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on 10 September 2013
'The Last Pagan' is an enjoyable enough, though lightweight, canter through the life of Julian. What put me off at first was the Italian Renaissance cover, which looks nothing like Julian: surely a sculpture or coin portrait would have been better (and bearded)?

The text will give the general reader a decent enough overview of his reign, but I think Murdoch takes on trust a few things which I would question. Rather than being infatuated with Eusebia, I suspect Julian writing flatteringly of her was a way of keeping in with her husband - the cousin/brother-in-law who was responsible for making him an orphan and could easily have had him executed. He had to tread carefully until he was strong enough to make his own bid for the throne. Also, Murdoch takes on board Lascaratos and Voros's questionable theory about Julian's death, which depends on taking Philostorgios's (5C, surviving only in 9C summary) word over that of Ammianus and Libanios. It doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

If this book whets your appetite for the subject, I recommend Robert Browning's 'The Emperor Julian', Shaun Tougher's works, and, on religion, Rowland Smith's 'Julian's Gods' (which dismantles Bowersock effectively). And of course, nothing beats going back to source: Julian's Works are available in a bilingual Loeb edition, and are extremely enjoyable (some still very funny).
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on 10 July 2011
I think that many reviewers have pointed out the strong sides to this book, while missing many of its weak spots. If I focus on these it's not that this is a bad book as such, but rather that there should be some balance in the reviews.

First it is a good book for beginners, in that it provides you with the basic information on the period as well as a good bibliography. That said there is no new information here if you're at all read on the period. Certainly if you've read any other biography of Julian you're highly unlikely to find anything new. I doubt it set out to be more than this, but you should be aware of it.

As for the prose style I personally found it a tad sparse. The author is a journalist and it shows in his writing, which to me reads a bit like an extended article or opinion piece. Not that this is necessarily bad, many modern readers seem to like that sort of thing. If however you prefer descriptive and evocative language you won't find that here.

Finally there is an annoying tendency to draw conclusions from limited facts. Certainly they are educated guesses, well founded too for that matter. Indeed I am inclined to agree with the author as to the nature of Julian's death. Yet there were times when it interrupted the rhythm of my reading, so take note.

So for these reasons I make it 3 star rather than 4.
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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 of the Christian establishment, 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 sycophantic hagiography nor character-assassinating 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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on 10 January 2004
I loved this - a great and human insight into a period of classical history that normally gets ignored. I remember bits of classical Greece or Caesar's times, but hadn't ever looked at the later years of the Romans - the fourth century AD.
The research has been well done, but condensed into a story about a single man - real insight into the society and structure of the late Roman times.
And of course the whole episode of his invading Mesopotamia (Iraq now) was fascinating - from his mistakes and over-reaching to his eventual death. (The detective work round his cause of death was particularly interesting).
Highly recommended.
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on 27 October 2003
A fascinating and yet scholarly account of Julian's life and the influence he exerted on the empire he led - recommended.
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on 24 November 2003
Excellent. I'm generally interested in history (part. ancient history), but this wasn't an area I knew much about. Interesting to see paganism as the mainstream and traditional state religion, challenged by upstart Christianity! Both authoritative and very readable - recommended.
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on 28 August 2008
I bought this book after having read Adrian Murdoch's terrific 'The Last Roman', a biography of Rome's last emperor, Romulus Augustulus. I was surprised and happy to see that this book not only reached the standards of Murdoch's other biography, but in some instances it even surpassed it.

Julian the Apostate is one of the most well documented of the Late Roman Emperors. Murdoch points out that at over 1,000 pages worth of his own writings survive to our day, and that is not to mention the accounts of the ancient historians like Ammianus Marcellinus.

That said, he remains an elusive and strange emperor; a man who's been equally praised and villified. Murdoch does a stellar job of teasing out information about Julian's personal life from the texts, and he builds a fascinating picture of the man, warts and all.
He also analyses the impact of Julian on Western history and thought, as well as his depiction in popular culture.
Murdoch's great skill is to write and present the facts in an interesting and erudite manner. He's an excellent writer, and amongst the most readable in his profession.

Anyone with an interest in the autumn years of Roman rule, or in the rise of Christianity and the death of state Paganism will find this book a great read. Ancient history buffs will be in for a treat with this book. Highly Recommended!
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on 25 September 2013
I have always been a Roman History fan but I didn't know much about Julian the Apostate, now I do and I would reccomend it.
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on 1 October 2015
Very very pleased
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