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4.0 out of 5 stars A ruler as a man, 19 Jun. 2009
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This review is from: The Last Pagan: Julian the Apostate and the Death of the Ancient World (Paperback)
About two decades ago I read the somewhat scholarly work by Bowersock on this fascinating character, and a popular history had been long overdue. The story of this short but eventful period can be well told because of the richness of the sources, including Ammianus the army officer who served under Julian, Libanius the somewhat pompous and self-important rhetorician from Antioch who befriended Julian, and not least the copious surviving literary output from Julian himself, giving a valuable insight into the mind of an emperor not seen since that of Marcus Aurelius two centuries previously.

Whilst for much of history being a hate figure, in recent times Julian seems to have become something of a hero figure amongst the left-wing anti-Christian intelligentsia, seemingly on the basis of nothing other than your enemy's enemy being your friend. Murdoch however invites us, as he says in his closing remarks, to see "a ruler as a man", and his excellent biography serves this aim well in presenting us with a portrait of the character of Julian, neither hagiography nor hatchet job.

Despite what some people might suppose, Julian was not quite as tolerant of Christians as has been at times made out by people trying to present him as the very antithesis of Christian intolerance. Granted, violent persecution was minimal, but discriminatory actions and laws such as bypassing Christian soldiers for donatives and banning Christians from teaching classics were very much the order of the day.

This book doesn't really go into detail about the exact nature of Julian's pagan beliefs. If anything his religious outlook seems to have been somewhat non-standard compared to paganism at large, and it's debatable to what extent Julian really stood for paganism as it was commonly understood and practiced.

If I have one real criticism about this otherwise outstanding book, it's in its trying to present the notion (most notable in its title and subtitle and the back cover blurb, undoubtedly designed to increase sales) that had Julian lived then the history of Europe would have remained pagan ever since, and that with his death somehow paganism suddenly lost the fight. This is frankly tosh. The eventual rise of Christianity as the sole state religion was probably inevitable by this time. Had Julian lived he would not have founded a pagan dynasty of emperors (he resolved to not remarry after the death of his wife), and just about all the rest of the Constantinian dynasty was dead, not least by them all murdering each other. All Julian could have done was to delay it. Inevitably, succeeding emperors would have arisen from powerful Christian family dynasties, as Valentinian and Theodosius and their relatives did. The only question might have been whether it would be Arian or Catholic Christianity which succeeded. The death of Julian didn't mean the sudden death of paganism either, it was just a continuation of its gradual decline. (My own personal feeling is that, if in an alternate history Europe had managed to remain pagan, it would have been unable to stand up to the advance of Islam, and Europe would have in fact been Islamic for the past 1300 years)

Just ignore the "alternate history" notion but read it for what it is, an excellent popular account of a short but colourful period of Roman history.
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