Julian, 32

Julian presiding at a conference of Sectarians
(Edward Armitage, 1875)

 
Priscus: I can. And you certainly can! After all, you were living at Antioch while that little beast was Caesar.

Curiously enough, Julian almost never mentioned Gallus to me, or to anyone. I have always had a theory—somewhat borne out by the memoir—that Julian was unnaturally attracted to his brother. He continually refers to his beauty. He also tends to write of him in that hurt tone one uses to describe a lover who has been cold. Julian professes to find mysterious what everyone else found only too obvious: Gallus’s cruelty. Julian was naïve, as I find myself continually observing (if I repeat myself, do forgive me and blame it on our age).

Actually, the member of the family for whom I have the most sympathy is Constantius. He was quite a good ruler, you know. We tend to undervalue him because his intelligence was of the second rank, and his religious mania troubling. But he governed well, considering that he had problems of a sort which might have made any man a monster. He made some of his worst mistakes for the best of reasons, like creating Gallus Caesar.

It is significant that Julian blames Gallus’s wife for the reign of terror in the East. I had always thought that they were equally to blame. But you lived through what must have been a terrible time. You doubtless know who was responsible for what.

Published in: on April 29, 2018 at 12:00 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Julian, 31

Julian presiding at a conference of Sectarians
(Edward Armitage, 1875)

 

VI

“Naturally the Caesar is concerned.”

“But without cause.”

“Without cause? You are a pupil of Maximus.”

“I am also a pupil of Ecebolius.”

“But he has not been with you for a year. Your brother feels that you are in need of a spiritual guide, especially now.”

“But Maximus is responsible.”

“Maximus is not a Christian. Are you?” The question came at me like a stone from a sling. I stared a long moment at the blackrobed Deacon Aetius of Antioch. He stared serenely back. I was close to panic. What did they know of me at Gallus’s court?

“How can you doubt that I am a Christian?” I said finally. “I was instructed by two great bishops. I am a church reader. I attend every important church ceremony here at Pergamon.” I looked at him, simulating righteousness doubted. “Where could such a rumour get started? If there is such a rumour.”

“You cannot be seen too often in the company of a man like Maximus without people wondering.”

“What shall I do?”

“Give him up.” The answer was prompt.

“Is that my brother’s order?”

“It is my suggestion. Your brother is concerned. That is all. He sent me here to question you. I have.”

“Are you satisfied?”

Aetius smiled. “Nothing ever satisfies me, most noble Julian. But I shall tell the Caesar that you are a regular communicant of the church. I shall also tell him that you will no longer study with Maximus.”

“If that is the wisest course, then that is the course I shall take.” This ambiguity seemed to satisfy Aetius. My friends often tell me that I might have made a good lawyer. As I escorted Aetius to the street, he looked about him and said, ‘The owner of this house…’

“… is Oribasius.”

“An excellent physician.”

“Is it wise for me to see him?” I could not resist this.

“A highly suitable companion,” said Aetius smoothly. He paused at the door to the street. “Your brother, the Caesar, often wonders why you do not come to visit him at Antioch. He feels that court life might have a… ‘polishing’ effect upon you. The word is his, not mine.”

“I’m afraid I was not made for a court, even one as celebrated as my brother’s. I resist all attempts to polish me, and I detest politicians.”

“A wise aversion.”

“And a true one. I want only to live as I do, as a student.”

“Studying to what end?”

“To know myself. What else?”

“Yes. What else?” Aetius got into his carriage. “Be very careful, most noble Julian. And remember: a prince has no friends. Ever.”

“Thank you, Deacon.”

Aetius departed. I went back into the house. Oribasius was waiting for me.

“You heard every word?” I hardly made a question of it. Oribasius and I have never had any secrets between us. On principle, he eavesdrops.

“We’ve been indiscreet, to say the least.”

I nodded. I was gloomy. “I suppose I shall have to stop seeing Maximus, at least for a while.”

“You might also insist that he not talk to everyone about his famous pupil.”

I sighed. I knew that Maximus tended—tends—to trade on his relationship with me. Princes get very used to that. I don’t resent it. In fact, I am happy if my friends prosper as a result of knowing me. I had learned Oribasius’ lesson, and I do not expect to be loved for myself. After all, I don’t love others for themselves, only for what they can teach me. Since nothing is free, to each his price.

I summoned a secretary and wrote Maximus asking him to remain at Ephesus until further notice. I also wrote a note to the bishop of Pergamon to tell him that I would read the lesson on the following Sunday.

“Hypocrite,” said Oribasius when the secretary had gone.

“A tong-lived hypocrite is preferable to a dead… what?” I often have trouble finishing epigrams. Or rather I start one without having first thought through to the end, a bad habit.

“A dead reader. Aetius has a good deal of influence with Gallus, hasn’t he?”

“So they say. He is his confessor. But who can control my brother?” Without thinking, I had lowered my voice to a whisper. For Gallus had become as suspicious of treason as Constantius. His spies were everywhere.

I blame Gallus’s wife Constantia for the overt change in his character. She was Constantius’ sister and took it for granted that conspiracy is the natural business of the human race. I never met this famous lady but I am told that she was as cruel as Gallus, and far more intelligent. She was also ambitious, which he was not. He was quite content to remain Caesar in the East. But she wanted him to be the Augustus and she plotted the death of her own brother to achieve this end. As for Gallus, even now I cannot bear to write about his reign.

Published in: on April 22, 2018 at 12:01 am  Leave a Comment  
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Julian, 30

Julian presiding at a conference of Sectarians
(Edward Armitage, 1875)

 
Julian Augustus

In March 351, I was admitted to the mysteries of Mithras. On that day I watched the rising of the sun; and I watched its setting, taking care to be unobserved, for since Constantius had made it illegal to pray to the sun, people had even been arrested for watching a sunset. Spies and informers were everywhere.

I had told Ecebolius that I intended to spend the day hunting on the slopes of Mount Pion. Since he hated hunting, he excused himself as I knew he would. He quoted Homer. I quoted Horace. He quoted Virgil. I quoted Theocritus. Together we used up nearly all of literature’s references to hunting.

The next obstacle was the bodyguard. Twelve soldiers and one officer were assigned to my household. At all times I was attended by at least two men. What to do about them? It was Maximus who decided that since Mithras is the soldier’s religion, at least two of the soldiers should prove sympathetic. Maximus was right. Of the twelve, five were Mithraists. It was then an easy matter to get two of the five assigned to me for the day. As Mithraic brothers, they were under the seal of secrecy.

An hour before dawn, Oribasius, the soldiers and I left the house. At the mountain’s edge we were met by Maximus and nine fathers. In silence we climbed the slope. At a pre-ordained spot, beneath a fig tree, we stopped and waited for the sun to rise.

The sky turned pale. The morning star shone blue. Dark clouds broke. Then just as the sun appeared on the horizon, a single shaft of light struck the rock behind us and I realized that it was not just ordinary rock, but a door into the mountainside. We prayed then to the sun and to his companion Mithras, our saviour.

When the sun was at last above the horizon, Maximus opened the door into the mountain and we entered a small cave with seats carved out of the rock. Here Oribasius and I were told to wait while the fathers of Mithras withdrew into yet another cave, the inner sanctuary. Thus began the most momentous day of my life. The day of the honey and of the bread and the wine; the day of the seven gates and the seven planets; the day of challenges and of passwords; the day of prayer and, at its end (past Raven, Bride, Soldier, Lion, Persian, Courier of the Sun, and Father), the day of Nama Nama Sebesio.

Libanius: Of all the mysteries, excepting those at Eleusis, the Mithraic is the most inspiring, for in the course of it one actually experiences the folly of earthly vanity. At each of the seven stages, the initiate acts out what his soul will one day experience as it rises amongst the seven spheres, losing one by one its human faults. At Ares, the desire for war returns to its source; at Zeus, ambition is lost; at Aphrodite, sex, and so on until the soul is purged. Then… But I can say no more. Nama Nama Sebesio.
 
Julian Augustus

When the day ended, Oribasius and I stumbled from the cave, born again.

It was then that it happened. As I looked at the setting sun, I was possessed by light. What is given to few men was given to me. I saw the One. I was absorbed by Helios and my veins coursed not with blood but light.

I saw it all. I saw the simplicity at the heart of creation. The thing which is impossible to grasp without the help of divinity, for it is beyond language and beyond mind: yet it is so simple that I marvelled at how one could not have known what is always there, a part of us just as we are part of it. What happened inside the cave was a testing and a learning, but what happened to me outside the cave was revelation.

I saw the god himself as I knelt among sage bushes, the red slanting sunlight full in my face. I heard that which cannot be written or told and I saw that which cannot be recorded in words or images. Yet even now, years later, it is as vivid in retrospect as it was at the time. For I was chosen on that steep mountainside to do the great work in which I am now engaged: the restoration of the worship of the One God, in all his beautiful singularity.

I remained kneeling until the sun was gone. Then I knelt in darkness for what I am told was an hour. I knelt until Oribasius became alarmed and awakened me… or put me to sleep, for the “real” world ever since has seemed to me the dream while my vision of Helios is the reality.

“Are you all right?”

I nodded and got to my feet. “I have seen…” But I stopped. I could not say what I had seen. Even now, writing this memoir, I cannot describe what I experienced since there is nothing comparable in ordinary human experience.

But Maximus immediately recognized what had happened to me. “He has been chosen,” he said. “He knows.”

Silently we returned to the city. I did not want to talk to anyone, not even to Maximus, for I was still enfolded by wings of light. Even the back of my hand where I had received the sacred tattoo did not hurt me. But at the city gate my absorption was rudely shattered by a large crowd which surrounded me, shouting, “Great news!”

I was bewildered. All I could think was: has the god remained with me? is what I saw visible to all? I tried to speak to Maximus and Oribasius but we could not make ourselves heard.

At the prefect’s house, I found Ecebolius with the town prefect and what looked to be the whole council. When they saw me, they fell to their knees. For an instant I thought it was indeed the end of the world and that I had been sent as messenger to separate the good from the bad. But Ecebolius quickly dispelled all thought of apocalypse.

“Most noble Julian, your brother…” All about us, men began to repeat Gallus’s names and titles. “… has been raised by the divine Augustus to share with him the purple. Gallus is Caesar in the East. He is also to be married to Constantia, divine sister of the divine Augustus!”

There was loud cheering and eager hands touched my robe, my hands, my arms. Favours were requested, blessings demanded. Finally, I broke through the mob and got inside the house.

“But why are they all behaving like lunatics?” I turned on Ecebolius, as though it were his fault.

“Because you are now the brother of a reigning Caesar.”

“Much good it will do them… or me.” This was unwise, but it relieved me to say it.

“Surely you don’t want them to love you for yourself?” Oribasius teased me. “You quite enjoyed the attention, until you heard the news.”

“Only because I thought it was the sun…” I stopped myself just in time.

“The sun?” Ecebolius looked puzzled.

“Only the son of God should be treated in this fashion,” said Maximus smoothly. “Men should not worship other men, not even princes.”

Ecebolius nodded. “A relic of the bad old days, I’m afraid. The Augustus of Rome is of course ‘divine’ though not truly a god as men used to think. But come in, come in. The baths are ready. And the prefect is giving us a banquet to celebrate the good news.”

So I beheld the One God on the same day that I learned my brother had been made Caesar. The omen was plain enough. Each was now set in his destiny. From that day on I was Hellenist or, as the Galileans like to call me (behind my back, of course!), apostate. And Gallus reigned in the East.

Published in: on April 15, 2018 at 9:07 am  Leave a Comment  
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Julian, 29

Julian presiding at a conference of Sectarians
(Edward Armitage, 1875)

Priscus:

Interesting to observe Maximus in action. He was clever. I would have guessed that at their first meeting he would have done tricks. Made the statue of Cybele dance. Something like that. But no. He gives a shrewd attack on Christianity. Then he offers Julian Mithras, a religion bound to appeal to our hero. Mithras was always the favourite deity of Roman emperors, and of many soldiers to this day. Also, Maximus knew that he would be sure of a special relationship to Julian if he were the one who sponsored him during the rites.

There is now no doubt in my mind that at this point in Julian’s life almost any of the mystery cults would have got him free of Christianity. He was eager to make the break. Yet it is hard to say quite why, since his mind tended to magic and superstition in precisely the same way the Christian mind does. Admittedly their worship of corpses did not appeal to him, but he was later to find manifestations of “the One” in even order places. Had Julian been what he thought he was—a philosopher in the tradition of Plato—one might have understood his dislike of the Christian nonsense. He would have been like you and me. But Julian was concerned, finally, with the idea of personal immortality, the one obsession Christians share with those who are drawn to the old mystery cults.

Despite everything Julian wrote on the subject, I have never understood precisely why he turned against the religion of his family. After all, Christianity offered him nearly everything he needed. If he wanted to partake symbolically of the body of a god, why not remain with the Christians and eat their bread and drink their wine instead of reverting to the bread and wine of Mithras? It is not as if there was anything lacking in Christianity. The Christians have slyly incorporated most of the popular elements of Mithras and Demeter and Dionysus into their own rites. Modern Christianity is an encyclopaedia of traditional superstition.

I suspect the origin of Julian’s disaffection is in his family. Constantius was a passionate Christian, absorbed by doctrinal disputes. With good reason, Julian hated Constantius. Therefore, he hated Christianity. This puts the matter far too simply, yet I always tend to the obvious view of things since it is usually the correct one, though of course one can never get to the bottom of anything so mysterious as another man’s character, and there is a mystery here.

Julian was Christian in everything except his tolerance of others. He was what the Christians would call a saint. Yet he swung fiercely away from the one religion which suited him perfectly, preferring its eclectic origins, which he then tried to systematize into a new combination quite as ridiculous as the synthesis he had rejected. It is a strange business and there is no satisfactory explanation for Julian’s behaviour. Of course he claimed that Bishop George’s partisanship disgusted him as a boy, and that Porphyry and Plotinus opened his eyes to the absurdity of Christian claims. Well and good. But then why turn to something equally absurd?

Granted, no educated man can accept the idea of a Jewish rebel as god. But having rejected that myth, how can one then believe that the Persian hero-god Mithras was born of light striking rock, on December 25th, with shepherds watching his birth? (I am told that the Christians have just added those shepherds to the birth of Jesus.) Or that Mithras lived in a fig tree which fed and clothed him, that he fought with the sun’s first creation, the bull, that he was dragged by it (thus symbolizing man’s suffering) until the bull escaped; finally, at the command of the sun god, Mithras stabs the bull with a knife and from the beast’s body come flowers, herbs, wheat; from the blood, wine; from the seed, the first man and woman.

Then Mithras is called up to heaven, after celebrating a sacramental last supper. Time’s end will be a day of judgment when all will rise from their graves and evil will be destroyed while the good will live for ever in the light of the sun.

Between the Mithraic story and its Christian sequel I see no essential difference. Admittedly, the Mithraic code of conduct is more admirable than the Christian. Mithraists believe that right action is better than contemplation. They favour old-fashioned virtues like courage and self-restraint. They were the first to teach that strength is gentleness. All of this is rather better than the Christian hysteria which vacillates between murder of heretics on the one hand and a cringing rejection of this world on the other. Nor can a Mithraist be absolved of sin by a sprinkle of water. Ethically, I find Mithras the best of all the mystery cults. But it is absurd to say it is any more “true” than its competitors. When one becomes absolute about myth and magic, the result can only be madness.

Julian speaks continually of his love of Hellenism. He honestly believed he loved Plato and reasonable discourse. Actually, what he craved was what so many desire in this falling time: assurance of personal immortality. He chose to reject the Christian way for reasons which I find obscure, while settling on an equal absurdity.

Of course I am sympathetic to him. He dealt the Christians some good blows and that delighted me. But I cannot sympathize with his fear of extinction. Why is it so important to continue after death? We never question the demonstrable fact that before birth we did not exist, so why should we fear becoming once more what we were to begin with? I am in no hurry to depart. But I look on nothing as just that: no thing. How can one fear no thing?

As for the various ceremonies and trials the Mithraic initiate must undergo, the less said the better. I understand that one of the twelve tortures is the pulling out one by one of the pubic hairs, a most spiritual discipline. I was also told that part of the ceremonies are conducted while everyone is roaring drunk and trying to jump over ditches blindfolded, a symbol no doubt of the bewildering life of the flesh. But men are impressed by secret rites, the more gruesome and repellent the better. How sad we are, how terrified to be men!

Libanius:

It is not often one finds a philosopher so entirely lacking in the religious sense. It is like being born unable to perceive colours which are plain to everyone else. Priscus does have a logical mind and a precise way of stating things, but he is blind to what truly matters. Like Julian, I was admitted to the Mithraic rites during my student days. The impression the mysteries made on me was profound, though I confess that the effect was not as revealing—for me—as it was for Julian. But I had never been a Christian, so I was not making a dramatic and dangerous break with the world I belonged to. However, for Julian it was a brave thing to do. Had Constantius learned of what he had done, it might have cost him his life. Fortunately, Maximus managed the affair so skilfully that Constantius never knew that at the age of nineteen his cousin ceased to be a Christian, in a cave beneath Mount Pion.

Priscus seems to have missed the point of the Mithraic mysteries, which does not surprise me. Priscus applauds our high ethical standards. We are grateful to him. But he finds the rites “repellent”. Of course he knows about them only by hearsay, since no one who has been initiated may recount what happens in the cave. But though the “trials” are often disagreeable, the revelation is worth all the pain that one has borne. I for one cannot imagine a world without Mithras.

Priscus observes with his usual harsh candour that the Christians are gradually absorbing various aspects of the cult. A thought suddenly occurs to me: might not this be the way in which we finally conquer? Is it not possible that the absorber will become so like the absorbed that in time they will be us?

Published in: on April 1, 2018 at 8:14 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Julian, 28

Julian presiding at a conference of Sectarians
(Edward Armitage, 1875)

We were at Ephesus some days before I was able to see Maximus. He was in retreat, communing with the gods. But we received daily bulletins from his wife. Finally, on the eighth day, at about the second hour, a slave arrived to say that Maximus would be honoured to receive me that afternoon. I prevailed on Ecebolius to allow me to make the visit alone. After much argument he gave in, but only on condition that I later write out for him a full account of everything that was said.

Maximus lived in a modest house on the slopes of Mount Pion, not far from the theatre which is carved out of its side. My guards left me at the door. A servant then showed me into an inner room where I was greeted by a thin, nervous woman.

“I am Placidia, wife of Maximus.” She let go my robe whose hem she had kissed. “We are so sorry my husband could not see you earlier, but he has been beneath the earth, with the goddess Cybele.” She motioned to a slave who handed her a lighted torch which she gave me. “My husband is still in darkness. He asks for you to join him there.”

I took the torch and followed Placidia to a room of the house whose fourth wall was covered by a curtain which, when she pulled it back, revealed the mountainside and an opening in the rock. “You must go to him alone, most noble prince.”

I entered the mountain. For what seemed hours (but must have been only minutes), I stumbled towards a far-off gleam of light which marked the end of the passageway. At last I arrived at what looked to be a well-lit chamber cut in the rock, and filled with smoke. Eagerly, I stepped forward and came up hard against a solid wall, stubbing my toes. I thought I had gone mad. In front of me was a room. But I could not enter it. Then I heard the beautiful deep voice of Maximus: “See? The life of this world is all illusion and only the gods are real.”

I turned to my left and saw the chamber I thought I had seen in front of me. The smoke was now gone. The room appeared to be empty. Yet the voice sounded as if the speaker were close beside me. “You tried to step into a mirror. In the same way, the ignorant try to enter the land of the blessed, only to be turned away by their own reflection. Without surrendering yourself, you may not thread the labyrinth at whose end exists the One.”

My right foot hurt. I was cold. I was both impressed and irritated by the situation. “I am Julian,” I said, “of the house of Constantine.”

“I am Maximus, of the house of all the gods.” Then he appeared suddenly at my elbow. He seemed to emerge from the rock. Maximus is tall and well proportioned, with a beard like a grey waterfall and the glowing eyes of a cat. He wore a green robe with curious markings. He took my hand. “Come in,” he said. “There are wonders here.”

The room was actually a natural grotto with stalactites hanging from the ceiling and, at its centre, a natural pool of still dark water. Beside the pool was a bronze statue of Cybele, showing the goddess seated and holding in one hand the holy drum. Two stools were the only furnishings in the cave. He invited me to sit down.

“You will go on many journeys,” said Maximus. My heart sank. He sounded like any soothsayer in the agora. “And I shall accompany you to the end.”

“I could hope for no better teacher,” I said formally, somewhat taken aback. He was presumptuous.

“Do not be alarmed, Julian…” He knew exactly what I was thinking. “I am not forcing myself upon you. Quite the contrary. I am being forced. Just as you are. By something neither of us can control. Nor will it be easy, what we must do together. There is great danger for both of us. Especially for me. I dread being your teacher.”

“But I had hoped…”

“I am your teacher,” he concluded. “What is it that you would most like to know?”

“The truth.”

“The truth of what?”

“Where do we come from and where do we go to, and what is the meaning of the journey?”

“You are Christian.” He said this carefully, making neither a statement nor a question of it. Had there been a witness to this scene, I must have allowed a door in my mind to shut. As it was, I paused. I thought of Bishop George, interminably explaining “similar” as opposed to “same”. I heard the deacon chanting the songs of Arius. I heard myself reading the lesson in the chapel at Macellum. Then suddenly I saw before me the leather-bound testament Bishop George had given me: “Thou shalt not revile the gods.”

“No,” said Maximus gravely. “For that way lies eternal darkness.”

I was startled. “I said nothing.”

“You quoted from the book of the Jews, from Exodus. ‘Thou shalt not revile the gods.'”

“But I said nothing.”

“You thought it.”

“You can see into my thoughts?”

“When the gods give me the power, yes.”

“Then look now, carefully, and tell me: am I Christian?”

“I cannot speak for you, nor tell you what I see.”

“I believe there does exist a first maker, an absolute power…”

“Was it the same god who spoke to Moses ‘mouth to mouth’?”

“So I have been taught.”

“Yet that god was not absolute. He made the earth and heaven, men and beasts. But according to Moses, he did not make darkness or even matter, since the earth was already there before him, invisible and without form. He was merely the shaper of what already existed. Does one not prefer Plato’s god, who caused this universe to come ‘into being as a living creature, possessing soul and intelligence in very truth, both by the providence of god’?”

“From the Timaeus,” I said automatically. “And then there is the confusion between the book of the Jews and the book of the Nazarene. The god of the first is supposed to be the god of the second. Yet in the second he is father of the Nazarene…”

“By grace. They are of similar substance, but not the same.” Maximus laughed. “Well learned, my young Arian.”

“I am Arian because I find it impossible to believe that God was briefly a man executed for treason. Jesus was a prophet—a son of God in some mysterious way—yes, but not the One God.”

“Nor even his deputy, despite the efforts of the extraordinary Paul of Tarsus, who tried to prove that the tribal god of the Jews was the universal One God, even though every word Paul says is contradicted by the Jewish holy book. In letters to the Romans and to the Galatians, Paul declared that the god of Moses is the god not only of Jews but also of Gentiles. Yet the Jewish book denies this in a hundred places. As their god said to Moses: ‘Israel is my son, my first-born.’ Now if this god of the Jews were indeed, as Paul claimed, the One God, why then did he reserve for a single unimportant race the anointing, the prophets and the law? Why did he allow the rest of mankind to exist thousands of years in darkness, worshipping falsely? Of course the Jews admit that he is a ‘jealous god’. But what an extraordinary thing for the absolute to be! Jealous of what? And cruel, too, for he avenged the sins of the fathers on guiltless children. Is not the creator described by Homer and Plato more likely? that there is one being who encompasses all life—is all life—and from this essential source emanate gods, demons, men? Or to quote the famous Orphic oracle which the Galileans are beginning to appropriate for their own use, ‘Zeus, Hades, Helios, three gods in one Godhead’.”

“From the One many…” I began, but with Maximus one never needs to finish sentences. He anticipates the trend of one’s thought.

“How can the many be denied? Are all emotions alike? or does each have characteristics peculiarly its own? And if each race has its own qualities, are not those god-given? And, if not god-given, would not these characteristics then be properly symbolized by a specific national god? In the case of the Jews a jealous bad-tempered patriarch. In the case of the effeminate, clever Syrians, a god like Apollo. Or take the Germans and the Celts—who are warlike and fierce—is it accident that they worship Ares, the war god? Or is it inevitable? The early Romans were absorbed by lawmaking and governing—their god? the king of gods, Zeus. And each god has many aspects and many names, for there is as much variety in heaven as there is among men. Some have asked: did we create these gods or did they create us? That is an old debate. Are we a dream in the mind of deity, or is each of us a separate dreamer, evoking his own reality? Though one may not know for certain, all our senses tell us that a single creation does exist and we are contained by it for ever. Now the Christians would impose one final rigid myth on what we know to be various and strange. No, not even myth, for the Nazarene existed as flesh while the gods we worship were never men; rather they are qualities and powers become poetry for our instruction. With the worship of the dead Jew, the poetry ceased. The Christians wish to replace our beautiful legends with the police record of a reforming Jewish rabbi. Out of this unlikely material they hope to make a final synthesis of all the religions ever known. They now appropriate our feast days. They transform local deities into saints. They borrow from our mystery rites, particularly those of Mithras. The priests of Mithras are called ‘fathers’. So the Christians call their priests ‘fathers’. They even imitate the tonsure, hoping to impress new converts with the familiar trappings of an older cult. Now they have started to call the Nazarene ‘saviour’ and ‘healer’. Why? Because one of the most beloved of our gods is Asklepios, whom we call ‘saviour’ and ‘healer’.”

“But there is nothing in Mithras to equal the Christian mystery.” I argued for the devil. “What of the Eucharist, the taking of the bread and wine, when Christ said, ‘He who eats of my body and drinks of my blood shall have eternal life’.”

Maximus smiled. “I betray no secret of Mithras when I tell you that we, too, partake of a symbolic meal, recalling the words of the Persian prophet Zarathustra, who said to those who worshipped the One God—and Mithras, ‘He who eats of my body and drinks of my blood, so that he will be made one with me and I with him, the same shall not know salvation.’ That was spoken six centuries before the birth of the Nazarene.”

I was stunned. “Zarathustra was a man…?”

“A prophet. He was struck down in a temple by enemies. As he lay dying, he said, ‘May God forgive you even as I do.’ No, there is nothing sacred to us that the Galileans have not stolen. The main task of their innumerable councils is to try to make sense of all their borrowing. I don’t envy them.”

“I have read Porphyry…” I began.

“Then you are aware of how the Galileans contradict themselves.”

“But what of the contradictions in Hellenism?”

“Old legends are bound to conflict. But then, we never think of them as literally true. They are merely cryptic messages from the gods, who in turn are aspects of the One. We know that we must interpret them. Sometimes we succeed. Sometimes we fail. But the Christians hold to the literal truth of the book which was written about the Nazarene long after his death. Yet even that book so embarrasses them that they must continually alter its meaning. For instance, nowhere does it say that Jesus was God…”

“Except in John.” I quoted: “‘And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.'” I had not been five years a church reader for nothing.

“That is open to interpretation. What precisely was meant by ‘Word’? Is it really, as they now pretend, the holy spirit who is also God who is also Jesus?—which brings us again to that triple impiety they call ‘truth’, which in turn reminds us that the most noble Julian also wishes to know the truth.”

“It is what I wish.” I felt strange. The smoke from the torches was thick in the room. All things now appeared indistinct and unreal. Had the walls opened suddenly and the sun blazed down upon us, I should not have been surprised. But Maximus practised no magic that day. He was matter-of-fact.

“No one can tell another man what is true. Truth is all around us. But each must find it in his own way. Plato is part of the truth. So is Homer. So is the story of the Jewish god if one ignores its arrogant claims. Truth is wherever man has glimpsed divinity. Theurgy can achieve this awakening. Poetry can. Or the gods themselves of their own volition can suddenly open our eyes.”

“My eyes are shut.”

“Yes.”

“But I know what it is I want to find.”

“But there is a wall in front of you, like the mirror you tried to walk into.”

I looked at him very hard. “Maximus, show me a door, and not a mirror.”

He was silent a long time. When he finally spoke, he did not look at me. Instead he studied the face of Cybele. “You are Christian.”

“I am nothing.”

“But you must be Christian, for that is the religion of your family.”

“I must appear to be Christian. Nothing more.”

“You do not fear being a hypocrite?”

“I fear not knowing the truth even more.”

“Are you prepared to be admitted to the secret rites of Mithras?”

“Is that the way?”

“It is a way. If you are willing to make the attempt, I can lead you to the door. But you must cross through alone. I cannot help you past the gate.”

“And after I pass through?”

“You will know what it is to die and to be born again.”

“Then you shall be my teacher, Maximus. And my guide.”

“Of course I shall be.” He smiled. “It is our fate. Remember what I said? We have no choice, either of us. Fate has intervened. Together we shall proceed to the end of the tragedy.”

“Tragedy?”

“Human life is tragic: it ends in pain and death.”

“But after the pain? after the death?”

“When you cross the threshold of Mithras, you will know what it is like to be beyond tragedy, to be beyond what is human, to be one with God.”

Published in: on February 18, 2018 at 12:08 pm  Comments (5)  
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Julian, 27

Julian presiding at a conference of Sectarians
(Edward Armitage, 1875)

 
Julian Augustus

Ecebolius was eager to go to Ephesus, rather to my surprise; I had thought he would have wanted to keep me from Maximus. But he was compliant. “After all, I am your teacher, approved by the Emperor. You cannot officially study with Maximus, or anyone else. Not that I would object. Far from it. I am told Maximus is most inspiring, though hopelessly reactionary. But we hardly need worry about your being influenced at this late date. After all, you were taught Christian theology by two great bishops, Eusebius and George. What firmer foundation can any man have? By all means let us visit Ephesus. You will enjoy the intellectual life. And so shall I.”

What Ecebolius had come to enjoy was playing Aristotle to my green Alexander. Everywhere we went, academics were curious to know me. That meant they got to know Ecebolius. In no time at all, he was proposing delicately that he “exchange” students with them. “Exchange” meant that they would send him students at Constantinople for which they would receive nothing except the possible favour of the prince. During our travels, Ecebolius made his fortune.

In a snowstorm we were met at the gates of Ephesus by the city prefect and the town council. They were all very nervous.

“It is a great honour for Ephesus to receive the most noble Julian,” said the prefect. “We are here to serve him, as we have served the most noble Gallus, who has also honoured us by his presence here.” At the mention of Gallus, as though rehearsed, the councillors began to mutter, “Kind, good, wise, noble.”

“Where is my brother?”

There was a tense pause. The prefect looked anxiously at the councillors. They looked at one another. There was a good deal of energetic brushing of snow from cloaks.

“Your brother,” said the prefect, finally, “is at court. At Milan. He was summoned by the Emperor last month. There has been no word about him. None at all. Naturally, we hope for the best.”

“And what is the best?”

“Why, that he be made Caesar.” It was not necessary to inquire about the worst.

After due ceremony, we were led to the prefect’s house, where I was to stay. Ecebolius was thrilled at the thought that I might soon be half-brother to a Caesar. But I was alarmed. My alarm became panic when later that night Oribasius told me that Gallus had been taken from Ephesus under arrest.

“Was he charged with anything?”

“The Emperor’s pleasure. There was no charge. Most people expect him to be executed.”

“Has he given any cause?”

Oribasius shrugged. “If he is executed, people will give a hundred reasons why the Emperor did the right thing. If he is made Caesar, they will say they knew all along such wisdom and loyalty would be rewarded.”

“If Gallus dies…” I shuddered.

“But you’re not political.”

“I was born ‘political’ and there is nothing I can do about it. First Gallus, then me.”

“I should think you were safest of all, the scholar-prince.”

“No one is safe.” I felt the cold that night as I have never felt the cold before or since. I don’t know what I should have done without Oribasius. He was the first friend I ever had. He is still the best friend I have, and I miss him here in Persia. Oribasius has always been particularly useful in finding out things I would have no way of knowing. People never speak candidly to princes, but Oribasius could get anyone to tell him anything, a trick learned practising medicine. He inspires confidences.

Within a day of our arrival at Ephesus, Oribasius had obtained a full report on Gallus’s life in the city. “He is feared. But he is admired.”

“For his beauty?” I could not resist that. After all, I had spent my childhood hopelessly beguiled by that golden creature.

“He shares his beauty rather liberally with the wives of the local magnates.”

“Naturally.”

“He is thought to be intelligent.”

“He is shrewd.”

“Politically knowledgeable, very ambitious…”

“Yet unpopular and feared. Why?”

“A bad temper, occasionally violent.”

“Yes.” I thought of the cedar grove at Macellum.

“People fear him. They don’t know why.”

“Poor Gallus.” I almost meant it, too. “What do they say about me?”

“They wish you would shave your beard.”

“I thought it was looking rather decent lately. A bit like Hadrian’s.” I rubbed the now full growth affectionately. Only the colour displeased me: it was even lighter than the hair on my head, which is light brown. To make the beard seem darker and glossier, I occasionally rubbed oil in it. Nowadays, as I go grey, the beard has mysteriously darkened. I am perfectly satisfied with the way it looks. No one else is. ”

They also wonder what you are up to.”

“Up to? I should have thought it perfectly plain. I am a student.”

“We are Greeks in these parts.” Oribasius grinned, looking very Greek. “We never think anything is what it seems to be.”

“Well, I am not about to subvert the state,” I said gloomily. “My only plot is how to survive.”

In spite of himself, Ecebolius liked Oribasius. “Because we are really disobeying the Chamberlain, you know. He fixed your household at a certain size and made no allowance for a physician.”

“But Oribasius is a very special physician.”

“Granted, he helped my fever and banished ‘pain’s cruel handmaid’…”

“He also has the advantage of being richer than I. He helps us pay the bills.”

“True. Sad truth.” Ecebolius has a healthy respect for money, and because of that I was able to keep Oribasius near me.

Published in: on February 4, 2018 at 8:28 am  Leave a Comment  
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Julian, 26

Julian presiding at a conference of Sectarians
(Edward Armitage, 1875)

 
The next day I received word that Aedesius would see me. I found him lying on a cot, his bearded wife beside him. Aedesius was a small man who had once been fat, but now because of illness and age the skin hung from him in folds. It was hard to believe that this frail old man had once been the pupil of Iamblichos and actually present on that occasion when Iamblichos caused two divine youths to appear from twin pools in the rock at Gadara. Yet despite his fragility, Aedesius was alert and amiable. “Sosipatra tells me that you have a gift for philosophy.”

“If a passion can be called a gift.”

“Why not? Passion is a gift of the gods. She also tells me that you plan to go to Ephesus.”

“Only if I cannot study with you.”

“Too late for that.” He sighed. “As you see, I am in poor health. She gives me four more years of this life. But I doubt that I shall last so long. Anyway, Maximus will be more to your taste. He was my student, you know. After Priscus of Athens, he was my best student. Of course Maximus prefers demonstration to argument, mysteries to books. But then there are many ways to truth. And from what Sosipatra tells me, he was born to be your guide. It is clearly destiny.”

 

Priscus: It was clearly a plot. They were all in on it. Years later, Maximus admitted as much. “I knew all along I was the right teacher for Julian. Naturally, I never dreamed he would be emperor.” He did not dream it; he willed it. “I saw him simply as a soul that I alone could lead to salvation.” Maximus then got Sosipatra and Aedesius to recommend him to Julian, which they did. What an extraordinary crew they were! Except for Aedesius, there was not a philosopher in the lot.

From what I gather, Julian in those days was a highly intelligent youth who might have been “captured” for true philosophy. After all, he enjoyed learning. He was good at debate. Properly educated, he might have been another Porphyry or, taking into account his unfortunate birth, another Marcus Aurelius.

But Maximus got to him first and exploited his one flaw: that craving for the vague and incomprehensible which is essentially Asiatic. It is certainly not Greek, even though we Greeks are in a noticeable intellectual decline. Did you know that thanks to the presence of so many foreign students in Athens, our people no longer speak pure Attic but a sort of argot, imprecise and ugly? Yet despite the barbarism which is slowly extinguishing “the light of the world”, we Athenians still pride ourselves on being able to see things as they are.

Show us a stone and we see a stone, not the universe. But like so many others nowadays, poor Julian wanted to believe that man’s life is profoundly more significant than it is. His sickness was the sickness of our age. We want so much not to be extinguished at the end that we will go to any length to make conjuror tricks for one another simply to obscure the bitter, secret knowledge that it is our fate not to be. If Maximus hadn’t stolen Julian from us, the bishops would have got him. I am sure of that. At heart he was a Christian mystic gone wrong.

 

Libanius: Christian mystic! Had Priscus any religious sense he might by now have experienced that knowledge of oneness, neither “bitter” nor “secret”, which Plotinus and Porphyry, Julian and I, each in his own way—mystically-arrived at. Or failing that, had he been admitted to the mysteries of Eleusis just fourteen miles from his own house in Athens, he might have understood that since the soul is, there can be no question of its not-being.

But I agree with Priscus about Maximus. I was aware at the time of the magicians’ plot to capture Julian, but since I was forbidden to speak to him I could hardly warn him. Yet they did Julian no lasting harm. He sometimes put too much faith in oracles and magic, but he always had a firm grip of logic and he excelled in philosophic argument. He was hardly a Christian mystic. Yet he was a mystic—something Priscus could never understand.

Published in: on January 28, 2018 at 12:08 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Julian, 25

Julian presiding at a conference of Sectarians
(Edward Armitage, 1875)

Julian Augustus

When the dinner was over, Sosipatra presented her sons to us. They were about my age. Two of them grew up to be speculators in grain, and most unsavoury. The third, Anatolius, I heard news of only recently. Some years ago he attached himself to the temple of Serapis at Alexandria. After Bishop George destroyed the temple, Anatolius climbed on to a broken column and now stares continually at the sun. How I envy the purity of such a life! But that night at dinner, the future holy man seemed a very ordinary youth, with a slight stammer.

When the sons had withdrawn, Sosipatra sent for a tripod and incense. “And now you will want to know what the gods advise you to do. Where to go. With whom to study.” She gave me a dazzling smile.

I blurted out, “I want to study here, with you.” But she shook her head, to Ecebolius’ relief. “I know my own future and a prince is no part of it. I wish it were otherwise,” she added softly, and I fell in love with her on the spot, as so many students had done before me.

Sosipatra lit the incense. She shut her eyes. She whispered a prayer. Then in a low voice she implored the Great Goddess to speak to us. Smoke filled the room. All things grew vague and indistinct. My head began to ache. Suddenly in a loud voice not her own, Sosipatra said, “Julian!”

I looked at her closely. Her eyes were half open but only the whites showed: she slept while the spirit possessed her. “You are loved by us beyond any man alive.” That was puzzling. “Us” must mean the gods. But why should they love a Galilean who doubted their existence? Of course I had also begun to question the divinity of the Nazarene, which made me neither Hellenist nor Galilean, neither believer nor atheist. I was suspended somewhere between, waiting for a sign. Could this be it?

“You will rebuild our temples. You will cause the smoke of a thousand sacrifices to rise from a thousand altars. You shall be our servant and all men shall be your servants, as token of our love.”

Ecebolius stirred nervously. “We must not listen to this,” he murmured.

The voice continued serenely. “The way is dangerous. But we shall protect you, as we have protected you from the hour of your birth. Earthly glory shall be yours. And death when it comes in far Phrygia, by enemy steel, will be a hero’s death, without painful lingering. Then you shall be with us for ever, close to the One from whom all light flows, to whom all light returns. Oh, Julian, dear to us… Evil!” The voice changed entirely. It became harsh. “Foul and profane! We bring you defeat. Despair. The Phrygian death is yours. But the tormented soul is ours for ever, far from light!”

Sosipatra screamed. She began to writhe in her chair; her hands clutched at her throat as though to loosen some invisible bond. Words tumbled disjointedly from her mouth. She was a battleground between warring spirits. But at last the good prevailed, and she became tranquil.

“Ephesus,” she said, and her voice was again soft and caressing. “At Ephesus you will find the door to light. Ecebolius, when you were a child you hid three coins in the garden of your uncle’s house at Sirmium. One was a coin of the reign of Septimus Severus. A gardener dug up the coins and spent them. That coin of Severus is now in Pergamon, in a tavern. Oribasius, your father insists you sell the property but hopes you will not make the same mistake you made last year when you leased the lower meadow to your Syrian neighbour, and he would not pay. Julian, beware the fate of Gallus. Remember… Hilarius!” She stopped. She became herself again. “My head aches,” she said in a tired voice.

We were all quite shaken. I most of all for she had practically said that I would become emperor, which was treason, for no one may consult an oracle about the imperial succession, nor even speculate in private on such matters. Ecebolius had been rightly alarmed.

Sosipatra had no memory of what was said. She listened carefully as we told her what the goddess—and the other—had said. She was intrigued. “Obviously a great future for the most noble Julian.”

“Of course,” said Ecebolius nervously. “As a loyal prince of the imperial house…”

“Of course!” Sosipatra laughed. “We must say no more.” Then she frowned. “I have no idea who the dark spirit was. But it is plain that the goddess was Cybele, and she wants you to honour her since she is the mother of all, and your protectress.”

“It also seems indicated that Julian should avoid Phrygia,” said Oribasius mischievously.

But Sosipatra took this quite seriously. “Yes. Julian will die in Phrygia, gloriously, in battle.” She turned to me. “I don’t understand the reference to your brother. Do you?”

I nodded, unable to speak, my head whirling with dangerous thoughts.

“The rest of it seems plain enough. You are to restore the worship of the true gods.”

“It seems rather late in the day for that.” Ecebolius had found his tongue at last. “And even if it were possible, Julian is a Christian. The imperial house is Christian. This makes him a most unlikely candidate for restoring the old ways.”

“Are you unlikely?” Sosipatra fixed me with her great dark eyes.

I shook my head helplessly. “I don’t know. I must wait for a sign.”

“Perhaps this was the sign. Cybele herself spoke to you.”

“So did something else,” said Ecebolius.

“There is always the Other,” said Sosipatra. “But light transcends all things. As Macrobius wrote, ‘The sun is the mind of the universe.’ And nowhere, not even in the darkest pit of hell, is mind entirely absent.”

“What is at Ephesus?” I asked suddenly.

Sosipatra gave me a long look. Then she said, “Maximus is there. He is waiting for you. He has been waiting for you since the day you were born.”

Ecebolius stirred at this. “I am perfectly sure that Maximus would like nothing better than to instruct the prince, but, unfortunately for him, I was appointed by the Grand Chamberlain to supervise Julian’s studies and I am not at all eager for my pupil to become involved with a notorious magician.”

Sosipatra’s voice was icy. “We think of Maximus as being something more than a ‘notorious magician’. It is true that he can make the gods appear to him, but…”

“Actually appear?” I was fascinated.

“Actors, from the theatre,” muttered Oribasius, “carefully rehearsed, tricks of lighting…”

Sosipatra smiled. “Oribasius! That is unworthy of you! What would your father say to that?”

“I have no idea. You see more of him nowadays than I do.” Sosipatra ignored this. She turned to me. “Maximus is no charlatan. If he were, I would have unmasked him years ago. Of course people question his powers. They should. One must not take anything on blind faith. Yet when he speaks to the gods…”

“He speaks to them, but do they really speak to him? That’s more the point,” said Ecebolius.

“They do. I was present once in Ephesus when a group of atheists questioned him, just as you have.”

“Not to believe in Maximus does not make one an atheist.” Ecebolius was growing irritated.

She continued through him. “Maximus asked us to meet him that night in the temple of Hecate. Now the temple has not been used in years. It is a simple building, containing a bronze statue of the goddess and nothing more, so there was no way for Maximus to… prepare a miracle.” She looked sharply at Oribasius. “When we had all arrived, Maximus turned to the statue and said, ‘Great Goddess, show these unbelievers a sign of your power.’ There was a moment of silence. Then the bronze torches she held in her bronze hands burst into flame.”

“Naphtha,” said Oribasius.

“I must go to Ephesus,” I said.

“But that was not all. The statue smiled at us. The bronze face smiled. Then Hecate laughed. I have never heard such a sound! All heaven seemed to mock us, as we fled from that place.”

Sosipatra turned to Ecebolius. “He has no choice, you know. At Ephesus his life begins.”

Published in: on January 20, 2018 at 4:23 pm  Comments (9)  
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Julian, 24

Julian presiding at a conference of Sectarians
(Edward Armitage, 1875)

 
In January 350, Ecebolius and I got permission to move on to Pergamon. We made the three-hundred-mile trip in bitter cold. As we rode through the perpetual haze of steam from our own breath, I recall thinking, this must be what it is like to campaign in Germany or Russia: barren countryside, icy roads, a black sky at noon and soldiers behind me, their arms clattering in the stillness. I daydreamed about the military life, which was strange, for in those days I seldom thought of anything except philosophy and religion. I suspect that I was born a soldier and only “made” a philosopher.

At Pergamon, Ecebolius insisted we stay at the palace of the Greek kings, which had been made available to me. But when the prefect of the city (who had most graciously met us at the gate) hinted that I would have to pay for the maintenance of the palace, Ecebolius agreed that we were better off as guests of Oribasius, who had also met us at the gate, pretending not to know me but willing, as a good courtier, to put up the Emperor’s cousin. In those days Oribasius was far richer than I and often lent me money when I was short of cash. We were like brothers.

Oribasius took delight in showing me his city. He knew my interest in temples (though I was not yet consciously a Hellenist), and we spent several days prowling through the deserted temples on the acropolis and across the Selinos River, which divides the city. Even then, I was struck by the sadness of once holy buildings now empty save for spiders and scorpions. Only the temple of Asklepios was kept up, and that was because the Asklepion is the centre of the intellectual life of the city. It is a large enclave containing theatre, library, gymnasium, porticoes, gardens, and of course the circular temple to the god himself. Most of the buildings date from two centuries ago, when architecture was at its most splendid.

The various courtyards are filled with students at every hour of the day. The teachers sit inside the porticoes and talk. Each teacher has his own following. Unfortunately when we came to the portico where Aedesius was usually to be found, we were told that he was ill.

“After all, he’s over seventy,” said a raffish youth, dressed as a New Cynic. “Why don’t you go to Prusias’ lectures? He’s the coming man. Absolutely first-rate. I’ll take you to him.” But Oribasius firmly extricated us from the young man’s clutches. Cursing genially, the admirer of Prusias let us go. We started back to the agora.

“That’s how a lot of students live in Pergamon. For each new pupil they bring to their teacher, they are paid so much a head.” Just behind the old theatre, Oribasius pointed to a small house in a narrow street. “Aedesius lives there.”

I sent one of my guards to ask if the philosopher would receive me. After a long wait, a fat woman with a fine grey beard and spiky moustache came to the door and said firmly, “He can see no one.”

“But when will he be able to?”

“Perhaps never,” she said, and shut the door.

Oribasius laughed. “His wife. She’s not as nice as she looks.”

“But I must meet him.”

“We’ll arrange it somehow. Anyway, tonight I’ve something special for you.”

That something special was the woman philosopher, Sosipatra. She was then in her forties but looked much younger. She was tall and though somewhat heavy, her face was still youthful and handsome.

When we arrived at her house, Sosipatra came straight to me, knowing exactly who I was without being told. “Most noble Julian, welcome to our house. And you too, Ecebolius. Oribasius, your father sends you greetings.”

Oribasius looked alarmed, as well he might: his father had been dead three months. But Sosipatra was serious. “I spoke to him just now. He is well. He stands within the third arc of Helios, at a hundred- and-eighty-degree angle to the light. He advises you to sell the farm in Galatia. Not the one with the cedar grove. The other. With the stone house. Come in, most noble prince. You went to see Aedesius today but his wife turned you away. Nevertheless, my old friend will see you in a few days. He is sick at the moment but he will recover. He has four more years of life. A holy, good man.”

I was quite overwhelmed, as she led me firmly by the hand into a dining-room whose walls were decorated with pictures of the mysteries of Demeter. There were couches for us and a chair for her. Slaves helped us off with our sandals and washed our feet. We then arranged ourselves about the table. All the while, Sosipatra continued to talk in such a melodious voice that even Ecebolius, who did not much like the idea of her, was impressed.

“Do you know the beautiful story of Aedesius and his father? No? It is so characteristic. The father wanted his son to join him in the family business. But first he sent him to school at Athens. When Aedesius returned from school, he told his father that it was now impossible for him to go into business. He preferred to become a philosopher. Furious, his father drove him out of the house, shouting, ‘What good does philosophy do you now?’ To which Aedesius replied, ‘It has taught me to revere my father, even as he drives me from his house.’ From that moment on, Aedesius and his father were friends.”

We were all edified by this story. Sosipatra was indeed a fountain of wisdom, and we were fortunate to drink of her depths.

Priscus: Did you ever meet this monster? I once spent a week with her and her husband at Pergamon. She never stopped talking. Even Aedesius, who was fond of her (I think he was once her lover), thought her ignorant, though he would never have admitted it. He, by the way, was an excellent man. After all, he was my teacher and am I not, after Libanius, the wisest man of our age?

Libanius: Irony?

Priscus: But though Sosipatra was hardly a philosopher, she was a remarkable magician. Even I came close to believing in her spells and predictions. She also had a sense of drama which was most exciting. Julian was completely taken in by her, and I date his fatal attraction to this sort of thing from that dinner party.

Incidentally, a friend of mine once had an affair with Sosipatra. When the act was over, she insisted that he burn incense to her as she lay among the tangled sheets. “For I am Aphrodite, goddess come among men.” He burned the incense but never went to bed with her again.

Maximus also thought that Sosipatra was divine, or at least “inhabited from time to time by the spirit of Aphrodite”. Which made her sound rather like an inn. I always found her tedious. But she was often accurate in her predictions. Lucky guesses? Who knows? If the gods exist, which I doubt, might they not be every bit as boring as Sosipatra?

Libanius: As always, Priscus goes too far. But I rather agree with him about Sosipatra. She did talk too much. But then, who am I to criticize her when one of my oldest friends has just told me to my face that I bore all Antioch?

Published in: on January 7, 2018 at 11:55 am  Comments (1)  
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Julian, 23

Julian presiding at a conference of Sectarians
(Edward Armitage, 1875)

 
Julian Augustus

As I sat on the bench in the sun, revelling in warmth and anonymity, a dark man approached me. He gave me a close look. Then he said, “Macellum?”

At first I was annoyed at being recognized. But when I realized that this young man was the physician Oribasius, I was glad that he spoke to me. In no time at all we were talking as if we had known each other all our lives. Together we took the baths. In the circular hot room, as we scraped oil from one another, Oribasius told me that he had left the court.

“To practise privately?”

“No. Family affairs. My father died. And now I have to go home to Pergamon to settle the estate.”

“How did you recognize me? It’s been two years.”

“I always remember faces, especially those of princes.”

I motioned for him to lower his voice. Just opposite us two students were trying to overhear our conversation.

“Also,” whispered Oribasius, “that awful beard of yours is a give-away.”

“It’s not very full yet,” I said, tugging at it sadly.

“And everyone in Nicomedia knows that the most noble Julian is trying to grow a philosopher’s beard.”

“Well, at my age there’s always hope.”

After a plunge in the cold pool, we made our way to the hall of the tepidarium, where several hundred students were gathered, talking loudly, singing, occasionally wrestling, to the irritation of the bath attendants, who would then move swiftly among them, cracking heads with metal keys.

Oribasius promptly convinced me that I should come stay with him in Pergamon. “I’ve a big house and there’s no one in it. You can also meet Aedesius…. ”

Like everyone, I admired Aedesius. He was Pergamon’s most famous philosopher, the teacher of Maximus and Priscus, and a friend of the late Iamblichos.

“You’ll like Pergamon. Thousands of Sophists, arguing all day long. We even have a woman Sophist.”

“A woman?”

“Well, perhaps she’s a woman. There is a rumour she may be a goddess. You must ask her, since she started the rumour. Anyway, she gives lectures on philosophy, practises magic, predicts the future. You’ll like her.”

“But you don’t?”

“But you will.”

At that moment we were joined by the two young men from the hot room. One was tall and well built; his manner grave. The other was short and thin with a tight smile and quick black eyes. As they approached, my heart sank. I had been recognized. The short one introduced himself. “Gregory of Nazianzus, most noble Julian. And this is Basil. We are both from Cappadocia. We saw you the day the divine Augustus came to Macellum. We were in the crowd.”

“Are you studying here?”

“No. We’re on our way to Constantinople, to study with Nicocles. But Basil wanted to stop off here to attend the lectures of the impious Libanius.”

Basil remonstrated mildly. “Libanius is not a Christian, but he is the best teacher of rhetoric in Nicomedia.”

“Basil is not like us, most noble Julian,” said Gregory. “He is much too tolerant.”

I found myself liking Basil and disliking Gregory, I suppose because of that presumptuous “us”. Gregory has always had too much of the courtier in him. But I have since come to like him, and today we are all three friends, despite religious differences. They were agreeable companions, and I still recall with pleasure that day we met when I was a student among students with no guardian to inhibit conversation. When it was finally time to leave the baths, I promised Oribasius that somehow or other I would join him in Pergamon.

Meanwhile, Gregory and Basil agreed to dine with me. They were just the sort Ecebolius would approve of: devout Galileans with no interest in politics. But I knew instinctively that Oribasius would alarm Ecebolius. Oribasius had been at court and he moved in high circles. He was also rich and worldly and precisely the sort of friend a sequestered prince should not have.

I decided to keep Oribasius my secret for the time being. This proved to be wise.

Published in: on December 24, 2017 at 10:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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