the historian must take into serious account the utter lack of rigor of the Christian "passions épiques." For even though there were riots in some cities between pagans and Christians, no evidence can be found for persecution. As Teitler lastly asserts, "the emperor strictly rejected violence" (141), he was definitely closer to tolerance rather than to fanaticism, and that is the reason why "not a single person was executed because of his faith by Julian himself" (121-2). In summary, the book is a major contribution to the late antique debate of the conflict between paganism and Christianity as it engages in topics which until not so long ago were nearly undeniable.


1.   Poverty and Leadership in the Later Roman Empire, (University Press of New England, Hanover, 2002); Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD, (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2012), reviewed at BMCR 2013.02.35; Treasure in Heaven. The Holy Poor in Early Christianity, (University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville; London, 2016).
2.   Rapp, C.: Holy Bishops in Late Antiquity. The Nature of Christian Leadership in an Age of Transition, (Berkeley; Los Angeles; London: University of California Press, 2005): 223, 226, reviewed at BMCR 2006.01.38).
3.   Graeme, C.: «Christianity in the First Three Centuries. Third-century Christianity», in A. K. Bowman; P. Garnsey and A. Cameron (eds.): The Cambridge Ancient History, Vol. 12, The Crisis of an Empire, A.D. 193 – 337, (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2005): 625-6.

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