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Scholarly, Researched, Biased,
This review is from: Julian the Apostate (Classical life and letters) (Hardcover)
I wanted to like this book. I really did. I'm not a massive fan of Julian like some people are. I appreciate the man for what he was but I never idolized him as some sort of pagan crusader. I had to write an essay on Julian so I read a lot on him. There are several other biographies out there (The Last Pagan and The Emperor Julian are quite good) and they capture the man's essence better than Bowersock. Many of the books that I had to read, scholarly works included, insult this book pretty blatantly. Rowland Smith in his book 'Julian's Gods' spends several pages rebuking Bowersock's vision of Julian as a "pathological figure." He is polite enough not to mention him by name, but a quick glance at the footnotes reveals that every time he criticizes this interpretation he is referencing Bowersock. The way in which Bowersock managed to compact all of Julian's life into 119 pages is by dismissing all of Julian's religious views as unimportant (You learn nothing except that he was pagan and fancied himself a philosopher), and skimming over anything that seems to his credit. Julian was, for example, unquestionably the most approachable emperor of the Fourth Century, largely because he based his style of rule on Rome's previous philosopher-king Marcus Aurelius. All that Bowersock says about this is something snide about how he seemed to see himself in everyone he admired, no matter how dissimilar. If he had wanted to criticize the man for trying to bring back outdated methods of ruling or failing to meet his ideals then I'd accept that as a valid criticism, but he just dismisses it with a sneer.
I truly don't know what problem this guy has with Julian. Every time he has more than one source of information he goes with the most insulting or critical one. For example: on page 107 he describes how two martyrs (Bonosus and Maximilianus) were beheaded for not removing the Christian symbol from their standards whereas it is just as likely that they were actually executed for criticizing the Emperor just before battle. He took the heavily biased stories from the Christians and takes them at face value while dismissing the (admittedly biased) pagan ones. In a similar vein he takes his description for Julian's behavior from possibly his greatest enemy Gregory of Nazianzus and says that it is essentially true.
Some examples of bias from his own words include: "when Julian died, all Christians and many pagans received the news with relief." That's right off of page 1 and the point is very debatable. Certainly he doesn't have the evidence to prove that. Julian's writings are described as being "petulant and self-righteous" and filled with his "unsettling laughter." (13) "Like them [Lenin and Mao-Tse-Tung who he's comparing him to], Julian was neither gregarious nor, in the social sense of the term, even civilized." (20)
Essentially, the way that Julian is described is as a dull, humorless, cruel, ascetic, self-righteous, unprincipled, puritanical, savage, bigot. I am using only words that Bowersock himself applies to Julian throughout the course of the book. This is not the language of an unbiased historian. To anyone who doubts that these traits do not describe, or at least dominate, Julian need only read his own writings. He has written three books worth of various works from orations to letters to satires. How Bowersock can describe the author of the Caesars as a dull and humorless person is beyond me. Sure it's not sidesplittingly hilarious, but the tone is very lighthearted throughout and you can feel the tongue kept very much in cheek. Bowersock however, takes it as a serious expression of Julian's beliefs even though Julian himself describes it as a comic work. The same goes for the Beard-Hater. Although that one is rather more bitter it can hardly be described as a "hectoring, injured, [and] repetitive" work filled with "Julian's unsettling laughter."
Until I read these works for myself I had no reason to doubt that his interpretation was true. Now I can't even see hints of his belief. Please don't take my word for this. Read those books yourself. They reveal a lot about the man's character and they are sometimes very entertaining. They are available in Loeb editions (Volume I, Volume II, Volume III) which are kind of expensive, but they are probably available for free online as well. So do yourself a favor and skip this book. Read one of the other excellent biographies. 'The Last Pagan' is probably the most readable of the two. Or read the works of the contemporary historian Ammianus Marcellinus (Volume I, Volume II, Volume III) or Julian's friend Libanius (Orations, Volume I, Orations, Volume II). These books will provide you with a much more accurate glimpse of the man who has come down through history as Julian the Apostate.