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The Last Pagan: Julian the Apostate and the Death of the Ancient World Paperback – 15 Sep 2005
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"British historian Adrian Murdoch's "The Last Pagan "(the phrase comes from the English poet Swinburne)""is a thorough-going biography of Julian. In this book, we get a strong sense of the history of the fourth century, which is the age of the decline of the Roman empire made famous by English historian Edward Gibbon, who Murdoch asserts, made Julian the hero of his work." --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
About the Author
Adrian Murdoch is an historian and journalist. Educated in Scotland and at The Queen's College, Oxford, he is a regular contributor to The Herald. He has written 'The Romans in Germany' and is co-translator of an anthology on Roman decadence. His book 'Death in the Forest: Romes Greatest Defeat' will be published by Sutton early in 2006.
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This is not one of them. The Last Pagan combines the accessability of a well-written popular biography with the fully-sourced rigour of an academic text. Its friendly but frank assessment of Julian - who emerges as a first-class second-rate mind, a pedantic, schoolboyish prig and yet a hero - is entirely convincing. To my knowledge, there is no better introduction to the man.
But...The book's one weakness seems to me to be in the very area of interest to most readers. Murdoch appears to have a rather naive understanding of Hellenistic "paganism". It was far more than worshipping a load of old gods and a scholarly fondness for Homer. We get little real sense of what Julian believed. I imagine that most readers would be startled to learn that the Emperor was as monotheistic as a medieval Pope. The intellectual, spiritual and religious issues of the time - in contrast to their political consequences - are oddly underplayed.
Yet that information can be found elsewhere. This is a very good book, which I warmly recommend.
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.
This is a very easily readable sketch about Julian's life - not an intimate portrait. Starting at Julian's heroic death, it takes us back to his unlikely rise through the jaws of Emperor Constantine's children and their filial, power struggles as emperors of Rome - including the Eastern Empire which Julian was to help the Romans to lose. The book is richly sourced. The end chapters describe Julian's impact and reputation - I'm not sure I agree with the author's appraisal of good vs bad. Julian stands out as a human being, a failed hero, a shadow of Alexander the Great.
Julian was not really an Apostate as he was labelled given that Paganism was still alive at his time - even if it was a receding force. It was in the fifth century that Paganism really died and the civilisations of Egypt and the near East in a pagan context were obiliterated.
I get the impression that Julian tried to impose a form of Paganism that was not necessarily true to tradition as a "standard religion" (like Christianity) - and paganism never worked like that. The gods were not with Julian when he went for Sharpur the Emperor of Persia after which he met his death.
We get a good impression of the later Roman empire and one of the few emperors you can really admire. For his laws, his intellect and strangely - his tolerance as well. I believe the book should lead to further reading.
I don't think this book does any justice to its subtitle - (and the death of the ancient world) you would have to go elsewhere to find this - to the 420s CE.
Overall, a very digestible, well explained compendium with excellent references.