The Emperor Julian – last ‘pagan’ ruler of the Roman Empire

The emperor Julian ruled the Roman Empire for a brief 20 months in 361-3, after a 50-year period of Christianity as the state religion under Constantine and Constantius II. Immediately on assuming the role with the death of Constantius II, he publicly declared his ‘paganism’.

The Roman historian Ammianus writes,

Although Julian from his earliest boyhood had nursed an inclination towards the worship of the pagan gods, which gradually grew into an ardent passion as he grew older, fear of the consequences had kept him from practising its rites except in the greatest possible secrecy. Now, however, that this fear was removed and he saw that the time had come where he could do as he liked, he revealed what was in his heart and directed in plain unvarnished terms that the temples should be opened, sacrifices brought to their altars, and the worship of the old gods restored.”1

Julian’s months in office, U-turning affairs away from Christianity and back to the ancient traditional religions of Rome and Greece before it, pose the question: “If he had lived longer, what would the world look like now?” Perhaps Christian hegemony might never have taken root. A world of religious pluralism might have developed instead of exclusivism. Perhaps there would be a different Islam. The possibilities are intriguing, but ultimately pointless.

Julian’s advocacy of the ancient traditions included a range of innovations – despite his vow that “I avoid innovations in all things, so to speak, but more peculiarly in what concerns the gods.”2 The enthusiastic revival of blood sacrifice is the most visible manifestation of Julian’s re-adoption of ancient traditions. This may not seem an innovation, but after the stridently Christian administrations of Constantine and Constantius II, who particularly abhorred blood sacrifice, traditional Hellenism had suffered perilous decline. Julian himself relates his experience attending the temple of Apollo in Antioch for an annual festival. He expected to see, “beasts for sacrifice, libations, choruses in honour of the gods, incense”, but the shrine was seemingly barren. “When I began to inquire what sacrifice the city intended to offer to celebrate the annual festival in honour of the god, the priest answered, ‘I have brought with me from my own house a goose as an offering to the god, but the city this time has made no preparations’.”3

In his assessment of Julian, Ammianus stated, “he sacrificed innumerable victims regardless of expense; it was reckoned that if he had returned from Parthia there would have been a shortage of cattle.”4 But was this an excess of blood sacrifice – what Cameron describes as “holocausts”5 – or simply a revival of pre-Constantinian religious practice, the scale of which shocked Ammianus because of the overall degradation in traditional cultural practices that had occurred over the intervening years of Christian domination?

Animal sacrifice was the “characteristic rite of the pagan cult.”6 Due to the cost of the animal, it typically took place on special occasions only, at the yearly festivals and at joyous family events7. Its ritual purpose was to get the gods’ attention and attract their favour.

The nature and frequency of pre-Constantinian sacrifice rituals is indeterminate. There is a silence in the sources around the late Third Century, perhaps due to economic difficulties. If this is the case, it could also suggest a decline in blood sacrifice due to its cost. Into the early Fourth Century the sources remain scant; those that do survive are principally Christian ‘victors’ such as Eusebius and Lactantius, so their words need to be read with caution. However, there is evidence indicating an attempt by the emperor Maximinus Daia to reorganise the traditional cult in 311 – 313 (the years immediately preceding Constantine), and this affords a very useful comparison with Julian’s similar efforts 50 years later. What stands out is that in both instances the two rulers were at the time embarking on major wars (Maximinus’ civil war with Licinius and Julian’s inherited war against Persia) and that both men would have been desirous of the gods’ favour and would have viewed sacrifice as an essential means to achieve this end. In the case of Maximinus, Lactantius notes that, “for each city he created a high priest, chosen from among the persons of most distinction. The office of those men was to make daily sacrifices to all their gods…”8 Further evidence is offered by a contemporary inscription from Stratoniceia, in which a brother and sister boast of their duties as priest of Zeus Panamaros and priestess of Hecate, which include “neglecting no sacrifice”9.

The above serves to suggest that, at least in comparison to the Eastern administration of Maximinus immediately preceding Constantine, Julian’s promotion of blood sacrifice may have been neither excessive nor inappropriate in the lead-up to war. Potentially, it was not out of step with pre-Constantinian ritual practice.

There are several other similarities between Julian’s revival and traditional religion under Maximinus. The latter set out to refashion the priesthood as an institution, perhaps divining that Christianity’s institutional organisation was one of the drivers of its growing success. He appointed as high priests “those who were most distinguished in public life and had gained celebrity in all the offices which they had filled.”10 The other qualification appears to have been hereditary descent from earlier priests. Under Maximinus, these attributes “seem to count for more than skill in devotion or personal piety.”11 Lactantius describes the priestly appointees as being dressed in white chamlys, “that being the most honourable distinction of dress”12 and possessing the power to arrest Christians for trial. This priesthood thus had official standing and power in Maximinus’ administration – even a degree of celebrity.

Julian also appointed chief priests in every province13. However, his vision for the revival of traditional Hellenism differed conceptually. Rather than being a prestigious arm of State, his priesthood was to be an institution of philosophical and ethical community leaders, drawing overtly on the attributes that had made Christianity so successful. He instructed one of his high priests, Arsacius, to emulate the Christians (called “atheists” by Julian):

“…it is their benevolence to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead and the pretended holiness of their lives that have done most to increase atheism. I believe that we ought really and truly to practise every one of these virtues.”14

In this and other letters, Julian further exhorted the priesthood to show moral leadership, including providing for strangers and beggars, abstaining from bawdy jokes and comedy, and wearing moderate clothing. There is a dichotomy between Maximinus’ vision of a priesthood as a shining example of ritualistically pure city leaders and Julian’s vision of a morally pure, modest (even ascetic) priesthood essentially beating the Christians at their own game.

Thus, both Maximinus and Julian were possessed of an unquestioned confidence in the traditional Hellenistic religion. The former expressed this as an integrated arm of the State and sought to enforce this across the whole population to attract the gods’ support (and thus interpreted by Christians as ‘persecution’). Julian by contrast worked to restore it to its rightful place in Society, however he saw it as philosophically superior to Christianity and had confidence that it would emerge restored through a battle of ideas. This then highlights the most important departure of Julian’s religion from that which existed prior to Constantine: its philosophical underpinnings.

Julian’s enthusiasm for paganism took the form of “a fascination with the more exotic forms of Neoplatonic mysticism.”15 Neoplatonism was grounded in the reason of Plato’s dialogues, augmented by metaphysical and psychological ideas propounded by Plotinus16. Julian championed ‘theurgy’, a strand of Neoplatonism originated by Iamblichus, described variously as “systematic harmonisation of Neoplatonic metaphysics with supposedly ancient pagan theology”17, and “magic applied to a religious purpose and resting on a supposed revelation of a religious character”18. It is apparent that Julian’s ‘paganism’ is a move to a religious and philosophical milieu that stands at some distance from the traditional religio of cultic rituals and festivals that existed prior to Constantine, or indeed from the shrivelled, vestigial form that Julian inherited. Little wonder that Ammianus judged that “he was superstitious rather than genuinely observant of the rites of religion.”19

Ammianus perhaps represents the views of a large proportion of those educated elite Romans who had not yet embraced Christianity. Whilst being appointed a priest by Maximinus around 312 had been a recognition of one’s status at the apex of Society, by the 360s “the majority of pagans in the empire were to be found among the rural and urban lower classes.”20 After the stridently Christian rules of Constantine and Constantius II the ranks of the ruling elite who remained ‘pagan’, even in secret, must have been quite depleted. Therefore Julian’s natural allies in his reformation were not the bureaucrats around him but the relatively powerless lower classes with whom – religio aside – he had nothing in common. Their base household gods could have seemed little more than superstition to Julian, in comparison to his carefully reasoned Neoplatonist theurgy.

An unenthusiastic popular response is reflected in his complaint of the Cappadocians, “I observe that, as yet, some refuse to sacrifice, and that, though some few are zealous, they lack knowledge.”21 When the reaction to his ordered restoration of the temples was sluggish, he placed trustworthy collaborators in control and subsequently “took a more drastic line by promulgating a law that the restoration of temples was to take priority over all other building schemes.”22

This is not to say that Julian’s reforms met with total indifference from non-Christians. Whilst Ammianus sniffed at Julian’s propensity for blood sacrifice, Libanius cursed the decline and degradation in traditional religion experienced under Constantius II and expressed consternation at the manner in which the gods themselves had seemingly rejected Julian, “though feasted with offerings of fat”23. From his point-of-view, it must indeed have been a confusing sequence of events: the gods had suffered decades of official neglect, but when an emperor came along who restored all the traditional observances, rebuilt temples and sacrificed prolifically, he was struck down in extraordinary circumstances after only a couple of years in power. It would require considerable cognitive dissonance to continue as a Hellenist under such circumstances!

Libanius also noted that people, on learning “how zealously the emperor clove to the temples, began to make little use of their homes and spent their time in temples.”24 Although this is from a panegyric and an exaggeration, it may be inferred nonetheless that not all ‘pagans’ were indifferent to the restitution of traditional religion or slothful in responding to Julian’s temple rebuilding program.

Aside from Ammianus and Libanius (both of whom are overall enthusiasts for Julian), there are no other contemporary non-Christian assessments of Julian’s religious reforms. If we are to identify the cause of his reformation’s failure, this will involve some modern-day speculation. Cameron, for example, as well as suggesting many Hellenists echoed Ammianus’ distaste for Julian’s wholesale blood sacrifice, asserts that their lack of enthusiasm “had much to do with his recent poor handling of a corn shortage.”25 That aside, it is also likely that Julian’s cerebral Neoplatonist theology held little appeal for those who held to local and household gods in a manner quite alien to doctrinal religious formality. It seems clear from Misopogon that Julian’s personality exacerbated this gulf. His public lecturing had apparently driven the Antiochenes to the extraordinary point of lampooning their own emperor.

As for educated Hellenists, what problems could they have had with Julian’s religious policies? They were seemingly thoughtful, well-planned and built on recognised philosophical foundations. To be sure, there was variation in philosophy during the period. Not all were Neoplatonists, less so theurgists and perhaps the magical element offended some. Did they object to Julian’s anti-Christian edict as regards teaching of Greek rhetoric and literature? Ammianus describes this as a “harsh act which should be buried in lasting oblivion”26; perhaps other educated Hellenists concurred. He further heavily censures Julian’s fervent blood sacrifice, but it is the excess that attracts Ammianus’ ire, as well as its consequent “intemperate habits of the troops”27 – not sacrifice per se. Ammianus is similarly critical of the “excessive frequency” and “heavy cost” of ceremonial rites. As to divination, Ammianus states it “sometimes reveals the future”28 – he does not regard it as totally useless superstition. Rather, it is the wild randomness of Julian’s appeal to it that Ammianus objects to – that “anyone­ who professed a knowledge, whether qualified or not” was consulted, “without restriction or the observance of any prescribed rules”29. Thus, it is not the tenets of Julian’s cultic practice that Ammianus objects to, it is the sheer excess of its application.

Ultimately, Ammianus is a sample of one. Whether or not he is indicative of wider Hellenist opinion is inconclusive.

Smith asks, “Did Julian botch the job? Was there something irremediably eccentric in his own conception and practice of pagan cult…that impinged on the public programme in ways that fatally restricted its potential appeal and political effectiveness?”30 Although Julian’s reign was far too short to reach a definitive conclusion, it appears that the answer is “yes” – as evidenced by the sluggish response to his building programme, his public ridicule in Antioch and Ammianus’ harsh portrayal of his religious practices. They reflect a reaction against “a personal notion of pagan piety that stood at odds with the assumptions and practices of mainstream Graeco-Roman polytheism.”31

Browning reaches a different (though not irreconcilable) conclusion: “The genius and power of Julian were unequal to the enterprise of restoring a religion which was destitute of theological principles, of moral precepts, and of ecclesiastical discipline; which rapidly hastened to decay and dissolution, and was not susceptible of any solid or consistent reformation.”32 This is perhaps too pessimistic a view. Despite the failure of Julian’s revival and the subsequent Christian backlash, ‘paganism’ survived on well into the Fifth Century at a household level and it was not until 529 that the most eminent pagan philosophers were finally drummed out of Athens by Justinian. Julian failed as a rallying point for those diverse elements who did not succumb to Christianity, but its embers cooled slowly.


Ammianus Marcellinus (tr. Hamilton, 1986), ‘The Later Roman Empire’, Penguin Books, London

Athanassiadi-Fowden, P. (1981), ‘Julian and Hellenism – An Intellectual Biography’, Oxford.

Bradbury, S., ‘Julian’s Pagan Revival and the Decline of Blood Sacrifice’, Phoenix, Vol 49 (1995), 4.

Browning, R. (1976), ‘The Emperor Julian’, University of California Press, Berkeley

Cameron, A (1993), ‘The Later Roman Empire’, Fontana Press, London

Eusebius of Caesaria, ‘Church History’,

Dodds, E.R., ‘Theurgy and its Relationship to Neoplatonism’, The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 37, Parts 1 and 2 (1947), pp. 55-69.

Julian, Letter to the High-Priest Theodorus,

Julian, Letter to the High-Priest of Galatia, Arsacius,

Julian, ‘Misopogon’ or ‘Beard-hater’, (tr. Wilmer Cave Wright for the Loeb Classical Library (1913)),

Lactantius, ‘On the Deaths of the Persecutors’,

Nicholson, O., ‘The ‘Pagan Churches’ of Maximinus Daia and Julian the Apostate’. Journal of Ecclesiastical History, Vol. 45 No. 1, January 1994

Nilsson, Martin P., ‘Pagan Divine Service in Late Antiquity’, Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 38, No. 1 (Jan., 1945) pp. 63-69

Smith, Rowland B.E. (2013), ‘Julian’s Gods: Religion and Philosophy in the Thought and Action of Julian the Apostate’, Routledge, London

1 Ammianus 22.5

2Letter to Theodorus

3 Julian, Misopogon

4 Ammianus XXV.4

5 Cameron, p. 94

6 Nilsson, p. 64

7 Ibid.

8 Lactantius, Deaths 36.4

9 IStratonikeia 310, quoted in Bradbury, p. 352

10Eusebius, Church History, ix.4

11Nicholson, p. 6.

12Lactantius, Deaths 36.5

13 Nicholson, p.1

14 Julian, Letter to Arsacius

15Cameron, p. 89

16Hornblower et al, p. 1007


18Dodds, p. 61

19Ammianus, XXV.4

20 Cameron, p. 95

21Julian, ep. 89 (to Aristoxenus)

22 Athanassiadi-Fowden, p. 110

23 Libanius, Oration XVII.6

24Libanius, Oration XVII.18

25Cameron, p. 92

26 Ammianus 22.10

27 Ammianus 22.12

28 Ibid.

29 Ibid

30Smith, p. 14


32Browning, p. 231



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