Julian, 59

Constantius wore the purple. The robe fell stiffly to his crimson shoes. In one hand he held an ivory staff, while the other rested on the arm of the throne, palm upward, holding the golden orb. As usual, he stared straight before him, unaware of anything except what was in his direct line of vision. He looked ill. His eyes were dark-circled, and his face was somewhat blotchy, as though from too much wine; yet he was abstemious. On a throne at floor level sat Eusebia, blazing with jewels. Though she too played statue, she managed to suggest sympathetic humanity. When she saw me, the sad mouth parted slightly.

To left and right, in full court dress, were the members of the Sacred Consistory. All stared at me as I slowly crossed to the throne, eyes downcast. October light streamed through high windows. The odour of incense was heavy in the room. I felt a child again, and this was Constantine. For a moment, the room swam before my eyes. Then Constantius spoke the first line of the ritual greeting. I answered, and prostrated myself at his feet. I kissed the purple, and was raised up. Like two actors we played our scene impersonally until it was done; then I was given a stool next to Eusebia.

I sat very still, looking straight ahead, aware of Eusebia next to me. I could smell the flowery scent of her robes. But neither of us looked at the other.

Ambassadors were received, generals appointed, titles bestowed. The audience ended when the Emperor stood up. The rest of us dropped to our knees. Stiff-legged and swaying slightly from the weight of his robes and jewellery, Constantius marched off to the palace living quarters, followed by Eusebia. The moment the green bronze doors shut behind them, as though from a magician’s spell, we were all set free.

Courtiers surrounded me and asked a thousand questions: Would I be made Caesar? Where would I live? Did I need any service? I had only to command. I answered as demurely and non-committally as I could. Then my enemy Eusebius approached, his yellow moonface gravely respectful. Silk robes whispered as the heavy body bowed to me. “Lord, you are to dine with the sacred family.” An excited whisper went through the court. This was the highest recognition. I was exalted in all eyes. Though my own first reaction was: dinner means poison.

“I shall escort you to the sacred quarters.” Eusebius led me to the bronze doors through which the imperial couple had just passed. We did not speak until we were alone in the corridor beyond.

“You should know, Lord, that I have always, in every way, assured the Augustus of your loyalty to him.”

“I know that you have.” I lied with equal dignity.

“There are those in the Sacred Consistory who are your enemies.” He gestured for a guard to open a small oaken door. We passed through. “But I have always opposed them. As you know, I had hoped all along that you would take your rightful place here at court. And though there are some who think that the title Caesar should lapse because your brother…” He allowed that sentence to go unfinished. “I have urged his Eternity to make you Caesar.”

“I do not seek such honour,” I murmured, looking about me with some interest.

Published in: on March 17, 2019 at 12:00 pm  Comments (2)  

Julian, 58

– IX –

Julian Augustus

It was mid-October when I arrived in Milan. The weather was dry and the air so clear that one could see with perfect clarity those blue alps which separate civilization from barbarism, our world of sun from that melancholy green forest where dwells Rome’s nemesis.

Just before the city’s gate we were met by one of Constantius’s eunuchs, a gorgeous fellow with many chins and an effortless sneer. He did not salute me as is proper, a bad omen. He gave the commander of my guard a letter from the Emperor. When I saw this, I began to recite the first of the passwords I should need when I arrived in the kingdom of the dead. But I was not to be dispatched just yet. Instead I was taken to a house in one of the suburbs. Here I was imprisoned.

Imprisonment exactly describes my state. I was under heavy guard. During the day, I was allowed to stroll in the atrium. But at night I was locked in my bedroom. No one could visit me, not that there was anyone in Milan I wanted to see or who wanted to see me, excepting the Empress Eusebia. Of my household, I was allowed to keep only two boys and two men. The rest were transferred to the imperial palace. There was no one I could talk to. That was the greatest hardship of all. I should have been pleased to have had even a eunuch for company!

Why was I treated this way? I have since pieced the story together. While I was in Athens, a general named Silvanus was proclaimed Augustus in Gaul. I am convinced that at heart he was innocent of any serious desire to take the purple, but the enmity of the court eunuchs drove him to rebellion.

As soon as this happened, Constantius arrested me because he was afraid that I might take advantage of the defection of Gaul to rise against him in Attica. As it turned out, before I reached Milan, Silvanus was dead at Cologne. Constantius’ luck in civil war had proved itself again.

But the death of Silvanus did not solve the problem of Julian. While I was locked up in that suburban villa, the old debate was reopened. Eusebius wanted me put to death. Eusebia did not. Constantius kept his own counsel.

I prepared several letters to Eusebia, begging her to intercede with the Emperor that I might be allowed to return to Athens. But I finally decided not to send her any message, for Constantius’s suspicions were easily aroused, to say the least, and any exchange between his wife and his heir presumptive would not only be known to him but would doubtless turn him against both of us. I did the wise thing.

At dawn, on the thirteenth day of my captivity, my life altered forever. I was awakened by a slave banging on the bedroom door. “Get up, Lord! Get up! A message from the Augustus!” Fully clothed, I leapt out of bed. I then reminded the slave that until someone unlocked the door I could hardly receive the imperial messenger.

The door flew open. The commander of my guard was beaming. I knew then that the divine will had begun its work. I was to be spared.

“A messenger, sir. The Emperor will receive you tonight.” I stepped into the atrium and got my first taste of what it is like to be in favour. The house was now full of strangers. Fat eunuchs in gaudy silk; clerks from various government offices; tailors; sandalmakers; barbers; youthful officers drawn to what might be a new sun and source of honour. It was dizzying.

The messenger from Constantius was no other than Arintheus, who serves with me now in Persia. He is remarkably beautiful, and the army loves him in that fervent way armies have of loving handsome officers. He is auburn-haired and blue-eyed, with a strong, supple body. He is completely uneducated, but brave and shrewd in warfare. His only vice is an excessive fondness for boys, a practice I usually find unseemly in generals. But the men are amused by his sensuality. Also, he is a cavalry man and among cavalry men pederasty is a tradition. I must say that day when Arintheus approached me, blue eyes flashing and ruddy face grinning, I nearly mistook him for Hermes himself, streaming glory from Olympus as he came to save his unworthy son. Arintheus saluted me briskly; then he read aloud the letter summoning me for audience. When he had finished reading (with some difficulty, for he has never found reading easy), he put the message away, gave me his most winning smile and said, “When you are Caesar, don’t forget me. Take me with you. I prefer action.” He patted his sword hilt. I dithered like a fool. He departed.

Then began a new struggle. My beard would have to go, also my student’s clothes. I was now a prince, not a philosopher. So for the first time in my life my beard was shaved. It was like losing an arm. Two barbers worked on me while I sat in a chair in the centre of the atrium as the morning sun shone on a spectacle which, looking back, was perfectly ludicrous. There was I, an awkward twenty-three-year-old philosophy student, late of the University of Athens, being turned into a courtier.

A slave girl trimmed my toenails and scrubbed my feet, to my embarrassment. Another worked on my hands, exclaiming at the inkiness of my fingers. The barber who shaved my beard also tried to shave my chest but I stopped him with an oath. We compromised by letting him trim the hair in my nostrils. When he was finished, he brought me a mirror. I was quite unable to recognize the youth who stared wide-eyed from the polished metal—and it was a youth, not a man as I had thought, for the beard had been deceptive, giving me an undeserved look of wisdom and age. Without it, I resembled any other youngster at court.

I was then bathed, oiled, perfumed and elaborately dressed. My flesh shrank from the lascivious touch of silk, which makes the body uncomfortably aware of itself. Today I never wear silk, preferring coarse linen or wool.

I have only a vague memory of the rest of that day. I was carried to the palace through crowded streets. The people stared at me curiously, uncertain whether or not it was right to applaud. I looked straight ahead as I had been instructed to do when on view. I tried not to hear conversations in the street. Desperately I tried to recall the eunuch’s instructions.

At the edge of the city’s main square the palace, grey and forbidding behind its Corinthian colonnade, rose before me like fate itself. Troops were drawn up in full dress on either side of the main door. When I stepped out of the litter, they saluted.

Several hundreds of the people of Milan drew close to examine me. In every city there is a special class whose only apparent function is to gather in public places and look at famous men. They are neither friendly nor unfriendly, merely interested. An elephant would have pleased them most, but since there was no elephant, the mysterious Prince Julian would have to do. Few of them could identify me. None was certain just what relation I was to the Emperor. It is amazing how little we are known to our subjects. I know of places on the boundaries of the empire where they believe Augustus himself still reigns, that he is a great magician who may not die. Of course, the fact each of us calls himself Augustus is a deliberate attempt to suggest that the continuity of power emanating from Rome is the one constant in a world of flux. Yet even in the cities where there is widespread literacy, the average citizen is often uncertain about who the ruler is. Several times already I have been addressed as Constantius by nervous delegations, while one old man actually thought I was Constantine and complimented me on how little I had changed since the battle at the Mulvian bridge!

Inside the palace, curiosity was mingled with excitement and anticipation. I was in favour. I read my good fortune in every face. In the vestibule they paid me homage. Heads bobbed; smiles flashed; my hand was wrung with warmth, kissed with hope. It was disgusting… in retrospect. At the time, it was marvellous proof that I was to live for a while longer.

I was delivered to the Master of the Offices, who gave me a final whispered briefing. Then, to the noise of horns, I entered the throne room.

Published in: on March 10, 2019 at 11:26 am  Comments (1)  

Julian, 57

Julian Augustus

Those marvellous days in Athens came to an abrupt end when an imperial messenger arrived with orders that I attend Constantius at Milan. No reason was given. I assumed that I was to be executed. Just such a message had been delivered to Gallus. I confess now to a moment of weakness. Walking alone in the agora, I considered flight. Should I disappear in the back streets of Athens? Change my name? Shave my head? Or should I take to the road like a New Cynic and walk to Pergamon or Nicomedia and lose myself among students, hide until I was forgotten, assumed dead, no longer dangerous?

Suddenly I opened my arms to Athena. I looked up to her statue on the acropolis, much to the astonishment of the passers-by (this took place in front of the Library of Pantainos).

I prayed that I be allowed to remain in Athena’s city, preferring death on the spot to departure. But the goddess did not answer. Sadly I dropped my arms. Just at that moment, Gregory emerged from the library and approached me with his wolf’s grin.

“You’re leaving us,” he said. There are no secrets in Athens. I told him that I was reluctant to go but the Emperor’s will must be done.

“You’ll be back,” he said, taking my arm familiarly.

“I hope so.”

“And you’ll be the Caesar then, a man of state, with a diadem and guards and courtiers! It will be interesting to see just how our Julian changes when he is set over us like a god.”

“I shall be the same,” I promised, sure of death.

“Remember old friends in your hour of greatness.” A scroll hidden in Gregory’s belt dropped to the pavement. Blushing, he picked it up.

“I have a special permit,” he stammered. “I can withdraw books, certain books, approved books…”

I laughed at his embarrassment. He knew that I knew that the Pantainos Library never allows any book to be taken from the reading room. I said I would tell no one.

The proconsul treated me decently. He was a good man, but frightened. I recognized at once in his face the look of the official who does not know if one is about to be executed or raised to the throne. It must be cruelly perplexing for such men. If they are kind, they are then vulnerable to a later charge of conspiracy; if they are harsh, they may live to find their victim great and vindictive. The proconsul steered a middle course; he was correct; he was conscientious; he arranged for my departure the next morning.

My last evening in Athens is still too painful to describe. I spent it with Macrina. I vowed to return if I could. Next day, at first light, I left the city. I did not trust myself to look back at Athena’s temple floating in air, or at the sun-struck violet line of Hymettos. Eyes to the east and the morning sun, I made the sad journey to Piraeus and the sea.

Published in: on March 3, 2019 at 2:51 am  Comments Off on Julian, 57  

Julian, 56

Frederic Leighton, The Return of Persephone (1891).

Editor’s note: In Greek mythology, Persephone was the Queen of the underworld, the young maiden, and a daughter of Demeter and Zeus. Her story had great emotional power in the Ancient World: an innocent maiden, a mother’s grief over her abduction, and great joy after her daughter is returned.

Vidal’s novel recreates how Julian became initiated in such mysteries at Eleusis.


______ 卐 ______


The next three days were beyond imagination. I was admitted to all of the mysteries, including the final and most secret. I saw that which is enacted, that which is shown and that which is spoken. I saw the passion of Demeter, the descent of Persephone to the underworld, the giving of grain to man. I saw the world as it is and the world that is to come. I lost my fear of death in the Telestrion when, in a blaze of light, I looked upon the sacred objects. It was true.

More than this I cannot write. It is forbidden to reveal anything that one sees and hears during the two nights spent in the Telestrion. But I will make one general comment, a dissent from Aristotle, who wrote: “The initiated do not learn anything so much as feel certain emotions and are put into a certain frame of mind.” First of all, one must question the proposition that a new emotion is not something learned. I should think that it was.

In any case, I have yet to meet anyone who has been initiated at Eleusis who did not learn new things not only about the life we live now but the one to follow. There is such a logic to what is revealed on those two nights that one is astonished not to have understood it before—which proves to me the truth of what is seen, heard and demonstrated. We are part of a never-ending cycle, a luminous spiral of life, lost and regained, of death to life to… but now I begin to tell too much.

Priscus: He tells altogether too much. But that was his charm, except when he goes on altogether too long and becomes tedious. I know that you were initiated at Eleusis and doubtless feel much as he did about what is revealed there. I don’t. It is possible that if I had gone through all the nonsense of initiation, I might have had a “revelation”. But I doubt it. There are some natures too coarse to apprehend the mysteries. Mine is one. Nowadays of course we can write with a certain freedom of the mysteries since they are drawing to an end. The Emperor is expected to shut down the Telestrion as soon as he feels the time is politically fight. Naturally, the bishops lust for the destruction of Eleusis, which to me is the only argument for preserving it.

I am cool to the mysteries because I find them vague and full of unjustified hope. I do not want to be nothing next year or next minute or whenever this long life of mine comes to its end (of course it does not seem at all long to me, not long enough by half!). Yet I suspect that “nothing” is my fate. Should it be otherwise, what can I do about it? To believe as poor Julian did that he was among the elect as a result of a nine-day ceremony, costing some fifteen drachmae, not counting extras, is to fall into the same nonsense we accuse the Christians of when we blame their bitter exclusivity and lunatic superstition.

I had no idea Macrina was so sensible until I read Julian’s account of their conversation at Eleusis. She might have made him a good wife. I had always assumed she only told him what he wanted to hear, like any other woman. She was rare, in her way; but not to my taste.

The remainder of Julian’s stay in Athens was uneventful. He was personally popular. The Sophists all tried to curry favour with him. It is remarkable how men supposedly dedicated to philosophy and things of the mind are drawn to power; affecting scorn for the mighty, they are inevitably attracted to those who rule. When the powerful man is as amiable and philosophy-loving as Julian, the resulting attempt to capture him is all the more unseemly.

Libanius: How typical of Priscus! He can hardly restrain his jealousy of me, and his resentment of my influence over Julian. Yet my interest in Julian was not self-seeking. How could it be? When I turned down the title of praetorian prefect, I said that the title Sophist was good enough for me. My gesture is still much remembered not only here in Antioch but everywhere philosophy is valued. Those of us who wish to lead others to wisdom respond to any questioning soul, prince or beggar.

Sometimes, as in the case of Maximus, Julian showed bad judgment, but by and large he cultivated the best minds of our era. I also find Priscus’s remarks about Eleusis distasteful, even atheistic. Cicero, who was hardly superstitious, wrote that if all else Athens had brought the world was swept away, the mysteries alone would be enough to place mankind for ever in Athens’ debt. Priscus has got worse with age. Envy festers. He was never a true philosopher. I find myself pitying him as I read his bitter commentary.

Priscus: In any case, when Julian looked with adoration at that sheaf of wheat which is revealed with such solemnity at the highest moment of the ceremony…

Libanius: This is absolute blasphemy! These things must not be revealed. Priscus will suffer for this in the next world, while who ever betrayed to him our high secret will sink for ever in dung. It is appalling!

Priscus:… he felt duly elated, believing that as the corn withers, dies and is reborn, so it is with us. But is the analogy correct? I would say no. For one thing, it is not the same sheaf of wheat that grows from the seed. It is a new sheaf of wheat, which would suggest that our immortality, such as it is, is between our legs. Our seed does indeed make a new man but he is not us. The son is not the father. The father is put in the ground and that is the end of him. The son is a different man who will one day make yet another man and so on—perhaps for ever—yet the individual consciousness stops.

Libanius: I hate Priscus! He is worse than a Christian. Homer believed. Was Homer wrong? Of course not.

Priscus: Julian did nothing to offend the Christians in Athens, though it was fairly well known that he tended towards philosophy. But he was discreet. On at least one occasion he attended church.

The Hierophant liked him but thought he was doomed, or so he told me years later. The Hierophant was an interesting man. But of course you knew him for you were admitted to the mysteries during his reign. He realized with extraordinary clarity that our old world was ended. There were times, I think, when he took pleasure in knowing he was the last of a line that extended back two thousand years. Men are odd. If they cannot be first, they don’t in the least mind being last.

Published in: on February 24, 2019 at 10:10 am  Comments Off on Julian, 56  

Julian, 55

During the weeks that followed, we saw each other every day. Yet I came to know the Hierophant no better. On any subject not connected with the mysteries, he refused to speak. I gave up talking to him, accepting him as what he was: a palpable link with the holy past but not a human companion.

I need not describe the celebrations which precede the initiation, since they are known to everyone. Though I may not describe the mysteries themselves, I can say that in this particular year more people took part in the festivities than usual, to the chagrin of the Galileans.

The whole business takes nine days. The first day was hot and enervating. The proclamation was made and the sacred objects brought from Eleusis to the Eleusinion, a small temple at the foot of the acropolis where—among other interesting things—there is a complete list of Alcibiades’ personal property, seized when he profaned the mysteries one drunken night by imitating on a street corner the Hierophant’s secret rites. The sacred objects are contained in several jars tied with red ribbons. They are put in the Eleusinion, to be returned to Eleusis during the main procession, which is on the fifth day.

On the second day, we bathed in the sea and washed the pig each of us had bought for sacrifice. I chose the beach at Phaleron, and nearly lost the pig I had bought for six drachmae. It is an amazing sight to watch several thousand people bathing in the sea, each with a squealing pig.

The third day is one of sacrifice, and a long night.

The fourth day is sacred to Asklepios; one stays at home. On the fifth day the procession starts from the Dipylon Gate to Eleusis.

It was a lovely sight. An image of the god Iacchos, son of Demeter, is borne in a wooden carriage at the procession’s head. This part of the ceremony is sacred to him. Though all are supposed to walk to Eleusis, most of the well-to-do are carried in litters. I walked. My bodyguards complained, but I was exalted. I was crowned with myrtle and I carried not only the sacred branches tied with wool but also, according to tradition, new clothes in a bundle on a stick over my shoulder. Macrina accompanied me.

The day was cloudy, which made the journey pleasanter than it usually is at that time of the year. All told, there were perhaps a thousand of us in the procession, not counting the curious, which included a number of Galileans who shouted atheist curses at us.

On the outskirts of Athens, just off the main road, Macrina pointed to a complex of old buildings. “That is the most famous brothel in Greece,” she said with her usual delight in such things. “The shrine of Aphrodite.” Apparently, people come from all over the world to visit the shrine, where for a price they enjoy the “priestesses”. They pretend it is religion. Actually, it is mass prostitution. I could not disapprove more.

Just beyond the shrine there is an old bridge. Here the ordeal begins. On the bridge’s parapet sit men with faces covered by hoods. It is their traditional function to remind important people of their faults and to condemn their pride. I consoled myself by remembering that Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius had preceded me on this bridge. If they had survived humiliation, so could I.

“It won’t be bad.” Macrina tried to be reassuring. “They’re much too frightened of Constantius.” But I recalled how Hadrian had been jeered for his love of Antinoüs, and Hadrian was a reigning emperor, not mere cousin to one. I was sweating as we reached the bridge. All eyes were upon me. The hooded men—at least thirty of them—had just finished tormenting a local magistrate. They turned now to me. Macrina held my arm tight. Heart beating fast and eyes cast down, I walked slowly over the bridge. The jeering and curses were formidable. At first I tried not to listen, but then I recalled that this humiliation is an essential part of the mysteries: to rid oneself of pride. I listened. I was accused mostly of falseness and pretension. I was not a true scholar. I was a poseur. I looked like a goat. I was a coward and afraid to serve in the army (this was unexpected). I hated the Galileans. This made me nervous indeed but happily, it was said only once. After all, my tormentors were of the true religion and not apt to hold my dislike of the Galileans against me.

Finally, the bridge was crossed. The ordeal ended. Feeling purged and relieved (the worst is never so bad as one fears), I walked the rest of the way to Eleusis, with Macrina grumbling at my side. I’m afraid she taunted me quite as much as the men on the bridge. But as I drew closer to the mysteries, I was filled with such a sense of expectancy that nothing could disturb my mood.

It was night when we arrived at Eleusis. The city is a small one on the Saronic Gulf, with a view of the island of Salamis. Like most cities whose principal source of revenue is strangers, Eleusis is full of inns and cookshops and tradesmen eager to sell copies of sacred objects at ridiculously high prices. It is a wonder that any place remains sacred, considering the inevitable presence of those whose livelihood depends on cheating strangers. I am told that Delphi is even worse than Eleusis; while Jerusalem—which is of course “sacred” to the Galileans—is now a most distressing place to visit.

Torches blazed in every street of the town. Night was like day. Innkeepers solicited us, and at every street corner, men told of places to eat. Even vice was proposed, which shows how debased the local population is, for they should know better than anyone that during the pilgrims’ three days in Eleusis, they must fast, remain continent, and touch neither the body of one dead nor that of a woman who has just given birth; eggs and beans are also forbidden us, even after the first day’s fast.

Macrina and I followed the crowd to where the mysteries are enacted. Homer has described how the original temple was at the foot of the acropolis, in much the same spot as the present temple, or Telestrion, as it is called. This night everything was illuminated in honour of the Great Mysteries.

The entrance to the sacred enclosure is through a gate, even more noble than the Dipylon at Athens. We entered, passing through a roped-off section where guards and priests made sure that we were indeed initiates, remarkable by our dress and certain signs. The gate is so cunningly arranged that anyone looking through can see no more than a few yards of the sacred way; any further view of the Telestrion is broken by the large blank wall of the Ploutonion, a temple built over the original passage to Hades from which Persephone appeared.

Eyes smarting from torch smoke, Macrina and I ascended the sacred way, pausing first at the Kallichoros Well. I was overcome with awe, for this is the same well described by Homer. It is old beyond memory. It was here in the time when the gods walked the earth that the women of Eleusis danced in honour of Demeter.

Roman copy of Demeter after a Greek original from the
4th century BC. Compare it with the Roman mudblood kid
already at the beginning of the Christian Era in my previous post.

The opening of the well is several steps below the main terrace, and faced with magnificent marble. Near it stands a large basin containing sacred water. I bathed my hands and began to know Demeter and her grief. I was so moved that I almost neglected to pay the priestess the one drachma for the experience.

Next we entered the Ploutonion, which is set in a rocky hollow of the acropolis. The elmwood doors were shut to us, but the altar outside, cut in living rock, was illuminated.

Finally we came to the long stoa of Philon, which fronts the Telestrion. Beyond this blue-paved portico the blank façade of the holiest building on earth is set against the acropolis, which provides its fourth wall. There are greater and more splendid temples in the world, but there is none which quite inspires one’s reverence in the way the Telestrion does, for it has been holy since almost the first day of man, a creation of that beautiful lost world when the gods, not beleaguered, lived among us, and earth was simple and men good.

Since we were not yet initiates, we could not enter the Telestrion. At this point we were joined by two priests who led us to the house where the Eumolpidae have lived for a thousand years. We were to spend the night there. The Hierophant, however, did not join us. On this night of nights, he fasted and meditated.

Macrina and I sat up until dawn. “You must be admitted to the mysteries.” I scolded her, as I had done before.

But she was perverse. “How can I? I’m not one thing or the other. I don’t like the Christians because they are cruel. I don’t like the mysteries and all the rest because I don’t believe anything can help us when we are dead. Either we continue in some way, or we stop. But no matter what happens, it is beyond our control and there is no way of making a bargain with the gods. Consider the Christians, who believe there is a single god…”

“In three parts!”

“Well, yours is in a thousand bits. Anyway, if by some chance the Christians are right, then all this”—she gestured towards the Telestrion—“is wrong, and you will go to their hell rather than to your Elysium.”

“But the Galileans are wrong.”

“Who can say?”

“Homer. Thousands of years of the true faith. Are we to believe there was no god until the appearance of a rabble-rousing carpenter three hundred years ago? It is beyond sense to think that the greatest age of man was godless.”

“You must argue with the Twins,” said Macrina; then we spoke of matters which I shall not record.

Published in: on February 17, 2019 at 12:01 am  Comments (2)  

Julian, 54

The Temple of Demeter by Joseph Gandy (1818). It gives us an idea
of the site at Eleusis that the Christians would destroy after Julian.

The Hierophant entered the reading room. He is a short plump man, not in the least impressive to look at. He saluted me gravely. His voice is powerful and he speaks old Greek exactly the way it was spoken two thousand years ago, for in the long descent of his family the same words have been repeated in exactly the same way from generation to generation. It is awesome to think that Homer heard what we still hear.

“I have been busy. I am sorry. But this is the sacred month. The mysteries begin in a week.” So he began, prosaically.

I told him that I wished to be initiated into all the mysteries: the lesser, the greater, and the highest. I realized that this would be difficult to arrange on such short notice, but I had not much time.

“It can be done, of course. But you will need to study hard. Have you a good memory?”

I said that I still retained most of Homer. He reminded me that the mysteries last for nine days and that there are many passwords, hymns and prayers which must be learned before the highest mystery can be revealed. “You must not falter.” The Hierophant was stern. I said that I thought I could learn what I needed to know in a week, for I do indeed have a good memory; at least it is good when properly inspired.

I was candid. I told him that if I lived, it was my hope to support Hellenism in its war with the Galileans.

He was abrupt. “It is too late,” he said, echoing Prohaeresius. “Nothing you can do will change what is about to happen.”

I had not expected such a response. “Do you know the future?”

“I am Hierophant,” he said simply. “The last Hierophant of Greece. I know many things, all tragic.”

I refused to accept this. “But how can you be the last? Why, for centuries…”

“Prince, these things are written at the beginning. No one may tamper with fate. When I die, I shall be succeeded not by a member of our family but by a priest from another sect. He will be in name, but not in fact, the final Hierophant. Then the temple at Eleusis will be destroyed—all the temples in all of Greece will be destroyed. The barbarians will come. The Christians will prevail. Darkness will fall.”

“For ever?”

“Who can say? The goddess has shown me no more than what I have told you. With me, the true line ends. With the next Hierophant, the mysteries themselves will end.”

“I cannot believe it!”

“That alters nothing.”

“But if I were to become Emperor…”

“It would make no difference.”

“Then obviously, I shall not become Emperor.”

I smiled at this subtlety, for we had got around the law forbidding prophecy.

“Whether you are Emperor or not, Eleusis will be in ruins before the century is done.”

I looked at him closely. We were sitting on a long bench beneath a high latticed window. Lozenges of light superimposed their own designs upon the tiled floor at our feet. Despite his terrible conviction, this small fat man with his protuberant eyes and fat hands was perfectly composed. I have never known such self-containment, even in Constantius.

“I refuse to believe,” I said at last, “that there is nothing we can do.”

He shrugged. “We shall go on as long as we can, as we always have.” He looked at me solemnly. “You must remember that because the mysteries come to an end makes them no less true. Those who were initiated will at least be fortunate in the underworld. Of course one pities those who come after us. But what is to be must be.”

He rose with dignity, his small plump body held tightly erect, as though by will he might stiffen the soft flesh. “I shall instruct you myself. We shall need several hours a day. Come to my house tonight.” With a small bow he withdrew.

Published in: on February 10, 2019 at 12:01 am  Comments Off on Julian, 54  

Julian, 53

Henryk Siemiradzki, Phryne at the
Festival of Poseidon in Eleusis


Julian Augustus

A week after I arrived in Athens I met the Hierophant of Greece. Since I did not want the proconsul to know of this meeting, it was arranged to take place in the Library of Hadrian, a not much frequented building midway between the Roman and the Athenian agoras.

At noon I arrived at the library and went straight to the north reading room, enjoying as I always do the musty dry odour of papyrus and ink which comes from the tall niches where the scrolls and codices are kept. The high room with its coffered ceiling (for which we must thank Antinoüs’s protector) was empty. Here I waited for the Hierophant. I was extremely nervous, for he is the holiest of all men. I am forbidden by law to write his name but I can say that he belongs to the family of the Eumolpidae, one of the two families from which Hierophants are traditionally drawn. He is not only High Priest of Greece, he is custodian and interpreter of the mysteries of Eleusis which go back at least two thousand years, if not to the beginning of our race.

Those of us who have been admitted to the mysteries may not tell what we have seen or what we know. Even so, as Pindar wrote: “Happy is he who, having seen these rites, goes below the hollow earth; for he knows the end of life and he knows its god-sent beginning.” Sophocles described initiates as “Thrice-happy mortals, who having seen those rites depart for Hades; for them alone is it granted to have true life there; to the rest, evil.” I quote from memory. (Note to secretary: Correct quotations, if they are wrong.)

Eleusis is a city fourteen miles from Athens. For two thousand years the mysteries have been celebrated in that place, for it was at Eleusis that Persephone returned from the underworld to which she had been stolen by the death-god Hades and made his queen. When Persephone first vanished, her mother Demeter, the harvest goddess, sought her for nine days, neither eating nor drinking. (As I tell this story initiates will see the mystery unfold. But no one else may know what is meant.) On the tenth day Demeter came to Eleusis. She was received by the king and queen, who gave her a pitcher of barley water flavoured with mint which she drank all at once. When the king’s eldest son said, “How greedily you drink!” Demeter turned him into a lizard. But then, remorseful over what she had done, she conferred great powers upon the king’s youngest son, Triptolemus. She gave him seed corn, a wooden plough and a chariot drawn by serpents; he then travelled the earth teaching men agriculture. She did this for him not only to make up for what in her anger she had done to his brother, but also because Triptolemus was able to tell her what had happened to her daughter. He had been in the fields when the earth suddenly opened before him. Then a chariot drawn by black horses appeared, coming from the sea. The driver was Hades; in his arms he held Persephone. As the chariot careered at full speed into the cavern, the earth closed over them. Now Hades is brother to Zeus, king of the gods, and he had stolen the girl with Zeus’s connivance. When Demeter learned this, she took her revenge. She bade the trees not to bear fruit and the earth not to flower. Suddenly, the world was barren. Men starved. Zeus capitulated: if Persephone had not yet eaten the food of the dead, she might return to her mother. As it turned out, Persephone had eaten seven pomegranate seeds and this was enough to keep her forever in the underworld. But Zeus arranged a compromise. Six months of the year she would remain with Hades, as queen of Tartarus. The remaining six months she would join her mother in the world above. That is why the cold barren time of the year is six months and the warm fruitful time six months. Demeter also gave the fig tree to Attica, and forbade the cultivation of beans. This holy story is acted out in the course of the mysteries. I cannot say more about it. The origin of the ceremony goes back to Crete and, some say, to Libya. It is possible that those places knew similar mysteries, but it is a fact that Eleusis is the actual place where Persephone returned from the underworld. I have myself seen the cavern from which she emerged.

Now: for those who have been initiated, I have in the lines above given in the form of a narrative a clear view of what happens after death. Through number and symbol, I have in a page revealed everything. But the profane may not unravel the mystery. They will merely note that I have told an old story of the old gods.

Published in: on February 3, 2019 at 1:09 pm  Comments Off on Julian, 53  

Julian, 52

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

Priscus: Macrina was a bitch. We all detested her, but because she was the niece of Prohaeresius we endured her. Julian’s description of our first meeting is not accurate. That is to say, what he remembers is not what I remember. For instance, he says that his bodyguard arrived before I answered Macrina. This is not true. I told her then and there that my silence masked compassion for the intellectual shortcomings of others since I did not wish to wound anyone, even her. This caused some laughter. Then the guards arrived.

For the historic record I should give my first impression of Julian. He was a handsome youth, thick in the chest like all his family, and muscular, a gift of nature since in those days he seldom exercised. He was far too busy talking. Gregory was not entirely inaccurate when he described Julian’s breathless and continual conversation. In fact, I used to say to him, “How can you expect to learn anything when you do all the talking?” He would laugh excitedly and say, “But I talk and listen at the same time. That is my art!” Which perhaps was true. I was always surprised at how much he did absorb.

Not until I read the memoir did I know about the conversation with Prohaeresius. I never suspected the old man of such cunning, or boldness. It was a dangerous thing to admit to a strange prince that he had consulted an oracle. But he always had a weakness for oracles.

I never liked the old man much. I always felt he had too much of the demagogue in him and too little of the philosopher. He also took his role as a great old man seriously. He made speeches on any subject, anywhere. He cultivated princes the way bishops cultivate relics. He was a formidable orator, but his writings were banal.

Let me tell you something about Macrina since Julian is not candid and if I don’t tell you, you will never know. They had a love affair which was the talk of the city. Macrina behaved with her usual clownishness, discussing the affair with everyone in intimate detail. She declared that Julian was a formidable lover, indicating that her own experience had been considerable. Actually, she was probably a virgin when they met. There were not many men of her set who would have made the effort to make her a nonvirgin. After all, Athens is famous for the complaisance of its girls, and not many men like to bed a talking-woman, especially when there are so many quiet ones to choose from. I am positive that Julian was Macrina’s first lover.

There was a funny story going around at about this time, no doubt apocryphal. Julian and Macrina were overheard while making love. Apparently all during the act each one continued to talk. Macrina is supposed to have confuted the Pythagoreans while Julian restated the Platonic powers, all this before and during orgasm. They were well matched.

Julian seldom mentioned Macrina to me. He was embarrassed, knowing that I knew of the affair. The last time we spoke of her was in Persia when he was writing the memoir. He wanted to know what had become of her, whom she had married, how she looked. I told him that she was somewhat heavy, that she had married an Alexandrian merchant who lived at Piraeus, that she has three children. I did not tell him that the oldest child was his son.

Yes. That is the famous scandal. Some seven months after Julian left Athens, Macrina gave birth. During the pregnancy she stayed with her father. Despite her daring ways she was surprisingly conventional in this matter. She was desperate for a husband even though it was widely known that the bastard was Julian’s and therefore a mark of honour for the mother. Luckily, the Alexandrian married her and declared the child was his.

I saw the boy occasionally while he was growing up. He is now in his twenties and looks somewhat like his father, which makes it hard for me to be with him. Stoic though I am, in certain memories there is pain. Fortunately, the boy lives now in Alexandria, where he runs his stepfather’s trading office. He has, Macrina once told me, no interest in philosophy. He is a devout Christian. So that is the end of the house of Constantine. Did Julian know that he had a son? I think not. Macrina swears she never told him, and I almost believe her.

A few years ago I met Macrina in what we Athenians call the Roman agora. We greeted one another amiably, and sat together on the steps of the water-clock tower. I asked about her son.

“He is beautiful! He looks exactly like his father, an emperor, a god!” Macrina has lost none of her old fierce flow of language, though the edge to her wit is somewhat blunted. “But I don’t regret it.”

“The resemblance? Or being the mother of Julian’s son?”

She did not answer. She looked absently across the agora, crowded as always with lawyers and tax collectors. Her dark eyes were as glittering as ever, though her face has grown jowly and the heavy bosom fallen with maternity and age. She turned to me abruptly.

“He wanted to marry me. Did you know that, Priscus? I could have been Empress of Rome. What a thought! Would you have liked that? Do you think I would have been… decorative? Certainly unusual. How many empresses have been philosophers in their own tight? It would have been amusing. I should have worn a lot of jewellery, even though I detest ornaments. Look at me!” She tugged at the simple garment she wore. Despite her husband’s wealth, Macrina wore no tings, no brooches, no combs in her hair, no jewels in her ears. “But empresses must look the part. They have no choice. Of course I should have had a bad character. I would have modelled myself on Messalina.”

“You? Insatiable?” I could not help laughing.

“Absolutely!” The old edge returned briefly; the black eyes were humorous. “I’m a faithful wife now because I am fat and no one wants me. At least no one I would want wants me. But I’m drawn to beauty. I should love to be a whore! Except I’d want to choose the clientele, which is why I should have loved being empress! History would have loved me, too! Macrina the Insatiable!”

Anyone who saw us on those steps would have thought: what an eminently respectable couple! An old philosopher and a dignified matron, solemnly discussing the price of corn or the bishop’s latest sermon. Instead Macrina was intoning a hymn to lust.

“What would Julian have thought?” I managed to interject before she gave too many specific details of her appetite. It is curious how little interested we are in the sexual desires of those who do not attract us. “I wonder.” She paused. “I’m not sure he would have minded, No. No. No, he would have minded. Oh, not out of jealousy. I don’t think he was capable of that. He simply disliked excess. So do I, for that matter, but then I have never had the chance to be excessive, except in food, of course.” She patted herself. “You see the result? Of course I could still be a beauty in Persia. They revel in fat women.” Then: “Did he ever mention me to you? Later? When you were with him in Persia?”

I shook my head. I’m not certain why I lied to her, unless dislike is sufficient motive.

“No. I suppose he wouldn’t.” She did not seem distressed. One must admire the strength of her egotism. “Before he went back to Milan, he told me that if he lived he would marry me. Contrary to gossip, he did not know that I was pregnant then. I never told him. But I did tell him that I wanted to be his wife, although if Constantius had other plans for him (which of course he did) I would not grieve. Oh, I was a formidable girl!”

“Did you ever hear from him again?”

She shook her head. “Not even a letter. But shortly after he became Emperor he told the new proconsul of Greece to come see me and ask if there was anything I wanted. I shall never forget the look of surprise on the proconsul’s face when he saw me. One look assured him that Julian could not have had any amatory interest in this fat lady. He was puzzled, poor man… Do you think Julian knew about our son? It was not the best-kept secret.”

I said I did not think so. And I do not think so. I certainly never told him, and who else would have dared?

“Did you know Julian’s wife?”

I nodded. “In Gaul. She was much older than he. And very plain.”

“So I’ve heard. I was never jealous. After all, he was forced to marry her. Was he really celibate after she died?”

“As far as I know.”

“He was strange! I’m sure the Christians would have made a saint out of him if he had been one of theirs, and his poor bones would be curing liver complaints at this very moment. Well, that is all over, isn’t it?” She glanced at the water clock behind us. “I’m late. How much do you bribe the tax assessor?”

“Hippia looks after those matters.”

“Women are better at such things. It has to do with details. We delight in them. We are children of the magpie.” She rose heavily, with some difficulty. She steadied herself against the white marble wall of the tower. “Yes, I should have liked to have been Empress of Rome.”

“I doubt it. If you had been empress, you would be dead by now. The Christians would have killed you.”

“Do you think I would have minded that?” She turned full on me and the large black eyes blazed like obsidian in the sun. “Don’t you realize—can’t you tell just by looking at me, my dear wise old Priscus— that not a day has passed in twenty years I haven’t wished I were dead!”

Macrina left me on the steps. As I watched the blunt figure waddle through the crowd towards the magistrate’s office, I recalled her as she had been years before and I must say for a moment I was touched by the urgency of that cry from the heart. But it does not alter the fact that she was and is a sublimely disagreeable woman. I’ve not talked to her since that day, though we always nod when we see one another in the street.

Published in: on January 20, 2019 at 12:00 pm  Comments Off on Julian, 52  

Darkening Age, 20

In chapter 10 of The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World, Catherine Nixey wrote:
In Alexandria, Cyril conducted house searches to hunt out works by the loather pagan emperor Julian ‘the Apostate’…

This was a new literary world and a newly serious one. ‘The extent to which this new Christian story both displaced and substituted for all others is breathtaking,’ writes the modern academic Brent D. Shaw… And in the place of humour, came fear. Christian congregations found themselves rained on by oratorical fire and brimstone. For their own good, of course. As Chrysostom observed with pleasure: ‘in our churches we hear countless discourses on eternal punishment, on rivers of fire, on the venomous worm, on bonds that cannot be burst, on exterior darkness’…

Less than a hundred years after the first Christian emperor, the intellectual landscape was changing. In the third century, there had been twenty-eight public libraries in Rome and many private ones. By the end of the fourth they were, as the historian Ammianus Marcellinus observed with sorrow, ‘like tombs, permanently shut’…

As a law of AD 388 announced: ‘There shall be no opportunity for any man to go out to the public and to argue about religion or to discuss it or to give any counsel.’ If anyone with ‘damnable audacity’ attempted to then, the law announced with a threat no less ominous for being vague, ‘he shall be restrained with a due penalty and proper punishment’…

In Athens, some decades after Hypatia’s death, a resolutely pagan philosopher found himself exiled for a year…

What was not ‘of profit ‘ could easily fade from view. The shocking death of Hypatia ought to have merited a good deal of attention in the histories of the period. Instead it is treated lightly and obliquely, if at all. In history, as in life, no one in Alexandria was punished for her murder. There was a cover-up. Some writers were highly critical—even to fervent Christian eyes this was an appalling act.

But not all: as one Christian bishop later recorded with admiration, once the satanic woman had been destroyed, then all the people surrounded Cyril in acclamation for he had ‘destroyed the last remains of idolatry in the city.’ The affected myopia of Christian historians could be magnificent: as the historian Ramsay MacMullen has put it, ‘Hostile writings and discarded views were not recopied or passed on, or they were actively suppressed.’

The Church acted as a great and, at times, fierce filter on all written material, the centuries of its control as ‘a differentially permeable membrane’ that ‘allowed the writings of Christianity to pass through but not of Christianity’s enemies.’

Julian, 51

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

In the dim atrium, students were again gathered, talking strenuously all at once as students will. When they saw us enter, they fell silent. I daresay the sight of me alarmed them. But Prohaeresius told them I was to be treated as just another student.

“Not that he is, of course, in spite of the beard and the old clothes.” They laughed. “He is different from us.” I was about to say that even members of Constantine’s family have some (if not much) resemblance to the human family, when he said: “He is a true philosopher. He has chosen to be what we must be.” This was accepted with some delight. Not until a day later did the irony of what he said occur to me.

Macrina took me by the arm and said, “You must meet Priscus. He is the most disagreeable man in Athens.”

Priscus sat on a stool, surrounded by students. He is a lean, cold-faced man, nearly as tall as Prohaeresius. He rose when we approached him and murmured, “Welcome.” I was pleased to meet this great teacher whom I had long known by reputation, for he is as famous for his wit as he is for his ambiguities. He is also completely without enthusiasm, which right off made him a good foil for me since I am often excited by the trivial. We were friends from the start. He is with me now in Persia.

“Try to pin him down,” said Macrina, turning to me, her hand on Priscus’s lean arm as though presenting him to me for a bout of wrestling, “on anything. We think of him as the master of evasion. He never argues.”

With a look of distaste which I have come to know so well (and fear when it is turned on me!), Priscus got his arm loose from Macrina’s grasp. “Why should I argue? I know what I know. And others are always quick to tell me what they know, or think they know. There is no need for confrontation.”

“But surely you must find that new thoughts occur in argument?” I was naïve, of course; I pressed him hard. “After all, Socrates led others to wisdom through argument and conversation.”

“The two are not quite the same thing. I teach through conversation, or try to. But argument is a vice in this city. Glib men can almost always score points off wiser but less well-spoken men. Nowadays style in speaking is everything; content nothing. Most of the Sophists are actors—worse, they are lawyers. And the young men pay to hear them perform, like street singers.”

“Priscus attacks me!” Prohaeresius had joined us. He was amused at what was obviously an old discussion.

“You know what I think.” Priscus was severe. “You are the worst of the lot because you are the best performer.” He turned to me. “He is so eloquent that every Sophist in Athens hates him.”

“All but you,” observed Macrina.

Priscus ignored her. “A few years ago his confreres decided that he was too popular. So they bribed the proconsul…”

“Careful,” said Macrina. “We must not speak of bribed officials in front of what may one day be the greatest official of them all.”

“Bribed the proconsul,” said Priscus as though she had not spoken, “to exile our host. This was done. But then the proconsul retired and was succeeded by a younger man who was so indignant at what had happened that he allowed Prohaeresius to return. But the Sophists did not give up easily. They continued to plot against their master. So the proconsul held a meeting at the University…”

“At my uncle’s suggestion.”

Prohaeresius was amused. “Macrina allows us no secrets. Yes, I put him up to it. I wanted to get my enemies all together in one place in order that I might…”

“Dispatch them,” said Macrina.

Win them,” said her uncle.

“Beat them,” said Macrina.

Priscus continued. “It was a formidable display. Everyone was gathered in the main hall of the University. Friends were nervous. Enemies were active. The proconsul arrived. He took charge of the assembly. He announced that a theme should be proposed for Prohaeresius to argue. Any theme. The assembly could choose it. At first no one said a word.”

“Until my uncle saw two of his very worst enemies skulking in the back. He called on them to set a theme. They tried to escape, but the proconsul ordered his guards to bring them back.”

Priscus looked dour indeed. “It was the guards, I suggest, that won the day for virtue.”

“The honeyed tongue of Priscus!” The old man laughed. “You may be right. Though I suspect the bad judgment of the enemy helped most, for they set me a theme of remarkable obscenity and limited scope.”

“Which side of a woman is the most pleasing, front or back.” Macrina grinned.

“But he accepted the challenge,” said Priscus. “He spoke with such effectiveness that the audience maintained a Pythagorean silence.”

“He also insisted that shorthand reporters from the law court take down every word.” In an oblique way, Macrina was proud of her uncle’s prowess. “He also insisted there be no applause.”

“It was a memorable speech,” Priscus continued. “First, he presented the argument in all its particulars. Then he took one side… the front. After an hour, he said, ‘Now observe carefully whether I remember all the arguments that I used earlier.’ He then repeated the speech in all its intricate detail, only this time he took the opposite point of view… the back. In spite of the proconsul’s order, applause filled the hall. It was the greatest triumph of memory and eloquence heard in our time.”

“And…?” Prohaeresius knew that Priscus would not finish without a sudden twist to the knife.

And? Your enemies were completely routed and where before they despised you, now they hate you.” Priscus turned to me. “They nearly had his life the next year. They still plot against him.”

“Which proves?” Prohaeresius was as curious as I to learn what Priscus was up to.

“That victories in argument are useless. They are showy. What is spoken always causes more anger than any silence. Debate of this sort convinces no one. Aside from the jealousies such a victory arouses, there is the problem of the vanquished. I speak now of philosophers. The one who is defeated, even if he realizes at last that he is fighting truth, suffers from having been publicly proved wrong. He then becomes savage and is apt to end by hating philosophy. I would prefer not to lose anyone for civilization.”

“Well said,” Prohaeresius agreed.

“Or, perhaps,” said the devilish Macrina, “you yourself don’t want to lose an argument, knowing that you are apt to turn bitter as a result of public humiliation. Oh, Priscus, you are vain! You won’t compete for fear you might not win. As it is, none of us knows how wise you are. Silence is his legend, Prince. And he is all the greater for that. Each time Prohaeresius speaks he limits himself, for words limit everything, being themselves limited. That’s why Priscus is wisest of all: silence cannot be judged. Silence masks all things or no thing. Only Priscus can tell us what his silence conceals, but since he won’t, we suspect him great.”

Priscus did not answer. Macrina was the only woman I have ever known who could speak with so many odd twistings and turnings. Irony is not usual to woman, but then Macrina was not in any way usual. Before we had an opportunity to see if Priscus could answer her, we were interrupted by the arrival of my bodyguard, as well as an officer of the proconsul’s staff. Word had already spread throughout Athens that I was at the house of Prohaeresius. I was again taken into custody.

Published in: on January 13, 2019 at 12:26 pm  Comments (1)