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.”


“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.”


“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)  

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.”


“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  

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  

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)  

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)  

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  

Julian, 22

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

Priscus: That sounds just like Ecebolius, doesn’t it? Of course when Julian became emperor, Ecebolius embraced Hellenism. Then when Valentinian and Valens became co-emperors, Ecebolius threw himself down in front of the Church of the Holy Apostles, crying, “Tread on me! I am as salt which has lost its savour!” I always wondered if anybody did tread on him. I should have liked to. He changed his religion five times in thirty years and died at a fine old age, honoured by all. If there is a moral to his career, it eludes me.

I do recall that story about you and the senator’s daughter. Is it true? I always suspected you were rather a lady’s man, in your day of course.

Libanius: No, I shall not give Priscus the pleasure of an answer. I shall also suppress Julian’s references to that old scandal. It serves no purpose to rake over the past in such a pointless way. I have always known that a story more or less along those lines was circulated about me, but this is the first time I have been confronted with it in all its malice. Envious Sophists will go to any lengths to tear down one’s reputation. There was no “senator’s daughter”, at least not as described. The whole thing is absurd. For one thing, if I had been dismissed by the Emperor on such a charge, why was I then asked by the court to return to Constantinople in 353? Which I did, and remained there several years before coming home to Antioch.

I am far more irritated by Ecebolius’ reference to my “facetiousness”. That from him! I have always inclined to a grave—some feel too grave—style, only occasionally lightened by humour. Also, if I am as poor a stylist as he suggests, why am I the most imitated of living writers? Even in those days, a prince paid for my lecture notes! Incidentally, Julian says that he paid me for the lectures. That is not true. Julian paid one of my students who had a complete set of notes. He also engaged a shorthand writer to take down my conversation. I myself never took a penny from him. How tangled truth becomes.

Julian Augustus

Looking back, I seem to have followed a straight line towards my destiny. I moved from person to person as though each had been deliberately chosen for my instruction. But at the time I had only a pleasurable sense of freedom, nothing more. Nevertheless, the design of my life was taking shape and each wise man I met formed yet another link in that chain which leads towards the ultimate revelation which Plotinus has so beautifully described as “the flight of the alone to the Alone”.

At Nicomedia I forged an important new link. Like most university towns, Nicomedia had a particular bath where the students assembled. The students’ bath is usually the cheapest in town, though not always, for students have strange tastes and when they suddenly decide that such-and-such a tavern or bath or arcade is the one place where they most want to gather, they will then think nothing of cost or comfort.

I longed to go alone to the baths and mingle with students my own age, but Ecebolius always accompanied me. “The Chamberlain’s orders,” he would say, whenever we entered the baths, my two guards trailing us as though we were potential thieves in a market-place. Even in the hot room, I would be flanked by sweating guards while Ecebolius hovered near by to see that no one presented himself to me without first speaking to him. As a result, the students I wanted to meet were scared off.

But one morning Ecebolius awakened with the fever. “I must keep to my bed ‘with only cruel pain for handmaid’,” he said, teeth chattering. I told him how sorry I was and then, utterly happy, I left for the baths. My guards promised that once inside they would not stick too closely to me. They realized how much I wanted to be anonymous, and in those days it was possible, for I was not well known in Nicomedia. I never went into the agora, and when I attended lectures I always came in last and sat at the back.

Students go to the baths in the morning, when the admission price is cheapest. Shortly before noon I queued up and followed the mob into the changing room where I undressed at the opposite end from my two guards, who pretended to be soldiers on leave. As far as I know, I was not recognized.

Since the day was warm, I went outside to the Palestra; here the athletically inclined were doing exercises and playing games. Avoiding the inevitable group of old men who linger watchfully in the shade, I crossed to a lively-looking group, seated on a bench in the sun. They ignored me when I sat beside them.

“And you took the money?”

“I did. We all did. About a hundred of us.”

“Then what happened?”

“We never went to his lectures.”

“Was he angry?”

“Of course.” “But not as angry as he was when…”

“… when all of us went back to Libanius!”

They laughed at what was in those days a famous story. Within a year of Libanius’ arrival at Nicomedia, he was easily the most popular teacher in the city. This naturally enraged his rival Sophists, one of whom tried to buy Libanius’ students away from him. The students took the man’s money and continued to attend Libanius’ lectures. It was a fine joke, until the furious Sophists applied to friends at court who had Libanius arrested on some spurious charge. Fortunately, he was soon freed.

Libanius: This was the beginning of my interest in penal reform. Over the years I have written a good deal on the subject, and there is some evidence that I am beginning to arouse the conscience of the East. At least our rulers are now aware of the barbarous conditions in which prisoners are held. I had never realized how truly hopeless our prison system is until I myself was incarcerated. But improvements are hard to make. Despite all evidence to the contrary, I do not think human beings are innately cruel, but they fear change of any kind. And now I am digressing.

Is this age? Just yesterday I had a most curious conversation on that subject with an old friend and colleague. I asked him why it was that nowadays whenever I address the assembly at Antioch, the senators cough and talk among themselves. I realize I am not a master of oratory, but after all what I have to say and the way in which I say it is—and I do not mean this immodestly—of obvious interest to the world. I am the most famous living writer of Greek. As quaestor, I am official spokesman for my city. “So why do people stop listening when I start to speak? And why, when the session is over and I try to talk to various senators and officials in the arcade, do they wander off when I am in midsentence, saying that they have appointments to keep, even though it is quite plain that they do not?”

“Because, my dear old friend, you have become—now you asked me to tell you the truth, remember that—a bore.”

I was stunned. Of course as a professional teacher one tends to lecture rather than converse, but that is a habit most public men fall into. “But even so, I should have thought that what I was saying was of some interest…”

“It is. It always is.”

“… rather than the way I say it, which may perhaps be over-explicit.”

“You are too serious.”

“No one can be too serious about what is important.”

“Apparently the Antiochenes think otherwise.”

We parted. I must say I have been thinking all day about what my colleague said. Have I aged so greatly? Have I lost my power to define and persuade? Am I too serious? I am suddenly tempted to write some sort of apologia for myself, to explain my unbecoming gravity. I must do something…. But scribbling these highly personal remarks on the back of Julian’s memoirs is not the answer!

Published in: on December 17, 2017 at 11:46 am  Leave a Comment  

Julian, 21

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

I remained the rest of that year at Constantinople. I had a sufficient income, left me by my grandmother who had died that summer. I was allowed to see her just before her death, but she did not recognize me. She spoke disjointedly. She shook with palsy and at times the shaking became so violent that she had to be strapped to her bed. When I left, she kissed me, murmuring, “Sweet, sweet.”

By order of the Grand Chamberlain I was not allowed to associate with boys my own age or, for that matter, with anyone other than my instructors, Ecebolius and Nicocles, and the Armenian eunuch. Ecebolius is a man of much charm. But Nicocles I detested. He was a short, sparse grasshopper of a man. Many regard him as our age’s first grammarian. But I always thought of him as the enemy. He did not like me either. I remember in particular one conversation with him. It is amusing in retrospect. “The most noble Julian is at an impressionable period in his life. He must be careful of those he listens to. The world is now full of false teachers. In religion we have the party of Athanasius, a most divisive group. In philosophy we have all sorts of mountebanks, like Libanius.”

That was the first time I heard the name of the man who was to mean so much to me as thinker and teacher. Not very interested, I asked who Libanius was.

“An Antiochene—and we know what they are like. He studied at Athens. Then he came here to teach. That was about twelve years ago. He was young. He was bad-mannered to his colleagues, to those of us who were, if not wiser, at least more experienced than he.”

Nicocles made a sound like an insect’s wings rustling on a summer day—laughter? “He was also tactless about religion. All the great teachers here are Christian. He was not. Like so many who go to Athens (and I deplore, if I may say so, your desire to study there), Libanius prefers the empty ways of our ancestors. He calls himself a Hellenist, preferring Plato to the gospels, Homer to the old testament. In his four years here he completely disrupted the academic community. He was always making trouble. Such a vain man! Why, he even prepared a paper for the Emperor on the teaching of Greek, suggesting changes in our curriculum! I’m glad to say he left us eight years ago, under a cloud.”

“What sort of cloud?” I was oddly intrigued by this recital. Oddly, because academics everywhere are for ever attacking one another, and I had long since learned that one must never believe what any teacher says of another. “He was involved with a girl, the daughter of a senator. He was to give her private instruction in the classics. Instead, he made her pregnant. Her family complained. So the Emperor, to save the reputation of the girl and her family, a very important family (you would know who they are if I told you, which I must not)… the Augustus exiled Libanius from the capital.”

“Where is Libanius now?”

“At Nicomedia, where as usual he is making himself difficult. He has a passion to be noticed.” The more Nicocles denounced Libanius, the more interested I became in him. I decided I must meet him. But how? Libanius could not come to Constantinople and I could not go to Nicomedia. Fortunately, I had an ally.

I liked the Armenian eunuch Eutherius as much as I disliked Nicocles. Eutherius taught me court ceremonial three times a week. He was a grave man of natural dignity who did not look or sound like a eunuch. His beard was normal. His voice was low. He had been cut at the age of twenty, so he had known what it was to be a man. He once told me in grisly detail how he had almost died during the operation, “from loss of blood, because the older you are, the more dangerous the operation is. But I have been happy. I have had an interesting life. And there is something to be said for not wasting one’s time in the pursuit of sexual pleasure.”

But though this was true of Eutherius, it was not true of all eunuchs, especially those at the palace. Despite their incapacity, eunuchs are capable of sexual activity, as I one day witnessed, in a scene I shall describe in its proper place.

When I told Eutherius that I wanted to go to Nicomedia, he agreed to conduct the intricate negotiations with the Chamberlain’s office. Letters were exchanged daily between my household and the palace. Eutherius was often in the absurd position of writing, first, my letter of request, and then Eusebius’s elaborate letter of rejection. “It is good practice for me,” said Eutherius wearily, as the months dragged on.

Shortly after New Year 349 Eusebius agreed to let me go to Nicomedia on condition that I do not attend the lectures of Libanius. As Nicocles put it, “Just as we protect our young from those who suffer from the fever, so we must protect them from dangerous ideas, not to mention poor rhetoric. As stylist, Libanius has a tendency to facetiousness which you would find most boring. As philosopher, he is dangerously committed to the foolish past.” To make sure that I would not cheat, Ecebolius was ordered to accompany me to Nicomedia.

Ecebolius and I arrived at Nicomedia in February 349. I enjoyed myself hugely that winter. I attended lectures. I listened to skilled Sophists debate. I met students of my own age. This was not always an easy matter, for they were terrified of me, while I hardly knew how to behave with them.

Libanius was much spoken of in the city. But I saw him only once. He was surrounded by students in one of the porticoes near the gymnasium of Trajan. He was a dark, rather handsome man. Ecebolius pointed him out, saying grimly, “Who else would imitate Socrates in everything but wisdom?”

“Is he so bad?”

“He is a troublemaker. Worse than that, he is a bad rhetorician. He never learned to speak properly. He simply chatters.”

“But his writings are superb.”

“How do you know?” Ecebolius looked at me sharply.

“I… from the others here. They talk about him.” To this day Ecebolius does not know that I used to pay to have Libanius’ lectures taken down in shorthand. Though Libanius had been warned not to approach me, he secretly sent me copies of his lectures, for which I paid him well.

“He can only corrupt,” said Ecebolius. “Not only is he a poor model for style, he despises our religion. He is impious.”

Published in: on December 10, 2017 at 2:56 pm  Leave a Comment  

Julian, 20

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



“And you like the poetry of Bacchylides, as well? Ah, we have extraordinary taste! No doubt of that.” I was so overcome by Ecebolius’ flattery that had he asked me then and there to leap off the top of my uncle Julian’s house as a literary exercise, I would have done so gladly, with an appropriate quotation from Hesiod as I fell. I chattered like a monkey as he examined me closely in Hesiod, Homer, Herodotus, Thucydides, and Theognis.

For seven hours he listened as I recited from memory the many thousands of lines I had memorized at Macellum. He affected to be amazed. “I knew Bishop George was a splendid scholar—that enviable library! But I had no idea he was a teacher of such genius!” I beamed idiotically and kept on talking. I had at last found my tongue, and there are those who think I have not stopped talking since.

As a small child, I had studied at the Patricians’ School with Ecebolius. So we quickly picked up where we had left off, almost as if nothing had changed, except that I was now a gawky adolescent with a beard thick on the chin, spotty on the upper lip, invisible on the cheeks. I looked frightful but I refused to shave. I am to be a philosopher, I said proudly; and that was that.

In Constantinople I was left largely to myself. I had only one audience with the Grand Chamberlain Eusebius. I say “audience”, for not only did Eusebius exercise the actual power of the Emperor, he imitated his state. In fact, there used to be a joke that if one wanted anything done, Constantius was the man to see because he was reputed to have some influence with the Grand Chamberlain.

Eusebius received me in his suite at the Sacred Palace. He stood up to greet me (although he was the second most powerful man in the empire, he was only an illustris and I outranked him). He greeted me in that sweet child’s voice of his and motioned for me to sit beside him. I noticed that his fat fingers shone with diamonds and Indian rubies, and he was drenched in attar of roses. “Is the most noble Julian comfortable in his uncle’s house?”

“Oh, yes, very comfortable.”

“We thought he would prefer that to the… confinement of the Sacred Palace. But of course you are only a few yards away. You can visit us often. We hope you will.” He gave me a dimpled smile.

I asked him when the Emperor would return.

“We have no idea. He is now at Nisibis. There are rumours that he may soon engage Sapor in a final battle. But you know as much as I.” He made a flattering gesture of obeisance to me. “We have had excellent reports on your progress. Ecebolius tells us that you have a gift for rhetoric which is unusual for your age, though not—if I may say so—for one of your family.” Nervous as I was, I smiled at this hyperbole. Neither Constantius nor Gallus could develop an argument or even deliver a proper speech. “Ecebolius proposes that you also take a course in grammar with Nicocles. I agree. These things are necessary to know, especially for one who may be raised very high.”

He let this sink in. As I gabbled my admiration of Nicocles and my passion for grammar, Eusebius studied me as though I were an actor in the theatre giving a recitation. I could see that he was curious about me. Gallus had obviously charmed him, but then Gallus was neither intelligent nor subtle; he posed no threat to the Grand Chamberlain. He could be governed, just as Constantius was governed. But who was this third prince, this half-grown youth with a patchy beard who talked too fast and used ten quotations where one would do? Eusebius had not yet made up his mind about me. So I did my best to convince him that I was harmless.

“My interest is philosophy. My goal the University of Athens, the lighthouse of the world. I should like to devote myself to literature, to philosophy. ‘Men search out God and searching find him,’ as Aeschylus wrote. But of course we know God now in a way our ancestors could not. Jesus came by special grace to save us. He is like his father though not of the same substance. Yet it is good to study the old ways. To speak out on every matter, even error. For as Euripides wrote, ‘A slave is he who cannot speak his thought,’ and who would be a slave, except to reason? Yet too great a love of reason might prove a trap, for as Horace wrote, ‘Even the wise man is a fool if he seeks virtue itself beyond what is enough.'”

With some shame, I record the awful chatter I was capable of in those days. I was so uncertain of myself that I never made a personal observation about anything. Instead I spouted quotations. In this I resembled a great many contemporary Sophists who—having no ideas of their own—string together the unrelated sayings of the distinguished dead and think themselves as wise as those they quote. It is one thing to use text to illustrate a point one is making, but quite another to quote merely to demonstrate the excellence of one’s memory.

At seventeen I was the worst sort of Sophist. This probably saved my life. I bored Eusebius profoundly and we never fear those who bore us. By definition, a bore is predictable. If you think you know in advance what a man is apt to say or do, you are not apt to be disagreeably surprised by him. I am sure that in that one interview I inadvertently saved my life.

“We shall do everything we can to bring to the divine Augustus’s attention your desire—commendable desire—to be enrolled at the University of Athens. At the moment you must continue your studies here. Also, I suggest…” He paused tactfully, his eyes taking in my schoolboy clothes as well as my fingers from which the ink had not been entirely washed. “… that you be instructed in the ways of the court. I shall send you Eutherius. Though an Armenian, he is a master of ceremony. He will acquaint you with the niceties of our arrangements twice… no, perhaps three times a week.”

Eusebius rang a dainty silver bell. Then a familiar figure appeared in the doorway: my old tutor Mardonius. He looked no different than he had that day six years before when he said farewell to us in front of the bishop’s house. We embraced emotionally.

Eusebius purred. “Mardonius is my right arm. He is chief of my secretarial bureau. A distinguished classicist, a loyal subject, a good Christian of impeccable faith.” Eusebius sounded as if he were delivering a funeral oration. “He will show you out. Now if you will forgive me, most noble prince, I have a meeting with the Sacred Consistory.” He rose. We saluted one another; then he withdrew, urging me to call on him at any time.

When Mardonius and I were alone together, I said gaily, “I’m sure you never thought you’d see me alive again!”

This was exactly the wrong thing to say. Poor Mardonius turned corpse-yellow. “Not here,” he whispered. “The palace-secret agents—everywhere. Come.” Talking of neutral matters, he led me through marble corridors to the main door of the palace. As we passed through the outer gate, the Scholarian guards saluted me, and I felt a momentary excitement which was not at all in the character I had just revealed to Eusebius.

My attendants were waiting for me under the arcade across the square. I motioned to them to remain where they were. Mardonius was brief. “I won’t be able to see you again. I asked the Grand Chamberlain if I might instruct you in court ceremonial, but he said no. He made it very clear I am not to see you.”

“What about this fellow he told me about, the Armenian?”

“Eutherius is a good man. You will like him. I don’t think he has been sent to incriminate you, though of course he will make out regular reports. You must be careful what you say at all times. Never criticize the Emperor…”

“I know that much, Mardonius.” I could not help but smile. He was sounding exactly the way he used to. “I’ve managed to live this long.”

“But this is Constantinople, not Macellum. This is the Sacred Palace which is a… a… nothing can describe it.”

“Not even Homer?” I teased him. He smiled wanly. “Homer had no experience of this sort of viciousness and corruption.”

“What do they mean to do with me?”

“The Emperor has not decided.”

“Will Eusebius decide for him?”

“Perhaps. Keep on his good side. Appear to be harmless.”

“Not difficult.”

“And wait.” Mardonius suddenly became his old self. “Incidentally, I read one of your themes. ‘Alexander the Great in Egypt.’ Too periphrastic. Also, a misquotation. From the Odyssey 16. 187: ‘No God am I. Why then do you liken me to the immortals?’ You used the verb meaning ‘to place among’ rather than ‘to liken’. I was humiliated when Eusebius showed me the mistake.”

I apologized humbly. I was also amazed to realize that every schoolboy exercise of mine was on file in the Grand Chamberlain’s office.

“That is how they will build their case for—or against—you.” Mardonius frowned and the thousand wrinkles of his face suddenly looked like the shadow of a spider’s web in the bright sun. “Be careful. Trust no one.” He hurried back into the palace.

Published in: on December 3, 2017 at 11:37 am  Comments (1)  

Julian, 19

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

One curious thing happened at this time. At the villa there were a number of Cappadocian youths, free-born country boys who worked in the stables as grooms and trainers. They were a cheerful lot and when I first came to Macellum I was allowed to play games with them.

They were the only companions I ever had of my own age. I liked one in particular, Hilarius, a good-looking youth, two years older than I. He had a quick mind, and I remember trying to teach him to read when I was ten and already a pedagogue! But as we grew older, each became aware of his place, and intimacy ceased. Even so, I continued to interest myself in his welfare, and when he told me that he wanted to marry a girl in Caesarea whose father disapproved of the match, I was able to bring the father round. I also made Hilarius my personal groom.

One April morning when I sent for my horse, a strange groom brought it. Where was Hilarius? Out riding with the most noble Gallus. I was surprised. Gallus had his own groom, and we never used one another’s servants. But then I thought no more about it. Quite happy to be alone, I rode towards the foothills of Mount Argaeus, enjoying the cool spring day. New leaves shone yellow-green against black branches, and the earth steamed with a white mist as I rode towards a favourite spot where juniper and cedar grew around a natural spring.

At the approach to the clearing, I heard a sharp cry, like an animal in pain. Then I saw two horses tethered to a bent cedar tree at whose bole were strewn a man’s clothes. Close by, hands and feet bound, the naked Hilarius lay on his belly while Gallus beat him with a riding crop. Every time the whip struck, Hilarius would cry out. Most extraordinary of all was the expression on Gallus’s face. He was grinning with absolute pleasure, his face transfigured by the other’s pain.

“Stop it!” I rode straight up to him. Startled, Gallus turned towards me. The boy called out to me to save him.

“Keep out of this.” Gallus’s voice was curiously hoarse.

“He’s my groom,” I said, rather irrelevantly, for if the boy had been disobedient then Gallus had quite as much fight as I to punish him. “I said keep out of this! Go back!” Gallus aimed the whip at me but struck the flank of my horse instead. The horse reared. Gallus, alarmed, dropped the whip. In a fury myself, I rode straight at my brother, the way cavalrymen are taught to ride down foot-soldiers. He bolted. I reined in my horse just as he mounted his own. We faced one another for an instant, breathing hard. Gallus was still grinning, his teeth bared like a dog ready to snap.

I tried to be calm. With great effort I asked, “What did he do?”

To which Gallus answered, “Nothing!” Then with a laugh, he spurred his horse and was gone. To this day I can remember the way he said, “Nothing.” Just as the Pythoness is filled with the spirit of Apollo, so my brother Gallus was possessed by evil. It was horrible.

I dismounted. I untied the boy, who was now sobbing and babbling how he had done nothing— again nothing!—when without a word of anger or reproach Gallus had ordered him to dismount and strip. Gallus had meant to beat him to death. I am sure of that.

I rode back to Macellum, ready to do murder myself. But when Gallus and I met that night at dinner, my anger had worn off and in its place I experienced something like fear. I could cope with almost any man. Young as I was, I had that much confidence in myself. But a demon was another matter; especially a demon that I did not understand.

All through dinner I stared at Gallus, who chose to be delightful, playful and charming, and nowhere in his smiling face could I find any hint of that sharp-toothed—I nearly wrote “fanged” grin I had seen a few hours earlier. I almost began to wonder if perhaps I had dreamed the whole business. But when I visited Hilarius the next day and saw the scars on his back I knew that I had dreamt nothing. Nothing. The word haunts me to this day.

For the remainder of our time at Macellum, Gallus and I contrived never to be alone together. When we did speak to one another, it was always politely. We never mentioned what had happened in the clearing.

A month later a letter arrived from the Grand Chamberlain: the most noble Gallus was to proceed to his late mother’s estate at Ephesus; here he was to remain at the Emperor’s pleasure. Gallus was both elated and crestfallen. He was free of Macellum but he was still a prisoner, and there was no mention of his being made Caesar.

Gallus said good-bye to his officer friends at a dinner to which I was, surprisingly, invited. He made a pleasant speech, promising to remember his friends if he was ever to have a military command. Bishop George then presented him with a Galilean testament bound in massive silver. “Study it well, most noble Gallus. Outside the church there can be no salvation.” How often have I heard that presumptuous line!

The next day when it was time for Gallus to say good-bye to me, he did so simply. “Pray for me, brother, as I pray for you.” “I shall. Good-bye, Gallus.” And we parted, exactly like strangers who, having met for an evening in a post-house, take different roads the next day. After Gallus left, I wept, for the last time as a child. Yet I hated him. They say that to know oneself is to know all there is that is human. But of course no one can ever know himself. Nothing human is finally calculable; even to ourselves we are strange.

On 1 June 348, almost as an afterthought, orders concerning me were sent to Bishop George. I was to proceed to Constantinople. Though my uncle Julian was in Egypt, his household was at my disposal. I was to study philosophy under Ecebolius, a favourite of Constantius. There was no suggestion of the priesthood, which delighted me if not Bishop George. “I can’t think why Augustus has changed his mind. He was quite positive when he was here.”

“Perhaps he may have some other use for me,” I said tentatively.

“What better use is there than the service of God?” Bishop George was in a bad temper. Athanasius was still at Alexandria, and it now looked as if George was doomed to spend the rest of his life in Cappadocia. With bad grace, he organized my departure.

It was a warm, misty day when I got into the carriage which was to take me to Constantinople. Just as I was about to depart, Bishop George asked me if I was certain that I had returned all the volumes of Plotinus to his library. His secretary had reported there was one missing. I swore that it had been returned only that morning (which was true: I had been hurriedly copying passages from it in a notebook).

The Bishop then gave me his blessing and a Galilean testament, bound not in silver but in cheap leather; apparently I was not destined to be a Caesar! Yet I thanked him profusely and said farewell. The driver cracked his whip. The horses broke into a trot. For the first time in six years I was leaving the confines of Macellum.

My childhood was over, and I was still alive.

Published in: on November 26, 2017 at 12:42 pm  Comments (1)