Gore Vidal's "Julian" is one of those rare historical novels that is not only meticulously researched but also absorbing. The author has read his ancient sources, including the fourth-century historian, Ammianus Marcellinus and the writings of the Emperor Julian and his contemporaries, very carefully. "Julian", in fact, makes an excellent supplement to a university course on the Late Roman Empire.
Mr. Vidal breathes life into the remote statues and the hieratic mosaics of the period; his descriptions of the rigid court etiquette in the age of Constantine are especially vivid. The author also takes us to the regions of the Empire--e.g., Antioch, Pergamon, Athens; Milan, Ravenna; Autun and Paris--that the city of Rome eclipses in most works focusing the Roman Empire from Augustus to Hadrian. Mr. Vidal's characterization of Julian, the last of Constantine's dynasty, is laced with charm and humor (His protagonist, who, in real life wrote a treatise satirizing his critics, entitled "The Hatred of Beards," continually alludes to his scraggly beard.). The novel, set between the years 331-363, reflects the fact that during the fourth century of our era, Christianity was by no means a "done deal," the Temple of Sarapis at Alexandria with its great medical school, for instance, being closed by Theodosius' decree only in 385.
The book is especially valuable in that it clarifies the central issues of a divided empire, including the religious, philosophical, and military problems as well as those of the imperial succession. Readers who are not historically inclined, however, ought to understand that chapter one, which purports to be a correspondence between the Sophists Priscus and Libanius, is a preface that necessarily establishes the historical background. Once they have begun reading chapter two--the "Memoirs of Julian Augustus"--they will become swept up in a riveting narrative as well as a fascinating recreation of the turbulent late Roman Empire.